Markus Vinzent's Blog

Friday, 23 April 2021

The first hundred years of Christianity - an answer to Udo Schnelle

 In his 2019 American version, translated by James W. Thompson from the 3rd. rev. edition of the German 'Die ersten 100 Jahre des Christentums', Udo Schnelle discusses 'the formation of the Canon' and claims: 'The formation of the canon was a further step toward the developing independent identity of early Christianity. This process was essentially borne by the churches, defining the specific writings that possessed authority. It was not authoritative statements of individuals, movements, or synods that gave rise to the collectino of Holy Scriptures but rather a process with an inner conistency and necessity: the OT as the established canon, the authoritative claim of the Pauline letters and the Gospels, as well as the growing distance from the original events necessitated a reception of the relevant witnesses for the Christian faith. The formation of canon belongs within this process of the necessary and consistent self-definition of teh church. The intention of the predominant arrangement is obvious: After the fourfold portrayal of teh story of Jesus Christ, the book of Acts forms the transition and orientation for reading the Pauline letters, which were then supplemented by the writings of the other apostles; the reading matter then finally flows into the eschatological perspective of the Revelation of John. Primarily with the letters of Paul and the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth and Paul stand at the beginning of the tradition; they aree to a certain extent accessible as a "book" and produce an unexpected effect' (ibid. 466-467).

The counterposition that I hold is summarized and rejected in a kind footnote (p. 466-467, n. 41) which reads: 'The common claim that before Marcion (in Rome ca. 140; in his home in Sinope ca. 120 CE) no evidence exists for a Gospel (e.g. Vinzent, Die Auferstehung Christi, 119-20) is not convincing. The Didache (ca. 120) presupposes the presence of the Gospel of Matthew and (indirectly) the Gospel of Mark (cf. Did. 15.3//Matt. 18:15; Did. 8.2//Matt.6:7-13; Did. 9.5//Matt. 7:6a; Did. 7.1//Matt. 28:19; Did. 8.1-2//Matt. 6:2, 5; Did. 11.7//Matt. 12:31-32; Did. 16.1//Matt. 24:42; 25:1-13'. For the detailed argument, cf. Wengst, Didache, 24-32. The Papias fragment (ca. 130) in Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.34.15-16) attests Mark and Matthew as writers of Gospels. Justin, the contemporary of Marcion, cites from the written text of Matthew (Matt. 11;17) and presupposes readings from the Gospels each Sunday (1 Apol. 67.3). Moreover, the Lord's Supper tradition in 1 Apol. 66.3 refers explicitly to the tradition of the Gospels (cf. Luke 22:19). The Gospel of John is attested in P52 (middle of the second half of the second century CE) in Egypt and must have been written a considerable time before that. For the Gospel of Luke, Marcion is the first (indirect) witness. However this fact certainly does not preclude its being written considerably earlier. The classic dating of the Gospels (and Acts) between 70 and 100 CE is evident in the situation presupposed in them and the history of early Christianity. Without the Jesus traditions of the Gospels, the expansion of Christianity in this period is not conceivable'.

I do not want to discuss the formation of the canon, as I have just written a chapter on this topic for the forthcoming volume The New Testament Canon in Contemporary Research, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Benjamin Laird, Brill.

Instead, let me concentrate on the arguments that make my position seem 'unconvincing' to Schnelle. Of course, these arguments are not new, but they are nicely condensed in the quoted footnote:

He rejects, that 'no evidence exists for a Gospel' prior to Marcion. As counter-arguments he takes:

1. The Didache and 'the presence of the Gospel of Matthew and (indirectly) the Gospel of Mark'.

2. The Papias fragment that 'attests Mark and Matthew as writers of Gospels'.

3. Justin who 'cites from the written text of Matthew'.

4. P52 as mid-secondary witness to the Gospel of John.

5. Marcion as (indirect) witness for the Gospel of Luke.

6. No expansion of Christianity without 'the Jesus traditions of the Gospels'.


Before I take them one by one, it is obvious that the argument against me pointing out the uncertainty of the dating of the Gospels (and Acts) and the likelihood that they are mid second century products rather than first century products is countered by the early dating of sources which are as uncertain as the creation of the Gospels and Acts (nn. 1.2.4): The Didache, Papias, P52 are uncertain with regards dating, and the early dating of the Didache is usually argued for with the presence of Matthew and the absence of other Gospeltraditions, Papias has been similarly dated, but uncertainty remains. And the dating of P52 by Colin H. Roberts in 1935, to ‘the first half of the second century’ and the further use of this dating by NT scholars has been called by papyrologist B. Nogbri already in 2005 an 'abuse' of this evidence. The conclusion is: Schnelle (together with many others, as he only represents the opinio communis) provides a circular argument and suggests secure datings, based on insecure datings which themselves have been secured by what they are supposed to secure. Who finds this convincing, might stop reading any further.

A further more general note: my argument is shortened to distortion. When I say that no Gospel existed prior to Marcion, I take as Gospel the combination of 'words and deeds' of the Lord, as I say in many places that prior and contemporary to Marcion oral traditions of sayings of the Lord are, indeed, attested. We only need to take the - although few - sayings of the Lord that we find in Paul's letters, then there are other sayings which we find in Ignatius and elsewhere. Two observations, however, need explanation: First, why most of these sayings are Agrapha and do not appear in any of our canonical Gospels, second, why the only elements that are attested are sayings, no deeds of the Lord, hence, no miracle, no narratives asf., a phenomenon that already Kurt Aland had pointed out. This leads us already to the discussion of the items from above:

In more detail:

1. The Didache and 'the presence of the Gospel of Matthew and (indirectly) the Gospel of Mark'.
Before we make a judgement on details, a preliminary fact: The text of the Didache, as Wengst who has been referrred to by Schnelle, points out, was, as the manuscript evidence shows, secondarily gospelized. Wengst, therefore, deviates from other editions, and leaves aside the heaviest gospelized section. Nevertheless, even the text that he gives is based on manuscript evidence that is later than the fourth century. And we just become highly suspicious of any text like the Didache which is preserved in the same manuscript, the Hierosolymitanus, which also contains the 14 letters collection of Ignatius - providing us with a second century collection which - as scholars acknowledge - was not only broadened by additional 6 letters, but also gives us a text that has been through and through gospelized and biblicized. What gives us the assurance that many, if not all of the parallels that Schnelle provides, have been introduced later? Yet, even if we assume, these were original, we have to note that all are sayings, and not a single one refers to deeds of Jesus. To draw from such parallels that the Didache is based on the Gospel of Matthew and indirectly on Mark is only maintained by scholars who also subscribe to the Didache being a terminus ante quem for these two Gospels. Again, we are in a dead ally of a circular argument. Elsewhere I have made a more detailed comparison.

2. That Papias 'attests Mark and Matthew as writers of Gospels' is simply and factually incorrect. Papias, in the fragments that survived and are given by Eusebius, never mentions the term 'Gospel'. The two are mentioned as translator and writer (Mark) and as redactor (Matthew), but what their products were, we do not know. Only because we later have Gospels that are connected with these two names, Eusebius in his framing text calls Mark a 'gospelwriter', Papias does not. Schnelle had better mentioned Papias' other fragment which has come to us not through Eusebius, but through the antimarcionite Western Bible prologues. In there, however, we are told about John's and Marcion's critical engagement which puts both John as well as Papias much later.

3. Justin is of cause not a good witness for Schnelle's argument, as he lives contemporary to Marcion and is seriously engaged with him (as, according to Papias John was). The position that Justin 'cites from the written text of Matthew' is not shared by many Justin scholars.

4. P52 and the NT-misuse of its papyrological dating has been mentioned before.

5. On Marcion as an indirect witness to the Gospel of Luke could be strengthened. As I have shown in various places, Marcion - according to Tertullian - attests to all four Gospels, yet he claims that these are plagiarisms of his own Gospel. Whether Marcion or Tertullian states the truth is the question to decide upon. To uncritically follow Tertullian does not seem a sound apriori position.

6. Expansion of Christianity ... If we acknowledge that even the term 'Christianity' is absent in the first century and appears for the first time with Marcion, it is problematic to retroject this identity claim into the first century. The assumption of rapid expansion only works - again in my view a circular argument - when one dates, as done in Schnelle, all the canonical texts into the first 100 years, and turns those 100 years from a history of the development of Jewish traditions, into one of 'Christianity' vs. 'Judaism'. In this, however, one unconsciously follows Marcion's trajectory. Marcion, however, was more careful than those readers, as he did not disinherit Jews and their traditions, but created a novel form of a Jewish cult which he called 'Christianity'. Only readers of him like Justin and, unfortunately, the plagiarists of Marcion's Gospel, turned his antitheses into an anti-Judaism which left nothing of the genuine tradition to the Jews, but turned it into a Christian Bible in which the core Gospels 'define (negatively) their relationship to Judaism' (p. 426).

Now ten years ago, I tentatively saw good reasons to advocate a turning over of NT studies and an entire revision of the most basic assumptions. Criticism like Schnelle's footnote from 2019 makes me even more aware, how fragile these counter-claims are and that assumptions based on such foundations will not last for very long. 

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