Sunday, October 10, 2010

My Theory on the Origins of the Gospel [Part Two]

Just a brief note. There is something in us that assumes that the familiar is better than the unknown. With respect to the gospel, the assumption here is that the four canonical texts - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John somehow represent 'real' traditions which go back to 'real' individuals who live in the first century. I don't want to take the time to dispute or support these claims. Rather I just want to put them out there and establish what is generally believed.

Let's leave the question about whether there really was a Matthew, Mark, Luke or John for the moment and move on to the more important question. Do these texts really date to an older period - are they more original - than the composite texts we know existed in the second century?

By 'composite texts' I mean of course the hypomnemata of Peter and the apostles referenced in the writings of Justin, the so-called 'Diatessaron' of Tatian and moreover the hypomnemata of Peter and Mark which Clement references in the letter to Theodore. There is an inherited assumption that since our texts are 'pure texts' associated with a first century witness (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that somehow they are older and purer than the hypomnemata - but I am not so sure. What if there is no such thing as a pure text at all? What if someone like Irenaeus, living in an age where countless hypomnemata were being used in different communities across the Roman world just decided to put an end to the dispute and artificially 'go back' to idealized texts associated with names of legendary figures in the history of Christianity.

Hypomnemata are dense and systematic collections of extracts on a particular subject from different sources. Christian authors long after the apostolic period were continuing to write hypomnemata. It can be properly described to be a genre within early Christianity which is under appreciated in scholarship.

One most imagine that by the second century gospels like Tatian's Diatessaron were rather lengthy creations. But does that in itself mean that this work and others like it were necessarily developed from our four canonical texts? I prefer to think that our canonical works were artificially developed for specific polemic purpose against contemporary traditions of Christianity which resisted the reforms of Irenaeus.

Clement in To Theodore is making a very specific point - the evangelist Mark wrote and continued to write hypomnemata. It is only our inherited prejudices against the idea of a continuing revelation of truth within Christianity which makes us want to embrace what are essentially faux-apostolic texts like those in our inherited New Testament canon.

We hear the original spirit of Christianity manifest itself still in the words of Papias when he notes "if, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings—what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say." These sayings were undoubtedly developed into Christian hypomnemata which became associated with a particular sectarian community. Like it or not - this was how the gospels were made.

Irenaeus seems to acknowledge this process of manufacturing 'false gospels' in his own age when he writes:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives' fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. [AH 1.8.1]

The idea of rearranging the narratives and adding new ones that don't belong is critical to understand when we want to determine the true history of Christianity. Was it Irenaeus or the heretics who rearranged the individual scenes into a contrived narrative? I tend to think it was Irenaeus owing to the manner in which his preferred compositions go out of their way to buck the trend of the age - i.e. they are explicitly not endlessly developing hypomnemata. But that is a debate for another time ...

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