Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did the early church care if a document's attribution was accurate?

When we look at the number of documents passed along under the names of the apostles, one thing is plain: there were plenty of forgeries. Is "forgery" too harsh a word? Was it an accepted practice? If someone other than the apostle Peter had claimed to be Peter and had written under his name, would the church have had a problem with that? Or would that have been seen as "in bounds", given how many examples we have of the practice of borrowing a famous name?

The Wisdom of Solomon was not written by Solomon, and yet had acceptance among both Jews and Christians. According to the Muratorian canon, Wisdom was "written by the friends of Solomon in his honor." How much does this show an acceptance of the practice of name-borrowing, and how much does this show that the attribution to Solomon is still openly -- if politely -- denied? Here the early Christian community shows a desire for accuracy in its attributions, so that a worthwhile book might be included in the canon even while its traditional attribution was tactfully disowned.

There are other examples of the early church paying attention to genuine authorship. The Muratorian canon records that some letters circulating under Paul's name were said to be "forged" and that there was some dispute over an Apocalypse of Peter. Origen noted the second letter of Peter was "disputed" as to its authenticity; he also notes of 2 John and 3 John, "not everyone agrees that these are genuine". Origen, again, openly discusses the uncertainty and various conjectures about who may have written the letter to the Hebrews, if not Paul. All this is early in church history, from 100's and 200's A.D., in which we find open and frank discussion of such things in the church, including among the church's scholars such as Origen. Again, so as to make this conversation accessible to skeptics, I have limited these quotations to documents available in Bart Ehrman's book Lost Scriptures, here under the section titled Canonical Lists.

Based on the original source materials cited by Ehrman, we can see that the early Christian community had some experience rejecting claims of famous authorship which were not well-founded, and had a track record of calling attention to attributions about which they were uncertain.

4 comments:

Tony-Allen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony-Allen said...

Oops, misunderstood your post the first time.

Ironic that even the enemies of Christ can sometimes be used by God to prove Himself.

The greatest unwritten tradition people often forget about is the identity of the writers of the New Testament. We have as early as Irenaeus identification of all the books in our New Testament and confirmation of who wrote them - very important indeed, because most of these people KNEW the apostles.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey, good to see you again. Hope all is going well.

On whether the enemies of Christ sometimes prove useful to Christ -- well, yes, but I find it sad and ironic. Some of the anti-Christian scholars seem to be anti-Christian first and "scholars" only insofar as they can cherry-pick what promotes an anti-Christian view.

Say, I noticed that I made a few "late-night editing" situations in this document, but you misunderstood the first time you read it, I'd be interested to know where so that if I to back and edit for clarity, I can make it plainer there.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

Well at first I thought you were taking Ehrmann's arguments to heart as if his overall position was correct, and wanted to point out most of it had been refuted. Then I realized you were merely showing that even anti-Christian scholars pointed out the dignity and strength of the early Church. It was fairly late when I read it any way, so my mind wasn't working quite well at the time.

And yes, I agree on the "anti-Christian first" part. James White, a famous Chrisitan apologist, actually debated Bart Ehrmann and asked if, since there are textual variants in the history of the Koran, Muslims are misquoting Mohammad. Ehrmann refused to answer.