Gospel Studies exists as a relatively neglected filed which has long taken a back seat to the study of the Historical Jesus or perspectives on Paul. Yet—argues Michael F. Bird—this realm of study stands ripe with opportunities for research and theological growth. To begin addressing the historical problem of how the life and teachings of Jesus became the four-fold gospel accounts of the New Testament, Bird offers The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 394 pp). Driven by four guiding questions—Why pass on Jesus stories? How was the Jesus tradition transmitted? What is the gospel and what are the sources behind the gospels? Why four gospels and why the four gospels that we have?—this historical, literary, and theological study provides offers readers rich perspective into some of the most pressing questions of this important area of Early Christian Studies. Continue reading
By way of closing both our section on modern perspectives on Marcion as well as this series as a whole, I offer the following conclusions. First, upon the review of the various schools of thought concerning Marcion’s impact on the development of Christian views on scripture, canon, and authority, we may conclude that the Canon Refinement School appears to make the best sense of textual evidence and offer the most satisfying overall explanation of Marcion’s theology. This school argues that Marcion’s canon, while the first closed specifically Christian canon, neither formed the Christian ideas of scripture, canon, and authority, as in the view of the Canon Formation School, nor did he influence a major redaction of scriptural literature, as in the view of the Canon and Literature Formation School. Continue reading
Having examined the perspectives on Harnack, Von Campenhausen, and Metzger regarding Marcion influence on the development of the Christian New Testament canon over the past couple of weeks (namely, that his conceptions of scripture, canon, and authority led to the formation of the new canon of the Great Church), we turn to three distinct considerations stemming from these works. First, there is the consideration of these scholars’ arguments concerning Marcion’s formative impact on a specifically Christian canon. Overall, the line of reasoning by Harnack and Von Campenhausen appears a bit simplistic, as if to say that early Christians conceived of scriptural writings as an ‘either/or’ proposition. Metzger’s positions itself causes some concerns for placing such central importance on Marcion’s canonical influence, as he argues for an early Pauline corpus, early authoritative uses of writings, and notes at least two other influences in the formation of a new canon. As will be seen below, the conception of Marcion as the originator of the Christian canon demonstrates numerous difficulties. Continue reading
Hans von Campenhausen
Hans Von Campenhausen, building upon Harnack’s reconstruction of Marcion, argued in The Formation of the Christian Bible that scholars cannot speak of a ‘canon’ of Pauline epistles before Marcion, as there was no normative collection of new writings or scriptures prior to his collection. Von Campenhausen understood Marcion’s primary tension to be between the law and Christian faith, and that he created the formative “Gospel and Apostle” canon format, using the writings Paul as the essential teachings in salvation-history. He argued that Marcion found his authentic gospel behind Luke’s writing because it posed the fewest questions and modifications for his theology. Von Campenhausen concluded that Marcion’s canon, with its Gospel and Apostle components, forced the creation of what became the New Testament canon of the Great Church by forcing them to answer questions about new revelation and writing. He argued that the church’s adoption of the Pauline Epistles and four Gospel accounts were directly influenced by Marcion’s use of Paul and his single gospel text. Thus it was not until after Marcion that Irenaeus of Lyons became the first Catholic theologian to accept the Marcionite principle of new scripture. Thus for Von Campenhausen, Marcion’s rejection of the Jewish scriptures because of his understood tension between law and gospel necessitated the formation of a new set of writings. His adoption of the “Gospel and Apostle” format eventually influenced the shape of the Christian Canon as it began to influence the sources accepted as authoritative by the proto-orthodox. Continue reading
Adolf von Harnack
The great Adolph von Harnack was a forerunner in both general canonical studies as well as specific considerations of Marcion, with his works setting the tone for the years of scholarship since. His fullest treatment of Marcion came in Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, in which he not only treated Marcion’s theology and offered a reconstruction of Marcion’s writings, but also argued that Marcion’s canon became the originator of the later canon of the Great Church. Arguing that Marcion was influenced by the syncretism of an early Christianity formed between the influences of Greek philosophy, Jewish scriptures, Judaism, Greco-Roman syncretism, Jesus’ disciples, and the apostle Paul, Harnack understood Marcion to proclaim God as an alien force at work leading the world out of the oppression of the creator god.  For Marcion, the “Christian concept of God must therefore be stated exclusively and without remainder in terms of the redemption wrought by Christ. Thus God may not and cannot be anything other than the God in the sense of merciful and redeeming love.” Marcion’s novel idea was his rejection of the Jewish scriptures, where the alien nature of the true God was not found, and the implementation of the new books of the gospel and Paul against the old writings. Because the Jewish god could not be understood as the God of Jesus, Marcion concluded that there the writings of Paul included elements of Judaism, they must have been corrupted, as had at least one narrative account of Jesus’ life. Continue reading
The history of the modern interpretation of Marcion has been — not surprisingly — closely linked with general canonical research. In canonical studies in particular, there has been the tendency to form of schools of thought which have been handed down through successive generations of scholars. Regarding Marcion’s influence on the canon, three primary schools of thought have emerged: Canon Formation, Canon and Literature Formation, and Canon Refinement. Over the course of the next several weeks, Pursuing Veritas will consider the argument of each of these perspectives in turn, followed by Marcion’s views on scripture, canon, and authority as conveyed by that particular school. But first, some explanation as to what each of these schools believes about Marcion’s influence on the formation of the New Testament Canon. Continue reading
The New Testament (NT) writings were read in churches early on (Col 4:16), but were not generally called “scripture” until the end of the second century C.E., despite being used that way earlier. Ancient texts always functioned as scripture before they were called scripture. Only one New Testament author makes the claim that what he wrote was equivalent to sacred scripture (Rev 22:18-19; compare with Deut 4:2).
By the middle of the second century C.E., Justin Martyr (1 Apology 64-67) noted that the Gospels were read alongside of and occasionally instead of the “prophets” (Old Testament books). When New Testament writings were read in church worship, or served as an authority in matters of faith and conduct this was a first step in acknowledging the sacredness of the NT writings. The first writings acknowledged as scripture included the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John and some Pauline letters. Not all New Testament writings were called scripture at the same time or place. Irenaeus of Lyon was among the first to make explicit statements about the scriptural status of the canonical Gospels; however several others took much longer to be recognized, notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.
Initially, early Christians also appear to have accepted other Christian writings as scripture. Some of the most popular Christian writings not included in the canon include Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and others that were read in churches well into the fourth and fifth centuries and in some cases even later.
Finally, decisions made about the sacredness of the church’s scriptures did not take place universally at the same time or location. One church father’s decision does not mean that all church leaders came to the same conclusions at the same time. By the fourth century C.E., most Christians had accepted most of the NT writings, but canon lists varied well into the eighth or ninth centuries.
Questions concerning the Bible have long surrounded the Christian Faith. What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Who wrote the books that are in Bible? Can we trust that fallible human beings wrote and chose the correct books for canonization? Occasionally, scholars will doubt the historical veracity of Christian Bible based upon its “late” creation, years after the events it purports to recount took place. An important part of understanding the historicity and reliability of the Christian Bible involves understanding the formation of the New Testament, as understanding this history of canonization shed light on the contents and context of the Christian Bible more broadly. Continue reading
Here at the end of our two week examination of New Testament canon formation, what can we conclude? Remembering the distinction between a “formal canon” (an authoritative list of books) and a “practical canon” (a list of authoritative books), we note several important conclusions. First, very early on (if not immediately) the words of Jesus were viewed by his followers as authoritative and equal, if not greater, in status to the Jewish scriptures. This should not be entirely surprising, of course, given the fact that scholars sometimes seem to forget, namely that followers of Jesus followed Jesus. Second, the use of the New Testament writings began very early in the history of Christianity in writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The earliest non-canonical writings of the Christian faith demonstrate reliance upon those writings now included in the New Testament canon. Third, there was a progression of the status of the writings now in the New Testament from the time of Apostolic Fathers to the third century, demonstrating the continuity and development of a “New Testament” tradition among followers of Jesus Christ across the Roman Empire. Continue reading
We now turn to an examination of canonical lists, an important step on the road to formal canonization. The importance of the core scriptures increased throughout the second and third centuries and were in due course joined in prestige and use by the rest of the books of the New Testament by the third century. Outside of these works were the “fringe” writings, including those of the Apostolic Fathers. Around this time the process of formal canonization began with the creation of lists of books that were permissible for Christians to use. The exact timing of formal canonization varies amongst scholar; Barton and others postulate that a ‘Pauline canon’ was likely in circulation among churches by the end of the first century. Our earliest lists of canonical books that are clearly datable are from Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (ca. 303-325 CE), which includes the threefold division of canonical, non-canonical, and fringe books; Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures (ca. 350); and Athanasius in his Festal Letter Thirty-Nine (ca. 367), which also includes the threefold division of books and includes in the canonical division the New Testament books exactly as we have them today.Towards the middle to end of the fourth century numerous canonical lists began appearing within the Church, placing an increased importance on earlier lists such as those mentioned above. Continue reading