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Historical Roots of “Trinitarian” Theology

I’m pleased to have a contribution included in a recently-published multi-author volume: The Bible and Early Trinitarian Theology, eds. Christopher A. Beeley and Mark E. Weedman (Catholic University of America Press, 2018; the publisher’s online catalogue entry here).

The book arose from a multi-year consultation unit in the Society of Biblical Literature, and I am honored to be included with a stellar group of scholars in NT and Patristics.  After an introduction by the editors, here are the contents:

“Scholarship on the Old Testament Roots of Trinitarian Theology:  Blind Spots and Blurred Vision,” Bogdan G. Bucur

“Observations on the ‘Monotheism’ Affirmed in the New Testament,” Larry W. Hurtado

“Trinitarian Theology and the Fourth Gospel,” Harold W. Attridge

“The Johannine Riddles and Their Place in the Development of Trinitarian Theology,” Paul N. Anderson

“The Gospel of John and Early Trinitarian Thought:  The Unity of God in John, Irenaesus, and Tertullian,” Marianne Meye Thompson

“The Johannine Prologue before Origen,” Mark J. Edwards

“Basil of Caesarea on John 1:1 as an Affirmation of Pro-Nicene Trinitarian Doctrine,” Mark DelCogliano

“Paul and the Trinity,” Stephen E. Fowl

“Paul and His Legacy to Trinitarian Theology,” Adela Yarbro Collins

“The Image and Unity of God:  The Role of Colossians 1 in Theological Controversy,”   Jennifer R. Strawbridge

“The Spirit and the Letter:  2 Corinthians 3:6 and the Legacy of Origen in Fourth-Century Greek Exegesis,” Christopher A. Beeley

“Augustine’s Move from a Johannine to a Pauline Trinitarian Theology,” Mark E. Weedman

My contribution is a revised form of a presentation originally given at a conference in Lausanne several years ago.  I’ve uploaded the pre-publication form of the essay to this blog site under the “Selected Published Essays” tab here.

That Curious Fragment of the Gospel of Mark–Now Published

It appears that the much-touted “first-century” fragment of the Gospel of Mark has, at last, been published, inThe Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXXIII (Graeco-Roman Memoirs) (Egypt Exploration Society, 2018).  I haven’t had access to the volume yet, nor have many others.  But already there are blog reports on it, e.g., here and here.

The brief notice issued by the Egypt Exploration Society today here follows:

“In the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, volume LXXXIII text 5345, Professor Obbink and Dr Colomo publish a fragment from a papyrus codex (book). The two sides of the papyrus each preserve brief traces of a passage, both of which come from the gospel of Mark. After rigorous comparison with other objectively dated texts, the hand of this papyrus is now assigned to the late second to early third century AD. This is the same text that Professor Obbink showed to some visitors to Oxford in 2011/12, which some of them reported in talks and on social media as possibly dating to the late first century AD on the basis of a provisional dating when the text was catalogued many years ago. Papyrus 5345 was excavated by Grenfell and Hunt and has never been for sale. No other unpublished fragments of New Testament texts in the EES collection have been identified as earlier than the third century AD.”  (Emphasis mine)

The official Oxyrhynchus number of the item is LXXXIII.5345.  A photo of the item should be included in the volume, as well as a transcription and palaeographical commentary.  The Mark fragment includes parts of 1:7-9, 16-18.  (In addition, the volume is said to include newly edited fragments of Luke and Philemon, as well as a variety of non-biblical texts.)

Though not now judged to be “first-century,” this fragment of Mark is still important, doubling the number of manuscript witnesses to GMark from before 300 CE (the only other one being the Chester Beatty Gospels codex, P45).


When did “Gospel” First = a Book?

My recent postings about the NT Gospels elicited a reminder of an essay by James Kelhoffer:  “‘How Soon a Book’ Revisited: EUAGGELION As a Reference to ‘Gospel’ Materials in the First Half of the Second Century,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 95 (2004): 1-34.  The essay was republished in his volume of collected essays:  Conceptions of “Gospel” and Legitimacy in Early Christianity, WUNT (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 39-75.

This meaty and detailed study addresses the questions about when the word “gospel” (Greek:  evangelion) first came to designate a book.  Everyone agrees that its initial early Christian usage was a reference to the message which Jesus was central (e.g., Romans 1:15).  It could also refer to the activity involved in disseminating that message (e.g., Romans 1:9; 15:16).  Everyone also agrees that by the mid-second century the term was being used also to refer to certain writings about Jesus (as, e.g., in Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66.3; ca. 153 CE).  Indeed, Justin’s wording suggests that the term was at that point already in common usage in Christian circles.

Graciously acknowledging earlier studies and positions, even as he corrects and challenges them, Kelhoffer argues that the term “gospel” was probably being used to designate what I have called “Jesus books” by sometime 100-130 CE.  He builds his case by detailed analysis of texts in several early Christian writings, especially Didache and 2 Clement.

His proposal is that the use of the term in the opening words (and title) of GMark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” may have inspired some early reader or copyist to extend the term to designate books about Jesus.  This could have happened, so Kelhoffer, as early as the circulation of two or more such writings, i.e., as soon as both GMark and GMatthew were circulating.

Those seriously interested in these matters will surely need to take account of this study.

The Gospels: Some Reading Suggestions

In light of the kind of comments and questions that have come in over the past week or two in response to my recent postings about the Gospels, I think that a few reading suggestions are in order.  It is rather tiresome to have individuals making confident claims about this or that, which only reveal their lack of acquaintance with the rich body of scholarly work that has gone into almost any historical question about the Gospels.

As I’ve said before, questions are always welcome.  But bold, sometimes strident, claims that rest obviously on ignorance are  . . . just tiresome.  And, despite the convenience of the Internet for many things, it’s still unavoidable (!) to have to sit down and do some serious reading if you want to investigate anything seriously.  So, a very few initial key reading suggestions on a few matters.  They in turn have rich further bibliographical resources.

  • On the formation of the fourfold Gospel, the origins of the traditional authorship ascriptions, and related matters, a good place to start is this one:  Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 2000).   Hengel was a prolific NT scholar, in my view perhaps the most impressive NT scholar of the late 20th century.  Some of his views are contestable, to be sure, but to do so you would have to develop an equivalent wide acquaintance with the data (and that won’t come easy!).
  • On the early history of the textual transmission of the Gospels and other NT writings, this multi-author volume is now the “go-to” work:Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).  This collection of 21 essays covers these major topics: “The Textual and Scribal Culture of Early Christianity,” “The Manuscript Tradition” (analysis of the early manuscript evidence for NT writings, book by book), and “Early Citation and Use of New Testament Writings” (with a particular focus on 2nd century figures and sources).


Gospels and Names

My posting about “anonymous gospels” certainly has elicited interest.  I’ll try here to emphasize some points and hopefully clarify some matters.

First, the main observation in my previous posting was that none of the authors (and they were authors) of the NT Gospels included his name in his text.  This immediately contrasts, of course, with Paul’s regular identification of himself in his epistles, and the prophet John in Revelation, just to cite NT texts.  And also note the direct claim of authorship in the so-called “Gospel of Thomas.”  (But “Hebrews” is the other, even more curious, example of an early and influential anonymous text.)

The reason(s) why these authors didn’t explicitly identify themselves are debatable, and possibly varied.  In the case of the text we call “1 Clement,” for example, we think it was written and sent as from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth.  It reads very much as the product of a single author.  But, if so, he/she doesn’t claim the work, probably precisely because it was sent as communication from the Roman church, and so carried its authority, not that of its author.

But the traditional ascriptions of authorship to the NT Gospels must be very early.  A number of scholars place the formation of the (unusually phrased) traditional titles (“the gospel according to X”) in the early second century, and Hengel proposes the late first century.  Indeed, it quite plausibly (in my view) may reflect a view/knowledge of the matter that circulated along with these texts from the moment of their composition.

It bears noting that these ascriptions include two names of figures who weren’t apostles:  “Mark” and “Luke”.  The authority of figures known in early Christian circles as apostolic figures, such as “Matthew” and “John”, would have given to the texts linked to them a certain standing.  So, it’s interesting that the two other NT Gospels aren’t attributed directly to such figures.  Instead, “Mark” and “Luke” are referred to in early Christian comments as companions and associates of Peter and Paul respectively.  So, their texts carry some authority in a more derived manner.

Therefore, if as scholars commonly judge, “Mark” was the first of these texts written, and even if the traditional authorship was attached from the outset, this text is noteworthy in having such a strong effect without itself claiming apostolic authorship, or making any claim at all about authorship.  On the one hand, it generated somewhat similar compositions, most obviously “Matthew” and “Luke.”  On the other hand, each of the authors of these latter texts produced a distinguishable “rendition” of the Jesus-narrative.  Perhaps part of the reason for the influence of the Gospel according to Mark is that the association of “Mark” with Peter goes back to those earliest years after the text appeared (noting here Hengel’s case for a date ca. 69 CE).

In any case, the four NT Gospels are perhaps the four most widely read books ever written.  And, whatever your stance as to their contents and purposes, you have to admit that they are historically exceptional.

(For further reading, e.g., Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [London:  SCM; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000.)

Anonymous Gospels

Although early in their circulation the NT Gospels were ascribed to the familiar four figures (probably sometime early 2nd century), they actually originated as anonymous, which deserves more notice than scholars have typically given to the matter.  Noting that many OT books and several NT books are anonymous, David Aune judged this “a striking literary feature” that, nevertheless, “has been almost completely neglected.”[i]

For, in the literary environment of the authors of the Gospels, the overwhelmingly customary practice was for authors of literary works (such as historical or biographical narratives) to identify themselves, and claim credit for their works.  This was often done as part of the formal prologues to their works.[ii]  So, to release substantial works such as the NT Gospels anonymously was very unusual, amounting to a significant departure from literary practices of that time.[iii]

In looking for scholarly attention to the matter, the most recent discussion I could find was an informative article by Armin D. Baum.[iv]  This study documents Greek and Roman literary conventions, showing how striking the anonymity of the NT Gospels is.  But Baum notes that anonymity of what he calls “historiographical” texts (narratives) is also characteristic of OT writings of this type, and, he contends, and was practiced more widely in the Ancient Near East.[v]

So, it appears that the authors of the NT Gospels may have been influenced by the pattern of authorial anonymity in the OT narratives that they considered scriptures.  It is dangerous to try to explore their intentions.  Did they consciously imitate the anonymity of these OT texts, perhaps thereby wishing to link their narratives with those?  Greek and Roman authors identified themselves, wishing credit for their works.  Did the authors of the NT Gospels think it inappropriate to identify themselves as the authors of these texts, wishing instead simply to foreground the contents and simply serve the message/cause?  In any case, the evident individuality of the four Gospels reflects the work of four authors.  But, for whatever reason, they did not wish to foreground themselves, and that is noteworthy.

As we move into the second century, however, the four Gospels were ascribed to the now-traditional authors.  But, as others have noted, the “superscriptions” that identify them, for example, “the Gospel according to Matthew (κατα Μαθθαιον) are all unusually phrased.[vi]  More typically, the name of an author was placed it in a genitive construction in relationship to the work.  The phrasing of these superscriptions identifies “the Gospel” as the subject shared by all four texts, each one of which presents a version of it.

The anonymity of the NT Gospels also contrasts with the more direct authorial claims of subsequent “apocryphal” gospels.   For example, the opening lines of the Gospel of Thomas identify the text as “the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke, as Judas Thomas wrote them.”  These later texts tend to claim some unique revelation or insight granted to this or that named individual (and denied to all other disciples of Jesus).

Typically, commentaries take little note of the anonymity of the Gospels, but it deserves more attention, given how unusual it apparently was.


[i] David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 35.

[ii] This practice was typically followed by Jewish authors of the Greco-Roman period too.  E.g., the prologue to Josephus’ Jewish War, 1.1-3.

[iii] In John 21:24, an unidentified “we” vouch for the truthfulness of “the disciple who witnesses about these things and wrote these things,” which appears to point to the putative author of the preceding Gospel of John.  But this figure is not named.  Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1 address these texts to a Theophilos (not otherwise known), but the author does not identify himself.

[iv] Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” Novum Testamentum 50.2 (2008): 120-42.

[v] Baum notes, on the other hand, that OT Wisdom and Prophetic texts typically were linked to named figures.

[vi] Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 2000), 48-53.

What Early Christian Manuscripts Can Tell us About Their Readers

IN response to a request of a subscriber, I’ve now uploaded the pre-publication form of my essay that was published as  “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 179-92.

The uploaded essay is found under the “Selected Published Essays” tab, here.

Workshop on Numismatics and the NT

I cross-post a summary of what must have been a highly stimulating workshop on the contributions of Roman-era numismatics to NT lexicography:  here.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of the connotation of the reference to Jesus’ disciples as his “friends” in John 15:14.  One of my recent PhD students, Mark Zhakevich, defended a very similar view of the matter:  that the “friends” in this text are “royal friends” of Jesus, not his buddies.

“Material Culture” of Early Christianity

A recent multi-author volume commendably addresses the physical/material evidence of early Christianity:  Alan H. Cadwallader, ed., Stones, Bones and the Sacred: Essays on Material Culture and Religion in Honor of Dennis E. Smith (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016).  Given the focus of the volume, it is curious, however, that there appears to be no treatment of a highly important body of physical evidence:  earliest Christian manuscripts.

To be fair, the omission isn’t peculiar to this volume.  Sadly, it’s all too typical.  For some reason, scholars (who are likely unfamiliar with manuscripts) unconsciously (?) overlook manuscripts as artifacts.  Instead, they treat them (or better, neglect them) as simply copies of texts.  They are that, of course.  But these earliest Christian copies of texts are also physical objects from the time of early Christianity, and they have physical and visual features that furnish what we might call “para-textual” data, in addition to the textual data.

Illustrative of the mistaken attitude of some scholars, I recall a conversation with a senior NT scholar some years back.  After I mentioned that early Christian manuscripts were important, he responded, “But I’m not interested in manuscripts; I’m interested in artifacts.”   To which I replied, “But, don’t you see, manuscripts are artifacts.”

I began calling attention to this way of looking at these data in an essay published nearly two decades ago:  “The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture: The Codex, the Nomina Sacra and the Staurogram,” in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson, ed. Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88.  Then, in a book, I discussed these matters more fully:  The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

Indeed, arguably, accepting the widely-adopted datings of some of them to the second and early third century, the manuscripts in question comprise (or are at least among) our earliest Christian artifacts (hence, the title of my book). And the “para-textual data” are significant.

The distinctive early Christian strong preference for the codex is perhaps our earliest expression of an emergent “material culture.”  The nomina sacra comprise visual earmarks distinctive to early Christianity, visual expressions of reverence for the figures to whom these abbreviations applied.  I emphasize that the nomina sacra show that early Christians wanted to signify these figures in a special way visually.  The “staurogram,” a device combining the Greek letters tau and rho, was adapted by early Christians to serve as what appears to be a “pictographic” reference to the crucified Jesus, in manuscripts that are dated as much as 150 years earlier than what art historians commonly think that visual depictions of Jesus on the cross first appeared.  These data are, arguably, the earliest extant expressions of an emergent “visual culture” in early Christianity.

The way the pages of a number of early Christian codices are laid out provides additional data.  Often, this involves larger letters and inter-line spacing, fewer lines per page, a greater incidence of punctuation (in comparison to copies of “pagan” literary texts), and the use of spacing to signal sense-units.  I have proposed that these features may give us physical evidence of the social diversity of earliest Christian circles, these features all comprising “aids” for the reading of these texts by individuals of varying abilities:  “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 179-92; and “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, ed. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 49-62.

Or, to offer another example, consider the early Christian practice of treating the name of the Old Testament figure, “Joshua,” as a nomen sacrum.  The Greek form of his name is Iesous (English: Jesus), and in earliest Christian copies of OT writings where he appears, his name is written in the abbreviated form of nomina sacra.  This wasn’t a mistake.  Instead, it is physical/visual evidence of the early Christian belief that this OT figure was a fore-type of Jesus of Nazareth.  The point is that early Christians didn’t simply believe certain things; they also expressed these beliefs sometimes in material and visual forms.

Of course, not all scholars of the New Testament and Christian Origins can (or should) be papyrologists too.  But I think that every scholar in this field who wishes to address historical questions about early Christianity should become familiar with the material and visual characteristics of earliest Christian manuscripts.  Their data are too important to be left solely to papyrologists and textual critics!  And our conception of what is available as evidence of early Christian “material culture” and “visual culture” should be enlarged to include these data.





Another “Destroyer” Review

Having complained about what I regard a misleading review of my book, Destroyer of the gods, in a previous posting, there’s a commendably accurate review just published:  here.

The crucial difference is that this reviewer actually gets what the book is about–certain features of early Christianity that made it distinctive and noteworthy in its cultural setting. The reviewer also rightly notes that the book is intended for a wide reading public, not simply an inner cadre of fellow scholars.

The one note that I would add, is that there is a second point to the book, which is that these distinctive features of early Christianity have become for us what I suppose might be termed our conceptual habitus (with apologies to Pierre Bourdieu).  That is, these notions have become part of our largely unexamined ideas about what “religion” is.  Indeed, arguably, early Christianity began the process that led to the formation of the whole idea of “religion” as something distinguishable from other areas of life.

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