A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Misquoting Jesus: Chapter One (2 of 9)

The Beginnings of Christian Scripture

Chapter one of Bart Ehrman�s book is a readable survey of �The Beginnings of Christian Scripture.� He begins by noting the �bookish character� of Christianity which it inherited from Judaism. He contrasts this emphasis on religious writing with ancient polytheistic religion in which books played �virtually no role� (19). This is significant as Ehrman notes, �Since ancient religions themselves did not require any particular sets of �right doctrines� or, for the most part, �ethical codes,� books played almost no role in them� (19).

Ehrman sets out to survey of the various types of early Christian literature in the New Testament as well as extra-canonical material. He surveys early Christian letters, early Gospels, early Acts of the Apostles, Christian apocalypses, church orders (e.g. The Didache), Christian apologies, Christian martyrologies, antiheretical tractates, and early Christian commentaries. His survey of these various writings illustrates the significance of the written word for the early Christians.

As Ehrman surveys the formation of the Christian canon, he makes several observations: the formation of the Christian canon was a long and involved process; but it was not long before Christians started to accept some Christian writings as being on the same level with the Jewish Scriptures, which may have its roots in the teaching of Jesus; worship played a significant role in the formation of the canon, as did Marcion, who formed his canon according to his theology, which Ehrman states �was not unprecedented� (34).

After Marcion, the debate over canon took several centuries. The concern to know what books were authoritative was two-fold: 1) to know which books should be used in worship, and 2) which books were reliable guides for doctrine and morals (35). Ehrman notes that the first extant list of our current New Testament canon dates to the latter half of the fourth century, almost three hundred years after the writings of the New Testament (36).

Ehrman has a very interesting section on �The Readers of Christian Writings,� in which he makes the point that although Christianity was �bookish,� most early Christians could not read including, it seems, some scribes responsible for copying manuscripts. Most Christians would have known the New Testament, not from reading it, but by hearing it read publicly.

Now for some brief observations:

1) It may be true that the earliest list of our current canon dates to three hundred years after the documents of the New Testament were written, but that does not mean any lists existed prior. We simply do not have them, and even if no list existed, the discussion over canon pre-dates the earliest extant list and it is not unreasonable to assume that the current list of twenty-seven books were understood as canonical in many Christian circles. While some books were highly debated as to their canonicity (e.g. 2 Peter) many were accepted with no trouble and, in fact, were in wide use in the church universal long before any official pronouncements. Thus the official pronouncements had the effect of simply putting the church�s stamp of approval on documents that had been long recognized.

2) The complexity of the development of the canon is even more complex than simply surveying the muddle and mire of all the varieties of early Christian literature and the competition between Christian groups for the canonical status of their documents. Ehrman is correct to note that there are theologies at work here, but it is not simply theologies (ala Marcion) twisting out a canon; there is another theology at work from the very beginnings of Christianity, starting with Jesus and carried on by the Apostles, that swirled in the background as the church looked to the books that provided the most faithful reflection of that theology. For all the variety and tensions we find in the New Testament, there is a strand of unity that exists which played a critical role in the New Testament canon as we now have it. The current attempt in some scholarly circles to give the Nag Hammadi library equal status with the canon will not stand up to critical scrutiny. It is not adequate to argue that such books were excluded simply because the early Christian adherents to these �alternative� Gospels did not have the power to assert their own canons. A superficial reading of this material reveals vast theological differences between the canonical Gospels and the alternatives. It stands to reason that such material cannot stand in the same collection with the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.

3) The fact that rival theologies were present from within the church very early on does not mean that all rivals are equal. The very existence of �heretical� groups denouncing �orthodox� church leaders does not mean the �heretics� were right, nor that they should have a place at the �orthodox� theological table. Of course, neither does this mean that the �orthodox� view is correct either, but if there is an apostolic theology swirling in the background, which later finds expression in what becomes known as orthodoxy, then the debate over canon takes on an indispensable theological character that must not be neglected.

But this is to get ahead of the argument.


Ted M. Gossard said...


Great thoughts and helpful observations here. As sharp as Ehrman is, it's a wonder he doesn't take into account these things. But I guess a shadow is cast over everything is some way, to him.

Anonymous said...

Take your quote: "Now for some brief observations:

1) It may be true that the earliest list of our current canon dates to three hundred years after the documents of the New Testament were written, but that does not mean any lists existed prior. "

I think that you meant "does not mean no lists existed prior." That fits better with the following discussion