Creating the New Testament
The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon
Geoffrey Mark Hahneman
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 237 pp., $49.95
The Muratorian Fragment is a short document—traditionally dated to the late second century and written in bad Latin—that addresses the question of whether certain writings should be considered Scripture. In other words, it defines what we call a New Testament canon. The fragment’s list is an interesting one: the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen Pauline letters, 1 and 2 John, Jude, Revelation, the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter.
In addition to listing works considered scriptural, the Muratorian fragment also mentions two other categories of early Christian texts. In the first category is a work that the fragment advises Christians to study privately but not to read publicly in church: the Shepherd of Hermas. The second category consists of works that should not be read at all: certain forgeries of Pauline letters and texts written by followers of Marcion and other “heretics.” The Muratorian Fragment makes no mention of Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter and 3 John, although some of these may have been omitted accidentally and not deliberately.
The Muratorian Fragment has been extremely important in the study of early Christianity because of its hitherto widely-accepted second-century origin. Nearly all other evidence for Christian interest in defining the canon comes from the fourth century; therefore a fragment from the second century would be the earliest witness to the definition of the New Testament canon. Although its list of books differs from what the churches finally accepted, it shows that a core New Testament canon existed by the end of the second century. The Muratorian Fragment has thus been a cornerstone in our understanding of the formation of the New Testament canon and the star witness for anchoring this formation in the second century.
In this new book, Geoffrey Mark Hahneman challenges the traditional second-century dating of the Muratorian Fragment, presenting a sustained and detailed argument that it was actually written in the fourth century, around 375. His persuasive argument is methodologically sound, and his examination of the relevant evidence is meticulous.
Hahneman makes his case in four broad strokes. First, he scrutinizes the argument for the traditional second-century dating of the fragment and shows it to be unsupported by a critical assessment of the evidence. Second, he argues that the content of the fragment points to a fourth-century date. Third, he lays out what we know of the history of the Christian canon and demonstrates two things: the canon was not definitively established before the fourth century, and the contents and characteristics of the fragment match fourth-century developments, but are completely anomalous in the second century. Fourth, Hahneman surveys other extant New Testament lists, all from the fourth century, and shows that the Muratorian Fragment is perfectly at home among them.
Hahneman begins his discussion by distinguishing the concept of Scripture from the concept of canon: “Scripture” is religious literature that is appealed to for authority, while “canon” is a strictly defined collection of Scripture. He points out that many early Christian writers listed books they regarded as Scripture without defining a canon, that is, without claiming that only those books and none other are Scripture. The church used Scripture long before it had a canon. Hahneman describes the process of the canon’s formation in three stages: first, Christian writings came to be regarded as Scripture; 013second, groups of scriptural books were pulled into subcollections: the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles and the Catholic Epistles; third, lists of books in the New Testament (canons in the proper sense) were produced and accepted.
The first steps toward a canon were taken with the Gospels. In the second century, gospel harmonies were written that rearranged and edited different Gospels. This demonstrates that the Gospels were not yet regarded as Scripture—as unalterable and authoritative. Tatian’s Diatessaron, produced in about 170, added other documents to the four Gospels, showing that the four were not yet an exclusive set. Around 180, the heresy fighter Irenaeus became the first to assert that four and only four Gospels are Scripture; his belabored arguments reveal that he was introducing a new idea. The four-Gospel canon is widely attested in the early third century and was firmly established by the second half of that century. The four Gospels are the only books to be gathered into a closed subcollection prior to the fourth century. This demonstrates how anomalous the Muratorian Fragment would be if it dated to the second century, for it has not only a four-Gospel canon, but an entire New Testament canon.
Turning to the New Testament letters, Hahneman finds that a collection of Paul’s letters to seven churches (the letters to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessalonica) seems to have been known and accepted toward the end of the second century, and that a core of the Catholic Epistles (1 Peter and 1 John) might have been accepted in the early third century. This was not yet a canon, however, for, apart from the four Gospels, there is no evidence that Christians even had the idea of a closed collection of Scripture, a list to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be subtracted, before the fourth century.
Hahneman’s book is a superlative example of scholarly research and writing. Well organized, clearly written and thorough, it deals patiently with all the relevant evidence and converses with a wide range of scholarship. This thoroughness makes the book both persuasive to other scholars and a bit tedious to non-specialists. Hahneman presupposes that his readers have advanced knowledge of Latin, a solid background in patristics (the study of the early Church Fathers) and a familiarity with patristic scholarship. Hahneman’s findings are important to anyone interested in understanding how the New Testament came together. They deserve a wider audience than only those equipped to read his book.
The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies
Jon D. Levenson
(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 207 pp., $14.99
As a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University with appointments in both the Divinity School and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Jon Levenson is equally at home in theological discourse and historical criticism. His new book, a collection of six previously published essays, offers an important challenge to both fields. The essays deal in different ways with two interrelated issues.
The first issue is whether historical criticism of the Bible is independent of theological and confessional studies. Levenson argues that it is not independent, insofar as previous academic biblical studies have been heavily influenced by Protestant liberal theology with a strong anti-Jewish bias. Yet even if one could eliminate all such bias and practice historical criticism as pure science, the privileged place of biblical studies within the academy rests on the fact that Jews and Christians regard the Bible as Scripture.
The second issue Levenson addresses is theological. He argues that there can be no common “canonical” interpretation of the Bible among Jews and Christians because they use two different canons (Tanakh, that is, the Hebrew Bible, as distinct from the Old and New Testaments) and two different, even opposing, theological traditions. The effort by liberal Jews and Christians to use historical criticism as a common ground for biblical interpretation succeeds only to the extent that there is no expressed commitment to a traditionalist community. However, when the biblical theology movementa used historical criticism to support its claim that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old Testament, it invariably dismissed Judaism as having no real continuity with the Bible.
Levenson does not reject historical criticism, but regards it as ancillary to a larger “context” of biblical interpretation that includes traditionalist modes of interpretation. He feels that a specifically Jewish hermeneutic is necessary to overcome the frequent caricatures of Judaism within the Christian interpretive tradition, and to serve, rather alienate, the Jewish community whose identity is so closely tied to the Bible. The last essay in the book is an example of how such a broadened hermeneutic is to be carried out.
Although the essays are somewhat repetitive in theme and examples, the book is lively and presents lucid arguments. The author’s style is honest, forthright and fair. Levenson offers a spirited apologetic for Jewish interpretation to be taken seriously in biblical studies, with much good reason to back him up.
Yet I have some reservations about his denial of autonomy to historical criticism. Most of his denunciation of biased historical criticism is directed at German scholarship, where there is no institutional separation between theological faculties and humanistic disciplines. The reason for Christian bias in European universities is therefore all too obvious. Levenson cites with approval the Israeli scholar Yehezkel 014Kaufmann’s sustained attack on Julius Wellhausen’s liberal Protestant bias. But he fails to note that Kaufmann constructed an equally biased hypothesis of the Pentateuch, according to which the Law (priestly Torah) came before the prophets, thus supporting Judaism’s claim to the Law as basic to the prophetic revelation that followed. This has become the scholarly orthodoxy in Israel today. Levenson might also have noted that the great biblical scholar W. F. Albright wrote a book, From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940), that likewise reflects a liberal Protestant theology, but is highly critical of Wellhausen’s methods.
Levenson argues that the historical-critical method, even when correctly used, cannot do justice to the text of the Bible because it denies the long history of interpretation within the traditionalist communities. But what does it mean to “do justice” to a text? It seems to me perfectly possible to do justice to a text in different ways, one of which in the academic context is to study it as the work of a particular author in a particular historical situation, even if the text is now anonymous. To argue that traditionalist interpretations must also be considered in context seems to me like insisting that creationist views of the universe must be included in the study of physics and biology, just because they have been around for over 2,500 years.
Those interested in the debate about the place of historical criticism in the study of the Bible, as well as those who argue for “canonical” methods of interpretation (approaches characterized by careful attention to the final shape of biblical books and to their place in the canon of Scripture), should read this stimulating and provocative book.
Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil
(New York: Free Press, 1992) 222 pp., $22.95
Anyone who doubts the power of the figure of Christ’s betrayer to fascinate modern audiences should consider the character of Judas in popular films like Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus of Nazareth or The Last Temptation of Christ. Each film portrays a Judas with whom moviegoers can sympathize—perhaps even more than with the character of Jesus. The Judas of these films acts not out of greed or malice, as the Gospels assert, but from a keen awareness of political realities to which his Lord seems tragically oblivious. This loyal, passionate and thoroughly Jewish Judas is the real Judas, these films tell us, and he has received a bad rap in the Gospels.
In the first chapter of his new book, Hyam Maccoby, historian at Leo Baeck College in London, explores the role of Judas in the Western imagination. He wants to know not only what historical facts lie behind the dark picture of Judas in the Gospels, but also why later traditions of medieval legends and Passion Plays used Judas to portray the Jewish people as Christ’s invidious betrayers. That equation, well established by the time of Jerome (fifth century C.E.), winds through the European Christian imagination (traced by representative works of art in 13 plates in the book) and reappears in anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda of the 1930s.
In the next four chapters, Maccoby addresses the “enigma” of the New Testament sources. Paul, our earliest New Testament witness, wrote nothing of the Judas story. Instead, he passed on a tradition in which the risen Jesus appeared to “Kephas, then 015to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5). Only after the Roman war against Judea in 66–73 C.E. did the Gospels begin to set Judas apart as the betrayer, and to specify that only 11 disciples saw Jesus risen from the dead (Matthew 28:16; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:33). Maccoby finds the introduction of this betrayal theme rather artificial in its initial appearance in Mark: Judas’s motive in going to the high priests is not given, and he suddenly “appears” in the garden of Gethsemane without any indication that he had previously left Jesus or the other disciples. The later Gospels remedy these gaps, rendering Judas banal (John makes him an embezzler) or demonic (in Luke), specifying that Jesus knew his character from the start (even to the point of complicity in his own betrayal) and giving lurid accounts of Judas’s suicide.
Maccoby ties these developments, which he considers logical outgrowths of the Judas myth, to the Evangelists’ efforts to shift responsibility for Jesus’ death away from the Romans and toward the Jews of Jerusalem. In pursuing this argument, Maccoby is in line with the best of recent New Testament scholarship. Any reader aware of the dreadful legacy of Christian anti-Judaism will be prepared to acknowledge the book’s main thesis: “the Judas myth has functioned, and still functions, as a vehicle of antisemitism.” That Judas was singled out for this role has less to do with historical fact, Maccoby argues, than with the coincidence that his name echoes the name of a people made a scapegoat by the Christian religion. In Maccoby’s speculative reconstruction (chapter nine), which he considers “less urgent” than his critique of the Judas myth, only one Judas belonged to the Circle of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 10:2–4, Mark 3:16–19), a Zealot (Maccoby relates “Iscariot” to “sicarius,” or “dagger-man”), who was the same man as Judas the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).
Maccoby argues that the myth of Judas the traitor first arose when the original faith of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem degenerated into a Greco-Roman religion of sacrifice. In earlier works Maccoby has argued that the responsibility for this corruption lies with Paul “the mythmaker” (The Mythmaker, 1986; Paul and Hellenism, 1991). A sacrificial religion requires not only a savior-victim, but also a “sacred executioner” (The Sacred Executioner, 1982) onto whom believers may project their tremendous ambivalence about the death that has brought them salvation. This present book, then, is part of a much more extensive challenge to the Christian religion’s account of its origins, based on the one hand on a critique of the Christian theology of sacrifice, and on the other hand on a view of early Christian history that Maccoby explicitly derives from the 19th-century German historian F. C. Baur. Both aspects deserve comment.
Troubled by the implication that God is bound by a logic of vicarious punishment, many Christian theologians have begun to question whether Christianity must inevitably be understood as a religion of sacrifice. In related discussions, New Testament scholars have asked whether Christianity was a sacrificial religion from its inception. Perhaps the greatest stimulus for these conversations has come from Rene Girard (Violence and the Sacred, 1977; The Scapegoat, 1986; Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, 1987). Like Girard, Maccoby insists that Jesus himself did not intend to become the sacrificial victim that the later church made him. But Maccoby argues that transformation is at work already in the Gospels, while Girard insists the Gospels do not promote, but in fact subvert, the sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death. There is obviously a great deal at stake for Christian theology in this debate.
Now those conversations are shifting from the Gospels to Paul, as for example in Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s anti-sacrificial reading of Paul (Sacred Violence, 1992). In contrast, Maccoby argues not only that Paul invented the sacrificial version of Christianity, but that when his version triumphed it eclipsed all but the slightest glimpses of the earliest church in Jerusalem. Here Maccoby follows Baur, who read the New Testament as the propaganda of the winning side in an ecclesiastical war.
Questions arise when an author’s view of the history behind texts seems to predetermine how they will be read. For example, when the Gospels implicate Judas as Jesus’ betrayer, Maccoby reads them as the fabrications of Pauline myth. Yet his reconstruction of the innocent Judas, Jesus’ Zealot brother, depends on a delicate web of connections based on references from these very same texts. Maccoby thus asks us to suppose that the Gospels provide reliable, yet fragmentary data that somehow escaped the editing of Pauline censors, but that the Gospel accounts based on these data are distortions.
Nevertheless, Maccoby has written an insightful and provocative work. We might best measure his book by the questions it raises for all of us—demanding how we know what we think we know about Jesus and Judas.
Creating the New Testament
The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon