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...

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Margaret Barker, The Lost Prophet, and 1st temple worship...

I recently discovered that, as a member of staff at the University of Edinburgh, I have access to the New College library, one of the biggest theological libraries in Europe. So rather than waste that opportunity, I went and borrowed some books.

The first one I read, largely because it was the slimmest of the books I borrowed was "The Lost Prophet" by Margaret Barker. I've previously read her book "The Great Angel" and found it fascinating, and really want to read her first book "The Older Testament", but sadly New College don't have that, so I settled on this.

The book is an examination of the ancient book of 1st Enoch. Exactly how ancient it is is one of the conundrums of the book. It is in five parts, four of which were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, making those parts pre-Christian. The other part is only found in later, Christian, documents, so it is unclear if this bit is pre-Christian or not. This is a bit annoying as this part contains a lot of material about a character called "The Son of Man". If this could be shown to be pre-Christian then this book might yield understanding of what Jesus and the early church meant when they used the phrase.

Conventional thinking about this book is that it is later to, and derivative of, the Old Testament writings. Barker makes the opposite case, that the book of Enoch could be contemporary with some of the Old Testament books, perhaps even earlier. She makes a good case for, at the very least, not assuming the priority of the OT books, just because they're in the canon. The OT books, like Daniel and some of Isaiah, could basically be products of the same kind of thinking that also gave us the book of Enoch. That is to say, in evolutionary terms, that they share common ancestry. 

Barker claims that if we read the New Testament through the lens of this Enochic view of the world, then we can gain insight into many parts of the NT, not just Jude and 2Peter, which refer to it explicitly, but also all the Son of Man stuff in the gospels and some of the thinking of the epistles.

Its all interesting stuff, and might give insights on a few obscure passages, but its not going to set the world on fire...

What I am much more interested in, having read this, is the content of her earlier book, and the thesis contained therein. You see, Barker claims that the stories, rituals and beliefs, etc. of the pre-exilic period in Israel and Judah have been deliberately modified and rewritten with a different agenda in the post-exilic period when the OT was compiled. The Old Testament, she claims, misrepresents the first temple period and, essentially, rewrote history saying that what they did back then was the same as what we do now...

Barker believes otherwise. She seems to hold that the first temple worship was directed to more than one divine being, and that the King was considered by his people as divine and literally the Son of God.

Its frustrating reading this between the lines of this book when, I guess, she makes her full case for this in her earlier book. Must read it.

Anyway, I've also listened to a couple of talks by her on YouTube. Here she implies the same sort of ideas, again without fully spelling them out. One of the most fascinating ideas that she mentions in the talks and also in this book, is the idea that the Adam and Eve story is a relatively new addition to the OT, and that this picture of the origin of the world, sin, etc. was not part of first temple thinking. She points out something surprising - after the first few chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve are never mentioned again in the OT. This is one of the things which suggests that this is a late story, even though it comes first in our book. She suggests that all the Abraham and the patriarchs stuff is much older.

But her main thesis is that the system of worship from the first temple period has been written out of the bible, and only teasing hints remain. I think her basic thinking goes like this:

The 'reforms' of Josiah's day changed the Jewish religion. The rewriting of the story, as told by post-Josiah and post-exilic writers, says that God instructed Moses in a particular system of monotheistic worship, in the tabernacle, which was later set in stone, as it were, in Solomon's temple. But Solomon and those who came after him allowed 'foreign' worship of other gods into the temple, which corrupted the original, pure monotheistic system. So Josiah's reforms were, as seen from a 2nd temple viewpoint, the restoration of the old ways and the expulsion of the foreign gods.

Barker claims otherwise. She notes that in 1 Enoch, it is the 'reformers' who are portrayed as the bad guys who corrupted the original system. Not the original Mosaic system, which may be a later invention, pushing 2nd temple thinking back into a fabricated history, but rather the original Abrahamic and Messianic system of worship where the King was The Lord and The Lord was the King, and where the divine goddess of wisdom, Ashera or Astarte, was worshiped alongside Yahweh and his anointed one, the King.

Barker goes on to claim that these ideas, while written out of the priestly history books, were not written out of public belief, and that these ideas formed the basis of Christianity, with Jesus as the divine messiah, wisdom personified as the Holy Spirit, and the temple 'rebuilt' out of the living stones of believers. Its a shocking thought.

But where Barker doesn't go, is to explain why this way of thinking gets lost from the New Testament. Why don't we know this stuff? Why do we not believe what Barker claims the early Christians did believe? Here's where I have to speculate. What if this stuff got written out again in the 2nd century during all the battles between orthodoxy and heresy? The 'catholic' Christianity that emerged at the end of the 2nd century seems to be a fusion of different strands which went before - what happens if you try to fuse a Christianity based on 1st temple thinking, with a 2nd temple Judaic way of thinking? Something would have to give. Something would have to get left out, or changed, or rewritten. We might very well end up with what we have now.

Of course, nothing is proved here, this is all speculation, but it is fascinating speculation...