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The New Testament and Diversity

October 19, 2010

Over the last few decades numerous scholars have noted with some excitement that the NT comprises a certain interesting diversity.  Well, the first (informed) response would be “Well, yeah. How clever to note this.  That’s something commented on and wrestled over from at least as early as the second century CE.”  (It’s sometimes amusing to see the self-congratulatory capabilities of modern scholarship.) 

We know that, e.g., there were second-century Christians agitated about how more than one Gospel could be treated as scripture when they differ.  So, Marcion’s solution was to select one and only one.  And Tatian’s solution was to try to weave the four Gospels together into one harmonized work (the “Diatessaron”).    Likewise, Marcion insisted that there could be only one authoritative apostolic voice, and for him that was the Apostle Paul.  So, only Pauline epistles, no others in his canon.

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.   (As as to the mainstream Christian rejection of the stance reflected in Gospel of Thomas, I’m reminded of the quip from the American comic, Jerry Seinfeld:  “Sometimes the road less taken is less taken for a reason!”)

So, historically, the NT represents the inclusiveness that characterized earliest “proto-orthodoxy” (as I’ve noted in my chapter on “Proto-Orthodox Devotion” in Lord Jesus Christ, 563-648).  For Christians thinking about diversity among themselves today, there just might something there worth pondering.

  1. Great thread. Great responses prof. Hurtado.

  2. None of the authors of the writings that became canon had any idea that they were writing a bible, either.

    The point isn’t that the authors of the “lost gospels” had no claim to inspiration, while the NT authors did.

    It’s that none of the authors of any of the ancient writings were consciously trying to create scripture. What became canonical was selected based on the opinions of church authorities centuries later.

    • Sure, none of the authors likely thought they were preparing texts for a NT (which hadn’t entered anyone’s mind at their point of writing). But I didn’t mention “inspiration”, and that isn’t my point. Instead, my point was that the process of canon-formation was a historical process, not some church-council decision. That process took a few centuries to complete, but it began quite early, likely early 2nd century or perhaps even a bit earlier.
      Also, in the case of texts such as Gospel of Thomas, the strong elitist tone suggests that there was no aim of being linked with other Christian voices, whether in an emerging body of Christian scriptures or any other format.
      Finally, Paul clearly wrote his letters to be read in his churches, and he kitted them out with liturgical features (e.g., his “grace and peace” salutation, and his “grace benedictions”), as is commonly recognized among scholars. And in 1 Cor 14:37-38, Paul demands that his letter be regarded as even superseding prophetic claims. So his letters took on a scripture-like significance and function pretty early on (or at least that’s what Paul sought).

      • I don’t disagree with your basic set of facts. But I don’t see how the formation of the canon as a historical process made by mutliple church councils over centuries gives the scripture any greater claim to authority or inspiration.

        Instead, to me it is evidence of just how thoroughly human it is, reflecting the ideas and culture of the authors rather than anything divine.

        And that Paul expected his letters to be read in multiple gatherings and that he expected people to regard his words with authority is different than saying that he thought of them as scriptural or that we should take any significance to that in our lives.

        The author of the Gospel of Thomas (as one of many examples ancient and modern) probably thought of his work in the same way as Paul, but that doesn’t cause us to believe he was any more or less inspired. For that, we should look to the ideas presented and how well they stand up to the world as we know it.

      • You’re reading into my post themes not there. I said nothing about inspiration. Nor did I deny that the texts are products of human authors. I didn’t refer to multiple church councils either.
        My points have been these (itemized for clarity): (1) the NT represents a collection of texts with varying emphases and themes, and this reflects an interesting stance by the churches that formed the NT in favor of such critical diversity; and (2) this stands in contrast to the more elitist and exclusivist stance reflected in texts such as Gospel of Thomas, which essentially presents itself as giving a secret and higher version of revelation, over against which other forms of Christianity are way second-class at best.
        What you do or don’t do with the NT texts is your business. For those inclined to treat the NT as scripture, I simply noted that they might find it worth pondering that the diversity reflected in the NT might be seen as a basis for a critical ecumenicity today.

  3. “It’s sometimes amusing to see the self-congratulatory capabilities of modern scholarship.”
    Ha! Yes!

  4. Stephan Huller has an excellent series of articles about Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome. Some excellent stuff. Would be cool, if others in the industry can pick up the ball and run with it.


    • I don’t really know who Stephan Huller is (sorry, I don’t spend much time cruising blog sites!). But I can recommend a really fine collection of intro-level studies of key early Christian figures:
      Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures, edited by Paul Foster (London: SPCK, 2010). The chapters derive from a series of articles that appeared in the journal Expository Times over 2008-2009, and the authors are a constellation of respected scholars in early Christianity.

      • ANNANG ASUMANG permalink

        I can’t help but say, “Amen” to what you have said, Prof.

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