About Canonizing Acts of Paul

I recently responded to Peter W. Dunn in a post of his about the canonical inclusion of the Acts of Paul.  He is a New Testament scholar and the Acts of Paul is apparently a major interest of his, but I’m not sure if his interest is personal or simply academic.  The post I responded to is a Press Release:

Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of New Testament Canon

In recent months, Dr. Dunn has formulated new theories about the Acts of Paul which have led him to create the Committee. “Initially, I thought the Acts of Paul should be dated to the middle of the second century. But now I am leaning towards a much earlier date around the end of the first century. That is almost 100 years earlier than scholars have heretofore believed,” said Dunn. When asked who was the author of the Acts of Paul, he replied, “Well, Tertullian at the beginning of the third century (ca. 205) reported that it had been written by an Asian (modern Turkey) priest who had to step down from his job. But we have reason to believe that Tertullian may have been misinformed. A good case could be made for Timothy. The Acts of Paul never mention him by name and that is strange. Timothy would have been only about 20 when he met Paul in the 50’s. So that would make him about 70 years old at the end of the first century when the Acts of Paul were written. St. Timothy, according to tradition, became the bishop of Ephesus. This accords well with Tertullian’s claim that it was a presbyter (priest) from Asia.”

The comment I first made:

It’s somewhat arbitrary what was included as canonical. Considering that not everything in the New Testament is from the first century, I’m not sure why that would be a reason to include something. The NT canon was developed based on ideological reasons. There were many Christian texts from the first and second century that weren’t included. For example, Marcion developed the first NT canon and his version of the NT texts weren’t included.

Dunn’s response:

Benjamin: thanks so much for making a comment.

I find it hard to determine your point. Are you arguing for the Acts of Paul as part of the canon or against it? Or are you just simply pointing out that the idea of canon is pointless?

If the dominant form of Christianity that emerged from the second century determined that certain books were canonical and others were not, then it is hardly surprising that such books were chosen on ideological grounds. Why is that a problem?

Finally, your point about Marcion would counter your point that many 1st and 2nd century texts didn’t make it into the canon. Marcion’s canon was restrained to ten Pauline epistles and to an abridged Gospel of Luke, all of which are in the NT canon.

My further explanation of my original point:

The idea of a canon isn’t necessarily pointless.  It all depends on what ideology you use to base the canon on, and our defining purpose must be made very clear.

I’m not in favor of the traditional canon for various reasons.  There is no single ideology that can harmonize all of the texts as the original writers and later redactors had a variety of ideological agendas.  You can find elements of many ideologies in the New Testament.  Also, Catholic doctrine changed over the centuries and so the ideology of the heresiologists isn’t even the same as that of later Catholics.  Even heresiologists disagreed with eachother at times as early Christianity was an endless ideological war.

Harmonization requires ignoring discrepancies and accepting Catholic orthodoxy over the authority of other Christian denominations.  Not all Christians and NT scholars agree that the Catholic church is a valid representative of early Christianity.  The problem is that there never will be agreement.  The closest we can come to a scholarly consensus about what was original would be something like the Jesus Seminar, but there is no end of people who criticize that methodology.

Marcion, the originator of the NT canon, had his own ideology and to the Marcionities it was orthodoxy.  I think his ideology has priority over the ideologies of the heresiologists that came after him.

Also, his ideology makes sense to me in one particular way.  I agree with his exclusion of Jewish scriptures.  I believe Jews have the intellectual rights to their own religious texts.  As I’d prioritize Marcion’s opinions over later heresiologists, I’d prioritize Jewish opinions about Jewish scripture over that of later Christians.

As for the New Testament, the later canon did include what he included, but also included that which he excluded.  Furthermore, of the texts he included, his versions would’ve been different.  Scholars know a fair amount about Marcion’s ideology now and this should be taken into account. 

For example, Robert M. Price attempted to recreate Marcion’s canon and so that is the type of example to follow.  BTW this comes from Price’s Pre-Nicene New Testament.  His methodology is one way to create a canon and seems very fair to me.  He simply included every relevant Christian text and fragment that survived from the centuries prior to the Council of Nicea.  His introduction to this collection is a useful analysis of the issues about what is considered canonical.

Besides being the first canonizers, something important to keep in mind is that so-called heretics were also the first to quote a NT text and the first to write commentaries on an Apolstolic writing.  The first commentators of Paul and John were later considered heretics.  I believe that in considering what is canonical the earliest Christian writers should be given the most focus.  Along with Marcion, I’d include Basilides, Valentinus, Heracleon, and Ptolemy; but others could be included as well.

I further would add that the Nag Hammadi scriptures should be given a place in this discussion.  They represent a major component of early Christianity before the heresiologists took power.  Those texts represent examples of the very evidence that orthodoxy attempted to destroy and so they give insight into what was original to the Christian tradition as opposed to the later ideologies that canonical texts were forced to conform to through redaction and interpolation.

Another factor to consider is dating.  This is tricky business because there are no original surviving texts.  As I understand it, all we have are later copies of copies which have been filtered through several hands of ideology plus simple mistakes and mistranslations.  The dating determines which texts were the earliest and so which were original.  One thing that is clear is that certain canonical texts were based on other canonical texts or else both based on even earlier texts or oral traditions.  If we are canonizing based on the authenticity of the earliest tradition, then we should exclude later texts.

My criticism is based on the reality that there are just too many factors and too many opinions.  The canon was originally created through political power and later military force that suppressed and destroyed all alternatives.  We now live in a different world.  Why not simply have many canons and leave it at that?  If any person wants a particular text included or excluded, all they have to do is find someone to publish their canon which is what Christians have been doing for centuries anyhow.

I guess the question is what is your purpose.  Is your interest merely academic or personal?  If it’s merely academic, most Christians would be uninterested in your attempt to expand the canon.  Your average Christian is contented to accept whatever church authority declares canonical and I doubt church authorities would have much interest in deferring to academic scholars.  If your interest is personal in that you belong to a specific denomination, then that is between you and the authorities of that particular church.