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.

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