Monday, August 10, 2020

Early Distribution Of The Gospels

When issues surrounding the origins of the gospels are discussed, some important sources are often neglected. Some examples are Quadratus and his colleagues, who are mentioned in section 3:37 of Eusebius' Church History. Here's a portion of the passage, as found in Jeremy Schott's recent translation of Eusebius' work:

For indeed, many of the disciples at that time [late first and early second centuries] had their souls struck by the Divine Logos with a deep desire for philosophy, and first fulfilled the salvific command to distribute their property to the needy, and then went out on journeys to perform the work of evangelists, aspiring to proclaim the report of faith to those everywhere who had not heard it and to provide the written text of the Divine Gospels. Once they had established foundations of the faith in foreign places they appointed shepherds and selected others along with them to help in the husbandry of those who had just been herded together. They then went again to other lands and peoples with the grace and cooperation of God, since many miraculous works of the Divine Spirit were still being done through them at that time, and as a result, upon only an initial hearing whole crowds right down to a man eagerly accepted piety toward the demiurge of the universe into their souls. (The History Of The Church: A New Translation [Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019], 162-63)

This passage brings up a series of important issues related to the origins of the gospels. I want to highlight some of them.

In a recent post, I discussed some contexts in early church history in which two or more gospels needed to be distinguished from one another, which implies that the purported authors of the documents were being named at that time. You can read the post just linked for further details. Two contexts are often discussed in which there was such a need to distinguish among the gospels by naming their authors. We often hear about the use of gospels in church services and their use in libraries. But the passage from Eusebius quoted above illustrates another context in which there would have been such a need to distinguish among the gospels. Evangelists and others distributing copies of two or more of the gospels would need to be able to distinguish among them (to avoid giving people two copies of the same one, to make it easier for the people receiving the gospels to distinguish among them, etc.).

Secondly, notice that Eusebius refers to this as a widespread practice. It wasn't just done by one or two individuals. And it wasn't just done in one or two places or a small geographical region.

Third, note that the gospels were being distributed somewhat rapidly and in contexts like conversion and the planting of churches. The gospels were being distributed by people who were traveling and had strong motivation to keep traveling further. Eusebius puts a lot of emphasis on how motivated they were, how widely they traveled, and how quickly they often were able to accomplish what they had set out to do (conversions "upon only an initial hearing"). They weren't just giving the gospels to people who had been faithful Christians for a long time, people a church hierarchy could in some relevant way control so as to make sure the gospels and information about them were only given to select individuals, etc. Inevitably, the people who received these gospels would have ranged across a spectrum: people who professed to be Christians, but weren't; people who were Christians, but gave the gospels to non-Christians to read; etc. In other words, this was a situation in which the gospels and information on them were being disseminated widely and without much control from a church hierarchy or some equivalent.

Fourth, the widespread agreement among later sources about matters like the dating, authorship, genre, and historicity of the gospels is all the more impressive in accordance with factors like the ones discussed above.

We don't have much reason I'm aware of to doubt the general historicity of what Eusebius is reporting. And we know he had documents from the relevant timeframe that we don't possess today, including an apology he attributes to a man named Quadratus (Church History, 4:3), regardless of whether he was the same Quadratus discussed above. And what Eusebius tells us meets the criterion of coherence. For example, what he reports helps make sense of why Papias was writing on issues surrounding the origins of the gospels around the time of Quadratus and was citing a man he refers to as "the elder", a first-century figure, discussing those subjects even earlier (Church History, 3:39). See my recent post cited above for more examples of early sources whose comments make more sense in light of what Eusebius tells us. See here regarding how widely the gospel of Matthew had already been disseminated during the relevant timeframe. And so on.

Even if we had some reason to doubt a significant portion of what Eusebius reported in the passage in question, the large majority of what I've said here stands. There would have been many evangelists and other relevant figures traveling in the late first and early second centuries who were doing the sort of work I've outlined above, as reflected in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, the Didache, etc. We know that some of the purposes for which the gospels were written were evangelism (John 20:31) and the instruction of Christians in the faith (Luke 1:1-4). (Notice the implications of the opening of Luke for other documents, like Mark, which is widely thought to be one of Luke's sources. Luke refers to the existence of "many" attempts at accounts like his, which makes more sense if there was widespread interest in such accounts rather than only a small amount of interest.) And sources other than Eusebius and Quadratus and his colleagues suggest that the gospels were being distributed widely early on. It's good to be able to fill in some blanks with historical names, like Quadratus, and historical reports, like what Eusebius relays. But even without such specifics, it would still be probable that things like what Eusebius reported were happening.

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