Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rethinking How the Christian Writings Became 'Canonized'

How did the Christian writings become 'canonized'?  This is a question that at least a few scholars have taken a crack at.  Many have looked to the codex as providing the impetus for a 'closed collection.'  After all, there are only so many books that you can squeeze into a codex - the ancient equivalent of the modern 'book.'

I think that anyone who has taken seriously the importance of the codex inevitably sees a connection with Marcion.  It makes sense to have a gospel and a shorter collection of Pauline letters into two 'books.'  On a personal level I see a two book canon resemble the two tablets given to Moses but then again I approach Marcion differently than most people.  

But none of this helps us understand how the Catholic canon or the writings of the "great Church's" became established as 'canon.'  It's generally accepted, I think, that 'the ancient world' or the 'Christian community' in the second century somehow simply 'knew' that a collection of writings was 'original' or 'true' and those writings are represented by our inherited canon.  

It would seem we unconsciously posit the existence of a 'synod' - in spite of the lack of evidence for such an assembly at this early date - where 'everyone agreed' to accept four gospels, Acts and expanded canon of Pauline writings and so on.  It's almost as if we don't want to think about these matters.  For most people the fact that the Church Fathers say that Marcion 'cut' or limited our canon - a canon that doesn't appear in history until long after Marcion - is good enough and there is little reason to gaze into the abyss, wondering about how evidence can be shifted around to keep out the implications of the Marcionite canon being much older than ours.  

The fact that I am not a Christian but generally sympathetic to marginalized Jewish sectarian movements I think helps me come to terms with Marcionism.  I have the advantage I think of knowing that the Pentateuch can't possibly be a document that developed from a monotheistic culture.  How could a religious text explicitly reference two divine names be anything about anything other than 'two powers'?  Then monarchian influence or pressure came from the society around the text.

In a similar way we have to imagine - if, as most people suspect, Marcionism was the first Christian tradition to 'canonize' holy writings - that the 'second canonizing' of Christian writings was 'assisted' by the society that Christianity found itself in.  This doesn't necessarily mean that 'the Imperial government' conspired to establish a particular 'brand' of the Jesus religion.  Rather, it should be acknowledged that once the codex-based canon of Christianity manifested a particular scriptural paradigm on Christianity as such (merely by 'keeping out' other texts) the 'second canonical paradigm' - one which massively expanded the collection of accepted writings was affected by something other than the physical limitations of the codex.  Indeed as I will argue it was a social 'reaction' against the codex format.

Of course this is a rather bold hypothesis.  Trobisch for one has connected the dots from the oldest codices back to Marcion and that the orthodox tradition which happens to chronologically stand between Marcion and the oldest codices simply 'came along for the ride.'  But I think this assumption lacks imagination.  Indeed all those who have studied the obvious connection between Christianity and the codex fail to take into account two important exceptions to this close relationship - Irenaeus and Julius Africanus.  The fact that earliest manuscripts of these men are preserved in scroll form rather than the codex is deeply significant especially as both lived through what Eusebius notes was the first 'golden age' for the religion.

Moreover any discussion of Christianity's attachment to the codex fails to take into account the contemporary social stigma associated with this new technology.  They still weren't scrolls.  They still weren't 'respectable' or reliable forms of preserving information.  I think the incorporation of Christian literature in the public libraries in the period which spanned the late Commodian to Severan period (190 - 235 CE) is what ultimately made our New Testament 'canonical.'  It occurred as a reaction against the codex in the sense that in spite of its widespread use in Christianity, the world at large viewed this new portable technology with some suspicion.

Indeed the ancient attitude against the codex bears a striking resemblance to 'self-publishing' in the modern age.  'Anyone can write a book,' we say to ourselves, 'getting published is another thing.'  Why do we think this?  There is some sense that getting placed in an archive or library represents 'acceptance' and embodies 'acceptability.'  For certain there is a palpable prejudice against allowing ancient Christianity the same 'worldly' insecurities that we have today.  We want to imagine that Christianity would be 'quite happy' to continue as an underground religion, preserving their books in private libraries and secret assemblies but I will argue that Irenaeus and Julius Africanus expose this prejudice as a romantic myth.

The reality is that Irenaeus and Julius Africanus were very well connected individuals who manifested the 'acceptability' of Christianity in the period by expanding the presence of Christian books in the public libraries of the Empire.  The fact that only a few Christian books were 'accepted' into the archives necessarily translated into those books ultimately becoming 'canonized' which as Davies notes was a process developed from the scroll.  As he writes:

Before the age of mass production of books (i.e., printing), the accumulation of a literary corpus involved many stages: composition, copying, editing; but also classifying, collecting, and archiving, since the growth of a corpus depends on its physical preservation. The equation being made in this book, which is fundamental if the thesis is to be understood, is that copying and archiving are the very stuff of canonizing. A work does not become canonized by being included in a formal list: that is a final flourish. A work becomes canonized (a) by being preserved by copying until its status as a classic is ensured; and (b) by being classified as belonging to a collection of some kind. Scrolls can be canons in their own right, but multiple scrolls need to be archived: that means labeling and storing in a sort of order. That means collecting. The result is various canons, groups of classic texts or classic collections on scrolls. [p. 9]

I will argue that when the evidence is viewed as a whole it will clear that Christian books were indeed in the public libraries of the Empire and that because of this fact those texts gained a sense of respectability at the expense of the 'underground' codices of traditions like Marcionism.

To be certain Diocletian ordered Christian books to be burned in certain urban centers.  However as Eusebius amply demonstrates there were still Christian books in public libraries.  How did they get there?  They were deposited in the period 190 - 235 CE and determined with the fixed nature of the Catholic canon in the third and fourth centuries.  To be certain Christianity never lost its attachment to the codex.  Nevertheless in the end, the copying of information into new Christian codices itself became determined by the events in the brief 'golden age' spanning the late second to third centuries when a particular collection of 'inspired' scriptures were deposited in the libraries of Rome and Jerusalem.

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