The One Book to Read on Early Christianity

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been looking at recent scholarship on the origins of Christianity. As with the murder of President Kennedy in 1963, we have a surfeit of sketchy “evidence,” and far more questions than answers. I have already written briefly about the vexed question of Jesus’ historical existence. The separate and more basic question—how did Christianity come about?—also admits of no definitive answer. We don’t even know who the first Christians were, or where they were. In order to get one’s house in order about these fundamental matters, we first need to interrogate the history of the New Testament itself.

There have been only a few legitimate achievements in recent historical research. The one book that, in my humble opinion, stands above the rest is David Trobisch’s The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford, 2000). Maybe it isn’t a page-turning thriller, but as historical detective work into the foundations of Western civilization, it is both fascinating and important.

The thesis of the book is that the New Testament was carefully assembled and crafted as a literary unit, and published as a specific book (or rather, anthology of books), at a specific time and place, by a specific group of people, with a specific purpose.

This idea may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Trobisch’s evidence is solid, and he knows what he is talking about. His expertise is widely recognized, and he sits on the committee of the German Bible Society that publishes the Nestle-Aland critical edition of the Greek New Testament.

Instead of constructing a story doubtfully based on little scraps of information from dubious authorities (“the Church Fathers”) pertaining to a supposed “formation of the New Testament canon,”—a story that happens to flatter both the modern Christian Church and the guild of religion scholars—Trobisch concentrates our attention on the actual manuscript tradition. And having poured over some 5000+ manuscripts, many of which have only come to light in recent decades, he uncovers the outlines of what must have happened.

A specific person, or (more likely) a group of persons, created the New Testament. They compiled, arranged, and edited these 27 documents, the bulk of which had already been composed by some earlier group of persons, also unknown, into the story of Christianity as we have always known it, which is that (1) God sent Jesus into the world; (2) Jesus sent some apostles (and a few of his own brothers) into the world as his witnesses; and finally (3) the brothers and apostles and their disciples (8 guys: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, & Jude”) saw to it that their testimony was permanently recorded in a “New Testament.” This collection was appended to a Greek “Old Testament” collection of older Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh), and so it was a 2-part, Christian Bible. So it has ever been.

The conventional theory of “The Canon,” invented by 19th century scholars, holds that (1) numerous Christian writings emerged independently, each with their own claim to authority; (2) various collections were made of these writings; and (3) Church authorities of the 4th and early 5th centuries, such as Athanasius of Alexandria or Augustine of Hippo, effectively closed and therefore defined the Canon for all future generations.

What is Trobisch’s argument that it didn’t happen that way, that the Christian Bible was created at a much earlier time (the 3rd quarter of the 2nd century CE)?

He works with the most basic facts–always the best procedure. Such as that our 4 Gospels are invariably handed down to us only under certain titles: “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” “The Gospel According to Luke,” and “The Gospel According to John.” They are always arranged in that precise sequence.

The complete titles of the Gospels in the manuscripts read as follows: εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαῖον, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μάρκον, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Λουκᾶν, εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Ἰωάννην. They consist of three elements: the first element, εὐαγγέλιον, designates the literary genre; the third element refers to the authorial source; and κατὰ [“according to”] connects the two. Each of these three elements is very unusual.

The term Gospel is used to refer to the content of the message as well as to the act of preaching in the New Testament. It is not used to indicate a specific literary genre. And so far no evidence has surfaced in pre-Christian literature, either, that the term can be used to refer to a literary genre.

Indicating the authorial source by κατὰ and the accusative is extremely rare for book titles…

The third element of the titles, the name of the authoritative witness, cannot be derived with certainty from the text of the writings. The alleged authorship of the titles is not repeated in the text of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The possibility that the titles were independently formulated this way by the authors of the Gospels may be safely ruled out. It would be too much of a coincidence for two independently working publishers to have decided on the same unusual genre designation, the same authorial source, and κατὰ as the syntactical connector.

Trobisch, p. 38

The New Testament abounds with such peculiarities. There are also external features of the manuscript tradition that suggest an original editorial scheme: the use of the nomina sacra, a distinctive shorthand system for transcribing the most common words (“God,” “Jesus,” etc.); the novelty and ubiquity of the codex format of the New Testament manuscripts; the peculiar grouping and arrangement of all the books, not just the Gospels. Or the weird fact that Acts of the Apostles was never grouped with the Gospel According to Luke, of which it is the obvious sequel reflecting the same authorship, but always in a separate section alongside the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude. Or the fact that 1 John is invariably classed as a “letter” even though it bears none of the marks of a letter (greeting, identification of author and addressee, farewell, etc.). All of these peculiar facts about the New Testament require an explanation not afforded by the conventional theory.

It is odd, but in a way unsurprising, that a Judeo-Christian civilization would have difficulty recognizing the common ancestry, veiled though it is, of the separate books of the New Testament. The difficulty arises from the conceit that there must have been multiple independent witnesses to the story that Christianity wants to tell about itself. We know that there were other scriptures, e.g. the Nag Hammadi library, that told stories of a redeemer, or that built upon the imagined universe of the older Hebrew Scriptures. The authors of all these heretical scriptures, the Sethians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Montanists, Ebionites, etc. were, of course, depraved lunatics who had no legitimate “apostolic” traditions; it is only we, the orthodox (“right-thinking”) Christians, who stand in the light of truth.

Stepping back from Trobisch’s specific argument, I want to close with a sketch of what I consider a realistic picture of the origins of Christianity. I reached this position after many frustrating encounters with theories and books and blogs and forums that abound with self-certain explanations of “what really happened,” none of them based on the type of evidence that could possibly compel a consensus from all informed and reasonable people. Here is a different approach:

1. The evidence we have for what “Christianity” was prior to about 175 CE is (a) poorly attested, (b) multifarious and unwieldy inasmuch as it is attested, and (c) taken on its own terms, gives little or no evidence of being a group of movements or traditions that were likely to converge and coalesce around a single narrative about a unique figure, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth, Jewish messiah, exalted Lord, sender of apostolic witnesses to his earthly life, death, resurrection, and prophesied return at the Eschaton.

2. Therefore, the least disputable and most definitive event in the formation of “early Christianity” (i.e. a phenomenon that we are explicitly defining as the precursor and substantial cause of Christianity-as-world-religion (from the Council of Nicea in 325 CE to the present), can only be the publication of the first edition of the 27-text New Testament, as reflected in our manuscript tradition that dates only from the 4th century. Other moments in the genesis of Christianity both before and after this publication—such as the earliest collection of the Pauline epistles, or the composition of the earliest Gospel, or the imperial establishment (i.e. in physical Churches) and “canonization” (i.e. legal mandating of) of the Christian Bible by emperors and/or their bishops—are both less certain and less important. That is, Christianity could have turned out more or less as we have it without these events having occurred. But we cannot imagine it turning out in its present form unless this 27-book anthology had entered the historical record when it did, in the form in which we have always known it. 

3. Attempts to establish a chronology of events and/or persons prior to the great publication in the 3rd quarter of the 2nd century are bound to be speculative, theological, apologetic, anti-theological, anti-apologetic, or otherwise not soberly historical. A few reasons for this inevitable divergence of opinion are that we have too much evidence of the wrong kind, too little evidence of the right kind (e.g. archeological), and that there is inevitably entanglement of modern historical readings of the NT with modern theological readings of it.

David Trobisch has performed the invaluable service of establishing us on solid ground, however small and cramped, on a terrain notoriously awash in mud and quicksand. We will never know the history behind the texts until we begin to understand the history of the texts themselves. And even then, maybe what we are left with is no history at all.