Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What is Scripture?

1. The Problem

The definition of “the Scriptures,” in reference to the Christian Bible, as given by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary is, “The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.” One can almost see the smile on his face as he penned these subtly satirical words. He does, however, raise a good question: what is it about the sacred books of the Bible that sets them apart from other religious works? How can the Christian Church be so sure that it has such a monopoly on truth?

The Apostle Paul answers by stating that, “All Scripture is God-breathed”[1], and is thus ultimately useful to us. But what is to be regarded as Scripture? Does Paul’s assertion concerning Scripture count as Scripture? Was this statement even actually written by the Apostle Paul?

“Scripture” is defined in the American Heritage College Dictionary as, “A sacred writing or book or a passage from such, a statement regarded as authoritative”[2]. If Scripture necessarily includes the idea of possessing authority, what qualifies as such? Who has been endowed with the proper authority?

2. The Old Testament

The first question that the Christian Church faced was whether or not to retain the Hebrew canon as an authoritative aspect of their religion. The Old Testament, as Christians call it, focuses on obedience to the Law given by Moses. Christians, however, believed that Jesus had set them free from the majority of that obligation.[3] But the early Church also recognized that “Christianity came into the world as a religion of revelation, and as such claimed a supernatural origin for its message. Its ultimate source, as the theologians of the  early centuries clearly perceived, lay in the Person, words and works of Jesus  Christ in the context of the revelation of which He was the climax.”[4] In other words, Jesus was the culmination of God’s previous revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures and can only be truly appreciated with an understanding of that background. One of the primary reasons, then, that the Church was compelled to retain the Hebrew canon was that it foretold the life and mission of Jesus.[5]

The second most important reason that the early Church found for re-canonizing the Hebrew Scriptures was that Christ and the Apostles obviously regarded them as authoritative.[6] In fact, ten percent of what we now recognize as the New Testament is composed of direct quotes from, or clear allusions to, the Old Testament.[7] And a survey of the New Testament shows that these quotes and allusions are taken from all but five of the Old Testament books (Esther, Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Nahum).

Thus, the early Church retained the Hebrew canon, interpreting any passages allegorically that did not directly apply to them.[8] Eusebius quotes Philo, who wrote no later than A.D. 50, on this subject in regards to some Christians in Egypt: “They read the sacred scriptures, and study their ancestral wisdom philosophically, allegorizing it, since they regard the literal sense as symbolic of a hidden reality revealed in figures.”[9]

3. The Criteria for New Testament Writings

With the Old Testament in place, let us now turn our attention to the documents produced in the Christian era. Because there were so many forged writings (The Gospel of Peter[10], The Revelation of Peter[11], The Epistle of Barnabas[12], and the epistles of Paul to Laodicea and Alexandria[13], among others) and people claiming to be able to edit authentic documents (Marcion’s canon consisted of abridged versions of The Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles[14]), “it seems desirable to consider the criteria by which the Church judged doctrines to be sound or erroneous, orthodox or heretical.”[15]

The first criteria that the Church employed in deciding whether or not to accept a specific document as authoritative was that it had to have been written by an Apostle or one of their close associates.[16] Two reasons for this can be determined. The first is that the Apostles were more closely associated with Jesus in time, thus making their testimony more accurate than contemporary writers. The second is derived from the nature of their office in that the Church recognized that Jesus had chosen specific persons in whom to entrust His message and to carry it forward.

The second criteria for the canonization, and the more important of the two, was doctrinal orthodoxy.[17] Even if a document was supposed to have been written by an Apostle, if it did not agree with the tradition of the Apostles that the Church had received, that document was held to be erroneous.[18]

With these criteria in mind, we will now examine how the early Church viewed each New Testament book, section of books, or writer in each successive period. It must be noted, however, that the information available to us is not complete. Nor can the opinions of one Church historian or one body of believers be generalized to include all Christians at the various periods under study.[19]

4. The Four Gospels

The four Gospels, the accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, known by the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were among the most easily accepted books by the early Church. In all periods of Church history, it was nearly universally believed that these books were penned by the authors to whom they are attributed, thus passing the test for apostolic origination, and that they also contained nothing contrary to apostolic tradition if interpreted in the correct manner.

Matthew was recognized as the former tax collector turned Apostle[20], who tailored his narrative for the Hebrew community of believers.[21] Mark was held to have been the companion of Peter[22], writing his gospel based on the testimony of Peter at the request of some Christians in Rome after Peter had gone there and disproved the heretical teaching of Simon the Magus.[23] On this point, Eusebius quotes Papias, who is, in turn, quoting a presbyter named John, as saying, “Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order,  all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.”[24] The Gospel of Luke was associated with the traveling Gentile doctor, a friend of Paul[25]. And the fourth gospel was maintained as the work of John, the son of Zebedee[26], one of Jesus’ three most privileged disciples[27], writing after his exile to Patmos[28], from the city of Ephesus[29].

Based on the authority of their authorship, these four gospels were accorded canonical recognition throughout the period under study. Matthew was attested to by the “Muratorian fragment,” dating from around 170-180 A.D.[30], by Irenaeus no later than 200[31], by Clement no later than 215[32], Africanus no later than 220[33], Origen no later than 254[34], and in the early 300’s[35]. Mark was testified to by Papias no later than 130 A.D.[36], by the “Muratorian fragment,” Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, and Eusebius. Luke’s known dates are identical to Matthew’s, given above, as well as John’s, with the exception of the reference given by Africanus.

Though there was some discussion concerning the alleged discrepancies in the Gospel accounts, there were never many questions as to the validity or veracity of these four books. For example, Eusebius quotes Africanus’ letter to Aristides in which he provides one possible solution for the harmony of Jesus’ two genealogical records given in Matthew and Luke. At the end of the letter, however, Africanus writes, “This may or may not be the truth of the matter…we must content ourselves with it even if unconfirmed, as we are not in a position to suggest a better or truer one. In any case, the gospel record is true.”34  And Eusebius asserts that any discrepancies in the Gospels are the result of the scope of the book and the audience for which it is intended.36 The four Gospels were officially sealed in 367 in the festal letter of Athanasius, a universally authoritative document as it came from a patriarchal bishop.[37]

5. The Acts of the Apostles

The second section of the New Testament, the book of The Acts of the Apostles, was apparently as easy to classify as acceptable as were the four previously mentioned Gospels. According to Church tradition, Acts has almost always been associated with Luke, the author of the third gospel. Two of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is that both accounts are addressed to a Roman noble named Theophilus[38] and that Acts picks up at the exact time that Luke leaves off.[39] Origen, who wrote no later than 254, comments briefly in support of this tradition[40], and Eusebius, writing in the early 300’s, also attests to Lucan authorship.[41] As the authorship of Acts was nowhere significantly debated, and as there was neither any doubt as to it theological content, it was not difficult for the Church to adopt this book as fully authoritative early on.

The first blatant reference to the authority of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is found in the “Muratorian fragment,” dating from 170-180 A.D., where it is listed as one of those documents completely accepted by the Church[42]. Secondly, Eusebius records its supposedly universal recognition in the early 300’s.[43] As with the Gospels, the final confirmation came in the year 367 with the Easter letter of Athanasius.[44]

6. The Pauline Epistles, including Hebrews

Traditionally, thirteen letters of the New Testament have been attributed to the Apostle Paul. These include the epistles To the Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First Thessalonians, Second Thessalonians, First Timothy, Second Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, all of which bear Paul’s name at the beginning, and/or end, and/or throughout their texts. Because of these attributions, the Church at large usually had no problem in accepting them. There was one epistle, however, that met with some debate. The Epistle to the Hebrews does not clearly contain any direct references to Paul or to any other author. The only hint that may be found is a mentioning of Timothy[45], a known associate of Paul, but it cannot be proven that Timothy would not have been known to other possible writers of the epistle or that another Timothy is not being referred to. Therefore, because this letter could not be absolutely attributed to an Apostle or one of their close associates, the Church was hesitant to adopt it into its canon.

Eusebius acknowledges that some Christians, at least in Rome, did not think that Paul was the author of Hebrews,[46] but he also gives us differing opinions and possible explanations for the problem. He quotes Clement, who wrote no later than 215 A.D., as claiming Pauline authorship for Hebrews and on the issue of the epistle’s anonymity, as saying, “In writing to Hebrews already prejudiced against him and suspicious of him, he was far too sensible to put them off at the start by naming himself.” Clement apparently answered stylistic differences between Hebrews and Paul’s other epistles by saying that Paul originally composed Hebrews in Hebrew and then, allowed Luke to translate it into Greek, the form of which we now have.[47] Eusebius also gives us a quotation by Origen, dating no later than 254, on the subject;

“In the epistle entitled To the Hebrews, the diction does not exhibit the characteristic roughness of speech or phraseology admitted by the Apostle himself, the construction of the sentences is closer to Greek usage, as anyone capable of recognizing differences of style would agree. On the other hand the matter of the epistle is wonderful, and quite equal to the Apostle’s acknowledged writings: the truth of this would be admitted by anyone who had read the Apostle carefully …If I were asked my personal opinion, I would say that the matter is the  Apostle’s but the phraseology and construction are those of someone who  remembered the Apostle’s teaching and wrote his own interpretation of what his master had said. So if any church regards this epistle as Paul’s, it should be commended for so doing, for the primitive Church had every justification for handing it down as his. Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone: the  accounts that have reached us suggest that it was either Clement, who became  Bishop of Rome, or Luke, who wrote the gospel and the Acts.”[48]

The thirteen epistles of Paul are accepted in the “Muratorian fragment,” written between 170 and 180 A.D. The Epistle to the Hebrews, however, is not mentioned, either as an accepted book, a doubtful one, or a rejected writing.[49] Gaius, writing around the year 200, accepted the Pauline corpus with the exception of Hebrews.[50] Clement, however, writing no later than 215, accepted The Epistle to Hebrews as well as the rest of Paul’s letters.[51] Origen, by 254, also accepted Hebrews and the other known writings of Paul.[52] Eusebius himself also attests to the thirteen but is unwilling to either canonize or reject The Epistle to the Hebrews, reporting it simply as a “Disputed Writing.”[53] By 367, with the festal letter of Athanasius, it is clear that the Church as a whole was willing to accept Hebrews alongside the rest of the Pauline canon.[54]

7. The Petrine Epistles

There is not much to be said concerning the two Petrine epistles other than that they both owe their names to the prominent Apostle. They are both completely excluded from any classification in the “Muratorian fragment.”[55] The general consensus of the early Church fathers seems to be that First Peter was authentic, written by the Apostle, but that the document entitled Second Peter is doubtful at best. Irenaeus, writing no later than 200 A.D., apparently only accepted First Peter.[56] Origen, writing no later than 254, affirmed First Peter but found Second Peter doubtful.[57] Eusebius, in the early 300’s, regarded First Peter as canonical, but classified Second Peter among the “Disputed Writings.”[58] In 367, however, both documents gained canonization in the patriarchal letter of Athanasius.[59]

8. The Johannine Epistles, including Revelation

The Gospel of John has already been discussed above, but the Johannine corpus that we recognize today also includes three epistles and The Book of Revelation. These four documents are the subject of this section. The First Epistle of John was universally accepted by the early Church as the work of the Apostle, but Second John and Third John, as well as Revelation, met with considerable difficulty concerning their authorship.

Origen, writing no later than 254, affirmed that John wrote the first epistle bearing his name and Revelation, but he doubted the authenticity of the other two epistles.[60] Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, writing no later than 264, wrote about Revelation,  “Some of our predecessors rejected the book and pulled it entirely to pieces,  criticizing it chapter by chapter, pronouncing it unintelligible and illogical and the title false. They say it is not John’s and is not a revelation at all, since it is heavily veiled by its thick curtain of incomprehensibility: so far from being one of the  apostles, the author of the book was not even one of the saints, or a member of the  Church, but Cerinthus, the founder of the sect called Cerinthian after him, who wished to attach a name commanding respect to his own creation….That he is called John, and that this work is John’s, I shall therefore not deny, for I agree that  it is from the pen of a holy and inspired writer. But I am not prepared to admit that he was the apostle.”

Dionysius went on to discuss the differences in styles between Revelation and John’s Gospel and three epistles, pointing out that the author of Revelation repeatedly identifies himself by name, but that in the other writings, he is anonymous. Dionysius, therefore, concluded that another John must be the author of Revelation.[61] Eusebius, writing in the early 300’s, suggests that another person by the name of John could have been the author of the second and third epistles[62], as well as The Revelation.[63]

First John and Second John were accepted in the “Muratorian fragment,” dating from 170-180 A.D. Third John, however, is not mentioned in that document, and The Book of Revelation is classified as being doubtful.[64] Irenaeus accepted First John and the Revelation by 200 A.D., but not the second and third epistles.[65] Origen, no later than 254, likewise recognized the first epistle and Revelation, but doubted Second John and Third John.[66] Dionysius, no later than 264, while rejecting the authorship of Revelation, still accepted it as canonical as well as all three epistles bearing the name of John.[67] Eusebius, in the early 300’s reported First John as being universally accepted but classifies the other two epistles and Revelation as being disputed.[68] The Johannine corpus, then, met with a wide array of scholarly opinions throughout early Church history, but all four books were finally acknowledged as being fully authoritative in 367, by Athanasius.[69]

9. The Epistle of James

The James who penned the epistle is traditionally identified as one of Jesus’ brothers[70], but Eusebius, in the early 300’s, writes concerning James’ Epistle, that “its authenticity is doubted, since few early writers refer to it”[71], which seems to be the case. The “Muratorian fragment” does not mention James60 nor do any of the early Church fathers cited above. With its authorship in doubt and the lack of authoritative precedents to support it, it is no wonder that Eusebius classified it as a disputed writing.[72] It would appear, however, that, as had occurred with other questionable books, the theological value of the work finally won it approval, as seen in the letter of Athanasius, written in 367.

10. The Epistle of Jude

The Book of Jude has been attributed to another of Jesus’ brothers[73], but beyond this, there is not much to be said concerning this epistle. It is fully accepted in the “Muratorian fragment” of 170-180 A.D.[74] Clement accepted Jude as authoritative no later than A.D. 200.[75] But Eusebius, in the early 300’s, regards The Epistle of Jude as doubtful.[76] Its canonicity was upheld, however, in 367 by Athanasius.[77]

11. Uncanonical Writings

Besides the twenty-seven books that Protestant Christians now recognize as the New Testament, there were also a number of other works vying for entrance into the Church’s canon. Not only was the Gnostic or semi-Gnostic movement trying to bend authentic documents to support their teaching, as in the case of Marcion, who claimed ten epistles of Paul and Luke, which he edited, as his canon[78], but they were also producing forged documents. The “Muratorian fragment” rejects the forged letters of Paul to the churches of Laodicea and Alexandria as Marcionitic[79] There was also an Acts fraudulently attributed to Paul[80], differing from that of Luke, that was apparently treated as somewhat authoritative in Eusebius’ time.[81] There were also forgeries purporting to be the work of the Apostle Peter, such as a Gospel[82], an Acts81, a book called The Preaching of Peter81, and a Revelation.83. Some Christians accepted The Gospel of Peter at one point[83]. and The Revelation of Peter was considered canonical by Clement[84] and somewhat accepted both by the “Muratorian fragment”[85] and into the early 300’s.[86] Other notable noncanonical works under debate included The Shepherd of Hermas, which was fully accepted by Irenaeus[87], and at least widely used both during the time of the writing of the “Muratorian fragment”86 and in Eusebius’ time,88 and The Epistle of Barnabas, which was accepted by Clement[88] and somewhat accepted in the early 300’s.88

Others could be mentioned, about which might be said that, “the ideas and implications of their contents are so irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as the forgeries of heretics. It follows that…they must be thrown out as impious and beyond the pale.”[89] Suffice it to simply state that this is the reason why it was so important for the Church to develop a universal canon. By the time of Athanasius[90], the Protestant Christian canon was settled, providing the Church with an indispensable tool with which to combat the pagan religions, Gnosticism, and other Christian heretics throughout the centuries.[91] The Church’s attitude concerning heretics came to be that,  “Provided the Bible was taken as a whole, Its teaching was self-evident. The heretics who misinterpreted it did so only because, disregarding its underlying unity, the seized upon isolated passages and rearranged them to suit their own ideas.”[92] Whereas this strict reliance on the Scriptures may not be exactly true, it clearly illustrates the Church’s need for a canon.

12. Lingering Debate

Though the issue of the canon was officially closed in the year 367[93], debate as to the origin and authenticity of these books still rages. Critics have always been interested in discrediting the Bible. With the higher criticism of today’s scholars, almost every book’s author is in doubt as well as its truth claims. Who the authors of Hebrews and Revelation were is still a hot topic in intellectual circles. Bainton even claims that the epistles of Peter and The Gospel of John are modernly considered not to have been written by their namesake Apostles.[94] Ultimately, our reliance on the authenticity and the authority of the Scriptures is a matter of faith.


Bainton, Roland H. Early Christianity.  Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1984.
Bierce, Ambrose.  The Devil’s Dictionary.  Ed. Philip Smith.  Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993
Eusebius.  The History of the Church.  Trans. G.A. Williamson.  St. Ives, England: Clays Ltd., 1989.
Geisler, Norman L., ed.  Inerrancy.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980.
Kelly, J.N.D.  Early Christian Doctrines.  Revised Edition.  New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978.
Nicole, Roger.  “New Testament Use of the Old.”  Revelation and the Bible.  Ed. Carl F.H. Henry.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing, 1958
Berube, Margery S., gen. ed.  The American Heritage College Dictionary.  Third Edition.  Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

The NIV Study Bible.  Kenneth Barker, gen. ed.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

[1] Second Timothy 3:16
[2] The American Heritage College Dictionary
[3] Bainton, page 37
[4] Kelly, page 29
[5] Kelly, pages 31, 52, 65
[6] See Geisler, pages 3-53
[7] Nicole, page 137
[8] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, pages 65-75
[9] Eusebius 2.17, page 51
[10] Eusebius 3.3, page 66, 3.25, page 89, 6.12, page 190
[11] Eusebius 3.3, page 66
[12] Eusebius 3.25, page 89
[13] Bainton page 133
[14] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 57
[15] Kelly, page 29
[16] Bainton, page 36, Kelly, page 60
[17] Bainton, page 36
[18] Kelly, page 48
[19] Kelly, page 60
[20] Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27-28, Euesebius 6.25, page 201, quoting Origen, 3.24, page 86
[21] Eusebius 5.8, page 154, quoting Irenaeus, 6.25, page 201, quoting Origen, 3.24, page 86
[22] First Peter 5:13, Eusebius 5.8, page 154, quoting Irenaeus, 6.25, page 201, quoting Origen
[23] Eusebius 2:14-15, pages 48-50, 6.14, page 192, paraphrasing Clement
[24] Eusebius 3.39, pages 103-104
[25] Colossians 4:14, Second Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24, Eusebius 5.8, page 154, quoting Irenaeus, 6.25, page 201, quoting Origen, 3.4, page 67, 3.24, page 88
[26] Matthew 4.21, Mark 1:19, Luke 5:10
[27] Citations too numerous to list, see Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
[28] Revelation 1:9
[29] Eusebius 5.8, page 154, quoting Irenaeus, 3.24, pages 86-88
[30] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[31] Eusebius 5.8, page 154
[32] Eusebius 6.14, page 192
[33] Eusebius 1.7, pages 20-23
[34] Eusebius 6.25, page 201
[35] Eusebius 3.24-25, pages 86-88
[36] Eusebius 3.39, pages 103-104
[37] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[38] Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1
[39] The Gospel of Luke ends and the Book of Acts begins with Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to His disciples and His ascension into Heaven
[40] Eusebius 6.25, page 202
[41] Eusebius 2.2, page 57, 3.4, pages 66-67
[42] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[43] Eusebius 2.2, page 57, 3.4, pages 66-67, 3.25, page 88
[44] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[45] Hebrews 13:23
[46] Eusebius 3.3, page 66. 6.20, page 198
[47] Eusebius 6.14, page 192
[48] Eusebius 6.25, page 202, quoting Origen
[49] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[50] Eusebius 6.20, page 198, commenting on Gaius
[51] Eusebius 6.13-6.14, pages 191-192, on Clement
[52] Eusebius 6.25, page 202, on Origen
[53] Eusebius 3.25, pages 88-89
[54] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[55] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[56] Eusebius 5.8, page 155, on Irenaeus
[57] Eusebius 6.25, page 202, quoting Origen
[58] Eusebius 3.3, pages 65-66, 3.25, pages 88-89
[59] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[60] Eusebius 6.25, page 202, quoting Origen
[61] Eusebius 7.25, pages 240-243
[62] Eusebius 3.25, page 89
[63] Eusebius 3.39, page 102
[64] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[65] Eusebius 5.8, pages 154-155, on Irenaeus
[66] Eusebius 6.25, page 201, quoting Origen
[67] Eusebius 7.25, pages 240-243, quoting Dionysius
[68] Eusebius 3.24-3.25, pages 88-89
[69] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[70] Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3, 15:40, 16:1, Luke 24:10, Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, Galatians 1:19, Jude 1
[71] Eusebius 2.23, page 61
[72] Eusebius 3.25, page 88
[73] Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3, Jude 1
[74] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[75] Eusebius 6.13-6.14, pages 191-192
[76] Eusebius 2.23, page 61, 3.25, page 88
[77] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[78] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 57
[79] Bainton, page 134
[80] Eusebius 3.3, page 66
[81] Eusebius 3.25, page 89
[82] Eusebius 3.3, page 66, 3.25, page 89, Bainton, page 36
[83] Eusebius 6.12, page 190, quoting Serapion, Bainton, page 36
[84] Eusebius 6.14, page 192
[85] Bainton, page 133, Kelly, page 59
[86] Eusebius 3.3, page 66, 3.25, page 89
[87] Eusebius 5.8, page 155, on Irenaeus
[88] Eusebius 6.13-6.14, pages 191-192
[89] Eusebius 3.25, page 89
[90] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[91] Bainton, page 35
[92] Kelly, page 38
[93] Bainton, page 37, Kelly, page 60
[94] Bainton, page 36

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