It is rare for someone using critical methods to argue for a position more conservative than that taken by most conservatives.  Such is the case with David Trobisch’s argument for the dating of the “closing"1 of the New Testament canon (The First Edition of the New Testament [Oxford University Press, 2000]).  Trobisch argues that the New Testament (NT) canon, containing the same 27 books as are found in our NT (though in a slightly different order than they are presently arranged), was published some time in the middle of the second century.  Trobisch argues against the current consensus that the NT canon was a result of a long and complicated process that continued for a few centuries.  Rather, in his own words, “The history of the New Testament is the history of an edition, a book that has been published and edited by a specific group of editors, at a specific place, and at a specific time (p. 6).”

The first half of the book examines extant NT manuscripts in support of his thesis that the NT canon took shape and was “published” in the mid-second century.  These arguments could be described as “lower-critical” arguments.  The second half of the book tries to explain the motivations and theological positions of the group that published this edition in the mid-second century, asserting that certain parts of the NT as it now stands were redacted before the NT was “published”.

Conservative interpreters (like I) will be more inclined to accept the lower-critical arguments of the first half of the book and unlikely to accept the notion that notes were added into the biblical text and changes made to certain portions of the biblical text at the time of publication.  With this in mind, I will focus upon the positive contributions of the first half of Trobisch’s theory and ignore the second half of the book.

Trobisch’s arguments that an edition of the New Testament was collected and published in the middle of the second century are summarized here.

  • Argument #12(pp. 11-19):  The recurrent abbreviation in NT manuscripts (both early and later) of nomina sacra,3 fifteen common words of theological importance, suggests a conscious decision to employ such abbreviations by whomever collected and published the anthology known as the New Testament.  Nomina sacra also appear in Christian copies of the Greek OT, whereas this is not the case with Jewish-produced copies.
  • Argument #2 (pp. 19-21):  The codex form (i.e. book form) was used rarely outside of non-Christian circles in the early centuries after Christ; scrolls were preferred.4 In stark contrast, manuscripts of the NT are almost exclusively found to have been written on codices.  This may suggest a conscious decision to employ the new codex form by those who collected and published the New Testament.
  • Argument #3 (pp. 21-38):   The large majority of “complete edition” manuscripts, including the four earliest,5 share some commonalities in arrangement.   In particular, in most cases (apart from copies clearly made for personal use or some of the later Byzantine texts), the content is arranged into four groups:  1) Gospels, 2) Praxapostolos (i.e. Acts and the General Letters), 3) Letters of Paul (including Hebrews6), and 4) Revelation, though not always in this order.  It is highly unusual to find a manuscript containing an individual book displaced from its normal category, and, it might be added, from its normal order within that category. Awareness of this fact has already led the editors of Novum Testamentum Graece to employ four letters in their appendix as shorthand for these four recognized categories.  This rather consistent pattern suggests not that there was gradual acceptance of certain books and the gradual exclusion of others; rather it suggests that almost all the manuscripts have their source in the same archetype.  Trobisch describes this observation as “the most important evidence for describing the history of the canon” (p. 21). 
  • Argument #4 (pp. 38-43):  The book titles found in so many of these manuscripts (e.g., “Gospel according to Matthew,” “Acts of the apostles,” “Letter of James,” or, in a letter of Paul, “to the Romans”) suggests not that different editors came up with the same titles, but that the titles all stem from one editorial moment when the writings were collected together and the titles were assigned.  Moreover, the manuscript tradition suggests that such titles were already in use before the end of the second century.
  • Argument #5 (pp. 43-44):  Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen, and perhaps also Melito of Sardis and an anonymous anti-Montanist tract, use the expression “New Testament” (or suggest it in some way).  Trobisch’s opinion is that the way these authors and texts use this expression indicates that a published edition of texts employing that title was already in circulation by the time that these church “fathers” wrote (end of second and early third century).

It should be noted that apart from argument #5, Trobisch’s main arguments are not dependent upon various hints in the church “fathers” about which books were in circulation.  Rather, he chooses to examine extant manuscripts themselves.  Based mostly upon this evidence, he suggests an earlier date for the bringing together of the New Testament than a culling of the evidence from the “fathers” alone would suggest. 

Trobisch does not suggest the need for a centralized authority to “publish” such an edition (as might be expected in later centuries as the church began to centralize), but rather conjectures the existence of a group possessing some clout in a particular region (Asia Minor?) who produced this edition as a response to some controversy (the Marcionite controversy?).  Although Trobisch is reticent to name any one person or group in this book, it is difficult to imagine anyone in the mid-second century who would have had the wherewithal to carry out such a task besides Polycarp of Smyrna.  Apart from the fact that Polycarp is already known to have been a collector of the letters of Ignatius7and a staunch opponent of Marcion,8there is reason to believe that he had access to all, or almost all, of the letters of Paul early in the second century (including those apparently used in his own letter: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, and both letters to Timothy.9) His celebrated martyrdom and the distribution of the account of his martyrdom10 would have solidified his already distinguished position as the chief proponent of the orthodox position in Asia Minor and could have helped garner acceptance of this collection. Of course, this is no more than a suggestion, and is probably not demonstrable. Nevertheless, within the scheme that Trobisch has suggested, Polycarp is doubtless the best candidate for just such a collection.

Regardless, conservative interpreters may want to rethink their understanding of the New Testament canon and the process of the formation of that canon in light of Trobisch’s intriguing suggestion.