How widespread were Christian scriptures in ancient Christianity?

Discussion in 'Christianity' started by Ahanu, Jan 9, 2019.

  1. Ahanu

    Ahanu Well-Known Member

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    While doing some research on the formation of the Bible in early Christianity, I came across an interesting bit about the widespread use of the Gospels:

    “The full canon of the New Testament, not to mention the full biblical canon, was not readily available. The preserved fragments from Egypt indicate that the Gospels were far more widely used than other sections of the New Testament and that some Gospels were far more popular than others—Mark being almost totally absent in that particular region before the time of Constantine.”

    Canon and Canonicity: The Formation and Use of Scripture, edited by Einar Thomassen, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010.​

    So my question is this: If I were an average Christian in the ancient world, which scrolls would I most likely encounter? Would a Christian in Alexandria encounter a different collection of Christian texts from one in Rome? Let's say the time period is from the first century until the edicts of Constantine. Let's assume I am illiterate since I am your average Christian, so I listen to them instead of read them.
     
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2019
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  2. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    What do mean early?

    I recall looking at the various years the books were written and that prior to canon (actually prior to the printing press and printing bibles) it was scrolls or pamphlets of individual books (not the entire bible) that were learned, and passed around between friends once memorized.
     
  3. Ahanu

    Ahanu Well-Known Member

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    Before Constantine.
     
  4. Ahanu

    Ahanu Well-Known Member

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    But they do not seem to have been evenly distributed . . . .
     
  5. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    Until 5th century they hadn't confirmed a canon, assembled a book (of 66).so there would have been over a hundred (or hundreds of?) pamphlets floating around eh? Maybe more available than they are today.
     
  6. wil

    wil UNeyeR1

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    Yeah, be interesting what responses you get on that. I picture it like my friends who shared.comic books when I was a kid...is it Archie and Jughead (gospels) or Snoopy (Paul's letters) or Dick Tracy (current apocrypha) that was more popular?
     
  7. Thomas

    Thomas Well-Known Member

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    Hi Ahanu — interesting question.

    I can only speculate, so this is my musing on the subject.

    The first encounter would be in the Liturgy. The liturgy would centre on the Eucharist, and comprise of prayers and hymns, readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus — so initially the Gospels.

    Regarding what Gospels, then as the book cited, the best evidence we have is surviving elements offers an indication of their relative popularity. Across the second and third centuries, those now considered canonical were the most popular. Fragments of canonical texts outnumber the fragments of apocryphal, heterodox and heresiarch texts by a significant number.

    Clement of Alexandria, for example, referred to what we now regard as canonical and apocryphal texts in his writings. If we take a count of citations, his preference is by far for the canon. Clement canonical citations outnumber the apocryphal by about 16 to one. When we look at the Gospels, we find Matthew referenced 757 times, Mark 182, Luke 402 and John 331 times. He cites the apocryphal gospels less than twenty times. (Might I mention Mark with 182 comments, but significantly less than the other gospels.)

    Early Church Fathers cite apocryphal writings on very few occasions, compared to their dependence on a proto canon for making their arguments. Notably, The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas were held in high regard, but never made the canon. Likewise the letter of Clement of Rome — spot-on as orthodox, but not regarded as canonical.

    There was a 'core' canon in place by the middle of the second century.

    Additionally, a number of apocryphal writings were expressly condemned. The Gospel of Thomas is never mentioned in any canonical list, not found in any NT manuscript collection, never really figured in theological discussion and often was condemned outright.

    Of course some would argue that the paucity of non-canonical texts is because the Church, especially after Constantine, embarked upon a process of their destruction. This really belongs in the realm of a conspiracy theory. Certainly there's no evidence to suggest that apocryphal books were initially regarded as Scripture and later were weeded out and destroyed. The more likely story is that while some books, like those mentioned above, were given high status, the evidence suggests that the books we now regard as canonical were preferred from the start and indeed that's why they became the canon. While some might suggest the canon was some arbitrary creation of a later era, the evidence suggests the later church simply affirmed what had been the case for centuries.

    No doubt there was a demand for books, and people ready to meet that demand. So the appearance of 'fake gospels' is not unlikely. That's why the early Church fathers were quite demanding in what passed as authentic and what was fake. Undoubtedly the average Christian reader might not be so discerning. There was a great demand for infancy narratives, for example. But these texts would have gone into private collections rather than official libraries, and would have been secretly preserved and therefore we should expect to find remains in proportion to their popularity.

    I'd say s/he'd encounter more, as Alexandria was one of the centres of thought generally, and Christian thought especially (along with Antioch), so there would have been a demand there for books, and traders answering that demand. Rome was never really a theological centre, more the pastoral centre.

    In which case it would be the texts read in the Liturgy and the supported teachings. The Arian dispute, for example, was triggered by complaints from your 'average illiterate Christian' that what their presbyter Arius was teaching was not the same as what they had learned in their catechetical education.
     
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  8. Thomas

    Thomas Well-Known Member

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    Another thought ...

    Right from the outset, the early Fathers would look at a text and ask, 'where does this come from?', and if there was no viable provenance, then the text was suspect. Another aspect would be, does it accord with other texts?

    Papias is the earliest example. Dated to about 95–120AD. Papias knew several NT books, and was a first-hand witness of John the Evangelist, discussed matters with the daughters of Philip and many 'elders' who were themselves witnesses of the Twelve. He was a companion of the long-lived Polycarp (69–155AD).

    His words are informative:
    "For unlike most people I took no pleasure in those who told many different stories, but only in those who taught the truth." – Here perhaps we have the appearance of oral stories which have grown in the telling, if not pure self-aggrandising fictions. Or dubious texts, such as the ever-popular infant narratives, etc.

    "And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders — what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice."

    So we have someone writing during the end of the Apostolic Era, someone who spoke to John, and spoke to those who knew the Twelve, or indeed were themselves direct witnesses (Tradition holds that Aristion was one of the 72 sent out by Christ) who were still alive and living elsewhere.

    Papias provides the earliest extant account of who wrote the Gospels. Eusebius preserves two (possibly) verbatim excerpts from Papias on the origins of the Gospels, one concerning Mark:
    "(John) The Elder used to say: 'Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory — though not in an ordered form — of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai, but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia of the Lord. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything'."

    (A chreiai is a brief anecdote about a particular character. Shorter than a narration. Usually it conformed to one of a few patterns, the most common being "On seeing...", "On being asked..." or "So-and-so said..." Mark is peppered with "And then..." and is thought to be a collection of the teachings of Peter while under house arrest in Rome.)

    and then another concerning Matthew:
    "Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could."

    Why I mention this is that they — the authorities — would not have collected nor preserved that which they thought was fake. These books might well have been held in personal and private collections however, 'under the radar' as it were. As books survived by being transcribed and passed on, these private documents would most likely not, and so were lost through the natural processes of time, rather than any particular quest to have them destroyed.
     
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