Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

Posted: January 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

The oldest surviving complete text containing the even older oral tradition of the life of Mary is the Protoevangelion of James from the second century. There appear to be some older works that are quoted in later writings, but none of those have survived. The Protoevangelion of James is about the life of Mary up to the events surrounding the nativity. It’s not written by James, of course, which is why the Church did not include it in the canon lists of the New Testament. The only texts considered Scripture by the Church were those surviving texts written by an apostolic author — someone who had seen and been sent by the risen Lord. However, while some works were rejected completely and were not to be read at all, there were in the ancient world (as continues to be true today) many works that were considered valuable to read even though they were not Scripture. The Didache (often considered to have been distilled by those who were ‘traditioned’ the faith by Paul and/or Barnabas) and the Shepherd of Hermas are such works from the first century. This is one from the first half of the second century. If you’ve never read it, it’s not very long and worth taking the time to read.

The writing also describes a couple of events that are celebrated as major Feasts within the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It describes the Nativity of the Theotokos, born to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna. And it describes the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West).

I happen to find some of the things people use to reject the protoevangelium interesting. For instance it describes Jesus being born in a cave as is depicted in the icons of the Nativity. If you look around online, you’ll find some people attributing the reference to a cave as Mithraic in origin and a reason to reject the account. Ironically, modern archeology has revealed that animals in that region at that time were often kept in naturally insulated rock-cut caves. It’s an instance where an ancient tradition that had been discounted by many is now known to be pretty likely. And that makes sense. Many of the people who preserved the text lived in that region. If the text (or the older oral traditions it captured) had been discordant with things they knew, they wouldn’t have accepted and preserved it.

You’ll also find people who reject the tradition because of its description of temple virgins. They attribute those references to the pagan Roman vestal virgins. However, there’s ample evidence in the text of Scripture and in extra-biblical sources like the Mishnah for a liturgical role for specifically Jewish temple virgins. Moreover, the document and the oral tradition it captures date from a time when many Jews were still converting to Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was not some distant event. It was still recent. And, at least according to apologists like Justin Martyr, Jewish leaders were trying to stem the conversions and discredit the Christian claims. If the description of temple virgins had had no basis in reality, there would have been no ground for the tradition to take root. That should be easy to see with just a little bit of historical imagination.

I have to admit I find it odd that so many people who don’t hesitate to read modern commentaries, theological, and inspirational books, reject out of hand ancient works that fall into the same category. You do have to be discerning, of course. But in a modern landscape filled with the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, and Bishop Spong you have to be pretty discerning in what you choose to read today as well.


Ancient Texts 7 – New Testament

Posted: January 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament did not develop over a long period of time nor were the books in it primarily concerned with capturing oral tradition in writing. That’s why there isn’t a Christian version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy outlining in detail the forms of Christian worship. Those were left primarily as an oral tradition and though that tradition was, to one extent or another, captured in writing in the early centuries, those writings weren’t considered Scripture. The books of the New Testament were written by specific people over the relatively short span of a few decades and consist essentially of the surviving written teaching or tradition of the apostolic witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

The preeminent books have always been the Gospels throughout most of Christian history. They are accorded a special honor in liturgical worship and reading. They have often been bound together in one volume, separate from the other books. They are kissed. They are held high. They are processed. And Christians stand when the Gospels are read. At least, that describes most Christians over most of Christian history. Today that might or might not be the case. It’s a very mixed bag. I will note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were primarily viewed as the announcement of the good news of conquering king who has saved his people to those who were not necessarily yet Christians, though of course Christians read them as well. In the early days of the Church, John was considered to be more reserved for Christians.

Most of the other books are called letters and they were written by the Apostles mostly to deal with specific issues in Churches they could not visit at the time of the writing. The key exceptions are Romans, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Paul wrote Romans to try to address some issues and lay the groundwork before his first visit. It appears that he planned to use Rome as a base for a missionary journey through Spain and was concerned about divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city after the Jews had been allowed to return. Hebrews is a detailed theological treatise interpreting much of the Old Testament as types in light of Christ. The Apocalypse is, well, the Apocalypse. It’s in a category by itself and for that reason was one of the relatively few books in dispute as the canon was developed in the late fourth century CE.

The books called letters are mostly not letters in the ancient sense. They may or may not have the normal beginning and end that a letter had, but the body is little like ancient letters. Ancient letters tended to be brief and factual. (Remember these were oral cultures, not literate ones.) The “letters” of the New Testament are, in fact, mostly homilies and other forms of rhetorical speech that the person sending would have delivered in person had they been able to be present. The one carrying the “letter” had to know how to deliver the rhetoric as the apostle intended.

Of course, very little, if anything, in the New Testament was considered “scripture” when it was written. It was highly respected, of course, as capturing a part of the apostolic witness and tradition. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they received from him in word (orally in person) or by epistle. And the fact that they survived some intermittent but pretty severe periods of persecution shows the care with which they were copied and preserved. The awareness of those writings as scripture mostly developed over the course of the second century and early third century.

The first known list of the New Testament canon as we have it today was Athanasius’ list in the early fourth century, but that list was not accepted formally by the Church as the canon until late in the fourth century. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have some confusion about the canonization process today. It was a lengthy process. The canon didn’t just magically appear by the end of the first century, but it was also not a major source of debate. Other than some scattered heretics, the four gospels as we have them were always the gospels accepted by the Church. The so-called gnostic gospels that garner attention today were not suppressed (though they were rejected) and were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon. Books that were seriously debated were books that did actually incorporate the true tradition of the church and which were highly respected. They were books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and what came to be called the ProtoEvangelion of James. Ultimately those books were not included in the canon because they were not believed to have been of apostolic origin. Although not Scripture, they were still valuable and recommended for reading — unlike the “gnostic gospels.”

All Christians do accept the same New Testament canon even if (like Luther) they don’t like parts of it. But that canon cannot be separated from the Church that decided it was indeed Scripture. And it seems to me that a lot of people today try to separate the two. Historically and rationally, that just doesn’t work — or at least I don’t see any way to make it work. I’ve read and listened to quite a few people on the topic, both academic and popular, who try to separate the NT canon from the Church that produced it. And their arguments seem to me to always end up chasing their own tail.


Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

I’m going to end this series by looking specifically at the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Holy Scriptures. They are very different collections so I’m going to approach each in a separate post. The obvious place to begin is with what is often called the Old Testament. Now the Old Testament as a whole is an enormously complex topic and I obviously can’t even cover its development comprehensively in a single post. Instead, I’m just going to cover some of the things I find interesting and perhaps some of the things which seem to often be popularly misunderstood today.

First, the books of the Old Testament represent the accumulation of many centuries of oral tradition. There’s no indication and no reason to believe that any of it was produced in written form concurrent with the events described or near the start of that particular part of the oral tradition. The Torah was pretty clearly the first part of tradition transcribed in a written form. That does not appear to have happened at once, but by the time of the Kings of Israel, it does appear to be in a more or less settled state. Certainly it changed the least in the post-exilic period.

The Torah actually appears in places to incorporate somewhat different oral traditions. That’s why there are two creation narratives and why Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t necessarily line up perfectly. But as I’ve explored earlier in this series, such things simply didn’t create any tensions or problems in the ancient cultures in question. When we turn those facts into problems, we are anachronistically superimposing a modern, literate mindset on the ancient cultures. Personally, I try to avoid creating problems that didn’t and couldn’t have existed in the ancient world.

Ancient Israel was not text-centered. That’s another fact that seems to often be missed by people today. That’s not to say that texts (once they existed) were unimportant. At one point, for example, the scroll of Deuteronomy was recovered and its public reading marked a turning point for the people. But Israel was fundamentally Temple-centered. That’s a huge difference. You can see that emphasis shifting among some quadrants of Israel as we get closer to the first century CE, but it did not become universal until the shift to Rabbinic Judaism after the final destruction of the Temple and the failure of the last Messianic movement. The shift from Temple to Torah (or Tanakh) really belongs in the second century CE. Again, that’s not to say that the texts (and certainly the tradition behind them) were ever unimportant. It’s just that if you try to interpret and understand ancient Israel primarily or exclusively in, through, and around the text, you will miss the larger picture.

Moreover, as was pretty common across the ancient world, Israel was not particularly concerned about establishing a canon or keeping texts static. I think it’s Jeremiah, for instance, of which they’ve found four pretty different versions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We also see other development in the texts. The Septuagint (LXX) was created from Hebrew texts because Hebrew was no longer spoken. It provided a Greek translation of the Torah initially and later other books as well. By the time of Christ, many writings were commonly associated with the LXX. However, the LXX was always something of a commentary on the Hebrew and so it changed as the Hebrew text changed and evolved. The book of Daniel provides a good example of that sort of evolution. The current Hebrew and Greek versions of Daniel track pretty closely. The Greek version still includes Bel and the Dragon and the song of the youths, but otherwise pretty much follows the Hebrew. But we’ve found an older Greek version of Daniel that is quite a bit different. It apparently tracked an older Hebrew form of the book that would have otherwise been lost to us.

The LXX is also significant for Christians. Although it was created for Jews before the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. That’s why all of the New Testament is in Greek. And since the Church very quickly went out to the nations, that is to what the Jews called the Gentiles, the Church used the LXX. We can see that in the NT text. In almost every place where there is a difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text of the OT quoted in the NT, even if it’s just a minor count of some sort, the NT quotation tracks the LXX. And that simply makes sense. If you’re going to preach to people who speak Greek (even if it’s not their native tongue) you’re going to use the Greek text. If even the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore, the nations certainly couldn’t be expected to understand it.

Now some will go so far as to say that Protestants have the wrong Old Testament. But I find that statement still too centered on the text itself. You have to ask the wrong Old Testament for what? Now, it is true that the LXX text (or a translation of it such as the Latin Vulgate, the text in Russian, or any of the other translations as the Church spread to the nations) is the text read in Church and used in liturgy from the beginning of the Church until the Protestant Reformation. So in that particular instance, I think Protestants do have to provide an explanation for why they have changed the OT that Christians have always used in Church worship.

But the truth is that Christians have always been aware of the Hebrew texts and have used them for other purposes. Sometimes they opposed changes to the Hebrew text as the Masoretic Jewish canon was developed beginning in the second century CE. But across all centuries, some Christians have learned Hebrew and compared the texts. There’s relatively little variation, for instance, in the Torah itself. Moreover, Christians have always been aware that many of the books in the LXX are a translation from Hebrew (some of the later ones were originally written in Greek) and at places the Hebrew text makes more sense than the Greek text. Now the Greek text is still read in Church, but points often are drawn in recorded homilies and other Christian writings from both the Greek and the Hebrew forms of the text. Once again, variation in the text just wasn’t a problem in the ancient world for Christians.

Of course, there wasn’t a single version of the LXX any more than there was a single version of the Hebrew text in the first century. Again, that wasn’t seen as a problem in the ancient world. People used whichever version they had and with which they were familiar. That means some of the versions of the LXX used today by different traditions that were separated geographically and culturally aren’t exactly the same. The Latin Church (long before the schism) didn’t have as many books translated in the Vulgate as the Churches we now call “Eastern Orthodox” had in their OT. And in some places like Ethiopia and Egypt (again well before any schism) their versions of the LXX had more books included. Again, variations like that were not important in the ancient world. Although Marcion, who rejected the whole Old Testament, was soundly refuted by all, I don’t recall any council trying to nail down a precise OT canon. It just wasn’t an issue.

As a rule, if something didn’t bother ancient Christians over the course of centuries, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason it should bother me.

One interesting fact about the Protestant OT is that although it uses the books of the Masoretic canon, it mostly uses the LXX names for the books. For instance, the first book is “Genesis” rather than “In the Beginning.” That’s always struck me as curious. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably to maintain some connection and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as Christians had learned them.

If you compare the LXX, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant OT with the Jewish canon, you will see that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the Jewish canon, but are two books each in any Christian Bible. (Samuel and Kings are 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms in the LXX and 1, 2, 3, & 4 Kings in a Catholic Bible rather that 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings the way there titled in a Protestant Bible.) The reason for that difference are rather prosaic. In earlier posts, I mentioned that a scroll could only hold so much. I also mentioned that ancient Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Ancient Greek did include vowels. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were too long to put on a single scroll when they were translated from Hebrew to Greek. So they were each split into two scrolls. The Hebrew versions of each did fit on a single scroll so they weren’t divided.

At least, that what I’ve read. But it does make sense when you think about it.


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

Posted: December 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

There is a great deal of attention and concern given today to textual variation in the Holy Scriptures. There are even books written by people who have lost Christian faith because they held to anachronistic and ultimately unsustainable views about the Bible. So I wanted to devote a post to the manner in which ancient texts were transmitted and preserved, placing the development of what we call the Bible in its proper context.

First, it’s important to recognize that unlike some sacred texts (the Qur’an is one good example) our Holy Scriptures were not written by one person at one point in time. The development of what we call the Bible today is a complex topic, but it certainly has many authors and developed over a long period of time. All of it captures a significant part of a larger oral tradition. Basically, the text of the Holy Scriptures functions as an integral piece of that oral tradition. Some parts, especially from what we call the Old Testament, developed over time — sometimes centuries. The New Testament, by contrast, was largely written by specific individuals and did not particularly develop over time. However, it all fits within a larger tradition and loses its meaning if removed from that tradition.

Next, as we’ve discussed before, these texts were all written and copied by hand. We have a difficult time grasping the difficulty of that task. It was extremely labor-intensive. And the materials were fragile and degraded over time, especially if handled and read frequently. Nor was there any sense in the ancient world that absolute verbatim accuracy in the copy was required. It’s not just a case of scribal error — though that certainly occurred. For instance, it’s possible that John did not originally include the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. It’s possible that a scribe a century later or so, living within a community immersed in the Johannine oral tradition decided that story also needed to be preserved. If so, by accepting the revised Gospel, the Church accepted that story as well. It’s not somehow of lesser importance or reliability. In fact, we would owe a debt to that scribe for preserving that piece of the tradition for us in the text.

However, variations in the text were simply not seen as a problem by anyone in the ancient world. We have homilies preserved by, for example, St. John Chrysostom where he encounters variations in a text. He simply notes that he has also seen it rendered this other way. Sometimes he’ll draw a spiritual point from both variant readings. But it doesn’t bother him when it happens. Now, there is a great deal of fidelity in the Christian manuscripts of the New Testament. Obviously care was lavished on their preservation. But they are a synergy between man and God both in their production and in their preservation. Like the Incarnation itself, the Holy Scriptures and the Church that provides the context for them are as fully human as they are divine — with all which that implies.

I’ll close with one more observation on textual variation. If you read the notes in a modern Bible, you’ll see comments that say things like “the oldest manuscripts do not include this.” Sometimes implied in that is the idea that the older a manuscript is the more accurate it is. But the truth is that we simply don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, the more a text was handled, the more it deteriorated. So it’s equally reasonable to assume that an old, variant manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn’t used. We just don’t know. The only real guide we have lies in the reading or readings that the Church has accepted as valid or useful for edification.

If you ask the wrong questions, you’re unlikely to find the right answers. And a lot of the modern discussion on textual variation in parts of Christianity seems to flow from the wrong questions.


Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Posted: December 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Before we can explore the way texts were used in ancient, oral cultures, it’s important to understand their physical nature and the manner in which they were constructed. I’ve discovered over the years that something which is obvious or well-known for one person may not be known for another, so I’ll try to briefly cover all the main points. If you already know most of this, bear with me.

First, the two ancient media for texts (if you discount clay or stone engravings) were papyrus and parchment. Papyrus was developed in ancient Egypt from the pith of a plant that grew in the Nile region and became widely used across that region of the ancient world. Parchment was constructed from thin layers of animal skin (calf, sheep, or goat). Both tended to be somewhat fragile and subject to damage by the elements and both were expensive. The higher the quality, the more expensive they were.

Longer texts were originally maintained on scrolls. Scrolls tend to damage the material, especially at the ends where they were attached as they were rolled and unrolled. And scrolls were not necessarily easy to access. You couldn’t just flip to a particular page the way you can in a modern book. There was also a physical limit on the size of a scroll. (When we look at the development of what Christians call the Old Testament, there’s an interesting historical tidbit that flows from that fact.)

Around the first century BCE or CE, the idea of folding or stitching papyrus or parchment in a rectangular form called a codex developed. That form was widely adopted by early Christian writers and is obviously the predecessor of the modern book. A codex, however, was not as large as a modern book. The form wouldn’t physically support that size. That will be important to remember, especially when we consider the New Testament.

At least in part because of the expense, space was not wasted on ancient texts. Unlike your average Rob Bell book, most of the available material was typically covered in writing. Niceties like lower case and punctuation were also relatively late developing. So an ancient text typically was in all one case, with no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. (Ancient Hebrew didn’t even have vowels in its written form.) An overly simple example I’ve seen used to illustrate that point follows.

GODISNOWHERE

What does the above say? Does it say “God is now here?” Or does it say “God is nowhere?” Now that’s ridiculously simple and with any context at all, it wouldn’t be hard for any of us to figure out. But now imagine a large, complex text written like the above from edge to edge with no spacing, no breaks, no marks to indicate how it should be read and understood. Imagine this very post written in all caps with no spaces and no punctuation. Could you read it?

So how did texts work in the ancient world? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. Remember, these were oral cultures. The text was never meant to stand by itself. Instead it captured something that had been delivered orally or which was intended to be delivered orally. A person who knew how it was supposed to be read would orally present it to others who would learn the correct reading from the oral presentation. The text was not the delivery mechanism itself the way it is in a literate culture. Rather the text essentially formed the crib notes for the oral presentation. And the tradition of that oral presentation was then passed along with the text.

I don’t remember who it was, but there was one ancient Christian saint who was known in part because he could read the Holy Scriptures without his lips moving, that is without sounding it out as he read. Now, that seems unremarkable to those of us shaped within the context of a literate culture. But that was highly unusual in an oral culture. People were not shaped to think that way. And the texts themselves did not support it.

So when you pick up a Bible, there are some things you should now recognize about it. First, it was never a single book until pretty recent times. Instead, it was a collection of separate scrolls and codices. Those scrolls and codices were not divided into chapters and verses for easy reference for many years. Their early or original forms did not have any spaces between the words or any punctuation. When you read a modern Bible, even before you get into the issue of the way interpretation influences word selection in translation, it’s important to recognize that all of the punctuation, sentence structures, and paragraph breaks form an attempt to translate an oral tradition into a literate form.

As you can see, it’s a little silly to try to distinguish oral from written tradition. In the ancient world, it was all fundamentally oral tradition. The texts serve to capture part of the oral tradition in which they were embedded. Typically they formed a very important part of that tradition, else they would not have been preserved. But it’s important to place them in their proper ancient context.


Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 19 – Intro to St. Cyprian on Preparing the Cup of Our Lord

Posted: August 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

In this letter St. Cyprian of Carthage addresses an issue on the proper preparation of the Eucharistic cup. I believe it would be extremely beneficial for anyone interested in this topic to read the entire letter. Some were preparing a cup with only water rather than water mixed with wine. However, in his fairly gentle reproof, St. Cyprian lays out the fullest preserved, written theological explanation of the Cup that we have from the early church. (It appears that the Eucharist itself was not often the central topic of controversy in the early centuries.)

As with most Eastern writings (including the whole of the Holy Scriptures, I might point out) it can seem to leap from point to point in ways that jar our Western scholastic inclinations and formation. It makes use of the Holy Scriptures in ways very much like the way Jesus and the Apostles used Scripture, which fits the claim throughout that it was received from them. However, it is not the way we typically read the Holy Scriptures in the West, so that too can be jarring.

St. Cyprian stresses repeatedly the importance of holding to the teaching and practice of Jesus and the Apostles. We’ve seen that same thing expressed in much that we have so far explored, of course, but nowhere as clearly and as often as in this letter. Protestants often seem to imagine an early church running wild with innovations of the faith, adding things, and changing things willy nilly over a relatively short span of time. In truth, I think we Protestants are taking the reality of our approach to the faith and superimposing it on the early church. We innovate and change wildly, as our ever-increasing schism and fragmentation illustrate. Something is considered “old” if it was done two generations ago.

There is not really any evidence that the early church acted in that manner at all. Rather, they seem to cling to what has been traditioned to them in even some of the smallest details. They stand repeatedly against those who do introduce innovations and denounce those innovations in belief and practice. We know through study that oral cultures are remarkably effective at conserving oral tradition over long periods of time, especially in matters of belief and religious practice. Why would we believe that early Christians would be any less effective, especially if we believe they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, which is to say that they were empowered by God?

I see no reason to disbelieve St. Cyprian when he states repeatedly that what he writes is what was traditioned by Jesus and the Apostles one hundred and fifty to two hundred years earlier. That’s just not a very long time when we’re talking about the oral tradition of a core religious perspective on the nature of reality — one for which people were willing to die. That’s right up there near the top of the things you want to be sure you have right. And it was self-correcting. St. Cyprian points that out in the beginning of his letter.

Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord.

The tradition does not pass through any single line of individuals. It is maintained by the many bishops set over the churches, lest any one of them go astray. This broad practice of traditioning makes it even less likely that the oral tradition was significantly altered in two centuries or less. This is how the faith taught by the Apostles was transmitted. Remember, there still was no New Testament canon. Churches had the septuagint and by this point in time it’s reasonable to assume every Church had the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Beyond that, it’s still hit and miss what letters a particular church did or did not have.

But they all had over them a Bishop who had received the oral tradition of the Apostles and who taught it to his presbyters, deacons, and people. And the Bishops did not act in isolation, as we saw in the letter to Rome from the whole African synod. To the extent possible, the met together and corrected each other. As necessary, they acted more strongly. We see St. Cyprian expressing the strength with which he held to the tradition he was given.

Nor must you think, dearest brother, that I am writing my own thoughts or man’s; or that I am boldly assuming this to myself of my own voluntary will, since I always hold my mediocrity with lowly and modest moderation. But when anything is prescribed by the inspiration and command of God, it is necessary that a faithful servant should obey the Lord, acquitted by all of assuming anything arrogantly to himself, seeing that he is constrained to fear offending the Lord unless he does what he is commanded.

The only way that we can assume that the faith radically changed in this environment over a short period of time is to assert that the process of oral transmission of tradition radically failed.

But if it did fail, how can we even trust that the New Testament canon we have is the correct one? After all, the NT is also a product of that oral tradition, not the other way around. I think many of my fellow Protestants seem to have a somewhat confused perspective on the Bible. That’s one of the reasons I like Ben Witherington III so much, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions. I have nevertheless learned a lot from him.

As we’ve seen so far in this very focused look at the Eucharist, the Church did consistently preserve and conserve what it had been traditioned on this one topic. Why would we not believe it retained the whole of the faith under duress without innovation or radical change? I’ll go all Western here and bring out Occam’s famous razor. We know that in oral cultures the process of oral tradition conserves rather than innovates, especially in matters of faith and religious practice. Even in the things that were reduced to writing and to which we have access (a tremendous amount has been lost, though we do sometimes have an archeological find and recover something previously thought lost) we see consistency. We do not see radical innovation and change. So which is more likely? The only reason I can discern to conclude that the early church innovated and changed the faith is because you don’t like the answer if you say they did not.

Well. Clearly my reflections on this letter will involve at least two posts. See you tomorrow!


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 4 – Clement of Rome

Posted: July 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Having already reflected on the Didache or Teaching in my previous series, I want to begin our exploration of the historical view of the Eucharist with the Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, to the Corinthian Church. This letter was written in the late first century. Some date it as early as 70 AD. Others as late as 96 AD, the last year of the reign of Domitian. The letter’s reference to persecutions would tend to indicate to me that it was written sometime during the latter part of the reign of Domitian (81-96).

This letter does not directly discuss the Eucharist, though it is referenced a number of times as “offerings”. However, it does contain an important look at church structure, order in worship, and the importance of unity and avoidance of schism. The issue in the Corinthian Church that Clement is writing to address is division and schism. It appears they were even trying to depose their Bishop! Of course, as we know from Paul’s letters to Corinth, with which Clement certainly seems to be familiar, schisms and divisions were apparently a recurring problem in Corinth.

I’ve realized as I’ve been rereading Clement that I probably need to briefly discuss the matter of the Holy Scriptures. There was no established “New Testament” canon for these first few centuries. Most people did not have access to all of the writings that the Church would later canonize, though the ones which would become canonical tended to become more widely read and available as the years passed. Clement obviously has at least one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Of all the other NT writings, he quotes or alludes to Hebrews the most. It also seems that he had James’ letter. Beyond that it’s hard to say from this one document how many of the writings he had read, though of course he would have been schooled in the oral tradition of the apostles and that shows most clearly in his interpretation and application of texts from the Septuagint in light of Christ.

Clement quotes extensively from the Septuagint (LXX) just as the NT authors themselves do. In the first century and in the Greek East to the present day the LXX was and is the canonical text of the Old Testament or what is referred to in the NT itself everywhere except for one reference in 2 Peter as the Scriptures. The LXX was the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts that were used in synagogues almost everywhere except in Jerusalem and Judea by the first century since Greek was the lingua franca of the diaspora and the Empire, even if Latin was used to conduct business. Since the earliest converts to the Church consisted of many Greek speaking Jews and later pagan gentiles, the Apostles and other early writers wrote entirely in Greek and quoted from the LXX. It’s clear from their texts and from surviving early liturgies that the LXX was what was read in Church. Over time, the writings that came to form the NT canon were also the texts that were read in the Church.

The entire letter is not very long and I do recommend that you take a few minutes to read it in its entirety. However, I’ll reflect on just a few excerpts. As I mentioned, the problem was that they were suffering from schisms and were trying to depose their bishop. Clement addresses the latter directly in Chapter 44.

Our Apostles, too, by the instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that strife would arise concerning the dignity of a bishop; and on this account, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the above-mentioned as bishops and deacons: and then gave a rule of succession, in order that, when they had fallen asleep, other men, who had been approved, might succeed to their ministry. Those who were thus appointed by them, or afterwards by other men of good repute, with the consent of the whole Church, who have blamelessly ministered to the flock of Christ with humility, quietly, and without illiberality, and who for a long time have obtained a good report from all, these, we think, have been unjustly deposed from the ministry. For it will be no small sin in us if we depose from the office of bishop those who blamelessly and piously have made the offerings. Happy are the presbyters who finished their course before, and died in mature age after they had borne fruit; for they do not fear lest any one should remove them from the place appointed for them. For we see that ye have removed some men of honest conversation from the ministry, which had been blamelessly and honourably performed by them.

Clement refers here to the bishops who “blamelessly and piously have made the offerings”. That is pretty clearly a reference to the liturgy and eucharist as we saw outlined in the Didache and as Paul describes in his own first (surviving) letter to Corinth. It’s important to note that the Apostles installed bishops and deacons to care for the churches they started. We see that in the NT in a number of places. James was the Bishop in Jerusalem at the first council described in Acts 15 and officiated or facilitated that council, even though both Peter and Paul were present. Paul installed Titus and Timothy as bishops later and that’s reflected in his letters to them. After those initial bishops had fallen asleep, successors were chosen by “other men of good repute” by which we know from other sources referred to other recognized bishops (always at least two) and by the acclamation of the Church into which the successor was being installed as bishop. (Though it didn’t happen often, there are accounts of times when the people of a Church refused to accept a heterodox bishop — even if it meant gathering in the fields.) Historically, it appears that Clement may have been the first bishop of Rome installed by this method rather than directly by an Apostle.

The primary distinction, especially at this point in the life of the Church, between a presbyter (in English typically translated priest) and a bishop was that while there might be many presbyters according to the needs of the people and the size of the Church (which sometimes gathered in multiple locations in a city — Rome is a good example in Paul’s letter to them), there was never more than one bishop for any given place. Thus Corinth could have presbyters in the plural, but it only had one bishop. The presbyters helped the bishop while the deacons served the people.

I had thought I would touch on Clement of Rome in a single day with a relatively short post. As I’ve written, ideas, practices, setting, and culture on which I really need to lay some groundwork for future discussions have kept coming to mind. This post is already much longer than I typically write. So I’ll try to wrap up Clement in tomorrow’s post.


The Didache 22 – Baptize This Way

Posted: July 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The first thing that jumps out at me in this part of the Teaching is the phrase “Having first said all these things”. Those of us who were raised within a literate culture sometimes have a hard time grasping the way in which an oral culture works. It was and is normal for someone in an oral culture to memorize large blocks of oral tradition and be able to recite it verbatim. Oral teaching tends to be trusted more than a written text because you know who is teaching you, but you don’t where a written text came from or who might have changed it before you received it. A literate culture tends to relinquish that capacity for memorization and tends to trust a written text over a purely oral teaching. This phrase, of course, means that the one being baptized was expected to recite the entire Teaching before their baptism. That seems surprising to us only because we were not shaped within an oral culture.

However, it does point out that from very early on the church tried to make sure when possible and reasonable that people had some grasp of what they were doing in baptism. Even in the case of the Ethiopian eunech, we see Phillip cramming as much teaching as he could beforehand. On balance, I think most Protestant traditions do less baptismal teaching than is healthy. The expectation seems to be that people can learn what it all means after they do it, which seems a little backwards to me.

Next we see the Trinitarian formula, already established in the first century. Today, I believe the Orthodox are the only tradition who continue the triple immersion, but most Christians do baptize in the name of the Trinity. Those who don’t tend to have deeper theological issues.

The focus on “living” or running water is very Jewish in its nature, as one would expect since Christianity, flowing from Judaism, is inevitably shaped by the Jewishness of its Lord. However, we see all sorts of accomodation for different situations even in this short section.

I have to confess that even after all these years among them, I still don’t understand the strange relationship modern Baptists have with baptism. On the one hand, it doesn’t “count” unless done by immersion following a “valid” (how do you know?) confession of faith. While on the other hand they insist that baptism doesn’t actually mean anything or accomplish anything, that it’s “just” a symbol and does nothing in reality. And most don’t even seem to see how odd those two assertions are when joined together.

Finally, we see that the baptizer, the baptized, and everyone in the community who could were expected to fast before the baptism. Fasting, an important topic obviously to me, permeated the early church. I’m trying to imagine everyone in my church fasting together before performing baptisms and I’m not having much success. Baptists are known for many things, but fasting is not one of them. 😉

Perhaps that’s our loss?