If the epistles and other books of the New Testament were immediately received as the word of God then we would expect that disciples writing at that time would treat the New Testament writings with that status and respect. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There is no evidence that the New Testament writings were treated initially as Scriptures on a level with the word of God. On the contrary, what little evidence there is suggests that these New Testament writings did not have that status. Consider the man Papias. He is written about in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.
The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus is the earliest Christian history that we have after the book of Acts. In Chapter 39 Eusebius writes about Papias who wrote five books under the title “Interpretation of our Lord’s Declarations.” Papias is a prime example of a believer in the sub-apostolic period. Papias, in his books, writes of Philip, mentioned in the book of Acts with his daughters, and writes that one was raised from the dead in their company. He writes how Barsabas drank poison but wasn’t injured. Papias knew and talked with some of the first Apostles and Disciples. Eusebius further credits Papias this statement:
“I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains.” i
Of special interest is the statement, “For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains.” This statement is certainly not an indictment that the apostles’ writings were considered the Word of God, rather it shows the practice of oral tradition and the dependence on people rather than books. This statement says that Papias clearly was interested in the witness of those that personally followed Christ above the writings. In other words, writings had no special stature. As an example to show the difference, even though Isaiah and other prophets were clearly men of God, the writings of Moses always held the highest esteem as the Word of God. People did not prefer to hear the men of God above the Word of God. The opposite is the case here apparently with Papias and the New Testament writings.
There is more evidence as to what stature our New Testament writings had to Papias. It is from Papias’ account that we learn how the gospel of Mark was written. “And John the presbyter also said this, Mark being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accuracy, but not, however, in the order in which it was spoken were done by our Lord, for he neither heard nor followed our Lord, but, as before said, he was in company with Peter, who gave him such instruction as was necessary, but not to give a history of our Lord’s discourses: wherefore Mark has not erred in anything, by writing some things as he has recorded them; for he was carefully attentive to one thing, not to pass by anything that he heard, or to state anything falsely in these accounts.” ii
Here we have an account that says several things. One is that Mark was not an eyewitness, but rather a historian who took Peter’s accounts and put them down on paper. Moreover, while everyone attested that he put the accounts down accurately, he didn’t put them down in the order Peter told them. This helps explain why the order of events in the gospels does not match from gospel to gospel.
Furthermore, we have from Papias an account of the story of the creation of the gospel of Matthew. “Matthew composed his history in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated it as he was able.” iii Note Papias called the writing a “history” What he didn’t call it is significant. He didn’t call it the word of God; he didn’t call it divine scripture.
Next we have accounts regarding the epistles of First John and Peter, where Eusebius writes, “this same author Papias made use of testimonies from the first epistle of John, and likewise that of Peter” And lastly we have a very indicting statement, where Eusebius writes that Papias gives another history of a woman, who had been accused of many sins before the Lord, which is also contained in the gospel according to the Hebrews. This indicates that in the thinking of Papias the gospel of the Hebrews was on a level with the “histories” of Mark and Matthew and the epistles of John and Peter.
Here we have the example of a man who lived in the late first century, and probably the early second century. If anyone should know the status of the writings of the apostles at this time it would be a man like him. In these writings, we have an incredible insight as to the status of these writings. How does the fact that he distinctly says that he would rather hear a living person than read the books correlate to the esteem that has been given since Moses to the living Word of God to substantiate the claim that these New Testament books are the word of God also? This statement strongly suggests that while Papias had high regard for these histories and epistles, he did not consider them the word of God. His statements regarding the formation of the gospels as well as his references to the gospel of Hebrews and the epistles of John and Peter show that Papias regarded them just as that: as gospels and epistles, but not the Divine Word of God.
Scholars also have maintained that the New Testament books were not considered sacred in the early days of the Church. They explain that this lack of sacred status explains why scribes felt so free to change texts, thus resulting in the families of texts with different styles and texts of the same book, for example, Acts, with different details and lengths.iv
For more on this topic, see 01.1.2 Clement of Rome’s Canon of Scripture and 01.2.5 Ignatius Epistles Still Only Call Old Testament Scripture.
i ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF EUSEBIUS PAMPHILUS, Eusebius Pamphilus, Chapter XXXIX
iv A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M Metzger, United Bible Societies, London New York, Second Edition, 7th Printing, 2007, p. 238
© copyright 2009-2022 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. Edited 8/16/2023