Friday, July 8, 2011

JI: Out of Chaos, Canon

Chapter 6 of JI is entitled "How We Got the Bible," and that sums up its contents perfectly. Ehrman begins with a synopsis and defense of his previous work, Misquoting Jesus:
  • We only have copies of copies of the New Testament books
  • These copies have hundreds of thousands of minor errors
  • They also contain major errors and changes which affect our interpretations of Christian doctrines and the authors' intents (e.g. the Comma Johanneum and the Pericope Adulterae weren't part of the original text)
  • In some cases, we may never know what the text originally said
Based on this, he asks:
If God didn't properly preserve his words in the Bible, why should we think he inspired them in the first place?
From there, he moves on to a summary of the early church. He points out that, far from being handed down to us from on high, the New Testament is the result of doctrinal battles between several early sects. Here are Ehrman's descriptions of the main groups that made up the early Christian church:
  • Ebionites: The Old Testament laws are still in effect; God is strictly a single being; Jesus was human and not divine
  • Marcionites: The wrathful OT God and the merciful NT God are separate beings; Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human
  • Gnostics: Many divine beings exist; secret knowledge of oneself and the origin of the world is required for salvation; Jesus (human and temporarily inhabited by the divine Christ) came to impart this knowledge
  • Proto-Orthodox: God is a single being in three persons; Jesus was fully human and fully divine; his death brought salvation
Christians today see all but the latter of these sects as obviously wrong, but remember, no one had a trusty, authoritative New Testament to go by. Instead, each sect had dozens of books that they used to support their own views. And it's not as though the proto-orthodox sect was granted divine discernment about which books were inspired: they enthusiastically supported the Letter of Barnabus, the Apocalypse of Peter and 3 Corinthians, yet everyone recognizes them as forgeries today. These and other books that didn't make it into the NT are called New Testament apocrypha.

The process of establishing the official NT canon was long and painful. The first known attempt at a canon wasn't until around 170 CE (at best), the precise canon as we know it wasn't even suggested until 367, and it didn't become fully accepted until around 500. So what factors allowed the canon to form? Ehrman describes three tools that the proto-orthodox church used to stifle opposing views:
  • The clergy: The proto-orthodox were the only Christian group with a centralized power structure. Church deacons had near-total control the congregation, telling them precisely what beliefs were true and which were heretical.
  • The creed: Church leaders eventually settled on a single set of beliefs that had to be held by all congregants, written out in the form of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.
  • The canon: The creeds were based on canonical holy books. Older books were given higher priority, as were books in widespread use. More importantly, they had to (claim to) be written by an apostle or an apostle's companion, and they had to conform to the proto-orthodox's existing views.
It was a bedrock assumption that the apostles held proto-orthodox views. If a book claiming to be by an apostle didn't hold these views, it was concluded to be a fake. Thus, while the canon was meant to be composed of authentic apostolic texts, the church's reasoning ensured that it would only reconfirm the beliefs they already held—a beautiful example of confirmation bias in action.

So the debate about the NT canon raged on and on, until finally it was settled... nearly five centuries after Jesus' death. This was a messy, human process during which church leaders were more concerned with tradition and conformity than truth. That this particular group emerged with this particular canon is a quirk of history based on factors that have nothing to do with God's guiding hand. Lastly, I'd like to point out that various fragments of the church disagree on the Old Testament canon even today. Why is it that God is so unable to communicate his message to those who earnestly seek him? Could it be because he was never there at all?

1 comment:

  1. The lack of originals is horrible oversight by each and every author. If they know that they're under the influence of "verbal plenary" inspiration, then why the hell would they not engrave it in stone, gold, etc.... as a master copy to make written copies from? You can't use perishable plant materials for God's amazing new book!!! For God to be such a pro with all this atomic matter, he's not very good at the mechanics of publishing.