Thursday, May 15, 2008

When Did the New Testament Become Scripture?

As I noted in my last post, 85% of the manuscript evidence for the New Testament comes from the eleventh century or later. This is according to the Chair of the Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University, Michael Holmes. Dr. Holmes was on the conservative team at the recent Greer-Heard Forum where Bart Ehrman debated Dan Wallace. Moreover, according to Dr. Holmes, prior to the end of the second century “we have almost no manuscript evidence for any of the New Testament documents and for some books the gap extends to two centuries or more.” As I see it, the significance of the distribution of the manuscripts is that the overwhelming majority of the manuscript evidence comes from the period after Constantine when orthodox Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire while we have very little evidence for the earlier period when Christians were a persecuted minority composed of competing sects. So the question becomes whether it is reasonable to believe that the New Testament writings were copied as faithfully in the first century or so after they were written as the were later.

One reason to doubt the reliability of the earliest copyists is that they did not know they were copying “scripture.” The first people to copy any of the New Testament documents would have been Paul’s converts. Paul’s letters indicate that most of these converts were pagans whose religions had no tradition of scripture. While Paul would certainly have explained the significance of the Jewish scriptures, they would have understood that the purpose of scripture was to point to the Messiah. They would have no reason to expect God to further reveal himself through human authors once the Messiah had come particularly since they expected the Messiah to return within their lifetimes.

Evidence that Paul’s epistles were not considered “scripture” can be found in the letter that Clement wrote to the Corinthians around 95 A.D. Throughout the letter Clement introduces quotations from the Old Testament with “scripture saith,” “it is written,” or “the Lord says.” On the other hand, when he uses phrases from the New Testament epistles, he does not even acknowledge that he is quoting from someone else’s writings. Clement speaks at one point of the first letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians “under the inspiration of the Spirit,” but he does not quote anything from that letter as authoritative teaching. Clement plainly understands the concept of scripture and he knows how to designate something as scripture and he does not use the designation for Paul’s writings.

At one point, Clement does introduce a verse found in 1 Corinthians 2:9 with the phrase “Scripture saith,” but the verse is a paraphrase of Isaiah 64:4. According to Clement: Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which He hath prepared for them that wait for Him. Paul writes: No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. And finally, Isaiah says: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. While I do not doubt that Clement was working from Paul’s letter, the fact that he changes Paul’s paraphrase to make it conform more closely to Isaiah leads me to believe that he viewed Isaiah as the ultimate source of the quote. Standing alone, this might not be sufficient to resolve the ambiguity, but I think it is when it is combined with the consistent differences in his citations of Old and New Testament sources in the rest of the letter.

When I look at the writings of the early church fathers, I see a progression in the treatment of the New Testament writings. Clement acknowledges the Old Testament as authoritative scripture, but he doesn’t demonstrate any knowledge of the gospels, and he lifts phrases from various epistles without attribution. Fifteen years later, Ignatius lifts phrases from both gospels and epistles, but he does not identify his sources or acknowledge that he is relying on some written source. In 120 A.D comes Polycarp’s letter which again quotes New Testament sources without naming his sources. In 150 A.D., Justin Martyr attributes quotations from the gospels to “memoirs of the apostles.” In 180 A.D., Irenaeous defines the four canonical gospels as the authoritative and exclusive accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and identifies their authors. After Irenaeous, the New Testament writings are explicitly treated as scripture. That progression suggests to me that the New Testament writings came to be seen as authoritative over time rather than being viewed as such from the start.

It seems obvious to me that someone who thinks he is copying the very words of Almighty God is going to be more careful than someone who thinks that he is copying a letter from a guy named Paul, particularly if the copyist is one of the people that Paul is trying to straighten out in the letter. However, this is only one of the reasons to question whether the stability seen in the texts in the later centuries can be inferred in the earlier period. Additional factors include the higher rate of variants in the few early manuscripts that do exist, the theological conflicts between competing sects during the period, the incidence of forgeries, and the absence of trained scribes.


  1. You are still arguing from silence on Clement’s letter.

    It is entirely possible that Clement did not want to use overt references to Paul’s earlier letters because of his audience. Paul’s 1 Corinthians would have been in the hands of the members of the Corinthian church, so maybe Clement wanted to appeal to other sources.


  2. I don't think I am arguing from silence, but as I noted before, there would be nothing inherently invalid about doing so.

    The fact of the matter is that Clement treats New Testament writings in his letter differently than he treats Old Testament writings. I admit that my case might be a little stronger if Clement had explicitly written, "I don't consider Paul's writings to be scripture," but unfortunately there would not be any reason for him to do so. I have to make reasonable inferences based on the evidence available and "maybe he did not want to call it scripture even though he knew it was" doesn't strike me as very persuasive.

  3. J.K. Jones,

    How does it make any sense that the writing was in the recipient audience’s hand, and that is why Paul would not refer to it? He referred to the Tanakh, which was arguably equally in the recipient audience’s hands. I think this argument fails. Here is why:

    1. This is a persuasive writing. This is not some Christmas card in which Clement is informing the intended readership Johnny did well in hockey, and Suzy got a scholarship. The author is purposely writing to persuade the reader to modify their behavior and belief. And in doing so, is utilizing every tool within his possession—including referring to sacred writings.

    2. The author believes that either 1) sacred writings are an authoritative form of persuading the audience or 2) the audience believes sacred writings are an authoritative form of persuasion. For either of these reasons, numerous times, the author bolsters his argument by referring to “sacred scriptures.” This tool is used throughout the book. See 4:1, 6:3, 8:2, 8:4, 13:3, 14:4, 23:3, 28:3, 34:6, 35:7, 36:3, 39:3, 46:2, 50:4, 50:6, 56:3 to give an idea of the proliferation of its use.

    3) The author and the audience are familiar with Paul. The author refers to Paul’s martyrdom in 5:5-7, and the epistle of Paul to Corinth in 47. Chapter 42 and 44 talks of the apostles’ work (presumably including Paul.) The author does NOT show a reluctance to not refer to Paul, his writing, or his work. I apologize for the double negative, but the claim you seem to be making is that since the audience already has the work of Paul in their hands, 1 Clement doesn’t want to bother mentioning. The audience knows of Paul’s death—yet the author mentions it. The audience knows of Paul’s work—yet the author mentions it. The audience knows of Paul’s epistle—the author mentions it.

    I am hard-pressed to be convinced of the argument, “They already had it, so 1 Clement didn’t want to appeal to it” when we see other examples of things they already had concerning Paul which they already had and 1 Clement DID appeal to it.

    4) The letter speaks of things which were referred to in 1 Corinthians. It covers ground which was in Paul’s epistle. Resurrection in 24-26, filthy desires in 28, justified by faith in 32:4, the church as a body in 37:5 and of love in 49:5.

    5) Finally, the epistle compares and contrasts the Apostles’ work with others who wrote scripture. In 42 the author speaks of apostles preaching to the audience—not writing to them. In Chapter 43 the author speaks of Moses writing down laws to avoid “the strife that is to come” in contrast to Apostles appointing leaders (NOT writing) to avoid “the strife that is to come.”

    Taking those points into consideration, it is more likely than not the author of 1 Clement did not consider Paul’s epistle to be a scared writing. It just doesn’t make sense to have reference to “sacred writing” be such a prolific tool in the author’s arsenal, reference made repeatedly to Paul and his work, and not connect the two because of some desire to “appeal to different sources.”

    Like arguing for the deity of Christ based upon the book of Jude, ‘cause the audience already had the gospel of John, so why bother referring to it? Does that make sense?

    (P.S. Not to be contrariwise, Vinny, but I doubt the author had a copy of Paul’s letter. If you meant “working from Paul’s letter” as a familiarity from remembering hearing it orally or reading it at one time, I agree. If you meant working from a copy, I doubt it, since he seems to be so uncertain as to specific contents when referring to in it Chapter 47. Only my opinion, of course.)

  4. Dagoods,

    Thanks for laying out that argument. I find it quite persuasive.

    It is my understanding that Clement's quotation matches Paul's paraphrase of Isaiah other than that single change. I did not give a lot of thought to the possibility that he was working from memory rather than a text. I agree that he probably did not have the original.

  5. Regarding Isaiah 64:4, I wonder whether it is possible that there was a Greek translation of Isaiah in circulation in the first century that rendered the verse that way. In that case, Clement could have been relying on the same source as Paul rather than on Paul himself. I have no idea whether that is plausible or not.

  6. Don't forget his words in chapter 47 which say Paul wrote by the inspiration of the Spirit. He also tells the readers (in that chapter) to take up Paul's epistle- does one really need to quote something at length if you're just going to tell the people to read it afterward?

    I probably would- but I'm boring. Although I have used the trick of talking about something which I suspect people might not believe and then casually suggesting they read someone they respect, whom I know agrees with me. Doing so tends to minimize their objections. Maybe he did that! That's a hypothetical ill-informed guess by the way :p

    Also, and this assumes you assign Clementine authorship to Clement's 2nd epistle, you have it saying in chapter 14 "And the Books and the Apostles plainly declare that the Church existeth not now for the first time..." placing the books of the apostles on level with scripture, and forming them into their own grouping.

  7. Jeff,

    You speak to this topic better than I do. I appreciate what you said. 1 Clement is not the only thing we have to go on.


    What you have here, is an argument from silence. Clement does not say there were no written gospels. He does not say Paul’s writings were not held to be scripture. I don’t have to establish Clement’s motives and audience to refute an argument from silence.

    “… the author speaks of apostles preaching to the audience—not writing to them.”

    That means Clement’s audience would have known the stories from the oral tradition. Clement would have had the choice between appealing to accurate oral tradition or to written gospels. If that tradition was well established, then Clement could have chosen to appeal to the facts known through tradition that were common knowledge instead of appealing to the written gospels.

    “…This is a persuasive writing…And in doing so, is utilizing every tool within his possession—including referring to sacred writings… It just doesn’t make sense to have reference to “sacred writing” be such a prolific tool in the author’s arsenal, reference made repeatedly to Paul and his work, and not connect the two because of some desire to “appeal to different sources.””

    It might be persuasive to appeal to other sources and merely incorporate the contents of Paul’s letter by passing reference. Clement would appeal to the authority of Paul’s letter, already accepted as Scripture by some but not all, and bolster his argument by appealing to other sources. Maybe those other sources would have appealed to part of Clement’s audience.

    Peter had already affirmed Paul’s writings as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Peter also mentioned that ignorant and unstable people were twisting Paul’s words. Maybe there were some of those people at Corinth that Clement was addressing. Clement would then need to appeal to sources outside Paul’s letter that would make his case. (Please note that we still have to deal with what Peter said no matter what we say about 1 Clement.)

    “…Paul’s martyrdom…the epistle of Paul to Corinth…Resurrection…filthy desires… justified by faith…the church as a body…love…”

    So what do you do, personally, with all of the things that Clement does affirm? He seems to hit upon many of the central doctrines of historic Christianity. Should those things make a difference in our lives?


  8. Jeff, the translation of 1 Clement 47:3 is not clear to me.

    J.B Lightfoot translates it: “Of a truth he charged you in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas
    and Apollos, because that even then ye had made parties.”Here

    Hoole: “Of a truth, he warned you spiritually, in a letter, concerning himself, and concerning Cephas and Apollos, because even then there were factions among you;“Here

    Roberts-Donaldson: “Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.” Here

    I couldn’t find the actual Greek, but the transliteration Here uses “pneumatikw/j” which is obviously different than the theopneusios of 2 Tim. 3:16.

    Do you have any more cites or spots I could look that this is translated “by inspiration of the Spirit” is correct by Roberts-Donaldson?


  9. J.K. Jones,

    There are sewer rats in your pantry. No, really there are.

    You may point out that you; as well as every other person, has never seen sewer rats in your pantry.

    “Piffly,” says I, “This is an Argument from Silence. Easily refuted. Just because you (and everyone else) has not seen them does not mean they aren’t there.”

    You point out how you have never smelled sewer rats, and have never heard them.

    “Nonsense,” I cry, “This is an Argument from Silence. Easily refuted. Just because no one has seen, smelled or heard them does not mean they are not there.”

    You point out how you have never seen any sewer rats’ results. No “extra raisins” in the cupboard. No hairs. No boxes of foods chewed. No sawdust where they broke into the pantry.

    “Absurd,” I exclaim, “This is an Argument from Silence. Easily refuted. Just because there is no evidence does not mean it is not possible.”

    I hope this tale explains why simply responding to a statement “Argument for Silence” is not very persuasive.

    We can do more than review ancient documents and proclaim, “Because it doesn’t say _____, we can infer whatever we want, either positive or negative, and no one can say anything against it, because it would be an argument from silence.”

    (And this goes both ways. We could claim, “The Muratorian List” does not include the “Acts of Paul” because the recipients already understood it, by oral tradition, to be canonical. If you say, “But it wasn’t on the list!” We could reply, “Ah—Argument from Silence. Simply because it doesn’t say it, doesn’t mean it was not canonical.” Not very convincing, eh?

    Scholars try to do better than send over missiles of “Argument from Silence.” Some try to figure out more from what we have.)
    Would you include the story of the phoenix in Chapter 25 under “accurate oral tradition”?

    2 Peter was written in the first half of the Second Century. By then we have evidence of (at least) the collecting of Paul’s works. As Vinny indicated, the canonicity of these epistles/gospels did eventually develop. 2 Peter is a (late) demonstration of such a development. Obviously I agree with the large number (probably a majority by now) of Biblical scholars who date 2 Peter late and make persuasive arguments it was not written by Peter.

    J.K. Jones: So what do you do, personally, with all of the things that Clement does affirm? He seems to hit upon many of the central doctrines of historic Christianity. Should those things make a difference in our lives?

    All I am discussing is the arguments (persuasive, in my opinion) that 1 Clement only considered the Tanakh as Sacred writing. Not Paul’s writings. Not any gospels which Clement may have had access to.

    But if you want my personal opinion—the greatest interest I have regarding 1 Clement is that every methodology which I have seen to determine what is canonical cannot consistently include the epistle to Hebrews and exclude 1 Clement. At some point, the person will have to go inconsistent in the method.

    (Which, as you can see--is quite off-topic.)

  10. Once again, thank you Dagoods for improving my post by making some very valuable points about “argument from silence.”

    The fact of the matter is that we have so little data from the first century of Christianity that there would be no way to talk intelligently about what might have been going on if we were precluded from making inferences based on the matters the writers declined to discuss.

    I would point out to J.K. that Christian apologists rely heavily on arguments from silence themselves. For example, they argue that because we have no record of any eyewitnesses disputing the disciples’ account of the resurrection, there must have been no such challenges. It is frustrating that apologists seem to think that arguments from silence are inherently fallacious only when skeptics use them.

    The key question with any argument from silence is the strength of the reasons for expecting to find the evidence for the unmentioned thing if that thing were true. In the case of the sewer rats, the expectation that we would find evidence of them is very strong and hence, the inference that can be drawn from the lack of evidence is very strong. In the case of Clement’s understanding of Paul’s letters, I think the expectation that he would have referred to them as authoritative scripture if he believed them to be such is pretty darn strong (although not quite up with the sewer rat example). Regarding Clement’s knowledge of Luke and Mark, I think the expectation is somewhat less strong (but still persuasive) that he would have cited them if he had known of them and viewed them as authoritative.

    Regarding eyewitness accounts to contradict the disciples’ account of the resurrection, I think the expectation is quite low. To my mind, the biggest drag on this expectation is the scarcity of affirmative evidence for the disciples’ accounts. Although there may be good reasons to date the writing of the gospels to the first century, the first evidence of their general circulation comes with Ignatius’ letters around 110 A.D. Prior to this, we have the references in Paul’s letters and Clement’s letter that provide very little detail about the resurrection appearances. I think it would be absurd to expect to find someone contradicting something like the story of the empty tomb before we find evidence that the story was generally known. Please note that I am not arguing here that particular stories were unknown, just that we should not expect to find contrary evidence prior to affirmative evidence.

    Regarding Clement’s reference to Paul’s inspiration, I would simply note that just because all scripture is inspired, it does not mean that every time someone is inspired to write something, he is writing scripture. We know how Clement designates an authoritative writing as scripture from dozens of references in his letter. He uses multiple quotations from Paul’s letters without doing so. In light of this knowledge, I think it becomes very difficult to argue that this was his intent in Chapter 47 even if the Roberts-Donaldson translation is the best.

    Thanks to everyone for their contribution.