Category Archives: Pseudonymity, authority, and canon

Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament (NT 2.1)

In teaching early Christianity in a university setting, there are a number of assumptions and views that need to be corrected or dismantled in order to clear the way for students to make better sense of these ancient documents. Something that does not often occur to students and which needs to be highlighted again and again is that Christians of the first three centuries (and even beyond) did not have a New Testament! You heard me.

They did have what they considered scriptures, namely the Jewish writings known as the Law and the Prophets, but the process that led to the collection of writings or canon we now know as the “New Testament” was a long one. (Obviously the notion of the Jewish scriptures being the “Old Testament” would have to await the existence of the “New” one). In fact, the earliest evidence we have of any church body establishing a list of authoritative Christian books that coincides exactly with the 27 books now in the New Testament was in 393 CE. Even that emerged out of a local meeting of church authorities in North Africa rather than some “universal” decision that was implemented in some way.

The process that led to the collection of writings that were considered authoritative as scripture, namely the canon, was a long one which I will not detail here, except to note that early on Christians were collecting and using Christian writings of various sorts. Sometimes one community used the same writings as another community, but seldom did everyone agree which ones should be considered “scripture”, if they considered this issue at all. In some cases writings accepted by one community could be utterly rejected as “heretical” by another, as was the case with many “gnostic” writings. The process of choosing the writings that were considered canon and excluding certain other documents was, in some ways, the triumph of one Christian view over another. To provide another example, in the mid-second century Marcion of Sinope had clear ideas of what he would include in an authoritative collection, including the Gospel of Luke and certain letters of Paul, but he did so in a way that tried to excise any passages that seemed to equate the Jewish God with the God who sent Jesus (he thought there were two gods involved).

Others disagreed with Marcion, although some began to agree that it was worthwhile thinking about defining which writings were authoritative. One early list of writings that has survived, known as the Muratorian canon (perhaps from around 200 CE), happens to largely coincide with the books that were later included in the New Testament. But other Christians at this time would make a different list nonetheless, and even the Muratorian canon mentions an Apocalypse of Peter (perhaps the same one available here) which some held to be authoritative but which did not ultimately make it into the New Testament. And the issue of including or excluding the Apocalypse of John, also known as Revelation, continued to be hotly debated into the fourth century, for instance.

Rather than get further into the long and complicated history behind the formation of the canon of scripture, here I wanted to briefly mention one important implication of the non-existence of the New Testament in the first centuries. In particular, the lack of any established, authoritative collection of writings and the variations in the writings used by different Christian groups reflected and further facilitated the continuation of variety or diversity among early Christians. And when there were differences of opinion regarding belief or practice among these diverse Christian groups, there was no set of early Christian writings that everyone could agree was the measure (the meaning of the word “canon” is “measure” or “rule”) or authority to settle disputes regarding what belief or practice was right or wrong.

This means that the modern student of early Christianity should not assume that the views expressed in any one writing are somehow representative of all early Christian views. It also means that we should refrain from solving the dilemnas encountered in studying one early Christian writing by turning to another by a different author, as though they are all the same. Finally, we should consider the writings in the New Testament within the broader context of early Christian literature that did not make it in, and give each its due.

For more on the diversity of early Christianity, see my series on the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism”.

Thecla, Tertullian, and controversies over women’s leadership (NT Apocrypha 18)

Among the controversies that led to conflicts between early Christians (both authors and groups) was the role of women within the congregations. Leadership was generally undefined and varied from one Christian group to the next in the first century. As certain Christian authors and leaders (such as Ignatius and the author of the Pastoral epistles) began to seek and impose a clear definition of leadership structures (especially beginning at the turn of the second century) there was a tendency to expressly exclude women from the more important positions in the newly emerging hierarchy in some congregations.

The Acts of Paul (and Thecla) (online here) is among the sources that attest to circles of Christians (in second century Asia Minor) who continued to see an important role for women in teaching and leading. The author presents a Thecla who is extremely attentive to Paul’s preaching (which centres on celibacy in this case) and who, in the end, baptizes herself in the midst of potential martyrdom in a pool of vicious seals (sharks?): “And when she had finished her prayer she turned around and saw a large pit full of water and said, ‘Now it is time to wash myself.’ And she threw herself in saying ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on my last day'” (34). Thecla ultimately goes on to have her own mission of “teach[ing] the word of God” with the acknowledgement of Paul (41) and “enlightened many” (43), according to this narrative. (Translations from J. K. Elliott, ed. and trans., The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993].)

The positive stance of this author to women’s leadership within the Christian congregations is mirrored, in some ways, in contemporary movements in Asia Minor specifically. The so called Phrygian movement (aka Montanism) was characterized by a heavy emphasis on prophetic authority, and its main charismatic leaders were two women prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla.

But there were opponents to this active role for women, including the author Tertullian who lived in North Africa and who, despite adopting some aspects of the Phrygian movement himself at a later point (esp. the prominence of the Spirit), openly opposed those who (most likely) used the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) to support women’s activity in baptizing converts in North Africa. Tertullian writes the followingin his treatise “On Baptism” (chapter 17; c. 200 CE):

“To round off our slight treatment of this subject it remains for me to advise you of the rules to be observed in giving and receiving baptism. The supreme right of giving it belongs to the high priest, which is the bishop: after him, to the presbyters and deacons, yet not without commission from the bishop, on account of the Church’s dignity. . . Except for that, even laymen have the right. . . But the impudence of that woman who assumed the right to teach is evidently not going to arrogate to her the right to baptize as well – unless perhaps some new serpent appears, like that original one, so that as that woman abolished baptism, some other should of her own authority confer it. But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home.'” (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism [London: SPCK, 1964]. Online source: The Tertullian Project).

Tertullian clearly opposes the local people in North Africa who appealed to writings associated with Paul and likely Thecla (the textual evidence for the reference to Thecla is shaky) which had women baptizing and teaching. Moreover, the modern historian should not take Tertullian’s perspective (or the perspective of those who spoke against the elder in Asia) as though it was an objective description of the situation. Also problematic would be to argue from this passage (as does Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 29-32) that Tertullian provides objective evidence that the author of the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of, “forgery” in some sort of official hearing (see the earlier posts on the “forgery” issue here and here). (Nor is this further evidence that writing in the name of a respected figure of the past was universally rejected, as implied by Ehrman). With both Tertullian and the opponents of the “elder” in Asia, we are witnessing one side of a many-sided struggle over how to define Christian practice within the congregations, and the figure of Paul (understood or portrayed differently) was one of the weapons in the struggle. Polemical rhetoric and accusations on any side of the struggle should not be mistaken for historical description.

“Forgery” (deceit) or “pseudonymity” (admiration): Ehrman’s take (NT Apocrypha 12)

View other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

One of the issues that has been raised in discussing Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is his free use of the term “forgery” in reference to early Christian literature (especially apocryphal literature; e.g. pp. 29-32 or thereabouts). Nor is he adverse to using accompanying notions of active “deceit” as well. He claims that ancient authors just about unanimously agreed in condemning the practice of presenting one’s own work as though by another respected figure (citing only the physician Galen, who had come across someone selling a work falsely in his name during his life-time). Certainly concepts such as forgery, deceit or related notions of conspiracy make for exciting reading, and Ehrman’s book is indeed intended for broad audiences (and still would have been exciting without these terms). Yet there is also a sense in which this take on writings that claim to be authored by some important figure of the past (apocryphal Gospels and Acts) is quite misleading.

More appropriate, I would suggest, is a recognition that, although moderns may see such practices of pseudonymity (“false-name” authorship) as improper or even criminal (I take plagiarism by students as a crime!), the ancients had very different cultural concepts when it comes to attributed authorship and the free use of figures (and their authority) from the past. The fact that the practice of attributing a work to some respected figure of the past was widespread in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, and that the ones doing this almost always liked or respected the figure whose identity they were “borrowing”, suggests that something other than deliberate deception and forgery was going on. Ehrman is far more on track when he briefly mentions, but does not explore in any detail, the fact that philosophers (neo-Pythagoreans) frequently produced writings in Pythagoras’ name with intentions involving (primarily) admiration and respect. Namely, they wished not only to give a hearing to their writings by calling on Pythagoras’ authority, but also to show just how well they (imagined they) could continue to express what Pythagoras would say if he were still around. They “forged” for the love of Pythagoras, so to speak, and their intentions were focussed on inspiring similar respect or honour for this philosopher on the part of their readers or hearers. This is, in large part, what was going on in the case of most early Christian apocryphal writings attributed to apostles or other respected figures. We are better off steering away from value-loaded terms in the study of religion and in avoiding misconceptions about active deceit or underhanded dealings in relation to writings of the past, even if the language of conspiracy would make things seem far more exciting.

(Excuse the lack of references to page numbers in Ehrman here [except the one section whose page numbers I remembered, hopefully], since I do not have the work with me at the moment. I had to express myself when it came to me nonetheless).

UPDATES AND CLARIFICATIONS: Definitely see the ongoing discussions in the comments section.

CLARIFICATION (Mon, Sept 19): Just to clarify what I am or am not saying here (also see comments): I am saying that Ehrman’s blanket use of “forgery” to describe a variety of different writings is likely to obscure a variety of things that were actually going on, especially in terms of motivations behind writing a document in the name of someone else. In some, perhaps many, cases using the term “forgery” to describe apocryphal writings would give a false impression to the modern reader, especially implying negative motivations of deceit on the part of ancient authors in question. Motivations are very difficult to determine (even among contemporaries let alone someone living over a thousand years ago in a different culture), but in engaging in historical study we are better off not assuming negative motivations (on the part of our historical subjects) unless there is actual evidence of such. In other words, we need to approach writings that claim authorship by an important figure on a case by case basis, attempting to assess what is going on (and what motivations may be involved) in a particular case. There is a sense in which my objections to Ehrman’s approach arise more from historiographical concerns (from how I approach history) than they do from any specific concerns or positions about the pseudonymity issue. Hope this clarifies things even though there are so many more issues to deal with that will never be sufficiently solved.

I just pulled out my marked up version of Bruce M. Metzger’s classic article (“Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 [1972] 3-24), which does begin to try to sort through the variety of motivations that may have been involved in pseudepigraphy (e.g. financial gain, malice and defamation, respect, modesty, practicing one’s rhetorical abilities, etc, etc), as well as the differing receptions of such writings. It is worth a read, if you’re interested.

By the way, my position arose not from the Metzger article (which I had forgotten about and had read years ago [my memory is not that great;] and only dug out in hindsight to see what he said, and with which I disagree on important points). My position, as I have stated, arises from my problems with Ehrman’s position based on his interpretation of particular evidence (e.g. the Thecla case) and from my overall approach to history, which avoids imagining I can understand the motivations or intentions (whether “deceitful” or otherwise) of a large number of different persons in antiquity (see above and comments). The term forgery entails active and self-conscious deceit, with the implication that it is a “crime” (in my Webster’s dictionary and in popular usage, at least). This is not an appropriate blanket term to use in reference to writings in the name of a respected figure in antiquity, though there may be a few cases where it’s closer to the mark than some other terms.