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The Canon of the New Testament: Why It Matters

With this post I conclude my thread on how we got the canon of the New Testament.  In the last post I began to talk about how having a canon affected the way people read the books of the New Testament.  Even though there are important *differences* among the various books, when they are all put between the same two covers, people read them as if they were all saying the same thing.  Here I pick up right before I left off…. ****************************** There are, for example, four Gospels, each presenting a different understanding of Jesus’ words and deeds.  The thirteen letters assigned to Paul contain inconsistencies and incoherencies (especially between the ones he actually wrote and those produced in his name later by others).  The alleged writings of James, Peter, John, and Jude also present distinctive messages, sometimes at odds with the others. But when all twenty-seven books were canonized into a single book, the statements of one writing came to be read in light of another, forcing readers (almost always unsuspectingly) to think [...]

When Did We Get the Final Canon of the New Testament?

I am nearing the end of this thread on the formation of the canon of the New Testament.  Rather than going into all the ins and outs of the process, I have been laying out the topics that I hope to address in a book on the matter down the road.  I say down the road because it is not the very next book I plan to write, but the one *after* the one I now plan to write.  I like to think ahead. Here I talk about when the decisions were finalized (were they?) and what the major significance of “closing” the canon was.   A Final Consensus? Many (most?) people imagine that the canon, in the end, was decided by a vote at one of the major church councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE (as propounded by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code).  But the question of the canon was not even Blog members get five posts like this every week.  Memberships start at $2.99 [...]

Why Did Christians Even Need a Canon of Scripture?

In my previous posts on how we got the canon of the New Testament I’ve discussed several books allegedly written by Peter – one that got into the New Testament (2 Peter); one that came close to getting in (the Apocalypse of Peter – the one that gives Peter’s first-hand description of heaven and hell; NOT the “Coptic” Gnostic one that I discussed last week in two posts); one that was thought by some proto-orthodox Christians (but maybe not many) as having a rightful place (the Gospel of Peter); and one that really never had much of a chance (Peter’s letter to James). I can now set forth an overview of what I plan to cover in my book on the canon – when I eventually write it -- and the conclusions I will draw under a series of interrelated rubrics.   These can be imagined as chapter divisions, to come after an introduction that explains the importance of the question of how we got the canon, how it has become such a pressing question for [...]

An Equally Strange View of the Crucifixion

Yesterday I posted about the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, which clearly differentiated between the man Jesus and the spiritual being, the Christ, who inhabited him temporarily – leaving him at his suffering and death since the divine cannot suffer and die.  That understanding of Jesus Christ is sometimes called "docetic," but strictly speaking that's not quite right.   The term docetic comes from the Greek word DOKEO which means “to seem” or “to appear.”  It refers to Christologies in which Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human but only “seemed” to be. In reality, what they saw, heard, and touched was a phantasm. That is not what is going on in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter.  Here there really is a man Jesus – flesh and blood like the rest of us.  But he is indwelt by a divine being who leaves him at his death, abandoneding him to die alone on the cross.  That is similar to a docetic view, but also strikingly different.  I call it a “separationist” Christology because it separates Jesus from [...]

The OTHER Apocalypse of Peter (Stranger still…)

In a previous post I discussed the Apocalypse of Peter that was considered by a number of early Christians to be an inspired book of Scripture.   There is another early Christian book with the same name, which is differentiated from the "proto-orthodox" one I've already discussed by being normally referred to as the "Coptic Apocalypse of Peter."   It is intriguing both because it has a view of Christ completely different from what became the orthodox view (here the man Jesus and the divine Christ are actually different beings who are temporarily united up to the point of Jesus' death), and because it claims those with a different view (e.g., the view that "Christ died for the sins of the world") are the heretics! Here is how I discuss it in my book Lost Christianities: ****************************** Among the gnostic attacks on the superficiality of proto-orthodox views, none is more riveting than the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter discovered at Nag Hammadi.  This is not to be confused with the proto-orthodox Apocalypse of Peter in which Peter is given a [...]

How Could Jesus Be BOTH Divine and Human at Once? An Intriguing Ancient View

This now is my tenth and final April 18 anniversary post.  The blog started on April 18, 2012, and with this post I will finish all the previous posts from April 18.   This one, from 2021, is especially interesting for anyone intrigued by early Christian attempts to figure out who Christ was.  God?  Human?  Half of each?  Both at once?  How's *that* work??? ****************************** In this long thread on the Trinity I have been trying to explain how Christians came to the view that Jesus was God but that he was separate from God the Father – that both were God, but they were two different persons, and yet there was only one God.  I will have far less to say about the Spirit, since he/she/it got added to the mix more or less because Christ was already in it, as we will see. So far I have taken us up to the early third century, where one view had come to be widely rejected even though earlier it had been prominent: that Jesus actually [...]

Christians Who Reversed Jesus’ Teachings: Wealth is GOOD!

In this thread I’ve been giving a short history of ancient Christian views of giving to charity – a matter of real interest for the blog itself, but of bigger interest for the world at large.  Surprisingly, before Christianity started to take over the Roman world, no one apart from Jews appeared to think that the “poor” mattered enough to do much of anything to help them.  Jesus, though, as a Jew, stressed the importance of taking care of those in need.  That’s what God does and it’s what his people should do – give everything to help those without resources. After his death his followers moderated Jesus’ views and began to stress that wealth was not necessarily evil or opposed to God.  Those who had it could keep it, as long as they were generous with it when it came to helping out those who were poor, hungry, homeless, ill, and so on. Eventually Christian leaders started actually to celebrate wealth, a rather serious change in the views promoted by Jesus.  But how could [...]

You Mean Everyone (Except the Truly Destitute) Needs to Give? But How Much?

The Christians who began to say that (unlike in the Roman world) the rich ought to give to the poor did not come up with the idea themselves.  As we have seen, they were replicating (in a new form) what was found in the Hebrew Bible as taken up, as one would expect, by the historical Jesus.  But the Christians ran with the idea, and that ended up having a lasting effect on all of society and Western culture. The records of earliest Christianity are pretty clear:  everyone (not just the rich) needed to give in order to help those who were less fortunate.  According to the book of Acts, the members of the first community in Jerusalem sold everything and shared all things in common, so that no one was in need (Acts 2:43-45; 4:32-37).  This sounds like Jesus’ own vision, though whether Acts can be trusted to describe social reality soon after Jesus’ death is another question.  It is clear, however, that years later the churches of Paul, populated predominantly by those without [...]

Thomas’s Trip to India and the Problem of Wealth

Some Christian writers thought having lots of money was a very serious problem – both because it made rich folk focus on something other than spiritual realities and because it was not just or godly for some people to be loaded when others were starving. And so we have ancient Christian authors urging the wealthy to give away all their material possessions for a greater good and practice rigorous asceticism.  The “good” in this case was very different indeed from what was promoted in the broader Roman world -- where what mattered was helping with the city’s finances and assisting those of one’s own family or socio-economic class, in exchange for acquiring a higher personal status -- since for Christians involves helping the indigent.  But the personal motivation is roughly the same: it is a matter of “working out your salvation.”  That is, it is largely about one’s own well-being. Other writers, however, argued that wealth was not itself evil or necessarily a trap, an obstacle to the good and holy life.  Righteous people could [...]

What the Earliest *Christians* Thought About Wealth

So far I have been discussing why “wealth” was sometimes seen as a problem by moral philosophers in the Greek and Roman worlds.  People who either have or want to have huge amounts of money are neglecting what they really need for ultimate happiness.  And money can corrupt morals, making one greedy, rapacious, and inclined to general nastiness.  These pagan ethical discourses are written by elites, for elites, concerned for the personal welfare of the elites. Christians had different views, at least so far as we can tell from their writings.  Whereas the “problem of wealth” was occasionally discussed among pagan moral philosophers, it became a central focus of interest in parts of the Christian tradition, starting with Jesus himself.   For the historian of religions that comes as no surprise.  Jesus himself was thoroughly Jewish and there are few aspects of Jewish ethical discourse more distinctive than the repeated emphasis both that the God of Israel was the God of the poor and that his people were to care for those who were in need.  [...]

Demons and Christians in Antiquity: Guest Post by Travis Proctor

I am very pleased that my erstwhile PhD student, Travis Proctor, has published a revised version of his dissertation with Oxford University Press.  See:  Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture: Proctor, Travis W.: 9780197581162: Books Travis was one of the best students I ever had, and this is an unusually learned book.  In celebration of the event -- and to let you know of the development -- I have decided to repost his discussion of his work from two years ago, with a brief introduction to bring us up to date. Here is what he says. ******************************          Long-time members of the blog may recall my guest post from two years ago, when I shared a summary of my dissertation project on demonic bodies in early Christian literature (see original post below). For those wanting to delve deeper into the subject, I am happy to announce that the manuscript has been published with Oxford University Press, under the title Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture. The [...]

What Is the Didache & When Was the Didache Written

What is the Didache (pronounced DID-ah-kay)? In the recent exchange that I posted on the blog (dealing with the existence of Q) the document known as the Didache was mentioned. Especially by guest contributor Alan Garrow, who thinks that the Didache was a source used by the authors of Matthew and Luke.  I think even Alan will agree that this is a highly anomalous view; I don’t know of any other scholar who accepts it (though if Alan knows of any who do, I’m sure he can tell us in a comment).  The Didache is almost always assumed to have quoted the Gospels – or at least the traditions found in the Gospels – not vice versa. I realized this morning that I haven’t talked about it much on the blog.  I better do so! What is the Didache I published a translation of the Didache (the title means “Teaching”) in my two-volume edition of the Apostolic Fathers in 2003, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press).   In that edition, I talk about what [...]

Platinum Webinar! March 8. Why Is the Apocalypse of Peter Not in the New Testament?

It's time for another Platinum webinar; as you know, this is a four-time a year event, for Platinum Members only.  I'm devoting this one to a question that almost none of you will have asked yourselves -- one of those questions you don't realize is amazingly interesting until you realize the issues!   Why is the Apocalypse of Peter Not in the New Testament? You may not know -- or possibly you do: the Apocalypse of Peter almost DID get in (instead of, or along with, the Apocalypse of John).  It was far more popular in the early centuries than, for example, the book of 2 Peter which *did* make it in.   But then its support died out in the fourth or fifth century. But why? It claimed to be by Peter; it was well known; it was orthodox; it was declared canonical by church leaders; and it contains an incredible narrative: it is our first instance of a Christian guided tour of heaven and hell!  So what happened to it? Come and find out.  I [...]

Was Peter Crucified Upside Down?

I few days ago I started answering a question about Peter that came to me in two parts:  was Peter the first pope and how did Peter actually die (crucified upside down)?   I've taken two posts to deal with the first question and will deal with the second -- more of a human interest story, I suppose -- here in this one.  The oldest account of Peter's death by martyrdom is certainly odd, but is not widely known.  Here is what I say about it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. ****************************** Peter as Martyr The death of Peter by execution is already alluded to in the Gospel of John – which evidently, then, had been written after the event occurred.  As Jesus tells Peter after the resurrection: When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked wherever you wanted; but when you grow old, you will reach out your hands and another will bind you, and lead you where you do not want to go. (21:18) The author concludes this quotation by [...]

2021-09-06T20:13:42-04:00September 21st, 2021|Christian Apocrypha, Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

Was Peter the First Pope?

Several people have recently asked (in reference to that pop quiz I gave to my class this semester) whether it is in fact right that Peter was the first pope.   I dealt with the question a few years ago, along with another interesting tradition about Peter.  Here's the question I got and my response.   QUESTION: Is there any historical evidence that the apostle Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and that he was martyred upside down on a cross?   RESPONSE: Ah, I get asked this one (or these two) on occasion.  I dealt with them both in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (which, by the way, was a blast to write).   First I’ll deal with Peter in Rome – which will take a couple of posts; then the question of his martyrdom.  Here is what I say about the first in my book ****************************** In some circles, Peter is best known as the first bishop of Rome, the first pope.  In the period I’m interested in for this book, however, [...]

Pop Quiz on Early Christianity

For just about all of my undergraduate classes, I begin the semester, on the first day, after explaining the course, by giving students a pop quiz.  In my New Testament classes, students are often surprised at how little they know.  "Hey, I went to Sunday School my entire life!  Why don't I know this stuff?"   Yeah, good question. But this semester, as I indicated in my previous post, I'm teaching a course on "The Birth of Christianity," which focuses on the period just after the New Testament up through Constantine.  For *this* class students come in *knowing* that they don't know much of anything.  No matter:  I give them a quiz anyway!  (It's not graded.) Since I haven't taught the class in 25 years, I had to come up with a new quiz (having no idea if I even did one before) . Here it is.  How well can you do?  I'll be discussing answers in subsequent posts (I give the quiz, in part, to discuss the answers with students as a way of introducing [...]

Were Cephas and Peter Two Different People? A Blast from the Past

Five years ago on the blog I started a thread that I never quite finished, for reasons long forgotten, but I sometimes get asked about it.  It involved an issue that the vast majority of avid Bible readers -- including professional scholars -- have never even considered.  I staked out a position on the issue and then later indicated that I was not completely satisfied with my answer.  My plan had been to explain my doubts more fully, but for some odd reason I never posted the explanation.  So let's consider it a five-year cliff-hanger.  Even today, I haven't decided! I've decided to repeat the three relevant posts from 2016, and then go ahead and try to complete the thread.  Here's the first.   QUESTION: I remember your saying that you once – wrongly – entertained a theory about “Cephas” and “Peter” being two different people. I *don’t* remember your explaining why you’d thought that, and what convinced you the theory was wrong. I’d still like to know!   RESPONSE: I get asked this question [...]

What Kind of Ancient Christian Books Might Be Discovered?

On and off of the past few months I've posted on which books from early Christianity -- from the time of the New Testament! -- I'd love to get my grubby paws on.  Here is a related question I received.  What are the chances? QUESTION: What do you think are the odds that a really startling discovery like Q or an early Paul letter is still out there and likely to be discovered? RESPONSE: This is a really great question, and like many really great questions, there is no really great answer.  It is, of course, impossible to come up with any actual “odds.”   The best we can say is “pretty slim indeed." But let me put some flesh on the bare bones of that answer. The first thing to say is that there are indeed instances in which a modern discovery has been made of a book that we had reason to suspect at one time existed.   But that very rarely happens. In virtually every case that it *has* happened, it is not a document [...]

Was Paul Peter’s Enemy?

In a lecture I gave recently, I was talking about "forgeries" in the name of Peter, Jesus' disciple -- that is, books that *claimed* to be written by Peter but certainly were not.  They were written by Christians living later who *said* they were Peter -- possibly in order to get more readers for their books! There is a big question about the canonical books of 1 and 2 Peter.  The vast majority of critical scholars (i.e. those who make their historical judgments apart from questions of what they would personally like to believe about the Bible religiously) agree that 2 Peter was not written by Peter; whoever wrote it, it certainly was not the author of 1 Peter.  A lot of scholars, including me, somewhat forcefully, also argue that Peter could not have written 1 Peter either.  But that's a topic for other posts (which I've made in the past). In my lecture I mentioned three others, that no one disagrees about: the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Letter of [...]

How Could Christ Be Both God and a Human — At Once? The Unusual View of Origen

In this long thread on the Trinity I have been trying to explain how Christians came to the view that Jesus was God but that he was separate from God the Father – that both were God, but they were two different persons, and yet there was only one God.  I will have far less to say about the Spirit, since he/she/it got added to the mix more or less because Christ was already in it, as we will see. So far I have taken us up to the early third century, where one view had come to be widely rejected even though earlier it had been prominent: that Jesus actually *was* God the Father, come in the flesh (often called “modalism”).   Now I want to look at a more sophisticated way of understanding the relationship of Christ to the Father.  This one comes in the writings of Origen, one of the truly important Christian thinkers of the first three Christian centuries. Origen came from Alexandria and was exceptionally learned and unbelievably prolific. According to [...]

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