Sunday, May 28, 2006

Skeptical Distortions Of The Canon

Dagood continues to make a lot of misleading comments about the canon. I'm not going to address every claim he makes. I don't have the time or desire to do it, and he isn't showing much concern for accuracy. Once you correct one of his posts, he moves on to a new post with a new series of arguments, without making much effort to be more reasonable. However, I do think that addressing some of his latest claims should be helpful to other people who read this blog.

Dagood asks how we know who is and isn't an apostle, for example. He asks how we know that there aren't apostles alive today. While it's true that the term "apostle" is used in more than one sense in the New Testament, just like other words in any language will be used in different senses in different contexts, the term isn't as flexible as Dagood suggests.

Some of the figures who are called apostles are described as having to meet requirements that nobody living today could meet (Acts 1:21-22, 1 Corinthians 9:1). They're also described as having characteristics that people today don't have (John 14:26, 15:27, 16:13). Regardless of whether we call these people "apostles" or something else, the fact remains that their role is different from the role of anybody in the modern church.

Dagood tells us that people today could have visions of Jesus like the ones Paul had, but visions don't determine apostleship. We accept Paul's apostleship because he was a witness of the resurrected Christ and because the apostles authorized by Jesus accepted Paul's apostleship. We don't accept Paul's apostleship because he had visions.

The resurrection appearances of Jesus, which weren't just visions, came to an end. That's why Paul can speak of himself as the last witness (1 Corinthians 15:8). That's why Paul has authority over Timothy and instructs Timothy to maintain the teachings he received, not add to them (2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2). Timothy and the other church leaders he was to oversee didn't have the authority Paul had. That's why men like Clement of Rome and Ignatius refer to apostolic authority as something in the past, refer to themselves as having less authority than the apostles, and treat their own writings differently than the apostolic documents (see, for example, Clement of Rome, First Clement, 42; Ignatius, Letter To The Romans, 4; Papias, in Eusebius' Church History, 3:39:3-4; Polycarp, Letter To The Philippians, 6; The Epistle Of Barnabas, 5). The apostles were the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), and a foundation isn't laid twice. Similarly, Jesus remains the cornerstone without having to be replaced with a new cornerstone in every generation. The New Testament documents refer to men like Peter and Paul having authority that future generations wouldn't have, and we find widespread agreement among the earliest post-apostolic sources regarding the closing of the apostolic age and the uniqueness of the authority of those first century apostles.

To suggest that the foundational role of these apostles is doubtful, because the term "apostle" is applied to other figures as well, would be unreasonable. Whatever may be unanswered or unclear about apostolic authority, there are other elements of apostolic authority that are addressed and are clear. Among those clear conclusions are the fact that men like Peter, John, and Paul were apostles in the highest sense and the fact that nobody living since their time has had comparable authority. Complaining that other elements of apostolic authority aren't addressed or aren't clear doesn't present a significant problem for Christianity.

Dagood makes a series of claims about how documents like The Shepherd Of Hermas and The Gospel Of Peter were accepted as canonical in the early church. He offers no documentation. We need to be careful here, because some of the patristic writers would refer to documents as inspired without intending to suggest canonicity, much as we today might refer to music or a piece of literature as inspired in some secondary sense. Clement of Alexandria, for example, is often cited as including various books in his canon because he refers to those books as inspired in some sense. See, for example, the discussion in Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000), pp. 15-19.

Sources like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who wrote before Clement of Alexandria, tell us that our collection of four gospels was already long established in the church. The suggestion that Clement of Alexandria intended to add the Gospel Of Peter or the Gospel Of The Hebrews to the other four gospels is highly dubious. As Hengel observes:

"the knowledge of a widely recognized collection of the four Gospels which is used in worship is certainly substantially older than Irenaeus...Clement [of Alexandria] took it for granted that the collection of four Gospels was based on recognized church tradition and was unchallenged, since he does not have to defend it anywhere....Clement's relative generosity towards 'apocryphal' texts and traditions, which is connected with the unique spiritual milieu in Alexandria and his constant controversies with many kinds of discussion partners to whom he wants to present the true apostolic 'gnosis' of the Gospel, should not obscure the fact that even for him the apostolic origin and special church authority of the four Gospels was already unassailable. On this point, for all the differences there is no fundamental opposition between him and Irenaeus....We might also say that precisely because the unique authority of the four Gospels was indispensable for him [Clement of Alexandria], he could sometimes bring himself also to use 'apocryphal' texts which helped him in his argument, indeed turning the very texts of the 'heretics' against them, as is evident from the example of the Gospel of the Egyptians. Thus Clement is not arguing from a position of uncertainty but rather from one of strength." (pp. 14, 16, 18-19)

One of the points Hengel makes is that Clement of Alexandria is often careless in his use of scripture, meaning that he sometimes misquotes passages from memory, and he may have sometimes misremembered where a quote came from. Hengel also points out that Clement discusses the gospels in book 6 of his Hypotyposes, and Clement only mentions our four gospels. The Gospel Of Peter isn't included, nor is the Gospel Of The Hebrews. Hengel further notes that, in book 3 of his Stromata, Clement specifically refers to the number of gospels as four. Hengel explains that Clement would sometimes speak of documents as authoritative if he was addressing a group of people who considered that document authoritative, even if Clement himself didn't accept the document in the same way. To cite Clement of Alexandria as evidence that the Gospel Of Peter "was accepted as an apostolic teaching up until at least 200 CE", as Dagood puts it, would be misleading, and it's misleading for Dagood to cite Clement supporting the Gospel Of The Hebrews.

Dagood asks how we know where to draw the line in terms of what evidence to accept for or against the canonicity of a book. But the same question could be asked about the authorship of any historical document or the canon of any author's writings. How do we know where to draw the line with Tacitus' writings, for example? If somebody living 80 years after Tacitus tells us that Tacitus wrote the Annals, how do we know that 80 years is early enough? What if another source comments on Tacitus' authorship 120 years after Tacitus' death? Where do we draw the line? It's like asking when a pile of marbles becomes a large pile. Different people may define "large" in different ways. But do we give up using a term like "large", just because some uncertainties are involved? No. People may disagree about whether a pile becomes large after 50 marbles, 70 marbles, or some other number, but that disagreement probably won't keep most of us from agreeing that a pile of several million marbles is large. The existence of some uncertainties and some space for subjective judgments in our evaluation of the canon doesn't change the fact that many clearer and more objective factors are involved.

Dagood's objections could be applied to historical research in general, not just the issue of the Christian canon of scripture. Yet, historians are able to reach reliable historical conclusions, despite the involvement of factors like the ones Dagood has mentioned.

As I said earlier, Dagood makes some questionable or false claims without offering any documentation, but he is right about some early sources including books in their canon that Christians reject today. Dagood doesn't put that fact in a proper context, though. If a book is considered canonical by only one or two sources, whereas another book is considered canonical by every church around the world or the large majority of churches, it doesn't make sense to put the two books in the same category. And since we can read some of these documents for ourselves, we also have internal evidence to go by. We can read a document like The Shepherd Of Hermas for ourselves and see many indications that it was written after the time of the apostles and contradicts apostolic teaching.

Dagood ignores one of our most important sources on the canon, Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius lived and wrote in the late third and early fourth centuries. He tells us a lot about the canon. And we know that Eusebius wasn't just going by what the churches of his day believed. He repeatedly mentions that he's making his canonical judgments based both on what the churches of his day report and what sources of previous generations said. We know that Eusebius possessed many documents that are no longer extant, such as the writings of Papias, Quadratus, and Dionysius of Corinth. Thus, Eusebius was in a good position to assess the relevant evidence. What he tells us runs contrary to the assertions and suggestions of people like Dagood.

Eusebius explains that the large majority of our 27-book New Testament canon was undisputed. And the books that were disputed were accepted by the majority. Books like the Shepherd Of Hermas and the Gospel Of Peter are in another category. Dagood gives us examples of a book being accepted or rejected by one author, but Eusebius is reporting on multiple generations of testimony from all over the Christian world.

We also have some relevant evidence from non-Christian sources. We know that Christian documents were available to and read by the early enemies of Christianity, partly because sources like Aristides and Justin Martyr tell us so. I'm not aware of any early non-Christian source raising any significant objections to our 27-book canon. If a book like 2 Timothy was written 30 years after Paul had died, or 2 Peter was written 60 or 80 years after Peter's death, doesn't it seem unlikely that not only the Christian world, but also the early enemies of Christianity, would fail to take notice or would take notice without making much of an issue out of it?

I mentioned that most of the New Testament books were universally or almost universally accepted. For the sake of argument, let's temporarily limit ourselves to those books. I think that a good case can be made for disputed books like Hebrews and 2 Peter. But let's exclude those briefly, for the sake of argument. We would still have the entire Old Testament and 20 books of the New Testament. In other words, even if we were to limit ourselves to a higher standard for canonicity (universal or nearly universal acceptance of a book among the early sources), we would still have the large majority of our canon.

And the small minority of the canon that's disputed has been disputed for reasons that aren't too difficult to overcome. The book of Revelation, for example, has strong early evidence in its favor, but was disputed later. The later dispute doesn't overturn the high quality of the early evidence supporting the book. Thus, saying that Revelation was a disputed book is, in a sense, misleading. Similarly, the lack of early evidence for the second and third epistles of John isn't of much significance, given the shortness of those documents and the unoriginality of their content. I could give other examples, but the point is that even the more disputed books of the New Testament are credible.

If Dagood would give a proper place to factors such as the ones I've discussed in this article, his conclusions would have to be significantly altered. The same is true of other articles he's written. He takes a few elements of truth, mixes them with a lot of errors, misleading language, and ambiguities. Once he's been corrected, he moves on to another post and repeats the process, apparently not having learned much.

In closing, I would recommend that people read Glenn Miller's article on pseudonymity. As Miller demonstrates, determining the origins of a document wasn't just an issue for the ancient Christians, but for the ancient world in general, and many methods were undertaken to weed out the spurious from the genuine. Mentioning that documents like The Shepherd Of Hermas and the Gospel Of Peter existed, and mentioning that such documents were accepted by some people, doesn't change the fact that most people rejected those documents. It also doesn't change the fact that the ancient world knew about the dangers of false document attribution and took many significant steps to verify what they accepted.

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