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This article argues that the dendritic (tree-like) or traditional model of Christian origins must be replaced with a plectic (braid-like) model. The dendritic model assumes that Christianity began at a specific point in both time and space—in the person of “Jesus of Nazareth”—and then branched out to form the various ancient sects of Christianity. This article asks: What if the numerous forms of “Christianity” did not all derive from a single historical figure? What if these earliest “Christianities” arose in the same way that the different forms and varieties of Egyptian, Indic, and Greco-Roman religions evolved? A new paradigm is proposed where the various forms of Christianity can be envisioned as forming by the coalescence of various threads (or trajectories) of religious tradition. Some of the threads may trace back into the mists of prehistory, others may trace to the turn of the current era, and still others may have begun in the second or third centuries ce. Not all early forms of Christianity contained the same threads. Not all threads stayed in the braid for long, and still others continued into the present. After entering the braid, threads of tradition evolved, bifurcated, branched off, or were absorbed into other traditions. Clearly, this is what we see happening today as multitudinous sects, cults, and denominations continue to arise and go extinct. As in historical geology, so too in religious history: The present is the key to the past.

A New Paradigm for the Study of Christian Origins

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