Sunday, July 19, 2020

On "Beyond Acts" by Paul R. Finch ****

I thought that this would be a book about the history of Christianity in the late first century and early second century, and that it is, to an extent, but really, it's a book about the canonization of the New Testament. In that regard, Finch takes a rather traditional stand, though it's a bold one for today's modern biblical scholars, who have largely all come to believe that most New Testament books were written in the last first century and early second century and that many of the works are pseudonymous. Finch takes a stand in line with the writings of Ernest L. Martin, John Robinson, and Michael Kruger insofar as he believes that the works were largely written by their respective namesakes and largely before 70 CE. Like Martin, he believes that the canonization was well underway by that time as well, with Peter, Paul, and John all having a significant hand.

The main reasoning is fairly simple. If Peter, Paul, and John all wrote about how false teachers were increasingly influential in the church, why would they NOT set about creating a set of canonical writings for the church to be used after their deaths? The usual argument these days is that the canonization took place over centuries. Finch makes a valid point. However, for much of his book, the point seems ill supported. The body of the work is well written and easy to follow, but Finch seems to offer one point, with less-than-satisfactory support, then builds on it to point two, and so on. Because of the weakness of where he starts, I ended up wondering throughout most of the work the degree to which he could really back up his assertions.

The book takes a big turn after the main portion is over, however, as most of that further information--the primary source citations--I was craving is provided in the appendixes, ten of them. Here, he covers in depth such subjects as the date for the writing of Revelation (referenced obliquely in the text) and the writing of 2 Peter.

Finch begins his book with a discussion of witnesses to Jesus's life in Britain, including the apostles Peter and Paul. Most of this is based on legend, which is always dubious, since many legends have been written about the apostles largely for a given church or region to be able to claim a connection to the original twelve. Later, however, Finch does provide further source material and argument to testify as to why he believes Peter and Paul may have gone to Britain. In the former's case, the "other place" referenced in Acts would have been an oblique reference because Rome was at war with Britain, so such a visit would have been tantamount to treason. In the latter's case, Paul would have met royal British prisoners of war when he was a prisoner in Rome himself. Both prove to be interesting arguments insofar as they work off the timeline that Finch provides readers.

Finch also provides readers with a reasoned account of why Rome rejected John's authority (he believes that 1 Clement was actually written only shortly after Peter's and Paul's deaths; Clement, however, ignores John when responding to the Corinthians' questions). The reasons are multifold including John's continuing connection to Jewish traditions, his temperament, his "failed" prophecy (Finch believes half of Revelation to have been written well before the temple's destruction), and his connection to several gnostic teachers who later proved to be doctrinally unsound. I'd heard some of these theories before but never so well explained or argued.

Another interesting point comes in his discussion of how the New Testament was disseminated. He refers to Irenaeus's account of the "archives" and to the many second-century writers who seem to be referring to New Testament scriptures without much discussion regarding what belongs or doesn't. (There's even a quote from Augustine referencing the origin of the New Testament canon that I hadn't seen before.) He believes the apostles, knowing their deaths were near and finally coming to an understanding that Jesus was not returning in their lifetimes, saw the need to put together materials for posterity and then deposited these items in the major libraries in Caesarea and later Alexandria. The fact that the early manuscripts so closely resemble each would bear this out, since there would be much more variety if the scriptures had been gathered over time from various churches. Rather, there was, he says, a set of agreed-upon source texts. Again, for me, these were some intriguing ideas.

Alas, if there is one weakness to the volume, beyond the fact that so much of the basis of the argument is confined to the appendixes, it is that Finch takes a lot of time pontificating on how the experts are wrongheaded. Laying out what others think and what facts he has and how those facts feed into his own views rather than theirs should be enough; the snarky tone that he sometimes descends to does his own work a disservice.