John Martignoni’s Word of Mouth

I was cleaning up my bookmarks for the New Year when I came across a link to the website of the Catholic apologist, John Martignoni (http://www.biblechristiansociety.com). I had bookmarked the website because of a debate between him and Dr. Joe Mizzi of the “Just for Catholics” website. When I came across his assertion on “oral tradition” I couldn’t help but respond by writing this post.

A quote taken from John Martignoni’s website adequately demonstrates why so many Catholics I encounter are completely ignorant of the canonization of Scripture. It seems many Catholics (maybe most Catholics) think that the authenticity of New Testament Scriptures was passed down orally through a succession of bishops, then put together and canonized by a Catholic council. The impression they have is that a church council, sometime back in the fourth century, was faced with dozens of writings from which they decided, from apostolic oral tradition, which were inspired and which were not.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as I will demonstrate here.

In issue 89 John Martignoni makes this statement:

Well, the problem for Joe [Mizzi] is, they received “by word of mouth” that the canon they were passing on was indeed apostolic in origin. It was passed on “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that 1 and 2 Corinthians were indeed authentic letters of Paul. It was passed on “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that Matthew and John were indeed authentic writings of Matthew and John. It was passed on, “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that the writing of Mark represented the oral traditions of Peter; and it was passed on, “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that the Luke who wrote the Gospel that bears his name was indeed the companion of Paul and was indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit…The Church determined the canon of Scripture based on Tradition…Tradition that had been passed down orally from the beginning of the Church. And, that canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 A.D.” (John Martignoni)

What John is referring to when he says the “canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 A.D,” is actually a list from the Gelasian Decree produced in the sixth century and sometimes falsely attributed to the council of Rome. The earliest council to address the canonical list is probably Hippo in 393, but certainly Carthage in 397 finalized it. Just about every Catholic I have encountered on this topic is under the impression that the council of Carthage decided which books belong in the Bible and which do not. In actuality, all the council did was close the canon that already existed and forbade the reading in church of any writings outside the accepted canon. There is a great deal of history with regards to the formation of the canon of Scripture, and to say that oral tradition is responsible for its authority as Scripture is simply false and far from the facts of history.

In the apostolic church the Pauline letters circulated singularly, but as early as the beginning of the second century they circulated collectively, and with them the epistle to the Hebrews. This collection is known as the Pauline Corpus. The Chester Beatty manuscript is the oldest surviving copy. It did not include the three Pastoral Epistles (1, 2Timothy and Titus), but did include Hebrews.1

Of the 27 canonical books, Irenaeus quoted from 23 of them in his treatise against heresies in the second century. And Eusebius provides an account of early second century Christians not only evangelizing orally, but delivering written books of the Gospels to people who had not heard the Good News.2 And in 1740 historian Ludovico Muratori published his Muratorian Fragment containing a list of New Testament books dating to around 170 A.D.

The Muratorian Fragment contains the oldest list of canonical books of the New Testament recognized in the Roman church at the time. The list includes the four Gospels (though only Luke and John are actually present on the fragment, the Gospels of Mathew and Mark are assumed have been mentioned before them because the first completed sentence on the fragment is “The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke“). The compiler comments that Luke’s authority is derived from his association with Paul. He claims that Luke was Paul’s legal expert, which when understood within the context of the Roman world implies that Luke was part of Paul’s staff and thus issued his writing with his own name but in accordance with Paul’s opinion (F.F. Bruce). With regards to this opinion it is reasonable to suppose that the explanation for Luke writing Paul’s Gospel originated in Rome, perhaps about the time this list was compiled.

Besides the four Gospels, the list includes as acceptable all of Paul’s epistles (but not Hebrews, which incidentally in Rome, was not recognized as Pauline until the fourth century), the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), Jude and two epistles of John. In all, 22 of the 27 books of our New Testament are presented in this list as acceptable in the church. The apocalypse of Peter was also mentioned as acceptable but not by all. And oddly the Wisdom of Solomon also appears on the list as acceptable.

The books of our New Testament not mentioned are, 1 and 2 Peter, third John, Hebrews and James. There are also interesting exclusions such as the Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd of Hermas was read regularly in the churches but was rejected because, the compiler says, “It was written quite recently in our own time.” This is interesting because it shows us that the early Christian leadership compiled Scripture, not based on oral tradition, but on evidence of authenticity. The four Gospels and the Pauline Corpus were never brought into question because they were deeply rooted in the catholic (universal) church and recognized by all as authoritative. But the absence of the five books of our New Testament from the Muratorian Fragment poses an even bigger problem for Martignoni and other adherents of oral tradition. If indeed the bishops in Rome could determine by oral tradition, which books belong to the canon of Scripture, these five books could not have been missing from the list because the same oral tradition is said to have reached the council of Carthage, which included them.

In Eusebius’ time (early fourth century), the final number of accepted books had still not been established. Eusebius lists James, Jude, 2Peter, 2John and 3John as disputed but recognized by many. He lists the Apocalypse of John as generally accepted but rejected by some. The composer of the Muratorian Fragment states that the Apocalypse of John, Jude and two of John’s epistles were accepted in the catholic church.

If oral tradition is responsible for the collection of accepted books, it has proven itself unreliable to say the least. Eusebius, however, describes something far different than oral tradition when he comments on the compilation of Scripture in his own time:


But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers- we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings.

And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics. Wherefore they are not to be placed even among the rejected writings, but are all of them to be cast aside as absurd and impious.

(Hist. Eccl. 3:25:6)

The ecclesiastical tradition, used to determine the accepted writings, was clearly not oral tradition. Writings, whether accepted or rejected, were scrutinized and compared to orthodox ecclesiastical writings. Notice that Eusebius condemns the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles. The compiler of the Muratorian list also excluded these writings by saying, “the Acts of all the apostles have been written in one book.” However, he claims that Luke only recorded the things that took place in his presence and, therefore, omitted the passion of Peter (the account of Peter being crucified upside-down) and Paul’s departure to Spain. Both these stories are detailed in the Acts of Peter, a book deemed unworthy and absurd by Eusebius and ignored by the ecclesiastical writers, yet considered factual accounts by many in our day.

By the time Eusebius wrote his history the canon of New Testament Scripture was almost completed. In 330, just after establishing his new capital in Constantinople, Constantine requested that Eusebius provide 50 copies of the Christian Scriptures. Unfortunately we are not told what books were included in Eusebius’ New Testament, but there is little doubt based on his writings that it contained the 27 books of our current New Testament.

In his thirty-ninth festal letter, announcing the date of Easter in 367 AD, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, presented the list of New Testament books exactly as we have them today, but not in the same order. He was the first in history to produce a written list of the 27 books. Canon 60 of the regional council of Laodicea in 363 also lists the books of the New Testament, but excludes Revelation. Canon 60, however, may be a later addition, as it is absent from some of the Laodicean manuscripts.

In conclusion, this short post is merely a tiny synopsis of the vast and rich history of the development of our New Testament Scriptures. The oral tradition assertion often touted by Catholic apologists like John Martignoni, is backed by nothing. It relies entirely on the reader’s, or hearer’s ignorance of church history.

Brian Culliton

hiswordistruth16@aol.com

1 F.F. Bruce, Canon of Scripture (InterVarsity Press, pp 130)
2 Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3:37:2 (Hendrickson Publishers, pp 102)

4 Responses to John Martignoni’s Word of Mouth

  1. onefold says:

    This comment was made on the “Plight and Flight of The Puritans” page. Since it is not relevant to that article, but rather to Catholic doctrine, I am posting it here for the benefit of replying to it.

    Comment posted by: Kimo Kalakaua, January 13, 2009 at 1:42PM

    Your discourse about early church fathers not believing in the real eucharistic presence is errant. Let us go to the writings of Saint Paul 1 Cor. 11: 27-30. If the Eucharistic is symbolic and just a memorial, how can those who recieve it unworthily be guilty of the very body and blood of Christ? How would he be bringing judgement upon himself? Why would a potential reciepient need to examin himself to prevent bringing judgement upon himself? Saint Paul himself believed in the real presence as did Martin Luther. Not believing in the real presence is a post reformation invention. As for oral tradition, Saint paul instructed the early church in Thessolonia to beleive what they HEARD (not read) taught to them by the Church Fathers. Clearly Saint Paul supported oral tradition and apostolic teaching authority that taught orally. If you can direct me to scripture that shows that Saint Paul taught the Eucharist was symbolic and not the true body and blood of Christ, show me. Ditto for oral tradition.

  2. onefold says:

    Your discourse about early church fathers not believing in the real eucharistic presence is errant. Let us go to the writings of Saint Paul 1 Cor. 11: 27-30. If the Eucharistic is symbolic and just a memorial, how can those who recieve it unworthily be guilty of the very body and blood of Christ? How would he be bringing judgement upon himself? Why would a potential reciepient need to examin himself to prevent bringing judgement upon himself?

    If you are familiar with Corinthians 11 then you are familiar with why Paul reprimanded them. Were they receiving the bread and wine worthily?

    Annexed to the Lord’s Supper was the agapai, or love feast. This was common in the early church. In Corinth, the rich seem to despise the poor at these love feasts by eating what they brought and denying the poor who had little if anything to contribute. In the process some became drunk and full while others were hungry and betrayed.

    After reprimanding the Corinthians Paul reminded them of what he taught them concerning the Lord’s Supper. After doing so, he warned them about doing so unworthily as they had been doing.

    Did the Corinthians discern the Lord’s body? No, they did not. Does that mean the church in Corinth didn’t believe the Eucharist to be the literal body and blood of Christ? Or does it mean they weren’t respecting the Lord’s passion by their divisions and reveling?

    If you are going to use this to support the real presence doctrine, then you are going to have to conclude that the Corinthians denied that doctrine. But if this were about real presence then certainly Paul would have clarified the doctrine. A little context goes a long way in understanding what Paul is talking about.

    “It is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body.” (Origen, 185-232 AD, Commentary on Mathew 11:14)

    Saint Paul himself believed in the real presence as did Martin Luther.

    Martin Luther may have, but the Apostle Paul did not.

    Not believing in the real presence is a post reformation invention.

    Actually, believing it is a Roman Catholic invention. As the article demonstrates, the early church did not believe in real presence in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church does, i.e. transubstantiation.

    As for oral tradition, Saint paul instructed the early church in Thessolonia to beleive what they HEARD (not read) taught to them by the Church Fathers. Clearly Saint Paul supported oral tradition and apostolic teaching authority that taught orally.

    I agree; oral tradition had its place. I have no problem with what you said here. But my post was on oral tradition’s place in the development of the canon of Scripture.

    If you can direct me to scripture that shows that Saint Paul taught the Eucharist was symbolic and not the true body and blood of Christ, show me.

    Certainly: In Corinthians 10 Paul speaks of communion in the body and blood of Christ. As we partake in communion we fellowship with Christ. In like fashion, the heathen, when they offer sacrifice to idols they fellowship with the devils. Paul warns the Corinthians not to knowingly eat meat offered to idols because they cannot be partakers of both the Lord’s table and the devils, less the provoke the Lord to jealousy.

    In context, if partaking of the Lord’s Table is literally eating His body and drinking His blood, than the same must be true for the heathen. The animals offered to idols must, by that logic, be literally the body and blood of devils. But if that were true, Paul would have drawn the contrasts rather than the similarities.

  3. The quote you took from my website does not, in fact, demonstrate Catholic ignorance regarding the canonization of Scripture. My quote is quite factual. Your response to that quote, however, does indeed represent your inability to accurately read, interpret, and respond to my argument.

    Please answer these questions: Was it passed on “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that 1 and 2 Corinthians were indeed authentic letters of Paul…yes or no? In other words, when folks living in Sardis, got a copy of 1st Corinthians, did they get it directly from Paul, or did they receive by oral tradition that Paul actually wrote 1st Corinthians?

    Was it passed on “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that Matthew and John were indeed authentic writings of Matthew and John…yes or no? For example, how did the people of Athens know that the Gospels of Matthew and John were actually written by Matthew and John? Did they have Matthew and John tell them directly, or did they receive this information via oral tradition?

    Was it passed on, “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that the writing of Mark represented the oral traditions of Peter…yes or no?

    Was it passed on, “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that the Luke who wrote the Gospel that bears his name was indeed the companion of Paul and was indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit…yes or no?

    In other words, my statement that the apostolic origin of the books of the New Testament was passed on by oral tradition, is a fact. Please present evidence to the contrary.

    Question: How do you know Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark? Is it in the Bible, or do you know that because of oral tradition? Which Mark wrote Mark? How do you know? Was Mark inspired by the Holy Spirit? If so, do you know that because the Bible tells you, or because oral tradition tells you?

    In other words, what I said in response to Dr. Joe Mizzi, which you quoted in your original post, is indeed true.

    Now, regarding the Decree of Damasus and the Council of Rome, I won’t enter into an argument on that because that is actually peripheral to the main argument I was making in the statement of mine that you quoted.

    God bless!

    John Martignoni

  4. onefold says:

    Please answer these questions: Was it passed on “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that 1 and 2 Corinthians were indeed authentic letters of Paul…yes or no? In other words, when folks living in Sardis, got a copy of 1st Corinthians, did they get it directly from Paul, or did they receive by oral tradition that Paul actually wrote 1st Corinthians?

    So if they didn’t receive it directly from Paul, that means oral tradition is responsible for its authenticity? And how far do we extend that? Do we apply that same reasoning to James, 2Peter, 2 and 3John too? Are you going to tell me that the early church knew those books were authentic from oral tradition?

    Was it passed on “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that Matthew and John were indeed authentic writings of Matthew and John…yes or no? For example, how did the people of Athens know that the Gospels of Matthew and John were actually written by Matthew and John? Did they have Matthew and John tell them directly, or did they receive this information via oral tradition?

    Didn’t Paul preach the Gospel in Athens? If they heard the Gospel why would they need conformation on the authenticity of the written Gospel they received later?

    Was it passed on, “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that the writing of Mark represented the oral traditions of Peter…yes or no?

    I know that Papias said so, but beyond that I don’t know. Perhaps you can fill me in. I also know that Papias defended the order of events in the Gospel as if there were challenges to the contrary. “…So Mark made no mistake in writing certain things as he called them to mind…” (Papias)

    Was it passed on, “by word of mouth”…oral tradition…that the Luke who wrote the Gospel that bears his name was indeed the companion of Paul and was indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit…yes or no?

    It can be known that Luke was the companion of Paul from the Book of Acts which he wrote. And how can you determine that anything is inspired by the Holy Spirit from oral tradition? When the first Christians heard the Gospel message, did someone have to tell them the messenger was inspired before they believed it?

    In other words, my statement that the apostolic origin of the books of the New Testament was passed on by oral tradition, is a fact. Please present evidence to the contrary.

    You specifically said:

    “The Church determined the canon of Scripture based on Tradition…Tradition that had been passed down orally from the beginning of the Church. And, that canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 A.D.”

    You are saying that the church determined the canon of Scripture, the same canon recognized in fourth century councils, by oral tradition that was passed down from the beginning of the church? If that is what you are saying then you are wrong, and I did provide evidence to the contrary.

    Question: How do you know Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark?

    I don’t know that he did, but there is enough historical evidence to reasonably conclude that he did.

    Is it in the Bible, or do you know that because of oral tradition?

    Neither.

    Which Mark wrote Mark?

    I don’t know.

    How do you know?

    I don’t.

    Was Mark inspired by the Holy Spirit?

    I have the Law and the prophets to tell me that the Gospel is inspired.

    I believe that the Gospel, as the apostles proclaimed it, is inspired. What we, and most all Christians throughout church history have to go by is the written word. We can know from written history that the Gospel according to Mark is reasonably accurate. It may not be perfect in order of events, or certain nonessential details, but it is in harmony with the other three accounts.

    Oral tradition cannot stand on its own. Yes, oral tradition was involved, but it certainly is not responsible for the canon of Scripture as we have it today.

    Please answer this question: Which of these oral traditions came from the apostles: to observe the Pasch on Sundays only, or to observe in accordance with the Jews?

    God Bless,

    Brian Culliton

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