“Who do you say I am?” Before we can even begin to answer Christ’s question, we must consider the background against which this question is raised and the framework within which it can be answered. The first subject inevitably raises issues concerning the historical background, and the delicate subject of the relation between history and faith, while the latter immerses us in the divisive topic of the relation between Scripture and tradition and the complex problem of canon. All these topics were debated in the first couple of centuries, and settled in a manner which thereafter (at least for the period considered in this series) became normative.
Concerning the issues surrounding historicity, much has been written on “the scandal of particularity,” the fact that God revealed himself uniquely through his Son, a first century Jew. Many volumes have also been devoted to describing the social, political, economic, and cultural setting of first century Palestine. In a similar vein, there have been many attempts, especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, to reconstruct the “historical Jesus” through the supposedly objective methods of historical-critical research.
It must be clearly noted, however, that such endeavors, the speculativeness and arbitrariness of which are amply demonstrated by the bewildering variety of “real” Jesuses they fabricate, are neither an answer to Christ’s question nor, consequently, are they of the order of knowledge upon which the Christian Church is based. Christ’s question calls for interpretation, to explain the meaning and significance of this person, his life and works.
To say that Jesus was born of Mary and was crucified under Pontius Pilate is to make an assertion concerning the order of history, about an event, possibly verifiable, possibly not; to say that he is the incarnate Word of God, the crucified and risen Lord and Savior, is an interpretation and explanation of who he is and how he stands in relation to those seeking to respond to him — a confession.
The writings of the New Testament are already such interpretations, written in the context of faith in the one whom God raised from the dead. Their status as interpretations cannot be bypassed in an effort to seek the supposed historical core and then subject it to other interpretative frameworks. The “real Jesus” inscribed in the writings of the New Testament is already interpreted, and to understand him more deeply, we must turn primarily to the symbolic world of Scripture, in and through which Christ is, from the first, understood and explained — revealed.
However, to speak of a collection of writings known as the New Testament presupposes certain developments, raising further difficult issues. Most immediately, why these writings and not others? Although seems probable that the letters of Paul began to be gathered into collections towards the end of the first century, and a fourfold Gospel collection soon thereafter, [H. Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 58-65; T. C. Skeat, The Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels? NTS 43 (1997), 1-34; G. N. Stanton, The Fourfold Gospel, NTS43 (1997), 317-46] the crucial battles lay ahead in the following century, and it is really only by the end of the second century that a recognizable New Testament came into use, and along with it an appeal to apostolic tradition, apostolic succession, and the canon or rule of truth. The importance of these debates cannot be overstated; through them these elements are brought together into one coherent whole. The New Testament has its place within a larger constellation.
If we are to understand the particular contours of this debate and its resolution, we must avoid reading its terms in the manner set by the polemics of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, in which Scripture is opposed to tradition, as two distinct sources of authority.
[In its official pronouncement, the Council of Trent (1545-63) affirmed, somewhat ambiguously, that the truth and rule are contained in written books and unwritten traditions (in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus), Session 4, 8 April 1546; a draft of the decree submitted on 22 March 1564, suggests a greater independence of these two mediums, referring to the truth contained "partly (partim) in written books and partly (partim) in unwritten traditions." Text cited and discussed in Y. M. J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 164-9.]
Separating Scripture and tradition in this way introduces an inevitable quandary: if the locus of authority is fixed solely in Scripture, and “canon” is understood exclusively in the sense of a “list” of authoritative books, then accounting for that list becomes problematic;
R. Pfeiffer points out that the term “canon” was first used to designate “list” by David Ruhnken in 1768, and that his coinage met with worldwide and lasting success, as the term was found to be so convenient: one has the impression that most people who use it believe that this usage is of Greek origin. But the original Greek was never used in this sense, nor would this have been possible. From its frequent use in ethics it has always retained the meaning of rule or model.” (History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age [Oxford: Clarendon, 1968], 207).
Despite this recognition, Pfeiffer himself a few lines later describes the list of biblical books as its “canon,” appealing to passages where it could equally be taken in the sense of “rule” (Origen apud Eusebius HE 6.25.3; Athanasius, On the Decree of Nicaea, 18), cf. G. A. Robbins, Eusebius’ Lexicon of Canonicity, St. Patr. 25, (Leuven: Peeters, 1993), 134-41.
Most of the studies treating the canon of Scripture not that “canon” primarily meant “rule,” yet presuppose that it should mean “list,” and sc devote most attention to cataloguing when, where and by whom, the various writings were accepted as Scripture. For a more considered discussion of the issues concerning canon and Scripture, see, J. Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) and W. J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
If, on the other hand, Scripture is subsumed under tradition, on the grounds that the Church predates the writings of the New Testament (conveniently forgetting, in a Marcionite fashion, the existence of Scripture — the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets), then again a problem arises from the lack of a criterion or canon, this time for differentiating, as is often done, between “Tradition” and “traditions” — all traditions are venerable, though some more so than others, yet the basis for this distinction is never clarified.
With regard to the establishment by the end of the second century of catholic, orthodox or normative Christianity, the most important question must be: on what basis was this done? Was it a valid development, intrinsic to the proclamation of the Gospel itself, or an arbitrary imposition, dictated by a male, monarchical, power-driven episcopate suppressing all alternative voices by processes of exclusion and demonization, or however else the history might be written?
The picture of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, as it was presented for instance in the book of Acts and, in the fourth century, in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea, has become increasing difficult to maintain, especially since the work of Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. And rightly so: the earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Paul, are addressed to churches already falling away from the Gospel which he had delivered to them.
Yet the Gospel was delivered. Debates certainly raged from the beginning about the correct interpretation of this Gospel; it is a mistake to look back to the early Church hoping to find a lost golden age of theological or ecclesiastical purity — whether in the apostolic times as narrated in the book of Acts, or the early Church, as recorded by Eusebius, or the age of the Fathers and Church Councils, or the Empire of Byzantium. Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered, once for all.
However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of the Coming One (cf. Matthew 11:3; 21:9; 23:39) and accordingly the citizenship of Christians is not on earth but in heaven, from which they await their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philemon 3:20). In like manner the Gospel is not located in a specific text; what came to be recognized as “canonical” Gospels are always described as “The Gospel according to…” The Gospel is not fixed in a particular text, but, as we will see, in an interpretative relationship to the Scriptures — the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.
Inseparable from the debates about which works were to count as Scripture, was the issue of the correct interpretation of Scripture. Not only was there a commitment to a body of Scripture, but there was also the affirmation that there is a correct reading of this Scripture, or more exactly, that there is a correct canon for reading Scripture, a canon expressing the hypothesis of Scripture itself.
Even if it was expressed in many different ways and its articulation continued to be refined, a process which continues today, nevertheless there was a conviction that there is one right faith; and this conviction that there is one right faith, one right reading of the one Scripture, is intimately tied to the confession that there is one Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one Father, who alone has made known (“exegeted,” John 1:18] the Father.
The assertion that there is such a thing as right faith came to be expressed, by the end of the second century, in terms of the canon (rule) of faith or truth, where canon does not mean an ultimately arbitrary list of articles of belief which must be adhered to, or a list of authoritative books which must be accepted, but is rather a crystallization of the hypothesis of Scripture itself. The canon in this sense is the presupposition for reading Scripture on its own terms — it is the canon of truth, where Scripture is the body of truth.
It is often said that Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam, though these are not dealt with here) is a “religion of the book,” and this is usually taken in a very weak sense, that somehow, somewhere, for whatever reason, Christianity involves a book. But what is established as normative Christianity in the second century takes this in a much stronger sense: God acts through His Word, then that Word needs to be heard, to be read, to be understood — the relationship with God is, in a broad sense, literary. As such, it requires the full engagement of all the intellective faculties understand and accomplish, or incarnate, God’s Word.
It was no accident, as Frances Young observes, that what came to be orthodox or normative Christianity was “committed to a text-based version of revealed truth.” This Christianity, one might say, is an interpretative text-based religion.
She further points out, concerning the question of historicity touched on earlier, that it would be anachronistic to suppose that in antiquity God’s revelation was thought of as located in historical events behind the text, events to which, it is claimed, we can have access by reconstructing the from the text, treating the texts as mere historical documents which provide raw historical data, subject to our own analysis, rather than in the interpreted events as presented in Scripture, where the interpretation is already given through the medium of Scripture [Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: bridge University Press, 1997), 167].
What is recognized, by the end of the second century as normative Christianity is committed to understanding Christ by engaging with Scripture on the basis of the canon of truth and in the context of tradition.
But if this is the basis for what is established as normative Christianity by the end of the second century, it is no less the very dynamic of the Gospel itself. One of the earliest formulae for proclaiming the gospel is that Christ was crucified and raised “according to the Scriptures”:
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
(1 Corinthians 15: 3-4)
The Gospel which Paul delivered (“traditioned”) is from the first according to the Scriptures.” Clearly the Scriptures to which Paul is referring here are not the four Gospels, but the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. The importance of this written reference, repeated twice, is such that the phrase is preserved in later Creeds; Christians who use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed still confess that Christ died and rose according to the (same) Scriptures.
The point of concern in this basic Christian confession is not the historicity of the events behind their reports, but that the reports are continuous with, in accordance with, Scripture; it is a textual, or more accurately an “inter-textual” or interpretative confession. And this scriptural texture of the Gospel is, as we will see, the basis of both canon and tradition as articulated by what emerges as normative Christianity. If “orthodoxy” is indeed later than “heresy,” as Bauer claimed and as is commonly assumed, it is nevertheless based on nothing other than Gospel as it was delivered at the beginning.