Sunday, January 4, 2015

The New Testament Canon, by Harry Y Gamble

The New Testament Canon, by Harry Y. Gamble

Reason for reading: This is one of the supplementary books for the great course The New Testament (The Great Courses, Course Number 656), by Bart D. Ehrman. 

Thoughts: This short "guide to biblical scholarship" glossed over some of the reasons certain books, and not others, were chosen for the New Testament canon. This is a very heavy topic with lots of scholarship, and this book tended to disagree with most of the specific theories in favor of the broader theory that there's no evidence that any specific movement had a great impact on the formation of the New Testament canon, but added all together they DID have an impact. I found this book rather dense at times. It assumed prior knowledge of the topic, which I'm only beginning to study. 

Chapter 2: The History of the New Testament Canon

The history of the New Testament (NT) canon must be pieced together on fragmentary evidence. There are a couple types of evidence that are useful: 1) The contents of the ancient manuscripts of the NT together with scriptural aids like concordances or prologues. This evidence is mainly from the fourth and fifth centuries. 2) The use of early Christian documents written from the second through the fifth centuries. By noting early scholars' allusions to various texts, we can deduce which of these early texts were widely accepted.

The gospels which were incorporated into the NT did not gain clear prominence until the late second century. Mark, written around 65, appears to have been the first narrative gospel. But it originally ended at 16:8 and thus lacked any post-resurrection narrative of Jesus. John, too, was originally lacking sections that were later accepted as gospel - Chapter 21 was not composed by the same person that wrote the rest of the Gospel of John. Additionally, the story of the adulteress (John 7:53 - 8:11) wasn't originally part of the Gospel of John. These discrepancies might have cast doubt on the authoritative truth of these gospels. Furthermore, having too many gospels, especially ones that seem to contradict each other, cast doubt on the adequacy of any gospel. 

The first evidence for a collection of four Gospels was in a document written by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul, writing around the year 180. There is also evidence of a four-gospel collection in the Muratorian canon list, which claims that the diversity of the gospels "matters nothing for the faith of believers." This comment suggests that some people had indeed found the discrepancies in the gospels disturbing.

The formation of a four-gospel collection was neither a necessity nor a natural outcome of the history of gospel literature in the early church. It is a compromise which balances an unmanageable number of gospels and a single self-sufficient gospel. Writers of the period tend to speak of the group of gospels as "gospel" (singular); thus, there are not four gospels but a fourfold gospel. Thus a balance is reached between two extremes. 

There are several theories as to why Paul's letters gained the widespread appreciation that led to their placement in the canon. 

One theory is that because his letters were highly valued by the communities he wrote to, they all sent his letters to neighboring communities so that everyone could share. But if this were the case, why did some letters survive and others disappear? And why did the author of Acts of the Apostles not mention the letters, if they were so important? 

Another theory (Goodspeed's) is that Paul's letters were highly valued by one scholar, who went out of his way to collect as many of them as he could. He then wrote the letter to the Ephesians, in Paul's name, as an introduction to his collection. That would explain the difference in writing styles of that letter to the rest of them. Gamble suggests that this is an extremely romantic theory, but with no evidence to support it.

Another scholar (Schmithals) changed Goodspeed's theory a bit to say that the collector/editor of the letters did so to create a weapon against gnosticism, since many of Paul's letters contain comments that are in opposition to gnostic spirituality. Again, there's no evidence that this theory is true, and it's too complex to accept without evidence. (Occam's Razor and all that jazz.)

Schenke suggested that the letters were collected by a Pauline school of scholars that valued Paul's teaching. This theory seems to be the most attractive to our author Gamble. 

Chapter 3: Factors in the Formation of the Canon

In the early years of Christianity, there were several Christian movements. Many theologians suggest that the New Testament was developed specifically to refute the claims of one or more of these movements. Gamble lists a few of them, and provides the arguments for and against particular groups having strong influence on the formation of the NT. Although Gamble does not support beliefs that any of these groups had much influence on the NT formation, he does suggest that all of them together could have had a larger effect on the NT.

The Marcionite Christians (second century) - movement begun by Marcion, a shipowner-turned-scholar who arrived in Rome in about the year 140. Marcionites Believed that there was an angry Jewish Creator God and a good God that Jesus came to save us from. Since Jesus was not created by the Creator God, he did not have a corporal body - he only appeared to. Thus, Jesus was not human, but he was divine. (This would sorely undervalue Jesus' gift of dying for our sins if he only appeared to suffer.) Because Judaism had nothing to do with Christianity (different Gods) the Jewish scriptures had no place in the Church. 

Marcion was the potentially the first scholar to compile a canon of literature - composed of the letters of Paul and Gospel of Luke. Some theologians believe that the Church adopted Paul's letters into their canon because of pressures from Marcionites, and that it was compelled to compensate for Marcion's bias towards Paul by including a variety of other apostolic writings to the canon. However, this theory does not explain why Paul's letters were widely known before Marcion's time. 

The Gnostic Christians - Believed that the real truth was only revealed to a select few. That when Jesus was baptized, a spirit entered him and he became the savior who taught the way to salvation. This spirit left Jesus and returned to heaven when Jesus was dying on the cross. We, also, are spiritual in nature, stuck in corporal bodies. (This doesn't fit exactly with the way Elaine Pagels described Gnostics in the two books of hers that I've read, but I guess there's room for error in studying a group of people on which so little information is available.)

It is commonly supposed that the NT was developed as an effort to oppose The privacy of many Gnostic beliefs, which were only abailable to the select few, and to oppose the "heretical" literature circulated by the Gnostics. However, Gnostics made free use of canonical literature, too, and it seems that the major difference between Gnotics and the Church was more about interpretation than literature.

Montanism - The Montanists were followers of a charismatic prophet named Montanus who claimed that the Paraclete promised by Jesus in the Gospel of John had come, and the end of times were at hand. (Seems like the end of times was always at hand for millennia on end.) Many theologians suggest that the New Testament was formed as a retaliation against Montanism for two reasons. First, the Montanists created new prophetic documents and claimed authoritative truth that the Church wanted to refute. Second, Montanists claimed prophetic revelation and the Church claimed that all prophetic revelations were in times past - that Jesus was the last prophet. However, as with the Marcionites and the Gnostics, Gamble refutes claim that Montanism had much impact on creation of the NT. First of all, Montanists, like the Gnostics, made free use of the canonical literature, but had different interpretations. Second, at the time that Montanism was popular the Holy Spirit and prophetic charisma were accepted by even the anti-Montanists in the Church.

In addition to the groups above, these Early Christian groups were outlined in Chapter 1 of Bart D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. I thought it would fit in well with these notes on Gamble's book.

The Jewish Christian Adoptionists - Believed that Jesus was born a human of a non-virgin. He was adopted by God as His son upon baptism. Jesus was not, however, divine. (I could believe this pretty easily if I were inclined to have fixed beliefs.)

Proto-Orthodox Christians - These are the ones that modern Christianity sprouted from. They believed that Jesus was divine and human. They believed there was only one God. 

Another factor possibly affecting the formation of the New Testament is that the technology to create a codex large enough to hold the entire NT was not developed until the fourth century.


  1. Hi Rachel - I am glad to see that you are blogging again.

    As I think you know, I am a Non Believer who is somewhat fascinated by theology. I often find such dry and dense works very interesting. I think that I would get a lot out of a book like this.

    Just the description of the various sects is very interesting.

    1. Thanks Brian! Good to see you. I found the description of the early sects to be the most interesting part of the book, actually. It's fun to see what different groups believed.


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