Monday, May 16, 2016

Philaster of Brescia on the NT Canon

I've been working on a book on the canon lists from early Christianity: it's going to be a collection of lists of biblical books for both the Old and New Testaments. Recently I came across a list that I hadn't known about, even though it's mentioned (briefly) in Bruce Metzger's book on the subject. I thought I would give the basic evidence here.

Philaster of Brescia was a fourth-century Italian bishop. He wrote a work, Diverasarum hereseon liber, in about 384 that contains a partial list of biblical books. Here's the passage (copied from the Library of Latin Texts, Brepols):
(88) Alia est heresis, quae apocryfa, id est secreta, habet solum prophetarum et apostolorum, non accipit scripturas canonicas, id est legem et prophetas, uetus et nouum scilicet testamentum. Et cum uolunt solum illa apocryfa legere studiose, contraria scripturis canonicis sentiunt, atque paulatim dogmatizant, contra eas dantes sententias, contra legem et prophetas contra que dispositiones beatissimorum apostolorum consulta ponentes: e quibus sunt maxime manichei, gnostici, nicolaitae, valentiniani, et alii quam plurimi, qui apocrifa prophetarum et apostolorum, id est actus separatos habentes, canonicas legere scripturas contemnunt. Propter quod statutum est ab apostolis beatis et eorum successoribus non aliud legi in ecclesia debere catholica nisi legem et prophetas et euangelia, et actus apostolorum et pauli tredecim epistolas, et septem alias, petri duas, iohannis tres, iudae unam, et unam iacobi, quae septem actibus apostolorum coniunctae sunt. Scripturae autem absconditae, id est apocryfa, etsi legi debent morum causa a perfectis, non ab omnibus legi debent, quia non intellegentes multa addiderunt et tulerunt quae uoluerunt heretici. Nam manichei apocryfa beati andreae apostoli, id est actus quos fecit ueniens de ponto in greciam quos conscripserunt tunc discipuli sequentes beatum apostolum, unde et habent manichei et alii tales andreae beati et iohannis actus euangelistae beati, et petri similiter beatissimi apostoli, et pauli pariter beati apostoli: in quibus quia signa fecerunt magna et prodigia, ut et pecudes et canes et bestiae loquerentur, etiam et animas hominum tales uelut canum et pecudum similes inputauerunt esse heretici perditi. 
(89) Sunt alii, qui epistolam beati pauli ad hebreos non adserunt esse ipsius, sed dicunt aut barnabae esse beati apostoli aut clementis de urbe romae episcopi, alii autem lucae beatissimi euangelistae aiunt; epistolam etiam ad laodicenses scriptam beati apostoli quidam uolunt legere. Et quia addiderunt in ea quaedam non bene sentientes, inde non legitur in ecclesia, et si legitur a quibusdam, non tamen in ecclesia legitur populo nisi tredecim epistolae ipsius et ad hebreos interdum.
And an attempt at a translation:
(88) There is another heresy that has apocrypha--that is, secrete things--alone of the prophets and apostles, it does not accept the canonical scriptures, that is the law and the prophets, or the Old and New Testament. And since they want to read studiously only those apocrypha, they think things contrary to the canonical scriptures, and they gradually develop doctrines, giving opinions against them, against the law and the prophets and setting decrees against the dispositions of the blessed apostles: from whom there are especially the Manicheans, Gnostics, Nicolaitans, Valentinians, and very many others, who have apocrypha of the prophets and apostles--that is, separated acts--and spurn the reading of the canonical scriptures. 
Therefore it has been established by the blessed apostles and their successors that we ought to read nothing else in the catholic church except the Law and the Prophets and the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles and thirteen letters of Paul, and seven others: two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude, one of James, which seven are conjoined to the Acts of the Apostles. 
But hidden scriptures--that is, the apocrypha--even if they ought to be read by the perfect on account of morals, ought not be read by all, because heretics without understanding have added and produced many things that they wanted. For the Manicheans (have) apocrypha of the blessed apostle Andrew--that is, acts whcih he did going from Pontus to Greece, which his disciples then wrote following the blessed apostle, whence also the Manicheans  and other similar groups have acts of the blessed Andrew and of John the blessed evangelist, and similarly of Peter the most blessed apostle, and equally of Paul the blessed apostle, in which, because they have put great signs and wonders, so that sheep and dogs and beasts talk, and the reckless heretics even assert that the spirits of people are just like those of dogs and sheep. 
(89) There are others who assert the epistle of the blessed Paul to the Hebrew is not his, but they say it is by Barnabas the blessed apostle or Clement, bishop of the city of Rome, but others say it is by Luke the most blessed evangelist; some want to say also an epistle to the Laodiceans was written by the blessed apostle. And because they, not understanding well, have added to it some things, it is not read in the church, and if it is read by some, still there it is not read in the church to the people except his thirteen epistles and sometimes the one to the Hebrews. 
He goes on to explain that some people find the content of Hebrews problematic, and Philaster offers orthodox interpretations of the problematic passages.

Metzger (p. 233) writes that Philaster
...composed between 385 and 391 a treatise of 156 chapters designed to refute 28 Jewish and 128 Christian heresies. [Metzger's note: Besides condemning such notable heretics as Simon Magus, Philaster also stigmatizes (chap. 133) those whose sole aberration was to believe that the stars occupied a fixed place in the sky instead of being set in position every evening by God!] This work, entitled Liber de haeresibus, sweeps together an ill-digested assortment of comments compiled from Greek and Latin authors without much regard for logic or even internal consistency. As a sample of his confused and confusing compilation, in chap. 88 he names in the list of 'Scriptures' of the New Testament, authenticated by the blessed apostles and their followers, the Gospels, thirteen Epistles of Paul, and seven Catholic Epistles, passing over the Epistle to the Hebrews and even the Apocalypse in silence--but elsewhere he recognizes Hebrews as Pauline and the Apocalypse as apostolic [no citation except to a secondary work, pp. 14–21.] At the same time, Philaster stands almost alone in his opinion (expressed in the same chapter) that, though apocryphal books like the Acts of Andrew, John, Peter, and Paul should not indeed be read by all believers (because heretics had added many things to the text of these books), they 'ought to be read by the "perfect" for moral edification'. 
Interesting that John's Apocalypse doesn't even receive a mention. I'm not sure what to make of that. The Apocalypse had a bit of trouble being accepted in the East, but the West was generally more welcoming toward the book, so I'm not sure what to make of this complete absence. It's as if Philaster just forgot about it.