Saturday, August 22, 2009

The New Testament Canon

It is with great delight that I skip to the New Testament. I thought the series was getting too heavy. The first of the series is:

Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
The question of how the New Testament canon developed is tied up with the question of the diversity of early Christianity and how it coalesced in the 300s and 400s as orthodoxy. Some of the earliest works in this area were quite simplistic, although they often represented key insights at the same time. Such a work was F. C. Baur's (1792-1860) Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ in 1845. In it he applied the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel to the development of New Testament thought. As a result, he dated and located various New Testament writings in accordance with whether they seemed to belong to Jewish Christianity, Pauline Christianity, or what he considered the synthesis of the two, Catholic Christianity.

Baur's work raised significant issues that are still discussed today. To what extent was early Christianity Jewish, for example? Baur also more than anyone else raised the question of how the New Testament writings fit in the flow of first and second century history (rather than just reading them as self-standing texts). Some of his observations continue to have impact on New Testament interpretation today, such as the way in which Acts tends to smooth over early conflicts between Paul and Jerusalem Christianity or the fact that the theology of the Pastoral Epistles seems to differ somewhat from Paul's earlier letters.

At the same time, Baur's method and many of his fundamental ideas were seriously flawed. For example, he imposed the dialectic of Hegel on history in a rather artificial and overly simplistic way. And some of his key decisions on documents like the letters of Ignatius or the so called Clementine literature are now universally rejected, effectively pulling the rug out from under his entire approach. These writings show that Paul was not so rejected, nor "catholic Christianity" so late as he supposed.

More than anyone else, we have J. B. Lightfoot (1828-89) to thank for setting this record straight. His careful, multi-volume work on The Apostolic Fathers (1885-89) established the authenticity of the letters of Ignatius and dated them to the beginning of the 100s, which undercut Baur's hypothesis fundamentally. "Apostolic fathers" here refers to a number of key authors and writings mostly just after the New Testament in the early second century, books like 1 Clement (90s), 2 Clement (anonymous sermon), the seven genuine letters of Ignatius, the letter of Polycarb, the Epistle of Barnabas (not by Barnabas), the Didache, and so forth.

This same tension between key insights and fundamental skew typifies a good deal of German biblical scholarship in the nineteenth and twentieth century. A scholar might make a very important observation but then construct from it a rigid system of thought that is then imposed on the rest of the data. We arguably saw this pattern in Wellhausen's interpretation of the Pentateuch, and we see it in Baur's paradigm for New Testament development. We arguably will see a similar pattern in the work of later Germans like Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920).

One work that did not show this tendency, and that in fact was much more circumspect methodologically, was Walter Bauer's (1877-1960), Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity in 1934. His work asked the important question of whether in fact we can really speak of an "orthodoxy," a clear sense of who the true Christians were and what they believed, in the 100s. His conclusion, now widely accepted, was that we cannot really speak of a clear orthodoxy at this time. Perhaps most Christian historians today would in fact question whether we can meaningfully speak of Christian orthodoxy until the late 300s and 400s.

The thread we now think of as the true heirs of Jesus and Paul runs through individuals like Clement and Ignatius around the year 100 through Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus in the second century. Then there was Cyprian in the 200s and perhaps most importantly Athanasius in the 300s. In 325 the now official understanding of the Trinity was proposed and approved. In 367 Athanasius put forward the current list of New Testament books. But debates over the precise nature of Christ continued into the 400's, with key players like the Cappadocian fathers, Augustine, and many others. Early in the 400s Jerome's Latin translation of the Vulgate helped standardize the biblical text for the West.

It can be a little startling for a conservative Protestant first to look at this developmental process closely, for it is fairly clear that a good many assumptions we make about biblical foundations and fundamental biblical teachings were not at all obvious or foregone conclusions among Christians for some three to four hundred years after Jesus had ascended to heaven! The Trinity and the full divinity of Christ, beliefs that we rightly take for granted and assume to be solid bedrock biblically, were not at all obvious to a dozen generations of the earliest Christians. And so we rightly see a growing reemphasis on the importance of the Spirit and the Church among orthodox Protestants today. Much of the clarity we have on these subjects apparently does not come as much from the text alone as we might at first think but from Spirit-led Christian tradition.

It is thus appropriate for Christians to assert by faith that God ever so patiently and in no hurry guided these developments. And it would seem that He did so using individuals in positions of institutional leadership and utilizing macro-politics. Some current movements wish to distance themselves from the systems of bishops and then later from the politics of church councils, sometimes called by secular authorities like the emperor Constantine. And here it is important to observe that none of these influences was singularly definitive on the shape orthodoxy took.

For example, Constantine did not determine the outcome of the Council of Nicaea, nor did a political body of Christians enforce a particular list of New Testament books, a New Testament canon, on Christianity. Politics and authorities were certainly involved, but the outcome was bigger than these forces. The Arian understanding of Jesus, which saw him as the first created being, dominated the church of the 300s, despite the fact that the orthodox Athanasius had won the day at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Similarly, although Athanasius advanced the current list of authoritative New Testament books, it was never universally adopted by any political body.

Nevertheless, in order for us to remain orthodox, Christians must put at least some credence in the politics of the first few Christian centuries, even though we also affirm that the final verdict on matters like the canon and the Trinity were as much a matter of the mysterious moving of the Holy Spirit among grass roots Christians. And we should also acknowledge that the beliefs of Christians remained somewhat rough around the edges, moreso than the West and even the East might like to admit. Recent works like Philip Jenkins', The Lost History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2008), rightly point out that forms of Christianity long continued in Africa and Asia that did not exactly take the same positions on key issues as Western Christianity and, indeed, whose Old Testament canons in particular varied a little from "orthodox" Christianity.

The most significant body of early Christian literature that is not in the New Testament canon is the Gnostic literature, most of which was discovered in Egypt at Nag Hammadi in 1945. In the mid-twentieth century, it was quite common for scholars (e.g., Rudolph Bultmann) to see Gnostic thought as key to the development of early Christian thought. The so called History of Religions or in German, religionsgeschichtliche Schule, believed early Christian understandings of Christ to result directly from Gnostic influence.

Today, we still find a whole stream of New Testament scholarship that emphasizes the Gnostic stream of early Christianity, sometimes seeing it as a more direct heir to the teaching of Jesus than the New Testament gospels themselves. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan (1934-) believe documents like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, neither of which go back to these disciples, to have just as much a claim to represent Jesus and earliest Christianity as Matthew or Mark. We will return to these ideas in our look at the gospels and the historical Jesus. However, most scholars would now rightly recognize that Gnosticism proper was not a coherent religious movement until the late first and early second century. Gnostic elements in early Christian thought thus do not have a serious claim to represent the thinking of Jesus or Paul.

The process of canonization went something like the following. First the New Testament books were written over about a fifty year period. The letters of Paul were first, written in the 50s and perhaps 60s to specific churches in specific situations. The gospels and Acts all likely reached their current form after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, although it is possible that Mark dates from the pre-70 period. The dating of the general epistles depends on one's conclusions on authorship, thus ranging from dating them primarily in the 60s to some who would date a book like 2 Peter to the early second century. Johannine literature and Revelation are often dated to the 90s in their current forms.

According to Walter Bauer, we cannot speak of any clear orthodoxy or canon in the second century. Certainly the bulk of Paul's writings seem to have had enjoyed wide acceptance among Christians, although there were Christian Jewish groups like the Ebionites who would not have used them. One of the most notable moments in the development of the canon was perhaps the first known "canon list" by the Gnostic Marcion (ca. 150). Marcion did not believe that the God of the Old Testament was the Father of Jesus Christ. He believed that the material world was evil and thus that its Creator could not be good. His version of the New Testament canon was a truncated version of Luke and a portion of Paul's letters.

Although it is debated, Hans von Campenhausen (1903-89) suggested that it may very well have been the rejection of Marcion's canon list that inspired other Christians to begin to develop a more appropriate one (The Formation of the Christian Bible, 1968). Scholars disagree whether the Muratorian Canon dates from the late 100s or a couple centuries later, but if original, it represents a very early list of books that accepts the four gospels, Acts, and Paul's writings, although not many of the general epistles. If we are to go by the harmony of the gospels created by Tatian (the Diatesseron) and by the bishop of Lyon, Irenaeus, the four gospels in our current Bible enjoyed significant agreement by the late 100s, although certainly many more Gnostic gospels were in use in Egypt at the time.

Discussion in the next two hundred years thus centered around the edges of the New Testament canon: Hebrews, Revelation, Wisdom, the Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Peter, and so forth. Authorship became important, as books like Hebrews and 2 Peter likely would not have been included if Pauline and Petrine authorship had not become accepted. Antiquity might also be thought a criterion. Hermas was too late and not connected to an apostle, dating to about AD150. How widely a book was used shows up in Eusebius' (ca. 263-339) discussion of the canon, showing that the use of a book widely by churches across the Mediterranean was a factor. It seems significant to note that the debate did not center on whether these books were inspired.

The first list we know of that agrees exactly with the list Christians currently use appears in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in AD367 (this dispels the strange but popular rumor that the canon was set at the Council of Nicaea in 325). Although no canon list has ever been adopted by a universal council of Christendom, a Western council at Carthage, North Africa, did adopt Athanasius' list in 398. Nevertheless, different Christians did continue to use varying books over the next few century.


Paul Pavao said...

This is well done. There's some good information on this blog. So much of what's written about the canon on the internet is nonsense. This was a refreshing exception.

Thanks and congrats on a fine job!

Anonymous said...

Did Athanasius propose the exact set of 66 books Protestants now considered inspired or did he include the Deuterocanonicals?

Ken Schenck said...

As best I can tell, his list was closest to the Protestant canon, minus Esther and plus Baruch.

npmccallum said...

I posted the following on Facebook before I realized it was syndicated from your blog...

Thanks for a great summary! I have a few questions, if you don't mind...

1. You argue for a "Spirit-led Christian tradition" by tracing the articulation of thought from the NT through the post-apostolic writers, the Nicenes and the post-Nicene Christological thinkers. How do you rectify the fact that each of these writers claims specifically that they are not developing the apostolic theology? Certainly Bauer's work is important, though, as Erhman notes, his arguments are often over-asserted. I ask this specifically in mind of recent discoveries (such as Irenaeus' "Proof of the Apostolic Preaching" with its proto-homoousias) which clearly provide much earlier support for later doctrinal 'developments' than was previously known.

2. It seems to me that usage is the primary criterion in consideration of the canon and that authorship and antiquity are secondary criterion. I suggest this because authorship and antiquity are discussed primarily to resolve disputes between local churches which differ in their usage of a text in their divine services. Texts that are not read liturgically in any local church do not have any consideration whatsoever (from what I can see; please correct me if I am wrong).

Related to this, it seems to me that the primary function of a canon is its use liturgically. Theological writers throughout history have no particular qualms about quoting from a variety of important sources that may or not be canon (even earlier [known] non-canonical pseudepigraphal sources and contemporary luminaries). One liturgical scholar (forgive me I don't recall the source) even notes that the practice of announcing the source of the reading before the reading itself is to assure the hearer that the reading is from an approved text.

Further, the various writings responding to the claims of Marcion directly (in particular Irenaeus' Against Heresies), while mentioning his textual truncation, seem entirely uninterested with establishing a proper canon as a counter-argument.

Given these, does it not make sense to understand the (almost entirely post-Nicene) development of the canon to be more a function of establishing liturgical normalcy across the imperial church than a response to any particular ideological threat or the desire to establish a specific textual authority? Viewing it in this manner avoids the difficult of why, when obvious local variances exist, differences in canon do not appear as significant arguments in all the debates of Nicea and beyond. (Certainly textual differences and translations are debated, but I'm not aware of any group [a la Marcion] which holds its own canon in order to argue its own theology.)

Is this a fair assessment? What particular difficulties would arise in viewing the canonical process in such a way?

Ken Schenck said...

Nate, sorry I nver got back to your excellent probing. I didn't have a response on the tip of my tongue and didn't get back to it. Hope springs eternal!