Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of the New Testament Canon

Press Release

Note to News agencies :  {} mark field to be filled in before use.

Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of the New Testament

{name of news agency, date and author here}

{Acta Pauli press release} Toronto, Canada. Christians around the world were shocked and the bedrock of confidence in the Bible was shaken when Peter W. Dunn, PhD, announced the formation of the “Committee for the Inclusion of the Acts of Paul in the New Testament Canon” on the website Acta Pauli on April 23, 2009. The echoes resounded around the world and the buzz on the street has been nothing less than astonishing. In Perth, Australia, Martin Foord, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology and Church History at Trinity Theological College calls it, “The discovery of the millennium.” Dunn has devoted the better part of a decade to the study of this ancient book. Many of his findings are in his newly published doctoral dissertation, “The Acts of Paul and the Pauline Legacy”, for which he was awarded a PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1996. The Acts of Paul recounts Paul’s missionary experience from the time of his commission to preach and ends with his martyrdom. During his missionary trips, Paul even converts and baptizes a wild lion.

In recent months, Dr. Dunn has formulated new theories about the Acts of Paul which have led him to create the Committee. “Initially, I thought the Acts of Paul should be dated to the middle of the second century. But now I am leaning towards a much earlier date around the end of the first century. That is almost 100 years earlier than scholars have heretofore believed,” said Dunn. When asked who was the author of the Acts of Paul, he replied, “Well, Tertullian at the beginning of the third century (ca. 205) reported that it had been written by an Asian (modern Turkey) priest who had to step down from his job. But we have reason to believe that Tertullian may have been misinformed. A good case could be made for Timothy. The Acts of Paul never mention him by name and that is strange. Timothy would have been only about 20 when he met Paul in the 50’s. So that would make him about 70 years old at the end of the first century when the Acts of Paul were written. St. Timothy, according to tradition, became the bishop of Ephesus. This accords well with Tertullian’s claim that it was a presbyter (priest) from Asia.”

Clearly the Acts of Paul will frustrate scholars such as Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, who have questioned the orthodox foundations of the New Testament Canon. The Acts of Paul is an anti-Gnostic tract which affirms God as creator of the world, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and reliability of Old Testament prophets. These are all tenants of orthodox faith. Ehrman was unavailable for comment.

The Rev. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill, noted expert on the Bible, says that the Paul of the Acts of Paul is too much of a wimp. He opposes making the Acts of Paul part of the New Testament. “What does Paul do when he hears the lion roar? He runs and hides! That’s not the Paul I know, nor is it the Paul of the Bible.” Driscoll was referring Acts of Paul 9:15, “When the [lion] roared wildly and ferociously, Paul broke off his prayer in terror.”

In contrast, feminist scholars of early Christianity have been raving about the Acts of Paul for decades. Two entire chapters of the Acts of Paul describe the exploits of the most important woman in the early Church, St. Thecla. She miraculously survives two martyrdom attempts, experiences a divine baptism, and finally, is commissioned by Paul as an apostle. “It is about time someone took the initiative to make the Acts of Paul canonical. Finally women will have a voice in the church,” said one anonymous source, a feminist scholar at the Catholic University of Notre Dame, where President Barack Obama will be challenging the graduates on May 17.

The announcement has the world scrambling to learn more about the Acts of Paul. Commentaries are unavailable, and scholarly treatments have been sold out of most bookstores. It has the public searching online for information and translations. Google has reported increased activity around the search terms, “Acts of Paul” and “Thecla”. Suddenly Coptic scholars are in demand, because the only manuscript of the Acts of Paul available today is a fragmentary papyrus in Coptic at University of Heidelberg. According to Dunn, now that the Committee is mobilized, it will be making a concerted effort to find a complete manuscript either in Coptic or Greek among the unopened Oxyrhinchus papyri at Oxford. They have commissioned Jim Leonard, specialist in the Coptic New Testament at the University of Cambridge, to begin the search. The {name of news agency} reached Leonard who commented, “The acceptance of Acts of Paul into the Canon will assure new jobs for Coptic New Testament scholars in Christian colleges and seminaries for years to come.”

But it is too early to tell how the church hierarchy will react. Typically the church is slow to move on new discoveries and ideas, but Dunn’s committee may indeed have a ground-breaking impact. To find out what New Testament scholars are thinking, the {name of news agency here} telephoned N. T. Wright, Gordon Fee, Luke T. Johnson, and {add NT scholar}; each of them said in turn that they were scrambling to get information about Acts of Paul and were not ready to comment. A spokesman for the Catholic church however has said that there is little chance that Pope Benedict would permit the inclusion of the Acts of Paul. The Roman Catholic Church, he said, is a conservative institution, and she is not troubled by the whims of biblical scholars.

Protestant church officials are not ecstatic about Dunn’s Committee either. An undisclosed source from the World Council of Churches said, “The Acts of Paul puts too much emphasis on sexual continence,” referring to Acts of Paul 3.5-6, beatitudes devoted to a life of chastity. “We believe everyone has the right to have sex anytime they feel like it,” said the official.


19 Responses to Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of the New Testament Canon

  1. P. W. Dunn says:

    Jim Leonard, who accepted the job as the official MS discoverer of the Committee, tells me that this press release is too accurate for the media. He writes,

    I was deeply impressed by the level of scholarship and accuracy in this journalism; the last (two-paragraph) news article on Sinaiticus had 10 or 11 mistakes in it, depending on how one or two items was handled (it was discussed by
    Peter Head on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog). The present news article, however, appears to have been written by someone who actually knows something about the Acts of Paul, if otherwise insane.

    Perhaps I need to put some more errors in here, such as saying that the Acts of Paul has been hiding for the last 1500 years in a 7th century monastery–just to make it more credible that a journalist wrote the piece.

  2. Richard Fellows says:


    there is no strong evidence that Timothy was younger than Paul, though he may have been. People’s perception of Timothy is conditioned too much by the PE, unfortunately.

    We should explore the possibility that the Presbyter claimed or implied that Titus (or Titus-Timothy) was his source of information. This would explain why Titus features so strongly in the extant portions (and probably in the non-extant portions, judging from the “Acts of Titus”). Am I correct in deducing from the “Acts of Titus” that Titus was present in the Panchares incident in the Acts of Paul and perhaps even earlier in the book? Also, Titus appears along with Luke in the last sentence, doesn’t he? The Presbyter has to bring Titus back from Dalmatia to place him in Rome. Therefore perhaps we should see the mentions of Titus in the Acts of Paul as a kind of inclusio, i.e. a device whereby Titus frames the whole text to indicate that he is the authoritative source of the information (See Bauckham’s “Jesus and the eyewitnesses”). By mentioning both Titus and Luke at the end the Presbyter may be implying that Titus was the authoritative eyewitness for his work, just as Luke was for the Acts of the Apostles. Intriguingly Titus plays the role of witness for Paul in the Thecla episode.

    Let me know if this has all been explored before.

  3. […] and Titus Richard Fellows commented on my last post, and I want to start a new thread to discuss it.  I was attempting in it to create a press […]

  4. […] I wrote up a press release for media use, “Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of the New Testament Canon“, with blank fields where they can add the names of their authors, their media outlets (CNN, […]

  5. Benjamin Steele says:

    It’s somewhat arbitrary what was included as canonical. Considering that not everything in the New Testament is from the first century, I’m not sure why that would be a reason to include something. The NT canon was developed based on ideological reasons. There were many Christian texts from the first and second century that weren’t included. For example, Marcion developed the first NT canon and his version of the NT texts weren’t included.

  6. P. W. Dunn says:

    Benjamin: thanks so much for making a comment.

    I find it hard to determine your point. Are you arguing for the Acts of Paul as part of the canon or against it? Or are you just simply pointing out that the idea of canon is pointless?

    If the dominant form of Christianity that emerged from the second century determined that certain books were canonical and others were not, then it is hardly surprising that such books were chosen on ideological grounds. Why is that a problem?

    Finally, your point about Marcion would counter your point that many 1st and 2nd century texts didn’t make it into the canon. Marcion’s canon was restrained to ten Pauline epistles and to an abridged Gospel of Luke, all of which are in the NT canon.

  7. Benjamin Steele says:

    The idea of a canon isn’t necessaily pointless. It all depends on what ideology you use to base the canon on, and our defining purpose must be made very clear.

    I’m not in favor of the traditional canon for various reasons. There is no single ideology that can harmonize all of the texts as the original writers and later redactors had a variety of ideological agendas. You can find elements of many ideologies in the New Testament. Also, Catholic doctrine changed over the centuries and so the ideology of the heresiologists isn’t even the same as that of later Catholics. Even heresiologists disagreed with eachother at times as early Christianity was an endless ideological war.

    Harmonization requires ignoring discrepancies and accepting Catholic orthodoxy over the authority of other Christian denominations. Not all Christians and NT scholars agree that the Catholic church is a valid representative of early Christianity. The problem is that there never will be agreement. The closest we can come to a scholarly consensus about what was original would be something like the Jesus Seminar, but there is no end of people who criticize that methodology.

    Marcion, the originator of the NT canon, had his own ideology and to the Marcionities it was orthodoxy. I think his ideology has priority over the ideologies of the heresiologists that came after him.

    Also, his ideology makes sense to me in one particular way. I agree with his exclusion of Jewish scriptures. I believe Jews have the intellectual rights to their own religious texts. As I’d prioritize Marcion’s opinions over later heresiologists, I’d prioritize Jewish opinions about Jewish scripture over that of later Christians.

    As for the New Testament, the later canon did include what he included, but also included that which he excluded. Furthermore, of the texts he included, his versions would’ve been different. Scholars know a fair amount about Marcion’s ideology now and this should be taken into account.

    For example, Robert M. Price attempted to recreate Marcion’s canon and so that is the type of example to follow. BTW this comes from Price’s Pre-Nicene New Testament. His methodology is one way to create a canon. He simply included every relevant Christian text and fragment that survived from the centuries prior to the Council of Nicea. His introduction to this collection is a useful analysis of the issues about what is considered canonical.

    Besides being the first canonizers, something important to keep in mind is that so-called heretics were also the first to quote a NT text and the first to write commentaries on an Apolstolic writing. The first commentators of Paul and John were later considered heretics. I believe that in considering what is canonical the earliest Christian writers should be given the most focus. Along with Marcion, I’d include Basilides, Valentinus, Heracleon, and Ptolemy; but others could be included as well.

    I further would add that the Nag Hammadi scriptures should given a place in this discussion. They represent a major component of early Christianity before the heresiologists took power. Those texts represent examples of the very evidence that orthodoxy attempted to destroy and so they give insight into what was original to the Christian tradition as opposed to the later ideologies that canonical texts were forced to conform to through redaction and interpolation.

    Another factor to consider is dating. This is tricky business because there are no original surviving texts. As I understand it, all we have are later copies of copies which have been filtered through several hands of ideology plus simple mistakes and mistranslations. The dating determines which texts were the earliest and so which were original. One thing that is clear is that certain canonical texts were based on other canonical texts or else both based on even earlier texts or oral traditions. If we are canonizing based on the authenticity of the earliest tradition, then we should exclude later texts.

    Basically, my criticism is based on the reality that there are just too many factors and too many opinions. The canon was originally created through political power and later military force that suppressed and destroyed all alternatives. We now live in a different world. Why not simply have many canons and leave it at that? If any person wants a particular text included or excluded, all they have to do is find someone to publish their canon which is what Christians have been doing for centuries anyhow.

    I guess the question is what is your purpose. Is your interest merely academic or personal? If it’s merely academic, most Christians would be uninterested in your attempt to expand the canon. Your average Christian is contented to accept whatever church authority declares canonical and I doubt church authorities would have much interest in deferring to academic scholars. If your interest is personal in that you belong to a specific denomination, then that is between you and the authorities of that particular church.

    • P. W. Dunn says:

      Benjamin: Wow, that’s a lot to deal with. There are some things that you say which are correct, some opinion, and some inaccuracies, but I appreciate your response to my queries. I shall do my best to respond briefly.

      I do believe that the New Testament as it came down to us is inspired and is a faithful guide for the church and witness to Jesus Christ. To say that it was created by military force and all alternatives were destroyed is completely inaccurate. By the time of Irenaeus (AD 180), the basic contours of the New Testament canon were fixed, not by military force because Christians were a persecuted minority, but by the faithful who cherished these documents and read them in their churches. Marcion set limits on a canon, which may have forced the orthodox church to make its own decisions, but he was not the originator of the canon by any means. I think that is an overstatement.

      While the manuscripts of the New Testament that have come down to us contain many differences, many scholars are content to say that the original text is probably in most cases preserved in the many thousands of Greek, Latin, Syriac and Coptic MSS, not to mention the many citations of the text in the Greek Fathers. It is a scientific question today how to determine which text is original when variants exist, but the text itself, in its many textual traditions whether Alexandrian, Western or Byzantine, remains a monument to the teaching and mission of Jesus.

      The purpose of my post on the canonization of the Acts of Paul, I have explained in another blog (see: ). If the media today want to sensationalize the Gospel of Judas and it’s orientation against a traditional catholic view, why not suggest the Acts of Paul as canonical–it at least was read and cherished by catholic Christians. Cheers

    • P. W. Dunn says:

      Also, on the question of heresy you say that the heresiologist disagreed with one another. I would say however that Irenaeus refers to the Rule of Faith which was accepted in all of the early apostolic churches; there was a great deal of agreement on this essential outlook of faith.

      As for Nag Hammadi, the collection is esoteric and basically unreadable. I find that it cannot compare to the New Testament, and I find it largely uninspiring.

  8. Benjamin Steele says:

    I was just looking around your blog.

    I think I now understand your purpose in promoting the canonizing of the Acts of Paul. You wrote about having difficulties with your career as a scholar because your an expert in a text that isn’t canonical. If that text were canonical, it would simplify your life and provide more opportunities. So, your interest is both academic and personal.

    That is an interesting predicament you find yourself in. I never really thought of academics as being in a position to make judgments about what is canonical. I guess I always assumed that academics merely studied what was canonized by religious authorities rather than being involved in the process of canonizing.

    What has been the reception by other scholars? Do you think it’s likely that a concensus of scholars will accept Acts of Paul as canonical? What is involved in gaining such scholarly concensus? Who exactly do you have to convince? Is there a specific academic committee that makes such decisions? What does it even mean from an academic perspective for a text to be canonical?

    • P. W. Dunn says:

      I doubt that a canonical Acts of Paul would simplify my life. It might provide the kind of fame that Rudolphe Kasser had when the media decided to highlight the Gospel of Judas. However, I’m not sure I want to leave my quiet life.

      As for changing the canon, probably nothing short of a world-wide ecumenical council, like the Council of Nicaea could change the current NT canon. The chances of such a council happening today are pretty slim. Many academics have already discarded the notion of a canon; for understanding the early church, I would agree, scholars need to take into consideration and evaluate all available evidence.


      • rey says:

        “As for changing the canon, probably nothing short of a world-wide ecumenical council, like the Council of Nicaea could change the current NT canon.”

        If all the new versions started adding books, people would accept it. They accept new versions based on specious arguments about what manuscripts are older and better, so they would accept a change of the canon too. Publishers, not clerics, will be the ones to get the ball rolling.

      • rey says:

        You’d have preachers condemning these translations and those who use them to hell, and maybe even having Bible burnings. But, just as with the KJV-onlyist shinanigans of attacking the NIV, it would actually make these new translations more popular, particularly with the young.

  9. […] Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of New Testament Canon In recent months, Dr. Dunn has formulated new theories about the Acts of Paul which have led him to create the Committee. […]

  10. rey says:

    Considering that every book in the New Testament is of dubious authorship, why not include all the New Testament apocrypha? None of it is any more apocryphal than what was included in the canon. 3rd Corinthians is no more apocryphal than Romans, and perhaps actually less apocryphal.

    • Petros says:

      What are the reasons for accepting or rejecting 3 Cor as by Paul?What about Romans? It seems you made an assertion based on nothing except your own opinionated beliefs.

      • reyjacobs says:

        Romans is clearly not even by one author. Romans 2 and Romans 3-4 are totally incompatible doctrinally. In Romans 2, “the doers of the law shall be justified” whereas in Romans 3 “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” The works of two authors have been thrown together and the name “Paul” applied to the work.

  11. “Mark Driscol noted expert on the Bible?! ” My goodness, this is a sad day…

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