In the first post in this series on how the Bible has been interpreted throughout history, we saw that the writers of the New Testament used the language and stories of their Scriptures in order to make sense of what they had experienced in their encounter with Jesus. This meant that, in turn, they read the Scriptures through ‘Christ-coloured glasses’, with everything pointing to Jesus and his teachings. Today, I’d like to explore how the subsequent generations of Christians followed this trajectory, but also developed it in light of the transition from the Apostolic to the post-Apostolic age.
The first thing that sets second-century Christianity apart from the first- is the gradual development of the New Testament itself as Holy Scripture. From the earliest days, apostolic letters were copied and shared among the local churches, and by the middle of the second century at the latest, the practice of reading Sayings of Jesus and stories recorded from the apostles had begun to solidify into something resembling the reading of the Gospels. But the status of these writings as compared to what became known as the ‘Old Testament’ was in flux through the century. A letter known as 1 Clement (ca. 95) refers to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, but more as contemporary witnesses rather than as authorities (47.1-3). Ignatius (ca. 101) showed familiarity with the stories of the Gospels and language of the Epistles, but does seem to understand them as ‘Scripture’; for example, he does not introduce allusions to these traditions with formulas such as “as it is written,” as he does for his rare references to the Old Testament. By the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr mentions the liturgical reading of “memoirs of the Apostles,” which refers, if not to the four canonical Gospels themselves, at least to early written traditions that eventually coalesced into them. ‘Sayings of the Lord’ were popular sources of teaching through the second century, but these seem to be more or less independent of any specific texts: they are perhaps better thought of as independent witnesses of a shared oral tradition of teachings of Jesus, rather than as being dependent on the Gospels.* And, well-respected books quoted Sayings of the Lord that are not recorded in any of our canonical Gospels. 2 Clement (ca. 100-130), for example, which was included as part of the New Testament in one of our oldest existing Christian Bibles, cites material that has only been found in the Gospels of Thomas and the Nazaraeans respectively; so either these Gospels were ‘authoritative’ for the writer of 2 Clement or all of these texts were dependent on the same earlier sources.
In time, these apostolic writings circulating among the churches became considered to be a ‘new’ witness, or ‘testament’, to God’s acts in and for the world to go alongside the Jewish Scriptures. This process was largely informal and happened without a lot of fanfare. By the 170s, Irenaeus of Lyons advocated a New Testament that looked a lot like our own, including the four canonical Gospels (and only those four), Acts, and the Pauline letters. While this ‘core’ of the New Testament was never really disputed, at least among the ‘orthodox’, it took a couple hundred years for consensus to emerge around books such as Hebrews, the letters attributed to James, Peter, and John, and especially Revelation. (The consensus on Revelation was late enough that it actually post-dates the development of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s lectionary!) Additionally, as I mentioned in passing above, some of our oldest existing Christian Bibles include texts that did not ultimately make it into the biblical canon, such as the letters of Clement and Barnabas, and the (wild) apocalyptic text known as Shepherd of Hermas. Thus, while a consensus around the New Testament did eventually emerge, it took a long time to happen and was not really a major concern for the early Church. While some heretical groups were known to use other texts or limit themselves to a single Gospel, there were no major controversies, heresies, or schisms that centered on the canon of Scripture itself.
While the idea of a New Testament canon didn’t get settled until long after the second century, I began this post by thinking about it because the simultaneous emergence of the New Testament as ‘Holy Scripture’ and the general lack of controversy about what should be in it, demonstrates the most important point about second-century Christianity and the way it understood the Bible. The Bible, whether the ‘Old Testament’ or the apostolic writings, was not conceived of as something apart from the traditions the Church had received from the Apostles. The apostolic writings were simply now one of two primary media through which the Jesus traditions were accessible. If the primary interpretive criterion for the New Testament writers was their first- or second-hand experience of Jesus, for the next generations, it was this apostolic witness that became that criterion. Thus we have the emergence of ‘The Rule of Faith’ as the guiding hermeneutical and theological principle for the Church. This ‘Rule’ was not the Bible, but neither was it conceived of as an authority separate from the Bible. The apostolic teachings (’tradition’) and the apostolic writings (eventually, the ’New Testament’) were understood to be the same inheritance: one in the form of the teaching of the Bishops, who at the start of this period were the direct successors to the Apostles. So you have the Bishops and the Scriptures as two witnesses to the same story. This unity is hidden a bit in English, since we use the Greek word ‘canon’ to refer to the authoritative books of the Bible, but the Latin-derived ‘rule’ to refer to the Rule of Faith. But it’s the same word, a metaphor from the skilled trades of a straight-edge or plumb-line that ensures a building or craft is not off-kilter.
Let’s now look at how this idea developed throughout this period of history and how it impacted the reading of Scripture. We’ll start with Ignatius of Antioch, who, at the turn of the second century, was extreme in his strong preference for the Apostolic teachings over the Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament): In a letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius went so far as to disparage those who demanded Scriptural evidence to support the Gospel:
I have heard some saying ‘If I do not find it in the ancient texts, I do not believe that it is in the gospel.’ … But for me the ‘ancient texts’ are Jesus Christ, and the inviolable ‘ancient texts’ are his cross, death, and resurrection and faith through him … (Philad. 8.2).
For Ignatius, it is the apostolic teachings about Jesus, accessible through the traditions of the Bishops, that are the real authority.
1 Clement, by contrast, is more representative of this transitional period. It understands the Scriptures primarily as a symbolic witness to the coming revelation in Christ. For example, the crimson cord Rahab is told to hang in her window to spare her from the Hebrew attack (Joshua 2) is called “a sign” that makes it “clear that through the blood of the Lord redemption would come to all who believe and hope in God” (12.7). Similarly, the widely circulated Epistle of Barnabas interprets the “tree planted by streams of water” from Psalm 1.3 as a reference both to the cross and to baptism (11.6-8). Such ‘signs’, or ‘testimonies’ or ‘types’, became a common theme in second-century Christian writing, especially in the writings of the ‘Apologists’, who wrote to defend Christianity against the intellectual attacks made by Jewish and Greek thinkers.
The Apologists, most famously Justin Martyr, represented the first major shift in Christian writing. For the first time, Christians were writing not to instruct the faithful or exhort them towards certain behaviours, but in order to self-consciously reflect on their faith and explain it for an outside — often hostile — audience. This had a huge consequence for how they read the Bible: Whereas until now the focus of the christocentric readings of Jewish Scriptures was to articulate, inform, and enrich Christian teaching about Jesus, now they became prophecies and proof-texts to justify Christian teaching to those outside the Church. Justin and the other Apologists had three sets of opponents: First, the Jewish community that saw Christianity as a dangerous heresy dividing their community; second, heretical Christian groups, such as the Marcionites, who insisted that the revelation of Jesus was entirely new and rejected any association with the Old Testament and its God; and third, the followers of contemporary philosophies who had no interest in either Judaism or Christianity. Their general aim, then, was to demonstrate that Christianity was philosophically coherent (to counter philosophical opposition) and a logical fulfillment of the ancient Jewish Scriptures (to counter both Jewish opponents and anti-Jewish Christian schismatics).
To do this, Justin explained that the same Word of God present with God at creation (an idea that will be expressed canonically in John 1) became incarnate in Jesus, and so Jesus brings to light new, and better, meanings to ancient Scriptures than what could be known outside of Christ (see Dialog with Trypho 40.1, 41.4, 55, 75.113). Thus, while the events of the Bible — the Passover, the commandments, and so on — had their own validity, on a higher level, they were always about Christ.
This approach to the Old Testament became more formalized towards the end of the century, in the writings of figures such as Melito of Sardis (d. ca. 180) and Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 202). According to Melito, the oracles and events recorded in the Scriptures “amount to nothing apart from similitude [or, ‘parable’] and pattern. Everything that happens or is spoken participates in illustrative value — what is spoken in similitude, what has happened in prefiguration.” The Scriptures are, then “a model” (like a blueprint, wax figure, or mold) for the true work that was manifested in Jesus (Peri Pascha fragments 34-38).
All of these ideas come together in Irenaeus. He, and the rest of patristic Christianity following him, champions the notion of the Christian Bible, composed of two Testaments that provide a single teaching, the ‘New’ being the full manifestation of the prefiguration of the Old. The principle governing the interpretation of both is the Rule of Faith — the ‘Christianity 101’ handed down to the Church by the Apostles to the Bishops — which provides the ‘hypothesis’ that unites the Scriptures and prevents the growth of false teaching.
If we place this position that emerged through the second century within the four quadrants of Integral theory, we see a movement here away from the upper left quadrant and an almost exclusive reliance on the lower left quadrant of tradition and collective experience. The authority of these traditions were bolstered by recourse to the lower right quadrant of systems and structures: Here we see the establishment of the office of Bishops as a structural mechanism to ensure the tradition was being passed down accurately. (Of course, the degree to which this mechanism succeeded was an open one, and one that would fuel the Reformation a fourteen-hundred years later!)
We see this movement in the historical record as well: The Montanists, for example, were a group of second-century Christians in what is now Turkey, who maintained a significant role for prophecy and direct revelation; they were soundly rejected by the Church at large on the grounds that these new prophecies undermined the shared faith received from the apostles and maintained in the Rule.
So then, what does the development of second-century Biblical interpretation have to offer us today?
Aside from the wonderful gift that is having the New Testament as Scripture, I think the biggest positive lesson we can take from the second century is that we don’t interpret Scripture in a vacuum. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a community of faith and interpret the Bible within it. We can, should, and inevitably will read the Bible in our own way as the text interacts with our lives, but this is never apart from the community. A simple Rule of Faith can be a helpful way of setting boundaries for how we read Scripture. But, as much as this is true, it also leaves us with important questions: What all gets included in this Rule of Faith? Who determines it? And on what grounds do we accept it? This was easy for the second-century context, when the Apostles’ teachings were still in recent memory, but what about for those who came later? And, just how far are we willing to play with a text’s meaning in order to conform it to the Rule of Faith? These questions are themselves an important part of the legacy this period imparted to those who followed. The second century also failed to resolve the questions the first century raised with respect to whether our Christocentric readings of the Scriptures ‘evacuate’ the original meaning of ancient texts. If anything, the second century exacerbated the problem, with a significant strand of apologetic writing outright saying that Jewish interpretations of their own Scriptures were meaningless. Arguments that were healthy when the question of the relationship between Jesus and the Scriptures was a debate within Judaism took on a very different — and often ugly — character once Christianity and Judaism parted ways. Can we find ways of affirming both the original meaning of a text and a Christocentric one? Do we even want to?
In the next post, we’ll look at the second century inheritance and the questions it raised from the perspectives of two different schools of interpretation that developed later in the patristic period, centred around the cities of Alexandria, Egypt, and Antioch, Syria.