Date: Sun, 1 Nov 1998 16:51:38 -0500 (EST)
From: Yuri Kuchinsky 
To: Synoptic-L
Subject: Re: Canonical Rivalries


by Yuri Kuchinsky

Part 2


Loisy stresses that the earliest gospels were most likely anonymous
writings. In its own community, I believe, each one was probably known
simply as "The Gospel", or "The Gospel of Jesus". Any given
community would have had one special gospel, its own, so there would have
been no real need to distinguish them by name from other gospels. The
names of the authors our canonical gospels bear now seem to have been
attached to them later. This happened much after the period when they were
first composed -- and for reasons not necessarily always so apparent to

It is generally believed that it was early in the 2nd c., but probably
not much earlier, that there was a strong tendency to privilege
Christian writings on the basis of their apostolic authority. To be sure,
it is probable that, previous to that, while still belonging to particular
communities, "correct Christian teachings" were generally associated with
traditions going back to the disciples, or perhaps a particular disciple,
of Jesus. But this attribution may have been passed naturally by word of

The names the gospels bear now may certainly seem rather arbitrary to us,
and this apparent arbitrariness of the current names, Matthew, Mark, Luke
and John, seems like an argument for the gospels not being named until
rather late along the time line. Otherwise, why only a secondary link,
through an "interpreter", with Peter in the case of Mk? Why such a rather
vague link with an apostle in the case of Mt? The naming of Jn is of
course a big conundrum in itself. Which John would have written it? And
Lk's link with Paul is sort of special, in itself, taking us away from the
"original Apostles" that followed Jesus in Galilee.

So if we accept that the earliest versions of the gospels probably did not
carry the present names of their authors, unreliability of Irenaeus' or
Papias' testimony in this area will become clear. Papias' implication that
these gospels were named and attributed to specific apostles right from
the beginning may betray his own lack of comprehension of this earliest
history of the gospels.

Loisy says that probably neither Papias nor Irenaeus would have been
really aware of how and in what circumstances these early Christian
documents were originally composed. We may actually have a little more
understanding of that process today, however presumptuous this may sound.


Important evidence about that old rivalry between the Johannine and the
Synoptic factions may also be found in the three canonical letters
attributed to John. So let's look at them now.

Scholars generally believe that the Johannine epistles are closely related
to the gospel of John in a number of ways, and would make little sense
without it. Theological similarities between Jn and the Johannine epistles
are quite evident. Indeed the opening of 1 Jn is apparently a pale
imitation of the Logos Prologue of Jn.

Many commentators think that the letters of John seem to reflect internal
conflict within the early Christian communities. It has been argued that
these epistles reflect the conflict between the wandering radical element
of the early Church and some of the settled congregations. According to
this view, as Churches began to grow, their own local leadership began to
resent the influence of the itinerants. (Stephen Patterson has been cited
in support of this view on Crosstalk-L. Raymond Brown, in his _The
Community of the Beloved Disciple_, 1979, also considers that the
Johannine epistles reflect a dispute in the Early Christian community,
involving some sort of a schism.)

This seems to make sense on the whole. But the question becomes, who
exactly were the settled leaders, and who were the travelling preachers?
Can we guess about their theological affiliations? Alfred Loisy thinks we

And what about the date of composition of the Johannine literature?
Various dates have been suggested, e.g. 100-110, but reasons for such an
early dating are rather tenuous.

Dating will be complicated by the indications, noted by a number of
commentators, that 1 Jn actually seems like a composite text with a number
of editorial layers. Many scholars, such as Grayston, Houlden, and O'Neill
have concluded that the epistle is not a unity.

1 John is a highly polemical document, of course. Its intention is to
counter various opponents who are labelled liars, deniers and Antichrists.
In 4:1f it describes true and false Spirits claimed by different Christian
factions. Those agreeing with the author are "from God", and those of
differing views are false.

Loisy suggested that these epistles should be dated to mid second c. And
also he connected some of the conflicts that can be glimpsed in them with
the opposition between our two political factions, the Johannine and the
Synoptic, that we have been considering above.

According to Loisy, the gospel and the epistles of John should be seen
together as a unity. And he says that the interpretation and dating of the
three Johannine epistles can be tied in closely with the process of
introduction of Jn to the wide Christian public.

So the settled local leadership referred to in the epistles, as mentioned
above, would have been the Synoptic supporters who would have been quite
well established, this being the older tradition. And the Johannine
supporters would have been the up-and-coming group striving for
legitimacy. This, according to Loisy, was the larger rivalry as Jn was
being introduced to the Greater Church.

Here's a quote from Loisy, THE ORIGINS OF THE NT, p. 397:

"The Epistles called after John contain religious and moral doctrine
co-ordinated to that of the Fourth Gospel, denunciation of certain gnostic
heresies, and highly forced reasons for accepting the testimony supposed
to guarantee the apostolic character of those doctrines and of the
writings that contain them. The two short Epistles, and the canonical
edition of the first go back to the neighbourhood of 150-160, and the
first version of the first Epistle to 135-140."

Loisy saw 3 Jn as primarily directed against those leaders of the
community who opposed the Johannine writings. The established
Synoptic-oriented leaders are opposing the travelling preachers, the
supporters of Jn, who were "the new kids on the block".

But we also need to keep in mind that the opponents in view in the three
letters -- which, of course, are not really letters per se, but rather
theological treatises -- do not seem to be just one group of opponents but
two, according to Loisy.
The "heretical teachers" of 1 Jn 2:18-22 are clearly not the same group as
in 1 Jn 4:1-3. The latter are most likely docetic opponents. They deny
that Jesus "came in the flesh", i.e. they maintain that he only _seemed_
(dokeo) to come in the flesh (hence the term Docetist).

"(1 John, 4:1) But do not trust any and every spirit, my friends; test the
spirits, to see whether they are from God, for among those who have gone
out into the world there are many prophets falsely inspired. (4:2) This is
how we may recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit which acknowledges
(confesses) that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, (4:3) and
every spirit which does not thus acknowledge Jesus is not from God ..."

And the docetists are also the opponents of 2 Jn.

But the group of 1 Jn 2:18-22 is interpreted by Loisy as the
Synoptic-oriented opponents of the Johannine theology (the same opponents
as in 3 Jn).

Let's look at these verses. The author of the epistle is trying to console
his co-thinkers who seem to be under pressure from their opponents. And
these opponents were part of the earlier Christian community -- they are
certainly not some sort of newcomers to the movement.

"(2:19) They went out from us, but they were not of us; ... (20) But you
have been anointed by the Holy One, and you have all knowledge. ... (22)
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the
antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son."

First, it is clear from the above that the opponents of the writer are
well established Christians who are still part of the larger Christian
community. But also the denying that "Jesus is the Christ" (hoti Iesous
ouk estin ho Christos) is highly indicative. This seems to identify the
writer's opponents as Adoptionists. Because it was the Adoptionists 
(M. Goulder calls them Possessionists) who resisted identifying Jesus
with Christ. (Goulder, M.D., ST. PAUL VERSUS ST. PETER: A TALE OF TWO
MISSIONS, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995.)

 My review is here. 

Let us recall that Irenaeus also confirms for us, as quoted
already, that Adoptionist-sounding heretics associated with Mk were
trying to "separate Jesus from Christ". 

According to Goulder, from the point of view of Christology, the
Adoptionist/Possessionist view was that Jesus was fully human, but was
possessed by Christ, who was a sort of an angel,

"The Jewish Christian (Ebionite) movement denied vigorously that _Christ
Jesus was revealed in flesh_: they thought that Jesus was a man of flesh
like us, and Christ possessed him." (Goulder, p. 120)

So, as Goulder maintains, the joint title, Christ-Jesus, aiming to stress
the unity of the spiritual and the fleshly aspects of Jesus, was
introduced primarily as a polemical weapon against the Adoptionists.

"Jesus is referred to about 130 times in Ignatius, and of these 120 are in
the form Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. The Pastorals have Christ alone
once only and the double name (in either order) 30 times. This at once
suggests that both authors are facing the same threat, a christology which
separates Christ from Jesus, and they are alike insisting on his unity by
constantly combining the two names. There's no question that the
opposition which the Pastorals are attacking are Jewish Christians..."
(Goulder, p. 118)

Loisy, for his own part, suggests that the authors and the dates of these
two denunciations, anti-docetic in Ch 2, and anti-Adoptionist in Ch 4, are
different, the docetists coming in view at a later stage (and most likely
to be connected with the rise of Marcionism).


So what may all this amount to? This analysis may cast doubt on the rather
simplistic view of the four canonical Gospels as the mutually harmonious
and unshakable foundation of all orthodoxy that somehow fell from the sky
to confound all the heretics. Not quite. The heretics were not all on the
outside, and the orthodox not all inside.

Right from the start, or so it seems, some of the heretics were already on
the inside of the earliest canonical gospels, especially of Mk. "Heresy"
may have been the earliest and the most authentic Christian tradition,
from which the "orthodoxy" eventually emerged after some considerable and
prolonged struggle. That's how the evidence looks to this commentator.

In any case, one doesn't even need to factor in any of this analysis to
see the validity of the above. Simply consider the earliest Jewish
Christianity. Is there any doubt that the followers of James, the early
Jerusalem Church, the Ebionites/Adoptionists/Possessionists who were
probably Gnostics of some sort, as Goulder also accepts, later became
completely "heretical" in the eyes of the later orthodoxy?

We can know very little for sure about their traditional texts and
liturgies, if indeed they had anything especially peculiar to themselves
(I assume they did). They were probably not using any gospel outside of
the OT, although Mk, that in its earliest form (as pMk) was our earliest
gospel (pace Griesbach), was probably strongly influenced by them one way
or another. But pMk was probably not written by them, it was a Greek
gospel from the start. (In my view, pMk grew out eventually out of the
liturgies of Jewish-Christian Adoptionists. The origin and the basis of
pMk would have been liturgical.)

The Hebrew Mt that the Jewish Christians used in post Jewish War times
seemed to have been most likely a translation/adaptation of the Greek Mt
-- not an original document.

In spite of their evident numerous mutual contradictions and
inconsistencies, the four gospels were seen traditionally as the "Four
Great Pillars of Orthodox Strength". But a close reading of Irenaeus and
Papias may cast doubt on this view. Instead, the true story of canon
creation, with all the bitter rivalries and polemics that it involved, may
be somewhat different.

In my view, we have to examine closely this story behind the story if we
wish to understand fully the interrelationships of the canonical gospels,
and the relationships of the Synoptics with the Fourth Gospel. It is
essential for the students of earliest Christianity to try to see in a
realistic light the historical conflicts that resulted in the canonical
gospels becoming what they are. It is not logical to focus on close
technical analysis of Synoptic texts without trying to understand how
these texts were shaped by the historical events surrounding their
composition and editing.

(copyright by Yuri Kuchinsky)


Loisy, Alfred, THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Collier, 1962

Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995.

Grayston, Kenneth, _The Johannine Epistles_, Eerdmans, 1984.

Houlden, J. L. (James Leslie), _A commentary on the Johannine epistles._, A.
& C. Black, 1994.          

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