Thursday, September 27, 2012

It’s rare in my blog that I deal with theological issues of the day, controversy in the blogosphere, or try to create controversy. The whole point of this blog is to present and to practice biblical scholarship from the position of reasoned reflection, which includes theological and historical reflection. Sober reflection might not drive page views as well as well as throwing rhetorical raw meat to the lions, but what matters is approaching the truth of a matter to the best of my ability. Yesterday I ran across a post titled Did the Authors of the New Testament Know They Were Writing Scripture?” by Jimmy Akin. He argues that the New Testament authors must have known they were writing Scripture when they composed the various books that comprise the New Testament.  He states, after examining the following documents, that “we have good evidence that the authors of Revelation, the Gospels, and Acts knew they were writing Scripture.” He does not examine the Epistles in this post – that is coming – but it is hard to see him coming to another conclusion, especially in light of 2 Peter 3:15-16.

Writing Scripture?
None of his arguments, though, are persuasive and they all involve a number of incomplete theses, partially understood conceptions and poorly defined terms. As to what is at stake in making these arguments, I do not know, but he is proposing a solution to a problem which does not exist. He begins by saying that to the question of whether the New Testament authors knew they were writing Scripture,

I am not certain why “you would think that the answer would be an easy yes,” since the designation of whether an early Christian document was Scripture is not made by an author of a text, but by the Church over a long period of time in which texts were used in Church, accepted or rejected. The process by which a text was recognized as Scripture was indeed a process in which the regular use of the document in Church lead to its final recognition as a part of the inspired trove of documents known as The New Testament. Such final recognition is often attributed to the list of documents found in St. Athanasius’ Easter  letter of 367 A.D., though Irenaeus and the Muratorian fragment (amongst others) give us a clear sense that most of the NT documents were in use in the Churches at a much earlier date. But that’s the point: it was a process! And some documents accepted by the Church went through a process of rejection and then acceptance, while others documents were in regular use for some time and then rejected.  Authors of all of the New Testament texts were already dead by the time an “official” New Testament was accepted, which for Catholics was only dogmatically defined at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, so why would we think that the authors of such texts would know they were writing Scripture?

Perhaps this gets to Akin’s understanding of what constitutes Scripture or what he means by Scripture. I cite him in full on this issue:

“Today we often think of a particular book as Scripture based on whether it is in the Bible. If it is in the Bible, it's Scripture. If it's not in the Bible, it's not Scripture.

This may be a practical test for us today, but it's not the way the New Testament authors thought of Scripture. Back when they lived, there was no book called "the Bible." Instead, there were a collection of books, which were originally written on scrolls, that they thought of as Scripture.
Only the invention of new forms of publishing technology allowed these to be put together as the single volume that we now call "the Bible."

Also back in the day--their day--the canon of Scripture was not yet completed, which means that it was still open. There was no closed canon, and so they also couldn't use the test "Is it one of the books of the (closed) canon?"

If you can't define what Scripture is by relating it to "what's in the Bible?" or "what's in the canon?" how can you define it?

The answer that the first Christians would have given if they had been asked "What is Scripture?" would probably have involved these concepts:

  • A book of Scripture is a sacred book.
  • A book of Scripture is an divinely authoritative book.
  • A book of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

These provide important clues to whether the authors of the New Testament thought they were writing Scripture. Before we apply them, though, we should look at another way of approaching the issue . . .”

I agree with Akin that as far as we know the canon of biblical books was not closed by the Jews, at least not until a couple of centuries into the Christian era, but it is disingenuous to suggest that at the time of the early Christians the question of what constituted Scripture was completely open either. The books of the Torah were universally acknowledged as divinely inspired and authoritative, as were most of the prophetic books and the writings. There were discussions about some of these books, and also different versions of some of these books (especially in the Septuagint, known as the LXX), but the very fact that there is a LXX Greek version indicates the basic boundaries of what might be considered Scripture: those Hebrew texts which were translated into Greek! And that translation took place some 200 years before the birth of Christ!

For the vast majority of Jews Scripture would not have been considered what you or your friend were writing.  Acceptance and use in the Temple and Synagogue would have mattered. The antiquity of the writings did matter. Keep in mind that the latest book that Jews accept as a part of the Tanak is Daniel, thought to be written in the mid-2nd century B.C. It is true that some of the rabbinic writings, gathered up from the oral tradition and the system of commentary of the rabbinic schools, come to have an authoritative status amongst the Jews in the Christian era, but this too was part of an ongoing process, not people suggesting to each other, “what we have here is divinely inspired and authoritative.”

Akin does, indeed, state that “when the New Testament authors quote from the Old Testament, they overwhelmingly (around 80-90% of the time) quote from a particular version of it: the Septuagint. This was a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was used internationally by the Jewish community.” This is true, and points to the fact that they did indeed see a sort of “closed canon” already.  It does not mean that the Hebrew text, upon which the LXX was based and which Jesus and the apostles would have used in Judea, was devalued, only that the Greek speaking and Greek writing Christians of the 1st century were bound to cite the Scriptures in Greek.

Akin says that because the LXX has foundational books, historical books, prophetic books and wisdom books, if the New Testament has books like these it must mean that the NT authors were self-consciously modeling themselves on the LXX and so self-consciously writing Scripture . (It should be added that the LXX has these sorts of books because the Hebrew has these, it is not unique to the Greek translation.) He says, “it’s not unreasonable to think that if we find the New Testament authors writing books of these types then they would have seen themselves as writing Scripture.” It might not be unreasonable, but it is a huge stretch of the imagination to go from saying “the OT has historical books” to “any author writing about the history of Christianity thought he was writing Scripture.” This is a massive jump across many presuppositions. There is nothing like the Gospels in the OT, unless any story about any prophet or king in the OT is seen as a type of Gospel. This drains the term “Gospel” of any meaning.  So, yes, it is unreasonable to assume that because a Christian was writing an “historical” book or a “prophetic” book they thought they were writing Scripture. By that score, Jude thought he was writing a non-canonical apocalypse because he cites 1 Enoch in Jude 15.

Did John Think Revelation was Scripture?
Why did John, the author of Revelation think he was writing Scripture according to Akin? “This one is so obvious that it's blinding. The book of Revelation presents itself as a prophetic revelation like the prophetic books of the Old Testament, whose imagery and language it frequently uses. How could John not think he was writing Scripture?” I would say because we do not know that he was thinking in terms of writing Scripture. That does not mean what he was writing was not considered authoritative, but many apocalypses, the genre to which John’s Revelation belongs, were written which were not considered authoritative ultimately, such as 1 Enoch or 2 Baruch. Even more significantly, the Christian apocalypse Shepherd of Hermas presents itself as a prophetic vision and was accepted and read in the Church for a long period of time. Did he think he was writing Scripture? According to the Muratorian fragment, the Shepherd of Hermas could be read in Church, but it was not apostolic. One the other hand, the Apocalypse of Peter was accepted in the early Church, at least at first. It too presents itself as a genuine prophetic vision. What seems so obvious truly is not, unless the authors of all these other Christian apocalypses also thought they were writing Scripture and were not. Remember too that prophecy was practiced by many early Christians in the Church and considered inspired (1 Corinthians 12:28; 14:1-5, 24, 29-32), but this does not mean that every prophecy, even if written down, would have been considered Scripture.
Did the Gospel Authors Think They Were Writing Scripture?
Apparently, “also easy are the Gospels. They belong to the class of foundational books, just like the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) does in the Old Testament.” They are indeed foundational for early Christians, but that does not indicate their authors thought they were writing Scripture. The earliest purposes of the Gospels is not exactly clear, but certainly preserving the story of Jesus and liturgical reading must have been amongst them. Yet these purposes do not indicate that the authors – if there was only one for any of the Gospels – thought what they were writing was Scripture. Luke refers to other Gospels for instance at the beginning of Luke (1:1-4) and says that he is going to give an accurate and an historic account of Jesus’ life  which indicates that he feels at least something is missing from earlier attempts to tell Jesus’ story.  Luke sees himself as augmenting those who came before, which indicates he does not think they have fulfilled the task completely. Akin says that “anyone writing a Gospel to be read in the churches had to have the idea that he was writing Scripture,” but this is by no means clear. It would be the Church that would determine what was Scripture, not the author the text. How did the author(s) know that their text would be read in Church at any rate?

When Akin says that 2 Corinthians 8:18-19 shows that Paul is referring to Luke as an author of a Gospel it stretches credulity to the breaking point, even by the standards of internet blogging on the Bible, which is thin already:

In 2 Corinthians 8:18-19, St. Paul writes:
18 And we have sent with [Titus also] the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches;
19 And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind [KJV].

I've quoted this from the King James Version because most modern translations render what verse 18 says dynamically rather than literally.

What Paul literally says is a brother "whose praise is in the gospel" and who, as revealed in verse 19, was a travelling companion of Paul.

Do we know any travelling companions of Paul who wrote a Gospel?
Sure! Luke!

And perhaps that's what he's referring to here. He's sending Luke along with Titus to visit the Corinthians.

Or maybe not.

The verse is ambiguous, and it could mean something else. It could mean, in keeping with modern, dynamic translations, "the brother whose praise is in the service of the gospel" or "in preaching the gospel."

First of all, there is no identification of this person as “Luke.” That is a conjecture that has no basis in the text. Second, Luke’s Gospel is dated after those of Matthew and Mark, and is generally placed in the 80s of the 1st century; this letter is written in the 50’s, 20 to 30 years before Luke’s Gospel is written! Third, the first and primary meaning of “Gospel” (euangelion) is the saving message of Jesus and its proclamation. Given that this letter is written at least 15 years before the first written gospel, it could not refer to “written” Gospel, but must refer to the proclamation of the Gospel message.

Akin has another passage from an Epistle, though, one which Paul may or may not have written: 1 Timothy. Keep in mind, though, that depending on the date which one assigns to 1 Timothy, Luke’s Gospel may not yet have been written yet. That is, if Akin believes that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, as  Paul did 2 Corinthians, then it would be written prior to Luke’s Gospel and could not be referring to a Gospel not yet written. For the sake of argument, though, let's say Luke's Gospel is written. Here is what Akin writes:

Less ambiguous is 1 Timothy 5:17-19, where we read:
[17] Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;
[18] for the scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages."

The command about not muzzling an ox comes from Deuteronomy 25:4, but the statement that the worker deserves his wages is Luke 10:7--the only other place in the Bible this statement appears.

So here we have a direct New Testament reference to Luke as Scripture.
We thus have a consciousness being displayed, in the New Testament age, that Luke--and, by extension, the other Gospels--were Scripture.

So, we are accepting that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul, but is Deutero-Pauline, written somehwere between 80-100 A.D. and Luke’s Gospel was already written. “Scripture” in the Greek in this passage (graphe) is singular and refers only to the first passage from Deuteronomy 25:4 not the second citation from Luke 10:7. But let us put this aside too and grant that both passages are referred to as Scripture. It still does not indicate that Luke himself thought he was writing Scripture but that someone else did!  It does not mean that Luke thought his own writings  are authoritative. This is why canon is so significant. It is the Church which determines its Scripture. As to why this passage would be cited in 1 Timothy if it did not come from Luke? It was a part of the oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, which were authoritative and were passed on both before and after they were written in the Gospels.

Akin’s argument for Acts of the Apostles is as follows: “If Luke thought he was writing Scripture when he wrote his Gospel then he would have thought the same thing when he was writing Acts.” As I have already demonstrated that we do not know from the examples that Akin gives whether Luke himself thinks he is writing Scripture, we can say the same thing about Acts of the Apostles.

Why Does This Even Matter? or Who Cares if the NT Authors Thought They were Writing Scripture? 
What I cannot figure out, I must admit, is why this matters to Akin whether the authors of the NT thought they were writing Scripture or not! The actual creation of the NT canon was guided by the early Church and they chose texts which presented Jesus as they had known him and as the Church taught. The NT does not create the Church, but the Church the NT. Some scholars have argued that the formation of the NT, like the formation of the Gospels themselves, is simply an attempt to “eliminate” or “compromise” opposing definitions of Christianity by a group that is often now called “proto-Orthodox.” They point to other texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, as a counterpoint to the documents preserved in the NT. But the NT was not an attempt to “eliminate” other “Christianities,” it was an attempt to define the teaching and message of Jesus. Some scholars now point to groups such as the Marcionites, or the Gnostics as being Christian groups with as much authority to define the story of Jesus as his own apostles. Well, it is true, that each group did attempt to define Jesus. But I would argue that he “proto-Orthodox” group, as the apostles and the Church are now sometimes referred to, did not “become” the dominant position, but accurately reflected the earliest Church and the teachings of Jesus and their development, and was from the first the “dominant” position. What was at first “canonical” was what Peter, James, and Paul taught “in continuity with what Jesus had proclaimed.”[1] Remember, first there were no texts, but only the Church: Jesus’ apostles and first disciples. The first criterion for inclusion in the NT was this: the texts which were “chosen” had to have some connection with an apostle, even if the Apostle himself did not write the work himself. This is why both Revelation and Hebrews were debated in the early Church: it was not clear if they had a connection to an Apostle (John and Paul respectively).

 The second criterion was as follows: writings were also preserved, approved, and canonized according to their role in the early Churches; this was not an individual choice, but reflected the primacy of the community of believers and worship. Whether an author thought what he wrote was Scripture was not an issue.

There was a third criterion which was also essential for canonization: conformity with the rule of faith, or orthodoxy, also played a role. If a “Gospel” preached many gods or Christ’s “seeming” existence, this was in error with the earliest teachings of the Church. 

The NT canon, it is true, does not comprise all of the early Christian literature. There is literature of many sorts found in the early Christian church:

1)      Some of the material is lost to us, such as some of Paul’s letters to the churches or earlier writings which might have been integrated into our Gospels;
2)      Some material was, and is, considered valuable and significant, but came not to be included in the NT canon because it did not have an apostolic origin; such material would include the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas. This material might be considered perfectly valid for teaching or preaching or studying, but it is not considered apostolic and so not inspired in the same manner as the canonical writings;
3)      Some material, such as the Gnostic Gospels, simply was at odds with what the earliest Church preached and taught about Jesus, and did not meet the criteria to be included in the NT canon.[2]

It is also true that the development of the canon did take time. It took place over time and in history. It also represents different authors and different viewpoints. Diversity of thought is not opposed to Unity, Diversity is opposed to Uniformity, and Unity is opposed to Division. It is possible to be diverse and united; uniformity is not desirable nor is division. This is what sets the early Christians who produced the NT apart from their opponents: some caused division, some sought uniformity, but the early Christians were diverse, but united. Whether the authors thought they were writing Scripture is insignificant because the Church, over a period of time, decided which texts were inspired and worthy of canonical status, long after these authors had died. 


From an Orthodox priest, "How The Scriptures Became The Scriptures" was posted today. I must say that I find it very congenial, since it agrees with what I have to say, but also because I think Fr. Stephen is clear in setting out the issues. Since his piece is not a response, at least not a direct response to another post or article, it is a fluid read.  

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies 

[1] New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1043.
[2] Having said this, I think that the Gospel of Thomas does preserve some early and authentic sayings of Jesus, perhaps taken from the oral tradition.


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