Community Boundary Definition, Part 2: Paganism

The early church also had to struggle to define itself in relation to Paganism. The church had to decide what degree of cultural syncretism was acceptable and how much its members had to form their own subculture. One example of this dimension of definition is the staunch, orthodox Christian refusal to participate in the Caesar cult, for which reason Polycarp was burned (Mart. Poly. 9:2). Moreover, Christian monotheism (albeit in Trinitarian form), in a pantheistic society, opened Christians to the charge of atheism (e.g., Pliny of Flavia Domitilla and her husband Flavius Clemens; see Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 25‒30). Thus, the central defining point for the church vis-à-vis Paganism, as in relation to Judaism, was Jesus, but Jesus in his identity as the κύριος (lord) who ruled over all, including Caesar (cf. Priene inscription).


In this post:

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes
Robert Wilken
Robert Wilken

Community Boundary Definition, Part 1: Judaism

Somewhat similar to the question of canonical development is the question of the boundaries of the Christian community. The orthodox early church had to work to define these boundaries over against Judaism, paganism, and heretical, “Christian” sects. Scholars have sometimes seen the struggle of Christianity to define itself in relation to Judaism as beginning in the mid-second century, but this effort had really already begun within the first century (cf. Acts 15; Galatians). It was crucial for the church to define itself correctly in relation to Judaism because, at the beginning, Christians did not want to say that they were a new religion. Instead, they preferred to view themselves and to be viewed by others (not least the Romans, who afforded the Jews special religious privileges) as the continuation of Judaism, which Israel’s God had planned. Moreover, Christians wanted to claim Jewish scripture as their own and borrow some of Judaism’s interpretive methods. Even the Christological method of interpretation, which the church developed, might be regarded as merely a Jesus-oriented application of other methods, which the Jews had already applied to their scriptures. Orthodox Christianity did not adopt all Jewish interpretive methods, but more than which methods the early church did or did not adopt, the central defining point for the church in relation to Judaism was really the church’s commitment Jesus’ messianic status. Therefore, Christian interpretations of scripture differed with Jewish ones at certain key points because of how the church’s a priori acceptance of Jesus as messiah impacted its hermeneutic.

Canonical Development*

In the second and third centuries, the church worked under several different hermeneutical constraints, including: canonical development, community boundary definition (vis-à-vis Judaism, Paganism, and heretical, “Christian” sects), and hermeneutical method. Although this period of biblical interpretation has long been closed, being aware of the natures of these respective constraints can help us understand the early church’s hermeneutical environment and gain better access to some of their thoughts about scripture.

Regarding canonical development, within the patristic period the text of the Jewish canon was essentially closed, but what has become known as the New Testament was not yet a distinct collection. In this period, the church sometimes used certain documents as scripture, although these documents like Shepherd of Hermas or 1 Clement were not eventually canonized, and the church sometimes refrained from using as scripture other documents like Hebrews and Revelation, which were eventually canonized. Additionally, the early church seems to have viewed the Old Testament as having a higher status than the Gospels [including the Diatessaron (ANF 9:43–130)] and Paul’s epistles, although a somewhat more egalitarian view was also feasible (cf. 2 Pet 3:15–16). For instance, when the Epistle of Barnabas cites the New Testament, the references seem to be mainly incidental to the main line of thought (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas 5:9; 4:14; 13:7), whereas the Old Testament seems to be used as though it held more weight for Barnabas’s author. In the earliest part of the patristic period, it was also possible for Papias to say that he preferred the “living voice” (of oral testimony) to what was written. By contrast, in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (ca. AD 165; ANF 2:194–270), Justin explicitly cites the New Testament as scripture (e.g., §43, 100). Justin’s use of the New Testament as scripture typified a growing trend out of which the Muratorian Canon list (ca. AD 200; see Westcott 557–64) came and which culminated in Athanasius’s Easter letter of AD 367 (NPNF2 4:551–52). In this letter, Athanasius demarcated what he saw to be the boundaries of the New Testament canon, which have remained until the present day.


  • This series of posts is heavily indebted to lecture notes taken from Stephen Taylor, Associate Professor of New Testament at Biblical Seminary, Hatfield, Penn.

In this post:

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace
Brooke Foss Westcott
Brooke Foss Westcott

Messages in Communication

Texts are artifacts insofar as they are products of constructive processes and are ontologically distinct from their authors (Barton 159). Thus, respecting how readers encounter texts, Derrida correctly says that “there is nothing outside the text” (Caputo 80; cf. Barton 220). That is, readers only directly encounter the text, not its “meaning,” the author’s “intention,” or anything else about the text; readers must construe these other things from the text. Moreover, a text’s context is not even “attached” to the text. The text may describe its context, but as such, this description is text, not context. Consequently, texts must be placed in contexts, and this placement requires textual data to be construed.

While Derrida used “textual autonomy” to help create play between the various signs in the text, his perspective on this issue has been rightly critiqued because it does not sufficiently account for the reality of human communication [Tennyson and Ericson, Jr. 45; cf. David McCarthy, “A Not-so-Bad Derridean Approach to Psalm 23,” Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 8 (1988): 178]. Part of the difficulty with Derrida’s view is that it discusses the child class “texts” in isolation from the parent class “messages.”1 Two essential properties of the message class are: (1) ontological distinction from the sender and (2) the ability to function as a transfer medium (cf. Vanhoozer 218, 225–26). Indeed, ontological distinction might be designated as the primary presupposition of all communication. When a sender desires to send information to a receiver, the receiver cannot directly access this information as the sender conceives it in himself, so the sender creates something distinct from himself that the receiver can access. This transfer medium is the sender’s message. If it were not ontologically distinct from the sender, it could not function as a transfer medium, and communication could not occur. This type of ontological distinction between sender and message may be termed “soft autonomy.”

By contrast, the “hard autonomy” of Derrida and others views texts as so autonomous that they do not carry definite information perceivable by their readers. Thus, if a text exhibits hard autonomy, it cannot be understood as a message because the text cannot function as a transfer medium. In this instance, the text is a mere artifact insofar as it is an aesthetic object, which the reader can enjoy and with which he can play, but which serves no communicative function and exists for its own sake and its author’s pleasure in creating it (Barton 146–47; Hirsch 25). Thus, the message class does not have the property of hard autonomy.

Because of soft autonomy, a message’s sending is always temporally distanced from its reception. Senders take time to create messages, and receivers process these messages only after the messages are transmitted. Consequently, all interpretation of all messages is, to some degree, interpretation of the past. For instance, if a wife asks her husband to pass the salt, the husband interprets a message sent in the recent past, but he still interprets a past message. Thus, by analogy, understanding messages further in the past (e.g., the Bible) is also possible, but increased distance between sender and receiver increases the possibility of a communication breakdown and necessitates that the receiver work harder to ensure that the message is received accurately.

While time necessarily distances a receiver from a sender, other factors (like culture and sociology) may also remove the receiver from the context the sender projected, consciously or unconsciously, for his receiver (cf. Ricœur 13–14). To return to the salt example, the husband can understand the wife’s message almost as directly as possible because both spouses share a common linguistic system and context. If the wife wanted the pepper, however, and said, “Please pass the salt,” communication would break down because the wife expressed what she wanted with a term to which her husband assigns a different semantic range (cf. Vanhoozer 243). Thus, senders who desire to communicate should construct their messages so that receivers will be able to handle them properly;2 hence, assuming that most senders are competent and desire to communicate to their messages’ receivers, one should generally seek to interpret a message as its original recipient(s) would have done. Of course, this conclusion itself implies that the interpreter’s hermeneutical goal is to understand the meaning a message’s author intended to send by his message, but this topic will be discussed later.


1 In what follows, I am partially indebted to Hirsch 173–98. The class “messages,” of course, includes both oral and written communication. Derrida contested the priority typically given to oral communication and attempted to assert the primacy of written communication and, therefore, its determinative function for all human communication. John Ellis, however, has adduced several problems with this argument (see Carson 113). While space precludes a detailed discussion of this critique, Ellis’s work suggests the validity, ceteris paribus, of treating oral and written communication on equal terms (see also Ricœur 13).

2 Sometimes, of course, someone may receive and interpret a message whose sender could never have imagined, such as when modern historians interpret Tacitus. In this case, the burden for closing the communication gap falls entirely on the new receiver whose interpretive constraints the author could not have anticipated.

In this post:

John Barton
John Barton
John Caputo
John Caputo
D. A. Carson
D. A. Carson
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
Paul Ricoeur
Paul Ricoeur
G. B. Tennyson and E. E. Ericson, Jr.
G. B. Tennyson and E. E. Ericson, Jr.
Kevin Vanhoozer
Kevin Vanhoozer
  • David McCarthy, “A Not-so-Bad Derridean Approach to Psalm 23,” Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 8 (1988): 177–91