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