Was the early church "high and dry" being without Scripture until the 3rd centrury?


#1

“The Church did not have Scripture for the first 300 years of existence.”

I have heard this arguement many times on this website. It is a very unbalanced and illinformed arguement. I am not saying this to argue for either side (Protestant or Catholic) right now, just to correct a misrepresentation (although this is often done by Catholics arguing for the necessary role of infallible tradition in the early Church).

If you have studied the first centuries of the church you would quickly find out that the early Church WAS NOT “high and dry” with regards to the New Testament (much less the old). Much of the church had MOST of the New Testament from its very inception.

  1. Paul’s letters were immediately accepted as Scripture and passed into circulation very early. By the second century it was being passed on as a groups called the Pauline corpus. Many early fathers demonstate this by quoting from these documents (Clem quotes from Romans, 1 Cor. Gal, Eph, Col. 2 Thes at least; Polycarp Ignatius and Justin all quote from many of Paul’s letters; Ignatius and Justin do as well). And of course, it goes without saying that the Romans had Romans, Corinthians had Corinthians, Ephesians had Ephesians, etc . . .
    Even Peter, speaking to scattered bretheren, talks about the Pauline letters suggesting that his many readers from many different places may have had copies (2 Pet. 3:16).
  2. The Synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mk, Lk) were all accetped without question very early on by the Church. They were in immediate circulation. Many of the early writers quote from them with great authority showing that they were widely accepted and circulated. Again Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, and Justin all quote from some, if not all the Gospel (including John) demonstrating that most of the Church had been exposed to the Gospels. Paul even quotes from Luke calling it Scripture (1 Tim 5:18).
  3. Acts was also understood to be inspired very early (at least by the begining of the second century. The Muratorian fragment includes Acts. Irenaus had a copy. There is no reason to assume that Acts was not accepted and circulated very early as was Luke’s gospel.
  4. The Muratorian Canon refers to 90% of the New Testament as being accepted by 190.

As can be evidenced by just taking the Synoptics, Acts, and the Pauline courpus, by the first century, 80% of the New Testament was in circulation throughout the entire church. Most of the major local churches probebly had all of these letters and other churches more than likely knew of them and had access to them. In other words, the essentials of the Gospel were in written, inspired form throughout virtually the entire Church.

Therefore, the arguemnt that the Church did not have the New Testament until the 4th century is absolutely wrong, uninformed, and misleading. The argument that infallible tradition is necessary for the establisment of the early church is “folk theology” and many people on this site are engaging in it. It does not represent the truth, but mutilates it so that a desired goal can be accomplished.

I am not saying that you are doing this willingly, but, please, study the issues first. Represent the truth correctly. Bad and misleading argumentation doesn’t get anyone very far.

I am certainly open to debate about this issue. I pray that you all are doing well.

Michael


#2

You said:

the arguemnt that the Church did not have the New Testament until the 4th century is absolutely wrong

Obviously, many apostolic books were accepted as sacred writings even in the first century. However, significant portions of the NT were still under dispute for many centuries to come.

Furthermore, other books currently not considered Scripture were thought to be Scripture. So, the NT “as we know it today” was not *universally *fixed as Sacred Scripture until after the 4th century.

For example, St. Irenaeus (ca. AD 189) asserts:

Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, “First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence. He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one.” [Book 2, First Commandment, of the **Shepherd of Hermas].

(4.20.2. of Adversus Haereses) It seems St. Irenaeus thought the Shepherd of Hermas was “Scripture.”

Also, St. John Damascene (ca. AD 743) included the Canons of the Holy Apostles in the New Testament (Jurgens, *Faith of the Early Fathers, *Volume 3, pages 341-342).

In the West, the canon of Scripture was fixed (by local synods) in the 4th century. However, this canon was not universally fixed until the Council of Florence in the 15th century. In response to Protestant claims against this canon, the Council of Trent made this same canon definitive, that is, universally AND immutably fixed (de fide dogma).


#3

According to Protestant scholar, Phillip Schaff:

The council of Hippo in 393, and the third (according to another reckoning the sixth) council of Carthage in 397, under the influence of Augustine, who attended both***, fixed the catholic canon of the Holy Scriptures***, including the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, and prohibited the reading of other books in the churches, excepting the Acts of the Martyrs on their memorial days. These two African councils, with Augustine, give forty-four books as the canonical books of the Old Testament, in the following order: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings (the two of Samuel and the two of Kings), two books of Paralipomena (Chronicles), Job, the Psalms, five books of Solomon, the twelve minor Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, two books of Ezra, two books of Maccabees. The New Testament canon is the same as ours.

This decision of the transmarine church however, was subject to ratification; and the concurrence of the Roman See it received when Innocent I. and Gelasius I. (a.d. 414) repeated the same index of biblical books.

This canon remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session.

(Schaff, P., History of the Christian Church, Ch. IX, § 118. Sources of Theology – Scripture and Tradition.


#4

Michael, you are doubtless correct in saying that the collection of documents we now know as the New Testament were widely known and used almost from the moment of their writing, and that they were revered because of who wrote them.

When do you believe they became recognized as “Scripture” in a way that would give them an authority they did not enjoy before they were recognized as such?

For example, did the Church at Corinth know that it was receiving “scripture” when Paul wrote those letters? My guess is that they didn’t (a Priest I know likes to speculate about what might have been in the letters that the Corinthians wrote back to Paul!).

Did Paul know he was writing “scripture?” Or Luke? Or Peter?


#5

I think that we should understand that most if not all of what we refer to Scriptures in the early Church was passed around as “oral” and not written. Maybe the larger areas might have copies of Paul’s letters but the Gospels were more than likely transmitted orally. You would also have to imagine that in most situations when you heard a Gospel story it might be the last time you would hear it and everyone would have to commit the stories to memory to pass them on to their children and friends. In John’s Gospel I believe that he mentions the volumes of sayings from Jesus that were not written down.

MikeB.


#6

Maybe from a logistical point of view, the scribing of scripture is a bit more of a daughting task then compared to now.


#7

[quote=MikeB.]I think that we should understand that most if not all of what we refer to Scriptures in the early Church was passed around as “oral” and not written. Maybe the larger areas might have copies of Paul’s letters but the Gospels were more than likely transmitted orally. You would also have to imagine that in most situations when you heard a Gospel story it might be the last time you would hear it and everyone would have to commit the stories to memory to pass them on to their children and friends. In John’s Gospel I believe that he mentions the volumes of sayings from Jesus that were not written down.

MikeB.
[/quote]

This is an aspect of pre-literate and pre-Guttenberg cultures that is virtually incomprehensible to us. Reading/printing has destroyed our ability to commit massive amounts of material to memory – which was common and IS common today in illiterate societies…

That said, I find it difficult to swallow the idea that things like the letters of Paul were not copied, copied, and copied for circulation among the churches. Nevertheless, during the nearly incessant persecution of the Church up until Constantine, being in possession of Christian writings was an automatic ticket to the Arena; you can bet that oral transmission was a primary means of getting the word from place to place. If not, why so few extant manuscripts/fragments dating before the 4th Century?


#8

Let me claify once again that the majority of the early church, as the argument was made above, and as most of you all have expressed agreement with, there is no validity in saying that people ONLY relied upon tradition. Tradition, at this point was a factor, but the evidence described above shows that it was not either the only factor, nor the most important factor.

As well, many of the traditions were based upon the written words of the apostles. To this degree they were infallible.

Some have said that the illiteracy of the early church has a bering on this situation. I fail to see any connection at all. It makes little difference whether or not someone could read. My children cannot read, but this does not mean that they have to rely upon tradition per se, they rely upon my words and my teachings. But my teachings are only true to the degree that they represent the words of God as expressed through the apostles as recorded in the New Testament. Therefore, since the NT Scriptures (at least 80% of them) were in circulation and widely accepted as inspired (agian, notice Peter’s words about the Pauline corpus), people tradition may have only been true to the degree that they adhered to the apostles original teachings as the have been recorded, the same as my teaching of my illiterate children.

Michael


#9

That said, I find it difficult to swallow the idea that things like the letters of Paul were not copied, copied, and copied for circulation among the churches. Nevertheless, during the nearly incessant persecution of the Church up until Constantine, being in possession of Christian writings was an automatic ticket to the Arena; you can bet that oral transmission was a primary means of getting the word from place to place. If not, why so few extant manuscripts/fragments dating before the 4th Century?

Actually, if you study text criticism, it is amazing how much we DO have before the fourth century. Granted, not as much as after, but this is only expected since Christianity and Christian literature was illegal until 312. After this time, there would have been more of a collaborative and legal effort to produce more of the Scriptures. But the fact still remains, the most major local churches had access to most, if not all the NT. Therefore, everyone DID have access to the NT shortly after the time of their writting and certainly before the last apostle died (ca A.D. 95-100).

Michael


#10

[quote=michaelp]Let me claify once again that the majority of the early church, as the argument was made above, and as most of you all have expressed agreement with, there is no validity in saying that people ONLY relied upon tradition. Tradition, at this point was a factor, but the evidence described above shows that it was not either the only factor, nor the most important factor.

As well, many of the traditions were based upon the written words of the apostles. To this degree they were infallible.

Some have said that the illiteracy of the early church has a bering on this situation. I fail to see any connection at all. It makes little difference whether or not someone could read. My children cannot read, but this does not mean that they have to rely upon tradition per se, they rely upon my words and my teachings. But my teachings are only true to the degree that they represent the words of God as expressed through the apostles as recorded in the New Testament. Therefore, since the NT Scriptures (at least 80% of them) were in circulation and widely accepted as inspired (agian, notice Peter’s words about the Pauline corpus), people tradition may have only been true to the degree that they adhered to the apostles original teachings as the have been recorded, the same as my teaching of my illiterate children.

Michael
[/quote]

So when did those writings become known to the Church as equal to the Law and the Prophets?


#11

Obviously, many apostolic books were accepted as sacred writings even in the first century. However, significant portions of the NT were still under dispute for many centuries to come.

I think that this is overstated. I just demonstrated how there was not “significant” portions of the NT that was under dispute.

Furthermore, other books currently not considered Scripture were thought to be Scripture. So, the NT “as we know it today” was not *universally *fixed as Sacred Scripture until after the 4th century.

For example, St. Irenaeus (ca. AD 189) asserts:
It seems St. Irenaeus thought the Shepherd of Hermas was “Scripture.”

Also, St. John Damascene (ca. AD 743) included the Canons of the Holy Apostles in the New Testament (Jurgens, *Faith of the Early Fathers, *Volume 3, pages 341-342).

Granted this is true. But this does not change the fact that the majority of the NT was thought to be inspired and availible by most if not all the early Church. Even in these who possible thought that select few other books were to be included, they all had about 80% of the NT correct. And the part that they did (Gospels, Pauine corpus, and Acts) contain the essence, indeed, much more than the essesnce, of the Gospel.

Therefore, again, it is wrong to argue that people did not have the NT until the 3rd or 4th century.

In the West, the canon of Scripture was fixed (by local synods) in the 4th century. However, this canon was not universally fixed until the Council of Florence in the 15th century. In response to Protestant claims against this canon, the Council of Trent made this same canon definitive, that is, universally AND immutably fixed (de fide dogma).

I agree that the Church did not “officially” recognize all the current Scriptures until later, but again, this does not change the fact that most of the early church had most of the NT even by the end of the first century. That is my only purpose with this post.

Michael


#12

[quote=mercygate]So when did those writings become known to the Church as equal to the Law and the Prophets?
[/quote]

The church as the body of Christ, or the Church as a unified institution?


#13

[quote=michaelp] I agree that the Church did not “officially” recognize all the current Scriptures until later, but again, this does not change the fact that most of the early church had most of the NT even by the end of the first century. That is my only purpose with this post.

Michael
[/quote]

Yeah. We get that. No problem.

The question would never have arisen in this setting if somebody in the 16th century hadn’t summarily rejected several books of Scripture as not part of the canon, insisting that only the remainder could be looked to as the exclusive authoritative resource in the formulation of doctrine.


#14

michaelp,

there is no validity in saying that people ONLY relied upon tradition. Tradition, at this point was a factor, but the evidence described above shows that it was not either the only factor, nor the most important factor.

Depends upon how you define tradition. It was apostolic tradition that, unlike the claims of the Sadducees, Sacred Scripture included more than just the Torah. So, in this sense, what was considered Scripture IS a part of tradition, not something apart from it.

So, first comes tradition, then came the traditional understanding of what Scripture is and teaches. Oral tradition came before written tradition, but once written tradition was agreed upon, oral tradition did not then go away or become less trustworthy that it was prior to written tradition.


#15

[quote=michaelp] . . .If you have studied the first centuries of the church you would quickly find out that the early Church WAS NOT “high and dry” with regards to the New Testament (much less the old). Much of the church had MOST of the New Testament from its very inception.

  1. Paul’s letters were immediately accepted as Scripture and passed into circulation very early. By the second century it was being passed on as a groups called the Pauline corpus. Many early fathers demonstate this by quoting from these documents (Clem quotes from Romans, 1 Cor. Gal, Eph, Col. 2 Thes at least; Polycarp Ignatius and Justin all quote from many of Paul’s letters; Ignatius and Justin do as well). And of course, it goes without saying that the Romans had Romans, Corinthians had Corinthians, Ephesians had Ephesians, etc . . .
    Even Peter, speaking to scattered bretheren, talks about the Pauline letters suggesting that his many readers from many different places may have had copies (2 Pet. 3:16).
  2. The Synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mk, Lk) were all accetped without question very early on by the Church. They were in immediate circulation. Many of the early writers quote from them with great authority showing that they were widely accepted and circulated. Again Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, and Justin all quote from some, if not all the Gospel (including John) demonstrating that most of the Church had been exposed to the Gospels. Paul even quotes from Luke calling it Scripture (1 Tim 5:18).
  3. Acts was also understood to be inspired very early (at least by the begining of the second century. The Muratorian fragment includes Acts. Irenaus had a copy. There is no reason to assume that Acts was not accepted and circulated very early as was Luke’s gospel.
  4. The Muratorian Canon refers to 90% of the New Testament as being accepted by 190.

As can be evidenced by just taking the Synoptics, Acts, and the Pauline courpus, by the first century, 80% of the New Testament was in circulation throughout the entire church. Most of the major local churches probebly had all of these letters and other churches more than likely knew of them and had access to them. In other words, the essentials of the Gospel were in written, inspired form throughout virtually the entire Church.

Therefore, the arguemnt that the Church did not have the New Testament until the 4th century is absolutely wrong, uninformed, and misleading. The argument that infallible tradition is necessary for the establisment of the early church is “folk theology” and many people on this site are engaging in it. It does not represent the truth, but mutilates it so that a desired goal can be accomplished.

I am not saying that you are doing this willingly, but, please, study the issues first. Represent the truth correctly. Bad and misleading argumentation doesn’t get anyone very far.

I am certainly open to debate about this issue. I pray that you all are doing well.

Michael
[/quote]

Sir: I have studied early Christian history and the history of the Bible.

And I’ll say it again. The New Testament and the Bible as we know them did not exist until the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century. It is not wrong, it is not misleading, it is historical, verifiable fact.

The Catholic Church had in her possession from her birth the 46 Greek Septuagint writings that she inherited from Jesus and the Apostles. The Church always considered these writings “Scripture” – but not all of the writings were accepted by everyone, everywhere, until the Church established the canon.

Twenty-seven of her own writings that the Church eventually selected, canonized, and named the New Testament were known by some local churches, and were eventually circulated to others, as soon as they each came into existence. But that doesn’t mean that they were considered “Scripture” by everyone, everywhere, from the moment they were written. And it doesn’t mean that some other writings that circulated which didn’t make the cut when the canon was set were NOT considered “Scripture” by some of the local churches – because they were.

The canon of both the OT and the NT was in flux for the first four centuries of Christianity. The Catholic Church put all doubts to rest about which writings were “Scripture” and which were not at the Councils of Rome (382), Hippo (393), and Carthage (397, 419). Carthage sent its decrees to Rome for approval, and they were confirmed as can be seen in Pope Innocent I’s letter of 405.
She canonized the 46 writings of the Greek Septuagint and named them the Old Testament. She canonized and named her own writings the New Testament. She put these collections of writings together and named them ta Biblia – the Books, the Bible.

To be continued.


#16

[quote=mercygate]Yeah. We get that. No problem.

The question would never have arisen in this setting if somebody in the 16th century hadn’t summarily rejected several books of Scripture as not part of the canon, insisting that only the remainder could be looked to as the exclusive authoritative resource in the formulation of doctrine.
[/quote]

That is an issue of the Deuterocanonical books that provide for great discussion, but I don’t think will help this issue. I don’t really want to do any more than I have done at this point. Only if people have more to add or discuss concerning the condition of the New Testament in the early Church.

Thanks.

Michael


#17

everyone DID have access to the NT

What do you mean by this? Do you mean that every family had their own written Bible to read? Or do you mean that every family had access to the Church, where they heard the Word of God professed? If the former, I don’t believe theirs sufficient evidence to make that claim. And what if I was in one of those communities who did not accept the Book of Revelation as part of the NT?


#18

We can regard Scripture as having three elements, Concept, Content, and Status.

Concept is the realization that certain writings are inspired by God. They are therefore DIFFERENT in kind from other writings that may discuss the same issues. In Christ’s time, the Jews had the Concept (and had had it for more than a thousand years.)

Content is the actual books that make up the collection of scripture. In Christ’s time, every book of the Old Testament existed, but not one word of the New Testament had been written.

Status is the selection of a specific book or document as canonical. In Christ’s time you could get into rip-roaring arguments over status – for example, the Saducees accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentatuch or Torah.)

In the case of the New Testament, Content came first. Even after Paul’s death the idea of a NEW Testament did not exist. The term “Novarum Testamentum” is first used by Tertullian, but the context makes it clear he means the Church by that term, not “New Book.”

The Concept aparently emerges from reading texts at mass. The Moritorian Fragment is a list of books or documents suitable to be read at mass. It is NOT a canon of the bible. There was an attempt to write a systematized account of Christianity in the Second Century, the Diatessarion of Tatian. This was an attempt basically to create a New Testament – but it didn’t fly.

Status was a major issue – by the time the Concept was taking hold, there were dozens and dozens of candidate books, from the Shepard of Hermas to the Gospel of Wisdom.

Not until the very late century did the three elements coalesce to produce the New Testament. Prior to that, the New Testament cannot be said to have existed – any more than we can walk into a library and declare all the books in the Religion section to be a new, Third Bible.

And the key to forming the Canon was Church tradition – the same tradition that sustained the Church for those 350 years prior to the formation of the Canon.


#19

[quote=itsjustdave1988]michaelp,
Depends upon how you define tradition. It was apostolic tradition that, unlike the claims of the Sadducees, Sacred Scripture included more than just the Torah. So, in this sense, what was considered Scripture IS a part of tradition, not something apart from it.

So, first comes tradition, then came the traditional understanding of what Scripture is and teaches. Oral tradition came before written tradition, but once written tradition was agreed upon, oral tradition did not then go away or become less trustworthy that it was prior to written tradition.
[/quote]

This word “tradition” can easily be placed in our traditional boxes if we are not careful. Here is what I am saying, the Gospel was spead by the apostles who carried the signs of a true apostle (2 Cor 12:12). These signs are the only reason why people believed them over another “so called apostle” (2 Cor 12). They carried this message with authority until they died. Before they died, they wrote their message down. Others recieved this message in both oral and written form. The written form was distributed immediately througout the Church with little or no dispute concerning 80% of it. The oral teaching were expanded to include both what people knew of the apostles written teachings and their oral teachings.

Michael


#20

Part 2

Paul’s letters were first to gain general acceptance. 2 Peter, which some scholars believe was written in the first quarter of the second century, refers to “all his [Paul’s] letters” and “the other scriptures” (the Greek Septuagint) in the same sentence, implying that they were considered scripture. A list of Paul’s letters is not given.

If the author of 2 Peter meant “all his letters,” three of them are missing – lost in antiquity – and our NT in incomplete. For you Sola Scriptura folks, that’s a problem. For Catholics, is isn’t. Unlike all Protestant churches, the Catholic Church is not based on the Bible. Rather, the NT is based upon the teaching Church.

Paul couldn’t have quoted from Luke. Paul was beheaded by order of Nero c. 64. Luke was written after the destruction of the Temple (post-70 A.D.). Luke and Paul both quoted from Deuteronomy (25:4) and Paul called ***Dt ***scripture.

Eusebius of Caesaria wrote the first surviving History of the Church outside of Acts. At that time – A.D. 314-24 – the status of the writings was as follows:

Recognized: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Thirteen Pauline Epistles, 1 Peter, 1 John, 1 Clement.

Disputed: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Revelation.

Many writings were considered and rejected.

By the end of the fourth century, when the Catholic Church set the canon, Clement – “recognized” by the first quarter of that century – was excluded, and the writings that had been previously regarded as “rejected” were accepted.

One of the 3 most important biblical manuscripts in existence is Codex Sinaiticus. It contains the Epistle of Barnabas and part of the Shepherd of Hermas showing that in the mid-4th century when it was written, Barnabas and Hermas were considered “scripture.”

The making of the New Testament and the Bible was a centuries-long winnowing process. And the Holy Spirit guided the Church to all truth (Jn 14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-15 et al.).

Your arguments are factually wrong. The only “folk theology” was presented by you.

JMJ Jay


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