Thursday, July 12, 2007

Non-Canonical Fallacies

Tony Chartrand-Burke lists faulty arguments in anti-apocrypha apologetics including these:

1. All non-canonical texts are Gnostic.
I agree that this is false, you only have to read Gospel of Peter to figure that one out. What is more, the Gospel of Thomas lacks the sine qua non of Gnosticism which is anti-cosmic dualism or regarding the creator of the universe as an evil demiurge, thus Thomas is probably best characterized as being on a Gnostic trajectory but not quite there yet. Alot of stuff that gets passed off as Gnostic can also be regarded as expressing an acute hellenism or else can be paralleled in Christian/Jewish mystic traditions. But many of the texts are indeed Gnostic as a cursory glance of the NHC shows and trying to say that some of this stuff is not Gnostic just Sapiential often sounds like special pleading.

2. Canonical texts are early while non-canonical texts are late.
There is certainly the possibility that many of the non-canonical texts are either earlier or co-temporous with the canonical writings (it depends when you date the canonicals I guess). But, all things being even, I think we have grounds for seeing the non-canonicals as usually dependent in some form on the canonicals. The Gospel of Thomas I think is definitely dependent on canonical tradition (be it via literary dependency, secondary orality, or from a mediating source like the Diatessaron). Many of the Jewish Gospels sound like diverse renditions of Matthew with some make shift additions.

3. The non-canonical gospels are not "gospels".
Some clearly are, but obviously not all. The Gospel of Peter is a death-resurrection Gospel and may have been part of a larger work that covered the entire ministry and passion of Jesus. The Jewish Christian Gospels were probably modelled on Matthew and followed his outline. But I do not think, pace H. Koester et. al., that Q and Thomas qualify as "Sayings Gospels". The Gospel of Mark, as the first Gospel, is probably the benchmark for any comparisons in terms of genre. To call them "Sayings Gospels" strikes me as a bit of a misnomer since they contain no joined narrative (perhaps a few narrative cameos, but no single story-line can be discerned). Note: I am not implying that a work called "Gospel" is theologically or historically superior to any other work that is not a proper Gospel. The question is does the literary form of the non-canonical documents resemble the literary form of the canonical Gospels. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not.

4. The writers of non-canonical texts were hostile toward canonical texts.
I think that the authors/editors of Thomas saw their composition as an alternative to the canonical accounts and perhaps even as a rival to them. In some cases, these non-canonical works were merely adaptations or imitations of the canonical documents with no malign intention between them (e.g. Gospel of Peter), at other times an attempt to supplant or replace the other accounts is probable (e.g. Gospel of Thomas), and at other times there is arguably an attempt to indigenize ideas in a literary form analogous to that of the Gospels (e.g. Gospel of Mary or Jewish Christian Gospels).

5. Extant versions of non-canonical texts are their autographs.
I concur, no argument here. Still, if you think you can peel back a fourth century coptic text and discover a first century Greek text benneath, and then map out the various layers of redaction and development inbetween, then you are treading on very thin ice and are arguing for something which simply cannot be proven or falsified. There is nothing wrong with healthy conjecture and making hypothetical proposals, as long as you tell people that it is conjectural and purely hypothetical. Speculation is good and healthy, as long as it does not become dogma.

The key thing is to avoid generalisations and to treat each document on its own merits and on its own terms. Then these fallacies can be avoided.

2 comments:

Doug Chaplin said...

Thanks for this analysis.

ntWrong said...

Re Thomas: you write,
"the Gospel of Thomas lacks the sine qua non of Gnosticism which is anti-cosmic dualism or regarding the creator of the universe as an evil demiurge, thus Thomas is probably best characterized as being on a Gnostic trajectory but not quite there yet."

I prefer Bart Ehrman's view. Ehrman maintains that a Gnostic text might assume that certain core convictions will be shared by the readers of the text. Therefore it isn't necessary for every Gnostic document to recapitulate every core doctrine.

Monotheism is a sin qua non of Judaism. Does that mean any text which doesn't explicitly affirm monotheism is not a Jewish text? For example, Esther doesn't even mention God. Is Esther therefore not a Jewish text?