The Epistles for All Christians, Book Review

Title: The Epistles for All Christians: Epistolary Literature, Circulation, and the Gospels for All Christians
Author: David A. Smith
Publisher: Brill, 2020
Price: $117 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 172

For whom were the Gospels written?

In 1997, Richard Bauckham edited a volume of essays titled The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Eerdmans). In this work, Bauckham and the other contributors challenged the widely held notion that each of the four Gospels were originally written to individual and isolated communities. In The Epistles for All Christians, David Smith affirms this general thesis and presents further evidence for the central claims of The Gospels for All Christians. Whereas for many, the letters of the New Testament should have no bearing on the question of Gospel circulation, Smith argues that there is more overlap here than sometimes presumed.

Smith’s basic argument has four straightforward steps. First, the authors of the New Testament epistles most likely expected their letters to circulate widely. Second, regardless of the intention of the authors, the earliest recipients of these epistles did in fact circulate them broadly. Moreover, the earliest readers of New Testament literature did not make a distinction between genres (i.e., a Gospel vs. an epistle) when it came to the reception and dissemination of these texts. Accordingly, the evidence for a wide circulation of the epistolary literature is corroborating evidence that the distribution of the Gospels had a similar scope.

In the orientation to his study, Smith summarizes and synthesizes both Bauckham’s central argument and also various critical responses to his thesis. Smith notes that much of the discussion has focused on issues of interpretation rather than on the social dynamics of reception and circulation. Further, many proponents of an “open community” model for the Gospels contrast this with an “isolated community” model for the epistles (5–18). One of the critical tools that Smith utilizes in order to correct and clarify these two issues is “social network theory” (19–27). This theoretical model provides a tool for the analysis of information flow between various members of a given community (“to illuminate the connections between nodes,” 20). Smith applies this to the circulation of letters (and Gospels) among the network of the earliest readers in the early church.

One of the benefits of the model of social network theory is the way that it helps explain how an individual (an author) might be influenced and shaped by a broader community of people. For Smith’s purpose, the Gospel authors would have known and been shaped by the prevailing patterns and practices of authors within their social network (i.e., early Christianity). Thus, if the authors in the social network wrote for a broad audience and texts did in fact circulate in this manner in practice, then it is reasonable to assume that the Gospel writers also adopted this basic expectation. The payoff of these observations is that the burden of proof shifts to those making the argument that the New Testament authors expected the circulation of their writing to remain local and relatively isolated from the larger Christian community (see 31–36; 134–39).

Smith’s study also suggests an adjustment to the way the concept of “community” is sometimes defined and employed in biblical studies. Smith concludes that “the overwhelming evidence suggests that early Christian communities were connected, as revealed in the circulation and in the structure of the early Christian clusters, and that many early Christian epistolary authors assumed that interconnectedness when they wrote to one or more of those communities” (139). The presence of theological diversity or disagreement does not speak against this observation, because virtually all communities represented a variety of viewpoints. Consequently, “the objection that early Christian authors of letters or Gospels wrote to those who shared their distinct theological viewpoints alone would need to be demonstrated in order to constitute a legitimate objection” (36).

In addition to the extrabiblical literature that Smith utilizes to support his basic thesis (e.g., the apostolic fathers and the Oxyrhynchus papyri), he also leans heavily on internal evidence from the New Testament collection. These biblical texts present the reader with quite an extensive window into quite an extensive early Christian social network. For example, when examining “Paul’s social network,” a numerically extensive and geographically expansive set of connections is immediately apparent (see 108–118). From Peter and James, to Timothy and Titus, to Priscilla, Aquilla, and Apollos, to Andronicus and Junia, Paul’s named social connections in his letters and the book of Acts reveal a “dense network” (118). 

Along with other examples (e.g., the Johannine network or the network of Jewish Christianity), this evidence reveals the “sub-networks within the early church that help explain the expectation of circulation found in early Christian letters and in the actual practice of circulation” (103). Once the scope and depth of these connections is recognized, it appears not only possible but plausible that the earliest churches shared not only consistent physical fellowship but also frequent textual correspondence.

A further area of interest might be the connections to canon studies. Though Smith’s argument is focused on the social issue of audience, he does mention several implications throughout his study that have bearing on the formation of the New Testament canon. For example, Smith establishes the plausibility that individual authors composed their texts with a general expectation of broad circulation. This would represent an organic link between the composition and canonization phases of canon formation (a connection that is sometimes downplayed or denied). That this social situation was a generally known reality means that an author could work with this possibility in mind even as he writes to a particular community. In other words, this study provides a fresh angle on the possibility that biblical authors wrote with a form of “canon-consciousness.”

Concerning the community that was receiving these texts, the question is often asked, what is the canonical principle by which they gathered and ordered these writings? Especially in light of the “problem of particularity,” what could justify the inclusion of a letter intended for a single locale to be gathered into a collection that circulates much more broadly? Rather than this set of assumptions, Smith’s work offers an alternative starting point for this question. If the New Testament authors expected a broad audience and a wide circulation, and if they composed their texts with this reality in mind (Smith draws on “social network theory” to establish this possibility), then the subsequent inclusion of those individual texts into a gathered collection of writings with a wider audience would not be wildly antithetical to the “original” scope and intention of the initial writing.

As Smith observes, “in spite of the letters’ particularity, it is precisely through the lens of catholicity that the early church came to view Paul’s epistles in and because of their circulation” (72). Further, “the act of circulating the letters shows that early Christians saw these particular texts to have a wider relevance than their initial audiences” (73). From this scenario, what effect this practice had on the disseminated texts is worth considering. The context of the public reading of Scripture (e.g., 1 Tim 4:13) and the expectation that Paul’s letters were to be read in the presence of the gathered community (e.g., 1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16) prepared the way for the acceptance of a burgeoning New Testament collection.

Smith’s suggestion at this juncture is that the common circulation of texts in the Christian community was a feature of this process as well. “As texts from other communities began to be circulated,” he explains, “the most opportune time for everyone to hear them would have been in communal gatherings” (133). These communal reading events that involved circulated texts in worship gatherings likely “gave rise to their later, authoritative status” as these writings were “read alongside texts that were already considered authoritative” (133). These circulated Christian texts, then, likely “took a share of that authority due to their being read together” (133).

Overall, this monograph features a clear thesis and careful argumentation. Because the scope of Smith’s modest argument is tightly focused, many will find the basic conclusion offered here compelling. There are also several avenues that Smith does not pursue that might build upon his straightforward analysis of the relevant primary sources. As a further support for the important reminder that the Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament circulated broadly by both design and by social circumstance, this volume too deserves a wide and sympathetic readership.

.Also in JETS 64.3 (September 2021): 620–22.

Book Review
July 19, 2022


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