The Pre-Nicene New Testament: Fifty-Four Formative Texts

The Pre-Nicene New Testament: Fifty-Four Formative Texts

by Robert M. Price

In this monumental work, Professor Price offers an inclusive New Testament canon with twenty-seven additional sacred books from the first three centuries of Christianity, including a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi writings. Price also reconstructs the Gospel of Marcion and the lost Gospel according to the Hebrews. Here, for the first time, is a canon

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In this monumental work, Professor Price offers an inclusive New Testament canon with twenty-seven additional sacred books from the first three centuries of Christianity, including a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi writings. Price also reconstructs the Gospel of Marcion and the lost Gospel according to the Hebrews. Here, for the first time, is a canon representing all major factions of the early church.   

As an interpretive translation, Price’s text is both accurate and readable and is tied more closely to the Greek than most previous translations. Price conveys the meanings of words in context, carefully choosing the right phrase or idiom to convey their sense in English. For words that had a specific theological import when first written, Price leaves the Greek transliteration, giving readers archons for the fallen angels thought to be ruling the world, paraclete for encourager, andpleroma for the Gnostic godhead. 

Within the collection, each book is introduced with comments about the cultural setting, information about when a document was probably written, and significant textual considerations, which together form a running commentary that continues into the footnotes. The findings of scholars, documented and summarized by Price, will come as a surprise to some readers. It appears, as Price suggests, that most of what is known about Jesus came by way of revelation to Christian oracles rather than by word of mouth as historical memory. In addition, the major characters in the New Testament, including Peter, Stephen, and Paul, appear to be composites of several historical individuals each, their stories comprising a mix of events, legend, and plot themes borrowed from the Old Testament and Greek literature.   

In the New Testament world, theology developed gradually along different trajectories, with tension between the charismatic ascetics such as Marcion and Thecla, as examples, and the emerging Catholic orthodoxy of such clergy as Ignatius and Polycarp. The tension is detectable in the texts themselves, many of which represent “heretical” points of view: Gnostic, Jewish-Christian, Marcionite, and proto-orthodox, and were later edited, sometimes clumsily, in an attempt to harmonize all into one consistent theology.  

What may occur to many readers, among the more striking aspects of the narratives, is that the earliest, most basic writings, such as Mark’s Gospel in inarticulate Greek, are ultimately more impressive and inspirational than the later attempts by more educated Christians to appeal to sophisticated readers with better grammar and more allusions to classical mythology and apologetic embellishments.   

The critical insights and theories on display in these pages have seldom been incorporated into mainstream conservative Bible translations, and in many ways, Price has made the New Testament a whole new book for readers, allowing them, by virtue of the translation, to comprehend the meaning of the text where it is obscured by the traditional wording. Whatever usefulness teachers, students, and clergy may find here in terms of pedagogical and inspirational value, The Pre-Nicene New Testament is guaranteed to provoke further thought and conversation among the general public—hopefully toward the goal of more personal study and insights. 

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Marcionite invasion

The history of a distinctively Christian scriptural canon begins with Marcion of Pontus in Asia Minor. Traditionally dated about 140 AD/CE, Marcion actually may have begun his public ministry earlier, just after the turn of the century. One ancient tradition makes Marcion the amanuensis (secretary) of the evangelist John at the end of the first century. That is probably not historically true, but no one would have told the story if they had not assumed Marcion was living at that time. It was a general tendency of early Catholic apologists to late-date the so-called “heretics” to distance them from the apostolic period in the same way apologists today prefer the earliest possible date for the epistles and gospels.

Marcion was the first Paulinist we know of. It would later be a matter of some embarrassment to the church fathers that the earliest readers and devotees of the Pauline epistles were the Marcionites and the Valentinian Gnostics. We know of no Paulinists before these second-century Christians. The mid-first century existence of Pauline Christianity is simply an inference, admittedly a natural one, from taking the authorship and implied dates of the Pauline epistles at face value as works representing a wing of first-century Christianity. But it is quite possible that the Pauline literature is the product of Marcionite and Gnostic movements in the late first and early second centuries. Even if most of the Pauline epistles are genuinely from the first century, the most likely candidate for the first collector of the corpus remains Marcion. No one else in the relevant time period would have had either the interest or the opportunity. No one was as interested in Paul as Marcion. Why?

It was because he shared with his theological cousins, the Gnostics, the belief that the true God and Father of Jesus Christ was not the same deity as the creator and law-giver God of Israel and of the Jewish scriptures. In this belief Marcion was perhaps influenced by Zoro-astrian Zurvanism, a dualistic doctrine, as Jan Koester suggests. Marcion allowed that the creator God was righteous and just but also harsh and retributive. His seeming grace was but a function of his arbitrariness: Nero might render a verdict of thumbs-up or thumbs-down as the whim moved him, and so with the God of Israel. Marcion deemed the Jewish scriptures historically true and expected messianic prophecies to be fulfilled by a Davidic king who would restore Jewish sovereignty. But Marcion deemed all of this strictly irrelevant to the new religion of Christianity. In his view, which he claimed to have derived from Paul’s epistles, Jesus Christ was the son and revealer of an alien God who had not created the world, had not given the Torah to Moses, and would not judge mankind. The Father of Jesus Christ was a God of perfect love and righteousness who would punish no one. Through Jesus, and by extension Paul, the Christian God offered humans the opportunity to be adopted as his children. If they were gentiles, this meant a break with paganism. If they were Jews, it entailed a break from Judaism and the Torah. Marcion preached a strict morality. All sex was sinful. Begetting children only produced more souls to live in bondage to the creator. Marcion believed Jesus had no physical birth but had appeared out of heaven one day in a body that seemed to be that of a thirty-year-old, complete with a misleading belly button, although not human at all: rather a celestial being. Jesus taught and was later crucified. His twelve disciples were to spread his gospel of an alien God and his adoption of all who would come to him. But things v/ent awry: the disciples, as thick-headed and prone to misunderstanding as they appear in the Gospel of Mark, underestimated the discontinuity of Jesus’ new revelation with their hereditary Judaism, thereby combining the two. This was the origin of the Judaiz-ing heresy with which Paul deals in Galatians and elsewhere.

Marcion had noticed an oddity most Christians never notice as they read the New Testament: if Jesus had named the Twelve to succeed him and seemed satisfied with them, why was there a need for Paul at all? And why should he come to eclipse the others in importance? The Twelve are, for the most part, merely a list of names. By contrast, Paul wrote letters that formed the basis of much of the church’s theology. Marcion saw a simple answer: the risen Jesus saw how far off the track his disciples would go and decided to recruit another who would get the message straight. This was Paul. To invoke a recurrent pattern in Christian history, think of Martin Luther, Alexander Campbell, John Nelson Darby, Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Victor Paul Wierwille, and others. All these believed that original, apostolic Christianity was corrupted by an admixture of human tradition, and they believed they had a new vision of the outlines of the original, true Christianity and could restore it. This is what Marcion thought already in the early second century. It should not sound that strange to us. Like these later men, Marcion would succeed very well in launching a new church, one that would spread like wildfire all over and even beyond the Roman Empire. Most noteworthy is the fact that the New Testament was his idea.

The emerging Catholic Church, which would develop into the medieval church, which then subsequently split into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, was by this time employing the familiar authority structure of scripture and tradition. By scripture was meant the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish scriptures, including the so-called apocryphal or deutero-canonical books of the Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, 1 Esdras, and so on. This was “scripture.” Tradition, on the other hand, was a growing body of sayings attributed to Jesus and stories about him, as well as the summaries of “apostolic” doctrine represented in such formulae as the Apostles Creed and similar summaries in the late second century by writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian, to name two. There were a number of early Christian writings of various kinds (gospels, epistles, apostolic acts, revelations, church manuals) that were written and circulated more or less widely, but these were at first more expressions of than either the source or criteria for faith. That is not to say they were not important. Think of the writings of Calvin and Luther: they are important to Calvinists and Lutherans who still study them, but Calvinists and Lutherans would not consider the wise writings of their founders to be scripture on the same level with the Bible. Admittedly, the difference in actual practice may evaporate, but that is just the technical distinction that is important here. The question that concerns us is precisely how the early Christian writings came to cross that line and join the category of scripture. The earliest Catholic Christians felt no need as yet for new scripture since they found the Septuagint Bible adequate to their needs as long as they could use allegory and typology to see in it a book about Jesus Christ and Christianity.

This reinterpretation of Jewish scripture was not something Mar-cion was willing to undertake. He insisted on a literal, straightforward reading of the Septuagint, refusing to treat it as a ventriloquist dummy and make it seem to speak with Christian accents. Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428) had the same attitude, though he was no Marcionite. Read in a plain-sense fashion, the Jewish scriptures, Mar-cion realized, had nothing to do with Christianity. Even lacking his belief in two different biblical Gods, one can see his point when one thinks of the strained arguments needed in order to make various Old Testament passages sound like predictions of Jesus. And it is still common today to hear Christians contrast the severe God of Israel with the tender Father of Jesus. So Marcion repudiated the Jewish scriptures. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe them, because he did. He simply felt they were the scriptures of someone else’s religion and didn’t overlap with Christianity as he understood it. Nor was he anti-Semitic or even anti-Judaic. For him, Judaism was true on its own terms, just not the religion of Jesus Christ or of the apostle Paul.

Without the Septuagint as his scripture, Marcion felt the need to compile a new canon that would teach Christian faith and morals authoritatively. He accordingly collected the early Christian writings he felt served this purpose. These were paramountly the Pauline epistles except for the Pastorals, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, because these did not exist yet, still waiting to be written in reaction to Marcion and other “heretics” in the mid-second century. Marcion had shorter, earlier versions of the texts than ours. Likewise, he had a book he knew simply as “the gospel” corresponding to a shorter version of our Gospel of Luke. Catholic writers decades later would claim he had edited and censored the texts, cutting out material that served to link Christianity with its Jewish background. Marcion no doubt did do some editing, textual criticism as it seemed to him, but it seems that Catholic apologists did much more in the way of padding the texts with their own added material, claiming their own versions were original and should be adopted instead of the Marcionite text. Marcion called his scripture the Apostolicon (“Book of the Apostle”). In his and his opponents’ claims and counter claims, we begin to see the inevitable relation of the twin issues of text and canon-which versions of which writings are authoritative?

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