Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The first edition of the New Testament

The second book I read from New College library was 'The First Edition of the New Testament' by David Trobisch. This is a relatively short book with a simple (if incomplete) point to make. The point is this - most of the early manuscripts of the New Testament that we have suggest that they originate from a common, edited, source. There are commonalities in style in manuscripts of the letters of Paul, or the gospels, or Acts, etc., which demonstrate that these come from a compiled book, and did not circulate for long as discrete and independent documents.

What this book does not do, however, is identify the time of the compilation, or who the editor was. (The author went on, some years after the publication of this book, to claim that the editor was most likely Polycarp, and the complication was most likely in the middle-late 2nd century, but that is not discussed here.)

What this book does do is make a very compelling case that, very early in the life of the church, there was a published and widely distributed 'edition' of the NT, and that it was compiled with a clear and definite agenda. The most compelling piece of evidence for the common source is the 'Nomina sacra' - a style of abbreviating certain holy names (God, Jesus, Spirit, etc.) that is common in the majority of early manuscripts we have. It is highly unlikely that Paul, Matthew, John, etc. would independently invent such a distinctive style like this, and it is not pre-Christian, yet the writings of these diverse authors use the same style. Trobisch's conclusion - that someone compiled each of these documents into an edited book with a common style throughout, and then this 'edition' was copied and distributed.

So I'm convinced, someone compiled and published a New Testament book with all 27 of the books we have in our modern NT in place, sometime in the 2nd century. This is earlier than most scholars seem to think the canon was complied, but so what? What difference does it make?

Well, here is where Trobisch implies a lot but doesn't spell it all out explicitly. The important thing about the fact of the first edition is the editorial intention. Why were these 27 books compiled and published? Why were other books excluded? (It is notable that some extra-canonical writings like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were included in some early (3rd/4th century) editions of the NT, but were not in this 'original' edition, and were subsequently booted out of later editions. Why did they not fit?) Trobisch demonstrates (quite compellingly) that the editor of the NT had an agenda, and it was this - to put Peter and Paul on an equal footing.

The point of the first edition of the NT writings was to stamp out anti-Pauline feelings in one 'part of the church' and stamp out anti-Petrine feelings in another 'part of the church' and get both sides to accept the heroes of both camps. It is implied that several of the books in here (particularly ones that include cross-references to other books, such as 2 Peter or Paul's pastoral epistles) were written (or significantly edited) at the time of the compilation, to fit the editorial agenda. Acts in particular was constructed or edited to ensure that Peter and Paul have equal billing - basically there is nothing that Paul does that Peter doesn't also do, and nothing that Peter does that Paul doesn't do: miraculous escape from prison? both manage this; face-off with a magician? both do this again; miraculous healings? check; preach the same gospel message? yes; evangelise gentiles? yes; and so on... I've heard somewhere that it's possible to do a tally of the things that Peter does, and you can basically tick off a list of what Paul does. They both do everything, and neither appears superior to the other. This can't be an accident. This must be an intention of the author or editor of Acts. Trobisch implies that the author/editor of Acts is also the editor of the first edition. If this happened in the 2nd century, we can pretty much rule out Luke as the author of Acts. Does that mean we have to also rule him out as the author of the gospel of Luke? Hmmm.

So, given the fact that the 1st Edition goes to a lot of bother to reconcile the Peter fans with the Paul fans, what does this tell us about 'the church' in the days before the publication of this book? Well, it clearly suggests that there were at least two factions before that which were not united. Above I described these two factions as 'parts of the church', but were they really two parts of some larger whole before this book was created to bring them together? Traditional views on church history suggest that there was one true 'orthodox' original from which heretical sects and ideas occasionally broke away from. Yet the creation of this book suggests that 'orthodoxy' was created by the fusion of two (or more) diverse factions. Was either of them the original orthodox? There is no compelling reason to suggest this. What if Christian orthodoxy really is a creation of the 2nd century? What if before that there were people who really did 'follow' Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12 and 3:4) and reject Peter, and vice versa? What if Christianity doesn't go back to Christ?

There's some big things to think about in there. I wish Trobisch wasn't so implicit about everything. The implications are massive, but the discussion is incomplete. Sigh. More reading to do, I guess...


LadyAtheist said...

Next to read: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman. He talks about the factions and how the winning faction takes the middle road. The main point of contention was the nature of Jesus - god or man?

Ricky Carvel said...

Oddly enough, I am reading Ehrman next... but I've started on 'The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture'.