Beyond the New Testament Canon

I'd like to start this blog with what may be a shocking observation, but one which I know to be true: the major obstacle to any historical study of early Christianity is the New Testament canon.

At the Scripture and Skepticism conference held at UC Davis this past weekend, I spoke about the importance of historical criticism, how it is absolutely essential to the study of early Christianity because it provides a perspective that does not privilege any particular form of religiosity or the wishes of any Christian community or individual or theological perspective. As a scholar of religious history, I do not have to justify my conclusions to believers nor do I judge the texts I study in terms of our modern perspectives of "orthodoxy" or "heresy." My rules of engagement are simply those of the modern intellectual community in search of knowledge. I consider myself a "humanist," relying on ways of knowing developed since the Enlightenment in the discipline of the humanities and liberal arts. Given these premises, I take very seriously the study of a variety of early Christian documents, and do not operate within the boundaries of the New Testament canon.

What impedes our examination of early Christianity is not the limitations of historical criticism as some in the Academy would like to lead us to believe. The impediment is the fact that the majority of biblical scholars still have not dislodged themselves from their own faith perspectives. As long as this is the case, historical inquiry is impossible because the historical-critical perspective cannot be used uncompromisingly. Although I recognize that there can be no "objective" history recovered or written, this doesn't mean to me that all subjective inquiries are the same. The theological inquiry is not the same as the historical.

Those in the Academy who have not dislodged themselves from their faith operate to defend, justify and explain it in terms they couch "historical" while privileging the New Testament canon and ignoring or dissing the apocrypha. Their personal religious belief in the authority of the New Testament scripture has led them to a common (and erroneous) assumption, that the New Testament texts are the only documents that tell us about the history of early Christianity. This leads to another common (and erroneous) assumption, that these canonical texts are accurate and reliable documents for the study of early Christianity. In this way, the religious walls of the canon have imprisoned the Academy for a couple of hundreds of years, holding us back from an honest historical analysis of early Christianity.

Even though there are some scholars in the Academy who attempt to operate as historians rather than theologians, the theological position is still controlling our discipline. The discipline is still limited by the canon, perpetuating the myth that the religious boundaries of the canon should be the historical boundaries as well. Certainly the New Testament texts are important pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the only pieces. An enormous amount of literature was written by the early Christians in the first two centuries, and all of it needs to be studied critically in order to get a full picture of what was going on. If we only study the New Testament documents, our reconstruction of early Christianity is inherently flawed. Paradoxically we end up promoting as "historical" an "apocryphal" Christianity solely based on the New Testament.

I'm setting up this blog as a place to discuss Christian Origins with historical integrity, taking seriously and skeptically the "forbidden" gospels and what they have to tell us about Jesus and the first Christians. Stay posted for my opinions on the Gospel of Judas, which I will write tomorrow.