Early Church: before ~400 AD, Christianity w/out the Bible

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-by Catholic Answers


I recently listened to a debate on sola scriptura between a Catholic apologist and a Baptist who runs an anti-Catholic organization. The Baptist claimed the Catholic Church did not decide the canon of the New Testament at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419). As proof he alluded to the Muratorian Fragment, saying that, since it was far older than those councils and since it contains the New Testament canon as we know it, the issue was obviously settled long before the Catholic Church made any decisions. Is it true?


The Baptist fellow is wrong and misled the audience. The Muratorian Fragment (so-called because it represents only a portion of the actual second-century document discovered in 1740 by Lodovico Antonio Muratori), is the oldest extant listing of New Testament-era books revered by early Christians. It was written sometime between 155 and 200. Patristic scholars believe the unknown author originally wrote the list in Greek (since the Latin is very poor), but the oldest copy available is an eighth-century Latin manuscript.

Although the Muratorian Fragment is important in studying how the early Church developed the New Testament canon, it doesn’t give exactly the same list of books that was later adopted as canonical at the councils of Hippo and Carthage. The Muratorian Fragment is just that: a fragment of a larger list of books which were considered canonical or quasi-canonical during the second century.

The Fragment itself provides us with a good though incomplete idea of this early canon. Virtually the entire New Testament canon as we know it is represented but not all of it: the Gospels of Luke and John (preceded by what seems to be an allusion to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark), Acts, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy, Jude, two letters of John (since the fragment simply says “the two ascribed to John,” we don’t know which two of his three letters are meant), and Revelation.

The unknown author adds other non-canonical books to this lineup but makes clear these were not considered part of the canon: the so-called Pauline Epistles to the Laodiceans and to the Alexandrians (about which the Fragment’s author expresses his conviction that they were not authored by Paul), the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas). The Fragment’s list is cut short abruptly with a final, enigmatic phrase which may indicate that the author had gone on to include still other non-inspired writings: “Those also who wrote the new book of psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides, the founder of the Asian Cataphrygians.”

As you can see, although the Muratorian Fragment lists most of the New Testament books, it’s missing a few (e.g. James, one of John’s epistles, most likely 3 John), and it also adds the book of Wisdom as canonical, which is very interesting from a Catholic perspective.

These facts demonstrate that, although the Fragment came close, it did not represent the actual canon of inspired Scripture. Further, there is no internal evidence in the document that it sought to represent any kind of official canon that was regarded by the Church as binding.

In the first four centuries of the Church many books, such as the seven letters of Ignatius, the Letter of Clement [the fourth pope] to the Corinthians, the Didache, and The Shepherd were revered by many Christians as inspired but were later shown to be non-inspired.

It was not until the Synod of Rome under Pope Damasus in A.D. 382, followed by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, that the Catholic Church defined, albeit non-infallibly, which books made it into the New Testament and which didn’t. Probably the council fathers studied the (complete) Muratorian Fragment and other documents, including, of course, the books in question themselves, but it was not until these Councils that the Church officially settled the issue.

The plain fact of the matter is that the canon of the Bible was not settled in the first years of the Church. It was settled only after repeated (and perhaps heated) discussions, and the final listing was determined by the pope and Catholic bishops. This is an inescapable fact, no matter how many people wish to escape from it.”

-by Douglas M. Beaumont, Catholic Answers

“When a skeptic argues against the Bible, he is usually not attacking the book but the ideas in the book. Skeptics are not really concerned about how many generations there are between Adam and Jesus or how many angels were at Jesus’ tomb. It is Christianity that concerns them (and hence the New Testament in particular). Since many Christians and skeptics alike consider the Bible to be the foundation of Christianity, to call its historicity, manuscript transmission, scientific accuracy, etc. into question is to call Christianity into question.

Defenses of Christianity, then, often either begin or conclude with a defense of the Bible. But what if the trustworthiness of the Bible could not be satisfactorily defended?

I don’t think this is the case, but it is worth thinking about for at least these two reasons: 1) most skeptics think the Bible has not been defended sufficiently, and 2) the case for Christianity will be even stronger if it can survive the failure of these popular methods. If the defense of Christianity is not coextensive with that of the Bible, then attacks on the latter can’t be used against the former.

I would argue that even if we lost the Bible completely, Christianity would remain undefeated. Therefore, the defeat of the Bible would not entail the defeat of Christianity.

How can we be sure of this?

First, Christianity preceded the Christian Bible. The New Testament writings did not begin until at least a decade after Christ started the Church, yet those who believed were Christians and therefore constituted the Church (1 Cor. 1:2 cf. 15:1-5).

Second, Christianity continued to exist without most of its members possessing the New Testament. Even after the New Testament started to be written and copied, its contents were not in the possession of the average believer. Even literate Christians would have to wait 1,500 years or so, when the printing press made bibles widely accessible. Even in our own time, people from many parts of the world become Christians when the Bible is forbidden or inaccessible in their own language. Yet Christianity has spread across the globe. It is possible, then, that Christianity’s message could have been communicated only orally through the ages.

Third, suppose some atheistic world dictator had every copy of the Bible destroyed and somehow made it impossible to create any future copies or to publish it online. Would Christianity disappear from the Earth? Of course not.

Before the New Testament was canonized, Christianity existed. Before it was completed, Christianity existed. Before its writing had even commenced, Christianity existed. It is, therefore, both a theoretical and a historical fact that Christianity can exist while no Bible exists.

All right, you ask: if the Bible is not necessary for Christianity’s existence, how would we know what Christianity teaches? As it turns out, we can find out pretty much everything necessary from a multitude of extra-biblical historical sources. These include:

  • Catechetical instructions (e.g., The Didache, first century)
  • Sermon messages (e.g., 1-2 Clement, A.D. 95-97)
  • Early epistles (e.g., Letters of Ignatius, A.D. 98-117)
  • Baptismal confessions (e.g., The Old Roman Creed, second to third century)
  • Bible commentaries (e.g., Theophilus’s, or the Diatessaron, second to third century)
  • Liturgical instructions (e.g., Liturgy of St. James or St. Basil, fourth century)
  • Authoritative pronouncements (e.g., ecumenical councils, canons, creeds, and definitions, fourth to fifth century).

We can see, then, that the content of Christianity, and thus most of the issues skeptics have with it, would remain even if the Bible was taken out of the equation. At a minimum, it is clear that the message that brought people into Christianity was from the very beginning that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died, was buried, and rose again. This was the message the apostles died for, the message the early Church was persecuted for, and that two centuries later brought the greatest empire on Earth to its knees.

So, ultimately, it is not the Bible but the historic Christian Church (which gave the world the canonical scriptures and their orthodox interpretation) that skeptics must defeat in order to bring Christianity down. This puts the Catholic apologist in a much stronger position than the Protestant, who must build his defense on the trustworthiness of just part of the Church’s tradition while rejecting others.

Now, this is not a reductionist attempt to shield the Bible from legitimate criticism, and or a suggestion that we should abandon defense of the Bible. There is no need! The evidential arguments for the reliability of the Bible are extremely strong (so much so that if they are thought to fail the Bible, then, to be consistent, the rest of ancient history goes with it). If nothing else, it is difficult to imagine that God would bother inspiring hundreds of pages of communication only to have it lost or corrupted before it could be disseminated!

Still less is this an attempt to downplay the importance of the Bible for Catholics. The Church holds Sacred Scripture in the highest regard—reveres it, exhorts all believers to read it deeply.

Rather, it is good simply to realize that, even without the Bible, Christianity endures. This allows us, as circumstances may demand, to benefit from a different apologetic focus: to move from defending the Bible to defending the Church that produced it. This approach neatly sidesteps issues of biblical inspiration, transmission, inerrancy, and infallibility and opens the door to more accessible and accepted pieces of evidence. The skeptic’s target becomes both smaller and more difficult to hit—all without threat to Christianity’s teachings (which are, after all, the skeptic’s real prey).

Finally, lest someone think this is some sneaky Catholic sleight of hand, even the sixteenth-century Protestant scholar William Whitaker reluctantly admitted:

“I confess that the divine Providence can preserve from destruction whatever it chooses; . . . . we may, in the same manner, infer that there is no need of the scriptures, that everything should be trusted to divine Providence, and nothing committed to writing, because God can preserve religion safe without the scriptures.”


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