Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Second Century Christianity

I find Second Century Christianity fascinating. For some the theories abound on how 'late' Christianity arose in the second century. For others it was filled with diversity beyond what we know to today as "Christianity" so that there was orthodoxy and heterodoxy bubbling to the surface in one big cauldron until late in the second century Irenaeus crushed heterodoxy and established orthodoxy. All of this is rather silly. Christianity developed and encountered challenges in the Roman World. But by and large Christianity developed in the second century in a vein consistent with the foundation that had been laid by the early church. The first church fathers made concerted efforts to hold fast to the teachings of the apostles and while the canon was not formalized until later, there was consistently large scale agreement on the main elements of what later became "canon," particularly the four-fold gospels and Paul's works.

For those interested in the second century, British scholar Larry Hurtado provides invaluable work. Not only he is a world renowned published scholar, he blogs here.

For those thinking about Canon and unity and diversity in the New Testament, recently in a blog Hurtado notes:
To its credit, the emerging “Great Church” of the time instead affirmed all four Gospels (and let them stand as independent witnesses, unharmonized), and affirmed multiple apostolic voices (so Pauline epistles as well as others ascribed to John, James, Peter, Jude were included too).
So, my second point is that the NT canon reflects an affirmation of a certain Christian diversity, and right in the core documents, the religious DNA if you will, of the Christian tradition. Put another way, the “architecture” of the NT incorporates a diversity of Christian voices, emphases, “renditions” (to use a musical metaphor) of the Christian faith and testimony to Jesus.
People today sometimes refer to writings “left out” of the NT or refused entry, as if there were many texts vying to be included with the writings that came to be the NT. There were a few that seem to have been considered for a while (e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, a certain “Gospel of Peter”, maybe 1 Clement). But it is unlikely that the authors of Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip, or the several apocryphal acts ever wanted their texts to be part of a NT collection. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, reflects an intense disdain for ordinary Christians, and claims to deliver a unique and secret body of teaching of which only certain believers are worthy. It’s elitist to the core, so it’s unlikely that those responsible for it ever wanted to have it treated as one text/voice among others.

The point is that the New Testament is far more coherent (and so was second century Christianity) that is often given credit. "Diversity" is all the rage and scholars almost compete with each other to see who can find more diversity and more radical views of second century Christianity--at some point they cross over into letting the theory drive the evidence rather than vice versa.

In an essay Hurtado has posted online here, he writes about second century Christianity and the canon. He is quite clear that Christianity was a textual phenomena very early. He is especially clear they wide acceptance of the 4 gospel and Pauline material. He writes:
"All this early interest in the public reading of certain writings as part of the liturgical life of Christian groups suggests that we might need to re-think the view that it was only in the later decades of the second century that a "text consciousness" came to be influential. We have, perhaps, somewhat romantically regarded the earliest Christianity as so give to oral tradition that their writings took a distance second place in their values. I submit that from the earliest observable years Christianity was profoundly a textual movement." (p.23, emphasis original).

This thesis is not without controversy. Hurtado's paper is very helpful in exploring some of the lines of evidence and its significance for canon formation and textual criticism. Read the whole thing here. Download it and save it in your files.

Perhaps we'll talk more about the second century around here on the blog at a later point. But for now, there is some recommended reading. 

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