Sunday, January 28, 2007

Beyond the New Testament Canon

I'd like to start this blog with what may be a shocking observation, but one which I know to be true: the major obstacle to any historical study of early Christianity is the New Testament canon.

At the Scripture and Skepticism conference held at UC Davis this past weekend, I spoke about the importance of historical criticism, how it is absolutely essential to the study of early Christianity because it provides a perspective that does not privilege any particular form of religiosity or the wishes of any Christian community or individual or theological perspective. As a scholar of religious history, I do not have to justify my conclusions to believers nor do I judge the texts I study in terms of our modern perspectives of "orthodoxy" or "heresy." My rules of engagement are simply those of the modern intellectual community in search of knowledge. I consider myself a "humanist," relying on ways of knowing developed since the Enlightenment in the discipline of the humanities and liberal arts. Given these premises, I take very seriously the study of a variety of early Christian documents, and do not operate within the boundaries of the New Testament canon.

What impedes our examination of early Christianity is not the limitations of historical criticism as some in the Academy would like to lead us to believe. The impediment is the fact that the majority of biblical scholars still have not dislodged themselves from their own faith perspectives. As long as this is the case, historical inquiry is impossible because the historical-critical perspective cannot be used uncompromisingly. Although I recognize that there can be no "objective" history recovered or written, this doesn't mean to me that all subjective inquiries are the same. The theological inquiry is not the same as the historical.

Those in the Academy who have not dislodged themselves from their faith operate to defend, justify and explain it in terms they couch "historical" while privileging the New Testament canon and ignoring or dissing the apocrypha. Their personal religious belief in the authority of the New Testament scripture has led them to a common (and erroneous) assumption, that the New Testament texts are the only documents that tell us about the history of early Christianity. This leads to another common (and erroneous) assumption, that these canonical texts are accurate and reliable documents for the study of early Christianity. In this way, the religious walls of the canon have imprisoned the Academy for a couple of hundreds of years, holding us back from an honest historical analysis of early Christianity.

Even though there are some scholars in the Academy who attempt to operate as historians rather than theologians, the theological position is still controlling our discipline. The discipline is still limited by the canon, perpetuating the myth that the religious boundaries of the canon should be the historical boundaries as well. Certainly the New Testament texts are important pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the only pieces. An enormous amount of literature was written by the early Christians in the first two centuries, and all of it needs to be studied critically in order to get a full picture of what was going on. If we only study the New Testament documents, our reconstruction of early Christianity is inherently flawed. Paradoxically we end up promoting as "historical" an "apocryphal" Christianity solely based on the New Testament.

I'm setting up this blog as a place to discuss Christian Origins with historical integrity, taking seriously and skeptically the "forbidden" gospels and what they have to tell us about Jesus and the first Christians. Stay posted for my opinions on the Gospel of Judas, which I will write tomorrow.


Loren Rosson III said...

Welcome! I look forward to reading your blog.

BCLandau said...

This is a great first post for what will be a very interesting blog. It concretizes similar thoughts that I, as a NT scholar who focuses on non-canonical lit, have about the challenges in the field. I want to continue to ponder your argument for a while, but one immediate thought comes to mind. The NT canon not only creates difficulty for the full study of EC lit because of the modern theological biases it engenders, but the development of the canon in antiquity has also severely hampered our ability to get an accurate "bird's eye view" of just how much and what kind of EC lit actually existed. Certainly we can get some sense of the spectrum by looking at canon lists like the Decretum Gelasianum. But in terms of actual physical texts that are on par with the four canonical gospels in terms of archaic traditions and antiquity, there is precious little material. Obviously the Gospel of Thomas, but the list gets pretty short after that. Everything else is fragmentary: the Gospel of Peter (depending on how early one dates that), and Papyrus Egerton 2, which could very well be a "missing link" in the early gospel tradition but is far too fragmentary to give us much to go on. So, the canon complicates matters from both ends, influencing modern scholarly considerations and restricting the scope of extant ancient materials that could broaden our picture of early Christianity.
Looking forward to future posts!

Mark Goodacre said...

Welcome to the blogosphere. I've added a little note on your blog on mine, and have added you to my blogroll. I look forward to reading more.

Michael F. Bird said...

Thanks for a most provocative post. I look forward to reading your blog in the future.

Unknown said...

You write that 'I spoke about the importance of historical criticism, how it is absolutely essential to the study of early Christianity because it provides a perspective that does not privilege any particular form of religiosity or the wishes of any Christian community or individual or theological perspective. As a scholar of religious history, I do not have to justify my conclusions to believers nor do I judge the texts I study in terms of our modern perspectives of "orthodoxy" or "heresy." My rules of engagement are simply those of the modern intellectual community...'.

But doesn't this indeed involve a perspective that privileges one particular form of religiosity, or rather one particular set of values -- those of secularised people living in late-20th century America, and that subset holding positions in full-time education (i.e. leftish, liberal, post-hippy, hostile to Christianity, Clinton not Bush, etc etc)?

To discuss early Christian texts from a presumption that they are (a) untrue and (b) all from the same community in the service of the same religion, despite the statements of the early Christians to the contrary, cannot a value-neutral activity, in my humble opinion.

Welcome to the world of the blog, all the same!

All the best,

Roger Pearse

Patrick G. McCullough said...

As I have just written on my own little patch of grass online, I don't think I could be considered a "host" that would put me into a position to "welcome" you to blogging. Nevertheless, I would like you to feel welcome to blogging even by a confessional person of faith such as myself :)

You say, "I do not have to justify my conclusions to believers." Just to clarify, I assume that you mean that you are not beholden to fitting your views into a confessional creed or set of religious beliefs and not that you mean you will not interact with scholars who happen to be believers (for example, since they are biased by their theological perspectives). Is that right?

Also, how would you respond to Michael Bird's suggestion that you are "anti-faith" rather than simply "pro-secular" (which is how he describes James Crossley)?

Patrick G. McCullough said...

There may have been a misunderstanding. I apologize if I am at fault in any way. Your response is directed towards Roger Pearse, but you have included some of my comments in the response to his comment. I cannot speak for Roger Pearse, but let me first say that I am incredibly excited at your presence on the blogosphere, especially since you come from a different perspective from my own. It is something I celebrated and reflected upon on my own blog. That's the first link that I gave.

I certainly don't wish to give you a label, I hope that was not directed towards my own comments. To clarify, I'm not saying that you are "anti-faith" or "pro-secular" but that someone else made that comment and I was wondering how you would respond to it. I can now see how that was a terrible question to ask and there is no way that you could have heard the non-confrontational tone with which I intended to deliver it.

The reason that I did ask it is because I'm interested in the concept of perspectives. I am aware that I have a particular point of view by which I ask historical and literary questions, and I think that's true for all persons. Personally, I try to be as explicit and honest about my point of view as possible, so that I can be as careful as possible when approaching various texts (and other types of evidences) of history (by knowing the conclusions that I would be generally predisposed to make). I am making no accusations or assumptions about any person other than myself, just pointing out the reason for my interest. As I said, I'm greatly interested in your blog and I just wanted to know more about where you are coming from. Thank you for your response and I hope that you can forgive me any mistakes I have made in my previous comment . . . or in this one!

Much Peace,

April DeConick said...

Dear Patrick,

I am delighted that you have such a keen interest in these texts and wish to explore them. They have a lot to tell us, mostly about early Christianity, but also a few fragments about Jesus that have been lost in the canonical retellings of his story.

It is fascinating to me that my hard line on historicism has dumped me so immediately into the anti-faith, pro-secular, liberal camp (whatever that is supposed to be). Also fascinating is the immediate swing to point out that I'm not value-neutral because of my critical humanist approach (which is nothing more than the historian's approach in any field of study). This is dizzying. I have nothing against theology or theologians. But I do recognize that there is a difference between theology and history. And I'm a historian who is concerned that theology is still dominating an Academy that claims to be doing history.

Patrick G. McCullough said...

Thank you for such a wonderfully candid response. I just started writing a response, but it got so long that I think it would be better as a post on my blog, which I will put up shortly.

Briefly, my sense is that the majority of persons in the biblioblogging world are confessional Christians and very outward about their faith, particularly in their blogs. And I think the presence of historians of early Christianity who try not to be "theological" in their approach raises an interesting issue. You (and many others) feel that the "impediment [to our examination of early Christianity] is the fact that the majority of biblical scholars still have not dislodged themselves from their own faith perspectives." At the same time, perhaps those who are outward about their faith feel that more "secular" attempts at doing early Christian history are unfairly marginalizing their point of view (I'm saying that's a potential feeling, not necessarily the reality). To me, it sounds like a mutually threatening atmosphere in which both sides feel they are defending their views against the flow of the academy.

So I think the dizzying response to your blog has to do with the fact that you may have touched a nerve here. And I'll save the rest of my thoughts for a bona fide blog post.

James Crossley said...

I agree that theology dominates the discipline. That is inevitable. The discipline has many, many people from different theological institutions, some of which have official confessional restraints (a real problem for an academic). Most major books are written by scholars with some religious interest. The results of the discipline will inevitably reflect the scholarly make-up. This has nothing to do with one approach being 'less neutral' of anything like that. It has nothing to do with theology somehow being wrong. It has nothing to do with individual scholars being able to distance themselves. But the confessional make-up of the discipline does make the results largely compatible with faith. For me, that's why more and more people from non-confessional perspectives to get more and more questions from different perspectives (and stress some of the old important historical-critical approaches) that would otherwise be ignored.

Judy Redman said...

As someone who has been studying the NT canon for preaching purposes for nearly twenty years and is now doing doctoral studies on the Gospel of Thomas, what April says really makes sense to me. I see it as a simple description of the state of play in studies of early Christianity. Most scholars until relatively recently have come to it through theological training which has encouraged a "confessional" rather than a "phenomenological" approach.

When I do exegesis for the purpose of preaching a sermon, I look at what the writer was trying to say to the intended audience and I look at parallels within the canon, but I then move on to "what is this saying to people here and now who want to follow Jesus?" and "what is the good news in this for today's world?". My answers are always coloured by orthodox interpretation and also by how I think the people in the pews will react, and I don't often look outside the canon for comparative material that is contemporary to my text.

When I look at Thomas parables and their synoptic parallels for the purposes of writing a thesis/dissertation, I still look at what the writer was trying to say to the intended audience. I look at how each version of the parable is different but I range more widely to find parallels. I then move on to "what does this tell us about what the writer believed?" and "what might it tell us about a community that held this writing as authoritative?" Not having to ask and answer "how then shall I/we live?" is liberating, but the orthodoxy/heresy divide is sometimes challenging to ignore. said...

Eisenman's James the Brother of Jesus is the kind of wide-ranging approach that might eventually provide the answer to the origin of Christianity. Such a mind-bending work doesn't get quick bucks. Eisenman recognises the problems of the extant texts, but he doesn't follow through, may be because he is Jewish.

NJZimmermann said...

Dr. DeConick, I am not a biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I am simple layman, I just wished to offer my compliments on your inital post and to extend a welcome to the blogosphere.

It is my hope that through reading your blog I may gain greater insight into the history and evolution of Christianity.

I want to thank you for starting your blog and with your permission I would like to comment from time to time.

Best Regards,
Nathan Zimmermann

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Danny Zacharias at Deinde blog has posted three points of contention with this post.

Basically he says DeConick is wrong (1) to paint biblical scholars of today as being theologically biased, (2) to say secular humanism is more unbiased than someone who would call themselves a Christian, and (3) not to see that the 4 gospels are the obvious canon within the canon without Church decree.

I think he is wrong on all three points and posted my comments accordingly.

I like the pun but the beef is not very well cooked in my opinion.

Steak #1 seems to be stretching it. I don't read into what you have printed any suggestion that DeConick is sayng her description is fitting for every biblical scholar of today. She is only describing those certain persons who are *both* NT true believers (i.e., those "who have not dislodged themselves from their faith") and who claim to be objective biblical scholarswhile privileging the NT over the apocrypha. A scholar should only think this description is intended for him or her if the shoes fit both feet. I've changed the metaphor from steak to shoe leather, but either way the cow isn't holy.

Steak #2: I think you are misreading DeConick if you think she is saying "that somehow secular humanism is more unbiased than someone who would call themselves a Christian." That is not what she said. I read her to say that secular humanism is more unbiased if it approaches all early documents in an unbiased way, compared to a true believer who has the bias that only the certain list of NT early documents are legitimate and all other early documents have already been prejudged as illegitmate by the cannonical process of early Christianity. It can't be logically argued that a person who pre-judges the aprocrypha as illegitimate is not prejudiced in favor of the NT documents since that is the functional definition of prejudice.

Steak #3: The term "canon within the canon" seems more like a presumption than a description. A canon is a dogma, rules, or authorities decreed by an authority. As such a canon is not simply a list of "most relevant" texts but a list of texts accepted by an authority. So the term "canon" implies a biased approach to the texts. Scientific disciplines don't have a "canon," they have reference texts accepted by consensus not decreed by authority.

I think that DeConick has made valid statements about the relationship of the Academy to true believers who would pretend to be unbiased.

Chile said...

Thanks for posting this blog.

I would agree that 1800 years of tradition, doctrine and mind-set has clouded our vision of Christiandom.

History is very important as is theology in understanding the New Testament. I have learned a great deal by reading a book by and author who would definitely call his life work forbidden by the institutional church.

Gene Edwards hesitated on writing his book, Revolutionary Bible Study for forty years because of this forbidden nature. It goes straight to the heart of modern organized church that the institutional church we have today is in no resemblance to the Century One Christian churches that Paul planted. He writes:

"Of all those who lived in the past, of all those who lived in the present, none have ever been able to really understand the New Testament! Even if you memorized the NT in Greek, you still could not possible understand the NT. In fact, for 1800 years we have been without a clear understanding of what the NT is saying! Is that really possible?"

This is how he opens his book. To understand the NT he said first it must be understood that the letters of the NT or Paul are not in chronological order. From this he says we must have an understanding also of historical context in relations to Roman, Jewish and Christian history. Last he says we must understand why Paul wrote his letters and mirror or invert them as if we were the people he was writing to in those century one churches he raised up.

What do you mean the NT is out of order! In a word or two its pure chaos. That simple fact makes it impossible to understand the NT. Why is this?

It is the way they bound books 1800 years ago. They bound the treaties of writers by the longest chapters or of works first to the shortest. Don't believe him? Look at your NT table of contents at Paul's letters. Romans is first and Philemon is last. But Romans is not Paul's first letter, Galatians is. Romans is Paul's sixth letter but listed first because... its his longest letter. Paul's letters are arranged by length.

This is how he starts out on his journey of discovery for the 'Story' that comes from the NT once the letters are arrange in order and historical context is added from Acts. Here is a brief example of how he shows the confusion with understanding the NT from his book.

Think of your NT as it is. After you read Romans, you just come back a year in order to read 1 Corinthians. Romans was in written in 58, so we could have hoped 1 Corinthians was written in 59. It was not. (1 Corinthians was written in the year 57, a year before Romans.) This is the order by dates the NT is now for Paul's letters: 58, 57, 50, 63, 51, 52, 65, 67, 65, 63. What if history books were arranged this way?

I will write more on this topic as I am glad you wrote this blog. I am not sure how this will be met as this goes against the grain of 1800 years of tradition and mind set. So what is the 'Story' that emerges from placing Paul's letters in order and understanding the historical context? Wait and see! *Teaser*


Unknown said...

Time is very near...he is coming...this s not time for argument...Get ready for reward