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Why did people support some books being in their canon, and not others?

There was a complicated set of reasons on each side of each argument, but I think it's fair to distill things a bit in this way:

Among gospels, the chief issues were about how Jesus' importance was presented and how much of Jesus' heritage from Hebrew scripture was preserved in the document in question. Many of the documents that were rejected, like the Gospel of Thomas, present Jesus' importance mostly or solely as a teacher of wisdom. Indeed, the Gospel of Thomas is almost entirely a collection of sayings; none of Jesus' acts, like his healings or his practices of table fellowship, are mentioned, nor is Jesus' crucifixion or resurrection. Christians had reached wide consensus, though, that what Jesus DID was at least as important as what Jesus SAID. In particular, there was wide consensus among Christian teachers that no gospel could be complete if it said nothing about Jesus' reaching out to the poor and the marginalized, his gathering people -- even people with physical conditions that rendered them "unclean" -- into community, and his consistent embrace of nonviolence and humble service over vengeance and competition for honor, even to the point of going without resistance to a Roman cross, and the way that the God of Israel vindicated all that Jesus had done by raising him from the dead. If you take a look at the gospels that in the long run didn't "make the cut" -- and you can read a good translation of all of them in a paperback edited by Robert Miller called The Complete Gospels -- I think you'll find that there's no gospel in the canon that fails to include these points, and no gospel outside the canon that includes them all.

While letters and books on the apostles' ministries tend treat Jesus' life more implicitly, I think you'll find that this same criterion -- "christology," the view of Jesus' importance -- explains a lot for letters too. But other factors that weren't so heavily considered for the gospels played a larger role for the letters and collections of acts. In particular, I'd say that a big criterion was how the document portrays what people are called to do in response to God's invitation, and how consistent the document's view is with views in books that Jesus called "scripture." In particular, it was central in all Jewish tradition that God's call was for people to form a community that lived in particular ways, and Jesus held to the tradition of books like Isaiah that God is particularly concerned with the poor and the outcast. And an important starting point for Jewish theology is that the supreme being of the universe made the world and said that it was good -- otherwise, why would God care so much what happened to people on the physical plane? Some books that never made it in most canons, like the "Acts of Paul and Thecla," bought almost wholly into traditions from Greek philosophy that said that physicality, and especially sexuality, are bad, or are distractions from what is spiritual. Many books that didn't make the canonical cut were rejected because they saw following Jesus solely as an interior choice and a recognition of truth rather than as also being a new way of relating to other people as Jesus did. Other fail on questions of christology, of Jesus' importance, like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which uses scenes from Jesus' childhood to argue that Jesus' importance was almost entirely in terms of his power, as the boy Jesus turns the mud sculptures of sparrows he was making into real birds that fly away when he gets in trouble for making them on the sabbath, and he kills and then raises from the dead a playmate.

03:58 PM | Permalink


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