Bart Ehrman argues in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture that in the early church there was not a composition of a single “orthodoxy” from which emerged a series of divergent and erroneous minorities, but instead there were various streams of Christian orthodoxy. No one stream represented “the clear and powerful majority of believers against all others.”[i] In other words, there was no monolithic “orthodoxy” in the early church. There were different streams that were obviously divergent of one another because of the divergent “books” that are found within the first three centuries of the Christian church. Ehrman goes on to argue:
To this extent “orthodoxy,” in the sense of a unified group advocating and apostolic doctrine accepted by the majority of Christians everywhere, did not exist in the second and third centuries. Beliefs that were, at later times, embraced as orthodoxy and condemned as heresy were in fact competing interpretations of Christianity, one of which eventually (but not initially) acquired domination because of singular and historical forces. Only when one social group had exerted itself sufficiently over the rest of Christendom did a “majority” opinion emerge: only then did the “right belief” represent the view of the Christian church at large.[ii]
Ehrman’s argument has significance, not only for how we understand what constituted “orthodox” Christian doctrine and what was understood concerning the books of the New Testament. Though Ehrman uses the term “orthodoxy” and not “canon” these two are necessarily linked. Early Christian orthodoxy was based upon or emerged from, not only the Old Testament Scriptures, but from the New Testament Scriptures as well. Ehrman’s assault against orthodoxy is also the assault against the canon of the New Testament. He makes clear his position with regard to canon when he writes:
Not only did different parties produce literature designed to confute the positions of others while establishing the validity of their own, several groups also argued that certain writings from the earlier days were endowed with sacred authority and could be employed to authorize a correct understanding of the religion. This is a movement toward a canon of Scripture, a movement that eventuated the formation of the “new” Testament, a collection of authoritative books that the orthodox used to arbitrate theological claims.[iii]
Ehrman’s argument is two-pronged in its attack as it specifically relates to the canon. First, in arguing that “orthodoxy” was the result of a “bully” group that won that day and squelched the divergent streams of Christendom, in a sense subjugating them, he outright states there was no stream of Christian doctrine or canonical documents that were shared by all the churches. Second, if “orthodoxy” was the result of the more dominant group winning out, then the books of the canon were a result of the same and thus applied anachronistically to the early church. In Ehrman’s view because the New Testament canon was not “recognized” or “formalized” until later in the history of the church, this must mean that there was no “canon” in the formative years of the church. We cannot confuse canon recognition with the existence of the canon. The canon “existed” before it was recognized. Therefore, it is wrong to say that the church formed the canon or attribute theological and historical subterfuge to the church as Ehrman does with regard to the canon.
The Scriptures themselves contradict Ehrman’s assertion that there was no agreed upon stream of orthodoxy and also no agreed upon early canon. I will argue this from two points. First, I will argue that there is continuity between the Old and the New Testament; and second, I will argue that there are explicit statements from the Scriptures themselves that show a commonly held orthodoxy and early canon formation.
First, with regard to the continuity of the Old and the New Testaments there is agreement by Ehrman that there was an established set of orthodox documents in the early church. However, he attributes these orthodox documents to the Old Testament, but he is quick to point out that the final form was probably not in existence during the first century.
Jesus testified that he was the subject of the Old Testament. Twice in Luke 24, Jesus points to the Old Testament and its three-fold division and states that what was written in all the Scriptures (Old Testament) was about him (Lk. 24:27, 44-45)
Jesus demonstrates that there was an established continuity between the Old Testament and his teaching and mission. Furthermore, there was established continuity between the Old Testament, Jesus’ teachings, and apostolic doctrine. This is made clear by both Peter and Paul; Peter from the book of Acts and Paul from 1st Corinthians.
In Acts 2:14-41 Peter makes three Old Testament references. Each reference shows that there was continuity in the form of promise fulfillment between what the Old Testament recorded and what happened regarding Jesus in the New Covenant era. He quotes from Joel 2 concerning the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. He quotes Psalm 16 and shows how this pointed to the resurrection of Christ. And, he quotes Psalm 110 as it pertains to the ascension and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of the Father.
Paul notes in 1st Corinthians 15 that the gospel that he preached was in congruence with the Old Testament Scriptures. “…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4, ESV italics mine). The preposition phrase (“accordance with the Scriptures”) in the Greek denotes the idea of correspondence or conformity.[iv] Thus, when Paul writes that the work of Christ is in “accordance with the Scriptures” he identifies that this is in conformity and correspondence with that which was written in the Old Testament.
One final example comes by way of illustration, which is also found in the book of Acts, which demonstrates there was an established stream of orthodoxy in early church and that this stream of orthodoxy was in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures. In Acts 18:24-28 we are introduced to Apollos; a man who is described as being “competent in the Scriptures” (v. 24) and “instructed in the way of the Lord” (v. 25). His teaching was accurate concerning the things of Jesus, but “he knew only the baptism of John” (v. 25). When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos’ preaching and how it somehow represented the “baptism of John” alone they “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (v. 26). Though, Apollos was teaching the things of Christ he was still preaching concerning John’s baptism. He was corrected by Priscilla and Aquila who presumably explained to Apollos that the baptism of John was connected to the Old Covenant period and now that the New Covenant had been inaugurated in Christ there was a new significance to baptism. This seems to imply that there was an agreed upon standard of orthodoxy, for if there was not it would seem nonsensical for Priscilla and Aquila to explain the things of God more accurately to him. Following this, it is recorded that Apollos “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (v. 28). Apollos showed the Jews from their own Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus was the one the Old Testament pointed towards. Again, this shows that the preaching and teaching from the early church was consistent and in accordance with the Old Testament.
If Ehrman and those who share his view acknowledge that there were documents in the early church that constituted orthodoxy, then it would stand to reason that if the teaching of the New Covenant era were in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures then there had to be a pervasively accepted orthodoxy that had as its foundation the Old Testament. Simply by virtue of the fact that the New Covenant era is built on the Old Covenant must necessarily narrow the field significantly of what would be considered orthodoxy. If, then, the field of orthodoxy is not nearly as wide as Ehrman would suggest, the New Testament canon would not be as wide as he would like people to think either.
It is not just the continuity with the Old Testament that refutes Ehrman’s claims of no commonly held orthodoxy or canonical documents in the early church, but there are explicit statements of the Scriptures themselves that refute Ehrman’s claims.
Peter speaks (2 Peter 3:15-16) of Paul’s letters with which Peter’s audience must have been familiar as Paul also wrote to them. Concerning the content of the letters of Paul, Peter speaks of those things that are hard to understand which are twisted by the ignorant and unstable. This is not only what they do with Paul’s letters, but with the other Scriptures as well; meaning that Peter is equating the letters of Paul with Scripture. John Frame comments that “by this language, Peter places Paul’s writings into the category of Scripture.”[v]
Then, in Paul’s writing to Timothy, he quotes from another writer of the New Testament. Paul is giving direction for the church concerning those who labor in the church in preaching and teaching being worthy of double honor. He supports this assertion by appealing to Scripture. “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:18, ESV). What is of particular note here is the fact that Paul uses the title of Scripture. His first quotation is from Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second quotation is from Luke 10:7, in which Luke records what Jesus said. Paul’s supporting point appeals to Deuteronomy, which is unquestionably considered Scripture and to Luke, which Paul puts on equal par with the book of Deuteronomy.
It is evident from the testimony of the Scriptures themselves that not only was there a commonly held stream of orthodoxy, there was a commonly held New Testament canon that had begun to emerge. There were writings from the apostles and those associated with the apostles that were being recognized as Scripture and thus canonical, though the term itself was not in use at this time, there was recognition of these writings being authoritative.
The Scriptural evidence points to the fact that the criticisms leveled against the early church about orthodoxy and canon being the product of the bigger, stronger group does not hold; though it may seem to be the case if you look at the matter somewhat anachronistically. With the generation of the apostles as recorded in sacred Scripture it is clear that though there were pockets of divergent strains of so-called “Christianity,” there was a relatively well established orthodoxy and since that orthodoxy is related to the documents of the New Covenant, there were established documents that formed the “canon.”
[i] Bart Ehrman. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 7.
[ii] Ibid., 7.
[iii] Ibid., 18-19.
[iv] Murray J. Harris. Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 152-153.
[v] John Frame. The Doctrine of the Word of God, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 132.