The question “How did we get the New Testament?” continues to underlie many contemporary theological issues, for rarely do we discuss the social concerns of our day without recourse to the words of Jesus, the Biblical narrative, or history of Christianity. Understanding the history of the New Testament, then, may not only demonstrate the integrity of the New Testament but may also include ramifications for how to understand the entire Bible-worldview more holistically and accurately. Whether you are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical, understanding how the New Testament came into being perseveres as an important foundation for Christian faith today. In this vein, Stanley E. Porter has written How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 222pgs.), a guide to how the Christian New Testament came into existence and how understanding this process can enliven contemporary expressions of Christianity. Continue reading
Common to the perspectives of Knox, Tyson, and Price is that Marcion not only formed the notion of a Christian canon, but also influenced the writing of the canonical Luke-Acts and conceptions of Christian scriptures. For this school especially, Marcion’s views on scripture, canon and authority are understood to be paradigmatic for later Christianity. Concerning scripture, Price argues that Marcion was the first to conceive of specifically Christian writings. While Knox and Tyson do not take Marcion’s influence nearly that far, they argue that Marcion not only gave rise to the idea of the Christian canon, and impacted the understood authority of written texts, especially the various versions of Luke-Acts. As with the Canon Formation School, the scholars conceive of Marcion’s views of scripture and authority as seeking to demonstrate and preserve that which is unique about the person and work of Jesus Christ. For the Canon and Literature Formation School, it remains clear that Marcion’s desire was to reinforce the uniqueness of the Christian message in a paradigmatic fashion. Continue reading
Following Knox’s perspective is Joseph Tyson’s work Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle, in which Tyson argues argues for a late compositional dating of Luke-Acts as a response to Marcion during the period from 100 to 150 CE. Tyson understands Marcion to have presented an enormous problem for the church with his rejection of the Jewish Scriptures, and that writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian were pressed into finding symbolic or allegorical representations of Christ in those scriptures whilst simultaneously using the gospel narratives to present him as something unique. Pauline writings and theology became especially problematic for use by the proto-orthodox, as they constituted the core of Marcion’s theological system, and thus the proto-orthodox created Luke-Acts to combat the challenge of Marcionite Christianity. Tyson thus argues for three distinct versions of the Gospel According to Luke: the pre-Marcionite gospel of roughly canonical Luke 3-23, the Marcionite Gospel which likely included the pre-Marcionite version with some significant omissions and minor changes, and the canonical edition with added prologue, infancy narratives, a re-writing the resurrection, and addition of post-resurrection scenes. This proto-orthodox version of Luke-Acts became the primary anti-Marcionite tool in the early church, eventually becoming formally canonized. Tyson, following Knox, argues that both Marcion and the editor of Luke-Acts used a primitive form of Luke’s gospel. Such actions on the part of proto-orthodox writers demonstrate not only Marcion’s unique position of canon formation, but also how his use on new Christian scripture influenced the great Christian community. Continue reading
We now turn to the Canon and Literature Formation school, which understands Marcion not only to have been formed the notion of a Christian canon, but also to have influenced the major redaction and writing of texts now found in the Christian New Testament. The first major proponent of this view was John Knox in his work Marcion and the New Testament. Knox affirmed Harnack’s argument that Marcion’s canon was the first distinctly Christian canon, writing that only with the closing of a canon is a canon really formed and thus once Marcion had adopted his “Gospel and Apostle” model and closed his canon, he had made for the first time Christian writings scripture. Knox also agreed with Von Campenhausen’s understanding of Marcion’s “Gospel and Apostle” distinctiveness. But the Canon Formation School understood Marcion’s version of Luke to be a redacted version of our current Luke, Knox argued that Marcion edited a primitive form of Luke’s Gospel. Concerning the relationship between the canonical Luke and Marcion’s Luke, Knox wrote that there would be “a primitive Gospel, containing approximately the same Markan and Matthean elements which our Luke contains and some of its peculiar materials, was somewhat shortened by Marcion or some predecessor and rather considerably enlarged by the writer of our Gospel, who was also the maker of Luke-Acts.” 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
Use of the term “canon” has long been subject to debate within the study of early Christianity, as scholars often discuss precisely when the Christian New Testament canon came into existence. Among modern scholars three primary perspectives have emerged as to the meaning of canon. This post outlines these schools of thought. 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.