Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Making a map

Catholic apologists generally frame everything in terms of authority. What's your authority for the canon of Scripture? What's your interpretive authority?

Now, there are situations in which that's a legitimate question, but it can't be universal. Is it a general principle that we can't know anything or be justified in what we believe unless we have it on authority?  

What's my authority for knowing that I had a dog when I was a boy? What's my authority for knowing I saw a lunar eclipse? What's my authority for knowing I have blue eyes? 

If you ask me by what authority I believe those things, the answer is zip. I don't have it on good authority. Rather, these are things I simply know–from experience. 

So the demand for authority needs to be more qualified. Otherwise, it backfires. Do we necessarily or even usually need authority to interpret a text? Do Catholics need authority to interpret the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Do they need authority to interpret books by Joseph Ratzinger? Do they need authority to interpret the church fathers? 

To take a comparison, you can't always begin with a map. Someone has to make the map. There has to be a first map. Before the map, someone had to find their way without a map. An explorer may draw the map as he goes along. As he discovers what lies over the next hill, what lies around the next bend, he adds that to the map. The map is a work in progress. 

The NT canon wasn't originally a product of ecclesiastical authority. It didn't begin with a canonical map, but a canonical landscape, as NT writings were produced. The map was drawn from the canonical landscape. 

They had different geographical points of origin or destinations. The first readers shared them with other readers. Readers copied them. So they fanned out from separate points of origin, spreading over the Roman Empire. A steady, unbroken process of dissemination. Regional churches would have local lore about the pedigree of NT letters written to them, or Gospels written when the author was living there. Christians didn't start out with a bunch of books to choose from. Rather, they started with the books of the NT canon.  

Around the mid-2C (give or take), forgeries began to appear. Moreover, as time went on, regional churches far removed from where a NT writing originated, might not know the provenance of the document. So later on a sorting process took place. But that was about excluding pseudepigrapha which began to arise in the 2C. In addition, in the far-flung Roman Empire, not every regional church was privy to the pedigree of a NT writing. But the notion of an evolving canon or evolving canonical consciousness has it backwards. The NT canon evolved in the sense that NT documents were written at different times, so it was incremental. But the period of composition shouldn't be confounded with the notion that the NT canon was the product of "the Church" in the 4C. That's a basic equivocation.  

Collecting the books of the NT is different from listing them. If a NT document was written in one place or sent to another, it would have to be copied and recopied before it was in general circulation throughout the ancient church. There's the distribution phase. The parts of the NT canon were always recognized by parts of the church. The parts of the church in which or to which they were written. If St. John was living in Asia Minor when he wrote his Gospel, then Christian communities in Asia Minor might be the initial recipients. Yet Christians moved around. Consider the peregrinations of Priscilla and Aquila. Likewise, Luke had a literary patron. But in addition, Luke had access to the Pauline churches. It just takes a little imagination to consider how regional churches shared NT writings with other regional churches, in a developing network. 

The NT writings would be the best-known and most-widely known because they were the earliest. They had been around the longest. They had been in use, with a chain-of-custody. Later apocryphal works would be suspect for the opposite reasons. 

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