Second Century Gospel: Duane W. H. Arnold, PhD
“There are fundamental differences between a second-century user of a Gospel and a fourth- or fifth-century quotation in a Church Father: (1) For a later user, the Gospels of the New Testament were available as part of the four-Gospel canon; in the period before the year 200 CE, the Gospels were usually transmitted separately. (2) In the later period, the Gospels were considered holy scripture; no such respect was accorded them in the earliest period. (3) Beginning only with the third century can we assign quotations to certain text types, attested in extant manuscripts, and often confirmed by translations into Syriac, Coptic and Latin; for the earlier period, we have no manuscript evidence at all, and text types can be identified only by the evidence that comes from those who used Gospels.”
Recently, after re-reading James Dunn’s book, ‘The Oral Gospel Tradition’ which increased my understanding of the first century, I turned my attention to the second century. Years ago, I had attended a seminar on ‘Gospel Traditions in the Second Century’ at the University of Notre Dame, chaired by William L. Petersen. Searching through my shelves, I found the published proceedings of the seminar and settled in to read on a rainy afternoon.
Coming across an opening quote from Helmut Koester (see above) I began to see the early generations of the Christian era in a different light. Taken together, Dunn and Petersen, became my guides to the transmission of the text of the Gospels through the first two centuries of the Christian era. One thing became very clear on this journey. The first several generations of Christians were not biblio-centric. That is, their access to actual texts or codices was very limited. This is evidenced by the close to complete absence of extant manuscripts or papyri and the limited number of direct quotes from the Gospels that are to be found in the works and letters of the Apostolic Fathers and other second century Christian writers. The words of Jesus that are most often referenced are those relating to the Eucharist and, to a lesser extent, baptism. From references to the “memoirs of the Apostles” in Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165) it seems as though separate Gospels or collections of the “sayings of Jesus” were in some limited circulation among the churches, but we are uncertain as to the extent of that circulation or, indeed, their exact content. (Even papyri from a later period are of interest as the earliest fragments are amateurish while the later fragments are “professional” indicating a greater appreciation of the texts reflected in the hiring of scribes.)
So, one might ask the following question, “Without an established four-Gospel canon, what was ‘the Gospel’ for these early generations of believers?”.
I would submit that “the Gospel” for them is exactly the same as “the Gospel” is for us. It consists, firstly, of the proposition that God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself and, secondly, in our response to that proposition evidenced in community and conduct. In the second century, baptism and the Eucharist are clearly the “markers” of a Christian community and are sanctioned by the words of Christ, whether those words came by oral tradition, by a catalog of the sayings of Jesus or by one of the nascent four Gospels. This is simply irrefutable from the writings of the era. The second aspect of Christian conduct is also irrefutable. Time and time again, early Christian writers point to the exemplary conduct of believers as part of the evidence of the truth of the Gospel. It was very much an argument along the lines of, “You don’t have to believe what we say, but you have to believe what you see us do…” The Gospel was, and is, embodied in Christian conduct.
One might now ask the next question, “What constituted Christian conduct in the second century?”. From the Letter to Diognetus, to the Apostolic Tradition, to Clement and the Didache, the answer is remarkably consistent and easy to understand. It is showing love to all, whether they are within the Church or without. It is caring for the poor, feeding the hungry and welcoming the immigrant. It is faithfulness in marriage. It is looking to the good of others before oneself. It is Matthew 25 and the Sermon on the Mount not merely read, or debated, but actually lived. It is well to remember that the observation “behold how they love one another” was not made by a Christian, but by a pagan.
“Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines. Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life. They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers. They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They share a common table, but not a common bed. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything. They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead…”
The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus
I sometimes believe that we have fallen so in love with words, both ours and others, that we have forgotten that the Gospel is more than letters on a page. It is the good news of God in Christ which is to be proclaimed and it is a life to be lived, both in the community of the Church and in the eyes of a watching world. Maybe the second century Christians had a better grasp of that truth. Even without reading it, they heard it and they lived it.