Thursday, October 29, 2009

Did the early church have any concept of using scholarship to shed light on questions of authorship?

Many people assume that the early church had no concept of using a scholarly approach to consider the authorship of a sacred text. It is quietly taken for granted that applying objective scholarship to Biblical matters was an innovation introduced only in recent centuries. Didn't the ancient church simply accept whatever they were told? Were there actually any proper scholars among them? If a scholar had questioned the authorship of a work, would they have suffered any adverse consequences for their intellectual freedom? Would they have experienced a suppression of their ideas? I'd like to consider early examples of Biblical scholarship to get a clearer picture of the situation.

Origen is considered one of the fathers of the early church, born in the late 100's A.D. and continuing well into the 200's. He was one of the respected scholars of his age. In his day, there was some question as to whether the epistle to the Hebrews was written by Paul or by someone else. Some had presented it as Paul's; others doubted that. Origen approached the question as a scholar, asking: what can we tell from the text? In his Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews he forms his opinion based on the author's eloquence in Greek. He notes that Paul's Greek was rough, while the Epistle to the Hebrews was in better Greek than the acknowledged writings of Paul. Based on this, he concludes that Paul could not have been the author. He also records that, along with some churches suggesting Paul as the author, others had suggested Luke or Clement as the author, while admitting that who wrote it is "known to God alone." (Summary from Eusebius' History 6:25; see items 11-14 on the page at CCEL for the details)

Another prominent scholar in the 200's A.D. was Dionysius of Alexandria, whose career as a scholar included being head of the catechetical school of Alexandria. He also became Bishop of Alexandria, one of the most respected episcopal offices in ancient Christendom. He addressed questions in the church as to whether the same person wrote the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. His findings were that the books had different authors; his methods include many of the same points considered by modern scholars. Here, briefly, are his lines of research:
  1. Comparing the use of the name “John” in the texts: Revelation makes use of the name John again and again, while the Gospel of John and the letters attributed to John do not.
  2. Framing and introduction: the emphasis on the beginnings and on what they had seen or beheld as the starting point for both the Gospel of John and 1 John, but not Revelation.
  3. The number of prominent themes shared between the Gospel of John and 1 John that are not really concerns in Revelation: the Life, the Light, turning away from darkness, truth, grace, joy, the flesh and blood of the Lord, judgment, forgiveness of sins, God’s love for us, the command to “love one another”; Dionysius compiles a still lengthier catalog of items he has compared, things which he has found as themes in both the Gospel of John and 1 John, but not in Revelation.
  4. Phraseology and skill with the Greek language in which both are written. The Gospel of John and 1 John are written “not only without any blunders in the use of Greek, but with remarkable skill with regards diction, logical thought, and orderly expression.” As for Revelation, “his language and style are not really Greek; he uses barbarous idioms, and is sometimes guilty of solecisms.”
The findings of Dionysius is recorded at more length in Eusebius' History (7.25); the scholarly review of Revelation begins at item 6 on the linked page.

Here we see two respected scholars in the early church using objective methods to consider questions of authorship. In both cases, the scholars applied themselves to a dispute about who wrote a document; in both cases, there were Christians who considered the book to be canonical -- that is, these works being subjected to scholarship were already considered by some to be Holy Scripture. In recognition of their scholarship, both were commemorated and commended by the church historian Eusebius.

From Origen, from Dionysius of Alexandria, and from Eusebius who valued and preserved their work for posterity, we see that the early church did understand that the authorship of a proposed work could be questioned. We also see that the early church had scholars who approached the question by studying objective, observable facts of the texts. It is interesting to note that they also reached essentially the same conclusions as modern scholars on the authorship of the works in question. And they did it in the 200's A.D.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Did any of the gospels claim to have been written by an eyewitness?

Many of the Christians I know are aware that the fourth gospel contains an explicit claim to be written by an eyewitness: "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down" (John 21:24). This is common knowledge among Christians who discuss the Bible with non-Christians; it is basic "Apologetics 101" level material. Yet the charge has been circulating that no gospels claim to have been written by an eyewitness. This charge bears the marks of someone who is simply not that familiar with the material.

This claim has been made by Bart Ehrman. In his book Lost Christianities he asserts that none of the canonical gospels "claims to be written by an eyewitness or a companion to an eyewitness" (p. 135 of the 2003 Oxford U. printing available at my library).

It is unfortunate that his book contains a misstatement of fact that could have been easily avoided by a more thorough knowledge of the subject. Sometimes, when meeting claims against Christianity, it helps to remember that the level of Biblical literacy in our society is at very low levels, and some patience is called for as we seek to inject some more knowledge of the texts into the current discussions about them.

Have Protestants missed the point of the Reformation?

Most Protestants are familiar with the traditional account of the Reformation: how a German monk posted debating points on the church door, challenging a corrupt system. And the church of that day plainly was corrupt. The 95 Theses generally focused on particular aspects of the sale of indulgences and fund-raising practices centered around purgatory, with some notable other comments on the general way that forgiveness was being taught and practiced.

Protestants have taken to heart that the sale of indulgences was wicked and corrupt; no risk of repeating the same mistakes there. But were those the only mistakes we're at risk of repeating? The most radical challenges of the 95 Theses tend to be missed; they aren't actually in the text, but in the act of posting debating points to challenge the church:
  1. The church is not infallible.
  2. True orthodoxy traces its roots to Christ and his witnesses.
  3. The church exceeds its authority whenever it teaches on God's authority anything it has not received on God's authority.
The Reformation in its small beginnings was not intended as a schism or a blame game, but as a house-cleaning. The minute it becomes an opportunity to feel smugly superior to Rome, it becomes a religious corruption in itself. This becomes a temptation when we are sure that the problems needing reform are unique to the Church of Rome. That may be so for the 95 Theses posted for debate that day. But the deeper message should be considered posted on every church door every day.
  1. The church is not infallible.
  2. True orthodoxy traces its roots to Christ and his witnesses.
  3. The church exceeds its authority whenever it teaches on God's authority anything it has not received on God's authority.
Since the Reformation, we do not owe allegiance to a supposedly infallible hierarchy that cannot imagine the possibility of error. But do our churches have the same spirit? I cannot think of a single church body without at least one teaching that is beyond what we have on Christ's authority, nor one that does not demonize its would-be reformers on the unspoken assumption of their own group's infallibility in at least one matter.

If we want to celebrate Reformation Day, I hope we do it by admitting the fallibility of the church and by listening to our own reformers.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Has modern scholarship disproved the traditional authorship of the Gospel of John?

Of the four canonical gospels of the life of Christ, the one I have most often seen dismissed outright for historical value is the Gospel of John. The early church agreed that it was the latest written of the four. In the early church, the name attached to the gospel was that of John the Apostle. But scholars have found signs of editing; was it tampering? There is also clearly an appendix in Chapter 21 with multiple authors referring to themselves as "we" (John 21:24). Could anything refute the traditional attribution to John more clearly? Can anything in an altered document be trusted?

That depends very much on whether the author was aware of the editing process and whether he approved of it. Does the early church have anything to say about how such editing might have happened? As a matter of fact, it does. This excerpt is from the Muratorian Canon, probably dated to the late 100's A.D., commenting on how the fourth gospel came to be written:
When his fellow-disciples and bishops encouraged him, John said, “Fast along with me three days from today, and whatever may be revealed to each, let us relate it one to another.” The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it. (from the Muratorian Canon, likely dates ranging from 170 A.D. – 200 A.D based on internal evidence. Emphasis added.)
The very early church, still in the 100's, retained this information on how the fourth gospel came to be written, how it came to be edited, and why it has an appendix. One of the names of the editors is retained for us: Andrew the apostle, who was Simon Peter's brother.

I would say that not only has modern scholarship not disproved the traditional authorship of the Gospel of John, I'd say that the Muratorian Canon's comments explain all the concerns that have been raised about the appendix and editing. The more interesting question to me is this: I'm curious whether modern scholarship has interacted with the Muratorian Canon's more detailed description of how the Gospel of John came to be written which would explain both editing and the appendix. I'm very curious whether modern scholarship has interacted seriously with the witness of the early church on how the fourth gospel came to be written.

For my own part, in the Muratorian Canon I see an explanation from the early Christian church that covers all the known facts and objections to traditional authorship. Unless a better explanation should be found, I will work under the view that this explanation is correct for the authorship and editing of the fourth gospel.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How long before Luke had a copy of Mark's Gospel?

It is taken for granted, given the similarities between the gospels of Mark and Luke, that Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a major source of information on the life of Christ. In some peoples' minds, there is an assumption that runs like this: Mark's gospel must have been in circulation awhile before it was widely enough distributed to fall into the hands of Luke. After all, this was in the days of hand-copied manuscripts. It took longer for a document to become widely known, longer for any potentially-interested people to obtain a copy. It could easily have taken years -- possibly a decade or more -- for Mark's writings to come into the hands of Luke.

All of this works on the assumption that Mark and Luke didn't know each other. The early Christian community was tightly-knit; the lists of personal greetings at the end of various letters should be some clue to that. But the lists of personal greetings also contain evidence that Mark and Luke knew each other directly. Bear in mind that, whether or not you accept the writings attributed to Paul as being from Paul, they still bear record of Mark and Luke being closely associated with each other on several different occasions.

Consider the personal greetings from the letter to Philemon:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23-24).
The most plain interpretation of that would mean that Mark and Luke knew each other directly. From the language used, they may have known each other as closely as I know my own co-workers.

Consider again the personal greetings from the end of Colossians, where many of the same people also appear in another set of greetings:
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. ... Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. (Colossians 4:10, 14).
Here we have another record of Mark and Luke being together among the companions of Paul at that time.

We have an additional record from Paul's second letter to Timothy:
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)
Here we have two passages listing Mark and Luke as being together among the same group in the same city, and a third making arrangements for Mark to come back and join Paul and Luke. Whether or not we accept the attribution of these letters to Paul, they still bear witness to the fact that Luke and Mark were closely associated in the mind of the early church. Based on the early documents we have, it is likely enough that the two knew each other directly. There is no reason to suppose a lengthy delay between Mark finishing his gospel and Luke obtaining a copy.

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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Would using an apostle's name guarantee acceptance in the early church?

Some people do not believe that anyone who knew Jesus directly -- whether his followers or his family -- were involved in writing any of the documents that were eventually accepted as part of the New Testament. It is commonly assumed that it was a standard thing for people to forge writings in the name of famous people, and of course the early church would have accepted any writing uncritically if it had the name of an apostle attached to it, or one of Jesus' family.

While there were plenty of documents falsely written under the name of someone famous in the early church, it does not follow that the early church would accept them uncritically. In fact, we know that they did not. There are quite a few writings with the apostles' names attached which were rejected by the early church as pseudonymous forgeries. Again Bart Ehrman, no friend of orthodox Christianity, has collected some of these works in his book Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Here we see 5 works ascribed to Peter (as opposed to 2 in the New Testament) and one more mentioning both Peter and James, 3 that drop the name Thomas in the title (none in the New Testament), 9 others variously claiming a connection to James, John, Philip, Mary, or Paul. One writing even claims co-authorship of eleven surviving apostles (John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Nathaniel, Judas Zelotes, and Cephas) -- which would form something of a mandate to accept and propagate the writing as coming from the best possible sources on Jesus ... if it were considered genuine.

Once again, Mr. Ehrman has provided a valuable service by showing just how often dropping the name of a famous figure of early Christianity -- even a follower or a relation of Jesus -- was not enough to persuade the early church to accept a writing. The early church also wanted some assurance that it actually came from the named source. Apparently, they were aware that some people might resort to forgery to promote their own views and wanted some guarantee of authenticity. It is a fair question what, exactly, their methods were; but to say they were swayed by mere name-dropping is disproved by how many texts with big-name attributions were regarded as forgeries in the early church.

In the companion volume Lost Christianities, Ehrman provides a chart with approximate dates for these non-canonical writings. By examining it, particularly with an eye to which writings claimed a connection to followers and family of Jesus, the reader may gain another useful clue as to why the early church did not necessarily accept these documents as coming from the claimed sources. Per Ehrman's chart, these rejected documents have conspicuously late dates compared to the lives of the supposed authors. They were written no sooner than the second century, quite a few not until the middle of the second century, the third century, or in one case even the fourth century for a document claiming to come from Paul. It seems reasonable enough, on the surface, that documents that were never heard of by the first few generations -- or centuries -- of Christians might be suspect whether they were really from the apostles. While I don't recall Dr. Ehrman anywhere drawing attention to the reasonable suspicion of authorship that would fall on a document written centuries after the supposed author's death, the early church seems to have been well aware of a chronological problem here with the historical plausibility of the claim.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Would the early Christian church have accepted any writing?

One of the arguments I hear bandied about by skeptics is that the early church would have accepted anything. They weren't sufficiently skeptical about the writings they received and passed along; they were predisposed to take any writing that had a good story behind it. The 27 writings the early church did finally accept as the canonical New Testament haven't been properly screened; they were just accepted at face value by people who were in the habit of accepting things at face value.

This argument does not pass the most basic of all B.S. detectors: the sheer amount of contrary evidence. Don't take my word for it; look at the collected writings of Bart Ehrman, proud opponent of Christian orthodoxy. His book Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament lists an additional 17 gospels, 5 additional books of acts of the apostles, 13 non-canonical epistles and related writings, and 7 non-canonical apocalypses and revelatory writings. Ehrman's work doesn't list every single piece of early Christian writing, but it does tally up an impressive 42 additional works. If you compare the 27 writings that did make the New Testament with the 42 that Ehrman lists that did not, we find that the church was, actually, fairly selective. If we just work with these two simple numbers -- the list that the early church ultimately accepted and the list that Ehrman proposes -- we find that the church screened out just over 60% of the proposed writings.

It's a legitimate question: On what did the early church screen works as being "in" or "out"? But it's not legitimate to say they weren't screening.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Is the NT reliable? Stock arguments against that I find unconvincing, and why

There are a number of stock arguments circulating among skeptics that target the reliability of the New Testament. I would not ask a skeptic to assume divine inspiration; I simply intend to point out some historical realities in the early Christian church that may not be widely known among skeptics, and how these verifiable historical situations tend to make certain arguments non-starters. These selected arguments are ones that I find glaringly at odds with facts that anyone who took the trouble can easily verify. The remainder of this discussion won't assume anything about the New Testament documents beyond this: that they were in circulation in the early Christian community, that the early Christian community believed them to be honest. That is a fairly minimalist starting point and should allow us to start out on common ground on which both parties agree.

Here are some of the arguments that I intend to review and show why I think they are non-starters. In upcoming posts, I will go into the basic background on each and show why I think that, given the known facts, these arguments are non-starters.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

What it means to be "God's Chosen People"

It seems to me that a great many people misunderstand what God is doing what God chooses people. Trace back in your mind, all the way back to the book of Genesis. God chose Abraham, of all people on earth. Abraham was uniquely blessed. Nobody else was blessed in the same way that he was. But the purpose God had in choosing Abraham was not only to honor and bless Abraham, but also to bless the whole world through Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). The point of being chosen is to be a chosen vessel, and through Abraham God begins to bless the earth again. He is chosen not to be God's sole recipient of blessing, but to be the channel through which further blessings would spread. If Abraham ever once thought he was blessed just to set him apart as "I'm chosen and you're not", the Bible doesn't mention that.

Consider the ancient Israelites. Their literature shows that they understood their own sacrifices offered at their annual feasts to be on behalf of all the nations on earth. They anticipated a day when all nations on earth would come and pray with them, and all would know God. They were not chosen to be an elite who should think to themselves "We're chosen and they're not"; they were chosen to be a vessel of God's blessing to the world.

Consider Jesus' apostles. Among all the Israelites in God's Chosen People, they were uniquely hand-picked by Jesus, "chosen" in a very direct and visible way during his earthly ministry. Again, they were not chosen to be in an elevated echelon with the thought "I'm chosen and you're not". They were chosen to serve the others and lead the others, and those who desired to be the greatest were told to then be servants to all: they would be servants delivering blessings, not elites enjoying perks. They were sent out as vessels of very unique blessings: the knowledge of the Lord and the spirit of the Lord. They were sent to convey these blessings to the whole world by baptizing and teaching. They were chosen to take Christ to the world.

Some tend to portray the "chosen" as a fixed and static group that is intended for blessing while others are not. This is not a Scriptural view of what it means to be God's chosen, God's elect. In Scripture, being God's chosen always means to be a chosen vessel to carry God's blessing into the world to those who have not yet received it.