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The Origin Of The New Testament by Adolf Harnack


A Short Statement and Criticism of the Results of Zahn's Investigations into the Origin of the New Testament.

Following upon his great work, Geschichte des Neutestamentlichen Kanons, of more than 2000 pages, Zahn has published in his Grundriss der Geschichte des Neutestamentlichen Kanons, a short summary of the results of his investigations. On page 13 we find the sentence: |Unless there had been occasions for uncertainty as to the limits of the Bible (the New Testament) there would have been no history of the Canon.| After this bold statement it must appear that, according to Zahn, the New Testament -- like dogma for the Catholic Church -- came into existence from the moment at which its latest book was published, and that there is such a thing as the |history| of the New Testament only, |because the Christian works that were used for public lection were not from the first absolutely the same in all orthodox communities,| |because, even in one and the same community, variations in this practice lasted for quite a long time,| and lastly, |because the conception of what should be regularly read at public worship had not been clearly defined,| in so far as all kinds of works were read publicly that did not belong to the Canon. Finally, |Even among works inherited from the Apostolic age, differences, in respect of the frequency and regularity of their use in public worship, must have existed according as they were more or less suitable for religious instruction.|

There is still need of a short discussion of the results of Zahn's criticism, because these results are often developed in a way against which the author himself must feel inclined to enter an energetic protest. We hear everywhere that Zahn, the most learned of the critics, has proved that the New Testament came into existence so early as the end of the Apostolic age, about the year A.D.100; and that so-called critics of far inferior learning place the origin of the New Testament about a century later. Against such a position we would establish the following points:

1. The first part of Zahn's larger work, as well as his Grundriss, ought not to bear the title History of the Canon of the New Testament, but History of the public and private use of works that were afterwards united in the New Testament; in the second part also the question of public lection is very much to the front. The right to be read publicly and the right to be included in the Canon are jumbled together by Zahn as if they were identical, though he himself admits (vide supra) that the conception of what should be regularly read at public worship |had not been clearly defined.| It is, indeed, quite true, that every work that was |Canonical| (in the sense of the Old Testament) was also read publicly, but the converse statement is simply inadmissible. Public lection was certainly a most important preliminary condition for the canonising of a book (in many cases, however, it was a consequence), but it was by no means the sole condition. I mean that because a book was read at public worship it is far from following that it had, therefore, the same dignity as the Old Testament. But this is the very point In so far, therefore, as Zahn, dealing with the earliest history of the |Canon of the New Testament,| confines himself, and must confine himself, exclusively to proving the existence of certain smaller collections of books now in the New Testament and the fact that they were read publicly, his work is simply not a history of the Canon of the New Testament, but -- even if all his investigations are correct and to the point -- a history of the earliest public and private use of certain books. Moreover, it hangs together with this unjustifiable identification of public lection and Canon that Zahn, in his larger work, thinks that he may neglect all other aspects of the history of the origin of the New Testament. The most learned authority on the second century in his discussion of this question makes really no use of his knowledge of the opinions and controversies, of the problems great and small, that agitated the Christendom of those days. Hundreds of details in the history of that period are brought forward and investigated thoroughly and comprehensively, but the growing New Testament is never brought into connection with the living history of the Church -- not at all because the author was unable to do this, but because he believes that it is not necessary -- public lection alone is sufficient and decisive.

2. In the Grundriss, Zahn has divided the early history of |the Canon of the New Testament| into three sections: |The New Testament about A.D.170-220|; |The New Testament about A.D.140-170|; |Earliest Traces of, and the Origin of, Collections of Apostolic works.|

The third section (i.e. the one dealing with the earliest period) ends (p.40) with the following statement: | Many questions referring to the origin of the New Testament will always remain without a certain answer. Yet it may be regarded as certain that about the years A.D.80-110, both the fourfold' Gospel and the corpus of thirteen Pauline Epistles were in existence, and had been introduced into public worship along the whole line from Antioch to Rome, and that these two collections which form the most important part of the New Testament were from the first surrounded in public worship and in the estimation of the communities by a larger or smaller circle of Christian works that, like the two collections, seemed suitable for reading at public worship with a view to the religious instruction of the communities.| Here, indeed, much more is asserted than can be proved and than Zahn himself has proved; for I cannot see -- even on the basis of Zahn's own investigations -- what justification there is for going back to a date so early as A.D.80, nor can I discover the evidence for |the whole line from Antioch to Rome,| nor the authorities upon which Zahn rests his statement that the public reading of the Gospels and of the Pauline Epistles at that period is alike certain; indeed, I believe that Zahn himself, on closer reflection, would substitute the years A.D.110-130 for A.D.80-110 as more appropriate for what he asserts. However, supposing that he is justified in what he claims, what, after all, is proved thereby? Surely no more than this, that in some, perhaps in several, communities, public lections from the four Gospels and the Pauline Epistles were the custom. It is well that Zahn himself has refrained in this connection from letting his pen write the word New Testament, and it is also good that he has guarded himself from naming the Christian works, apart from the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles, that were publicly read at that time. He only asserts that at that time already other works were so honoured, and to this assertion no objection can be raised. Seeing now that he preserves absolute silence concerning the years A.D.110-140, we must assume that during that period absolutely no change took place in the conditions that are supposed to have already existed between A.D.80 and 110 -- this means that, according to Zahn, we cannot prove that a New Testament, set on the same level as the Old Testament, existed during the period before A.D.140. The four Gospels were read publicly, the Pauline Epistles were read publicly, some other works were read publicly -- that is all.

But Zahn does assert the existence of the New Testament, at all events, for the period A.D.140-170. This section of his work bears the title: |The New Testament about A.D.140-170,| and he probably thinks also of certain deductions that can be made, not without justification, for the former period, though he does not enter into them. The evidence, however, that the New Testament was in existence in the Church during that generation is exclusively based upon the Bible of Marcion, the Bible of the Valentinians, and the writings of the Apostles in Justin. Here we would make the following observations: (1) in reference to Marcion it is, of course, as good as certain that he dealt as a critic with the four Gospels of the Church; but all other questions -- whether he knew of the Pastoral Epistles, whether he criticised the Acts of the Apostles or the Apocalypse, etc. -- must unfortunately remain unanswered. As for the main question, however, whether he knew of, or assumes the existence of, a written New Testament of the Church in any sense whatever, in this case an affirmatory answer is most improbable, because if this were so he would have been compelled to make a direct attack upon the New Testament of the Church, and if such an attack had been made we should have heard of it from Tertullian. Marcion, on the contrary, treats the Catholic Church as one that |follows the Testament of the Creator-God,| and directs the full force of his attack against this Testament and against the falsification of the Gospel and of the Pauline Epistles by the original Apostles and the writers of the Gospels. He would necessarily have dealt with the two Testaments of the Catholic Church if the Church had already possessed a New Testament. His polemic would necessarily have been much less simple if he had been opposed to a Church which, by possessing a New Testament side by side with the Old Testament, had ipso facto placed the latter under the shelter of the former. In fact Marcion's position towards the Catholic Church is intelligible, in the full force of its simplicity, only under the supposition that the Church had not yet in her hand any |litera scripta Novi Testamenti.| (2) In reference to the Valentinian school Zahn asserts that: |The New Testament, which from the productions of the most important Gnostic School of about A.D.140 in all its ramifications, we learn to have been the common possession of the Church, was identical with the New Testament of about A.D.200;| but in order to arrive at such a result the truth of many incorrect equations must be assumed. It is not necessary here to discuss all these; we would, however, just make only the following remarks: In the first place we must neglect all the information derived from the Fathers of about A.D.200 who assert or assume the identity of the New Testament of the Valentinians with that of the Church, for it is a well-known fact that the Valentinians both kept in touch with the Church and also conformed outwardly to the progressive development of the times in things ecclesiastical (|communem fidem adfirmant|). Next we must give special prominence to Ptolemy's words (Ep. ad Floram., 1, 9): |We shall prove our statement (concerning the Godhead, the Old Testament, etc.) from the Words of our Saviour; for with their help it is alone possible to arrive without stumbling at the understanding of reality.| Thus, according to Ptolemy, who like all Valentinians adopted a critical attitude towards the Old Testament, the Word of the Lord is the sole court of final appeal. His practice is actually in accordance with this belief, and he derives the Word of the Lord from the Gospels. The testimony of |the disciples of Jesus and of the Apostles| (vide chap. iv.5, etc.) occupies only a secondary place in his regard; for him it has clearly no independent, but only a derivative, authority (as it, and so far as it coincides with the Words of the Saviour); he quotes only Epistles of St Paul and statements of John, the Apostle and Evangelist. Lastly, he takes account of the apostolike paradosis, hen ek diadoches kai hemeis pareilephamen (chap. v.10). Therefore in the case of Ptolemy we cannot speak of a New Testament, because he evidently does not possess or know of a collection in which Gospels and Apostolic Epistles stand on one level. All that we learn elsewhere of the ancient Valentinian School and of Valentinus himself fits in with what we learn from Ptolemy. Their high reverence for, and their use of the Pauline Epistles never justify the equation: |Epistulæ (i.e. Paulus)= Evangelia.| I cannot see, as Zahn asserts, that |clear traces| of the Acts, 1 and 2 Peter, and Hebrews are to be found among the Valentinians; but even if that were so, there would still remain the question what value Valentinus and his school ascribed to these works. Summing up, we may say that Valentinus and his earlier followers set up in place of the Old Testament as their highest court of appeal the Word of the Lord contained in the Gospels, with which they associated, as a secondary authority, the Pauline Epistles and their own secret Apostolic tradition. Among them nothing like the New Testament, so far as structure is concerned, was as yet in existence. Arguing, then, from this to what then obtained in the Church, we can only say: The Church at that time possessed the Canon of the Four Gospels, and read side by side with it the collection of Pauline Epistles. This, however, does not carry us very far in Zahn's direction.

3. According to Zahn, Justin is a witness to the New Testament for (a) he places the Apomnemoneumata ton apostolon on the same level with the |Writings of the Prophets|; |as, however, the whole Old Testament, is intended to be included under the latter title, so also the name Apomn. t. apost. by no means excludes other Christian writings|; (b) Justin knows the Johannine Apocalypse as a work of the Apostle John and as a genuine product of Christian Prophecy; (c) |Justin as an apologist had no occasion to mention other Apostolic works in the same way as the Apocalypse; but we find that his religious ideas and form of expression are affected by his diligent reading, of the following works: Rom., 1 Cor., Gal., Eph., (Phil.?), Col., 2 Thess., (Titus, 1 Tim.?), Heb., 1 Pet., (James?), Acts, and Didache.| Against these statements we would assert that (a) the statement that the expression Apomn. t. apost. does not exclude other Christian writings is only correct if we at once add that it also does not include them. I will not waste words here, for the thesis is as inadmissible as the argument by which it is based on the clause, |The whole Old Testament is intended to be included under the Writings of the Prophets.| Are then Sungrammata and Apomnemoneumata the same? Can we subsume the Pauline Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles under Apomnemoneumata? (b) The fact that Justin knows of the Apocalypse and knows of it as a book of public lection -- though, indeed, be does say this in so many words -- has nothing to do with the question of the New Testament so long as we do not know whether this book was placed on a level with the Gospels at the time of Justin. If the Apocalypse stood by itself, like many other Jewish and Christian Apocalypses at that time, Justin's notice does not come into consideration for the history of the New Testament in the strict sense of the term. (g) Justin's views and expressions may have been influenced by many early Christian writings, traces of which Zahn believes that he has found; yet Zahn himself does not venture to assert that Justin regarded these as canonical; Zahn leaves this conclusion to the reader. However, a reader who carefully studies the Dialogue with Trypho is not only not able to draw such a conclusion, but is rather compelled to regard the opposite as proved. Zahn, indeed, asserts that Justin, as an apologist, had no occasion to express himself concerning the canonical prestige of Apostolic works ; but the case is otherwise: Justin, with an enormous expense of labour in collection of passages, seeks to deduce a New Testament (or the New Testament) from the Old Testament, and from the Old Testament to prove its existence. He could not do otherwise in controversy with a Jew. But why does he not do what, for instance, Tertullian does dozens of times in reference to the Collection of Sayings of the Paraclete, which was not recognised by his opponents in the Church? Why does he not once at least say: |We Christians possess a New Testament in form of litera scripta|? The reserve which he here adopts is simply unintelligible if a New Testament was in existence in the Church. It was simply not in existence! Justin knows the new Covenant as a fact that had its litera scripta only in the Old Testament. He says nothing about the New Testament, not only because he is an apologist, but because no New Testament stood at his disposal; he never speaks even of the Gospels as |New Testament,| and if he had done so there is nothing to show that for Justin other early Christian writings stood upon the same high level as the Gospels. The grounds for the assertion that Justin presupposes the New Testament are as unsound as in the cases of Marcion and Valentinus.

Lastly, in the section dealing with the New Testament of about A.D.170-220, Zahn investigates the changes that the already existing New Testament experienced during that period. Here, however, as a kind of headline, we find the sentence (p.15): |The New Testament at that time was far from being something clearly defined.| In fact as we read the many detailed discussions here and in the parallel sections of the larger work, we not seldom forget that we are supposed to be dealing with certain discrepancies in a work already created; rather we have the impression that we have before us something that is just coming into being. Hence there is comparatively little here that provokes controversy, and, indeed, it may be regarded a matter of indifference whether we describe the tremendous changes, which Zahn himself allows to have taken place between A.D.170 and 220, as the |Origin| of the New Testament out of previous stages of existence, or as the |development| of something that was already in existence, but was as yet unborn. Zahn himself, however, allows, so far as I see, that the name |New Testament| first makes its appearance during this period.

Zahn himself will not have us speak in set words of the |New Testament| until about A.D.130 or 140; he asserts its existence for the following generation (even if the name is absent); but on the one hand the proofs for the latter thesis do not hold good, and on the other hand he himself allows that the New Testament about A.D.170 was still an unfinished work, and in any case that nowhere in the Church did it appear as something clearly defined. There is no question, therefore, of a difference of one hundred years between Zahn and the other critics, but of a much smaller space of time, which would contract still more closely if Zahn would bring himself to take as punctum saliens not the public lection of the separate works, but the setting of a new collection of sacred writings on a level with the Old Testament.

With these remarks I am far from wishing to renew a controversy that years ago was carried on between Zahn and myself with only too much strong feeling; but seeing that an accurate and scientifically balanced account of the character of the controversy has not been drawn up, and seeing especially that the actual results of Zahn's work are exploited in favour of an entirely unscientific point of view, it seemed to me necessary, in these studies of the origin of the New Testament, to set the facts in a clear light.

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