Did the earliest Christians accept the New Testament as Scripture?

by Luke Wayne
8/29/16

Yes, from the earliest years of the church the New Testament was understood to be Scripture. There is evidence of this not only in the earliest Christian writings and artifacts but even in the New Testament itself! Because the different books of the New Testament were written in different places by various authors for distinct purposes, and because in those days they could only be copied by hand and not every Christian knew how to write, it is no surprise that the earliest churches did not yet have complete collections of the New Testament. It is also not surprising that there would be discussion over the legitimacy of a few of the books, particularly in churches that did not receive copies of them until later on when counterfeit books were also known to be in circulation. In spite of all of this, however, in less than a hundred years from the completion of New Testament, the majority of its books appear to have already been known and accepted as Holy Scripture by the vast majority of churches across the known world.

Evidence within the New Testament

The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in what was probably his last letter:

"from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work," (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

This offers us a fine definition of what Inspired Scripture is. Paul mentions the sacred writings that Timothy has known from childhood, so obviously the Old Testament books are viewed in this light. In fact, many assume that he only had the Old Testament in mind when he wrote these words and that it is only by extension that we can apply this to the New Testament. There is good reason to doubt this conclusion. Paul uses a different Greek word in verse 15 for the sacred "writings" (gramma) than he does in verse 16 for all "scripture" (graphe). Notice, also, that verse 16 does not merely mention "the scriptures" like verse 15 does with "the sacred writings." Rather, Paul broadens it to "All" scripture. The way he words this seems to indicate that Paul perhaps has a larger category in mind that includes the sacred writings of ancient Israel that Timothy has known since he was a boy, but encompasses more than just these. In fact, we have good reason to believe that Paul already considered at least some of the New Testament books as being part of  "all scripture." In His previous letter to Timothy, he wrote:

"For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,' and 'The laborer is worthy of his wages,'" (1 Timothy 5:18).

Paul quotes here from two sources that both He and Timothy already accept as authoritative scripture. The first reference about the Ox is to Deuteronomy 25:4. The second about the laborer is from Luke 10:7. Paul and Timothy, then, both considered the gospel of Luke to be authoritative scripture in the same sense as Deuteronomy. Some try to argue that Paul is citing a more general oral tradition of the teachings of Jesus rather than a specific written source, but this does not make sense. Paul cites it as scripture, and the word definitely means a written source. Thus, Paul is identifying the written gospel as the inspired word of God. Timothy certainly would have had this in mind when he read Paul's words about "all scripture."

In some of Paul's other letters, he makes specific references to the public reading of these letters in the gathering of the churches:

"When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans," (Colossians 4:16).

"I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren," (Thessalonians 5:27).

If a book was considered useful but not inspired Scripture by early Christian churches or Jewish synagogues, it was to be read at other times and not during the public gathering of the congregation. Paul seems to be encouraging his letters to be read before the churches as Scripture rather than passed around as merely a useful writing. Not only does Paul see the Gospel of Luke as Scripture, he apparently understood his own apostolic letters to the churches to be Scripture. We see confirmation of this early understanding of Paul's letters in the writings of Peter. In Peter 1:20-21 we read:

"Know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

In the same letter, Peter goes on to write:

"Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction," (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Peter, who describes scripture as being the writings of men moved by the Holy Spirit and speaking from God, calls the letters of Paul scripture.

The book of Revelation also not only declares itself to be a divine revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1) but it is a revelation given by God to be sent out to the churches (1:11) and read publically as a book of prophecy (1:3). The book of Revelation understood itself as an authoritative, prophetic, written revelation from God intended for public reading among the churches. The author of Revelation understood Himself to be producing Scripture.

Thus, while the New Testament does not offer us an exhaustive list of books, it does show us that the New Testament books were received as Scripture while they were still being written.

The Earliest Christian Writings

The Epistle from the elders at the church in Rome to the Church at Corinth (commonly known as "1 Clement") was written in the late first century AD, making it almost as old as the New Testament itself. The author overtly affirms Paul's letter to the Corinthians as scripture to be publically read and cites from many of Paul's other letters (along with frequent quotations from the book of Hebrews). There are also very plausible allusions to James and 1 Peter and possibly Acts. The words of Jesus are referenced as well, but possibly from the author's familiarity with the oral preaching of them since, technically, the gospels are not referenced as written sources.1 At any rate, considering this is only a single letter, it speaks volumes to see how much of the New Testament was referenced authoritatively. This is a rather powerful, early testimony to the authority of the New Testament in the first century churches.

If one takes together the writings of the early decades second century, such as the letters of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Pseudo-Barnabas and the instructional works of the Didache, Papias, and Hermas, we find citations from every book of the New Testament accept the tiny letters of Jude and 3 John.2 In fact, in just the one letter we having from Polycarp, 1 Peter is cited eight times, 1 Corinthians four times, 2 Corinthians two times, Galatians four times, 1 Timothy three times, 2 Timothy two times, Romans two times, 1 John one time, Philippians two times, and 2 Thessalonians two times.3 There is no question that these writers already knew most of the New Testament and wholly embraced it as divinely inspired and authoritative. If we add in the writers from the rest of the second century, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and the Muratorian Fragment, we also find direct quotations from Jude and most of these books are explicitly referred to as Scripture.4 That leaves only 3rd John without a direct reference in this time period, which is not surprising considering its particularly small size and personal nature. One can see clearly, then, that from the earliest times Christians widely embraced the New Testament as scripture.

Manuscript Evidence

Along with this, there is further (though admittedly circumstantial) evidence given to us in the earliest manuscripts themselves. While there are presently no published manuscripts going back to the first century, we have manuscripts going back to the second and third century for every book of the New Testament with the exception of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and 3 John. In most cases, we have multiple manuscripts that are this early, hinting at wide distribution and use.5 Of course, there are manuscripts of other Christian writings from this early, and even from some heretical writings and false gospels, so by itself the mere existence of these manuscripts does not tell us anything. What is interesting is that, unlike other Christian writings or heretical works, there is evidence that very early on the Canonical works were being gathered into specific collections. The four New Testament gospels are often found bound together, for example, while no other gospels are ever included or otherwise bound together in this way.6 At least one of these early collections, P-45, also contained the book of Acts.7 We likewise have collections of Paul's letters (often including the book of Hebrews, which many believed was written by Paul)8 and even evidence that Gospel of John may have sometimes been collected with John's letters and the book of Revelation.9 Again, this kind of careful gathering by theme and author seems to by unique to the books of the New Testament canon. The only major exception does not come until well into the fourth century when an early collection of the whole Bible also includes The Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas appended at the end after the New Testament. This, however, is easily explained by a number of fourth century writers who suggest that these books, while not scripture, are valuable and should be read privately to new converts, though never publicly in the gathering of the Church. (For more on this issue see our discussion of The Shepherd of Hermas and The New Testament).

Conclusion

The New Testament itself makes clear that these books were written to be scripture and were received as such early on. The early writings of the Christians in the decades after the New Testament show an intimate knowledge of and reverent regard for these books, and sometimes even unambiguous statements that the books are scripture. The early manuscript collections also provide us with circumstantial evidence of the unique place these books held in early churches. This evidence accords well with the testimony of the New Testament authors and other early Christians. It is rather clear that the earliest Christians did embrace the New Testament as scripture.

  • 1. Bruce M. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1987) 42-43
  • 2. Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Moody Press, 1986) 294
  • 3. Michael Green, The Books the Church Suppressed, (Monarch Books, 2005) 51-52
  • 4. Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Moody Press, 1986) 294
  • 5. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006) 20-21
  • 6. ibid, 36-37
  • 7. ibid, 38
  • 8. ibid, 38-39
  • 9. ibid, 39-40