Was Suppression of Options for New Testament Canon Only Due to Imperial Pressure?

It's pretty normal nowadays for revisionist historians and commentators, when promoting the "lost texts" of early Christianity, to lambaste Imperial Rome for imposing a canon-from-above, and for outright destroying competitive texts, in a bid to force compliance with Imperial ideas of orthodoxy.

This is almost hilarious as a claim throughout most of the 4th century (300s CE), since the ruling elite during most of that time were one or another kind of Arian, not of the "Orthodox" party. (Arians believed either that Christ was a lesser created deity taking human form, or more popularly that Jesus was a totally human hero promoted up by God the Father to deity status. Not unlike typical claims for previously pagan Emperors, by the way.) Still, the fact of the matter is that there were indeed document purges in the Roman Empire during the Christian history (including the trinitarian Christian history) of the Western and Eastern Empire. So it isn't unreasonable, at first glance, to infer that canonical text lists were therefore necessarily a result of Christian clergy bowing, at least eventually, to Imperial pressure (whatever the reasons for that pressure might be).

However, Penn State University professor, historian and author, Dr. Philip Jenkins, demonstrates in The Lost History of Christianity that there is also major evidence against this view, by a comparison with the history of Asian Christianity. These vast trinitarian denominations (as we would call them today) existed in complete political independence of even Eastern (much less Western) Roman Imperial power. Indeed, they migrated east into the Persian Empire originally in protest against what they saw as Roman Imperial heresy.

This was the massive Nestorian Church of the East (and to a lesser extent the Jacobite Church). Despite heavy denunciations from both sides, the Nestorian Church and the Roman Imperial Church (East and West) were just about identical in their acceptance and promotion of trinitarian theism. (In hindsight, it's clear enough that Nestorius was not advocating what became known as the Nestorian heresy, schisming between the two natures of Christ; he even declared himself vindicated by Pope Leo's advocation of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, and went to his grave lamenting that he was being unfairly slandered and libeled by his enemies. Dr. Jenkins' companion piece, Jesus Wars, is an excellent readable resource tracing the history of the Christological struggles from the fourth through eighth centuries. The late Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov provides a more technical in-depth look at these controversies in the first part of his work on Christology The Lamb of God, vindicating Nestorius again along the way.)

So the basic theology was, in principle and practice, effectively identical--rhetorical flaming against each other notwithstanding. (The Church of the East believed the Catholic/Orthodox party was lapsing into the heresy of Monophysitism. This doubtless confused any Ethiopian or Coptic theologians of the time who heard about it, since they were busily denouncing the Orthodox party for heaving into Nestorianism! Behold the internet flamewars of the ancient era... {wry g})

What wasn't identical, was that the CotE existed as a tolerated minority under vast empires separate from the Roman regimes. They rarely even distantly approached having the political power of the two Romes (Rome in the west, and Constantinople or the New Rome in the east). Moreover, their style of mysticism and asceticism (despite their roots in the historical-cultural Biblical hermeneutic of the Antioch school) was very similar to surviving evidence of Gnostic theology in the West. Indeed, whereas in the west Saints Peter and Paul were considered the examples to follow, the East venerated lesser known apostles such as Simon the Zealot and (most notably for our present purpose) Thomas Didymus as the Evangelist of India. Beyond this, the CotE had a protracted history of working hard at cooperating with rival religious interests in their area, including the newly arising Muslims, the Manichees, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and lesser-known central Asian pagans (such as the Mongols and Huns). And they certainly knew about extra-canonical texts, which they preserved as historical relics.

Even with all these factors, though, the Church of the East (the largest surviving fragment of which is today known as the Syrian Orthodox) accepted and propagated no more than the same standard canonical group propagated by Rome. (Plus, at some times and in some regions, Tatian's Diatessaron, which in itself was a late 2nd century Syrian harmonization of the same four canonical Gospels--with a few alternate references available at the time for flavor.) Indeed, insofar as their canon significantly differed, it did so by rejecting the least-well attested in the list: 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and the Revelation to John.

So they had the political freedom to create an alternate canon, and acted significantly on that freedom; and they had a long history of syncretic work with other Eastern religions; and they certainly knew about, and even preserved, alternate texts which, in their flavor, far more closely approached the type of mysticism they loved than did the canonical lists.

And yet, they still went with the same canonical documents. Not even including the so-called Gospel of Thomas. Why? For the same reasons the Imperial theologians gave: they knew that those were the widest used texts with the best-attested ancient history, and also because the texts agreed with one another theologically. Other texts were not so clearly attested in use back through Christian history.

In other words, both sides had a clear criteria of distinction about the dating and spread of texts, which they appealed to as a reason to accept some texts as genuine and others as lately invented: a criteria going back to the same second century when some few scholars want to place the composition of practically all canonical texts. True, there was also a criteria of similar theology; but that criteria wasn't enough to allow the widespread (and eventually final) inclusion of many texts that were deemed entirely orthodox in their theology. The Church of the East even took that set of criteria more stringently than did the Catholic/Orthodox church, by rejecting several texts accepted in the West (and still accepted today by most Christians--myself included, by the way) as genuine.

In case you were wondering, the Ethiopian and Coptic "monophysite" trinitarian churches, who also held a highly esoteric mystical tradition, and who actually were oppressed by Chalcedonian Imperial power (sometimes brutally so), and who featured (and still feature today) a history of defying such oppression with all tools at their disposal, still accepted, and still accept, the same canon list as genuine.

The theory of a set of canon being "oppressed" into existence from Imperial power, and for Imperial reasons, consequently does not match the existent evidence, once the focus widens out to a larger scope of Christian history. Put another way, all the sides accepted more-or-less the same texts that the Christian church valued most during the opening centuries of its own occasional oppression (including book-destroying oppression) by pagan Imperial authority. As the late textual critic and canon historian Bruce Metzger liked to quip: when the soldiers come to your door demanding you hand over your Christian texts, it makes a difference whether you hand them GosThom or GosJohn. The gospel "According to John" was worth the risk of dying for. GosThom, not so much.

(Lost Histories, pp87-88) The Syriac Bible was a conservative text, to a degree that demands our attention. In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream Christian church suppressed most of them in the fourth century. This alleged purge followed the Christian conversion of the emperor Constantine, at a time when the church supposedly wanted to ally with the empire in the interests of promoting order, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical authority. According to modern legend, the suppressed works included many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminist learnings.

The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages [i.e. for more than a thousand years after Constantine's conversion], neither Nestorians nor Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. [...] The only extraneous text that a few authorities wished to include was the Diatessaron itself. The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins. Although they did not include them in the canon of scripture, all the Eastern churches knew many ancient Christian texts, including apocryphal Gospels and apocalypses, and many [of their] scholars quote from now-lost patristic texts and commentaries.


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
Ron said…
You make some great points here, Jason. I just finished reading Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity and noted these facts about the Church of the East and the canon of scripture.
Weekend Fisher said…
Nicely done. Thank you.
Jason Pratt said…
I forgot to note that even when the Arian power-elite was in charge of Imperial Rome, they still didn't try to create a specifically "Arian" canon.

That not only includes the time frame from Constantine's heir to the end of Julian the Apostate's Christianity (and maybe his immediate successor--I mean the guy before Theodosius), it also includes the time frame after the Fall of the West when there was no Imperial authority north and west (and southwest on the Carthaginian coast of Africa) of Constantinople, but instead a bunch of Germanic/Celtic feudal states headed up mostly by neo-Arian warlords (basically from the mid 500s through the next few centuries, except in Ireland. Catholic bishops managed to convert western states to the Orthodox party by the 9th century, except for some pagan holdouts like Lithuania well into the 2nd millennium.)

What's especially interesting about this, is that these "barbarian" states had Christian religious texts in their own languages that they could have insisted upon, especially an epic pre-English poem (the name of which I've forgotten) which admirably harmonizes the Gospels into heroic saga form with Christ as God's chosen hero.

(This reminds me I've been wanting to look that up again someday and score a copy--the portions of English translation I read were Goth-thrashing AWESOME!! {GGG!})

Now, it's probably correct that the remnant orthodox bishops were able to score a peaceful evangelical coup by terrorizing the rulers (so to speak) with appeal to the established canon: Christ has to be more than an Vandalish superhero, because the texts say such-n-such-n-this-n-that. AND IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE THIS YOU WILL BURRRRNNNNN etc.

But this also only emphasizes the salient point, namely that the new neo-Arian barbarian overlords didn't just scat up new texts or replace the canon with extant variant texts that better fit their conception of Christ. For that matter, neither did Arius (way back in the early 300s). The great Nicean Christological dispute was about the meaning of the same texts accepted by each side; not about whether variant texts were more acceptable or not. The Nicean canon was ratified somewhat as a matter of course, something officially worth doing along the way now that all the bishops could openly get together and compare notes. The theological gymnastics, and the nasty rhetorical flamewars, were over how to interpret those texts, not about whether more or less than Matt, Mark, Luke and John should be used.

Jason Pratt said…
By the way, very good work recently over at HMSS, Anne. {g}


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