2019-04-25

What Christians Said About Jesus Before the New Testament Canon …. a post for Paul George

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Another post I promised a commenter, this time Paul George. The point here is to clarify the grounds upon which Nodet and Taylor claimed that our canonical gospels are not the best place to start in order to understand Christian origins. The evidence they cited for this claim came from the Christian writings we have prior to the appearance in the literature of any explicit knowledge of our gospels. Our gospels evidently carried very little (= zero) weight as authoritative information about Jesus until the late second century.

Before there was a “written authoritative reference point”, that is, before the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were embraced as standard narratives about Jesus, how did Christians write about Jesus?

Ignatius of Antioch (we will assume here the conventional identity and date for Ignatius, with his writings dated early second century)

For Ignatius, the documents about Jesus to be relied upon were not written in ink:

My documents are Jesus Christ; my unimpeachable documents are his cross and resurrection, and the faith that comes from him. — Phil. 8:2

The Roman Creed

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty
2. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord;
3. Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary;
4. Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried;
5. The third day he rose from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
8. And the Holy Ghost;
9. The Holy Church;
10. The forgiveness of sins;
11. The resurrection of the body (flesh)

Ignatius speaks often of Christ, but refers to precise events only in succinct statements which are very close to the primitive kerygma—the proclamation of the saving death and resurrection—or which resemble those of the Roman Creed. (Nodet and Taylor, 4)

Clement of Rome (writing 15 years before Ignatius)

As Christian Scripture he knows at most 1 Cor and recalls the context of crisis in which it was written. He refers often to salvation in Jesus Christ, but, like Ignatius, without ever alluding to the facts of the life of Jesus. Only once does he cite words of Jesus (13:2), but the logion is not known in this form in the NT, which shows that for Clement there is no official text (although that does not, of course, exclude the existence of some documents). He speaks of Jesus only by way of the OT. Thus, when speaking of Christ as the suffering servant, he makes no direct reference to his life but uses only a biblical passage (the song of Isa 53:1-12). It is interesting to note that Heb 10:5 does exactly the same: “Coming into the world, Christ said: ‘You did not want sacrifice or oblation, but you formed for me a body [. . .]’ (Ps 40:7).” (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

The Didache (widely judged to be first century CE)

The Didache knows and interprets the OT. It also quotes words of Jesus related to the Sermon on the Mount, but without a precise literary link with the Matthaean text, and a very similar version of the Lord’s Prayer; there is probably a common origin in the liturgy. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Didache chapter 9:
1. And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus:
2. First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child; to thee be glory for ever.”
3. And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever.
4. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.”
5. But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

Not mentioned by Nodet and …. but surely significant is that the Didache interprets the eucharist as a thanksgiving meal without any relationship to a death of Jesus.

The Didache further admonishes a high regard be held for those who spread the word, for the importance of staying with likeminded saints and warning against false teachers. The scenario appears to be entirely oral. No written gospels (nor even epistles, for that matter) to rely upon to maintain true teaching.

Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas is a Christian interpretation of traditions from the OT or related texts . . . . This interpretation is totally based on a typological reading of the OT, with several facts or words relating to Jesus, but in a rather stylized form and in any case without a literary link with the gospels as we know them. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna, whose background is similar to that of Ignatius of Antioch, is familiar with the writings of Paul and makes a number of references to them. He has some knowledge of Matt, perhaps in the form of written notes (compilations of logia), but certainly not as a normative work. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Polycarp also speaks of being attentive to the word handed down orally in order to refute those who deny the incarnation.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas belongs to the timeless world of apocalyptic and knows no Scripture apart from itself (cf. also Rev 22:18 f.). (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Papias

We only know of Papias from the fourth century writings of Eusebius. According to this source Papias said he found no writing nearly as useful as oral reports from those who had known the apostles. Evidently he knew of no authoritative writings.

Josephus

Let’s assume Josephus wrote the passage about Jesus found in Book 18 of Antiquities.

[L]ike the Christian authors, he has nothing precise to say about the life of Jesus. On the other hand, his statement that Jesus himself made disciples among both Jews and Greeks is an instructive anachronism, and in any case does not go well with the idea of a Messiah, who is above all a national liberator. Therefore the name of Christos, given by Josephus and necessary to explain the name of “Christian,” does not seem to have for him any identifiable Messianic meaning. (Nodet and Taylor, 6)

Justin

With Justin, in the mid-2nd century, things have changed. According to the First Apology, the books about Jesus, referred to as “memoranda of the apostles,” are read, together with the works of the prophets, at the Sunday assembly. The new state of affairs has a double aspect: there are now Christian texts of reference, and Justin, though still adhering to the primacy of the traditional (oral) kerygma, makes many allusions to the life of Jesus, and takes pains to situate his logia in a narrative context. However, the quotations do not match well the gospels as we know them . . . . (Nodet and Taylor, 8)

Nodet and … attribute Justin’s accounts of Jesus to a very early gospel harmony (one earlier than Tatian’s) that he refers to as “Memoranda of the Apostles”. Perhaps. But I am still struggling to find an article I once (years ago) read in a journal at the University of Queensland’s main library arguing a case that references to these “memoranda” were in fact interpolations into Justin’s text. Other details about Jesus that Justin presents appear to me to be taken directly from his inferences from OT scriptures. (Some years back I set out Justin’s points about Jesus and the early church but last time I looked closely at those lists I noticed some mistakes. I still refer to those pages but advise checking each reference for yourself rather than take everything there for granted.)

Irenaeus

Irenaeus, at the end of the 2nd century, was able to describe and defend something like the canon as we know it. By his time, therefore, the conception of a canon was in existence, but the earlier position of Christian writers was quite different [as per the details set out above]. (Nodet and Taylor, 3-4)

But even with Irenaeus the oral transmission or understanding of the gospel has not yet been completely superseded by the written gospels:

From all this it emerges that the appearance of authoritative Christian writings, as distinct from the works of individual Christians, followed well behind the oral transmission of the kerygma. This is still the state of things at the time of Irenaeus. . . . However, the written text is not everything for him, for he accuses Marcion (1.27.2) of manipulating the gospel texts, or simply of giving too much attention to the letter (he cites Matt and Luke), to the detriment of a global view of the single Gospel, in relation to which the four booklets called gospels are only particular aspects. (Nodet and Taylor, 9)


Nodet, Étienne, and Justin Taylor. 1998. The Origins of Christianity: An Exploration. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

20 Comments

  • Amer
    2019-04-25 07:33:59 GMT+0000 - 07:33 | Permalink

    Neil, like yourself I am inclined to say that the NT is not the starting point for early Christianity. Clearly you have given the early figures who wrote prior to the NT to demonstrate that. However, these are the same proto-orthodox characters, whose views are upon which the NT is based, loosely.

    Is it possible to analyse their works with the following investigative questions?

    What was the Jewish vs Non-Jewish split of their works and how does that compare to the NT?
    Were these church fathers themselves converts from Judaism or were they gentiles who became Christian? Did they meet or learn or study from Paul or from direct companions of Jesus?

    What indicators of regional history in that time period gives rise to the conditions of coming of the Messiah imminent or necessary ? Should it therefore be that the ones who are looking for the Messiah and claim to have found him are the best ones to investigate as the birth of Christianity?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-26 00:27:14 GMT+0000 - 00:27 | Permalink

      What was the Jewish vs Non-Jewish split of their works and how does that compare to the NT?

      I don’t understand the question. Can you clarify what you mean by “Jewish” as opposed to “non-Jewish”? Even Paul’s concept of Christ was Jewish (see articles here on Novenson). The allegorical interpretation of the OT was Jewish. Speculations about various divine entities appearing on earth was Jewish. A dying messiah concept was Jewish. Jewish parties would accuse each other of being non-Jewish but that was how Jewish arguments worked. Philo was as Jewish as Josephus as the Essenes. How do you define and distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish?

      Were these church fathers themselves converts from Judaism or were they gentiles who became Christian?

      We work with the evidence we have, Amer.

      Did they meet or learn or study from Paul or from direct companions of Jesus?

      You know what the evidence allows us to say. So I don’t understand your question. What is your point?

      What indicators of regional history in that time period gives rise to the conditions of coming of the Messiah imminent or necessary ?

      See my posts on messianism and messianic expectations. I have addressed that many times and it certainly has no relevance to any of the texts I have addressed above — unless you can persuade me otherwise with evidence-based argument. Your question has a false assumption built into it.

      Should it therefore be that the ones who are looking for the Messiah and claim to have found him are the best ones to investigate as the birth of Christianity?

      Your question is built on false assumptions. You are reading canonical texts naively and treating your inferences from those naive readings as historical facts.

      If you are here just to troll, just to try to catch out nonbelievers with your subtle evangelistic campaign then stop. This is a place for serious discussion based on standard historical methods. We have no time for apologetic readings or questions.

  • 2019-04-25 11:22:45 GMT+0000 - 11:22 | Permalink

    This is a very useful summary, thank you.

    I would note that the Testimonium Flavianum should not be considered authentic, but furthermore I found their characterization odd, since I would say that the Testimonium Flavianum does give a concise description of a human Jesus. Also I note that some significant scholarship finds that the Testimonium Flavianum is likely derived from the Gospel of Luke. See: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12071

    So I just found it odd that they said the Testimonium Flavianum was not descriptive, when in fact it does seem descriptive and to be derived from a Gospel. Of course it’s an interpolation, but still I would think they would recognize it’s Gospel content.

    I also think that Justin knew at least one Gospel. He may not have had a copy, and he may not have read the whole thing, or he may have only heard oral accounts of it, but too much of what he says is too similar to too much of Mark for me to think that he had no knowledge of any Gospel, particularly the Crucifixion, which he knows is related to Psalm 22, and I think very strongly that the author of Mark is who invented the Crucifixion scene based on Psalm 22.

    • MrHorse
      2019-04-25 16:43:44 GMT+0000 - 16:43 | Permalink

      I get the impression Justin Martyr was writing before the gospel of Mark was written (and without knowing about the Pauline epistles). Martyr comes across as being a contributor to the early development of the philosophy Christian doctrine, not a commentator on a formed version of it.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2019-04-26 00:33:25 GMT+0000 - 00:33 | Permalink

        Justin says that Jesus gave the name Sons of Thunder to James and John and given that that moment is found in the Gospel of Mark it is claimed that Justin knew the Gospel of Mark or an earlier form of it. As for Paul’s writings, it is thought by many that he does not mention them because they were associated with Marcionism which he opposed.

  • Paul George
    2019-04-25 12:29:07 GMT+0000 - 12:29 | Permalink

    The best place to start in the process of discovery into the origins of Christianity is IMHO Paul’s letters. However the gospels (and Acts) are also very ancient. For example Clement’s letter to the Corinthians dated I think reliably at 96 appears to quote both Paul and the gospels. Hebrews is clearly quoted in chapter 36. Paul is mentioned as having written a letter to them. (47) There are many allusions to the contents of Paul’s letters and also the gospels. (46) Barnabas at 4:14 quotes Matthew 22:14. (See also Barnabas 5:9) So I have to disagree with Nodet and Taylor. I recommend reading the source documents rather than relying on the commentary of others. Another argument that I think is equally persuasive is the argument from analogy. By examining religions that we know a lot about, that is fairly recent religions we can see that the holy literature of these religions either slightly preceded the institution of the religions or was concomitant with it. For example, Scientology. Dianetics published in 1950. The religion was launched in 1952. Mormons or LDS church. Book of Mormon published 1830. First baptisms 1829. Church organised in 1830. Christian Science. Science and Health published in 1875. Church granted charter in 1879. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Watchtower Tract Society 1881. Congregations founded in 1879. These examples all indicate that Christianity and its first holy books emerged at roughly the same time. Several of these recent religions are also Millenarian, as were the early Christians. So what do we have in the gospels? We have a myth of origins. As you may be aware I hold that the Roman-Jewish war was the catalyst which launched Christianity. There were no Christians before this date. Paul, Peter, James etc all flourished after this date. The silence of all contemporary writers writing prior to AD70 seems to justify this view. The Jesus of the Bible is a literary character, the details of his life were worked out after people had come to believe that he had come, been crucified and returned to heaven, as a modification of the disappointed Jewish Messianic prophecies. Of these events there were no witnesses, except post ascension or post resurrection appearances as Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15. There was no oral tradition. Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism is a religion based on literature. There was no hiatus. The religion “took off” the way all successful religions do. The myth of Jesus was written down and those documents served, as they do today, for church liturgy, to combat heresies, to strengthen faith and to preach to unbelievers.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-26 00:50:17 GMT+0000 - 00:50 | Permalink

      Barnabas at 4:14 quotes Matthew 22:14. (See also Barnabas 5:9) So I have to disagree with Nodet and Taylor. I recommend reading the source documents rather than relying on the commentary of others.

      Actually Nodet and Taylor do address your criticism; and the reason I was citing them and not speaking directly from the texts themselves is because a quotation from Nodet and Taylor was what initiated this discussion.

      We cannot just assume that any two similar passages are necessarily to be explained as the earlier one borrowing from the later one, or assume that the later one was really earlier because that’s what we want it to be. It is more valid to work within the limits of what the evidence allows. Barnabas’s context for the saying is not the same as found in Matthew and Barnabas does not attribute the saying to Jesus, and I am not sure how one can interpret “Scriptures” to mean Gospel of Matthew in Barnabas.

      The analogy of literate churches is essentially a circular argument, or at least question begging. It (and other parts of your comment) also contradicts the clear and frequent references to the central importance of oral transmission as actually opposed to or superior to anything written in the first and second centuries.

      Certainly Jesus in the gospels is a “literary character” as you put it, and the fall of Jerusalem was a significant turning point. But what we have in the gospels is but one branch of what was a part of early christianity or perhaps better christianities. The christianity represented in our gospels was not the beginning of the sect but did emerge on top after a long period of conflict with other (including earlier) groups.

      • Paul George
        2019-04-26 04:55:44 GMT+0000 - 04:55 | Permalink

        “The analogy of literate churches is essentially a circular argument, or at least question begging.”

        No, it is an argument from analogy.

        P and Q are similar in respect to properties a, b, and c.
        P has been observed to have further property x.
        Therefore, Q probably has property x also.

        Arguments from analogy can be powerful arguments, where we have limited information from other sources, which is the case with Christianity.

        To support the idea that Christianity was unique and shares no properties with other religions is a form of special pleading.

        “Literate churches” is not what I said. It isn’t necessary for all Mormons or Scientologist to be literate in order for the religions to flourish. But these religions are firmly based on literature.

        “Oral transmission” is not what I said. I said “oral tradition.” In theology this is the idea that “cultural information passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth, were the first stage in the formation of the written gospels. These oral traditions included different types of stories about Jesus. For example, people told anecdotes about Jesus healing the sick and debating with his opponents. The traditions also included sayings attributed to Jesus, such as parables and teachings on various subjects which, along with other sayings, formed the oral gospel tradition.” (Wiki)

        There is a big difference between oral transmission and oral tradition.

        Also when a passage appears to be quoted in another work, we can use that evidence to support the argument that the author knew the previous work. Of course the influence can go both ways. Or both writers may have a common source. We then look at the context and other factors to try to date the material. The first place to start is the plain and literal meaning. If you feel the need to dispute this then you will need to provide arguments why the plain and literal meaning cannot be received.

        You assert that “what we have in the gospels is but one branch of what was a part of early Christianity.” You say “The christianity represented in our gospels was not the beginning of the sect.” Do you have any evidence for this? That is, to put it plainly, do you have any evidence that these versions actually existed prior to the gospel version? The evidence in Paul’s letters and elsewhere seems to indicate that heresies arose after the initial religion was launched, except for Jewish-Christianity which preceded Paul’s version, and was eventually declared heretical by the orthodox.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-04-26 08:50:23 GMT+0000 - 08:50 | Permalink

          To support the idea that Christianity was unique and shares no properties with other religions is a form of special pleading.

          No one is suggesting that Christianity was unique. What is important is to compare it with valid phenomena — such as are found in a common matrix.

          The first place to start is the plain and literal meaning.

          And context. Meaning must be determined by context, not in isolation from it. That’s the point I was making in deference to N and T.

          You say “The christianity represented in our gospels was not the beginning of the sect.” Do you have any evidence for this?

          Yes.

          The evidence in Paul’s letters and elsewhere seems to indicate that heresies arose after the initial religion was launched

          Obviously breakaways from a movement happen after the movement is established. But I see no reason to think that Paul’s religion and Jewish-Christians were the only two movements prior to “heresies”.

          I don’t think we have enough in common on how to approach and assess the data to continue a useful discussion.

          (I initially responded to a comment of yours because I felt you were being a little unfair or unaware to appear to brush off an argument of scholars as tantamount to stupidity. I would wish we would understand more fully the arguments we are so quick to dismiss as somehow logically flawed or without evidence. You seem to assume that those you disagree with have no evidence or soundness of judgment.)

  • 2019-04-25 15:48:29 GMT+0000 - 15:48 | Permalink

    Two things to note about Justin: his pupil Tatian is the one who tried to create a harmony of the four Gospels in the canon (yet, oddly, none others); and when Justin cites the “Memoranda” or any documents as authorities at all he clearly has in mind some non-canonical Gospel(s) (e.g. he says they say Jesus was born in a cave; that would be the Protevangelion, not Matthew or Luke; and he cites the apocryphal Acts of Pilate as a reliable source proving some point, which is again not a canonical text).

    • MrHorse
      2019-04-25 16:48:37 GMT+0000 - 16:48 | Permalink

      I get the impression Justin Martyr was writing before the gospel of Mark was written (and without knowing about the Pauline epistles). Martyr comes across as being a contributor to the early development of the philosophy Christian doctrine, not a commentator on a formed version of it.

      It’s as if texts like Acts of Pilate existed as or even before the synoptic gospels were finalised or near finalised.

      • Charles
        2019-04-25 18:31:34 GMT+0000 - 18:31 | Permalink

        From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justin_Martyr

        “Reflecting his opposition to Marcion, Justin’s attitude toward the Pauline epistles generally corresponds to that of the later Church. In Justin’s works, distinct references are found to Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, and possible ones to Philippians, Titus, and 1 Timothy. It seems likely that he also knew Hebrews and 1 John”

        • MrHorse
          2019-04-26 00:12:15 GMT+0000 - 00:12 | Permalink

          I reckon each of those supposedly distinct references would need to be evaluated on it’s own merits, as it’s as likely that some of what someone philosophising theologically, as Justin does, in his era, would have said a few things that simply coincided with the odd verse of pericope in the Pauline epistles or other early Christian texts ie. those ‘references’ could be chance and not direct.

      • 2019-04-25 20:49:43 GMT+0000 - 20:49 | Permalink

        He definitely had knowledge of the Crucifixion narrative as recorded in Mark, he explicitly talks about its details. One can claim that the narrative proceeded Mark, as many argue, but I very much doubt that, as I think the author of Mark is the person who invented the Crucifixion narrative recorded in “his” Gospel. The style of the Crucifixion scene matches that of the entire rest of the Gospel and has literary tie-ins to several preceding scenes so it very much appears to be a part of the cohesive whole, not so tacked on addition that the author found ready made.

        Whether or not Justine had personally read the whole of Mark is certainly an open question, but I have no doubt that wherever his knowledge of the Crucifixion came from, it ultimately can be raced back to Mark.

        • MrHorse
          2019-04-26 00:08:11 GMT+0000 - 00:08 | Permalink

          Cheers. It would be good to know which passages in Martyr’s writings you’re referring to.

          I agree it’s likely that the author of Mark is the person who invented the Crucifixion narrative recorded in “his” Gospel.

          I would like to know – generally, not necessarily from you, though you may be in as good a position as anyone to comment – if there are indications that Justin Martyr was peripheral to, or even part of, an early Christian or semi-Christian theological philosophical group or school (I guess if he did it would have been one that knew of Mark or it’s author/s).

      • Neil Godfrey
        2019-04-26 01:00:06 GMT+0000 - 01:00 | Permalink

        I sometimes wonder if our version of the Gospel of Luke was not completed until well past the half-way point of the second century (still before Irenaeus, though) and sought to weave together not only details from Matthew, Mark and John but also from some of the other gospels — compare, for example, the place of Herod in the Gospel of Peter and Luke’s inclusion of Herod in the final act of the trial and crucifixtion of Jesus.

        • Sili
          2019-04-27 22:36:11 GMT+0000 - 22:36 | Permalink

          I’m leaning towards GLuke being a harmonisation of “proto-Luke” by the editor of the a NT. The editor for instance added the prologue to imply connection with Acts, the genealogy to interact with/neuter Matthew and gave the name of Lazarus to the resurrected young man in John to suggest a connection to GLuke (and possibly obscure the original identity).

          Whatever else, I’m increasingly aware of the fact that texts if this era were not fixed and that whatever version we have of eg. GMark need not be identical to what inspired Matthew and Luke.

      • Sili
        2019-04-27 22:27:12 GMT+0000 - 22:27 | Permalink

        »Justin Martyr was writing before the gospel of Mark was written«

        I’d temper that to “before GMark was widely known, but otherwise I’ll agree.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-26 00:56:05 GMT+0000 - 00:56 | Permalink

      I was surprised to see Nodet and Taylor speak of hints of a pre-Tatian harmony.

  • 2019-04-27 14:14:47 GMT+0000 - 14:14 | Permalink

    This whole discussion reminds me of the Hindu story of the blind men and the Elephant.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.