Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Polycarp and the Original Canon of John [Part Five]

We have developed a better idea about what the Catholic canon looked like before Irenaeus’ reforms. We began by observing that Polycarp used a single, long gospel whose readings were edited to agree with the four synoptic gospels.  That 'reformed' text was eventually called the Diatesseron (yet Victor of Capua's report about it being 'the Diapente' is pregnant with possibilities).

In our last post we discussed the manner in which the Luke-Acts canon actually disappears once we reincorporate Luke 1:1-4 at the head of this 'gospel harmony' (as we demonstrated from the Codex Fuldensis). We mentioned how these opening words are perfectly suited to the “gospel harmony” text which originally followed. So too does it make perfect sense to associate these words with the well known apostolic witness “John” instead of the otherwise unheard of “Luke.”

Transforming Luke 1:1-4 into a witness for the Johannine tradition has an effect on our understanding of the companion text Acts as well.  I think that it makes better sense to envision Christians thinking 'John Mark' was the original author than Luke.  John Mark is the glue which holds the two communities of 'Paul' and 'Peter' together.  I think that Irenaeus added the bit about John Mark being rejected by Paul to change the understanding that had been previously held by followers of Polycarp - i.e. that Acts was 'according to John.'

Nevertheless all of what we have developed so far is only a preparation for what we will demonstrate in this post. We will begin by asserting that Polycarp must be considered to be the original author of the material in Acts. He is after all the first historical individual to ever cite material from its pages (Ignatius i.e. 'the fiery one' is just a Catholic expansion of original material attributed to Polycarp in previous generations).

I think that the first citation of Acts is in Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians – viz. “our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] 'whom God raised froth the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave.'" [Acts ii. 24]

The citation in the letter to the Philippians is the first we ever hear of Acts. As such there are good reasons to connect Acts to Polycarp. The text just so happens to support his theology, his claims of apostolic authority and most importantly – his interest in developing Antioch as the center of Christendom.

Now there is no doubt that there is near universal agreement that the same author wrote Luke and Acts.  Yet there are some notable exceptions.  J H Scholten has argued that the same author couldn't not have written Luke and Acts.  Holtzmann by contrast argued that 'Luke' only wrote the we sections.  I tend to agree with Holtzmann.  I think a later redactor adjusted the original material to reflect the idea that 'Lukan hypothesis.'

I also see a pattern emerging with regards to an efforts to establish a “harmony of scripture” in the name of John by Polycarp.  For example the lost opening gospel preamble now relegated to Luke 1:1-4 and the introductory words of the very canon in 1 John 1:1-5 sound remarkably similar.

The preamble to the gospel (common to the Codex Fuldensis and canonical Luke) argues that Polycarp’s “harmony of scripture” had “all things [are] written down in its order.” These words strangely echo Irenaeus’ description of his master’s methodology where he acknowledges that Polycarp:

would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the others who had seen the Lord and as remembered their words and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life’ Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures [fragments of Irenaeus] 

I think we should take a fresh look at Irenaeus account of Polycarp’s effort to establish a witness panta sumphona tais graphais. There is a common thread throughout Luke 1:1-4 and 1 John 1:1-5 which witnesses what I see as the original Johannine canon of Polycarp.

We should begin by citing the preamble from the gospel in the surviving Syriac of the Peshitta. There are certain nuances lost in the Greek. As I see it the original author hails his “new creation” by promising that it will be the “last word” on gospel narratives about Jesus saying:

[b]ecause many have desired to write the history of the works of those which we are familiar with according to that which they delivered to us, those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good also to me because I have attended carefully to all of them that everything in its order I should write down for you noble Theophilus that you may know the truth of the words you were taught by.”

The Islamic tradition rightly interprets these words as an acknowledgement on the part of the gospel’s author that “dissatisfaction” with previous accounts drove him to compose his new text.

The resultant account is clearly supposed to be the “gospel to end all gospels.” It is impossible to ignore how utterly implausible that our canonical Gospel of Luke should follow these words. Irenaeus’ text leaves out so much of what should properly be part of a “final word on the gospel." I think that the original author (Polycarp) was hailing Johannine additions to the original Alexandrian gospel of Mark.

Once again I must offer that only a “super gospel” could claim to contain “all things written down in its [proper] order.” So it is that we should compare the preamble to the gospel with these aforementioned Johannine witnesses. I am going to temporarily invert the sentence order of Luke 1:1-4 in order to bring it closer to the structure of the other revelations.

Thus we begin with our inversion of the gospel preamble:

I myself have carefully investigated … the many narratives … [that] were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word … [and as I was] intimately acquainted with them all I recorded [a gospel with] everything in its proper order for you

And put this side by side with Irenaeus’ statement about his master’s:

intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord [having] remembered their words and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the Word of life Polycarp related all things in a harmony of the Scriptures.

And finally compare both texts to the first words of the letter of John:

He who was from the beginning, the one whom we have heard, and have seen with our eyes … we declare to you is the Word … and we have seen it and bear witness to it … that we declare to you, so that you also may have fellowship with us … This then is the gospel which we have heard from him and declare to you

I believe that if the reader meditates on these three passages - the first being the introductory words of Polycarp’s Diatesseron, the second being Polycarp’s student’s testimony about his methodology in establishing a “harmony of the Scriptures” and finally the letter of John introducing the reader to the Johannine tradition – he will immediately see how all are interconnected.

The first lines of the gospel necessarily fit within the opening declaration of the letter of John. The subject is the recognition of John as the “beholder” of Jesus. Notice the manner in which he is called “the Word” in all three traditions. The reader should take note of the fact that the similarities in the texts prove once and for all that either Polycarp or Irenaeus have to be considered to be the author of Luke 1:1-4 and its related material in Acts. The language is incredibly uniform throughout.

If it wasn't for my son not having a nanny this week, I would cite the Greek right now. Maybe I can do this in a subsequent post. I apologize for not being as complete as I would like. Nevertheless I think the parallels between Luke and Acts can be explained as being the result of efforts by Irenaeus, the final redactor of the canon, to help establish that claim that Luke rather than John was the witness for Acts.

The most likely scenario again was that Polycarp was the witness of John who wrote Acts 'out of love' of course for his master.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.