April 1, 2014: John (Jack) Kelly
Department of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno
"Christian Origins: Then and Now"
Edmund J. Cain Hall, Room 108H
For most Christians the New Testament is the authoritative account of the origins of Christianity. The canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—provide narratives of Jesus’ public teachings and deeds, as well as his trial, execution, and resurrection. In Acts there is also a narrative of the founding of the Christian Church in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus, and of the apostle Paul’s proclamation of the “good news” to the gentiles in the larger Greco-Roman world. Traditionally, Christians have been taught to read the New Testament as containing a single unambiguous proclamation revealed by God through Christ and his apostles.
However, the formation of the New Testament canon has a history. The canonical gospels were not identified as such until near the end of the second century C.E., and it was not until the fourth century that the present collection of New Testament writings were recognized as canonical. Nonetheless, there were still disagreements as late as the Protestant Reformation about whether certain texts, such as Hebrews, belonged in the New Testament. The notion of a normative canon of texts also requires a broadly based consensus as to how those texts are to be read. Hence, it is no accident that the history of the formation of the New Testament canon was also a time of intense disagreements about heresy and orthodoxy in the Christian community.
In my talk I want to discuss the period between the death of Jesus—around 30 C.E.—when there was no New Testament, and the early fourth century when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, became a patron of Christianity making it an established institutional presence within the Roman Empire. By then the issue of which texts belong in the New Testament was largely settled, and the Council of Nicaea had begun the process of articulating the theological principles of Christian orthodoxy. I shall focus on the ways in which the historical development of the New Testament canon is intertwined with the process by which the followers of Jesus came to understand themselves as members of a religious movement that was both distinct from and yet ambiguously connected to, Judaism. I want to conclude, in a more speculative mood, by discussing the possible parallels between this earlier era and our present situation in the Western world that has been characterized as secular or post-Christian.