Tuesday, July 28, 2015

on 9 comments

A Revised Canon?

The formation of the canon was always problematic for me (along with the mechanics of the inspiration of the bible) but your faith in "the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church fathers vis-à-vis their canonical decisions and processes" informed and inspired inspired my faith. Still though, it's somehow always easier for me to believe in inspiration and canonical decisions occurring a long time ago in a land far, far away.


  1. You may all be aware of this already, but if not, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing what is being billed as A New New Testament, a reconstruction of the New Testament canon which adds some ten titles to the 27 books of the New Testament, most of them drawn from the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic texts discovered in Egypt in the middle of the last century. Of course, we all have seen the popularity of Gnostic literature in the past few years as these texts have been promoted heavily by everyone from Dan Brown the novelist to National Geographic magazine as well as by various scholars leaning leftward. It’s been a number of years since the Jesus Seminar produced The Five Gospels (the four canonical gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas, each color coded as to what was considered authentic, what was questionable and what was not authentic). This current effort is along the same lines, only wider. An introduction by John Dominic Crossan with support by Karen King, Barbara Brown Taylor and Marcus Borg should not be too surprising. Hal Taussig of the Jesus Seminar is the editor.

    The ten additions are as follows: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, The Thunder, The Odes of Solomon, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, The Letter of Peter to Philip and The Secret Revelation of John.

    There has been no serious canonical revisionism by a major Christian body since Luther until relatively recently (though I suppose the Jefferson Bible would serve as a private attempt, and there certainly has been some serious discussion about the possibility of canonical revision). I would suppose that this current effort will by no means be the end of such efforts in view of a postmodern suspicion that all ancient Christian literature is essentially religious propaganda and to be equally treated as such. I would also suggest that, given the current trajectory in contemporary religious thought, the writings of the New Testament will be expanded in time to include Vedic literature as well as Islamic literature, a sort of pan-New New New Testament.

    The broader issue of canon may well become the touchstone for the next generation, even more divisive than, say, the current moral issues about the right to life or sexual orientation. For one like myself, who believes in the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church fathers vis-à-vis their canonical decisions and processes, this is all very disheartening. For those who have given up on the inspiration of the Bible and/or any divine direction in the decisions of those early Christians about what was to be considered the Word of God, this new direction will doubtless be welcome.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Like Dan, I take real issue with the sensationalist “pop theology” of the Jesus Seminar, Dom Crossan, Marcus Borg, and others—especially when they seek to insert a range of alternative books (most clearly dated from the mid-second century and beyond) into the traditional canon.

    A great deal of this revisionist history rests on the wholehearted commitment of its advocates to Walter Bauer’s observations about orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.

    Walter Bauer, a German professor who died in 1960, proposed that the traditional understanding of orthodoxy and heresy—that is, that orthodoxy represented the uncorrupted teaching of Jesus and the apostles and that heresy emerged as a later phenomenon, straying from the true path—is not valid. Bauer taught that early Christianity was home to a wide range of competing voices and that voice which became what we label as orthodoxy today was only one among many equally strong opinions. In some (probably many) places, Bauer argued, views we now label as heretical were the predominant views and the views that we now call orthodox were minority voices considered heretical by the majority of their contemporaries.

    Bauer’s masterful “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity” offers a geographical survey of the Christian world in the early second century (with special emphasis on western Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Rome). He finds little evidence of the dominant voice of later orthodoxy outside of Rome. In fact, he depicts the triumph of “orthodoxy” as the assertion of power by the church leaders of Rome—clearly a German Protestant bias. Bauer spends about one half of his book describing the effective use of literature, polemics, and ecclesiastical structure as tools for the ultimate triumph of Roman “orthodoxy.”

    Let me say before I criticize this work that Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity” along with Bultmann’s “History of the Synoptic Tradition” are the two most compelling studies of earliest Christianity written in the 20th century. The authors are encyclopedic in their knowledge, assured in their conclusions, and very persuasive. In both cases, I readily embrace a great deal of the evidence the authors provide, but ultimately reject their central theses.

    Bauer offers the LOUDEST ARGUMENT FROM SILENCE I have ever heard. His argument for the absence of “orthodox” teaching in region-after-region throughout the Mediterranean world is the ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE—that is, he looks for “orthodox” teachings and when he does not explicitly find it, he concludes that “orthodoxy” was not an option in a given region and that some other view (later labeled heresy) prevailed.

    Bauer seems to embrace that most ideological of positions that “history is written by its winners.” This observation, of course, is true; it is just not always accurate. Or better stated, its implications are not always accurate. The good guys (the losers)/bad guys (the winners) approach to history is appealing to many, especially when it appeals to conspiracy or some malfeasance to explain why the “worthy losers” lost and the “unworthy winners” won.

    There are certainly elements of truth in Bauer’s thesis and evidence—but overall it does not provide a guiding truth. Modern orthodoxy (creedal Christianity reaffirmed by the Reformation) is never completely found in the New Testament or even second-century Christianity. One can spend a lifetime trying to read the decisions of Nicea and Chalcedon into the Christian scriptures without success. On the other hand, there are clear “trajectories”—to borrow a term form Koester and Robinson—in primitive Christianity that later gave rise to orthodox thought.

  3. Jesus, Paul, and the rest taught within the framework of second Temple Judaism. All were convinced that the end of time had come and the eschatological consummation was dawning. The endtime outpouring of the Spirit was already occurring as was the ingathering of the Gentile nations. The great theological controversies that dominated earliest Christianity arose from these beliefs: (1) the delay of the parousia (the return of Christ)—if the end had begun surely the consummation of all things would quickly follow—and (2) the problem of the gentile mission—how are the nations to be included in the covenant faith of the Jews during the great endtime ingathering of Gentiles.

    The inclusion of Greek ideas and even second temple Jewish extremism into Christian thought explains a lot of the diversity in early Christianity. Likewise, the spread of the Christian mission, expanding throughout the Mediterranean world, demanded the retelling of a wholly Jewish story in new images and new language in more-and-more non-Jewish environments. Also, the frenzy of Christian prophecy—unrestrained by any authority—added to the din of voices. The rise of creed, canon, and ecclesiastical office were all necessary steps to stem the tide of potentially crippling diversity.

    The absence of uniform Christian thought in the late first and early second centuries is a historical reality arising from the pressures of successful expansion. But the absence of uniform Christian thought is no more proof that “heresy” first reigned only to be overthrown by later “orthodoxy” than it is of its opposite. The evidence—even the silence—is important, but Bauer’s conclusions do not necessarily flow from the evidence.

    I am left with one central question. Among the variety of Christian voices heard in post-apostolic times, which voice most clearly “connects” to—draws the straightest line from—what we know of Jesus and the apostles. I could make a good argument that Palestinian “Jewish Christianity” with its emphasis on continuity of covenant, law, and temple was probably closest to Jesus and his brother James. I could make a case for the “New Prophecy” of Montanus as a direct heir of the charismatic Christianity of Acts and many of Paul’s letters. I might even be persuaded to take a close look at asceticism and martyrdom wherever they were found as clear links back to Jesus and Jerusalem.

    My point is that while the diversity of early Christian thought was real, we are not without criteria for evaluating among the competing voices. The Jesus tradition, the writings of James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus, and the undisputed writings of Paul offer a good look at earliest Christianity even as they sought to address the changing needs of the Christian community in the mid to late first century. These are the “measure,” the canon by which all other writings are tested.

    The early Christians always had an official canon—the Torah, the prophets, and the writings, especially as gathered in the Septuagint—were the “Bible” of the church. Orthodoxy and heresy alike mediated and expounded on these writings. Much Gnostic thought in its most extreme forms is an exposition of Genesis 1-6. When Marcion in the mid-100’s attacked this traditional canon and offered his own theologically-motivated alternative list of books, more mainstream Christians took note and got busy defining their own lists of authoritative Christian writings.

    And with Marcion, we have come full circle to the modern purveyors of alternative canons. Whatever the motivations of these scholars and however outrageous their proposals, remember they all sit at the table of Walter Bauer.

    And sometimes, little men, when standing on the shoulders of a giant, are mistaken for giants themselves.

  4. What an excellent summation of the true loyalties of the Walter Bauer sympathizers, and what a great finishing one-liner at the end! Indeed, many years ago it was the realization that the Book of Acts was primarily about the problem of the Gentile mission (as opposed to "how to be saved") that enabled me to disentangle the theology of my childhood from the theology of the New Testament.

  5. First, "little men standing on the shoulders of giants" ... and now "disentangle the theology of my childhood from the theology of the New Testament." EPIC QUOTES!!!!

  6. I agree with Dan that Joe has given perhaps the best short summary and critique of Bauer I have read in a very long time. (Why didn't we cover this at JCM, I wonder?!) And I agree with Joe that the pop-theology of of the Jesus Seminar makes more headlines than than it does real contributions to our understanding of Jesus and the early church. There is more than a bit of wish-tory to it all—history as they wish it to be. (Of course, that is a vice widely shared in all circles.) And as for Dan Brown…well, he may be a good spinner of thrilling tales, but he is a lousy historian no matter what his press agent says (rather like Glenn Beck, I should think).

    Having said that, I must admit to being a "Bauer sympathizer," though certainly not a disciple. There is no doubt, as Joe points out, that Bauer produced one of the more remarkable studies of early Christianity in the last century. Despite going way beyond the evidence, I think Bauer's greatest contribution was to wrest the history of the faith away those who wished to make it too clean and simple for the sake of preserving the faith. He complicated things in a way that all good historians do. After all, the historians' favorite color is grey; very, very few things in history are black and white no matter how much we may want them to be. (Their favorite fabric is cheap tweed. But that's another conversation.) He demonstrated effectively that the "heretical" traditions were much more widespread and developed than previously believed. It seems true, for example, that there were more Marcionites than "orthodox" Christians in some portions of Asia Minor in the second century. That kind of revisionism was a radical, and, I think, important corrective to the traditional narrative of Christian development. Even if we don't follow Bauer in his conclusions about the absence of orthodoxy, or the lack of any coherent thread of orthodoxy from the apostles, I think we must accept the notion that early Christianity was much more diverse and contentious than we once knew.

    Of course, that work prepared the way for the more recent scholarship from the likes of Elaine Pagels, Karen King, and Bart Ehrman (to name only some of the more recognized and controversial). They are in the vanguard of those who are raising again the question of canonicity. The discovery of the gnostic and other early Christian texts generally considered "unorthodox" (e.g. Ebionite) has increased our knowledge of and access to an incredibly diverse body of literature considered sacred by one or another group that considered itself to be more or less Christian in the first couple centuries. Once again, while I do not think that they have convincingly demonstrated the lack of any apostolic core or a completely open canon, I do think they have forced us to accept the fact that early Christianity was, well, a mess. As Joe pointed out, we shouldn't be at all surprised that early Christian theology was underdeveloped and early Christian leadership contested. Evidence of that is already clear in the Pauline and Johannine letters, as well as the Acts. (I will leave alone today the question of competing theological interests in the four gospels.) In short, I think what we see now is that there was no golden age of apostolic Christianity when folks knew exactly what was to be believed and practiced, or even what to read. That is not to say that there was no apostolic core that carried through into the succeeding centuries. Rather, it only means that the success of what we now believe to be orthodoxy was neither inevitable or obvious. The same can be said of the making of the canon.

  7. What I am curious about is whether we want remove the notion of "inspiration" from consideration of the texts, or rather to move it ahead. What I mean is, where is the greatest inspiration to be found…in the composition of the scripture or the collection and canonization of it? Dan is absolutely correct about the fundamental role of the apostolic fathers in determining the texts to be included in the canon. The second, third and fourth centuries are the pivotal ones in determining the shape of Christian belief, practice, and text. If I am correct, it seems that the essential criteria for determining canonicity were three: 1). Catholicity (is this a universe text used and known widely in the Christian communities), 2). Apostolicity (can we trace this text—even tangentially—back to one of the apostles?), and 3). (does the teaching conform to what is the commonly understood body of belief as determined by the bishops?). Inspiration was not an essential criterion. I say that not because the now canonical texts were not considered inspired; they were. Rather, it seems that other early texts were also considered inspired. The seven letters of the early second century bishop Ignatius of Antioch (c 35 - 108 CE) is such an example. Ordained bishop around 67, tradition has his ordination at the hands of Peter himself. Ignatius wrote as "the God–insipred" to various churches on his way to martyrdom in Rome. The amazing thing to me is that no one seemed to questions that claim. He was one of the most influential and respected of the early fathers, and his letters were collected, preserved, and revered. But, obviously, those letters never made it in to the canon. (I would kind of like for them to be there myself.) Why not? The decision to exclude them seems to have been made on the fact that despite their clear orthodox teaching and universality, they were not from the hand of one of the apostles. (Let's not even talk about 2 Peter here.) The same seems to be true of I Clement (c. 96) and the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 95). These were written at the tail end of the apostolic era, and were clearly authorized, authoritative, and orthodox texts. Still, they didn't make it in. (However, Hermas does appear on the Muratorian Canon c. 200 list of scriptures used by, at least, Christians in Rome.) It does not seem to be the case that they were excluded because they lacked divine inspiration, but because they failed to meet other criteria. The decision about which books to keep and which to exclude was made organically by Christians throughout the Mediterranean world and later ratified by the councils. So again, where is the real "inspiration" to be found?

    All of this is to say that the making of the Christian canon is a wonderfully complex story of power politics, divine inspiration, practical piety, and theological struggle. In short, the Bible didn't fall out of heaven like a sacred meteor wrapped in black leather with the words of Jesus in red. The church had to choose from among a host of possible texts and make reasoned decisions about which to keep and which to let go. I find that terribly interesting and exciting, and thus am much more sanguine about debates over the "new canon". It also reminds me that before there was a Bible there was a community of faith. As our Roman Catholic brothers and sister are fond of saying, the Church is the Mother of Scripture. And that gives me hope.

  8. Kudos for your comments, Larry.

    You are so correct about Bauer’s lasting importance for New Testament and Christian origins study—whether or not one accepts all his conclusions.

    Bauer, like Bultmann before him, “reshuffled the deck” and the game can never be the same again.

    I really liked your observations about inspiration as a criteria for establishing the canon.

    I think your are exactly correct about apostolicity and catholicity as well as the “conformity” of a book’s content to common, received teachings were the most clear criteria for canon. I might add that I suspect that utilitarian value—did the text “work” in an ethical, liturgical, missionary, and ecclesiastical sense—was probably an unspoken criteria. The modern idea of inspiration—especially as articulated by the “Princeton school of biblical inspiration” of A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield—is strangely absent from this process.

  9. This has been a most interesting exchange on canon. My contribution at this point will be a brief word concerning Papias, who is one of our earliest witnesses, if not the earliest witness, to the canonical gospels. Eusebius did not think highly of Papias, largely because Papias was an early millenarian, but whatever one thinks about Papias' eschatology, his description about the origins of the gospels may bear upon the canonical question.

    Papias, who belonged to the third generation of Christians, had been in touch directly with those who knew the first generation. He was personally acquainted with the daughter of Philip, the evangelist, one of the Seven. He may even have known Philip himself, though likely Papias would only have been a boy if he did.

    In any case, his description of his interaction with those who knew "the elders" (by whom he means the ones who knew the first generation Christians)was to hear from a living voice what had been said by Peter or Thomas or James, John and Matthew, etc. His telling comment is, "For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice."

    This "living voice" becomes important with respect to canon, for while Papias was not arguing for a canon per se (he pre-dated Marcion), he does express the sentiment that the legitimacy of the tradition was linked to those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry. In all cases, and I think this is the most salient point, such a link cannot be established for the later Gnostic gospels. Writing about his experiences late in the 1st century (his writing is in the early second century, but his memories are about his life in the late 1st century), Papias lived when most of the original disciples of Jesus were gone, but probably two, John and Aristion, were still surviving. What Papias said about the closing decade or two of the first century can be set alongside Luke's opening statements in the Third Gospel as indicating the relationship of the gospel traditions to those who had known Jesus personally.

    Much obliged for everyone's discussion!

    Incidentally, there is a very compelling work about the composition of the canonical gospels that I’d highly recommend. It is not about the canon per se, but it does bear upon the question. The book is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland (published by Eerdmans in the USA and Cambridge in the UK).

    Bauckham is a bang-up historical scholar, and his handling of the early Christian literature about the gospels as well as a whole range of other related issues offers a wealth of insights into the process for anyone who is interested.