How Did the Spread of Early Christianity and the Persecution of the Early Church Impact the Text of the New Testament?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored 170+ books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The Foretold Apostasy

Within just a few short decades after the apostle John’s death, divisions were already evident among the early Christians. Historians Will and Ariel Durant write: “Celsus [Greek Philosopher and second-century opponent of Christianity] himself had sarcastically observed that Christians were ‘split up into ever so many factions, each individual desiring to have his own party.’ About 187 AD, Irenaeus listed twenty varieties of Christianity; about 384 AD Epiphanius counted eighty.” (The Story of Civilization: Part III, Caesar and Christ)  The first-century Christianity that Jesus Christ started, and the apostles grew went from 120 Christians in the upper room of Pentecost 33 C.E. to shortly over one million by 130 C.E. This was accomplished in a world of only one hundred million in population.

2 Thessalonians 2:1a, 3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Now we request you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ … 3 Let no one deceive you in any way, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,

Apostasy: (Gr. apostasia) The term literally means “to stand away from” and is used to refer to ones who ‘stand away from the truth.’ It is abandonment, a rebellion, an apostasy, a refusal to accept or acknowledge true worship. In Scripture, this is used primarily concerning the one who rises up in defiance of the only true God and his people, working in opposition to the truth. – Ac 21:21; 2 Thess. 2:3.

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Concerning this text, New Testament scholar Knute Larson writes, “Before that great day comes, Paul declared, the rebellion must occur. The word used here is apostasia, or apostasy. Before the day of the Lord, there will be a great denial, a deliberate turning away by those who profess to belong to Christ. It will be a rebellion. Having once allied themselves with Christ, they will abandon him. Within the recognized church, there will come a time when people will forsake their faith. Throughout history there have been defections from the faith. But the apostasy about which he wrote to the Thessalonians would be of greater magnitude and would signal the coming of the end.”[1]

The apostle Paul says to the Ephesian elders, there is but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Eph. 4:5) Paul penned those words about 60 C.E., and he was informing them that there was but one Christian faith. Yet, today we see more varieties of Christian faith than we care to count (41,000+), all claiming that they are the truth and the way. Whenever a brave soul dares to be truthful and brings up doctrinal differences (views or beliefs) and different conduct standards, he is shouted down as an alarmist. They claim that most of these denominations are the same on the essential doctrines, i.e., the salvation doctrines. This is not true and attempts to hide the truth because even the salvation doctrines have three to five different interpretations. Regardless, we must concern ourselves with a crucial question from Jesus Christ, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lu 18:8) This is a whole other discussion. We will only concern ourselves with how these divisions came about in the first place.

The blame lies with Satan and his proxies from the moment he contemplated a rebellion. Many atrocities were at his hand in the 4,000-year history down to Christ as well. Returning to our first century, Satan attempted to have Jesus killed as a baby. He tempted Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. He attempted persecution right from the start. Peter wrote, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8) Initially, the persecution of this young Christian body came from Jewish religious leaders, and then from the Roman Empire itself. With “all authority in heaven” (Matt. 28:20), Jesus watched on, as the Holy Spirit guided and directed them, this infancy Christian congregation endured the best that Satan and his henchman had to offer. (See Rev. 1:9; 2:3, 19) As we know from Scripture, Satan is not one to give up, so he devised a new plan, divide and conquer. Yes, he would cause divisions within the Christian congregation. Satan broke out the ultimate weapon― the apostasy. We need not believe that all of a sudden, the apostasy came into the Christian congregation. No, he made sure that he had warned them while he was here on earth of what was to come, and after his ascension, Jesus was watching from heaven as his apostles made the young Christian congregation aware of what was coming and when it was getting started. – Colossians 1:18

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

In the Greek New Testament, the noun “apostasy” (Gr., apostasia) has the sense of “desertion, abandonment or rebellion.” (Acts 21:21) There it predominantly is alluding to abandonment, a drawing away from or abandoning of pure worship.

“[Jesus] Be Aware of False Prophets . . .

[Peter] There Will Be False Teachers Among You.”

Matthew 7:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Jesus was well aware of what Satan would try to accomplish step-by-step and that divisions through those from within were on the list. New Testament scholar Stuart K. Weber says, “Jesus had an important reason for inserting the wolf metaphor (Acts 20:27–31)—to alert his listeners to the danger of a false prophet. If the false prophets were thought of as a source of bad fruit, then the disciples might think it was enough simply to recognize and ignore the false prophet, refusing to consume his bad fruit, and awaiting God’s judgment on him. But the wolf metaphor attributes a more active and malicious motive to the false prophet. He is actually an enemy of the sheep and, if not confronted, will get his way by destroying the sheep.” (Weber 2000, 101)

Weber mentions Acts 20:28-30, where Paul, about 56 C.E., warned the Ephesian elders,

Acts 20:28-30 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the congregation of God, which he obtained with the blood of his own Son.* 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

 * Lit with the blood of his Own.

Yes, these, who standoff from the Truth and the Way, would not be seeking their own disciples, but instead, they would be seeking, to draw away the disciples after them.” i.e., the disciples of Christ. Jesus was well aware that the easiest way to defeat any group is to divide them, and so was Satan, who had been watching humanity for over 4,000 years, and especially the Israelites (Isaac and Ishmael / Jacob and Esau / Israel and Judah), as “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So, it is no surprise if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. – 2 Corinthians 11:14-15.

The apostle Peter also spoke of these things about 64 C.E., “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies … in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” (2 Pet. 2:1, 3) These abandoned the faithful words, became false teachers, rising within the Christian congregation, sharing their corrupting influence, intending to hide, disguise, or mislead.

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These dire warnings by Jesus and the New Testament Authors began in the first century C.E. Yes, they started small but burst forth on the scene in the second century.

“[Paul says it] Is Already at Work”

About 51 C.E., some 18-years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, division was already starting to creep into the faith, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” (2 Thess. 2:7) Yes, the power of the man of lawlessness was already present, which is the power of Satan, the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:3-4), and his tens of millions of demons, are hard at work behind the scenes.

There were even some divisions beginning as early as 49 C.E., when the elders wrote a letter to the Gentile believers, saying,

Acts 15:24 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

24 Since we have heard that some went out from among us and troubled you with words, unsettling your souls,[2] although we gave them no instructions,

Here we see that some within were very vocal about their opposition to the direction the faith was heading. Here, it was over whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised, suggesting that they must be obedient to the Mosaic Law. – Ac 15:1, 5.

As the years progressed throughout the first-century, this divisive “talk [would] spread like gangrene.” (2 Tim. 2:17, c65 C.E.) About 51 C.E., They had some in Thessalonica, at worst, going ahead of, or at best, misunderstanding Paul, and wrongly stating by word and a bogus letter “that the day of the Lord has come.” (2 Thess. 2:1-2) In Corinth, about 55 C.E., “some of [were saying] that there is no resurrection of the dead. (1 Cor. 15:12) About 65 C.E., some were “saying that the resurrection has already happened. They [were] upsetting the faith of some.” – 2 Tim 2:16-18.

Throughout the next three decades, no inspired books were written. However, by the time of the Apostle John’s letter-writing days of 96-98 C.E., he tells us, “Now many antichrists have come. Therefore, we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18) These are ones “who deny that Jesus is the Christ,” and those who do not confess “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” – 1 John 2:22; 4:2-3.

From 33 C.E. to 100 C.E., the apostles served Christ as a restraint against “the apostasy” that was coming. Paul stated in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he [Apostle by Christ] who now restrains it [the apostasy] will do so until he [apostles] is out of the way.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3 said, “Let no one deceive you in any way [misinterpretation or false teachers of Paul’s first letter]. For that day [presence, parousia (second coming) of Christ] will not come, unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness [likely one person, or maybe an organization/movement, empowered by Satan] is revealed, the son of destruction.”

We must keep in mind that the meaning of any given text is what the author meant by the words he used, as it should have been understood by his audience and had some relevance/meaning for his audience. The rebellion [apostasy] began slowly in the first century and would break forth after the last apostle’s death, i.e., John. As a historian, Ariel Durant informed us earlier, by 187 C.E., there were 20 varieties of Christianity, and by 384 C.E., there were 80 varieties of Christianity. Christianity would become one again, a universal religion, i.e., Catholicism.

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Gnostic Belief

Marcion (85-c.160) was a semi-Gnostic, who believed that the teachings of Jesus were irreconcilable with the actions of the God of the Old Testament. He viewed the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah, to be vicious, violent, and cruel, an oppressor who gave out material rewards to those worshiping him. In contrast, Marcion described the New Testament God, Jesus Christ, as a perfect God, the God of unadulterated love and compassion, of kindness, and quickness to forgive.

Montanus (late second century) was a “prophet” from Asia Minor who believed that their revelation came directly from the Holy Spirit, which superseded the authority of Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, James, anyone really. They believed in the imminent return of Christ and the setting up of the New Jerusalem in Pepuza. They believed that the apostle and prophets had the power to forgive sin. He was more concerned about Christian conduct than Christian doctrine, wanting to get back to the first century’s Christian values. However, he took this to the extreme, just as John Calvin would some 1,300 years later in the 16thcentury. Montanism was a movement focused on prophecy, especially the founder’s views, being seen as the light for their time.

Valentinus (c.100-c.160) was a Greek poet who founded his school in Rome and was the most prominent early Christian gnostic theologian. He claimed that though Jesus’ heavenly (spiritual) body was from Mary, he was not actually born from her. This belief came about because Gnostics viewed all matter as evil. Therefore, if Jesus had really been a natural human person with a physical body, he would have been evil. Another form of Gnosticism was Docetism, which claimed that Jesus Christ was not a natural person, i.e., it was a mere appearance and illusion, which would have included his death and resurrection.

Manes (c. 216-274) was the prophet and the founder of Manichaeism, a gnostic religion. He sought to combine elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, based on a rigid dualism of good and evil, locked in an eternal struggle. He believed that salvation is possible through education, self-denial, fasting, and chastity. He also believed that he was an “apostle of Jesus Christ” (Ramsey 2006, 272) although, strictly speaking, his religion was not a movement of Christian Gnosticism in the earlier approach.

Beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity to reunite the empire. He fully understood that religious division was a threat to the continuation of the Roman Empire. However, Emperor Theodosius I (347 – 395 C.E.) banned paganism and imposed Christianity as the State religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church can trace its existence back to the council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. at best. Protestantism had its beginnings in the Reformation of the 16th century. However, there were quarrels within Catholicism for a thousand years.

Returning to the First Century Once More

The early Christian congregations were not isolated from one another. The Roman roads and maritime travel connected all the regions from Rome to Greece, Asia, Syria and Palestine, and Egypt.[3] Following the days of Pentecost 33 C.E., Jewish or Jewish proselyte Christians returned to Egypt with the good news of Christ (Acts 2:10). Three years after that, the Ethiopian eunuch traveled home with the good news as well (Acts 8:26–39). Apollos of Alexandria, Egypt, a renowned speaker, left Egypt with the knowledge of John the Baptizer and arrived in Ephesus in about 52 C. E. (Acts 18:24-25) The apostle Paul traveled approximately 10,282 miles throughout the Roman Empire establishing congregations.[4] The apostles were a restraint to the apostasy and division within the whole of the first-century Christian congregation (2 Thess. 2:6-7; 1 John 2:18). It was not until the second century that the next generation of Christian leaders gradually caused divisions.[5] However, the one true Christianity that Jesus started, and the apostles established was spiritually healthy, active, and able to defend against Gnosticism, Roman persecution, and Jewish opposition.

It is conceivable that by 55 C.E., there would have been a thriving congregation in Alexandrian Egypt, with its huge Jewish population.[6] “Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen went through as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews” (Acts 11:19). While this indicates traveling north to Antioch, it does not negate traveling south to Egypt. Antioch is obviously mentioned because it played a significant role as a commencement for first-century Christianity, particularly for the apostle Paul.

The Coptic Church claims the Gospel writer Mark as its founder and first patriarch. Tradition has it that he preached in Egypt just before the middle of the first century. At any rate, Christianity spread to Egypt and North Africa at an early date. It became a prominent religious center, with a noted scholar named Pantaenus, who founded a catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt, about 160 C.E. In about 180 C.E., another leading scholar, Clement of Alexandria, took over his position. Clement put this religious, educational institution on the map as a possible center for the whole of the Christian church throughout the Roman Empire. The persecution that came circa the year 202 C.E. forced Clement to flee Alexandria, but one of the most noted scholars of early Christian history, Origen, replaced him. In addition, Origen took this scholarly environment to Caesarea in 231 C.E. and started yet another prominent school and scriptorium (i.e., a room for copying manuscripts).

What does all this mean? While we cannot know absolutely, textual scholar Philip W. Comfort[7] and others believe that the very early Alexandrian manuscripts that we now possess are a reflection of what would have been found throughout the whole of the Greco-Roman Empire about 125–300 C.E. If we were to discover other early manuscripts from Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, they would be very similar to the early Alexandrian manuscripts. This means that these early manuscripts are a primary means of establishing the original text, and we are in a far better position today than were Westcott and Hort in 1881. Even still, there is a 99.5% agreement between the Westcott and Hort critical text and the 2012 Nestle-Aland 28th edition critical text. This emphasizes what a tremendous job Westcott and Hort had done when we consider all the early second and third century New Testament papyri discovered in the 20th century, and yet so few changes.

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We can also assume an effort on the part of copyists to preserve the originals unchanged because the authors themselves spoke of their writings as authoritative and said that no one should alter what they had published or taught. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that they should consider as “accursed” anyone (even angels) who proclaimed a gospel contrary to the one they had preached. (Gal. 1:6-9) Paul went on to write, “the gospel that was preached by me is not according to man [I.e., human origin]. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation [Lit., uncovering; disclosure] of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12) The apostle Paul charged that ‘the Corinthian Christians had put up with false teachers, readily enough, who proclaim another Jesus and another gospel.’ (2 Cor. 11:3-4) Paul, Silvanus (one of Paul’s secretaries, scribe), and Timothy wrote to the Thessalonians that they constantly thanked God that when the Thessalonians received the word of God, which they had heard from them, they accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really was, the word of God. (1 Thess. 2:3) Paul then closed that letter by commanding them “by the Lord, have this letter read aloud to all the brothers.” (1 Thess. 5:27) In 2 Thessalonians, Paul ‘requested that they not be quickly shaken from their composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a word or a letter as if from us.’ (2:2) Paul closed the letter with a greeting in his own hand to authenticate it. (3:17) Lastly, John closed the book of Revelation to warn everyone about adding to or taking away from what he had written therein. (Rev. 22:18-19) The New Testament authors were well aware that future scribes could intentionally alter the Word of God, so they warned them of the consequences.

Let’s look at yet another author of the New Testament. The apostle Peter wrote about 64 C.E.,

2 Peter 1:12-18 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

12 Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that is present with you. 13 I consider it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle,[8] to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 knowing that the putting off of my tabernacle[9] is soon,[10] just as also our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15 So I will make every effort so that after my departure, you may be able to recall these things for yourselves.[11]

Prophetic Word Made More Sure

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming[12] of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was brought[13] to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 and we ourselves heard this very voice brought from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.

Peter was making it clear that he was sharing firsthand accounts and not devised tales. Like the other New Testament authors, Peter warned his readers of false teachers, who corrupted the truth and distorted the Scriptures, such as Paul’s letters. Like Paul and John, Peter warned that this would be done to the offenders’ own destruction.

2 Peter 3:15-16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 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.

Yes, “It is especially interesting that Peter writes of the distortion of Paul’s letters along with ‘the other Scriptures.’ The implication is that the letters of Paul were already regarded as Scripture at the time Peter wrote.”[14] Verse 16 shows that Peter

…is aware of several Pauline letters. This knowledge again raises the dating issue. We know that Paul himself on one occasion had requested that churches share his letters: ‘After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you, in turn, read the letter from Laodicea’ (Col 4:16). However, it is a big jump in time from Colossians to the first concrete evidence we have of people who know more than one letter. This evidence shows up in 1 Clement, who not only knows Romans but can also write to the Corinthians, ‘Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul’ (1 Clem.[15] 47:1). It appears later in 2 Clement and in Ignatius’s Ephesians.[16] Thus, we are on solid ground when we accept that a collection of the Pauline letters existed by the end of the first century.[17] It is also likely that some Pauline letters circulated independently of a collection (which is what one would expect as one church hears that another has a letter that might prove helpful in their situation),[18] and that there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.[19] All of this is quite logical since Paul was a valued teacher in his circle of communities and, as he left an area and especially as he died, his letters were his continuing voice. Thus churches would share letters and, as they obtained funds (a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars in today’s money), they would make copies. Copies would turn into collections, especially since it was possible to use one scroll for several of the shorter letters. Probably by the end of the first century, the complete collection (i.e., all extant letters) was circulating to at least a limited degree (remember, these copies did not come cheap). The issue is which stage in this process 2 Peter is indicating.[20]

This author would argue that the stage to which Peter was referring was the time when “there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.” It is most likely that Peter’s first letter was written about 62-64 C.E., while Peter’s second letter was written about 64 C.E.[21] At the time Peter penned his second letter, several of Paul’s letters from the 50s and early 60s was available to Peter (Romans [56], 1 & 2 Corinthians [55], Galatians [50-52], and 1 & 2 Thessalonians [50-51]). He could have had access to those from the early 60s as well (Ephesians [60-61], Philippians [60-61], Colossians [60-61], Titus [61-64], Philemon [60-61], and Hebrews [61]). The only clearly unavailable ones would have been 1 & 2 Timothy [61, 64] and possibly Titus [61-64]. Thus, from Peter’s reference to “in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things,” we garner several insights. It highly suggests (1) there were collections of Paul’s letters, (2) Peter and the early church viewed them as “Scripture” in the same sense as the Old Testament Scriptures, (3) they were not to be changed, and (4) that apostolic authors’ written works were being collected and preserved for posterity.

Second-Century Manuscripts: Once we enter the second century, almost all firsthand witnesses of Jesus Christ would have died, and most of the younger traveling companions, fellow workers, and students of the apostles would be advancing into old age. However, some, like Polycarp, was born to Christian parents about 69 C.E. in Asia Minor in Smyrna. As he grew into a man, he became known for his kindness, self-discipline, compassionate treatment of others, and thorough study of God’s Word. Soon enough, he became an elder in the Christian congregation at Smyrna. Polycarp was very fortunate to live in a time when he was able to learn from the apostles themselves. In fact, the apostle John was one of his teachers.

By any standard, Polycarp must be reckoned as one of the more notable figures in the early postapostolic church. Already bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor when his friend and mentor, Ignatius of Antioch [c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.], addressed one of his letters to him (ca. A.D. 110; cf. above, p. 131), he died a martyr’s death (see the Martyrdom of Polycarp) several decades later at age eighty-six (ca. 155–160), having served as bishop for at least forty and possibly sixty or more years. Irenaeus (who met Polycarp as a child) and Eusebius both considered him a significant link in the chain of orthodox apostolic tradition. His life and ministry spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic [i.e., universal] Christianity, and he was deeply involved in the central issues and challenges of this critical era: the growing threat of persecution by the state, the emerging Gnostic movement (he is particularly known for his opposition to one of the movement’s most charismatic and theologically innovative teachers, Marcion), the development of the monepiscopal form of ecclesiastical organization, and the formation of the canon of the New Testament. Polycarp’s only surviving document[22] is a letter to the Philippians, written in response to a letter from them (cf. 3.1; 13.1). It reveals, in addition to a direct and unpretentious style and a sensitive pastoral manner, a deep indebtedness to the Scriptures (in the form of the Septuagint) and early Christian writings, including 1 Clement (with which Polycarp seems to be particularly familiar).[23] While apparently no New Testament books are cited as ‘Scripture’ (the reference to Ephesians in 12.1 is a possible exception), the manner in which Polycarp refers to them indicates that he viewed them as authoritative documents.[24]

Christ “gave gifts to men.” “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as shepherds and teachers.” (Eph. 4:8, 11-13) The Father moved these inspired ones along by the Holy Spirit, as they set forth God’s Word for the Christian congregation, “to stir [them] up by way of reminder,” repeating many things already written in the Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:12-13; 3:1; Rom 15:15). Thus, we have internal New Testament evidence from Second Peter circa 64 C.E. that “there were collections of a few Pauline letters before there was a collection of all of his letters.” Outside of Scripture, we find evidence of a collection of at least ten Pauline letters that were collected together by 90-100 C.E.[25] We can be certain that the early Christians were collecting the inspired Christian Scriptures as early as the middle of the first century C.E. to the early second century C.E.

Clement of Rome (c. 96 C.E.) was acquainted with Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth and said that Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit. Thus, we have Clement of Rome (c. 30-100 C.E.), Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 C.E.), and Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 C.E. – c. 108 C.E.), who wove Scripture of the Greek New Testament into their writings, showing their view of them as inspired Scripture. Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., used the expression “it is written” when quoting from Matthew. Theophilus of Antioch, who died about 181 C.E., declared, “concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.”[26] Theophilus then used such expressions as “says the Gospel” (quoting Matt, 5:28, 32, 44, 46; 6:3) and “the divine word gives us instructions, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.”[27] And it teaches us to render all things to all,[28] “honour to whom honour, fear to whom fear, tribute to whom tribute; to owe no man anything, but to love all.”[29]

Once we reach the middle to the end of the second century C.E., it comes down to whether those who came before would stress the written documents as Scripture by

  • the apostles, who had been personally selected by Jesus (Matthew, John, and Peter),
  • Paul, who was later chosen as an apostle by the risen Jesus himself,
  • the half-brothers of Jesus Christ (James and Jude),
  • as well as Mark and Luke, who were close associates and traveling companions of Paul and Peter.

We can see from the above that this essentially was the case. We know that significant church leaders across the Roman Empire had done just that. We know, for example, that Irenaeus of Asia Minor (180 C.E.) fully accepted 25 of 27 books of the New Testament but had some doubt about Hebrews and uncertainty about James. We know that Clement of Alexandria (190 C.E.) fully accepted 26 of 27 books of the New Testament but may not have been aware of 3 John. We know that Tertullian of North Africa (207 C.E.) fully accepted 24 of 27 books but may not have been aware of 2 and 3 John or Jude. We know that Origen of Alexandria (230 C.E.) and Eusebius of Palestine (320 C.E.) fully accepted all 27 books of the New Testament. It has been estimated that by the close of the second century C.E., there were over 60,000 copies of significant parts of the Greek New Testament in existence. This would be an enormous number, even if only one in every fifty professing Christians possessed a copy.

However, would there be evidence that these church leaders, going back to the apostles’ days, would influence the copyists? Moreover, were the copyists’ professionals? In other words, even if some of the copyists did not see the documents as Scripture, would the church leaders and long-standing traditions motivate them to copy the documents with accuracy? In addition, would the professional scribe copy accurately even if he did not view them as Scripture? And if the scribe did view the texts as Scripture, the inspired Word of God, was it plenary inspiration (every word), or that the meaning was inspired? Generally speaking, from what we know about the Alexandrian scribes, they would have sought to reproduce an accurate copy regardless of their views. We can say that other scribes saw the message as inspired; thus, their focus was not on retaining every word or word order. It seems that they felt they could alter the words without damaging the intended meaning of the author. These copyists added and removed words here and there, rearranged words, and substituted words, presumably hoping to improve the text but not intending to alter the meaning. It also has to be acknowledged that some untrained copyists produced inaccurate copies, regardless of how they viewed the text.

Then, some scribes willfully altered the text, intending to improve it. Some were seeking to harmonize the gospel accounts. An extreme example would be Tatian, a noteworthy, apologetic writer of the second century C.E. In an account of his conversion to nominal Christianity, Tatian states, “I sought how I might be able to discover the truth,” which points to his intent. About 170 C.E., Tatian compiled a harmonized account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, combining the four Gospels into a single narrative (Diatessaron means “of the four”). Another who willfully revised the New Testament was Lucian of Antioch (c. 240-312 C.E.). Lucian produced the Syrian text, renamed the Byzantine text. About 290 C.E., some of his associates made various subsequent alterations, deliberately combining elements from earlier text types. This text was adopted about 380 C.E. At Constantinople, it became the predominant form of the New Testament throughout the Greek-speaking world. The text was also edited, with parallel accounts harmonized, grammar corrected, and abrupt transitions modified to produce a smooth text. As a result, this was not a faithfully accurate copy. However, others willfully altered the text to have it support their doctrinal position. Marcion (c. 85-c. 160 C.E.), a semi-Gnostic of the second century C.E., is a leading example. In fact, the idea of forming a catalog of authoritative Christian writings did not come to mind until Marcion. One such catalog was the Muratorian Fragment, Italy (170 C.E.) The list shows 24 books of the New Testament were accepted without question as Scriptural and canonical, some uncertainty about 2 Peter, and Hebrews and James were not listed, possibly unknown. In the end, we must admit that there were heretics who altered the text to align with their doctrinal positions and Orthodox Christians who also altered the text to strengthen their doctrinal beliefs.

We must keep in mind that we are dealing with an oral society. Therefore, the apostles, who had spent three and a half years with Jesus, first published the Good News orally. The teachers within the newly founded Christian congregations would repeat this information until it was memorized. After that, those who had heard this gospel would, in turn, share it with others (Acts 2:42, Gal 6:6). In time, they would see the need for a written record, so Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John would pen the Gospels, and other types of New Testament books would be written by Paul, James, Peter, and Jude. From the first four verses of Luke, we can see that Theophilus[30] was being given a written record of what he had already been taught orally. In verse 4, Luke says to Theophilus, “[My purpose is] that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”

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The appearance of the written record did not mean the end of the oral publication. Both oral and written would be used together. Most did not read the written records themselves, as they would hear them read in the congregational meetings by the lector. Paul and his letters came to be used in the same way, as he traveled extensively but was just one man and could only be in one place at a time. It was not long before he took advantage of the fact that he could be in one place and dispatch letters to other locations through his traveling companions. These traveling companions would not only deliver the letters but would know the issues well enough to address questions that might be asked by the leaders of the congregation to which they had been dispatched. In summary, the first century saw the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and his death, resurrection, and ascension. After that, his disciples spread this gospel orally for at least 15 years before Matthew penned his gospel. The written was used in conjunction with the oral message.

In the first-century C.E., the Bible books were being copied individually. In the late first century or the beginning of the second century, they began to be copied in groups. At first, it was the four gospels and then the book of Acts with the four gospels and a collection of the Apostle Paul’s writings. Each of the individual books of the New Testament was penned, edited, and published between 44 and 98 C.E. A group of the apostle Paul’s letters and the gospels were copied and published between 90 and 125 C.E. The entire 27 books of the New Testament were not published as a whole until about 290 to 340 C.E.

Thus, we have the 27 books of the New Testament that were penned individually in the second half of the first century. Each of these would have been copied and recopied throughout the first century. Copies of these copies would, of course, be made as well. Some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have indicate that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri provide evidence that a semi-professional hand-copied them, while most of these early papyri give proof of being made by a copyist who was literate and experienced at making documents. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyists produced the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being made by professionals. The first century Christians carried out their evangelism with a sense of urgency because the great apostasy was on the horizon, not so much that the end was nigh. So, yes, the spread of Christianity definitely impacted our efforts to ascertain the original wording of the original text. The early Christians were seeking to evangelize the world because of the foretold apostasy that was coming. They viewed the twenty-seven New Testament books as inspired in the same way the Jews considered the thirty-nine Old Testament books as inspired. Again, literate or semi-professional copyists produced the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being made by professionals.

How did the Persecution of Early Christians Impact the Scriptures?

Jesus had told his followers, “‘a slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.’” (John 15:20) Indeed, the growth of Christianity from 120 disciples on Pentecost 33 C.E. to over one million by the middle of the second century was a frightening thought to the pagan mind as well as Judaism. Thus, shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pagan population, Judaism, and the Roman government began the very persecution of which Jesus had warned. However, in the fourth century, under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a program of persecution began with the intent of wiping out Christianity. In 303 C.E., Diocletian spread a series of progressively harsh edicts against Christians. This brought about what some historians have called “The Great Persecution.”

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Diocletian’s first edict ordered the burning of copies of the Scriptures and the destruction of Christian houses of worship. Harry Y. Gamble writes, “Diocletian’s edict of 303 ordering the confiscation and burning of Christian books is itself important evidence, in both its assumptions and results. At the start of the fourth century, Diocletian took it for granted that every Christian community, wherever it might be, had a collection of books and knew that those books were essential to its viability.” (Gamble 1995, 150) Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History, reported, “all things in truth were fulfilled in our day when we saw with our very eyes the houses of prayer cast down to their foundations from top to bottom, and the inspired and sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places.” (Cruse 1998, VIII, 1. 9-11.1) The Christians who were most affected by the persecution lived in Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. In fact, just three months after Diocletian’s edict, the mayor of the North African city of Cirta, which was destroyed at the beginning of the 4th century and was rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is said to have ordered the Christians to give up all of their “writings of the law” and “copies of scripture.” It is quite clear that Diocletian and local leaders’ intent was to wipe out the Word of God.

The authorities had many Christians who obeyed the decrees by handing over their copies of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, some refused to give up their copies of God’s Word. Bishop Felix of Thibiuca (d. 303 C.E.) in Africa was martyred during the Great Persecution alongside Audactus, Fortunatus, Januarius, and Septimus.[31] Felix resisted the command of the local magistrate Magnillian (Lat. Magnillianus) to surrender his congregation’s copies of the Christian Scriptures. One account had Felix and the others being taken to Carthage and decapitated on July 15, 303 C.E. Other Christian leaders deceived the leaders by handing in their pagan writings, safeguarding their Scriptures.

The Diocletian persecution was, in the end, unsuccessful. Many Christian libraries escaped the persecution of Diocletian. Today, the Beatty and Bodmer papyri, two of the best collections that we have extant survived the fires. Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), at the age of 32, had amassed a fortune. As a collector of books, he had over 50 papyrus codices, both religious and secular, which are dated earlier than the fourth century C.E. There are seven consisting of portions of Old Testament books, and three consisting of portions of the New Testament (P45 c. 250, P46 c. 175–225, and P47 c. 250-300). Martin Bodmer (1899-1971) was also a wealthy collector who discovered twenty-two papyri in Egypt in 1952, which contained parts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as other early Christian literature. Particularly noteworthy are the New Testament Bodmer papyri, which consists of P66 dating to c. 200 C.E. and P75 dating to c. 175 C.E. Many in rural Egypt would have heard of the persecution in Alexandria, likely making great efforts to remove their manuscripts from their congregations, hiding them until the oppression was lifted.

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

The men who were known as the readers in the early Christian congregations, who read from the Scriptures during the meeting, carried the burden of preserving the Word of God beyond maintaining accurate copies.[32] They also would have guarded them during times of persecution. Because of the mass persecution against Alexandria, Egypt,[33] we owe the primary preservation of our New Testament manuscripts to those congregations within rural Egypt. During times of persecution, manuscripts would not have been housed in the facilities of the congregation but instead would have been hidden in homes. Because of Egypt’s dry sands, the professional scribal practices, and the courage of the Christians, we owe the Egyptian Christians for the preservation of the New Testament and the original words that made up the New Testament. Let’s look at the manuscripts copied right after the Diocletian persecution (Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus c. 350 C.E.). They are reflective of the manuscripts from rural Egypt that survived, such as P5 [225 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, P4, 64, 67 [150-175 C.E.] from Coptos, P13 [225-250 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, and P46 [150 C.E.] from Fayum, P66 [150 C.E.] from Jabal Abu Mana P75 [175-225 C.E.] from Abu Mana, P133 [225-250 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, P137 [175-225 C.E.] from Egypt, P138 [225-250 C.E.] from Oxyrhynchus, and many more.

We know that by the time we get to the era of the Diocletian persecution (February 23, 303 – July 25, 306.), the authorities were well aware that there were still many copies of the New Testament throughout the Roman Empire. Otherwise, there would have been no need on February 24, 303 for Diocletian’s first “Edict against the Christians” to be published. Diocletian thought he could eradicate Christianity by destroying its sacred writings. After the persecution of Diocletian and Constantine succeeding his father on July 25, 306, Constantine immediately ended any ongoing persecutions and offered Christians complete restitution of what they had lost under the persecution. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan of 313 C.E., Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. At that point, the church would have seen the need to dramatically increase the number of copies of the Scriptures. Now that Christianity was no longer being persecuted, Christian scribes could openly make copies of the New Testament manuscripts.

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In 331 C.E., Constantine ordered Eusebius to prepare fifty copies of the entire Bible on prepared parchment for distribution to the churches he intended to build in Constantinople. (Eus., Vit. Const. 4.36.2) From this small order placed by Constantine, we can only imagine how many copies had been made in the churches throughout the entire Roman Empire. It has been estimated that there were some fifteen hundred to two thousand manuscripts of the Greek New Testament copied in the fourth century C.E. (J. Duplacy) While we certainly took a loss in the number of copies that may have come down to us today as a result of ongoing sporadic persecution of Christianity in those first two and a half centuries after the death of the apostle Paul at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in about 65 C.E. up unto Diocletian (303-306 C.E.), there is little doubt that the storehouse of Greek original language manuscripts (5,898) that we do possess are an envy of the secular historians, who have next to nothing in comparison.

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[1] Knute Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, vol. 9, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 105–106.

[2] This means that some left the Christian faith and were trying to subvert (undermine) others’ faith. Some within the congregation were expressing their conflicting beliefs. Here it was over the issue of Gentile Christians needing to be circumcised and whether Christians needed to observe the Mosaic Law.

[3] People of the first three centuries sent and received letters and books from all over the Roman Empire. Hurtado has given us two examples: the Shepherd of Hermas was written in Rome and found its way to Egypt within a few decades; Irenaeus’ Against Heresies was written in Gaul and made it to Egypt (Oxyrhynchus) within short order.

[4] http://orbis.stanford.edu/

[5] This apostasy and divisiveness did not just come into the Christian congregation from nowhere. It started developing in the first century but was restrained by apostolic authority.

[6] Macquarie University, Ancient History Documentary Research Center (AHDRC), Papyri from the Rise of Christianity in Egypt (PCE), 

http://www.anchist.mq.edu.au/doccentre/PCEhomepage.html.

[7] Philip W. Comfort, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992).

[8] Or earthly dwelling or tent; that is, his earthly body

[9] Or earthly dwelling or tent; that is, his earthly body

[10] Or is coming swiftly

[11] Lit to call these things to remembrance

[12] Presence; Coming: (Gr. parousia) The Greek word which is rendered as “presence” is derived from para, meaning “with,” and ousia, meaning “being.” It denotes both an “arrival” and a consequent “presence with.” Depending on the context, it can mean “presence,” “arrival,” “appearance,” or “coming.” In some contexts, this word is describing the presence of Jesus Christ in the last days, i.e., from his ascension in 33 C.E. up unto his second coming, with the emphasis being on his second coming, the end of the age of Satan’s reign of terror over the earth. We do not know the day nor the hours of this second coming. (Matt 24:36) It covers a marked period of time with the focus on the end of that period. – Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor. 15:23; 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:6-7; 10:10; Php 1:26; 2:12; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:2.

[13] Or borne or made

[14] Allen Black and Mark C. Black, 1 & 2 Peter, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub., 1998), 2 Pe 3:16.

[15] 1 Clem. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

[16] Ignatius, Eph. 12:2, refers to Paul, “who in all his Epistles makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.” (Although one wonders how Ignatius thought the Ephesians were mentioned in every Pauline letter he knew.) On the evidence for 2 Clement’s knowledge of a collection, see Karl P. Donfried, The Setting of Second Clement in Early Christianity (NovTSup 38; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), 93–95.

[17] Jack Finegan, “The Original Form of the Pauline Collection,” HTR 49 (1956) 85–104. See also Walter Schmithals, “Zur Abfassung und ältesten Sammlung der pauli nischen Hauptbriefe” [“On the Composition and Earliest Collection of the Major Epistles of Paul”], ZNW 51 (1960) 225–45.

[18] Harry Gamble, “The Redaction of the Pauline Letters and the Formation of the Pauline Corpus,” JBL 94 (1971) 403–18.

[19] Mary Lucetta Mowry, “The Early Circulation of Paul’s Letters,” JBL 63 (1944) 73–86.

[20] Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 302–303.

[21] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Hebrews to Revelation., vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 153.

[22] The attempt by H. von Campenhausen (“Polykarp und die Pastoralen,” repr. Aus der Frühzeit des Christentums [Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1963], 197–252) to show that Polycarp also authored the pastoral Epistles has met with little acceptance.

[23] Schoedel (Polycarp, 4–5) suggests that it is “fairly certain” that the letter “reflects more or less direct contact” with the following writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Tobit, Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1–2 Timothy, 1 John, 1 Peter, and 1 Clement. Metzger (Canon, 61–62) adds to the New Testament list 2 Thessalonians and Hebrews while deleting Acts and 2 Corinthians.

[24] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 272–273.

[25] Jack Finegan, “The Original Form of the Pauline Collection,” HTR 49 (1956) 85–104. See also Walter Schmithals, “Zur Abfassung und ältesten Sammlung der pauli nischen Hauptbriefe” [“On the Composition and Earliest Collection of the Major Epistles of Paul”], ZNW 51 (1960) 225–45.

[26] Theophilus of Antioch, “Theophilus to Autolycus,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 114.

[27] 1 Tim. 2:2

[28] Rom. 13:7, 8

[29] Theophilus of Antioch, “Theophilus to Autolycus,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 115.

[30] Theophilus means “friend of God,” was the person to whom the books of Luke and Acts were written (Lu 1:3; Ac 1:1). Theophilus was called “most excellent,” which may suggest some position of high rank. On the other hand, it simply may be Luke offering an expression of respect. Theophilus had initially been orally taught about Jesus Christ and his ministry. Thereafter, it seems that the book of Acts, also by Luke, confirms that he did become a Christian. The Gospel of Luke was partially written to offer Theophilus assurances of the certainty of what he had already learned by word of mouth.

[31] These men may have been deacons but, apart from their joint martyrdom with Felix, more about their identities is unknown at the time of this writing.

[32] Some may have been scribes as well but not all. Retaining accurate, fresh copies for the congregation entailed reaching out to scribes or scriptoriums, to acquire copies for their congregation.

[33] This is not to say that no manuscripts survived the persecution in Alexandria; it is possible that some came through the flames.

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