Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—John Meade

Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Madi Cannon and John Meade

Soon after the release of Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, we had the opportunity to ask John Meade, one of the authors of the book, a few questions about his contribution. This book aims to offer clarification and helpful information about manuscript data and how it influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.

John Meade is an associate professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary and Co-Director of the Text & Canon Institute. His research interests include textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, the canon of Scripture, biblical theology, Origen’s Hexapla, and the Septuagint. He recently was a co-author of the book The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis.

Meade writes a chapter called “Myths about Canon: What the Codex Can and Can’t Tell Us,” in which he challenges the misconception that there is a connection between the codex, a precursor to the modern book form, and the canon, which is the list of books accepted in the New Testament.

What made you interested in studying textual criticism and the biblical canon?

I’ve always had an interest in history and when people lived and how key events took place. When I became a Christian, I was immediately interested in the history that the Bible tells. But it wasn’t until later that I became fascinated in the history of the Book itself. My first exposure to the differences in the manuscripts occurred while reading the English Bible, since I paid attention to the italicized notes at the bottom of the page and learned there were variants. While reading the Gospel according to Mark as a new Christian, I first encountered the note “these verses do not appear in the earliest manuscripts,” and was not a little puzzled and perplexed. These readings began to kindle a search for the truth of how and when we got the Bible. In part, this pursuit took me to Bible college and seminary where I began to learn the biblical languages and textual criticism for exegesis. In these courses, I finally learned how to think about the text and its variants and eventually went on to edit the hexaplaric materials for Job 22–42 as part of my doctoral dissertation. The issue of the biblical canon chose me. For some reason, younger students began to ask me how our Bible has the books it does. The search for that answer took me from reading classic works of scholarship on the canon to the primary Jewish and Christian sources themselves. My interest in these topics continues to grow with every research and writing project on them.

Many people think there is a connection between the codex and the concept of canon. Why is it important to correct people’s misconceptions about a perceived relationship between codex and canon?

Well, you’re right that many people think there is a connection between the material codex and the conceptual canon. I also thought this connection existed at one time. But as one studies early Christian comments on the canon and what books they considered to be “in” and which books they considered to be “out,” I realized that we cannot simplistically conclude that “codex equals canon” or even speculate about how the codex may have contributed to the development of the canon. For example, the famous Codex Sinaiticus contains the traditional 27 books of our New Testament plus the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. Both of these works, especially the Shepherd, were important, early Christian works, but no church father who drafted a canon list ever included the book in it. But if the codex is thought to be a representation of the canon or to have a direct influence on the canonical shape of the New Testament, then one might conclude that at least the one who ordered the codex considered these two other books as part of the canon. The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that we have no explicit comment from the same time period that these extra books were in the canon, but we do have explicit comment that they were useful and were read by early Christians. In my chapter, I concluded that we should let the canon lists define the canon, and we should let the evidence of codices show us what books early Christians were reading.

You explain that canon lists provide the contents and boundaries of canonical Scripture. How can people benefit from understanding the process of canon formation and how canonical Scripture was defined?

Well, the challenge here for us is imagining that the Bible did not usually come with a list of its contents nor did it regularly include only all of the books of the New Testament. Furthermore, there were many other books that Christians were reading as I mentioned above, but they were not recognized as canon. Thus, the biblical canon did not fall out of heaven on a sheet. Divine providence guided ecclesiastical processes towards the recognition of the biblical canon. The Four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Letter collection were all well recognized from the second century. After a much longer time, the General Epistles came together in the fourth century (cf. Cyril of Jerusalem in 350 AD). Revelation was well received in the second century but then disputed in the third century only to become recognized as canonical in the Greek and Latin churches again in the fourth century. Therefore, the appearance of canon lists is the final phase of canon formation. When Athanasius, for example, sat down and listed all the books of the Old and New Testaments, he did not invent the canon but was the first to list all of the books of the traditional New Testament without dispute.

You mention that early Christians would place two types of Scripture in codices, but they were conceptually distinct. What are these two types of scripture and what do canon lists reveal about their use in the early church? How do we know they were conceptually distinct?

Since early Christians used graphe (usually translated “Scripture”) to designate writings in their lists and writings not in their lists and use the verb form gegraptai, “it has been written,” to cite passages from books in their lists and from books not in their lists, their conception of “Scripture” was wider than their conception of the canon. This observation is interesting, but we are not left to wonder about it too long. Several early Christians like Athanasius and Rufinus list the canonical books first, and then they list books like the Shepherd of Hermas in a secondary list of books only to be read and that were not considered of the same status as the canonical books. The books to be read, we might call “useful scripture,” while the former books were called “canonical scripture.” On the one hand, the canon lists reveal that early Christians had a firm canon upon which to establish authoritative doctrine, and on the other hand, the lists also show that they read other books like Clement’s Letters or the Shepherd of Hermas with great benefit but these books were not to be used to establish doctrine. Thus, once we understand their own biblical theory with its tiers of religious literature, we can then see why early Christians would not have a problem putting the two kinds of books together in the same codex as long as their conceptual distinctions between the two kinds of books were maintained.

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