ECA: Lee McDonald on Early Christian Scripture

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.
Lee McDonald
Lee M. McDonald

Over at Bible Odyssey, Lee Martin McDonald has offered a brief response to a question about when the writings of the New Testament became scripture:

The New Testament (NT) writings were read in churches early on (Col 4:16), but were not generally called “scripture” until the end of the second century C.E., despite being used that way earlier. Ancient texts always functioned as scripture before they were called scripture. Only one New Testament author makes the claim that what he wrote was equivalent to sacred scripture (Rev 22:18-19; compare with Deut 4:2).

By the middle of the second century C.E., Justin Martyr (1 Apology 64-67) noted that the Gospels were read alongside of and occasionally instead of the “prophets” (Old Testament books). When New Testament writings were read in church worship, or served as an authority in matters of faith and conduct this was a first step in acknowledging the sacredness of the NT writings. The first writings acknowledged as scripture included the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John and some Pauline letters. Not all New Testament writings were called scripture at the same time or place. Irenaeus of Lyon was among the first to make explicit statements about the scriptural status of the canonical Gospels; however several others took much longer to be recognized, notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Initially, early Christians also appear to have accepted other Christian writings as scripture. Some of the most popular Christian writings not included in the canon include Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and others that were read in churches well into the fourth and fifth centuries and in some cases even later.

Finally, decisions made about the sacredness of the church’s scriptures did not take place universally at the same time or location. One church father’s decision does not mean that all church leaders came to the same conclusions at the same time. By the fourth century C.E., most Christians had accepted most of the NT writings, but canon lists varied well into the eighth or ninth centuries.

McDonald’s work has been rather influential on my own thought, especially his The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (3E), and the general contours of his response here are both accurate and succinct. My own questions and work stem from the “lacunae” of this response, namely, what does it mean to call a writing “scripture”? Can a writing possess authority but not be called “scripture” (the “functional” aspect of what McDonald writes here)? How are scriptures/authorities used in writings before Justin Martyr and Irenaeus? Why is there variance in what constitutes scripture and how were these disagreements resolved? And what are the implications of a “late” canonization process, especially for Christian claims concerning the inspiration/authority of the scriptures?

Sacred ScriptureEngaging these sorts of questions is very exciting to me, both professionally and personally, as I think there is tons of work to be done in this field and that answers to these questions have deep ramifications for Christian theology and practice. As a continuation of the “Early Christian Authority” series, during the course of the next few months pieces on why we should study early Christian authority, sources used by early Christians, and the specific appeals to authority by early Christian writers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, and (heretic) Marcion of Sinope will be examined. I’m excited, and hope you are too!


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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