Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament

By Smith, David E. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament


Smith, David E., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. By David L. Dungan. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, xii + 224 pp., $17.00 paper.

In the opening chapter, Dungan, Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, defines the concept of "canon." He strongly objects to the use of the terms "canon" and "Scripture" as synonyms. According to Dungan, the difference between the terms lies primarily in the phenomena of boundaries and enforcement. The term "Scripture" refers to the slowly evolving conglomeration of sacred texts used by a religious community over hundreds or thousands of years. A "canon" of Scripture is a collection of sacred writings with clearly identifiable boundaries whose authority is enforced by the leaders of the community. Dungan asserts that only in Rabbinic Judaism, orthodox Christianity, and Islam do we have canons of Scripture.

In chapter 2, Dungan sheds more light on the meaning of "canon" (Gk.: kanon) by situating it in its Hellenistic legal context. A kanon was a carpenter's rule, which Greek intellectuals used metaphorically to refer to the standard set by the laws of the citystate. Dungan claims that it was in the context of the ancient Greek democratic experiment (from the seventh to the fifth century BC) that the trend toward greater order, stability, clarity, and precision developed. Thanks to the work of the philosophers, this trend toward greater mathematically based precision was extended beyond the realm of law and government and manifested itself in the areas of music, art, architecture, engineering, rhetoric, metaphysics, and ethics. This cultural revolution was introduced to the entire Mediterranean world-including Israel and the areas of the Diaspora-in the fourth century through the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Dungan's attribution of the emphasis on precision during this time to the rise and development of ancient Greek democracy is intriguing and, on the surface, plausible. There are a couple of problems with the claim, however. First, he asserts the connection without providing the reader with evidence beyond mere historical proximity. Further, he seems to imply that Plato was a proponent of the new democratic approach to government, something that few philosophers would affirm. While Plato rejected traditional forms of monarchy, he was also highly skeptical of the common person's ability to cast a wise vote. This chapter is foundational for Dungan's thesis, and because of this its brevity is disappointing. Further development of the essential claim is needed here.

In chapter 3, Dungan addresses the influence of Hellenism on second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. He claims that the submission of the Judean leaders to Alexander the Great in 331 BC caused Greek "polis ideology" and philosophy to take up residence in Jerusalem (p. 21). After briefly addressing Pharisaism, he begins a discussion of the influence of Hellenism-with its emphasis on precision-on early Christianity. Dungan is convinced of the significance of the term ekklêsia as a designation for the church, noting the meaning of the word in its Hellenistic context. It was the "name of the popular assembly in a Greek polis responsible for all decisions of internal or external policy" (p. 22). Like those responsible for bringing order to the potential chaos of Greek democracy, the Christian ekklêsia had to deal with the real possibility of disorder given the diverse backgrounds of those who were converting to Christianity (i.e. Jewish and Gentile).

Dungan then documents what he calls the "impulses toward greater order and standardization" (p. 23) in the church from the first through the third centuries. He quotes from Paul, the Pastoral Epistles (which he regards as pseudonymous), 1 Clement, and the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen to show the concern for faithful adherence to orthodox Christian tradition as interpreted by the bishops and elders of the apostolic churches. …

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