Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Next Chapter in the Myth of Jesus Christ [Part Three]

It is simply impossible to believe that the earliest Christians established their body of sacred writings in order to negatively define their tradition against Judaism. We must consider instead that many of the features of Marcionitism which suggest anti-Jewish sentiment were rather a sign that the tradition emerged in the period immediately following the destruction of the Jewish religion in the latter half of the first century. Indeed the paradoxical 'upholding' of the sacredness of Jewish writings seems little more than reactionary against Marcionitism defining itself according to the limitation of codex technology.

Whereas the orthodox witnesses of the second and third centuries 'condemn' Marcion for 'rejecting' the Law and the prophets, they had as noted settled into the institutionalization of ecclesiastic life.  Alongside the charge that Marcionism represented 'heresy' was the implicit argument that the office of bishop was now a necessary fact of life to preserve the innocent from those - like 'Marcion' - who would limit the canon of writings too severely and others who expanded it to include unreliable texts and traditions.  The orthodox were by no means alone in this 'bureaucratization' of the Church.  The Marcionite tradition seems to have also established its own ecclesiastical hierarchy, perhaps in no small part to deal with the challenges of other Christian traditions such as our orthodox faith.

Nevertheless it would seem utterly ridiculous to assume that limiting the sacred writings to what could fit within a single codex was a 'reaction' against an essentially 'disorganized' faith spread over many codices.  The single codex came first and represented the original canon of Christianity.  One may assume it to be quite likely that the apostle himself designed the Christian faith to fit within a single codex.  The modern example of products conforming to a sleek physical appearance would be Steve Jobs.

David Trobisch again noted that the very collection of the Catholic epistles of Paul seemed to have been designed with a codex in mind. Trobisch argues that the strangely consistent ordering of epistles from longest to shortest was a result of an ancient mind trying to figure out what could be squeezed into a single bound edition. As he notes it was crucial to a scribe properly to calculate the length of the text before he started to write a codex.  These codices usually consisted of a single quire or bundle of paper sheets. As Trobisch notes facing this situation it probably is a good idea to arrange the different parts according to the length of the text before you start to copy the text. If you start out with the longest letters and end with the shorter ones, the chances are good you can finish the codex with the end of a letter even if your calculation was wrong.

In this case all the scribe would need to do is produce an extra volume out of some additional leaves holding the missing letters. But if you start out with the short letters and end with the long ones the chances are much higher that you are right in the middle of a letter when you hit the last page. And who would want to use a book that ends in the middle of the text, Trobisch asks?  Yet the Marcionite codex of the New Testament would have been slightly different than our own.  The gospel would have come first and then letters would have proceeded thereafter again arranged from longest to shortest.

The Marcionites of course maintained only the authentic letters of the apostle (unlike our own collection of writings which included the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Pastoral Epistles).  Yet even these falsified (or wrongly attributed) texts open the door to an important understanding perhaps promulgated by the Marcionites themselves.  The so-called Second Letter to Timothy - rejected by the Marcionites as spurious and acknowledged as 'falsely ascribed' to Paul by modern scholars - closes with a reference to a non-existent incident in the life of the apostle which is worth mentioning.

'Paul' is supposed to have 'left behind' some items including a codex and so requests in this letter to Timothy if he can send someone to bring it back . While the incident is a literary forgery and thus of no actual historical value, it may well shine a light on the possibility that it was originally understood that the apostle arranged for the contents of the codices that contained his writings.  As the Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible notes under its entry for codex:

A Greek transliteration of this term (= bible) occurs in 2 Tim. 4:13, when Paul asks Carpus to bring from Troas his cloak and "also the scrolls (ta biblia), especially the parchment codices (tas membranas)" Assuming Pauline authorship, this reference might be the earliest known reference to literary codices. What was signified by this reference to "codices" remains a mystery, while "the scrolls" could easily suggest books of Jewish Scripture, copies of Paul's letters, or some other literature. Perhaps Paul edited and published a first edition of his own letters.

Indeed the real question here is whether the story was developed in 2 Timothy to introduce the idea of the apostle establishing the codex which held his writings or to re-present a Marcionite conception with a Catholic spin (i.e. connecting it to figures like Carpus who were known only in the orthodox tradition).  It would seem the latter possibility is certainly the more likely.  

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