Not Impressed By Some Thoughts on Canon

So I was checking out some of the materials on the most recent patristics carnival over at Hyperekperissou (by the way Phil, are you aware of this other hyperekperissou blog?). As you know I have a keen interest in the development of the canon and other things in early/archaic Christian history, so the the couple articles on the topic caught my eye. One is here and the other is here.

Unfortunately, as I perused them, I found the former had very sloppy argumentation, assumed way too much, and in general came out way too optimistic in coming up with a second century canon. The second was okay, but left out a lot of important evidence that argues for a much wider use of materials as essentially canonical in authority. I’ll talk about them in reverse order

First is from the Brain Cramps for God site. He cites this as evidence for a development of the use of the NT the use of Matthew, Luke, Romans, Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, and Ephesians. That is true, but he also quotes from the Wisdom of Solomon a couple times and from an unknown source as authoritative in at least 17:6 and 46:2. So even though 1 Clement quotes the NT as authoritative, it quotes other documents in the same way. Throw in other books like 2 Clement ([UPDATE: Just to be clear, I’m not pointing to 2 Clement because I think Clement wrote it. I’m just pointing to it because it is a good example of this.]) and you get multiple quotes from gospels we do not know of now. Granted, what he said was accurate, but the evidence points to a wider range of accepted literature.

The article on the other site had a number of overstatements of evidence and assumptions. I will just mention a couple. For example, he takes 2 Timothy 4:9-12 as a statement that Paul wanted Timothy to bring him...well...here is the quote with comments by me in brackets:

Parchments are blank [always...are you sure that is what he means?] pieces of papyrus or animal skins used for preparing manuscripts. We don’t know what “books” Paul is referring to here. Some have suggested that Paul is referring to scrolls of the Old Testament. However, it is unlikely that toward the end of his life, Paul is asking two important bishops in the early church to take a dangerous journey to Rome before winter in order to prepare an edition of the Hebrew Scriptures[a) no particular reason to think they were Hebrew, b) why the assumption of a preparation of an edition]. It’s also improbable that Paul needed the Scriptures for some other purpose. Rome had Jewish synagogues with these writings and Paul, as a rabbi, would have also committed huge portions of scripture to memory. [yes...large portions...so why does this mean he would not want his own copy?]

Paul almost certainly meant his own writings [what? where are you getting that from?] and perhaps other Apostolic writings [where is he getting this?] that Timothy and Mark had assembled. It is thought that the “cloak” he refers to here is a large piece of waterproof leather used to wrap scrolls and parchments – sort of a first century book case that was used to protect parchment and papyrus when traveling [I’m not so sure about that either].

Second, a little later:

This is why Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch are able to quote freely from so many New Testament books as though they were already accepted as authoritativeury [sic] and by the late first century and early second century.

As I mentioned above, the early fathers quoted as authoritative books that are not in either the Old or New Testaments. So yes, some of these were definitely considered authoritative, but lots of other books were as well, and just acceptance of some books as authoritative does not a canon make. His conclusion makes this same mistake. I quote:

From this, I draw the conclusion that a New Testament canon existed at the very latest by the early-second century, and there is strong evidence that all 27 books of the New Testament were known as Scripture at the end of the first century by bishops such as Clement of Rome, Papias of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.

If you are going to take every book that is quoted authoritatively, you are going to have to enlarge your canon. Also, just because one bishop quoted a work does not mean that any other bishops quoted a work. You need to prove wider acceptance.

So, in summary, though one of the articles did make some good points, the other was too full of assumptions to be considered accurate. From what I have seen, arguing for a 27 book canon in the second century is an impossibility since bishops in the church were debating various books up through the time of Eusebius, as he records. Yes, many of the NT documents were viewed as authoritative early, which is very important. But that is not the same as having a canon, and we ought to keep that in mind.

Comments

Quixie (9/11/2008 9:43 AM)

snip: "Second, a little later: This is why Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch are able to quote freely from so many New Testament books as though they were already accepted as authoritativeury [sic] and by the late first century and early second century."

I more or less agree with you. Besides all that, though, I’d like to also note that the above is an innacurate assertion. He’s claiming something that is unsupported textually, as far as I can tell.

Specifically, I don’t think that one can argue that the patristics he mentioned "freely quote" from the NT texts. They more like "ocassionally"—nay, "rarely", quote from them, and when they do, it’s just 1 Corinthians (similarity of theme does not necessarily a quotation make).

Nevermind that I believe the entire Ignatian corpus is forged—I won’t go there here, though.

Thanks for posting this.

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mike (9/11/2008 11:21 AM)

"Paul almost certainly meant his own writings [what? where are you getting that from?]"

That’s the thesis of Randolph Richards in his book Paul and First Century Letter Writing, which actually a very good and well argued book and worth the read.

Eric (9/11/2008 11:27 AM)

Quixie: The frequency depends on the writer. Some quote occasionally, some quote not at all, and none (as far as I remember) quote extensively. The text quoted most often is by far the OT text, which is another reason to be cautious on claiming too much of a status for the NT text in the second century.

And why do you think all of the Ignatian material is forged?

Mike: Helpful to know. Does Richards’ argument warrant an "almost certainly" position or just a "possibly" position? Haven’t read it, though I have heard of it. I guess I need to put it on my purchase and reading list...

John Howell (9/11/2008 13:53 PM)

Thank you for the kind words.

I certainly do not disagree that the Canon was not really finished until the 4th century. I do think that the principles I began with were the driving motivations during the whole process

I think when it comes to the OT Canon - we really have to bow to Judaism and their final canonization in the 2nd century before Christ. However, when I do my Bible in a Year loops I always include the Roman Catholic deuterocanonicals. I think there is stuff there to learn - I just think it is a secondary canon at best

As to the NT canon, I think Apostolic authorship - or at least relationship and approval - was critical during the whole 300 year process. Certainly, the most common books argued for - the pseudoepigraphic (primarily) Gnostic works of the 2nd century - do not meet that guideline at all

Once you factor in the huge theological gap between the orthodox NT canon and the Gnostic works I think - as far as they were concerned - the canon was closed by the mid-2nd century

Eric (9/11/2008 2:20 PM)

John: Thanks for dropping in. Kind? I was wondering if I was being too harsh :)

I think your list at the top is pretty good, and your general layout for the post is good as well. There is definitely some useful information there.

"Once you factor in the huge theological gap between the orthodox NT canon and the Gnostic works I think - as far as they were concerned - the canon was closed by the mid-2nd century"

I would also say that is going too far or if I am understanding your intent correctly, is confusing. If you mean by "the canon was closed" the orthodox were throwing out the gnostic literature, I agree. Based on what we know (from folks like Irenaeus), clearly the orthodox would have rejected those works because of their wonky theology. The distinction between orthodoxy and gnosticism was too great so I do not see how it could have been otherwise.

But that is something far different from saying "the canon was closed". All that means is that the literature in use in the church was generally orthodox. Canon implies both standard and agreement among the orthodox, so using canon language to say that is confusing. Could you clarify your thinking more around that point? Disagree?

I am curious about the state of the generally accepted OT canon. I’ve read some say that this wasn’t something that happened until the first or second century AD. I must admit, though, I haven’t read enough on it to be informed. Perhaps that is a small minority of scholars. I would say though that Jude’s possible use of 1 Enoch makes for interesting data in that regard.

jchfleetguy (9/12/2008 7:41 AM)

I am an apologist - not really a scholar - so my gig is popularization and not fine points and nuance (necessarily). So, I appreciate correction - it is how I learn and gain nuance :-)

that was a cumbersome sentence. I meant what you knew - that the Gnostics were just out without really a look.

However, once the Canon really was closed in 369 - it would be interesting to back-study just what even got a look and wasn’t accepted; and why. I haven’t - although the source I used for my post gives the reasons the books from Hebrews - Revelations received less than unanimous support. Incidentally, Jude had difficulties precisely because it quoted Enoch and the Assumption of Moses. The source says Jude survived because it didn’t call them scripture - only quoted them much as Paul did some Pagan poets in Acts and Titus.

You are right that Jamnia was supposed to have settled the issue of 5 last disputed OT books in 100AD - but there is considerable doubt the council even took place; and it appears that Judas Maccabees gathered the scrolls together and put them into order in about 165 bc in order to preserve them from being destroyed.

Quixie (9/12/2008 7:39 AM)

Eric: "And why do you think all of the Ignatian material is forged?

"

It’s not originally my idea. Their authenticity was first questioned long ago. The Tubingen scholars, as far back as the mid-nineteeth century, revealed them to be spurious (though these writers are glossed over these days—F.C. Baur, Van Manen). Questioning their authenticity first ocurred to me as I was reading Walter Bauer’s classic "Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (though he did accept the Ignatian corpus for the most part in his thesis).

Here’s a link to Wm Killen’s very good encapsulation of the caee against Ignatian authenticity,for anyone interested.

peace
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Eric (9/12/2008 8:50 AM)

Quixie: Yes, I am aware. Just didn’t know if you had any particular reason for doubting their authenticity. And thanks for the link.

John: You wrote:

I am an apologist - not really a scholar - so my gig is popularization and not fine points and nuance (necessarily).

Well, I hope you are saying that your task of communication necessarily requires a dropping of some nuance (true) and not your data. Popularizers should not be held to a lower standard on the quality of their data.

I think popularizers of things academically complex are a very important breed of people because their skill set should be larger than that of the non-popularizing scholar. The art of presentation is a difficult one, as is the ability to summarize without watering down the material so much that the important points are lost. With the limited experience I have had with popularizers, they generally turn out to be good at communication and summary but a) weak in their knowledge (impossible to tell sometimes) or b) not entirely straightforward in actually giving all of the evidence. And I think this is true on both conservative and not-so-conservative fronts. Many popularizers become popular because they are really good at presenting a one-sided presentation. Canon, early Christian history, textual criticism and many others are topics rarely talked about both clearly enough for the layman to understand and fairly enough with all of the evidence displayed without suppression of alternative perspectives. I hope you have no problem with that :)

So then the "progression" in terms of knowledge and skill set should not be uneducated > popularizer > scholar but uneducated > scholar > popularizer. Due to the nature of the task, if popularizers were significantly less familiar with the data than the scholars then they are likely to be just handing out crap, and that is often what happens.

it would be interesting to back-study just what even got a look and wasn’t accepted; and why.

I agree, that is a very interesting topic. It is fairly obvious why some were not (like a lot of the gnostic documents), but there are a number of early documents that are orthodox from early on (though likely not as early as most of what we consider canonical) that were not accepted. That what and the why are great questions.

Quixie (9/25/2008 9:02 AM)

Jerome gives us a clue as to why some books were accepted, even though their authorship were disputed:

"Jude, the brother of James, left a short epistle which is reckoned among the seven Catholic epistles, and because in it he quotes from the apocryphal book of Enoch it is rejected by many. Nevertheless by age and use it has gained authority and is reckoned among the Holy Scriptures. " De Viris - ch. 4

In other words, its unquestioned antiquity was enough to safeguard its place in the canon. The texts that were known to be recent, however "orthodox", were not included.peace

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