Scripture among the Apologists: Method I

old-booksStanding behind this study is concern for determining how to assess accurately what constitutes the citation of one text by another where no reference is clearly indicated.[i] Unfortunately, many treatments of early Christian writings presume an inexact methodology in addressing possible citations in ancient literature, taking either a minimalist or maximalist perspective. For example, Biblia Patristica notes any possible shadow of a reference in early Christian literature to scriptural sources.[ii] This type of approach yields superfluous literary connections, suggesting dependency and continuity where none exists.[iii]

More common, but no less problematic, are viewpoints which preclude the possibility of finding clear connections between pieces of literature by arguing that only direct quotations may demonstrate literary or intellectual dependence. Such perspectives often fall back on the least common denominator—often “oral tradition”, “communal tradition”, or “common milieu”—to account for possible references to external sources in early Christian writings. Building on the work of Franz Stuhlhofer in Der Ertrag von Bibelstellenregistern für die Kanonsgeschichte, [iv] this study is concerned with the application of a contextualized methodology to the study of literary citation in early Christian texts. Central to this project are considerations of contextual literary practice, simplicity of attribution, and purposes in writing.

BooksContextual Literary Practice: Consideration of early Christian writings must take place within the context of Greco-Roman and Jewish literary and interpretive practices.[v] Charles Hill writes that since even a “stated and sincerely held regard for the sacredness of a text did not necessarily affect an author’s practice of what we would call loose or adaptive citation,” what today might be considered sloppy citation, plagiarism, or even falsification of an original text would have been viewed in the ancient context as explicating the meaning of that text.[vi] In the words of Donald Hagner, “Verbal exactness was not a desideratum in that age as it has become in ours…. Faithfulness to the tradition is not incompatible with minor variations and alterations of form.”[vii]

[i] It has been suggested that the lack of clear citations indicates the relative unimportance of a source, an assumed widespread knowledge of a source, or the consultation of an intermediate source communicating a message without the implication of authority. See Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, M.A.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 257 and Charles E. Hill, “’In These Very Words’: Methods and Standards of Literary Borrowing in the Second Century,” eds. Charles E. Hill and Michal J, Kruger, The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 265-7. [ii] Biblia Patristica: Index des Citations et Allusion Bibliques Dans la Litterature Patristique: Des origines a Clement d’Alexandrie et Tertullian. Edited by Equipe de Recherece Assosiee au Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, et al. Paris: Centre d’Analyse et de Documentation Patristiques, 1975. [iii] John S. Romanides, “Justin Martyr and the Fourth Gospel,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 4 (1958): 129. [iv] Franz Stuhlhofer, “Der Ertrag von Bibelstellenregistern fur die Kanonsgeschichte”, ZAW 100 (1988): 244-261. [v] Stuhlhofer, 244-9. Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway Publishers, 2010), 144. Hill, 280. [vi] Hill, 277. There are several implications of this view. First, that any sort of “citation” of a text should be understood as broadly “authoritative.” Even within the context of polemical quotations, early Christian writers viewed the materials they quoted with some sense of authority, if only as an accurate source for understanding an incorrect or heretical position. Of course sources cited, deconstructed, and attacked should not be viewed as authoritative for claims of normative Christian faith simply because they are found in a text. For example, Theophilus’ quotation of Hesiod does not de facto indicate that Theophilus found Hesiod’s perspective either convincing or authoritative. However, Theophilus’ use of Hesiod’s perspective demonstrates his acceptance of such references as an accurate basis for rejecting Hesiod’s cosmogony. A second implication necessitates the consideration of various book and writing practices, such as the Christian preference of the codex.  On these issues, see Harry Y. Gamble, “The Book Trade in the Roman Empire,” eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23-36 and John Barton, Holy Writings Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 94. [vii] Donald A. Hagner, “The Sayings of Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers and Justin Martyr,” ed. David Wenham, Gospel Perspectives: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels: Volume 5 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), 257.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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