Monday, June 01, 2009

Hostile Corroboration Of The New Testament Canon


CNT = Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

DWT = Michael Slusser, ed., Dialogue With Trypho (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003)

HVS = Craig Allert, A High View Of Scripture? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007)

JAE = Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006)

OCC = Henry Chadwick, ed., Origen: Contra Celsum (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

TCD = Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)

WHO = John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook To Origen (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)

Francois Bovon made an observation about an aspect of the development of the New Testament canon that's often underestimated. "Clearly there was interaction between the Christians, Jews, and pagans with regard to their sacred texts." (TCD, 516) A lot of attention is given, and rightly so, to the interaction of Christians with each other on canonical issues, such as their discussions with each other about whether Hebrews is canonical and who wrote Revelation. Much less attention is given to the influence of heretics on the canon, which is understandable given the larger numbers and higher credibility of the orthodox. Despite the lesser significance of heretical sources, for reasons like the ones I just mentioned, I think the influence of heretics on the canon hasn't been given the attention it ought to receive. And the influence of those who didn't even profess to be Christians, the "Jews and pagans" Bovon refers to, is even more neglected.

Hostile corroboration carries a lot of weight. Scholars rightly note the significance of early non-Christian acknowledgement of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and His empty tomb, for example. But modern critics of Christianity have an interest in ignoring or downplaying such evidence.

Non-Christians had access to the New Testament documents from the earliest generations of Christianity, and their possession and use of those documents is reflected in many places. Gnostics and other heretics of the early to late second century possessed New Testament documents and wrote about them (CNT, 75-106). Trypho, a Jewish opponent of Justin Martyr, comments that he's read one or more of the gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 10). Aristides expects non-Christians to have access to a gospel he cites (Apology, 2). According to Craig Allert, the Talmud seems to refer to Jewish use of the book of Hebrews around the year 135 (HVS, n. 45 on 53). Celsus and his Jewish source are familiar with New Testament documents (Origen, Against Celsus, 2:13). Theophilus of Antioch expects non-Christians to be able to read the New Testament documents and encourages them to do so (To Autolycus, 3:15). Tertullian encourages non-Christians to "examine our sacred books, which we do not keep in hiding, and which many accidents put into the hands of those who are not of us" (Apology, 31).

And the early Christians were interested in reading non-Christian sources and interacting with enemies of the faith, as we see in so many places in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, the apologists of the second century, Origen's reply to Celsus, etc. Justin Martyr is familiar with many Jewish responses to Christianity and "shows acquaintance with rabbinical discussions" (DWT, n. 9 on 33). Bruce Metzger makes some comments about Clement of Alexandria that could largely be said of some other early Christians as well:

"The writings of Clement disclose the amazingly broad scope of his knowledge of both classical and Biblical literature. On page after page of his treatises we find copious citations of all kinds of literature. According to Stahlin's tabulation, Clement cites some 359 classical and other non-Christian writers, 70 Biblical writings (including Old Testament apocrypha), and 36 patristic and New Testament apocryphal writings, including those of heretics. The total number of citations amounts to about 8,000, more than a third of which come from pagan writers." (CNT, 131)

Henry Chadwick wrote:

"In the contra Celsum Origen does not merely vindicate the character of Jesus and the credibility of the Christian tradition; he also shows that Christians can be so far from being irrational and credulous illiterates such as Celsus thinks them to be that they may know more about Greek philosophy than the pagan Celsus himself, and can make intelligent use of it to interpret the doctrines of the Church. In the range of his learning he towers above his pagan adversary, handling the traditional arguments of Academy and Stoa with masterly ease and fluency." (OCC, xii)

John McGuckin notes that Origen "consulted on several occasions with famous rabbis...Talmudic texts also have Origen in discussion with the Caesarean Jewish scholar Hoschaia Rabba." (WHO, n. 62 on 11) Elsewhere, McGuckin refers to "the apologetic exchanges between the Christian and Jewish scholars of the respective Caesarean schools" (WHO, 27).

The early Christians were in frequent and deep interaction with the world around them. If the gospels circulated anonymously for several decades, 2 Peter wasn't written until several decades after Peter's death, or other theories advocated by modern critics were true, many non-Christian sources would have been in a good position to know such things and to use that information against Christianity. It's reasonable to think that the early enemies of Christianity may have not noticed, or had little concern about, documents like Philemon and 3 John. And some of them may have been careless in their evaluation of Christianity in some contexts, allowing Christians to make false claims that they ought to have known to be false. But the more often modern critics of Christianity suggest that such scenarios occurred, the less credible their theories become. The modern critic who wants us to believe that something like fifteen or eighteen or more of the New Testament documents were attributed to the wrong author isn't just suggesting some minor oversights on the part of Christianity's enemies or an occasional major mistake. Rather, he's suggesting a long series of errors, often major errors, on the part of both the early Christians and their enemies on subjects they were in a good position to judge.

We know that the early enemies of Christianity were concerned about matters like Biblical authorship. The early Christians made much of the significance of eyewitness testimony, for instance, as did the surrounding culture of their day, and the New Testament documents often claim to be eyewitness testimony in some form. Porphyry's efforts in arguing against the traditional authorship attribution of the book of Daniel are a reflection of what we could see with the New Testament documents. One of the most significant indications of how the early opponents of Christianity viewed the authorship attributions of the New Testament documents is the lack of interaction with arguments against those attributions. The early Christians widely interacted with Porphyry's arguments against Daniel, and they interacted with other Christians and some heretics who questioned the authorship of New Testament books, like Revelation, but it seems that the authorship attributions of the large majority of the books of the New Testament were disputed little or not at all.

I've discussed corroboration of New Testament authorship from non-Christian sources in the past, such as here. For the purposes of this post, I'll give several examples of that sort of corroboration.

Bruce Metzger wrote:

"The Gnostics acknowledged this [that Gnosticism wasn't found in the New Testament documents], but asserted that such teachings had not been communicated by the Lord to the general public, but only to his most trusted disciples....The Gnostics also produced other texts in which the apostles report what the Lord had secretly communicated to them....Alongside such 'secret' traditions the Gnostics would, naturally, also know and even utilize the books received by the Church, while interpreting them in their own special manner." (CNT, 77-78)

Harry Gamble writes:

"This means that what was at stake between gnostic and non-gnostic Christians was not principally which books were authoritative, but rather how the scriptures were to be rightly interpreted. In point of fact, gnostic Christians employed virtually all the books that were used in the church at large. The difference lay not in the documents, but in different hermeneutical programs." (TCD, 293)

As Pheme Perkins notes:

"No claim to apostolic teaching could be credible without evoking the authoritative, publicly available text." (TCD, 360)

Irenaeus tells us that some heretics rejected some New Testament documents (Against Heresies, 3:11:7), but that most "do certainly recognise the Scriptures; but they pervert the interpretations" (Against Heresies, 3:12:12). From what we know of the Gnostics and other early heretics, from their own writings and from sources like Irenaeus, their beliefs are contradicted by the New Testament documents. The fact that they would think they needed to accept those documents anyway, but apply implausible interpretations to them and add their own documents and alleged secret traditions, reflects well on the New Testament. Irenaeus makes much of such hostile corroboration in his treatise Against Heresies, and he was right to do so. When the Gnostics and other heretics have to accept the New Testament documents, implausibly reinterpret them, and appeal to alleged secret traditions to make their position seem more credible, while mainstream Christians can appeal to the public teachings of the apostles rather than their alleged private teachings, that's a stark contrast. It's not difficult to judge which side is more credible.

Ptolemy, a heretic who lived around the early to mid second century, refers to the fourth gospel as written by "John, the disciple of the Lord" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:8:5). Elsewhere, he refers to the gospel as written by "the apostle".

According to Origen (Commentary On John, 6:2), Heracleon, a heretic of the second century, referred to the fourth gospel as written by "the disciple". Origen had the apostle John in mind, and he makes no suggestion that Heracleon disputed that attribution.

Richard Bauckham writes:

"Other second-century writers who call the author of John's Gospel an apostle are the Valentinian teachers Ptolemy (Letter to Flora, apud Epiphanius, Panarion 33.3.6) and Theodotus (apud Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto 7.3; 35.1; 41.3)." (JAE, n. 96 on 466)

Bauckham also discusses some corroboration of Matthew's authorship of the first gospel in The Gospel Of Thomas:

"Matthew would be one of the most obscure of the Twelve had not a Gospel been attributed to him. The saying in the Gospel of Thomas [13] must presuppose the existence of Matthew's Gospel and its attribution to Matthew. By citing Matthew's view of Jesus it is deliberately denigrating the Gospel of Matthew and upholding the superiority of the Gospel of Thomas with its sayings derived from Thomas. This is confirmed by the fact that Matthew's description of Jesus as 'like a wise philosopher' is quite appropriate as a reference to Matthew's Gospel. In no other Gospel is Jesus' ethical teaching as prominent as it is in Matthew's. In the ancient world ethics was the domain of philosophers, and an ethical teacher like the Jesus of Matthew could well be described as 'a wise philosopher.' The Gospel of Thomas itself is only minimally concerned with ethics. If Matthew in this passage represents Matthew's Gospel, then it becomes highly likely that Peter represents Mark's Gospel....[other scholars] think that, by referring to Matthew and Peter, the Gospel of Thomas intends reference to the figure of Peter in Matthew's Gospel, especially to Matt 16:16-19." (JAE, 236-237 and n. 102 on 237)

According to Tertullian, Marcion (a heretic who was active around the middle of the second century) used Galatians as an argument against the gospels he rejected (Matthew, Mark, and John), since the apostles behind those gospels allegedly were condemned by Paul. Notice that Marcion's argument assumes the correctness of the authorship attributions of those gospels:

"But Marcion has got hold of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, in which he rebukes even the apostles themselves for not walking uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, and accuses also certain false apostles of perverting the gospel of Christ: and on this ground Marcion strives hard to overthrow the credit of those gospels which are the apostles' own and are published under their names, or even the names of apostolic men, with the intention no doubt of conferring on his own gospel the repute which he takes away from those others." (Against Marcion, 4:3)

As we see in Origen's response to Celsus, a second-century pagan critic of Christianity who relied on Jewish sources for some of his information, pagans and Jews of the second and third centuries viewed the gospels as written by the disciples of Jesus. Celsus referred to the gospels as written by "the disciples" (Against Celsus, 2:13-16). The phrase "the disciples" is more naturally taken as a reference to the apostles, not disciples in a more general sense. Origen, who had a copy of Celsus' treatise, interprets him that way, and he nowhere has to interact with an argument from Celsus against the traditional authorship attributions.

Concerning the Jewish opponents of Christianity in his day, Origen writes:

"For they [non-Christian Jews] will not maintain that the acquaintances and pupils of Jesus Himself handed down His teaching contained in the Gospels without committing it to writing, and left His disciples without the memoirs of Jesus contained in their works." (Against Celsus, 2:13)

We can conclude, with the historian Philip Schaff:

"In view of all these admissions we may here, with Lardner, apply Samson’s riddle: 'Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.'" (History Of The Christian Church, 2:3:32)

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