James Still's "Critique of New Testament Reliability and 'Bias' in NT Development"--my initial response.

My Comment 23-24:

[date: July 23, 1998]  

James Still continues...

Miller asserts that the "picture that emerges [from modern scholarship] is one of increasing authentication of the [NT] by a wide range of scholars." Which picture emerges? Do we stop at a certain point along the evolutionary path of these traditions and say that "here" is where they become authentic? Should we prefer instead to say that the furthest point in time away from the historical Jesus is the more desirable picture? Perhaps we desire after all to obtain the portrayal of Jesus at the source rather than risk these interpolations? If Miller's picture is to be considered at all, we must first reconcile what we know about the dynamic evolution of the NT texts and determine where we draw the line on authoritativeness in time. I suspect that Miller would rather we ignore the evolutionary process of the texts and accept the canonical texts as if they were protected in a vacuum from the time of Christ.


The section in my Bias article that my quotes comes from is pointing out the growing confidence that scholars have in the reliability of evangelists' stories. In other words, the "authentication" of the NT documents is that of scholarly confidence in increasing amounts of the canonical material. [This is easily demonstrated from the majority scholarship in Germany and England, and in the divided scholarship in the USA.]

Research results from archaeology and Classical studies (for example) increasingly support high claims to the veracity and accuracy of the canonical gospel accounts.

But what James tries to do here is drive a wedge between the canonical gospels and all his phantom, earlier, lost-without-any-historical-or-literary-or-textual-trace proto-gospels. In previous articles in this series I have pointed out that:

1. we have absolutely NO hard evidence for these alleged proto-gospels

2. the arguments that are used to support 'layers of tradition' do not require any 'content discontinuity' between the various layers;

3. All of the canonical gospels have internal signs of being very early

4. All of the canonical gospels are witnessed to by the Church Fathers as having been the initial ones

In other words, the problem of the 'gaps' only exists in James' formulation of the process. His understanding (which I have refuted and/or shown to be inconclusive) creates this 'where do you draw the line' problem. The evangelical simply does not have this problem.

And as for his last sentence, although I don't believe in some 'evolutionary process' of the texts, I certainly don't believe that the documents were kept in a vacuum from the time of Christ. The textual variant record alone shows that the later church DID try to manipulate the text on occasion, but this has no bearing on the original authoring of the works at all.

So, the data gives us absolutely no warrant for assuming basic discontinuity between the events/words of Jesus, and the accounts given in the canonical gospels. [We have already seen in this series that the evangelists went to great pains to preserve the pre-Easter words and stories of Jesus accurately.] This 'skeptical gap' is pure assumption--there is no historical, textual, or even theological reason to start the discussion with such a skeptical assumption, and there are good grounds for assuming the contrary--that the authors were honest and credible witnesses and recorders of eyewitness testimony.



James Still continues...

It seems that Miller prefers this vacuum to an otherwise rational exegesis. He argues that the "writings never seem to legendize the apostles" even though "they, under a 'bias' model, stood the most to gain if they hid the nasty truth about their own lives!" Miller may be the only exegete left who still advocates the old obsolete proof-text method of biblical interpretation because virtually no one still supports the disciple-authorship hypothesis. That the disciples' names are attached to two of the four gospels in no way indicates that they were the actual authors. The headings which read "The Gospel according to . . ." were second-century additions called pseudepigraphia --authorship by an anonymous person which is then attributed to a famous biblical character for authority. Pseudepigraphical works flourished in ancient Palestine from two centuries before Jesus to around 300 CE after. The unknown Jewish and early Christian authors of pseudepigraphical works felt that, while they themselves had something important to say, their material might not be taken seriously unless it seemed to come from the pen of a famous person such as a disciple or a prophet. All four of the gospels are pseudepigraphical works and today we use the names "Matthew" or "John" merely as convenient labels for the work. It is particularly disturbing to see Miller advocating disciple-authorship of John's and Matthew's gospels because this kind of propaganda clouds the real truth and damages the reputation of Christian apologetics.

There is enough confusion in this paragraph to make we wonder how much James knows about this issue at all...

He seems to argue that (1) the works were anonymous and someone later [second-century] added the titles to them; and, at the same time he argues that they were pseudepigraphical, in which the authorship by a legendary person was claimed--within the document, and at the time of writing. The clever reader will see the contradiction here. A work cannot be anonymous (as the earliest manuscripts of the gospels are in the textual record) and at the same time be pseudepigraphical (i.e., having a fictional author named in the document). In other words, if they were anonymous to begin with, to simply add an ascription of authorship to it later does NOT make it pseudepigraphical, in the strictest sense of the word. But, this aside, let's take a look at the claims that James makes here:


Let's look at these in turn...



1. Did the ancient world use pseudox and CAN we assume, on that basis, that it was acceptable for use in the early Christian church;

We know that the Greeco-Roman world resorted to pseudox on occasion [FCBC:287]:

"There are also numerous examples of pseudepigraphy in antiquity outside of that produced within Judaism and early Christianity. Charlesworth has noted that such writers as Galen, Apollonius, Plato, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Xenophon all had writings attributed to them by their successors or others who came after them."   But the most relevant literature for our question is that of the inter-testamental literature of Judaism: the Pseudepigrapha. Between the Testaments, there emerged a surprising variety of literature, all ascribed to long-dead and famous people. Scholars are very, very divided on the motives and ethics of this phenomenon. So, MacDonald describes this, pointing out the lack of consensus about the motive/ethics of these works, but agreeing in the main with Aune's analysis:
  "A pseudonym is generally understood as a fictitious name or an assumed name used by authors who, for whatever reasons, may want to conceal their actual identity. The practice of writing under an assumed name was common during the intertestamental period when the writers frequently made use of well-known names from the OT (Solomon, Enoch, Moses, etc.). The ethics of the practice of producing pseudonymous literature in the ancient Jewish and Christian communities is debated today among the scholars and as yet there is no agreement on why it emerged, though there is a growing awareness that distinctions should be made in the kinds of literature that fall into this category...   "Aune has noted that there are generally three explanations for the practice of writings with pseudonyms: (1) that it arose at a time when the biblical canon was already closed and well-known names were used to secure acceptance, (2) that it was used to protect the identity of the writer who might be in danger if his or her true identity were known, and (3) that apocalyptic visionaries may have had visions from those figures to whom they attributed their work. He believes that the first of these options is the more likely, but not without qualifications. As a legitimating device intended to accord the writing in question the esteem and prestige given to the earlier well-known figure, "pseudonymity is functional only if readers accept the false attribution." However, it is probably best not to conclude that all of the writers of pseudepigraphy wrote for purposes of deception. [FCBC:287]  
And the vast amount of the later New Testament Apocrypha (e.g., Acts of Peter, Gospel of Judas) shows that the practice at least existed after the formation of the NT in the first century.

But note some of the points made by Macdonald (himself a supporter of NT pseudox). He points out that there is no scholarly consensus on motive (why people used pseudox) or on ethics (was it considered ethically okay to use pseudox)--in opposition to James' curiously confident assertion to the contrary. Macdonald also points out that genre distinctions are beginning to be important in this area (e.g., letters versus apocalypses). And finally, note that he essentially agrees with Aune on the major thrust of 'deception' but comes short of applying that to all usages.

So, we have to ask the question of method and assumption. So, Blum on Second Peter:

"Instead of making this choice, writers often accept 2 Peter as a pseudepigraphic work that has value for the church today (cf. Kelly, p. 225) and should be retained in the canon. Sidebottom justifies the acceptance of 2 Peter as pseudonymous by asserting that 'the custom of a disciple writing under the name of a famous teacher or leader was well established in the ancient world ... our conventions about copyright were not those of the first century.' The last assertion is true, but what about the former one? Did the first-century Christians adopt the practices of the pagan world as to pseudonymity, or did their concern for truth cause them to repudiate it? [Blum, EBC, "II Peter"]   So, what would the actual historical data lead us to believe? (We will see the explicit statements by the early church below). Would acceptable and widespread use of pseudox 'make sense' of the historical processes of the early church? There are a number of indications which would lead us to believe that it was NOT customary and 'acceptable' (and certainly not 'standard' or 'normative') practice.

First is the question of why it soon dropped out of the practice of the early church. The Church Fathers, from the earliest on, used their own names. If pseudox was acceptable/standard practice, why did it disappear so quickly? Guthrie's response to Meade makes this exact point [GNTI:1027]:

"He [Meade] is forced to admit that pseudonymity 'in the biblical mode' (his own qualification) soon dropped out of practice. If pseudonymity was such an acceptable theological procedure because it recognized, for instance, that Paul in the pastorals and Ephesians, and Peter in 2 Peter, had themselves become part of the tradition, it is strange indeed that the device was not more widely used. The fact is that new Testament criticism is faced with a dilemma, which is not likely to be lessened by this approach."   Second, there is the odd fact that the gospels are actually anonymous, rather than pseudox. If pseudox was the standard practice, then why weren't they pseudox from the beginning?


Third, there simply doesn't seem to be any real motive for the very early mainstream church to even utilize pseudox [GNTI:1027-1028]. There was no need to deceive and certainly no lack of authority (we have seen the strong control that the apostolic leadership exercised over the tradition).

And quite simply, the overwhelming use of pseudox in the early centuries of the church was by heretical groups. We have already noted Aune's statement on this (to which we might add the seminal works of Speyer [GNTI:1026]), and Guthrie points out that the early acceptance of the NT documents provided the catalyst for rapid development of heretical knock-offs:

"There is no doubt that the prevalence of pseudonymous early Christian writings owed more to Jewish than to Greek influences. By the 2nd century ad a canon of Christian writings had come into existence which, although lacking formal codification (except in the case of Marcion), was nevertheless real and authoritative. There were pseudonymous counterparts to all 4 types of NT literature-Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses. The majority of these sprang from heretical sources, and in these cases the use of the pseudonymous device is transparent. Esoteric doctrines outside the theology of orthodoxy sought support by the theory that secret teachings had been handed down to the initiates of a particular sect but had been hidden from others. The production of pseudonymous apostolic writings was thus made easy. Since the interval separating the assumed author from the real author was not as great as in the majority of Jewish writings of this character, it did not stretch the credulity of the readers too much to be told that some new writing was in fact an apostolic production, assuming that they were ignorant of its true source. [Guthrie, NBD, s.v. "Pseudonymity"]   Fourth, in fact, the difference between the NT and the OT Pseudox environments would suggest quite the opposite. One of the main authorities on OT pseudox argues that much of the attribution of later writers to earlier, famous figures was due to the "the pervasive contention that prophecy had ceased" (Charlesworth, ABD, s.v. "PSEUDONYMITY AND PSEUDEPIGRAPHY"). In other words, since there could be no new revelation, all claims to new revelation must be put into the mouths of 'old' revealers (such as Enoch or Ezra). This is the opposite case for the Christian movement, in which "the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1). There was no analogous environment like this until long, long after the apostolic band died out.

Indeed, the anonymous character of the NT documents actually argues that they arose before there was a need for pseudox. So Bruce [cited by Carson in his IVP/Eerdmans commentary on John]:

"It is noteworthy that, while the four canonical Gospels could afford to be published anonymously, the apocryphal Gospels which began to appear from the mid-second century onwards claimed (falsely) to be written by apostles or other persons associated with the Lord."   Fifth, as we shall see, the church, when it faced the issue of canonicity, did not even consider the possibility that pseudox was 'okay'. The staunch and stubborn insistence on true apostolic origination precluded any acceptance of pseudox as legitimate. This position would have had, then, to have been reversed within a century, had it been an acceptable and/or normative practice in the mid-to-late first century!
  "Pseudonymity must be seen in the light of the church's discussions about canonicity. There were serious doubts in the early church about whether some books should or should not be received into the list of the accepted books, and those discussions tended to center on the question of authorship. In the case of 2 Peter, for example, the question discussed was whether the author was in fact the apostle Peter. If it was, then the book was accepted; if it was not, then the book was rejected. There appears to be no example of anyone in the early church accepting a book as truly canonical while denying that it was written by the author whose name it bears. A well-known example of the typical approach is Eusebius, who was prepared to accept Revelation if it could be shown that the author was the apostle John but who wholeheartedly rejected it if it was not apostolic. It apparently did not occur to him as a possibility that a pseudonymous writing could be accepted into the canon. [CMMM:371]   What these considerations lead us to, obviously, is the conclusion that 'orthodox' use of pseudonymity simply doesn't fit into the historical picture we have of the first two centuries of church history. The issues of why it disappeared had it been prevalent, why anonymity preceded it, lack of motive for usage, and lack of cognizance of it during canon discussions all militate against it being used at all (much less the 'standard' or 'normative' practice!). James would have to demonstrate how such a practice slipped in unawares, left us four gospels immediately recognized as the only authoritative ones, and then disappeared! (Remember, there is even an anti-pseudox passage in a Pauline epistle--cf. 2 Thess 2.2).

But how pseudox-looking are the gospels anyway?...


2. DO the gospels manifest the defining trait of pseudox (e.g., ascription to a well-known and well-respected figure);

Here we have a major problem for James position, for, with the possible exception of the Gospel of John, the gospels simply don't fall into this pattern.

Remember, the defining trait of pseudox is to ascribe the work to some hyper-famous person (generally long-dead, to give the appearance of antiquity). But we certainly don't get this with the evangelists or some other NT figures...

"Matthew, like all the Gospels in the NT, is an anonymous document. The title 'according to Matthew,' was affixed to the Gospel sometime in the second century. From early in the second century, the unanimous tradition of the Church supports Matthew as the author (e.g., Papias, who received the tradition from the Elder (Apostle?) John, Pantaenus, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome)...

"The real question concerns the reliability of the tradition about the authorship of the Gospel. It is possible, although uncertain, that the whole tradition derives from, and is thus dependent upon, the testimony of one man, Papias (as recorded in Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.16). In any event, the tradition appears to have been unchallenged. It is difficult to believe that the Gospel would have been attributed to Matthew without good reason, since, so far as we can tell from the available data, Matthew was not otherwise a leading figure among the apostles or in the early Church (his name being mentioned only once outside the Gospels in Acts 1: 13). [Hagner, WBC, "Matthew", p. lxxvi]

  "Moreover, no dissenting voice from the early church regarding the authorship of the second gospel is found. This is surprising, since the tendency in the early church was to associate apostles with the writing of the New Testament books." [CMMM:93]

 "It seems unlikely that the church would have deliberately assigned the authorship of a Gospel to a person of secondary importance like Mark, who was neither an apostle nor otherwise prominent in the early church, unless there were strong historical reasons for doing this." [Wessel, EBC, "Mark, Introduction to"]

Even though John is famous, the strange thing (for a pseudox theory) is that he is not named!:
  "Although pseudonymous works existed in antiquity, they stated their purported author rather than implied him; unless we want to argue for John's implicit pseudonymity, the internal evidence supporting an eyewitness author should be allowed to stand. For this reason, I believe the Fourth Gospel's claim to authorship by John is stronger than the claims for the other Gospels, which are ultimately dependent only on Christian tradition external to the text itself. [BBC:intro to John]   This even applies somewhat to the epistle of James!
  "The second theory, which normally assumes that the work was pseudonymously attributed to the Lord's brother to give it authority, gains credence from the quality of Greek in the Epistle and the argument that 2:14-26 was written to counteract an antinomian perversion of Paul's doctrine of justification by faith. But it fails to account for the primitive features of the Epistle (e.g. the mention of elders and not bishops in 5:14) and the Palestinian colouring (e.g. 'the early and the late rain' in 5:7). Furthermore, were the Epistle pseudepigraphic, it is hard to explain why the author did not use a clearer and more exalted title (e.g. 'James the apostle' or 'James the brother of the Lord'. [Davids, NBD, s.v. "James, epistle of"]    
Remember, this is even more odd because of the very, very early attribution of these works to these authors and the very early exclusivity of the Fourfold Gospel in the early church:

Bruce summarizes the external witnesses to this odd and early situation:

"At an early date after the publication of the Fourth Gospel the four canonical Gospels began to circulate as a collection, and have continued to do so ever since. Who first gathered them together to form a fourfold corpus we do not know, and it is quite uncertain where the fourfold corpus first became known-claims have been made for both Ephesus and Rome. Catholic and Gnostic writers alike show not only acquaintance with the fourfold Gospel but recognition of its authority. The Valentinian Gospel of Truth (c. ad 140-150), recently brought to light among the Gnostic writings from Chenoboskion, was not intended to supplement or supersede the canonical four, whose authority it presupposes; it is rather a series of meditations on the 'true gospel' which is enshrined in the four (and in other NT books). Marcion stands out as an exception in his repudiation of Matthew, Mark and John, and his promulgation of Luke (edited by himself as the only authentic evangelion). The documents of the anti-Marcionite reaction (e.g. the anti-Marcionite prologues to the Gospels and, later, the Muratorian Canon) do not introduce the fourfold Gospel as something new, but reaffirm its authority in reply to Marcion's criticisms.

"In the half-century following ad 95 Theodor Zahn could find only four Gospel citations in surviving Christian literature which demonstrably do not come from the canonical four. That the 'memoirs of the apostles' which Justin says were read in church along with the writings of the prophets were the four Gospels is rendered the more probable by the fact that such traces of gospel material in his works as may come from the pseudonymous Gospel of Peter or Gospel of Thomas are slight indeed compared with traces of the canonical four.

"The situation is clearer when we come to Justin's disciple Tatian, whose Gospel harmony or Diatessaron (compiled c. ad 170) remained for long the favourite (if not the 'authorized') edition of the Gospels in the Assyr. church...

"Tatian began his compilation with Jn. 1:1-5, and perhaps ended it with Jn. 21:25. It was the fourfold Gospel that supplied him with the material for his harmony; such occasional intrusions of extra-canonical material as can be detected (possibly from the Gospel according to the Hebrews) do not affect this basic fact any more than do the occasional modifications of the Gospel wording which reflect Tatian's Encratite outlook. [Bruce, NBD, s.v. "Gospels"]

So, these ascriptions were early, and yet the authors were somewhat 'undistinguished'. In fact, if one looks at the entire range of NT Apocrypha [e.g., NTA], it is striking to note that there are tons of documents ascribed to Peter and Paul, but not a single early one ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or even John! The first document ascribed to Matthew (an infancy gospel) is from the 8th century(!), and the first one ascribed to John (Acts of John) is from the 3rd century [NTA, in.loc. the appropriate document]. There are even documents ascribed to lesser figures such as Matthias or Judas [but only after a long period of church history had made these figures 'famous'], but NONE to these figures. [The latter phenomenon occurred late enough to fall into the 'fill in the gaps' writing, filling out the 'lost memoirs' of the hitherto unpublished NT figures.]

We should also note that the short time gap between the production of these works and the alleged pseudox-ascription is also out-of-pattern. Most pseudox that we have (apart from deliberate and malicious forgeries) have very long time gaps between the famous 'author' and the production of the pseudo-doc. This even applied to later pseudox letters:

"Although Paul may borrow language from some of the false teachers to make his case against them, most of the language that is used in Colossians has parallels in his undisputed writings (which also differ from one another). Given the brevity of the letter, the possible use of a scribe, similarities with undisputed Pauline letters, and the lapse of several years since his earlier letters, the differences between Colossians and the undisputed Pauline letters need not require different authors. Pseudonymous letters existed but were normally written long after the death of the person in whose name they were written. [BBC: intro to Colossians]   So, overall, the fact that the ascriptions are either not explicit or not to a particularly hyper-famous figure argues rather strongly that the gospels don't even fit into the category of pseudox to begin with.

So, they don't look like pseudox...do we have any reason to assume from their literary genre that they should be pseudox?...


3. Are the gospel literary genre of the gospels (bioi) and related historical genres even found in psedox-forms?

As we noted in Macdonald's quote above, the issue of genre differences is begining to surface in this area. I have argued elsewhere that pseudox letters were not around (much less acceptable or normative) and Guthrie can raise this issue about Meade's work [GNTI:1027]:

"Meade assumes that his deductions from Jewish literature will automatically apply to the growth of Christian literature. But is this valid, in view of the differences in literary genre?"   So, what do we know about the gospel genre and what might this imply relative to the probability of that genre occurring in pseudox forms?

We have discussed the work of Classicist Burridge earlier [WAG], in which he demonstrated that the four gospels were instances of a Graeco-Roman genre called bioi. It was close to biography, but focused more on the deeds, words, and effects of the individual which made them a significant figure, worthy of a work of bioi.

Even a cursory glance at the gospels and the OT pseudox side-by-side will show the radical difference in genre, and the pseudonymous use of a prophet's name is entirely irrelevant to genres of bioi and related historical writing. The gospels have essentially none of the formal characteristics of OT prophets and apocalyptic sections, which renders any argument from the latter to the former assumptive and in need of strong warrant.

We might note the following observations from genre:

What this means for our study should be obvious: the genre of the gospels, bioi, as well as the next two closest categories (history and biography) do not show up in antiquity in pseudepigraphical form, and in the case of an isolated exception or two (I know of none), this could hardly make the case that such pseudox-practice was standard and acceptable!!!

So, not only do the gospels not look like pseudox, nor do the historical patterns of the early church include pseudox, but also the very nature of the gospel genre (in historical and cultural context) would argue strongly against suspecting pseudox usage.

So...if it doesn't look like a duck, smell like a duck, or quack like a duck, did the early church accept them as ducks anyway?!


4. Did the early church find the use of pseudox and pseudonymity perfectly acceptable?

In other words, when some tried to use pseudox within the early church, was church leadership supportive or condemnatory?

We only have a few data points here, but they are actually quite strong. Let's look at the cases and comments made by the Fathers concerning this issue.

Now, what should be obvious from these cases that the mindset of the early church was very much anti-pseudox. Indeed, in every case that they detected it--that we know of--it was explicitly and forcefully rejected. By way of summary:
  "Thus, as we have seen, the New Testament itself betrays principled rejection of pseudonymous letters (esp. 2 Thess. 2:2; 3:17); now we observe that the Fathers universally reject pseudonymity as an acceptable literary category for documents bearing the authority of Scripture. This leaves very little space for the common modern assertion that pseudonymity was a widely acceptable practice in the ancient world. That pseudonymous apocalypses were widespread is demonstrable; that pseudonymous letters were widespread is entirely unsupported by evidence; that any pseudonymity was knowingly accepted into the New Testament canon is denied by the evidence. [CMMM:495]   As has been noted several times above, the general consensus is that pseudox was primarily a tool of the sectarian and heretical movements, generally with deliberate deception as intent. So, it is no wonder that the early followers of Jesus and His disciples were very concerned and watchful of it.


But how good were the early Fathers at detecting pseudox? Could the gospels have 'slipped by' them?

Now, it is one thing to say that the Church Fathers had a definite and hard-line stance against pseudox; it is an altogether different question as to (1) how well did they detect it; and (2) how much latitude existed in tolerating it...

We know, for example, that quotes from non-canonical (but not necessarily pseudox) gospel material do occasionally show up, but this could simply be a very small error in execution. In fact, if Zahn's counts are correct, this would represent something in the order of a rounding error:

"In the half-century following ad 95 Theodor Zahn could find only four Gospel citations in surviving Christian literature which demonstrably do not come from the canonical four. That the 'memoirs of the apostles' which Justin says were read in church along with the writings of the prophets were the four Gospels is rendered the more probable by the fact that such traces of gospel material in his works as may come from the pseudonymous Gospel of Peter or Gospel of Thomas are slight indeed compared with traces of the canonical four. [Bruce, NBD, s.v. "Gospels"]  
It must be remembered that word-for-word citations of the gospel materials were not the norm, even well after the full development of the NT material, which implies that one cannot judge the question of publication date of those materials on the basis of "looseness" of citation [RMML:219] That their usage of canonical information was not exact or was even loose, would not imply that the material was not before them, just as a modern preacher would paraphrase in various ways a biblical text.

That they were very, very good at detecting this is obvious from what material DID get excluded from the canon:


"We should also remember that pseudonymous works bearing Peter's name were circulated in the early church. The following are known to us: The Apocalypse of Peter (c.135), The Gospel of Peter (c. 150-75), The Acts of Peter (c. 180-200), The Teaching of Peter (c.200), The Letter of Peter to James (c.200), and The Preaching of Peter (c.80-140). That none of these was accepted into the canon is noteworthy. Second Peter won its way by its intrinsic worth. [Blum, EBC, "II Peter"]


That they were not perfect (as evidenced by the tiny number of non-canonical citations, and the very small number of considered-but-disputed books) is not surprising, nor is it indicative of a lack of ability or a less-than-thorough approach to this.

Part of the reason is was easy for the later writers to distinguish authentic from inauthentic was from the sheer content. So Metzger [NT:CTT:173]:


"By way of summary, when one compares the preceding rather widely-used apocryphal gospels (along with the more widely divergent specimens that were found at Nag Hammadi; see chap. IV- I- 4 above), one can appreciate the difference between the character of the canonical Gospels and the near banality of most of the gospels dating from the second and third centuries. Although some of these claimed apostolic authorship, whereas of the canonical four two were in fact not apostolically titled, yet it was these four, and these alone, which ultimately established themselves. The reason, apparently, is that these four came to be recognized as authentic--authentic both in the sense that the story they told was, in its essentials, adjudged sound by a remarkably unanimous consent, and also in the sense that their interpretation of its meaning was equally widely recognized as true to the apostles' faith and teaching. Even the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, both of which may preserve scraps of independent tradition, are obviously inferior theologically and historically.


[There is a separate question about how the Fathers dealt with the Old Testament pseudox, but they were essentially in line with standard Jewish practice of the day. I intend to write a piece on the Apostolic Fathers' use of scripture next.]

But what about their 'unofficial' tolerance of pseudox?

We have seen that the main anti-pseudox actions concern matters of canon (i.e., was it authored by an apostolic resource), and matters of heresy (i.e., did it flagrantly contract apostolic teaching). But what about cases in which it fell into the category of "devotional literature" or 'less than heretical' teaching?

The only data point we have here is the story about Serapion above. He apparently tolerated the Gospel of Peter until he found out it contained heretical material. This would suggest (although arguing from one data point would be almost as bad as James' often arguing from zero data points, dig, dig, wink, wink, chuckle, chuckle...) that the Fathers were not involved in some witch-hunt or inquisitorial program, but rather only dealt with the non-canonical works when the need arose. Since the fourfold gospel had arisen so early, meeting their practical needs, they would not be likely to pay a lot of attention of ancillary works-unless they were used in support of destructive teachings. This alone would require the early availability and early recognition of the authoritative gospels.

So, on the basis of praxis and theory, the early church DID seem to have the ability and orientation to weed out pseudox. And, as it would apply to the gospels-in their earlier timeframe of origination-this tendency of carefulness would likely have been more intense. So Guthrie:

"It may have been an accepted convention in pagan circles, but it seems to have been far from accepted in the second-century church, and must have been even less acceptable in the first century." [GNTI:1020]


Finally, let me advance a rather 'odd' piece of data-the Apostolic Constitutions. This is a document from much later than the time we are discussing, probably in the later half of the fourth century. This document is a clear case of pseudox-it claims to be by the original twelve (plus Paul) [6.14] and mimics the style and characteristics of the canonical gospels closely. It tries to copy how the apostles and earliest disciples might have delivered fourth century doctrines. Its goal was to emulate apostolic patterns of thinking and speaking.

The reason this is so appropriate (and yet odd) to our matter here, is that this pseudox document warns against pseudox! In 6.16, it specifically says:

"We have sent all these things to you, that ye may know our opinion, what it is; and that ye may not receive those books which obtain in our name, but are written by the ungodly. For you are not to attend to the names of the apostles, but to the nature of the things, and their settled opinions. For we know that Simon and Cleobius, and their followers, have compiled poisonous books under the name of Christ and of His disciples, and do carry them about in order to deceive yon who love Christ, and us His servants. And among the ancients also some have written apocryphal books of Moses, and Enoch, and Adam, and Isaiah, and David, and Elijah, and of the three patriarchs, pernicious and repugnant to the truth. The same things even now have the wicked heretics done, reproaching the creation, marriage, providence, the begetting of children, the law, and the prophets; inscribing certain barbarous names, and, as they think, of angels, but, to speak the truth, of demons, which suggest things to them: whose doctrine eschew, that ye may not be partakers of the punishment due to those that write such things for the seduction and perdition of the faithful and unblameable disciples of the Lord Jesus."   In other words, the apostles' and early Fathers' patterns of rejecting pseudox was so consistent, that the pseudox writer of the Constitutions could use this as a deceptive tool to convince the reader of its proposed apostolicity!  This anti-pseudox approach of the early church--of which we have seen several examples--had apparently become so standard on the part of legitimate authority that it could be used as a sign of apostolic/early authority.

Earlier attempts at pseudox did not use this device because they could use the shortness of time (noted above) and the patterns of Patristic writings were not so stereotyped that early.

This is further evidence of the widespread anti-pseudox stance of the early church leadership.

So, the early church was decidedly against (and vocal in that opposition to) pseudox, evidenced a substantial (yet not perfect) application of the position to the writings of the day, did so without resorting to a 'witch hunt' mentality, and were apparently close to unanimous (to the point of it becoming a 'defining trait') in this opposition.


So, where are we?

We have seen so far:


But all of the above discussion assumes, for the sake of argument, that the gospels were actually anonymous at first, and that the ascriptions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later. But there is a strong, strong case that can be made that they never were anonymous, but that the current ascriptions were there from the beginning! This argument has been made quite forcefully by Martin Hengel, who N. T. Wright describes as the "most learned New Testament scholar in the world today":

"Until recently, most scholars tacitly assumed that the four gospels first circulated anonymously and that the present titles were first attached to them about A.D. 125. There is little evidence to support this date as the decisive turning point; it is little more than an educated guess, based only on the presupposition that the Gospels were originally entirely anonymous and on the fact that by about 140, and perhaps earlier, the traditional attributions were widely known, without significant variation. Now, however, this consensus has been vigorously challenged by Martin Hengel. Hengel examines the practice of book distribution in the ancient world, where titles were necessary to identify a work to which any reference was made. In this context he studies the manner in which second-century authors refer to the Gospels, calling to mind, among other things, Tertullian's criticism of Marcion for publishing his own gospel (a highly truncated version of Luke) without the author's name. Tertullian contends that "a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect ... which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author." Hengel argues that as soon as two or more gospels were publicly read in any one church--a phenomenon that certainly occurred, he thinks, not later than A.D. 100--it would have been necessary to distinguish between them by some such device as a title. The unanimity of the attributions in the second century cannot be explained by anything other than the assumption that the titles were part of the works from the beginning. It is inconceivable, he argues, that the Gospels could circulate anonymously for up to sixty years, and then in the second century suddenly display unanimous attribution to certain authors. If they had originally been anonymous, then surely there would have been some variation in second-century attributions (as was the case with some of the second-century apocryphal gospels). Hengel concludes that the four canonical gospels were never even formally anonymous. [CMMM:66]
This is a very persuasive argument, essentially from Classical Studies. [For a survey of the arguments against Hengel's thesis and rebuttals against these arguments, see CMMM:66-70]

What this would mean is simply that the gospels never were anonymous, and consequently that no one added the titles/authors onto them-the church always knew who wrote them. And consequently, that the entire supposition of pseudox by James is radically unwarranted.

But in any event, I think the mass of data above adequately demonstrates that James' position, on the pseudox character of the gospels, is simply without adequate merit.

And without pseudox, James will essentially be forced to accept the 'propaganda' of mine that 'damages the reputation' of apologetics (smile).

In other words, the overwhelming evidence of the early church (called 'external evidence') about the gospels and their authors, is in support of the traditional 'apostle/disciple authorship' theory. Skeptical NT scholars today dismiss this evidence with amazing superficiality. Carson laments this, pointing out that classical scholars do not practice such cavalier treatment of their sources, and comments insightfully that these modern skeptical scholars would quickly rebuke older historians for treating their materials thusly:

"The fact remains that, despite support for Johannine authorship by a few front-rank scholars in this century [he cites Zahn, Westcott, Morris, Bruce, Michaels, Robinson, Ellis], and my many popular writers, a large majority of contemporary scholars reject this view. As we shall see, much of their argumentation turns on their reading of the internal evidence. It also requires their virtual dismissal of the external evidence. This is particularly regrettable. Most scholars of antiquity, were they assessing the authorship of some other document, could not so easily set aside evidence as plentiful, consistent and plainly tied to the source as is the external evidence that supports Johannine authorship. The majority of contemporary biblical scholars do not rest nearly as much weight on external evidence as do their colleagues in classical scholarship." [The Gospel according to John, Eerdmans:1991, p.68f]


Let me make this point as forcefully as I can:

If the most learned people of the early church, closest in time and geography to the production of the NT, and manifesting a strong and effective anti-pseudox posture, unanimously testify both to the traditional authorship (and even the historical circumstances surrounding the production of that literature!), then all the 'soft' arguments about 'internal evidence' can only amount to a 'problem'-it can never amount to a decisive argument against such strong external witness. Such rejection of such powerful and cohesive external witness-without finding legitimate, cohesive, and forceful OTHER external witness to discredit that witness-is not scholarship; rather, it is presumption at best and 'convenient' obscurantism at worst.

Accordingly, I have to conclude that a closely, more detailed look at (1) the phenomena of the gospels, at (2) pseudox in the ancient world, and at (3) the historical evidence of the early church period supports the position of the traditional authorship of the gospels. Arguing uncritically from alleged parallels in the ancient world, without paying close attention to the details and patterns in that data, will invariably lead to hasty and unwarranted positions, such as the one that James maintains here. The 'hard data' once again supports the argument in Bias.

July 21, 1998
glenn miller


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