James Still's "Critique of New Testament Reliability and 'Bias' in NT Development"--my initial response (cont.).


Section Three: My Comments 13-16 (updated 7/2/96)


James Still continues...


It is important to realize that not everything which was preserved in the oral tradition automatically made its way into the written texts. By the end of the second century, early church fathers like Serapion and Irenaeus argued for the acceptance of only four gospels. Irenaeus was especially passionate for acceptance of only the four, but many other bishops and leaders disagreed. It was not at all clear in the second century which of the various forms of Christianity then in existence--Marcionian Paulinism, Montanism, Gnosticism, Soteriology, or Catholicism--could claim a superior criteria of legitimacy.

Comment 13


I have an issue with this passage, not only because it seems strangely 'confused', but also that it is VERY misleading.

The 'confusion' is apparent from the list of the 'various forms' of Christianity. Let's take a very quick look at the terms in this list.


The point of this overview is simply to demonstrate that Jim has oversimplified the situation to the point of distortion. There WERE various 'forms' of the faith, but these 'forms' were all WITHIN orthodoxy. The movements Jim mentions were WELL OUTSIDE the boundary of what historians consider the central, core church.

A modern day example would be that Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists are 'forms' of the faith; whereas Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, and New Age would NOT be considered 'forms' of the basic Christian Faith.

Whereas Jim's oversimplification would be SOMEWHAT misleading; the suggestion that all of the these movements had an 'equal claim' to 'legitimacy' is VERY puzzling. The early church appealed to a revealed faith from the first--Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations, and teach them to obey all things He 'had commanded them'. The charter was clear---'pass the message on'. The central issue was the continuity of the apostolic and post-apostolic message with that of Jesus and the OT.

Gnosticism departed from this continuity of the commonly-transmitted message by ADDING vast amounts of additional content (i.e. secret messages and doctrines which often undermined passages in the traditional scriptures--e.g. the real physical body of Christ) and additional 'gospels'. Montanism broke from this uniformity by 'new prophecies' that did NOT FOLLOW the pattern of the OT prophets (i.e. Montanists were 'ecstatic prophets'; the OT prophets were 'lucid prophets'). Marcion broke from this uniformity by rigidly imposing a theological principle upon the revelation in such a Procrustean way as to dismember it (in a manner emulated by countless modern theologians of the 20th century--!). Thus, these movements departed from the centrality of the faith 'delivered once for all to the saints'--Jude.

Many early Church Fathers who led these Jesus movements fought bitterly amongst themselves and each declared the others heretical.

Comment 14


Without going into too much detail here, I want to take issue with the characterization of the early church present within this sentence.

First, let me point out that the leadership figures of these early cults (i.e. Marcion, Montanus, Valentinus) are NOT considered "Church Fathers" by ANY reputable historians! The Church Fathers of the day are a well-delimited group, consisting of some 20-40 folk--ALL OF WHOM were in agreement in their repudiation of the central mistakes in these movements (for a good survey of each of the Fathers, see Schaff: 13/160ff). As I mentioned earlier, they were not in complete unanimity of doctrine: "The 'unanimous consent of the fathers' is a mere illusion, except on the most fundamental articles of the general Christianity" (Schaff: Chp 13.159)

Secondly, the 'real' Church fathers did NOT 'fight among themselves' as Jim suggests, but DID tenaciously try to 'fight' the destructive errors in these systems. Although in this time period, the beginnings of the Trinitarian and Christological debates are becoming apparent, those exchanges are characterized by less-combative debate (generally--there are exceptions as the issues get clearer). And the tone of these debates are VASTLY different that the strong stands taken by the anti-heretical writings of Tertullian and Irenaeus, for example.

Thirdly, the implication that heresy was both EARLY and STRONG is simply historically mistaken. Although in decades past, through the writings of Walter Bauer (1934) and Koester, this was a dominant presumption of much of liberal NT scholarship, many/most of the foundational supports for that position have either been abandoned due to the discovery of 'hard data' or considered to forceless due to its character as argument from silence.

The original position of Bauer was that in most geographical areas of antiquity that which would be later called 'heresy' was actually the original manifestation of Christianity. The implication was that in many geographical areas, so-called heresy was prior to orthodoxy.

Bauer looked at 2nd century data in an attempt to discern the theological orientation of the early Church in its basic geographical areas:

  1. Edessa - located in eastern Syria east of the Euphrates River
  2. Egypt
  3. Asia Minor
  4. Macedonia
  5. Rome
(He did NOT include Jerusalem!)

Holtgren summarizes the current state of thinking on Bauer's work (and its derivatives) [RNC:10]:

The work of Bauer is impressive in its detailed information, argument, and thesis. Nevertheless, it has received considerable criticism, and its flaws have become even more apparent with the passing of time. Too often Bauer argues from silence and, in other cases, pushes aside evidence that works against his thesis.
Let's see how this has come to light since Bauer's original work.

Overall, the data demonstrates that the older view of Bauer (and that part of Koester's views that are dependent on him) are simply wrong. The early church showed a REMARKABLE degree of 'orthodoxy' even in the strange and chaotic and persecuted days of its early life.

So, I consider Jim's statement to be grossly overstating the 'diversity issue'--largely by being incorrect on what was considered to be the group of "Church Fathers" and their associated doctrines.

Also, each leader preferred his own oral and textual traditions. Papias seems to have been familiar with at least Mark, Matthew and John, but preferred the authority of the continuous and dynamic oral tradition that still circulated instead. Justin Martyr quotes frequently from the early gospels, but also from the oral tradition as well.

[FOOTNOTE: Justin obtained some stories which are no longer a part of the canon or any known oral tradition. He relates that Jesus was born in a cave and that a fire erupted in the river Jordan upon Jesus' baptism. (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 78 and 88). Curiously, the pagan god Mithras was also said to have been born in a cave while shepherds kept watch.]

Marcion, a colorful church leader, preferred his own edited version of Luke where he pulled out all references to the Jews and rejected all other gospels. (Marcion seems to have been aware of the charges of pagan critics like Celsus that the gospels were self-contradictory and so this may have influenced his drastic measure of relying only on Luke.)

Comment 15


There are a number of historical errors in this tiny section, but still among the general types of inaccuracies we have been noting all along--betraying a lack of the requisite detailed knowledge of the environment and times in which these events take place.


In one interesting case, a very popular writer named Tatian composed a gospel "harmony" that smoothed out the discrepancies that appeared in the gospels. The Syrian community used Tatian's harmony as their sole gospel until the fifth century. In the end however, Irenaeus' views won. In a now famous passage, Irenaeus declares the reason for choosing no more or fewer than the four gospels:

It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we live, and there are four principal winds. (adv. Haer. 3.11.8)

Comment 16


The above passage seriously overstates Irenaeus' persuasive ability and gives him FAR TOO MUCH credit for this process! In fact, Irenaeus, although he DOES argue for the BIG 4, stands not at the FIRST of that debate (nor even plays a major part IN that debate--IMO), but at the END of the debate.

But before I demonstrate that Irenaeus was only stating the 'result' of the long process, and not rather doing all the work himself, let me first point out a problem in Jim's quote here.

Jim's quote makes the first of the statement ("it is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are") to be DEPENDENT on the latter clause (",since there are four directions of the world..."). He puts a comma IN BETWEEN these two clauses, and a period at the end--with the result that the statement seems a bit ridiculous.

But compare the 'official' translation given in the Eerdmans' reference set (vol I):

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the "pillar and ground" of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; IT IS FITTING that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side...

Or the more modern translation given in MNT:64-65:

The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones in the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, IT FITTINGLY HAS four pillars...

And when Bruce quotes Irenaeus about this subject (BCANON:175), he LEAVES OFF THE FIRST SENTENCE...

As there are four quarters of the world in which we live, and four universal winds, and as the church is dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and base of the church, and the breath of life, so IT IS NATURAL that it should have four pillars...

By now you should see the pattern--Jim has mis-quoted the passage. The 'since' clause does NOT go with the strong 'no possible' statement, but with the much softer 'is fitting/natural' clause in the sentence in which it is a member! The mis-punctuation of the quote is MISLEADING.

So, what are we to make of the strong statement at the FIRST of that passage--how is it connected to the 'softer' passage? It appears to function as a 'summary statement' of the arguments about the gospels that both PRECEDE and FOLLOW the 'fitting' passage.

For example, in the following section 3.11.9, Irenaeus says "But that these Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminuation of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such [arguments]."--referring to the previous 10 chapters.

Indeed, it is important to realize that Irenaeus is not trying to persuade the CHURCH to adopt his views (as implied by Jim's statements), but is writing "AGAINST HERESIES"--against 'outsiders'. In this chapter (section 9) he mentions Marcion, Montanists, Valentinus (Gnostic), and Encratitae. The church has already 'lined up with' the Four-fold Gospel and Irenaeus is simply defending that against the currents of outside thought 'tearing' at the church.

One final remark about this passage of Irenaeus. It is the general consensus of scholars today (Metzger, Conzelmann, Lindemann, Bruce) that:

...the general impression given by his words is that the fourfold pattern of the gospel was by this time no innovation but so widely accepted that he can stress its cosmic appropriateness as though it were one of the facts of nature [BCANON:175; for the refs. on the other scholars mentioned above, see MNT:174,n.63]

So, if Irenaeus WAS the 'end of the chain', what does the chain look like?

Let's try to sketch a brief timeline of the major events and references to the issue of the written NT canon (specifically the gospels--I am not discussing the epistles yet) PRIOR to Irenaeus' statement in c.185 ad.

One issue we must understand BEFORE we start looking at dates and citations is what the SIGNIFICANCE of such a citation is. For example, if "Writer A" quotes "Passage B" from "Document C" as a 'proof text' in an attempt to convince an "Audience D" of a "Belief E", what historical conclusions might we be able to draw from such a citation? Let's try to make some of these explicit.

  1. Writer A KNEW of Passage B (obviously).
  2. Writer A thought he/she UNDERSTOOD Passage B well enough to draw conclusions (Belief E) from it.
  3. Writer A thought that Audience D had access to the Document C (for them to be able to verify the citation of Passage B)
  4. Writer A thought that Audience D ACCEPTED Document C as cite-able authority in matters of dispute about Belief E.
  5. Writer A thought that Audience D would understand Passage B IN THE SAME WAY (i.e. see the implicative force of it in the direction of Belief E) as Writer A.
  6. Writer A thought that at least SOMEONE would read his/her work that ALSO had historical understanding of the situation/documents/issues (in the case where the writing is ABOUT a "heresy" but only as instruction to 'the faithful'--and NOT a "polemical" treatise).
  7. Writer A and Audience D BOTH considered Document C authoritative in these matters (with the exception of ironic treatments, refutation of Documents, and reductio ad absurdam type arguments--in which only Audience D might hold to the document).
  8. General assumptions about literary and cultural exchanges between groups--that writing COULD and WOULD 'reach' the intended audience.

Points three and four above have the most significance to our study. If Writer A cites a gospel in 150 a.d., trying to prove a point to someone else half-way around the world, it is VERY SAFE to assume that the document had been in the hands of that 'someone else' for an ADEQUATE AMOUNT OF TIME to have been (1) studied well enough to be understood and (2) accepted as authoritative in matters of 'belief E'. In fact, Writer A must have ALREADY KNOWN that the others had access to/ accepted as authoritative the Document BEFORE he/she would presume to use it as proof.

But how is Writer A to know this UNLESS he/she had ALREADY SEEN the document referenced in such a context?! What this implies is that for every mention of a passage in a PERSUASIVE context, there must have been AT LEAST one other PRIOR reference that illustrated the acceptance of the larger document (containing the text) as authoritative by the intended recipients. This prior reference would not need to be in a persuasive context (leading to infinite regress?), but would probably be a homiletical, catechetical, or devotional use.

The net effect of this is that ANY CITATION in a persuasive context will be a witness to the text's existence MUCH EARLIER (to allow for the post-creation transmission of the text from point of writing to Audience D's culture, acceptance of the text by that culture (a non-trivial time!), time for a situation to occur that prompts the writing of the PRIOR reference, writing/editing/publication of the PRIOR reference, transmission of the PRIOR reference to the Writer's culture, time to analyze the PRIOR reference, time for a situation to occur that prompts the writing by Writer A (citing the text), time for the writing/editing/publication of Writer's A work). This process could EASILY span FIVE decades, or be as short as 5 days!

[Thiede has pointed out known cases of transmission in the Roman world measured in days (TRKW:45): "...texts could reach destinations across the Mediterranean within weeks. There was of course the imperial post which carried mail for civil servants and the military. And there were tabellarii, letter-carrying messengers, as well as individuals who acted as voluntary couriers. They could reach the Italian harbour of Puteoli from Corinth in five days, or as Cato once did, Africa from Rome in under three days."]

With this in mind, let's turn to the "Timeline". [For this structure, I am using FRC for the Church history, supplemented by MNT (Tatian, Muratorian Canon), RMML(for the scriptural dates--dependent on Bruce, "Acts of the Apostles"). I am here using the recently-revived Matthean-priority scheme, instead of the Markan-priority scheme--more on this later.]

What should be clear from this survey/timeline is that Irenaeus stands at the END of the process--NOT as a major contributor to the debate! And the early references to the gospels IMPLY even earlier usage and acceptance of those writings in large portions of the mainstream church.


By the end of the second century, the canon had taken shape and from then on the oral tradition slowly died out to be replaced by the authority of the written word.

Concluding Comment to this section


While it is correct to say that the canon had taken shape by this time, it says too little. The canon had assumed its 'shape' much earlier (ESPECIALLY THE CASE of the Gospels, with which we are concerned here).

And while it is correct to say that oral tradition 'slowly died out', it is NOT correct to say it was 'replaced by' the authority of the written word. The written word ALREADY HAD AUTHORITY throughout the century, as evidenced in the quotations of the gospel documents as authoritative IN THE FIRST HALF OF THAT CENTURY. So, whereas it is okay to say 'oral tradition' LOST authority, it is INCORRECT to say that 'written tradition' GAINED authority at this time--it had ALREADY possessed a recognized authority in the life of the church, as manifested in her use of NT scripture in ritual, in catechism, in theological debate, and in apologetic writings...

And once again, I hope I have shown that the HARD data of history supports the view of an early (and sane!) acceptance of the true gospel writings.


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