Info

mistakenly, to be secondary interpolations.58 Apart from excisions that can be traced specifically to Marcion, the texts he employed did not differ essentially from an early second-century form of the textual tradition of Paul's letters.

These findings illuminate the early textual history of the Pauline epistles, for the (pre-) Marcionite text carries the evidence back from P46 (c.200) to the early decades of the second century. It shows that the text of Paul's letters, like that of the gospels, was in that period still fluid, susceptible both to scribal corruption and critical emendation. At the same time, it requires us to regard Marcion himself 'more as a traditor of a poorly controlled text than as the heavy-handed editor or fabricator of a totally new one'.59 Thus with respect not only to the content of his scriptures but also to the text he used, Marcion presents us with nothing new, yet he serves as an interesting and important witness to an early state of affairs.

Much the same can be said about the claim that Marcion furnished the bipartite structural principle of the church's canon, consisting of gospel and apostle. The correlation as authorities of'the Lord' (or, increasingly, 'the gospel') with 'the apostle(s)' had deep roots in earlier tradition and by no means originated with Marcion.60 The historical succession of Jesus and the apostles gave rise to a conception of the tradition as having a dual source and form, as can be seen in many pre-Marcionite contexts (e.g. 1 Clem. 4i.7-8; with 42.i-3; Ign. Magn. i3.i, Phild. 5.i). In purely practical terms, the earliest available Christian literature consisted predominantly of gospels and 'apostolic' letters, and any appeal to documents, if those were not Jewish scriptures, was necessarily to one or the other, or both, and both had begun to acquire the status of 'scripture' well before Marcion.

With regard to the formation of Christian scriptures, then, Marcion is a figure of wonderful interest but no clear consequence: his activity had no discernible or demonstrable effect on the actual formation of the 'New Testament', whether in conception, content or chronology. He is, nevertheless, an informative witness for an early stage in the identification and use of Christian writings as scripture, for appeal to them as authoritative resources for theological exposition and argument, and for the nature of their textual traditions in his time. Although Marcion was early recognised and criticised as dangerously

58 Schmid, Marcion, 254-5. (Harnack (Marcion, 6i) already recognised that excision was the predominant form of Marcion's editing.) Some of these omissions can be identified with confidence; others only by inference. They include: Gal 3:6-9, i4-i8, 29; Rom 2:3-0; Rom 40-25; the larger part of Rom 9-0; and Col i:i5b-i6; and all these eliminate themes that were manifestly incompatible with Marcion's theology.

59 Clabeaux, Lost edition, i29.

60 Bovon,'Structure'.

2ii heterodox, his scriptural resources, like much of his thought, are intelligible in the context of developing Gentile Christianity in the early second century. In this as in some other respects he is more aptly characterised, not as a radical innovator, but as a traditionalist and conservative.6i Marcion is only one example of the axiom that heresy is often a matter of bad timing: he promoted in Rome near the middle of the second century a teaching and a set of scriptures that might, earlier and in more peripheral regions, have been within the range of plausible construals of Christianity, but developments in the broad stream of Christian thought and usage had already rendered them, if not obsolete, then highly objectionable to most.

The subsequent history of the formation of a New Testament

The development of distinctively Christian scriptures and the eventual formation of the New Testament canon belonged to a process that was well under way before Marcion and reached its conclusion long after his time. If, as I have argued, he had no impact upon it, there were other forces at work.

By the end of the second century the church at large held as its common scriptural resources, in addition to the scriptures of Judaism (which it steadfastly retained despite Marcion), the letters of Paul and a collection of four gospels. Paul's letters were consistently valued and used, albeit in diverse editions, from the late first or early second century onward. The collection of four gospels, however, seems to have emerged only after the middle of the second century, yet it had taken hold by the early third century everywhere except in the east, where Tatian's Diatessaron rivalled it until the fifth century. In addition to these gospels and Paul's letters, other documents had come into wide use, including Acts, i Peter and i John, all of which were widely acknowledged and used in the third century. Other documents that were known and used, but enjoyed no similar consensus, included 2 Peter, Jude, the Shepherd ofHermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, 1 Clement and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocalypse of John (also known to English readers as the book of Revelation) was early and continuously appreciated in the west but attracted little interest in the east, whereas Hebrews was much valued in the east but virtually unknown in the west before the fourth century. There seems to have been only limited knowledge and hesitant use of 2 and 3 John and of James before the fourth century.

6i Barton, Holy writings, 42-62.

The indeterminacy in the scope of Christian scriptures that persisted throughout the third century began to be resolved in the fourth century. Eusebius's discussion (HE 3.25.1-7) of usages and opinions still does not move beyond three categories-the "acknowledged books" (homologoumenoi), which include the four gospels, the (fourteen) letters of Paul, Acts, 1 John and 1 Peter, and (provisionally) the Apocalypse ofJohn; the 'disputedbooks' (antilegomenoi), also called 'spurious' (nothoi), which include James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache, the Apocalypse ofJohn (again provisionally) and the Gospel of the Hebrews; and finally, 'books sponsored by heretics' as purportedly written by apostles, which are only generally referred to. For Eusebius, and presumably for the church of his time, the 'acknowledged' books still amounted to only twenty-one (or twenty-two, if the Apocalypse were counted).

The first list of Christian scriptures that corresponds precisely to the contents of the 'New Testament' as we know it is the one circulated by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his thirty-ninth Festal Letter, issued on Easter 367 and aimed at regularising usages in the Egyptian churches. While this letter presupposes persistent variations in what was read as scripture, it signals the beginning of a widespread effort to define the limits of Christian scripture and thus to fix a canon. In the latter half of the fourth century, a variety of similar lists began to appear, some in manuscripts, others as promulgations of regional synods.62 While these lists continue to show some small variations, by the fifth century even these disappeared as the church finally arrived at a consensus supporting a New Testament canon consisting of exactly twenty-seven documents.

The forces conspiring to produce this result were many, but the most powerful among them was the actual use of Christian writings in Christian communities over a long period and over abroad area. This use consisted above all in the public reading of Christian writings, alongside Jewish scriptures, in the context of Christian worship, a practice that was both early and continuous. It was this tradition of regular liturgical reading more than anything else that prompted and directed the church's progressive recognition, and finally its definition, of the textual resources that were fundamental to its identity. That identity was still taking shape in the second century, but even by then it had become clear to most that Marcion's conception of Christian teaching, and the texts in which he sought its warrants, were far too narrow to sustain the richer heritage of Christian communities.

62 These lists are conveniently collected in Metzger, Canon, 305-15 (app. IV). For analysis, see Hahneman, Muratorian fragment, 132-82.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment