Sunday, May 04, 2008

Scoring the canon: the point

Some of you may have wondered the point of my posting various early canon lists during the past week. Why would a longtime Christian take historical criteria and subject a bunch of early Christian writings to a scoring system? Why treat the canonization process as if it had never occurred? Why roll back the clock to the days before the canon was finalized? Why place the canonical books on the same scale as books which did not make the cut? I had several points in doing that, and I think I owe it to anyone who reads the blog to explain, if for no other reason than to let you know why this blog was filled with tables and spreadsheets this past week.

1. The "Christian origins" folks need an objectivity check
The discussion of Christian origins tends to be filled with emotive words. "Conspiracy" and "orthodoxy" and "suppression" are floated far too often without enough support to warrant their use. There is a tendency in current scholars' argumentation to cherry-pick the evidence that suits each author's conclusions. There has been little way to objectively call to account the various camps for cherry-picking. I wanted to move the conversation -- in whatever modest way a blogger can -- towards recognition of the historical documents available and how they might be evaluated based on their historical value. As I've pointed out more than once already, the scheme I have put forward is hardly the only scheme I can imagine and has much room for growth in both method and materials. I would welcome other efforts along these lines. Still, this scheme is the only one I have seen for evaluating the historical value of various early Christian writings based on fixed criteria.

2. The Biblical studies folks could use a data processing department
In reviewing early Christian origins, there is a vast amount of information to sift and evaluate. Other groups of scholars with large amounts of information have become friendly with data processing professionals. I hope that this series has at least made someone consider the various uses that can be made of statistical or scoring/ranking models in evaluating the information we have.

3. The canon is on firmer historical ground than is generally acknowledged
As I mentioned in the first post, I set out the criteria for scoring the books before I checked to see how any given book came out from the evaluation. I know that, from an orthodox Christian viewpoint, this amounted to either throwing out the canon or rolling back the clock as if those conversations had never happened. The reason I was willing to do that is that I see no conflict between historical reality and orthodoxy. If I did, I would no longer care to be "orthodox" (in fact, I could no longer say "orthodox" without the tongue-in-cheek quote-marks, if I did not see it as the quest for reality). One thing I had wondered -- and was not surprised to see -- was that all of the books which were eventually included in the canon, without exception, scored better on historical attestation than the books which were not included in the canon. On the final scorecard, there was not a single book of the canon so low-scored that any of the non-canonical books was above it; there was not a single of the non-canonical books so high-scored that any of the books of the canon was below it. You'd almost think that the canon was made with an eye to which books had the best historical attestation; many of the early Christian writings discussing the canon speak as if that were the case. (Dry humor alert.)

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