How a Letter Becomes a Scripture

How a Letter Becomes a Scripture August 11, 2015

How an epistle becomes a Scripture

Having finished a study of 1 Corinthians, my Sunday school class proposed as its next topic to focus on the question of how works like Paul’s letters ended up as Scripture – what the process is, and also how it changes the way we read them.

Someone said it reminded them of the Schoolhouse Rock treatment of “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” And so I made the image above. It would be interesting to give the entire process a cartoon treatment.

This discussion follows naturally from one we had just a couple of weeks earlier, when we read Paul’s analogy between the planting of a seed and the resurrection body. One member of my class asked, “How does Paul know this?” – is it something he believed had been revealed to him, or something that he was figuring out for himself? I would say definitely the latter, since the only place that Paul writes of his own words as bearing the Lord’s authority (other than when he directly cites the Lord’s teaching) is in 1 Corinthians 14:37. And there Paul seems to be engaging in a rhetorical strategy: the Corinthian prophets had only become Christians and experienced the Spirit as a result of Paul’s proclamation and their acceptance of his teachings. And so for them to challenge Paul’s trustworthiness would call their own experiences into question.

When my class eventually turned its attention to this topic, I gave them a discussion topic I typically use in my classes at Butler University. I asked them to imagine that a new letter of Paul’s had been discovered, and to discuss whether it ought to be added to the New Testament.

Inevitably such discussions cover the same ground that the ancient church did, such as matters of authenticity, apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy. But this time, there were some additional interesting twists – such as the question of how the canon – and the church – might have been different if more women authors had been included, and more women’s voices had been considered in the assembly of the canon.

I also mentioned an idea I had for a canon-making card-game (yes, inspired by Gen Con). It could have cards representing books which you and your community use. You need to make the case for their inclusion. Other players have different cards. You need to try to get as many of the texts represented by the cards in your own hand into the canon. Some cards will be very common, some will be rare. You can simply discard a card and draw another two – whether because you have a duplicate and that will cost you points at the end, or because you have one that you cannot persuade others to embrace. But there is no guarantee that the new cards you draw will be better.

You then use information on the cards – and online research as well, perhaps? – to try to argue for your canon, forging allegiances with others, but also hoping that in the end your hand of cards will be match the final canon list more closely than anyone else’s.

I could see a game like this helping to convey the extent to which politics, compromise, and consensus-building were major factors in the development of the canon.

Any thoughts on my idea to develop a game to help teaching about the canon – not its final contents, but the processes that led to canons taking the shapes they did?

Of related interest, see why Zack Hunt wishes that the Bible had never been written…down.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I would love to see this game. It would be awesome for Sunday School classes as well – a very accessible way to get a handle on canonics.

    • Knowing me, I may well produce a set of cards that can be printed off. Watch the blog to see if I do, and if I don’t, feel free to prompt/encourage me to do so! 🙂

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I might also make up a set of random event cards (“Scholars determine the Book of Jebedash is a forgery”). And maybe a Marcionite Expansion Set.

  • Gary

    “since the only place that Paul writes of his own words as bearing the Lord’s authority (other than when he directly cites the Lord’s teaching) is in 1 Corinthians 14:37.”

    I would like to see a role playing game, were a scribe named Donaldus Trumpus in 100AD had a bad argument with his wife the night before. The next day, he just happened to be transcribing 1 Cor 14:37, and thought, “what a convenient place to put a footnote. Who’s going to notice?” Thus the added:

    “34let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. 35And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. 36Wherever?”

    • Cynthia Brown Christ

      way cool idea!!! of course which can be expanded on a whole bunch of topics!!!!

      • Gary

        I should say, not my idea. “Misquoting Jesus”, Bart Ehrman…
        “No one doubts, however, that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. But there are doubts about this passage. For as it turns out, the verses in question (vv. 34­-35) are shuffled around in some of our important textual witnesses. In three Greek manuscripts and a couple of Latin witnesses, they are found not here, after verse 33, but later, after verse 40. That has led some scholars to surmise that the verses were not written by Paul but origi­nated as a kind of marginal note added by a scribe, possibly under the influence of 1 Timothy 2. The note was then inserted in different places of the text by various scribes—some placing the note after verse 33 and others inserting it after verse 40.”

    • Jim

      So would the idea be Donaldus Trumpus leveling up and gaining money to pay for his rapture and when he reaches level 70 an option for him to buy his way into heaven or defeat St. Pete? Could you also buy a white horse mount?

      • Gary

        Very cunning. I will continue to watch the Fox Republican debates for more ideas. Although a White Horse may appear if Trumpus becomes the Republican nominee. I fully expect an AntiChrist game could evolve from this in 2016.

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    I hope you are a pastor in a church or some sort of leader. This idea is way cool!!!

  • Jeff

    There’s a game called Credo that’s a very little bit like what you’re describing. I think the game you’re describing sounds fun; I’m not sure how useful it would be as a pedagogical tool, since it appears to posit that the dominant mechanism by which texts were included or excluded in the canon was horse-trading.

    • I don’t know much about horse trading, so I’m not sure exactly how to interpret this comment!

      • arcseconds

        It’s a figure of speech, which apparently you’re not familiar with?

        Horse-trading is some kind of complex bargaining activity, with the implication that it’s opaque if not in fact underhanded. Often used in politics.

        The phrase ‘pork-barrel politics’ has some shared application… perhaps not all horse-trading is pork-barrel politics, but pork barrel-politics would generally if not invariably involve horse-trading.

        I think it’s originally a US expression, too…

        • I confess that I think I had heard the expression before, but wasn’t very clear on the concept. I think that there was relatively little bargaining in the canon-formation process, but I think it was a combination of consensus that emerged naturally, and debate around the edges, and I’m thinking that there could be a card game which accomplished both – so some starting commonalities that predominate, and then some people making the case for their less common cards to be included, and some discarding their unique cards and giving up on them getting into the final listing, in the interest of having their cards match the official list at the end. Something like that. Would that be considered “horse trading”? Or “pork-barrel politics, for that matter?

          • arcseconds

            This is the cartoon of how an actor in a political process behaves (any decision involving a vote among actors with different goals):

            1) try to convince the others that you’re right and they should vote your way.
            2) If you can’t convince enough people that they really want to vote your way, try one or more of the following:

            *) do a deal with people who don’t care too much: they vote your way on this issue, and you vote their way on some other issue that’s not important to you.
            *) put a rider on what is up to vote to make it more palatable to more people
            *) compromise on what is up to vote: water it down so it’s palatable for more people. You may not get everything you want, but at least you get some of what you want.

            (2) is horse-trading. Obviously it can be a lot more complicated than this, and could also cover things like putting up a much stronger voting proposition than you actually want in order to have room to compromise.

            Obviously you think the canon-formation process involved (1), but it’s not clear to me as to how important you think (2) was? Do you think people cut deals like “I don’t like any of the Lukean gospels, but I really don’t like Marcion’s version. I can see that at least one is going to get in to the canon, but if you vote against Marcion, I’ll vote for John, which I don’t care for but don’t object too strongly to (if I had my way it’d just be Mark)” ? And if so, how important was it?

            (I really have very little idea about this, maybe Marcion had disappeared long before, and I don’t know what information we have about how the councils work, so excuse my ignorance).

            In terms of Jeff’s point, he appears to be assuming that horse-trading is the obvious mechanism for a card game to represent, and it’s true that the swapping to get a single suite that’s common in card games does look a wee bit like horse trading if you squint, but you’ve obviously got different rules in mind…

          • I do think there was some of that. “Let’s ally with those guys since we all agree on including these four Gospels and only these four, even though they want to include Hebrews, which we know was not by Paul, but doesn’t seem too offensive.” “Can we be part of your group? What do you mean that if we want to stay connected with you, we have to accept a canon that doesn’t include the Shepherd of Hermas?!”