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David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Though this book has been out for a few years now, I am reviewing it here and now because more recent research by the same author, the ingenious David Trobisch, has carried the original thesis a significant step further, making explicit a crucial point left implicit in the original. The thesis of the book was bold enough, and well-defended. In brief, bold, simply stated terms, Trobisch argues that the New Testament canon of 27 writings that we use today originated not in the fourth century as the result of a prolonged and anonymous process of debate and ossifying custom, but rather as the work of a single editor and publisher in the late second century. Though Athanasius restricted official use to these 27 books, the table of contents was nothing new. He was simply lending his imprimatur to an edition of scripture already some two centuries old, making a widely accepted edition into a definitive edition. When we still detect debate among church fathers over this or that book, it is like similar quibbling among the Yavneh-era rabbis: the debate is over the right of this or that book to retain its position in the canon, as when, in our own day, Dewey M. Beegle pronounced the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as more worthy of canonical status than the Book of Esther.

Much of Trobisch’s case rests on simple consideration of New Testament (and even Christian Greek Old Testament) manuscripts. He has delineated a paradigm that makes good, inductive sense of many hitherto-puzzling bits of evidence. He notes that the New Testament books appear, with very few exceptions, in four groups of codices, and that within each the order of presentation is virtually always the same. There are the four gospels, almost always in the familiar order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. There is the Acts plus the seven Catholic/General Epistles, again always in the same order. There is the Pauline canon including Hebrews. And then there is the Revelation. (Sometimes the Pauline Corpus precedes Acts/Catholic Epistles.) Such an arrangement is hardly inevitable or obvious. Had various New Testament writings simply circulated independently and then been compiled by different scribes at different times in different regions, we would never see near-uniformity like this. Why would Hebrews be included among the Paulines so often, when Paul’s name never appears in the text? Why would everyone have concluded that what we call Ephesians and Romans were written to those churches when some copies show no destination city? Would every scribe have thought the Corinthian and the Thessalonian Epistles belong in the order in which they always appear? Surely some would have labeled our “First” Thessalonians as Second Thessalonians, they are so much alike.

Did everyone “know” or think that the four gospels were penned by individuals named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Or were these not more probably the guesses of a single editor, the first who had to differentiate the four texts because he was the first to place them side by side in a larger collection--which henceforth carried the day? Was even the form of the titles “Gospel according to” self-evident so that all should have independently come to call them thusly? Or were they not, with their grammatical arbitrariness, the creative nomenclature of a single editor?

If the New Testament books are arranged (at least mainly) by genre, come to think of it, so are the Old Testament books in the Christian canon. Unlike Jewish Bibles (Hebrew or Greek), the Christian edition of the Septuagint groups the books by narratives, poetry, and prophecy. Who decided on this arrangement, so sensible and natural in one sense, but hardly self-evident and certainly a radical departure from the Jewish tradition? And why does the Christian Septuagint, alone among Greek Old Testament versions, replace the letters of the Divine Name (whether in Hebrew or in Greek in Jewish versions) with the word Kurios (Lord)? It’s not that such a substitution wouldn’t make sense in Jewish terms, because it certainly reflects the liturgical usage of the synagogue, reading “Adonai” aloud when one came to the name Yahve in the text, but there is no evidence that actually replacing the one name with the other ever took place in the copying of Jewish Greek Bibles. So it looks like the striking innovation of a particular editor.

And so does the peculiarity in Christian Old and New Testament texts of the Nomina sacra, the abbreviation of words including Theos, Kurios, Iesous, and Christos by the first and last letter of each (generally) with a horizontal line drawn over the top. This pattern does not correspond to any known, more widely used system of abbreviations. It looks idiosyncratic in origin, as if it stemmed from a particular editor of a whole Christian Bible.

The sharp-eyed Trobisch accepts the thinking of John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament, 1942) and Hans von Campenhausen (The Formation of the Christian Bible, 1968) that the New Testament in the form we have it is largely a counterstrike against the Marcionite Sputnik: already a counter-testament to Marcion’s Apostolicon. It was already evident that the inclusion of Matthew, Mark, and John was an attempt to lose the Gospel of Marcion (a shorter predecessor of Luke) in the shuffle, as was the padding out of Luke to make it Catholic (not to mention the “ecclesiastical redaction” of John, originally heavily Gnostic and Marcionite, as Bultmann showed). Acts and the Pastorals were the product of whoever padded Luke and (according to Winsome Munro) added a domesticating Pastoral Stratum to Marcion’s Paulines. Acts, of course, parallels Peter and Paul in order to heal the breach between Catholicism (=Peter) and Marcionite Christianity (= Paul), or rather to co-opt the latter in the interest of the former. The grab bag of the Catholic Epistles was simply ballast, counterweight to the Pauline letter corpus.

Well, Trobisch traces out many more individual clues to the same conclusion. He points out signs of redaction as well as arrangement of traditional materials. For instance, he makes the Catholic Epistles an adjunct to Acts in the same way the Pastorals are to the Marcionite Pauline canon. One reads of Peter, John, and James the Just (and of the brothers of the Lord generally, Acts 1:14) in Acts, then turns directly to letters bearing the names of Peter, John, James, and Jude his brother. But, you object, the “Johannine” letters are strictly anonymous. Yes, and pray tell who is responsible for tagging them as John’s? Since everyone in the early church held the same by no means obvious opinion as to authorship, it must be derived from the editor of the whole collection, the same one, on this hypothesis, who saw to it that John was mentioned, almost cosmetically, in Acts. And, to prepare the way for the Epistle of James, he has written an encyclical for James to send to the same audience, believers among the Diaspora, in Acts 15.

In the same way, we find a gospel named for Mark and a character named Mark who is at various points (1 Peter, Colossians, 2 Timothy) made an associate of both Peter and Paul, a “narrative-man” (Todorov) who does no more than embody a particular function, in this case, bridging the Pauline (Marcionite) tradition and the Petrine (Catholic) one.

The character Luke is made implicitly the author of both the third gospel and Acts, while John is made the author of the fourth gospel. Trobisch uses a clever bit of “reader-response” logic here. Everyone knows how conservative writers of New Testament introductions like to piece together clues in the fourth gospel so as to narrow down the author to John the son of Zebedee. “Hm, let’s see, the Beloved Disciple could not have been Peter, since he appears in the same scene with him, etc., etc., so who’s left? John!” Likewise, “Which one of the companions of Paul mentioned in Acts might have been on hand during the ‘We’ passages, etc.? Must have been Luke!” In this light the famous “We” passages may be seen as a device to guide the reader to narrow down the possible candidates for Paul’s companion and the authority for the book as a whole. Likewise, the point of ending Acts on the eve of Paul’s martyrdom is to make it coincide with, actually, to lead into the fictive scene of writing for 2 Timothy. One can hardly blame Harnack for missing this, but one can thank Trobisch for spotting what Harnack missed.

Is it a coincidence that Levi the publican becomes Matthew the publican only in the gospel that bears the name Matthew? Who would have had the redactional agenda to change the name from the nobody Levi to that of an apostle? Oh, I don’t know—maybe a canonical redactor who wanted thereby to make it, after the fact, an apostolic writing? Suppose a clever redactor planted all these clues, and that the traditional authorships are all the creation of this editor. Tradition did not tag these texts with these names: a single editor did. Everyone else got it from him.

Again, it is this editor we hear in Luke 1:1, referring to “many” previous gospel writers, who must now be seen to be referring to the prior efforts of Mark, whom one has just read, and Marcion’s gospel, which this one supplants. One hears the same voice in John 21:24, where he distinguishes himself from the author of the gospel in order to endorse his work, and where he refers to a superabundance of Jesus’ miracles which would require many more books to hold them all, i.e., at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke! There he is again in 1 Corinthians 1:2, where he adds a Catholicizing interpolation to signal that the letter is now general property. There he is yet again in Revelation 22:18-19, which, placed where it is, even if not an interpolation, must mean to cover the whole canon to which it now forms the conclusion.

Suppose the glaring anachronism of 2 Corinthians 3:6 and 14, mentioning “old testament” and “new testament,” the former as a book of scripture, is meant to correspond to the two sections of scripture in the very edition in which these verses appear? It would be like those many references in the Koran which make Muhammad refer to “this Koran” as if it already existed for him to comment on.

Likewise, when 2 Peter 3:16 refers to “all” of Paul’s letters, it is not referring to some collection of Pauline Epistles, but to the one contained in the very New Testament one is now reading.

Professor Trobisch answers the intriguing question is a paper called “Who Published the Christian Bible?” delivered at the January 2007 “Scripture and Skepticism” conference (Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion). The answer has been hidden in plain sight, but it has also been, like the light from Nietzsche’s distant star, on its way for a long time. First, C.F.D. Moule, A. Strobel, Stephen G. Wilson, and Jerome D. Quinn all contributed to the theory that Luke-Acts share a single authorship with the Pastoral Epistles. (One may modify this thesis to suggest that the author of Acts and the Pastorals was the redactor of an Ur-Lukas shared with Marcion, not the author who worked up Luke from Mark and Q.). Hans von Campenhausen suggested, quite plausibly, that the author of the Pastorals was Polycarp of Smyrna. Combine these theories and you end up with Polycarp as the author of Acts and the Pastorals (as well as, I would add, of the Pastoral Stratum of interpolations in 1 Peter and the Pauline Corpus, and even as Bultmann’s Ecclesiastical Redactor of John).

Trobisch makes Polycarp the editor and publisher of the Christian Bible. And he has more reasons still. We would need someone with a definite antipathy toward Marcion and a desire to co-opt his churches and his scriptures for Catholicism. Polycarp would fit the role nicely. We also need someone who would have a reason for juxtaposing John and the Synoptics. Again: Polycarp, because placing the very different John side by side with Matthew, Mark, and Luke would serve to reinforce (even to canonize) the lit-and-let-live truce worked out to settle the Quartodeciman Controversy between those who celebrated Easter on Sunday (Western style, implied in the Synoptics) and those who observed the Asian tradition, celebrating Easter coincident with the 14th of Nissan, no matter on which the day of the week it might fall (implied in John). Polycarp went to Rome in 150 to discuss the matter with Pope Anicetas, and they agreed to disagree, an accord (to skip most of a long story) which Polycarp would go on to enshrine by making both options scriptural.

Polycarp may even have, so to speak, signed his work. Trobisch notes how 2 Timothy 4 lists many names familiar from Acts and earlier Pauline Epistles, except for two. “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Tro'as, also the books, and above all the parchments.” Carpus? And this man has Paul’s “cloak”? The cloak of Pauline authorship? For he also has charge of Paul’s manuscripts. Short for Polycarp? You bet! The other name is Crescens (v. 10); it appears nowhere else in the New Testament. Guess where it does pop up, though? Why, right there in the Epistle of Polycarp 14:1!

All right, then may I suggest that Polycarp has inserted himself into John 15:5, too? “He who abides in me, and I in him, the same shall bring forth much fruit (karpon polun)”? And then, as Alvin Boyd Kuhn and, more recently, Stephen Hermann Huller have suggested, mustn’t the Theophilus to whom Luke and Acts are addressed be Bishop of Theophilus of Antioch, Polycarp’s ally?

I should say that David Trobisch’s The First Edition of the New Testament together with his “Who Published the New Testament?” provide an ideal example of a theoretical, “Kuhnian” paradigm, a theoretical framework which, when laid over the evidence like a transparency, reveals a whole new way of making sense of the hitherto-disparate data. I’m sold.  



Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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