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How the Canon Itself Tames the Diversity of the New Testament

The writings of the New Testament do not provide good evidence that Christianity started out as an original unity, only to come to be fragmented with the passage of time into the second and third Christian centuries -- so I argued in the previous post.  Quite the contrary.  And yet having them all in the same book (between covers) does seem to readers to suggest an overarching unity.  That's what I want to talk about here. For the most part, the books of the NT are the earliest Christian writings we have, and most of the books can probably be dated to the first Christian century.  Probably not 2 Peter.  Possibly not Acts.  But the others?  Probably.  Only a couple of other Christian books are to be dated this early.  None of the other Gospels (including the Gospel of Thomas, I would say).  But 1 Clement, is usually dated to the mid 90s CE and the Didache in its final form may be from around 100 CE (they are both in the collection known as [...]

2023-11-21T14:48:19-05:00November 22nd, 2023|History of Biblical Scholarship|

Wasn’t Early Christianity Basically Unified? Why Fret About Occasional Diversity?

I have spent three posts talking about the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” and why they are problematic; in doing so I have been explaining both the traditional view of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy (as found, for example, in the writings of Eusebius) and the view set forth, in opposition, by Walter Bauer.   So, where do we now stand on the issue, some 90 years after Bauer’s intervention? As I indicated in my last post, there are some problems with Bauer’s analysis, but also much positive to say about it.   Conservative scholars continue to hold to a more traditional view (e.g., conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical scholars); others find it *basically* convincing, even if they would write the details up very differently from Bauer. I am very much, and rather enthusiastically, in this latter camp.  It was when I was in graduate school, as a committed evangelical myself, but as one who was moving away from my conservativism based on my detailed research into the New Testament and the history of the early Christian [...]

Are There Really Good Reasons to Doubt the Story of the Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels? My Response to Mark Goodacre

A couple of days ago we enjoyed a guest post on the blog by Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke University.  In this post Mark provided five reasons for doubting if the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library – as that story has been recounted by scholars for many years – is in fact accurate.  Mark’s post was a summary of a longer, more detailed, and scholarly article that he has published on the subject. In 2015, when I first discussed this issue on the blog, I asked Mark’s permission to respond to his five points, and he gladly agreed; I in turn agreed to let him respond to my responses.   Rather than asking you to reread his post, I have reproduced each of his five reasons here, and then dealt with them one at a time. Let me say that I really don’t have a horse in this race, and my sense is that Mark doesn’t either.  We would both love to be able to keep telling the story, [...]

2023-10-12T10:45:56-04:00October 22nd, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Why We Might Doubt the Story of the Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels: Guest post by Mark Goodacre

A few days ago I posted about the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, giving the remarkable story that scholars -- for as long as I myself have been a scholar -- have been telling about how it happened.  I also mentioned that my New Testament colleague at Duke, Mark Goodacre – who is on this blog and who has an important blog of his own – has written an article calling this story into question. Years ago when I was discussing this matter on the blog, I asked Mark if he would be willing to summarize his objections to the story as it is typically recited, and he did so in the following post.   He's asked me to add a couple of links at the end in case you want to look more deeply into the matter. ****************************** Five Reasons to Question the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery  I am grateful to my friend and colleague Bart Ehrman for mentioning me in his blog in connection with the fascinating and compelling story of [...]

2023-10-12T10:37:17-04:00October 21st, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

What Is Actually In the Nag Hammadi Library?

For near fifty years now the "books that did not make it into the New Testament" have been a source of fascination, not just for scholars but for regular ol' folk intrigued by the idea that there may have been alternative forms of Christianity, a wide range of seemingly bizarre beliefs and practices out there in the early centuries of the church. In my previous post I gave the standard tale of how the most significant discovery of such books occurred in 1945 somewhere near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt (and therefore called the Nag Hammadi library).  The story I told has fallen into some disrepute over the past decade, for reasons we'll see in the next post.  Before dealing with that issue, however,  it's important to see what this library/collection of books actually is.  Here is how I describe it in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press).  ****************************** What was this ancient collection of books?  The short answer is that it is the [...]

2023-10-12T10:32:08-04:00October 19th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Our Most Important Discovery of Ancient Christian Writings: The Nag Hammadi Library

The most significant discovery of Christian manuscripts (ever) was the Nag Hammadi Library, popularly (and a bit inaccurately) known as "the Gnostic Gospels." One of the intriguing features of the discovery is that no one is quite sure how it happened.  When I was in graduate school, everyone heard a standard tale that we then passed along with some glee to our students.  But now that story is in a bit of disrepute -- thanks in large part to that destroyer of New Testament Scholarship Orthodoxy, my friend and colleague, Duke professor, Mark Goodacre, as you will see in subsequent posts.. Just to be clear: the discovery itself was definitely made.  We have the books of the Nag Hammadi Library, readily available in English translations.  And I want to talk about a few of them.  But first I want to talk about what we know and don't know about the discovery itself. I'll start, in this post, by giving the popular tale that, until relatively recently, just about everybody knew.  This is how I laid [...]

Early Gospels in Circulation: An Even Messier Scenario

When it comes to the early Christian Gospels, most people simply assume that there were four Gospels from the first century (those in the NT), and no others, and that they were written as they are found now, and that they circulated in that form, and that later Gospel writers (say in the second century) who used earlier written sources about Jesus must have borrowed their stories from those Gospels. Their other stories they just made up, or heard about from oral traditions, or both. In my last post I suggested why I don’t think that view is particularly plausible, and tried to imagine something a bit more realistic; there I proposed a “messier scenario" in which there were numerous early Gospels, some earlier than others (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the earliest that survive, but that doesn’t mean they were the earliest). In this view, Gospels later than the canonical four (e.g., Papyrus Egerton 2) may or may not have used the canonical four for their information (with additional legendary materials); [...]

2023-10-03T10:11:18-04:00October 4th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

My Trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai: Discovery Site of Codex Sinaiticus

In my previous post I talked about Constantin von Tischendorf and his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus in St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai peninsula in 1844 and then 1859.   I have a personal anecdote to relate about the manuscript, one of the most interesting things ever to happen to me on my various travels hither and yon. To make sense of the anecdote I need to provide some background information.   As I indicated in my previous post, when Tischendorf discovered the codex Sinaiticus (as it was later called), he considered it to be the most ancient biblical manuscript then known to exist.  He was right.  It was. Tischendorf claimed that the manuscript was gifted to him by the head of the monastery.   The monastery later claimed, and still claims to this day, that he stole it from them. The manuscript consists of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (all in Greek).   It is generally dated today to the middle of the fourth Christian century.   Since Tischendorf’s day, many much older manuscripts have [...]

The Discovery of Codex Sinaiticus: One of the Most Important Manuscripts of the New Testament

Last week my two teenage granddaughters (TEENAGE GRANDDAUGHTERS??  Yikes.  How'd this happen to me...?) were visiting us in London, their first time there.  We did tons of great tourist stuff, and it was fantastic.  One of the things we did is take them to the public exhibition of manuscripts at the British Library, and among the amazing things there -- Leonardo Da Vinci notebooks, the Magna Carta, Beatles songs written on envelopes and scrap paper, Lewis Carroll's own copy of Alice in Wonderland, etc. etc. -- is the very famous Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence, dating from around 370 CE or so.  I showed my granddaughters and explained a bit.  They're not Bible geeks (oh boy are they not), but still, it was impressive. It made me think that I should talk about it a bit here and its remarkable discovery here on the blog.  It was found by probably a scholar who was almost certainly the most intrepid of manuscript-hunters of modern times, Constantine von Tischendorf. His [...]

Why Critical Scholarship on the Gospels Helps *Believers* in the Bible!

In my two previous posts I’ve been trying to explain that the historical-critical view of the Gospels, in which they are recognized not always to represent historically accurate information about Jesus, is not necessarily a view that “trashes” them.  Instead, it is a view that tries to understand what they really are instead of insisting that they are something else.   Accepting them for what they are is surely a good thing; making them into something they are not can’t be good. In this post I want to do something highly unusual for me.  I want to explain, for those of you who are Christians (or for anyone else who is interested), why this critical view of the Gospels is in fact *theologically* valuable, far more theologically valuable than a view that would insist that the Gospels have no discrepancies between them or errors of any kind, but are historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus. When I was a Christian, once  I came to the conclusion that the Gospels in fact [...]

2023-08-12T06:09:19-04:00August 12th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Is Critical Biblical Scholarship Valid? What the New Testament Itself Indicates!

In my previous post I argued that critical scholars who insist that the Gospels are not historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus – even though they do contain some historically accurate information, which needs to be carefully and cautiously ferreted out of their narratives – are not trashing the Gospels.  They are trashing unfounded fundamentalist assumptions about the Gospels.  In this post I’d like to argue that this view -- that the Gospels are not sacrosanct-historically-accurate-to-the-very-detail accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus -- is not merely a modern notion that emerged during the Enlightenment.  It is that, to be sure; but it’s not merely that.  In fact, I would argue that this is the earliest attested view of the Gospels from earliest Christianity. Let’s assume for this argument a view that most scholars hold and that I could demonstrate if I wanted to spend a lot of time doing so (for example here and here), that Mark was the first of our Gospels and that Matthew [...]

2023-08-09T07:15:25-04:00August 10th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

More on Secret Mark as a Forgery (by Morton Smith?)

Here now is the second of my two posts on reasons for suspecting that Morton Smith himself may have been the one who forged the “letter of Clement” that discusses the “Secret Gospel of Mark” (see my post from yesterday). Again taken from my article,   “Hedrick’s Consensus on the Secret Gospel of Mark,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003) pp. 155-64. ****************************** (2) Several things that are hard to explain about the “discovery.”  For those who want to show the letter is authentic (i.e. really written by Clement of Alexandria), these are the issues to address.  I leave off several other matters that some have raised, such as why the letter is never mentioned by Clement or any other heresiologist who opposed the Carpocratians otherwise: (a) Why does this letter contradict in content what Clement says elsewhere?  For one thing the attitude toward true gnosis in this letter is completely at odds with what is found elsewhere in Clement, as Eric Osborne trenchantly noted.  Never for Clement is true knowledge a matter [...]

Did Morton Smith Forge the Secret Gospel of Mark?

Last month (April 2023) I published a thread of blog posts on the intriguing and controversial Secret Gospel of Mark, allegedly discovered by Columbia University scholar Morton Smith in the library of the Greek orthodox monastery Mar Saba twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem.  He did not actually discover the Gospel itself, but (allegedly) discovered a letter that described and quoted it, allegedly written by the church father Clement of Alexandria (200 CE or so), allegedly copied by a scribe of the eighteenth century in the back blank pages of a seventeenth-century book otherwise (actually) containing the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (110 CE or so), in which Clement allegedly discusses a potentially scandalous edition of Mark’s Gospel allegedly used by a nefarious Gnostic group called the Carpocratians.  Confused yet?  Read the posts, starting with this one from April 12: In my posts I did not give any evidence to show that this “alleged” discovery might not have been a discovery but a forgery, possibly by Smith himself, even though from the outset some (many?) [...]

More Problems with Thinking Jesus’ Followers Memorized the Stories about Him

In my previous post I began to explain the problems with the idea that Jesus' followers, like all good students of Rabbis in the Jewish tradition, were trained to memorize what he said and did, so that the Gospels provide us with reliable accounts of his life.  This idea was most forcefully promoted by Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson and was popular for a while in scholarly circles.  But it is widely seen today as problematic.  Here is how I continue to explain some of the issues in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).   ****************************** An even bigger problem is that we have clear and certain evidence that Jesus’ followers were not passing along his teachings, or accounts of his deeds, as they were memorized verbatim.  This is one of the complaints that other scholars generally lodge against Gerhardsson – he does not engage in a detailed examination of traditions that are preserved in the Gospels in order to see if his theory works.   What is the evidence that Jesus’ teachings were preserved word-for-word [...]

Didn’t the Disciples Memorize Jesus’ Teachings and Accounts of His Life?

I've been talking about how scholars began to realize in the early 20th century that the stories of Jesus in the Gospels were based on oral traditions that the Gospel writers inherited decades earlier.  But is that really a problem?  Here's how I discuss the issue in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016). ****************************** Many people, when they first consider the reality that the traditions in our Gospels must have circulated orally for decades before being written down, come up with a commonsensical response.  Surely the sayings of Jesus, and the accounts of his life, were actually memorized by his followers, so that they would be preserved accurately.  Aren’t oral cultures known for being able to preserve their traditions spotlessly?  After all, since they didn’t have written records to keep their memories alive, people in such cultures must have worked with special diligence to remember what they learned and to pass their stories along seamlessly from one person and one generation to the next.  Right? Unfortunately, decades of intense research have shown that this [...]

Stories of Jesus Passed on By Word of Mouth. When Scholars First Took Oral Traditions Seriously.

I'm discussing how scholars came to realize that Mark our earliest Gospel is not simply a nuts-and-bolts, unembellished, accurate report of what Jesus said and did.  This kind of scholarship reached a kind of climax about a century ago with a group of scholars called "form critics."  To make sense of what they said and why they said it, I need to start where I left off yesterday -- and so I'll repeat the end of yesterday's post to get us a running start on today's, taken from my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne 2016). ****************************** Where did the stories found in the Gospels themselves come from?   The "form critics" (a term I'll explain below) maintained that they did not come from authors who were themselves followers of Jesus or who acquired their information directly from eyewitnesses.  The stories instead came from oral traditions in circulation in the years prior to the Gospels. The authors of the Gospels – all of them, not just Mark – wrote down stories that had been passed along by word [...]

Does Mark Present the Bare-Bones Facts about Jesus’ Life?

In my previous post I showed how scholars in the 19th century came to think that our shortest and evidently-least-embelished Gospel Mark gave the accurate account of Jesus ' life, so that any reconstruction of what Jesus really said and did simply could simply assume that Mark provides the essential information. But is that right?  It eventually came to be seen as wrong.  Here's how I discuss the matter in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016). ****************************** The problem with Mark is that it is so terse that there are huge gaps in the narrative.  It is hard to determine what is driving Jesus’ action and what his ultimate objective is.  To solve that problem 19th-century scholars writing about Jesus filled in the gaps either with inventive narratives they spun out of their own imagination or with psychological analyses about what must have been motivating Jesus at one point of his life or another.[1] All of these efforts were rooted in the sense that Mark is the earliest and most historical account without any [...]

How Can We Get Behind “False Memories” of Jesus to the Historical Facts?

I'm discussing how in both the ancient and modern worlds people have constructed "false memories" of who Jesus really was.  In this post I give a brief explanation of how scholars became increasingly aware of the problem and, for a time, thought they had found a solution:  Mark's Gospel is the unembellished version and so we need to stick mainly with that!  How'd they come up with *that* one?  And is it true? This is taken from my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016). ****************************** Throughout the history of scholarship, especially since the nineteenth century, scholars have realized that Christians in the early years after Jesus’ death were not only altering traditions about Jesus’ life and teaching that they inherited, they were also inventing them.   We do not need to wait for non-canonical Gospels such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Nicodemus for “distorted” memories of Jesus to surface among authors and their readers.  (Recall: by “distorted memory” I simply mean any recollection of the past that [...]

Did Early Christians “Invent” Memories of Jesus?

I've been talking about how we remember things -- or misremember things, or make up memories of things -- as a way of getting to the question of how, in our heads, we think about what Jesus said and did.  This is all part of my larger project that came incarnated (inletterated?) in my book Jesus Before the Gospels. As I point out early in the book, we remember most things  just fine, but we also often get things either partially or completely wrong.  Memories can be frail, faulty, and false.  And not just our individual memories, but also the “memories” we have as a society.  In previous posts I illustrated the point by talking about social memories of Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus. But what about faulty memories of Jesus (see my last post if it doesn't make sense to talk about "remembering" someone we never knew!).  To get to this question, in my book, I talk about some of the modern representations of Jesus by current-day scholars and popular authors  – for example, Jesus [...]

Could the Mysterious “Secret Gospel of Mark” Be Authentic?

In my previous posts I discussed how Morton Smith claimed he discovered a copy of an ancient letter of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), written in the back of a 17th century book, by a scribe of the 18th century, in which Clement described a mysterious “Secret Gospel” – an intriguing and possibly scandalous longer version of the Gospel of Mark. In yesterday’s post I indicated how Smith went about trying to authenticate the discovery.  Here I pick up at that point, again, as recounted in my book Lost Christianities. ****************************** A key question was whether the copyist who put the alleged letter of Clement of Alexandria that Smith mound into the bak of a book was copying an actualy letter of Clement of Alexandria.  There is no difficulty believing that a scribe of the eighteenth century might have had a fragmentary copy of an ancient letter at his disposal – possibly a loose sheet in the ancient library, known for its famous ancient texts – and that rather than simply discard it, he [...]

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