Friday, April 07, 2006

The Bible for Dummies 2

[Time for another episode in our ongoing series on the Bible for Dummies. This time, it's a comment on Crooks and Liars that provokes the beast. Edifying enough that I thought everyone should have a look.]

"Kindly note that the New Testaments composed just 4 main Gospels and were deliberetely chosen by the Church Council in the 4-5th centuries AD. Many Church writings were excluded that did not fit the Church idea of its history such as the Gnostic writings, which included writings by Jesus as a man, not as a son of god, and pieces that made it clear that events like the snake and the apple were just moral fables and not historial facts."

This is a very strange reading of the history of canonization. The earliest known canon (list of trustworthy books) is called the Muratorian fragment (or canon) and it dates c. 170 AD. It is a survey of books approved for reading in church. Every book in the New Testament was acceptable except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John (on which books the list is silent). The canon includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter (although admitting that not everyone accepts the latter). I think this is the Wisdom in the Catholic deuterocanon. The survey also excludes books now understood to be spurious or heretical (for instance, rejecting a psalm book written under the influence of the Marcionite heresy, which heresy originated c. 130 AD, and also The Shepherd of Hermas, which was not a bad book, but not for church).

The church councils in large part served to carve out official orthodoxy against heretical movements (as for instance, the Athanasian Creed was written as a response to the Arian heresy), but they did so in a context of unofficial orthodoxy.

I say this to note that the locus of canonical Christian documents crystallized much earlier than 300-400 AD. In fact, you would have to date it to 170 AD at the latest because the Muratorian fragment was written in such a context of unofficial orthodoxy. Canonization was a fluid process, because people had different opinions on the merit of X or Y book (still happens; mister sola scriptura himself, Martin Luther, disliked the book of James and wished it wasn't in the New Testament), but there was a large consensus on the whole.

Read all about it in Metzger's The Canon of the New Testament.


That's the end of the original comment, but I'll add a personal note. During college when I was supposed to be figuring out what to do with my life, I used the amazing University of Washington Libraries to figure out what to do with my religion. I was attracted mainly by CS Lewis' mere Christianity and GK Chesterton's romance of orthodoxy. The idea was that people will disagree about doctrines here and there, but there is a real Christian core that has been preserved beyond differences of culture (or perhaps through differences of culture). I wanted to find out what it was.

This took me into a study of early Christianity, which I strongly, strongly recommend to anyone who gives a fig about Jesus, God, and Christianity. The largest lesson I learned was that God wants us to pursue grace and love and mercy and justice, not just truth and right belief and bright lines between Christianity and not-Christianity.

But I also learned a lot about what those early Christians thought Christianity was all about. It turns out the line is very muddled, especially on the boundary cases. Any straightforward definition of Christianity is bound to be deceptive. To me this is a feature, not a bug. It means the faith is squishy and alive, not just carved in tablets on Mount Sinai.

The reason I recommend the study of early Christianity is that you will see the faith growing in real time, see people honestly wrestling questions that had no pat answers back then. Instead of parroting what their pastor told them, they had to figure it out on the fly. What is the Bible? What is God? Who is Jesus? What is a right relationship with God? What is salvation? What is true doctrine? Does it matter?

You learn more from this than just what answers they came up with. Human life in the twenty-first century holds many questions for Jesus and Christianity (whether you believe it or not). The way we respond to those questions with our words and deeds should be a living, honest struggle. Would we could do it as well as the early Christians, whether or not we agree with what they eventually produced.

1 comment:

Becki Jayne said...

Hi, Dan,

Caught your site link off of FDL, Taylor Marsh's post today, "Chocolate Eggs, Faith and the Democratic Party." I'm glad I did!

I'm always interested in Biblical info so email me whenever you post such. I like to follow that type of material as you can see if you visit my artist website and as a featured artist at

Email me:

I've bookmarked this post and I may peruse your blog for more insights.


Becki Jayne