Wednesday, August 29, 2012

All those other gospels

Philip Jenkins expresses his annoyance at repeated journalistic ignorance about the formation of the new Testament canon:
.... As I discussed some years ago in my book Hidden Gospels, the fact that a text circulated among the “early Christians” (anywhere from the first through fourth centuries) is irrelevant to what it can tell us about Jesus or his world. ...[T]he reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.

Forgive me for the obvious remark, but they never seriously contemplated adding most of the Nag Hammadi texts because they had not even been written in the mid-second century....

We find possible reference to a Gospel of Judas in the mid-second century, though it is not clear if this is the one that recently came to light. Possibly it was written fifty or a hundred years later. But assume for the sake of argument that it dates from 150. It offers precisely nothing suggesting any independent historical transmission, beyond a second century thinker meditating freely (and wildly) on what he/she has gleaned from one or more of the Four Gospels.

To put this chronology in perspective, it’s the difference between a first hand memoir of (say) a US Army unit in the First World War, written down in 1950, and an article on that same war that I just penned myself, relying wholly on secondary sources. My article might be brilliant, but it has no independent authority whatever for the era it seeks to describe, any more than do the Gospels of Judas or Mary.

All gospels were not created equal.

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