Sunday, April 27, 2008

Scoring the books of the canon on historical attestation: part 1 the method

Every now and then in Christian history, the question of the canon is reconsidered. People ask: how can we be sure the right books were included? What about a certain book that was omitted? What about another book which had once been questioned but is now included? How do we know that "orthodoxy" did not use political power to strong-arm its way to acceptance over and against the historicists?

To this end, I have been turning over a question in my mind: What would happen if we reviewed the early Christian writings and looked for objective criteria for how to score them as far as whether they should have been included in the canon?

The first thing I did was to review the different ways in which the material was classified by early writers. The early lists classified the books into different levels of acceptance or rejection. I decided to try to find a fair formula that took into consideration the different lists of the canon and how those canon lists rated the different books.

I drafted the following system of scores to recognize the strength or weakness of the various levels of acceptance that were recognized in the early canon lists:
 Score Classification with relation to the canon
 5Accepted without reservation explicitly by name of work
 3Accepted without reservation implicitly by inclusion in an accepted category e.g. works of a certain author
 1Accepted with reservations
 0Not mentioned on a given list
 0Mixed evaluation ultimately neutral on acceptance
 0Accepted as suitable reading but not authoritative
-1Rejected with reservations
-3Rejected without reservations implicitly by inclusion in a rejected category e.g. works of a certain author or school
-5Rejected without reservations explicitly

These numbers are particularly geared to reflect whether the books were considered canonical and how thoroughly the books were accepted as reflecting the best available knowledge about Christ and his apostles. A different purpose would likely have generated a different scoring system; for instance if the scoring scheme had been geared to reflect which books were considered merely suitable reading rather than actually canonical, the classification of books which were non-authoritative but suitable for reading would have been scored more positively than books which were unmentioned. This is just to clarify that this system is geared towards scoring the strength of attestation for inclusion in the canon rather than for any other purpose. Not all of these categories are actively used here; some are designated now with a view to future evaluations of the history of the citations of the various books.

Next is the matter of evaluating the different canon lists themselves. From a historical viewpoint, the earlier a work was accepted, the better its claim for inclusion in the canon. Early dates are important not only for historical value, but also because, at an early date, the "orthodox" camp was still in formation and had no political power advantages over the "unorthodox". The only clear advantage held by one camp over the other in the first centuries of Christianity was ultimately their claim to truthfulness and access to reliable knowledge about Jesus and his apostles. So it became important to rate the lists based on how early the list of books was created. Given that the date of the original lists are often known only approximately, I rated the dates of the canon lists into just a few divisions, with the earlier lists receiving more consideration:
Century of originRaw weight of list
100-199 A.D.3
200-299 A.D.2
300-399 A.D.1

Anything later than 400 A.D. is later than I am evaluating for my present purposes. In cases where more precise dates can be determined, it may be possible for me to refine the weights in the future; but this scheme, rough as it is, captures the general intention of giving more weight to the earlier lists.

Then, finally, we come to the matter that not all lists were composed with the same respect for history and for those who knew Jesus first-hand. Some lists were composed with the question in mind, "What are the best sources of information on Christ and the apostles?"; in this they are forerunners of the historical Jesus movement. Other lists were composed with the question in mind, "Which books best support the theological outlook of our group?". The Marcionites, for example, picked and chose books not based on whether they were tied to the apostles, but whether they were tied to the right apostle, i.e. Paul, and whether the books supported a historically revised Jesus who was safely distanced from Judaism. Such a list shows little interest in the Jesus which his apostles knew or in the apostles who knew him directly; historically it is of less value. However, even such a list still has some value as a witness to books which were in circulation at the time. Still other lists are simply lists without any visible evaluation at all.

Based on this, the lists themselves will be weighted so that lists that have no interest in the historical realities of a Jewish fellow from Nazareth and his Jewish apostles are seen as having less historical value than a list which takes its cue from historicity rather than from contents. The following adjustments are applied to the lists based on the list's respect for historicity:
List's respect for historicityWeight adjustment factor
Critical evaluation of historicity1.00
List without visible evaluations0.75
Historical revisionist evaluations visible0.50

My first step, then, was to determine weighting and evaluation criteria that would score the historical value of the witnesses to the canon. This was done without seeing how any particular books fared according to this scheme. The only goal in mind was to be able to give a meaningful weight value to each book and to be able to come to a meaningful answer to the question: how strong is the early evidence that this book should be in the canon of Scripture?

In the next post in this series, I will show what kind of rating results from this scheme for each of the various books of the New Testament canon and the several non-canonical books which were mentioned (whether favorably or negatively) on the early canon lists.

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