This is the third installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. The last blog indicated that “Scripture” for the early church was what we would call the “Old Testament” today. The functional Scripture of the church was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (LXX). This indicates a couple of things. First, that the idea of “Scripture,” the written word, as having unique authority was retained by the church from its synagogue origins. Second, the idea that we must study the Old Testament in the original language (Hebrew/Aramaic) has little historical basis in the earliest church. Third, that our mania to have absolute exactitude concerning every word of Scripture and its original meaning also has little basis in the earliest church.
How did we get where we are today, where there is a sincere desire to recognize authority in the Bible while tolerating a low level of biblical literacy in our churches?
This blog can only use a big brush and very broad strokes in this, but let me point out a couple of developments. First, the words of Jesus were accorded special respect and authority in the early church, even before the Gospels were written. For example, in Acts 20:35, Luke portrays Paul as ending his discourse to the Ephesian elders this way:
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
This little saying, attributed to Jesus himself, is not recorded in the Gospels. It is significant that Luke himself did not include it in his first volume, what we call the Gospel of Luke, for he often foreshadows material in Acts with material in Luke. If Luke is writing in the late A.D. 70s, he pens this forty years after Jesus said it, but he gives us no context for Jesus making this assertion. He is also writing twenty years after the event in which he portrays Paul as quoting it, and here the context is important. Paul is speaking with apostolic authority to a group of church leaders and ends his discourse with this verse. Quoting Jesus finalizes his argument and both compliments and surpasses his own authority.
We also see this in some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings. One example is Clement of Rome, probably writing in the AD 90s. Possibly the co-worker of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3, Clement writes to the church in Corinth in a letter we call 1 Clement, a book saturated with scriptural quotations and allusions. Decrying divisions in the Corinthian church, Clement makes this statement:
Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. (1 Clement 46, Ante-Nicene Fathers translation).
This seems to be a quotation of Matthew 18:6 (perhaps Mark 9:42), but not with the precision we would demand today. What it shows us is that this early church leader (Clement) and his fellow Christians saw authority in the words of Jesus, and that Clement used a written source (Matthew or Mark) for these words.
Second, in the centuries following Clement, other church leaders and scholars used both the Old Testament and the writings that became the New Testament with authority. Sometimes the New Testament authors were quoted to bolster a command or teaching. Others did lengthy, systematic expositions of certain books. For example, Origen (flourishing c. A.D. 200-250) wrote lengthy expositions on books of the Bible from the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Genesis, Lamentations, John, Romans). His exegetical method may seem inadequate today (referred to as “allegorical” or “spiritual” interpretation), but the fact that the greatest scholar of the church’s first two centuries would expend so much effort on biblical studies is significant. Origen’s efforts also included his famous Hexapla, a six-columned work showing the Hebrew text, a Hebrew transliteration in Greek, the Septuagint text, and three other Greek translation of the Old Testament. Now lost to us, the Hexapla’s purpose seems to have been to establish the best possible Greek text of the Old Testament for use in scholarship and in the church. This, again, is an attestation to the high esteem in which Scripture was held in the early church and the seriousness of the scholarship devoted to it. It is also a move to raise the stakes for the exact words of Scripture, to have a trusted text that is the basis for interpretation.
Next: Biblical Authority in the Reformation
Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University