The Big Problem with Sola Scriptura: the lack of evidence for the inspiration of the New Testament Canon

Excerpt from

Diversity of Early Christianity

Bart D. Ehrman provides the following points as summary of his introductory chapter on the New Testament and early Christian writings:

1. Early Christianity was extremely diverse. It was not the unified monolith that modern people sometimes assume.
2. This diversity was manifest in a wide range of writings, only some of which have come down to us in the New Testament.
3. The New Testament canon was formed by proto-orthodox Christians who wanted to show that their views were grounded in the writings of Jesus’ own apostles.
4. Whether these writings actually represent the views of Jesus’ own apostles, however, was in some instances debated for decades, even centuries.[107]

The Challenge of Marcion

There is no evidence of a canon of the New Testament before that of Marcion, about 140 C.E. This rich Christian challenged the rest of church by rejection of the Old Testament, and by collecting parts of what is now the New Testament, rejecting those he thought were too Jewish.[108]

The establishment faction of the church begin to collect its own books to be held as authoritative. Over the next two hundred years, this process of rejection of competitive ideas, and the collection of scattered writings believed to have come from first century Christian leaders, i.e., apostles, became our New Testament canon.

There is no evidence that there existed any sort of canon in the first century. Marcion did not reject an existing, fixed list. Rather, the protoorthodox organized collections of existing writings after this challenge.

Certain books and collections became authoritative differently in different areas. The four gospels we know now, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were never mentioned together until 180 C.E. It seems that a collection of letters of Paul began to be put together in some areas, but that are unknown in other churches.

Early Christian Usage

Did the early Christians regard the books of our New Testament as inspired, as scripture, as a canon? To find evidence, we must examine how they were used by Christian writers. The quotation-formula, “it is written,” is usually a clue that the writer regards the work quoted as scripture. The following sources were Christians writing in the early second century CE.

Contrary to the position of Josh McDowell, Ignatius never uses “it is written” for a quotation from the New Testament in his letters. The phrase is reserved for two quotations from Proverbs.[109] He did, however, show familiarity with several New Testament books. In the fourth century, however, a creator of a ‘new Ignatius’ filled his letters with the quotations he thought Ignatius should have provided.[110]

In his single extant letter, Polycarp regarded the sayings of Jesus and the epistles of Paul as authoritative for Christians, but not as scripture. Many passages echo the language of these books. In one passage (Philadelphians 12:1), Polycarp quotes the Septuagint of Psalms 4:5 together with Paul’s Ephesians 4:26. Here, scholars believe that either he thought of ‘scripture’ as either being any writing, or that he thought he was quoting from the Old Testament. Nothing else in his letter indicates that he viewed New Testaments writings as scripture.[111]

The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas not only used Old Testament books, but also various Jewish apocalyptic writings quoting non-canonical books. He uses the formula, ‘it is written’ for books such as 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, and 2 Baruch.[112] Barnabas never quotes any part of the New Testament as scripture, however.[113]

Barnabas 4:3 “As Enoch says.” Passage not identified.
16:5-6 “It is written” applied to 1 Enoch 91:13. Also 1 Enoch 89:56.
12:1 2 Esdras 4:33, 5:5.
11:9 2 Baruch 61:7; “a prophet.”
10:8, 11 Letter of Aristeas 128f, esp. 165.

A passage in a late manuscript Part of Psalms combined with the Apocalypse of Adam
References in Barnabas to non-canonical books as scripture[114]

The first to unmistakably quote the New Testament as scripture, “as it is written,” seems to have been Basilides, a gnostic teacher at Alexandria in the first part of the second century C. E. An account of his teaching was preserved by Hippolytus.[115] Hippolytus, however, wrote in the third century. Grant concludes that the use of the New Testament as scripture arose in Alexandria early in the second century CE, which puts it perhaps thirty to fifty years before scholars had previously thought. He also hints that this may also be the time and place for the composition of 2 Peter, which itself contains reference to the letters of Paul as scripture.

The first Christian writer to include a New Testament author among “the holy scriptures and all the inspired men” was Theophilus of Antioch, about 180 C.E.[116] However, he also regarded the Sybil, a pagan oracle, as inspired.[117]

The first to use the term, “New Testament,” was Irenaeus.[118] He “flourished” about 180 C.E. He is also the first to give the explicit formation of four gospels, and exactly four.

Incredibly, the early Christian teacher, Papias, is recorded as citing part of 2 Baruch, and ascribing it instead to the teachings of Jesus.[119]

The Didache, c. 100 CE. Primary authority is tradition, oral or written, mainly oral. May have known written Gospel of Matthew. Grant, Formation of the NT, p. 64f.

Papias, c. 110 CE. Three or more gospels, including at least Mark and John, perhaps including Gospel to the Hebrews; 1 John, 1 Peter. No trace of any Pauline epistles. Passage from 2 Baruch said to be teaching of Jesus. Grant, Formation, p. 68f.

Hermas of Rome, between 90-120 CE. Apocalyptic seems to be based on 2 Esdras. Only book quoted is the Jewish apocalypse, Eldad and Modat (Vis. 2.3.4). Allusions to Matthew and Ephesians. Grant, Formation, p. 72f.

1 Clement, c. 100 CE. Greek Old Testament used as scripture. Numerous allusions to gospels, Pauline epistles, Acts, Hebrews, but not quoted as scripture. Unknown ‘scripture’ quoted in 23.3-4 is probably a Jewish Apocalyptic work. Grant, Formation, p. 77f.

2 Clement, c. 125 CE. Refers to a saying from a gospel as scripture. In 11.2, quotes same Apocalyptic work as does 1 Clement. Uses Gospel of Thomas; oral tradition. Grant, Formation, p. 83f.

Ignatius, c. 125 CE. Uses language and images of 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 (-2?) Thessalonians, and 1 Peter; perhaps Gospel of John; does not call them scripture. The only direct quotations are from Proverbs. Grant, Formation, p. 89f.

Polycarp, c. 130 Alludes to Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy; 1 Peter, 1 Clement; 1 or 2 John; Hebrews; at least one Gospel, Matthew; but did not regard the books as ‘scripture.’ Grant, Formation, p. 102f.

Barnabas, c. 130 Knows Matthew; probably John; phrases resemble 1, 2 Timothy. Does not quote any part of New Testament as scripture.

Justin, c. 150-c. 160 Old testament used for proof; refers to ‘memoranda of the Apostles;’ book of Revelation; uses oral tradition. Once refers to the ‘memoranda’ with the terms, “it is written that…” Grant, Formation, p. 106f.

Usage of New Testament as scripture by early Christian writers.120

Many documents were in use at this early date that were later rejected. Eusebius contains the story of Serapion, a bishop of Antioch about 190 C. E., who hesitates with regard to the use of the Gospel of Peter.[121] That is, he and his congregation had already been using the book; what harm could come from a writing by the apostle Peter? Later, he heard from others that the book did not conform in doctrine. It was then rejected by the bishop. In the end, doctrine made a change in existing usage. It is evident that there existed at this time no fixed list of accepted, authoritative works.

Clement of Alexandria started writing in the last decade of the second century. He quotes explicitly from The Gospel according to the Hebrews. At one point, Clement states that there are only four received gospels, which would exclude the Gopel according to the Hebrews. After mentioning this point, Clement later quotes from The Gospel according to the Hebrews, but without giving his source;[122] he just sort of forgot where he had heard it.

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