Note: This is the third installment of a new blog series announced here.
One of the most basic facts about the New Testament canon that all Christians should understand is that the canon is intimately connected to the activities of the apostles.
Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15). When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20). Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words… it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).
In sum, the apostles had the very authority of Christ himself. They were his mouthpiece. As such, their teachings, along with the prophets, were the very foundation of the church. Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). If the church wanted to know the true Christian message, they would always need to look back to the teaching of the apostles.
But the apostles didn’t just teach about Jesus orally. At some point—a very early point—the apostolic message was written down. Often it was written down by the apostles themselves. At other points it was written down by companions of apostles who were recording their message. Either way, the authoritative apostolic message found its way into books.
For obvious reasons, the church would value apostolic books over and above other type of books. And this is exactly what happened. The books that the church regarded as apostolic were the books that were read, copied, and used most often in early Christian worship. These are the books that eventually became the New Testament canon. The canon is the byproduct of the ministry of the apostles.
In fact, the church’s overt dependence on apostolic writings is precisely why we see a proliferation of “apocryphal” books in the second century (and later) that were named after apostles. We have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and even the Gospel of the Twelve! Rather than raising doubts about the apostolic nature of the New Testament, these apocryphal writings actually serve to confirm it. They show that the early church valued apostolic books so much that forgers had to try and mimic the genuine ones in order to get a hearing. For more on the late date of these apocryphal writings, see prior post here.
Of course, some modern scholars dispute the apostolic authorship of some of the New Testament books, claiming they were written by later authors only pretending to be the apostles. However, these claims are by no means proven, and many other scholars dispute them. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the early church was in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars two thousand years later.
In the end, the New Testament canon exists because of an early Christian belief that the apostles spoke for Christ. That belief led Christians to value apostolic books. And those apostolic books eventually formed the New Testament that we know today.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.
In the prior post, we discussed the first basic fact about the New Testament canon, namely that the New Testament writings are the earliest Christian texts we possess. We were careful to make clear that the early date of these books does not make them canonical, but the early date does show that these books were written during a time period when eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive.
In this current post, we address the issue of “apocryphal” New Testament writings. These are writings that were not included in the New Testament, but have a similar genre (gospels, acts, letters, apocalypses, etc.). And these writings are often attributed to famous individuals, e.g., the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of John.
While we cannot go into extensive detail about these various apocryphal writings, we can at least note one basic fact that is often overlooked: all of these apocryphal writings are dated to the second century or later. Thus, this post is the corollary of the prior one. Not only are all New Testament writings from the first century, but all apocryphal writings (at least the ones that are extant) are from the second century or later. And many are from the third or fourth century.
What is particularly noteworthy about this fact is that even critical scholars agree. While there is dispute over the dating of some New Testament books (e.g., 2 Peter, the Pastoral Epistles), there is virtual unanimity over the late date of apocryphal books. There are, of course, fringe attempts to place some apocryphal writings into the first century—e.g., Crossan argues that a “cross gospel” embedded in the Gospel of Peter is from the first century—but these suggestions have not been widely received.
The observation of this simple fact quickly calls into question sensationalistic claims about how these “lost” books contain the “real” version of Christianity.
Of course, one might argue that later texts can still preserve authentic first-century Christian tradition. After all, a text doesn’t have to be written in the first century to contain material from the first century. True. But we would still need to have a compelling reason to accept these later texts over our earlier ones. And when it comes to these apocryphal writings, compelling reasons are in short supply.
For one, we know that many of these apocryphal writings are outright forgeries, pretending to be written by someone who was clearly not the author. That fact alone raises serious questions about the reliability of their content. Second, many of these apocryphal writings contain obvious embellishments and legendary additions. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges from the tomb as a giant whose head reaches the clouds, and he is followed by the cross itself which then speaks (!). And third, many of these apocryphal writings contain a Gnostic-style theology that did not even emerge until the second century, and therefore could not represent authentic first-century Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Philip).
To be clear, this does not suggest that it is impossible, in principle, for an apocryphal writing to be first century (it’s just that we have not found one yet). Nor does this suggest that apocryphal writings could not (or did not) ever contain reliable Jesus tradition. We know that early Christians sometimes appealed to apocryphal gospels as containing some true material (more on this in a later post). But, and this is the key point, the scraps of apocryphal literature that may be reliable do not present a version of Christianity that is out of sync with what we find in the New Testament books, and are certainly not in a position to supersede what we find in the New Testament books.
In the end, apocryphal writings constitute an interesting and fascinating source for the study of early Christianity. But, largely due to their late date, they do not offer a more compelling version of Christianity than the New Testament writings themselves.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
In the midst of the high-octane cultural wars of the last five years—particularly the debate over homosexual marriage—evangelical Christians have been slapped with all sorts of pejorative labels. Words such as “bigoted,” “arrogant,” “exclusive,” “dogmatic,” and “homophobic” are just a few.
But there are probably two labels that stand out the most. First, Christians are regularly regarded as intolerant. Christians are not only regarded as intolerant religiously—because they affirm the words of Jesus that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)—but they are regarded as intolerant ethically because they refuse to approve any and all behaviors as morally good.
Second, Christians are regularly (and ironically) regarded as haters. Apparently, our modern world regards the act of telling someone they’re wrong as a form of hatred—it is a slight against mankind (of course, it is never explained how the charge does not apply equally in the other direction, since those who make this charge are telling Christians they are wrong; but we shall leave that issue unaddressed for the time being).
Needless to say, such a situation can be very discouraging to Christians in the modern day. We might be tempted to despair and think that the church is entering into dark days. But a little historical perspective might be useful here. Truth be told, this is not the first time Christians have received such labels. Indeed, they were given to Christians from the very beginning.
Pliny the Younger: Christians are Intolerant
It is well known that in the Greco-Roman world there was a pantheon of gods. Every group had their own deities, and they were easily and naturally placed alongside other deities. For the most part, no one objected to the existence of other gods. It was a polytheistic world.
Of course, the earliest Christians were as monotheistic as their Jewish predecessors and quite unwilling to play along with the standard religious practices of Greco-Roman culture. For Roman rulers trying to keep the peace, the Christian intolerance of other gods was a perennial frustration.
Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bythinia (writing c. 111–113), expressed his own frustration over the fact that Christians would not “invoke the gods.” In a letter to emperor Trajan, he lamented their “stubborness and unyielding obstinancy.” In other words, he was angry over their intolerance.
Why was Pliny so bothered by this? Because the influence of the Christians had caused the pagan temples to be “deserted,” and, thus, “very few purchasers could be found” for the sacrificial animals.
In other words, they were losing money.
To fix the problem, Pliny decided to force Christians to worship the pagan gods and curse Christ, and if they refused they were put to death. He says, “As I am informed that people who are really Christians cannot possibly be made to do any of those things.”
It is interesting to note that Pliny, while torturing these Christians, acknowledges their high moral standards: “[Christians] bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
Apparently, intolerance of the Roman gods is a enough of a reason to kill Christians, despite their holy lives.
Nero: Christians are Haters
In the late first-century, the Roman emperor Nero made himself famous for his persecution of Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that under Nero,
Mockery of every sort was added to their [Christians'] death. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, as exhibiting a show in the circus.
So, what awful crimes did Christians commit to warrant such unthinkable torture? Tacitus acknowledges that Christians weren’t really guilty of the trumped up charges of setting fire to the city. Instead, he admits they were killed for “hatred against mankind.”
What had Christians done to warrant the charge of “haters”? Again, they refused to condone the pantheon of gods and religious practices that went along with them.
In sum, the stories of Pliny and Nero are both encouraging and frightening at the same time. They are frightening because they sound eerily similar to the kind of language and accusations being used today against Christians. But instead of Christians being asked to pay homage to the Roman gods to prove their acceptability, they are now being asked to pay homage to the gods of tolerance or homosexual marriage or what have you.
At the same time, these stories are encouraging. They remind us that this sort of persecution isn’t new. Indeed, this persecution was not the end of Christianity, but was the beginning. In the midst of it, the church grew, and thrived, and expanded.
As Christ said, “I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not stand against it” (Matt 16:18).
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Recently I have been doing some work on the Gospel of John and first-century Jewish monotheism. Anyone who explores the high Christology in John is forced to ask how it would have (or could have) emerged within a monotheistic context. How could early Jews have believed in the one true God of Israel, and also have believed that Jesus was divine?
There are many scholarly works that prove helpful in this discussion, but one of the best is the collection of essays by my doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, in his wonderful book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005).
For the past twenty-five years Larry has been at the forefront of historical investigations into the origins of Jesus devotion within early Christianity. With his groundbreaking work One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; reprint T&T Clark, 2003), Hurtado laid forth the argument that worship of Jesus amongst early Christians was much earlier than previously thought—a monumental fact given that such devotion arose within circles of Second-Temple devout Jews. In 2003, he published Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, which in many ways is a capstone work that continues his fundamental investigation into early Jesus devotion and draws together much of his research over the past two decades.
How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is a more compact presentation of Hurtado’s prior research and pulls together a number of previous publications on the subject (mainly journal articles) as well as material from the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.
All the chapters in the volume are helpful, but the first two are the most foundational. In chapter one, Hurtado gives us the lay of the land by surveying the variety of other approaches to Jesus devotion within early Christianity, offering a brief critical review of each of them, so that his own approach can be seen in contrast to its scholarly competitors. In particular, he sets his sites on the “evolutionary” approach most aptly represented by William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), which argued that worship of Jesus arose with Gentile Christian circles heavily influenced by the pagan Greco-Roman cult.
It is here that the key historical issue at hand is crystallized. The challenge, argues Hurtado, is not simply explaining how Jesus was seen as divine by early Christians, but rather the challenge is explaining the manner in which he was seen as divine. Early Christians drew a sharp line between their worship of Jesus and all the other pagan gods of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus was not simply a new addition to a pantheon of gods they already believed in, but was considered to be the only God rightly deserving of worship.
The exclusive nature of such worship is monotheistic at the core and suggests a Jewish origin, not a pagan-Gentile one. It is such remarkable devotion to Jesus, within a monotheistic context, that demands some sort of serious historical explanation. Hurtado declares, “But it was a major and unprecedented move for people influenced by the exclusive monotheistic stance of Second-Temple Judaism to include another figure singularly alongside God as the recipient of cultic devotion in their worship gatherings” (25).
In chapter two, Hurtado continues his response to the evolutionary model by developing a larger argument for why devotion to Jesus originated from within a monotheistic Jewish context. Hurtado bases his argument on two primary pillars: (a) He argues that such devotion to Jesus can be traced so far back into the first century (even to the 40s) that an evolutionary model simply does not have time to work; and (b) the demographic origin of such devotion in the earliest followers of Jesus is decidedly Jewish (particularly in the crucial first few decades). Even though diaspora communities were influenced broadly by pagan culture, there are no reasons to think that such influence would have caused Jewish believers to question the uniqueness of the one true God of Israel; indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.
Hurtado concludes, therefore, that the earliest devotion to Jesus was in some sense “binitarian.” Christians worshiped Jesus not a second god, but worshiped him alongside the one true God of the Jews. Such a radical and astounding “mutation” within early monotheistic Judaism cannot be accounted for, argues Hurtado, by the evolutionary model (or, for that matter, most other current models).
Overall, this volume by Hurtado continues to expand his already compelling argument that worship of Jesus was a remarkably early innovation that demands rigorous historical investigation. Perhaps more than any other scholar in recent years, Hurtado has doggedly pursued this one issue and has thankfully caused the scholarly community to engage in deeper and more thorough historical reflections on the subject.
Thus, he has succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate over the origins of Christianity and the nature of the historical Jesus. Instead of getting drawn into endless discussions about historical sources, redaction criticism, and the like, Hurtado has refreshingly streamlined the discussion by asking simple questions about the origins of the beliefs and practices of early Christians. Such beliefs and practices cannot simply be observed by the modern scholar, but they demand historical explanations for their existence. It is at this point that the biblical explanation (early Christians experienced the resurrection of Jesus) shows itself to be the most compelling.
Note: Much of this review of Hurtado’s book was originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 369-372.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.