Date: Fri, 30 Oct 1998 19:25:08 -0500 (EST)
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
To: Synoptic-L
Subject: Canonical Rivalries

On Wed, 28 Oct 1998, Jeremy Duff wrote:

> Yuri,
> I too would be very interesting in further clarification on how you
> feel the canon of the four gospels developed during the second century
> (and in particular how these and other gospels were considered by
> those who in Irenaeus' eyes would have been heretics). I am also
> interested in your suggestion that there was a large split between
> Johannine and Synoptic groupings and would like to see what makes you
> come to this conclusion.


Well, I tried to put my thoughts about all this down, but the article came
out rather long. So I'm posting the first part for now. The second part
deals with the Johannine epistles, and draws some general conclusions.

Best wishes,




by Yuri Kuchinsky

In this essay, I would like to consider the historical background of the
Christian canon formation. I will look at some little known political
rivalries in the early movement as associated with various factions
struggling for acceptance. In connection with this, early testimonies of
Papias and Irenaeus will be considered. Also, the Johannine epistles will
be examined for evidence reflecting on these rivalries.

It is important to consider these matters because they can cast
significant light on the Synoptic problem. In order to understand how our
canonical texts relate to each other, clarifying the background of their
canonical framing may be helpful.


It is often said that Marcion was believed to have produced the first
canon, a "heretical" canon, to be sure. He chose for his use the gospel of
Luke, and some Pauline epistles. There were accusations that he mutilated
or truncated these documents to serve his purposes, but it is not entirely
clear if he indeed did this, or if rather his proto-orthodox rivals added
material to these documents. It seems quite likely that both parties
engaged in such activities.

All this was happening ca. 140, and created a great crisis in the
movement. Apparently, Marcion at one time came pretty close to becoming
the Bishop of Rome. History would have never been the same had this

Was Marcion so original that he came up with the idea of a "canon" all by
himself without precedent? Of course not. Christians already had a
perfectly good canon before Marcion. But the standard Christian canon
previous to Marcion was the Jewish canon.

So it seems like the "bright idea" of Marcion really was to make a canon
that would be different from the OT. Of course he also tried to dismiss
the OT entirely, as well, and this earned him a lot of opposition. Perhaps
such radicalism towards the OT was the main reason why he became a

One may assume that, previous to Marcion, different Christian communities
had their own preferred documents besides the Tanach, but that there was
no big attempt to control who used which gospel. There was of course no
centralised control of the movement as yet -- not since the time when the
Jerusalem Church under James still tried to exercise such control. So
canon adoption was in a sense going hand in hand with the formation of
some sort of a centralized body that may govern the Church.

There's considerable evidence indicating that other early Christian groups
besides Marcion also had their favourite gospels, and openly favoured one
gospel over another.

As Larry Swain already noted, Basilides wrote the first commentary on any
text which later became part of the New Testament. He wrote on John in the
120s. And even if one assumes that Ignatius is familiar with Matthew's
gospel, which is not entirely certain, then it is really the only gospel
he quotes from or refers to. In fact, Ignatius does not mention any
canonical gospel by name.

In his AGAINST HERESIES, Irenaeus adds plenty more evidence for various
"heretics" strongly preferring certain gospels. Following, is a revealing
passage from AH about various dissidents preferring only one out of the
canonical four. Of course the canonical four became canonical only a
relatively short time previous to Irenaeus' time.

To be sure, in the following Irenaeus attempts to turn these special
preferences of the heretics against them, by saying that in each case the
gospel that they use also provides the best material for their own
refutation -- a somewhat tendentious argument, it seems.

"For the Ebionites, who use Matthew's Gospel only, are confuted out of
this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But
Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer
of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains.
Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ
remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the
Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their
errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious
use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be
proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have
shown in the first book." (Book 3, 11, 7)

To be noted above is a clear association of the Gospel of Mark in
Irenaeus' mind with one specific brand of heresy. It seems to be the
Adoptionist heresy, about which I have quite a lot of material 
here on my webpage. The dissidents associated with Mk try to 
"separate Jesus from Christ". I will return to this later on.

This Adoptionism seems to have been the earliest and the most original
post-Easter Christian faith.

Not only different groups had special preferences for certain gospels, but
there were also clear cases of groups rejecting certain gospels out of
hand. Besides Marcion, I already mentioned the Alogi of the mid-second
century rejecting Jn, for example. Also a separate group of the followers
of Gaius, who was active at the turn of the second c. -- early third c.,
rejected Jn. And also, note above the Ebionites rejecting all the other
gospels except Mt.

But one important aspect of this struggle over the gospels is often
disregarded in contemporary scholarship. This is the rivalry between the
Johannine and the Synoptic factions at the early stage of canon creation.
(The above refusal of some groups to accept certain gospels, such as Alogi
rejecting Jn, may have also been connected with this rivalry.) And the
writings of Irenaeus provide some important although often neglected
evidence in this area. Also Papias can be cited in this connection.


According to respected French biblical scholar Alfred Loisy, there were
two big proto-orthodox factions at the time of Papias and Irenaeus. One
was pro-Synoptic, and the other pro-Jn. There was apparently considerable
rivalry between them. The exact degree of tension between these two groups
is not entirely clear, but tension there clearly was.

In Loisy's view, both Irenaeus and Papias belonged to pro-Jn faction, and
strongly supported the canonisation of Jn that was still disputed by some
in their time.

In general, one must say that Loisy doesn't put too much historical value
on Papias' testimony in regards to gospel composition and authorship, and
explains why. He thinks the historical value of Papias' testimony is
primarily in that he seems to be somewhat dismissive of the Synoptics. And
the same applies to Irenaeus.

Let's look at Papias first. What may have been the exact meaning of
Papias, our earliest historical commentator, when he made his famous
rather cryptic remarks about the gospels' composition? His testimony
presents us with a well known crux, and there often seem to be as many
interpretations of Papias' words as there are interpreters.

The following is based on Alfred Loisy, THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
(Collier, 1962, pp. 65ff.). Loisy argued that Papias wrote about the year
140. (p. 81) He also considered that the wide publication of Jn was about
the years 130-135.

Loisy has a rather detailed theory about what Papias may have meant by his
somewhat obscure comments. According to him, Papias' comments may be
clarified by the hypothesis that Papias was a strong backer of the Fourth
Gospel that was being added up to the canon at that time. And because of
this, he was somewhat dismissive of the Synoptics.

From what I understand, among the Patristic scholars it is widely accepted
that Papias was a strong champion of Jn. There even was a tradition that
Papias may have authored Jn, or contributed to its composition.

So how much evidence exists for the theory that Papias, in favouring Jn,
also wished to express some reservations about the theology of the two
Synoptic gospels, Mk and Mt? (Of course Papias does not mention Lk, and
this, in itself, can be seen as evidence for its relative lateness.) The
evidence is not entirely unambiguous, but seems quite persuasive overall.
In order to build his case, Loisy analyses in detail what Papias said
about the Apostle John, and the Elders whom he questioned in person in
order to ascertain the circumstances of gospels' composition. And Loisy's
case is strengthened further by a comparison with the testimony of

It seems clear that, by the time when Papias was writing, Mk and Mt were
already the older and more established gospels that had been in use in
various Christian communities for a quite a while. But the introduction of
Jn to the Greater Church was still relatively recent. So Papias was
probably trying to commend Jn as in some ways a superior and "more
spiritual"  gospel for use by Christian communities. This advocacy of Jn
could have been the reason why Papias may have been somewhat dismissive of
the earlier Synoptics, according to Loisy. Papias, wanted to put "a
measure of disqualification on two Gospels [Mt and Mk]", hereto widely
accepted in the movement, while commending the newly reedited Jn to the
flock. (p. 76) I will come back to Papias' testimony later.

What is very interesting in Loisy's analysis is that he tends to connect
the testimony of Papias in this regard with that of Irenaeus (in AGAINST
HERESIES, 2, 22, 3ff). The reasons why both Papias and Irenaeus may have
been mistrustful of the Synoptics may become clear from a careful analysis
of these passages in Irenaeus.

It's the Synoptic chronology that seemed to have been the big problem. In
these passages, Irenaeus discusses the chronology of the life of Jesus as
found in the Synoptics, and casts some doubt on the idea that the duration
of the earthly ministry of Jesus was only one year. In contrast, Irenaeus
prefers to this chronology that of Jn (implying a longer ministry), which
he believes to be more reliable historically and theologically.

So in AGAINST HERESIES, Book 2, Ch, 20, and following, Irenaeus is arguing
quite strongly against the Synoptic gospels' chronology which was the
troublesome aspect of the Synoptics, as he saw it. John's gospel, on the
other hand, has ca. 3 1/2 years ministry which seemed far superior to him.

"Their explanation, therefore, both of the year and of the twelfth month
has been proved false, and they ought to reject either their explanation
or the Gospel; otherwise [this unanswerable question forces itself upon
them], How is it possible that the Lord preached for one year only?" (Book
2, 22, 3)

So what is the problem with a one-year chronology, one may ask? Most
commentators today wouldn't see this as much of a problem. But for
Irenaeus this was clearly a problem. And it was so because, according to
him, some misguided heretics -- with a strong Gnostic flavour! -- were
using this chronology for their own purposes. One may assume that they
were connecting the worship of Jesus with the Zodiac, Astrology, with the
changing seasons of Nature, and perhaps even with the seasonal rituals of
the pagans. Uncomfortable parallels with the annual sacrifice of the
Sacred King Osiris/Dionysus/Attis/Adonis? This was what probably troubled
the good Father of the Church the most...

And, further, there was this strange gnosticizing link between the 12
Apostles and the 12 months of the year, Judas being the last, the fateful
month. Irenaeus certainly showed a lot of fervour in combatting that
particular "heretical teaching". All this was apparently happening in the
Markan community especially.

"They endeavour, for instance, to demonstrate that passion which, they
say, happened in the case of the twelfth Aeon, from this fact, that the
passion of the Saviour was brought about by the twelfth apostle, and
happened in the twelfth month. ... how is it possible that Judas can be
compared [with this Aeon]? ... Judas, then, the twelfth in order of the
disciples, was not a type of the suffering Aeon." (Book 2, 20ff)

"They, however, that they may establish their false opinion regarding that
which is written, "to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord," maintain
that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth
month. [In speaking thus], they are forgetful to their own disadvantage,
destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more
necessary and more honourable than any other; that more advanced age, I
mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others. For how could
He have had disciples, if He did not teach? And how could He have taught,
unless He had reached the age of a Master?" (Book 2, 22, 5)

Also, as is evident from the above, it was Irenaeus' theory that Jesus was
about 50 when crucified -- the theory that made Irenaeus himself somewhat
suspect for the later orthodox commentators.


Let's now come back and take a look at the testimony of Papias, and try to
see it in light of the insights gained from Irenaeus. (I've already posted
some of this material to Synoptic-L previously).

Loisy writes this about Papias's testimony,

"...the two statements about Mark and Matthew run parallel, and aim,
together, at putting a measure of disqualification on two Gospels, widely
used by the churches, in comparison with another Gospel, doubtless
regarded by their author as superior to the other two." (p. 76)

Why would have Papias said that Peter gave and Mark recorded the sayings
"not in their right order"? Loisy asks somewhat ironically:

"Let us attend carefully to what this is meant to convey. Certainly it
does not mean that Peter, in his preaching, would sometimes place the
passion of the Christ before his baptism; what it is intended to convey,
and to convey nothing else, is that Peter's catechizing, reproduced by
Mark, does not give a correct picture of the Christ's career. And that is
why we are to think that Mark is not the best catechism for the initiation
of Christians; the true catechism, and the only true, is that of John."
(pp. 78-79)

Likewise with the statements about the early version of Mt having been
given in Hebrew/Aramaic, and perhaps translated imperfectly. This was
probably meant primarily to cast some doubt on Mt.

And what about the implication in Papias that Peter needed a translator?
Did he really need someone named Mark to translate into Greek for him? It
is hard to believe that Peter, if indeed he had ever been in Rome, would
have been incapable of speaking Greek by that presumably later time in his
preaching career.

[end of part 1]

(Copyright by Yuri Kuchinsky)
Yuri Kuchinsky || Toronto
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