Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Gospel Authorship Part III: Apostles as Authorities

In Parts I and II of this blog series, I have been discussing New Testament scholars' claims about the canonical gospel titles being added later and the anonymity of the canonical gospels.

In those posts, I came to the following conclusions: 1) if the titles were added later than the composition of the gospels, the manuscript evidence is not the definitive place to look for an answer. All of our manuscripts bear the traditional titles. 2) The canonical gospels are all formally anonymous, meaning that within the gospel stories themselves the author does not identify himself by name.  Matthew and Mark are 100% formally anonymous and Luke and John give clues as to who wrote them, but those clues are opaque and do not lead to identification with a named figure.

Today I want to look at a phenomenon that occurred mostly in the second century and beyond among Christian writings. That phenomenon is the writing of new "gospels" attributed to one of the apostles or another authoritative Christian figure. Attaching the name of an apostle to a document clearly written in the second century or later appears to be an attempt to lend authority to the story being told. Let's look at three examples of attaching names of Christian authority figures to gospels to see how this works.  All three of the following gospels are dated no earlier than the second century.*

Coptic Gospel of Thomas (opening)
"These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas
Thomas recorded."
Here we have an attribution of the sayings of this gospel to "Didymos Judas Thomas" the disciple of Jesus. If Thomas wrote them, they must be reliable, right?

The Protoevangelium of James (25:1)
"James, wrote this history when there was unrest in Jerusalem, at the time Herod died. I took myself into the desert until the unrest in Jerusalem ceased.  All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history."
This gospel, which actually focuses on the birth of Mary, is attributed to James.  This is James, the older step brother of Jesus, presumably from a previous wife of Joseph.  This is the same James who later was a leader in the Jerusalem church.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (1:1)
"I, Thomas the Israelite, have thought it needful to make known unto all the brethren that are of the Gentiles the mighty works of childhood which our Lord Jesus Christ wrought when he was conversant in the body, and came unto the city of Nazareth in the fifth year of his age."
Here we have another attribution of a gospel to Thomas the disciple.  This gospel, perhaps the most entertaining of them all, deals with the exploits of the childhood Jesus.

These three, and many other gospels that I could cite from the second century and beyond, demonstrate that there was a practice in later Christian centuries of attributing contemporary works to authoritative figures of the past.  This was not a new practice, as second temple Jewish literature would often try and call on the authority of a patriarch like Moses or Abraham. But, it does stand in pretty sharp contrast to the four canonical gospels which are formally anonymous. I find it interesting that there was this need to attach an authoritative figure to gospels written in the second century, presumably to lend authority or credibility to the writing itself, while no such attributions exist within the canonical gospels (all dated to the first century).  So, as time went on, it appears that there was a need, beginning in the second century, to attach the name of a first generation Christian figure to writings to lend them authority.

Is it mere coincidence then that evidence for the traditional titles of the four canonical gospels also first appears in the second century?  That will be the question addressed in part four of this series. Come back and see.

*Dates come from Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha: Volume One, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).  Some argue for a first century date for Coptic Thomas, but these early datings have not persuaded the guild as a whole.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Gospel Authorship Part II: Formal Anonymity of the Gospels

In my last post, I discussed two very important claims that New Testament scholars (myself included) often make. 1) The Gospel titles (The Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were added later than the composition of the gospels, and 2) the four canonical gospels are all anonymous.

The main conclusion reached in the last post was that a common assumption that is made based upon these claims, that we have early gospel manuscripts without the titles, is an inaccurate assumption.  In fact, the earliest manuscripts we have that have a space for a title, all bear the traditional gospel titles. The image to the right is a page of p75, a 3rd century manuscript that contains the gospels of Luke and John.  In the image, one can see the title of Luke (euangelion kata loukan), marking the ending of Luke's gospel followed by a couple of line breaks, then the title of John (euangelion kata ioanen).  As far as New Testament manuscripts, we don't have much that is earlier than the 3rd century, and much of that is fragmentary (meaning it would not contain a space for a title).  So, the manuscript evidence demonstrates consistent naming of the gospels in the 3rd century.  But, this is not surprising at all to NT scholars since the traditional titles of the gospels are certainly established in the 2nd century, so we would expect no less.  Of course manuscripts from the 3rd century would bear the traditional titles.  So, barring the discovery of earlier manuscripts, the manuscript evidence will not be able to solve the issue of gospel titles, how early they were attached to the gospels, and whether the gospels were originally anonymous.

Let's examine for a moment the claim that all four canonical gospels are anonymous?  What do scholars mean when they say this?  Well, if they are being careful, what they mean specifically, is that the gospels are formally anonymous.  That is, leaving off the issue of the titles for a moment, and not seeking to answer the question of whether the titles were there originally or not, in the stories the gospels present, the author does not step forward and identify himself.*  Nowhere in the four canonical gospels does the author say something like, "I, Matthew, am the one who witnessed these events," or "I, John, was the disciple who leaned against Jesus' breast."  The gospel authors, within the stories themselves, do not self identify.  This is what scholars mean when they call the gospels anonymous.

Now, each of the four gospels are different and need to be examined individually.  So, the formal anonymity of Matthew and Mark are 100% with no concrete clues as to authorship (the tax collector named "Matthew" in Matthew and the naked young man in Mark are certainly not "concrete" identifications of authorship).

Luke and John do give slight clues. Let's take a look at Luke 1:1-4:

"1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed."
The author of Luke identifies himself here in many ways, but not by name.  A few things can be known about the author's identity from this passage.
1) The author knows of other attempts to write "gospels."
2) The author claims to depend on, but is not himself, an eyewitness.
3) The author has undertaken investigation.
4) The author wants to provide an orderly account.

All well and good, but none of these identifications get us closer to a name for the author.

Now look at John 21:23-25:
"23 So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."
Here we have a tantalizing statement that seems to attribute authorship.  This is an aside by the narrator of the gospel.  The disciple in question is not given a name, but throughout the gospel of John this disciple is known as the "beloved disciple," who is never associated with John son of Zebedee within the gospel.  On first glance, it would seem that the beloved disciple is the author of the gospel, but that cannot be.  In verse 24, the author(s) clearly self identify as "we."  "We know that his [the beloved disciple] testimony is true." So, this gospel is written by a "we" who are basing what they write on the testimony of the beloved disciple.  Tantalizing? Yes.  Any closer to identifying a name for the author(s)? No.

Well, that is enough for today.  Come back next time for more.

*I am assuming the authors of the four gospels are male.  I have no concrete evidence for this assumption other than the typical patriarchal nature of the first century Roman Empire.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gospel Authorship I: Questioning Assumptions

Today I want to deal with one scholarly assumption which needs questioning.  New Testament scholars, myself included, often make the claim that the gospel titles (Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were added later, after the writing of the gospels themselves.  Therefore, a further claim is often made (guilty as charged) that the gospels were all anonymous.

This is a common, but often unquestioned, bit of New Testament scholarly common knowledge.  But what lies behind such claims? Well, I had never thought to question these assertions until a couple of years ago when a student pressed me on the issue, and I had to admit, if only to myself, that I did not know the answer.  So, as any somewhat competent scholar would do, I asked myself why I thought this, and I went searching for the "big guns," scholars of renown to back me up.

I had in my mind many claims that I was sure I had read while in Seminary and Ph.D. studies that had confidently stated things such as "the Gospel titles were all added later." Take for example this quote from Raymond Brown's magnificent New Testament Introduction: "If we work backwards, the title, 'The Gospel According to Mark' was attached to this writing by the end of the second century."1  And here is the crux, the place where I had made an assumption.  I assumed that such confident claims must have solid evidence.  Specifically, I had in mind a second claim that may or may not go with the first, and that is the claim that "the original manuscripts of the gospels do not have the titles attached." Now, I have not been able to find such a claim in print, but it logically follows on the previous claims.  If the titles were added later and the gospels are all anonymous, then clearly, the earliest manuscripts did not have the titles,  But here comes my assumption.  I assumed that lying behind such claims was the hard evidence.  And, what evidence would be the "smoking gun" that proved that the originals did not bear titles? Well, of course, having an early copy without the titles would prove the previous claims.  And this had been my assumption for years.  I assumed that there were early manuscripts that did not contain the titles.

But on further investigation, no such manuscripts exist.  We do not have a single gospel manuscript sans title.  That is, for a manuscripts complete enough to have a place for a title (i.e., a manuscript with the beginning or end of a gospel), every one we have bears the traditional titles of the gospels.

So much for that assumption.  Well, since this assumption of a manuscript sans title has turned out to be false, does that mean that the previous claims of gospel anonymity fall apart.  Stay tuned for further posts on the matter.

1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 158.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Smartphone Revolution

Last time I talked about the smartphone revolution, and how it seems to have gone unnoticed by many as a true revolution.  I believe this is the case because many still view these computers in our pockets as "phones" and not miniature personal computers.

I see this often in my line of work as a college professor, as professors are struggling with classroom use of these devices.  Many ban smartphones in the classroom altogether.  I think this is a mistake for two reasons.  First, it creates enmity between student and professor.  For many of the millennial generation, the smartphone is their best friend, their connection to the world, their personal symbol of freedom and autonomy.  If you tell them on the first day of class that these devices are not welcome in class, it starts the class off with an adversarial tone setting up the student against professor.  But, second, and I think far more damaging, it handcuffs the student by removing one of their most powerful resources for learning.  Here students have access to the full internet plus numerous educational apps, yet professors tell them to put these devices away.

I think that this "No Smartphones Policy" has to do with failing to see the smartphone as a true revolution.  I think that these professors still view these devices primarily as phones.  They are just carrying over accepted phone etiquette.

Every new technology requires people to work out new policies of etiquette.  It made sense to have a no phone policy when phones were just phones.  Of course students should not take and receive phone calls in class.  Even with the advent of texting (pre-smartphone), the no phone policy made sense.  No urgent need to text.  But, with the advent of the true smartphone, the internet connected computer in your pocket, I think it is time to develop new etiquette policies that do not handcuff the student and deny one of their most powerful learning tools.

So, instead of banning phones, isn't it time to come up with a new system of etiquette that teaches students respectful and proper use of these devices, while making use of these powerful tools in the classroom?

If any professors happen to be reading this, what is your policy for smartphones in the classroom? Should they be used or banned?  How do you control misuse?

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Quiet Revolution

A quiet revolution has taken place in the last eight years, and many of us have hardly noticed it.  It is not that this revolution has literally been quiet.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It has been in our face, on billboards, television commercials, in newspaper articles, and, for many of us, in our pockets.  No, it is not that this revolution has been quiet, but rather, most have not seen it as a revolution.

The revolution, of course, is the advent of the smartphone.  These little devices in our pockets have revolutionized just about everything in life for those who have participated.  It is hard for me to believe that the smartphone only came about in 2007 with the first iPhone. It seems like longer than that given how accustomed I am to reaching into my pocket to check the weather, email, sports scores, IMDB, and countless other queries I may have.

The reason I call this revolution "quiet," is because for many, no real revolution took place.  The smartphone was just the next incremental improvement in the cellphone market that has been making these incremental changes since the 1980s.  In that view, wireless phones went from being suitcase-size devices gradually getting smaller over the years until the impossibly small Nokia 8210
which I purchased through T-Mobile in 2001.  Then came the flip phones.  Then came the flip phones with color screens, and finally the flip phones with cameras.  Finally, a few bought Blackberry devices that had full keyboards and limited internet capabilities.  Again, in this view, the iPhone, and the subsequent smartphone market was just another incremental change in the continuing development of telephone technology. Here is an image depicting the evolution of the cellphone.
Here we see a smooth transition from the gigantic Motorola 8900X-2, gradually growing smaller, then increasing in size again to the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.  But I would contend that there should be a sharp break between cellphones and so-called smartphones.  Smartphones have more in common with desktop or laptop computers than they have in common with a pre-2007 cellphone. Here is a screenshot depicting my battery usage on my iPhone 6 for the past four days. The phone app is tied for 6th place with 4% of battery usage.  But notice, even that has the note "low signal" (I live in an area where I often only have one or two bars). So, my phone app usage was not even me using the phone, it was the phone trying to acquire signal.  This is telling.  My smartphone is not really a phone, or at least it is not used as one very often.  It is a computer in my pocket that also can make and receive phone calls when I have need of that function.

The reason this revolution has gone largely unnoticed is that we still call these devices "phones."  Whether we call it an iPhone, or a smartphone, we have kept the name "phone," and this is deceptive and does not allow us to realize that we are really dealing with something new.  In my next post, I want to talk about a few of the implications that arise from this revolution and the failure to truly see it as a revolution.