Monday, December 1, 2014

Our Belief that Paul Didn't Have a Written Gospel is NOT Shared by the Earliest Church Fathers

I hope that at least some people are aware that Marcion understood the apostle to have had a written gospel.  That would be good.  What's worse however is that those who do 'know' this fact often present the understanding with loaded terminology like - '... and that gospel was Luke.'  

I think half the reason I 'hang about' in the field of early Christian origins (admittedly mostly sitting in the bleachers) is that I enjoy watching the human psyche grapple with insoluble epistemology.  What do we know about early Christianity?  What do we know about Paul?  How do we know what we know about this or that?  This is perhaps more interesting than the actual subject matter at least for me.

It is amazing to see the chasm which exists between modern 'experts' on Paul and the ancients.  If Marcion was the first authority on the apostle, the fact that he says Paul wrote the written gospel after his ascent to the third heaven should at least count for something.  It does not apparent.  Modern scholarship treats Marcion often in the manner that minorities are treated in our society - you know with an exasperated 'he should be happy that he's been let into the room and now he wants a seat at the table!' 

If it was just Marcion who thought Paul had a written gospel that would be one thing.  But it is interesting to see that the Alexandrian tradition - from Clement of Alexandria through Origen and later through Origenists like Eusebius and Jerome - the idea continues to bounce around in different forms.  Even Chrysostom is forced to acknowledge Origen's point of view.

I was certain that Irenaeus 'must have' been the originator of the 'oral gospel' of Paul.  However a careful scrutiny of the evidence does not support that idea.  The account of the four gospels which commences in Adv Haer 3 cannot be taken as an entirely chronological statement - i.e. that Luke was established after Mark.

Irenaeus clearly channels Papias in framing Matthew as the earliest narrative gospel.  This is of course a dishonest reference.  Papias does not say what Irenaeus makes him out to be saying.  Nevertheless since Papias did not mention Luke the understanding that Mark was written after Peter died does not mean that Luke was written after Paul 'gave up the ghost.'  It is indeed quite surprising to see that Paul never says anything substantial about Paul's awareness of a written gospel.

Tertullian on the other hand twice indicates Paul did indeed have a written gospel.  The first reference in De Carne Christi makes it seem his gospel contained elements of Matthew.  The second implies that he not only had a written gospel but brought it before the Jerusalem Church in order to find out that their written gospel 'agreed' with his.

It is difficult to imagine that Tertullian could have written things like this if he knew Irenaeus plainly stated somewhere that Paul didn't have a written text.  All of which leaves us without an early witness to support our categorical rejection of this proposition.  'If Paul had a written gospel he would have cited from it in his letters.'  Yet is this 'argument from silence' really as convincing as it might seem at first glance?  For in his Prescription Against the Heretics Tertullian tells us that Marcion and the other enemies of the Church held Paul passed on a 'secret gospel.'

In other words, it is only because we assume that his 'open preaching' was necessarily accompanied by a 'public gospel' that we conclude 'he could have known a written gospel.'  But the logic here is clearly unconvincing.  Surely the heretics who thought Paul shielded his written text from view would have countered that our 'argument from silence' results from a misinterpretation - an over reliance on circular logic.  I wonder who is going to listen to these elders today?

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