1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > [New Testament] Motives and Origin of the First Christian Literature

(Part 9)


Motives and Origin of the First Christian Literature

We have seen that the earliest currents of Christian life and thought stood in a very secondary relation to the intellectual activity of the period. The only books from which the Apostolic Church drew largely and freely were those of the Old Testament, and the Christian task of proclaiming the gospel was not in the first instance a literary task at all. The first writings of Christianity, therefore, were of an occasional kind.

The Epistles

The care of so many churches compelled Paul to supplement his personal efforts by epistles, in which the discussion of incidental questions and the energetic defence of his gospel against the Judaizers is interwoven with broad applications of the fundamental principles of the gospel to the whole theory and practice of Christian life. In these epistles, and generally in the teaching of Paul and his associates, Christian thought first shaped for itself a suitable literary vehicle. It was in Greek that the mission to the Gentiles was carried on, for that language was everywhere understood. Already in the mouths of Hellenistic Jews in the translation of the Old Testament the koine [Gk.], or current Greek of the Macedonian period, had been tinctured with Semitic elements, and adapted to express the ideas of the old dispensation. Now a new modification was necessary, and soon in the circle of the Pauline churches specially Christian ideas became inseparably bound up with words which to the heathen had a very different sense. Whether the epistolary way of teaching was used upon occasion by the older apostles before the labours of Paul is not clear; for most scholars have declined to accept the ingenious view which sees in the epistle of James the earliest writing of the New Testament. The other epistles are certainly later, and the way in which several of them are addressed, not to a special community in reference to a special need but to a wide circle of readers, seems to presuppose a formed custom of teaching by letter which extended from Paul not only to so like-minded a writer as the author of Hebrews Apollos or Barnabas?) but to the old apostles and their associates.

Besides epistles we have in the New Testament a solitary book of Christian prophecy and a fourfold account of the gospel history, with a continuation of the third gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. The origin and mutual relations of the gospels form at the present moment the field of numerous controversies which can only be dealt with in separate articles. We must here confine ourselves to one or two points of general bearing.

Synoptic Gospels

Jewish disciples were accustomed to retain the oral teaching of their masters with extraordinary tenacity and verbal exactness of memory (Mishna, Aboth, iii. 8; Edaioth, i. 3), and so the words of Jesus might for some time be handed down by merely oral tradition. But did the gospel continue to be taught orally alone up to the time when the extant gospels were written? or must we assume the existence of earlier evangelical writings forming a link between oral tradition and the narratives we now possess? The earliest external evidence on this point is given in the prologue to Luke’s gospel, which speaks of many previous essays towards a regularly digested evangelical history on the basis of the tradition (whether exclusively oral or partly written is not expressed) or eye-witnesses who had followed the whole course of Christ’s ministry. It seems to be implied that if the eye-witnesses wrote at all, they, at least so far as was known to Luke, did not compose a regular narrative but simply threw together a mass of reminiscences. This understanding of the words of the evangelist aggress very well with the uniform tradition of the old church as to the second gospel, viz. that it was composed by Mark from material furnished by Peter.


This tradition goes back to Papias of Hierapolis, about 150 A.D., but it is a fair question whether the second gospel as we have it is not an enlarged edition of Mark’s original work. On the other hand ecclesiastical tradition recognizes the apostle Matthew as the author of the first gospel, but does so in a way that really bears our the statements of Luke. For the tradition that Matthew wrote the first gospel is always combined with the statement that he wrote in Hebrew (Aramaic). But from the time of Erasmus the best Greek scholars have been convinced that the gospel is not a translation. Either, then, the whole tradition of a directly apostolic Aramaic gospel is a mistake, caused by the existence among the Judaizing Christians in Palestine of an apocryphal "Gospel according to the Hebrews," which was by them ascribed to Matthew, but was, in fact, a corrupt edition of our Greek gospel; or, on the other hand, what Matthew really wrote in Aramaic was different from the book that now bears his name, and only formed an important part of the material from which it draws. The latter solution is naturally suggested by the oldest form of the tradition; for what Papias says of Matthew is that he wrote ta logia [Gk.], the oracles,—an expression which, though much disputed, seems to be most fairly understood not of a complete gospel but of a collection of the words of Christ. And if so, all the earliest external evidence points to the conclusion that the synoptical gospels are non-apostolic digests of spoken and written apostolic tradition, and that the arrangement of the earlier material in orderly form took place only gradually and by many essays. With this the internal evidence agrees. The three first gospels are often in such remarkable accord even in minute and accidental points of expression, that it is certain either that they copied one another or that all have some sources in common. The first explanation is inadequate, both from the nature of the discrepancies that accompany the agreement of the three narratives, and from the impossibility of assigning absolute priority to any one gospel. For example, even if we suppose that the gospel of Mark was used by the other two authors, or conversely that Mark was made up mainly from Matthew and Luke, it is still necessary to postulate one or more earlier sources to explain residuary phenomena. And the longer the problem is studied the more general is the conviction of critics, that these sources cannot possibly have been merely oral.

It appears from what we have already seen, that a considerable portion of the new Testament is made up of writing not directly apostolical, and a main problem of criticism is to determine the relation of these writings, especially of the gospels, to apostolic teaching and tradition. But behind all such question as the relative priority of Matthew or of Mark, the weight to be assigned to the testimony of Papias, and so forth, lies a series of questions much more radical in character by which the whole theological world is at present agitated.

Tübingen School

Can we say of all the New Testament books that they are either directly apostolic, or at least stand in immediate dependence on genuine apostolic teaching which they honestly represent? or must we hold, with an influential school of modern critics, that a large proportion of the books are direct forgeries, written in the interest of theological tendencies, to which they sacrifice without hesitation the genuine history and teaching of Christ and his apostles? There are, of course, positions intermediate to these two views, and the doctrine of tendencies is not held by many critics even of the Tübingen school in its extreme form. Yet, as a matter of fact, every book in the New Testament, with the exception of the four great epistles of St Paul, is at present more or less the subject of controversy, and interpolations are asserted even in these. The details of such a controversy can only be handled in separate articles, but a few general remarks may be useful here.

External Evidence

The arguments directed by modern critics against the genuineness or credibility of New Testament books do not for the most part rely much on external evidence. Except in one or two cases (particularly that of 2nd Peter) the external evidence in favour of the books is as strong as one can fairly expect, even where not altogether decisive. We shall see when we come to speak of the canon that, towards the close of the 2nd century, the four gospels, the Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, the first epistles of Peter and John, and the book of Revelation, were received in the most widely separated churches with remarkable unanimity. Before this time the chain of evidence is less complete. All our knowledge of the period that lies between the apostles and the great teachers of the Old Catholic Chruch towards the close of the 2nd century is fragmentary. We possess but scanty remains of the literature, and the same criticism which seems to bring down many New Testament books into this period questions the genuineness of many of the writings which claim to date from the first half of the 2nd century, and so are appealed to by conservative writers. But on the whole, what evidence does exist is of a kind to push back all the more important writings to an early date.

The Fourth Gospel

The gospel of John, for example, is one of the books which negative critics are most determined in rejecting. Yet the fairest writers of the school (Hilgenfeld, Keim) admit that it was known to Justin Martyr in the middle of the 2nd century, though they think that besides our four gospels he had a fifth of apocryphal character. But references of an earlier date can hardly be denied; and the gospel may be traced almost to the beginning of the century by the aid of fragments of the Gnostic Basilides and of the epistles of Ignatius. The Tübingen school, indeed, maintain that the fragments preserved by Hippolytus are not from Basilides, but from a later writer of his school, and utterly reject the Ignatian epistles. But it cannot be said that they have proved their case beyond dispute. They have at most shown that, if the gospel must on other grounds be taken as spurious, the external evidence may be pushed aside as not absolutely insuperable. On the other hand they try to bring positive proof that certain books were unknown in circles where, if genuine, they must have circulated. But such a negative is in its very nature difficult to prove. Probably the strongest argument of the kind is that brought to show that Papias, did not know the gospel of John. But we known Papias only through Eusebius; and though the latter is careful to mention all references to disputed books, it does not appear that it was part of his design to cite testimony to a book so universally allowed as John’s gospel. And Papias does give testimony to the first epistle of John, which is hardly separable from the gospel. On the whole, then, we repeat that, on the most cardinal points, the external evidence for the New Testament books is as strong as can fairly be looked for, though not, of course, strong enough to convince a man who is sure a priori that this or that book is unhistorical and must be of late date.

The strength of the negative critics lies in internal evidence. And in this connection they have certainly directed attention to real difficulties, many of which still await their explanation. Some of these difficulties are not properly connected with the Tübingen position. The genuineness of 2nd Peter, which, indeed, is very weakly attested by external evidence, was suspicious even to Erasmus and Calvin, and no one will assert that the Pauline authorship of 1st Timothy is as palpable as that of the epistle to the Romans. So, again, it is undeniable that the epistle to the Colossians and the so-called epistle to the Ephesians differ considerably in language and thought from other Pauline epistles, and that their relation to one another demands explanation.

The Tübingen Theory

But in the Tübingen school all minor difficulties, each of which might be solved in detail without any very radical procedure, are brought together as phases of a single extremely radical theory of the growth of the New Testament. The theory has two bases, one philosophical or dogmatical, the other historical; and it cannot be pretended that the latter basis is adequate if the former is struck away. Philosophically the Tübingen school starts from the position so clearly laid down by Strauss, that a miraculous interruption of the laws of nature stamps the narrative in which it occurs as unhistorical, or, at least, as more cautions writers put the case, hampers the narrative with such extreme improbability that the positive evidence in favour of its truth would require to be much stronger than it is in the case of the New Testament history. The application of this proposition makes a great part of the narrative of Gospels and Acts appear as unhistorical, and therefore late; and the origin of this late literature is sought by regarding the New Testament as the monument of a long struggle, in the course of which an original sharp antagonism between the gospel of Paul and the Judaizing gospel of the old apostles was gradually softened down and harmonized. The analysis of the New Testament is the resurrection of early parties in the church, each pursuing its own tendency by the aid of literary fiction. In the genuine epistles of Paul on the one hand, and in the Revelation and some parts of Matthew on the other, the original hospitality of ethnic and Jewish Christianity is sharply defined; while after a series of intermediate stages the Johannine writings present the final translation in the 2nd century from the contests of primitive Christianity to the uniformity of the Old Catholic Church. This general position has been developed in a variety of forms, more or less drastic, and is supported by a vast mass of speculation and research; but the turning points of the controversy may, perhaps, be narrowed to four questioned—(1) Whether in view of Paul’s undoubted conviction that miraculous powers were exercised by himself and other Christian (1 Cor. xii. 9, f.; 2 Cor. xii. 12) the miracle criterion of a secondary narrative can be maintained?(2.) Whether the book of Acts is radically inconsistent with Paul’s own account of his relations to the church at Jerusalem, and whether the antithesis of Peter and Paul is proved from the epistles of the latter, or postulated in accordance with the Hegelian law of advance by antagonism? (3.) Whether the gospel of John is necessarily a late fiction, or does not rather supply in its ideal delineation of Jesus a necessary supplement to the synoptical gospels which can only be understood as resting on true apostolic reminiscence? (4.) Whether the external evidence for the several books and the known facts of church history leave time for the successive evolution of all the stages of early Christianity which the theory postulates?

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