Thursday, April 28, 2011

Canonical and Non-canonical Gospels

Through the work of Elaine Pagels, who is a professor of religion at Princeton University, our understanding of early Christianity has been deepened. She has written a number of best-selling books that explore the complex nature of early "Christianities." Her early work on the Gnostic gospels (1979), which won several awards, including the National Book Award, continues to be among the top-selling books on Christian Gnosticism.

Among her assertions is the claim that the attacks on Gnostic texts by orthodox theologians in the second and third centuries were the result of institutional and political factors in the early church and not primarily a matter of theological disagreement and conflict. She is particularly troubled that women, who were accepted as spiritual leaders in Gnostic Christian circles, were marginalized and subordinated within the emerging catholic orthodoxy of these early centuries. This marginalization, too, was the result of political factors and not the result of theological concerns.

While there is much to learn in Pagels' work, many scholars are not persuaded that the Gnostic Scriptures, with their alternative understandings of Jesus, are just as authoritative or normative or historically reliable as the central canonical texts (the authentic letters of Paul, the synoptics, John, First John, First Peter). Even the Gospel of Thomas, which may, in very small part, be based upon early traditions about Jesus, strikes many as fundamentally at odds theologically with the teaching and narrative structure of the synoptic gospels. A careful theological comparison of the canonical texts and their stories with those that come from the later Gnostic and other apocryphal ("hidden") texts must lead one to make a choice: either the canonical or the apocryphal. They can't be reconciled with each other since they present essentially contradictory portraits of Jesus.

And yet the view that the apocryphal texts are just as valid as the canonical texts in their portrayals of Jesus ("many Christs") has its many supporters. For example, in the latest issue of Church History, the quarterly journal that is published by The American Society of Church History (of which I am a member), includes a book review by Timothy Miller, who is a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. The book is Alternative Christs, ed. Olav Hammer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Miller's review, which appears in the March issue of Church History 80/1 (March 2011), 206-208, ends with the following statement:

"As Hammer concludes (290), there is no reason to believe that the canonical Jesus stories are any more historically reliable than the 'heretical' versions. Indeed, it could be argued that the fact that huge swaths of Christianity emphasize a rigid doctrinal and textual orthodoxy impoverishes us, giving us only one narrow slice of a great story" (ibid., 208).

Not a single reason to believe that the canonical Jesus stories are any more historically reliable than the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Peter, Judas, or any of the other twenty-plus "apocryphal gospels?" What about the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas? Or the Secret Gospel of Mark? Did the gospels that are contained in the New Testament come into the canon only because of "political" reasons? Or were there legitimate theological issues at stake that related to the nature of the good news itself as it had been delivered to the early church and maintained by the faithful (see First Corinthians 15:1ff.; 11:2, 23; a similar idea is present in Second Thessalonians 2:15). These biblical texts provide the earliest of Christian traditions.

That there are at least two conflicting views about the status of the canonical and non-canonical gospels is also reflected in one of the latest sales catalogs from "The Great Courses." Today's mail brought that company's "The Annual Sale on Religion and Theology Courses," which includes "The Real Story of Christianity's Beginnings" and "How Has Christianity Changed over 2,000 Years," both taught by Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and "What Do the Gospels Reveal about Jesus?," taught by Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of religion at Emory University.

Ehrman takes an approach that complements that of Pagels. Both of them build on the work of the German scholar, Walter Bauer (Orthodoxy and Hersey in Early Christianity), who tried to demonstrate that some early forms of Christianity that were eventually deemed heretical at a later time had been in fact quite popular in their earliest stages. What would come to be called "orthodoxy" at a later time might have been a minority view in the early decades of Christianity and what was "heresy" in later decades might have been quite popular. Hence, the subtitle to Ehrman's second course: "Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication."

Johnson, an orthodox Roman Catholic scholar, takes a very different approach. He begins with questions about "Jesus in the memory of the church," and how the earliest apostolic preaching about Jesus had a distinct and normative shape already in the earliest decades of the post-resurrection Christian community (again, see First Corinthians 15:1ff.; the kerygmatic speeches in the Acts of the Apostles). After exploring the canonical gospels and the problems attendant to them, he moves to discuss how early Christians rejected some texts that claimed to be "Christian" but were not, marginalized some texts that were not necessarily "heretical" but were not "canonical," and accepted others that had been widely used and were viewed as having a continuity with that earliest apostolic proclamation.

Contrary to Miller's claim, the synoptic gospels contain material that is more historically reliable than the apocryphal, non-canonical gospels. Robert Grant, who taught early Christian history at the University of Chicago, has demonstrated that there were at least five implicit criteria at play in earliest Christianity to help Christian communities identify that which was in continuity with authentic apostolic teaching and that which conflicted with this teaching:

(1) A first criterion was apostolicity.  That is, a book had to have been written or dictated by an apostle, or at least have the authority of an apostle behind it, to be recognized as authoritative. For example, in the late- first or early-second century, Papias of Hierapolis (in Phrygia) wrote about his memories of early Christian traditions that make reference to Mark's memories of what Peter proclaimed in Rome, and Justin Martyr wrote about the gospels as "memoirs" of the apostles.

(2)  A second criterion, closely related to the first, is the antiquity of a particular writing.  The older the better. Since all of the apocryphal gospels, with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James, were written after A.D. 180, they fall far short of being in close proximity to the apostolic witness to the words and deeds of Jesus.

(3)  A third criterion was correct doctrine, i.e., adherence to the regula fidei (“rule of faith”) as handed down orally and in writing by those who were "eye-witnesses" and "hearers of the word." Unless a book could be shown to be in conformity with apostolic doctrine, it was rejected. Gnostics who claimed to be Christians ran afoul of other Christians because the former held that the God of the Old Testament was an inferior God to the Father of Jesus, that the god who created the world was an evil god, that the world is an evil creation from which one's soul is to escape, that Jesus was merely a revealer of secret knowledge about the human soul ("a spark of the divine" inside of a human being), that Jesus is only concerned about saving this "spark" inside of people, and that Jesus wasn't really human, that he didn't really die on the cross.

(4)  A fourth criterion was catholic use, how wide-spread was a text used in worship, teaching, and edifying the faithful. Some writings were accepted and used by nearly all who called themselves "Christian" in the first and early-second centuries (the letters of Paul, the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John, First John, First Peter), whereas other writings (James, Hebrews, Revelation, Second Peter, Second John, Third John, Jude, and many others) were not as widely used and had questions about their authorship, age, and orthodoxy. The apocryphal gospels also fell far short of being as widely used as Pagels seems to suggest.

(5) A final criterion, related to the other four, is the public succession of faithful bishops in certain key cities (Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Byzantium, Alexandria, Rome) to be generally reliable transmitters of apostolic texts (and accompanying authoritative lists of the Scriptures read and used in their liturgies) and teaching, and to be reliable critics of alien texts, such as the apocryphal gospels, epistles, acts, and apocalypses.

There were good reasons for why Gnostic texts did not win wide acceptance in early Christianity, for why the canonical texts are understood to be more historically authentic than later texts that claim to be apostolic and ancient, for why the canon looks the way it does. For persuasive refutation of the Bauerian thesis, see Robert Grant, Heresy and Criticism: The Search for Authenticity in Early Christian Literature (Westminster/John Knox, 1993). This work also provides a solid critique of Pagels' view of Gnostic Christianities as legitimate forms of Christian understanding. See also the helpful overview of scholarly work on the formation of the New Testament canon by Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Fortress, 1985), 16-33.

Finally, if the apocryphal gospels are just as historically authentic (or inauthentic) as the canonical gospels, then why do nearly all scholars who investigate the problem of the historical Jesus limit themselves to the canonical texts, even in view of the notoriously difficult nature of the canonical gospels as primary historical sources for Jesus? To quote from one of our premier New Testament scholars, E. P. Sanders: "I share the general scholarly view that very, very little in the apocryphal gospels could conceivably go back to the time of Jesus. They are legendary and mythological. Of all the apocryphal material, only some of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are worth consideration. This does not mean that we can make a clean division: the historical four gospels versus the legendary apocryphal gospels. There are legendary traits in the four gospels in the New Testament, and there is also a certain amount of newly created material… Nevertheless, it is the four canonical gospels that we must search for traces of the historical Jesus" (E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus [Penguin Press, 1993], 64-65; see also the complementary discussion by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 3 vols. [Doubleday, 1991--], 1:1-201 [which takes one through the various internal and external sources for understanding the historical Jesus]).

1 comment:

  1. Phew, that was long, but worth it. Thanks for the information. Sharing it.

    in Christ,