Jenkins on the Canon of the East

In our circles, historian Philip Jenkins appears to be best known for his work on global Christianity, beginning with Next Christendom (Oxford, 2002; 3d edition, 2011--now part of his Future of Christianity trilogy). Just before that, however, he released Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford, 2001). Written by a serious historian, that work exposes the silliness of contemporary critics who would undermine our confidence in the New Testament canon and an embarrassingly mindless, sensation-obsessed media who popularizes their claims.

I was reminded of that earlier work recently while reading his 2008 offering, The Lost History of Christianity. In this book, Jenkins tells the fascinating, instructive, and tragic story of non-Chalcedonian Christianity in Asia and Africa. Along the way, he once again takes the opportunity to make his point on the integrity of the canon:

The Syriac Bible was a conservative text, to a degree that demands our attention. In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream Christian church suppressed most of them in the fourth century. This alleged purge followed the Christian conversion of the emperor Constantine, at a time when the church supposedly wanted to ally with the empire in the interests of promoting order, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical authority. According to modern legend, the suppressed works included many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminist leanings.

The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron [Tatian of Assyria's harmony] assumes only four, authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages, neither Nestorians nor Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospel or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. . . . The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins.

Though not decisive, it's a compelling apologetic point and reminds me that support is sometimes found in unexpected places: Jenkins on the so-called lost gospels or scriptures in a work entitled The Lost History of Christianity comes to mind, as does the support he finds for the integrity of the canon among the Eastern communions. Even the idea (if not the characterization) that they were looking to "prune" the canon, not add to it, is helpful. It clearly suggests that the church understood the gravity of counting a particular work "scripture" and were loathe to do so if not absolutely convinced it was, in fact, scripture. The bias, we might say, was to exclude unless the piece proved itself worthy of inclusion.