• Caleb Harrelson

Ehrman's Errors on the New Testament Canon

Updated: Sep 29






Introduction

It has become popular in our culture to claim that the early church had no clear Biblical canon within the first few centuries. In fact, in Bart Ehrman's book, Misquoting Jesus, he makes the claim that "during the second and third centuries, however, there was no agreed-upon canon and no agreed-upon theology. Instead, there was a wide range of diversity: diverse groups asserting diverse theologies based on diverse written texts, all claiming to be written by the apostles of Jesus."[1] In addition he argues that it wasn't until Athanasius' 367 C.E. "pastoral letter" that "the first surviving instance of anyone affirming our set of books as the New Testament. And even Athanasius did not settle the matter. Debates continued for decades, even centuries. The books we call the New Testament were not gathered together into one canon and considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves had first been produced."[2]

In this paper, I will argue that we have a clear and recognizable canon for the majority of the New Testament well before the fourth century. I will support this thesis by demonstrating that Ehrman's conclusion for a late canon is misleading because he ignores the self-authenticating nature of scripture, he ignores quotes from early church fathers closely connected with the apostles, and he ignores the special form and treatment of the New Testament documents. While Ehrman is familiar with many of the surrounding details about the New Testament canon, he has arrived at a fallacious conclusion because he has redefined terms and glossed over key details. This topic matters to every Christian who has been persuaded by to embrace a lowered view of the inspiration of scripture due to feeling like Scripture wasn’t immediately treated as unique and ultimately from God from the beginning. Many have been persuaded by Ehrman to embrace his view of “the Bible, at the end of the day, [as] a very human book.”[3] The Self-Authenticating Scriptures

The first reason we can know we have an early and recognizable New Testament canon within the church is because of its self-authenticating nature. Self-authenticating means the authoritative and inspired books of the New Testament books, when carefully analyzed, are obvious in their true divine origin. If something is self-authenticating, then its true nature should eventually become plain to the honest investigator. Jesus affirmed as much when he said that his “sheep hear [his] voice” in John 10:27. It should also be noted that if we are going to claim that scripture is ‘self-authenticating,’ then it also presupposes that we should have a broader definition of the nature of the New Testament canon. Nevertheless, Ehrman’s definition is the narrow and “exclusive canon” (the “final and closed list of books”) view. This argues against our New Testament canon we currently possess as being the obvious, self-authenticating list of authoritative books before any official church lists came out.[4] He assumes the only definition that should be allowed is his narrow one that only includes the list by Athanasius in A.D. 367. However, when one reads Athanasius’ quote, we should be reminded that his comments are not made in a vacuum of history. Ehrman knows this. In fact, in his book he traces the history of the early churches view of scripture before Athanasius. He admits that “the phenomenon of writing was of uppermost importance to these churches and the Christians within them. Books were at the very heart of the Christian religion- unlike other religions of the empire- from the very beginning.”[5] Ehrman also concedes that early church fathers, like Polycarp and Justin Martyr, “publicly read the memoirs of the apostles” and quickly “began accepting writings as standing on a par with the Jewish Scriptures.”[6] However, Ehrman later emphasizes that it wasn’t until Athanasius that we actually see a list of “our first twenty-seven books, excluding all others” and how it’s allegedly the “first surviving instance of anyone affirming our set of books as the New Testament.”[7] Ehrman is aware of how the New Testament books are accepted, yet his canon definition only approves of the ‘Exclusive definition.” To the contrary, I believe that the early canon should also be understood as the “ontological” canon which self-authenticated itself as that which “God gave his corporate church,” along with the “intrinsic” or “functional” canon, when “a book is regarded as ‘Scripture” by early Christian communities.”[8] All three of these worked together in the recognition of the early church on what was inspired and from God. (click here to learn more about Kruger's breakdown of these various definitions of canon)

It can be further argued that our New Testament is self-authenticating because of its connection with the eyewitness apostles. Even early church heretics like Marcion (140 A.D) or the Gnostics had to at least assume that a fraction of the apostles writings were authoritative. For Marcion, eyewitness accounts like Paul’s writings and the gospel of Luke were seen as the true authoritative teaching about Jesus. Biblical scholar Paul Wegner argues that Marcion’s awareness of Luke and Paul would also “suggests that he knew of more” books.[9] Since the other gospels have been found to be copied together before the fourth century, such as Luke and Matthew in the “Magdalen Papyrus,” it’s completely reasonable to deduce that Marcion was aware of other apostolic writings.[10] If priority is given to eyewitness writings from the first century, then second century works, such as the authors of the Shepherd of Hermas and Acts of Paul, should not truly been seen as competition for the canon, no matter how good (or horrible) their theology was. Dr. Timothy Paul Jones describes how, “testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord was uniquely authoritative among early Christians.”[11] It may be popular to say that there was “no agreed upon theology”[12] until the fourth century, but that claim does not logically imply Ehrman’s conclusion.[13] In the words of Kruger, “the existence of opposition to a belief should not be taken as evidence that a belief is new and established – as some scholars seem prone to do.”[14] Furthermore, some like to point to the use of apocryphal books (second century) as evidence that there was no agreed upon canon in the early church. Kruger notes that some early church leaders viewed some books as a “useful [resource]” while also noting that they didn’t always use those books in worship and “the mere use of apocryphal material by early Christians does not prove a high level of diversity and disagreement over the New Testament canon.”[15] Thus, close connection with the eyewitness apostles pointed to the self-authenticating inspired words of God compared to the uninspired books that were rejected in official lists.

Early Church Fathers on Scripture

The second reason we know that we have a recognizable canon well before the fourth century is because of quotes form early church fathers. For example, we see before Athanasius’ 367 Easter letter, the Muratorian fragment (dated around 190 A.D.) where it discusses which books should be recognized as authoritative for the church. At least 20 of our 27 New Testament books are mentioned in this fragment and one early writing is excluded from the canon and given a reason for its exclusion. The “Shepherd of Hermas” is listed as “not accepted as canonical” because “it had been written only recently.”[16] Furthermore, the disciples of the apostles carried on a consistent link of the authentic apostolic teaching. We see this with Papias, a disciple of John and church leader in Turkey (circa 110 AD), where he mentions that Matthew wrote his gospel and that “what Mark recorded in his gospel was the witness of Peter himself.”[17] While these early church fathers are well before Athanasius, scholars like Elaine Pagels still prefer to argue that it was Irenaeus (late second century) who was the “innovator” that “imposed a new set of Scriptures on a church that, up that point, was quite content with oral tradition.”[18] However, to claim that Irenaeus was the “innovator” of the canonical scriptures is difficult to explain in light of Papias’ words above, along with Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) and his student, Tatian, speaking of only four gospels. Thus, Kruger argues, that “if Tatian clearly knew the four canonical gospels, we have good historical grounds for thinking he would have received this information from Justin.”[19] What’s more, the quotes from pre-Irenaeus leaders makes sense when we see that there was “readiness all around the empire” to support his claim of there being only four gospels. Hill explains this readiness to accept the four gospels is because “Irenaeus may not have been the first to choose the four gospels at all” and that their “prominence perhaps dates from an even earlier time.”[20] Special form and treatment of Scripture

The third reason we know that the New Testament canon was received very early is because of the special form & treatment of the early canonical gospels. Interestingly, Ehrman acknowledges that Paul’s letters were “recognized as scriptures” and “soon after the New Testament period, certain Christian writings were being quoted as authoritative texts for the life and beliefs of the church.”[21] Thus, it makes sense that there would be both an expectation and recognition of the new covenant deposit. Greg Lanier argues that the New Testament authors would have understood that they were producing “New Covenant Documents.” Lanier points out that, “as Jews who inherited the idea that covenant-entails-documentation, they would have assumed a ‘new covenant’ would likewise involve new writings.”[22] This demonstrates that the physical text was treated different and there would have been an expectation for the apostles, as eyewitnesses, to write down the new covenant message soon. Furthermore, if certain books were given by God, we should expect the early believers to “recognize” the Shepherd’s voice and that the “reception of these books is a natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture.”[23]

Another important demonstration of the unique treatment of our New Testament books before Athanasius is seen in the style of writing in the early New Testament Manuscripts. We see this demonstrated in the extant fragments of the gospels compared to the later gnostic gospels that Ehrman calls one of the competing theologies of early Christianity. For example, Charles Hill points out that a fragment of the gospel of John “is written in a clear, upright, very regular, even calligraphic hand, an early example of a formal book hand often called ‘biblical majuscule.’ The scribe, clearly a professional, produced a formal and easily-readable transcription.”[24] Charles Hill also points out that there is a great disparity in numbers of the manuscripts copied as codices compared to the “non-canonical” ones. To make matters worse for Ehrman’s case, he mentions how Egypt, where most of the competing gospels come from in the “second and third centuries… they are in fact currently outnumbered four to one” compared to our current canonical books. Also, these fragments are from “before the establishment of Christianity in the fourth century. That means they all come from a time before there could have been any suppression of competing gospels by state- sponsored Christianity.” Hill astutely points out that of all places, if Ehrman’s fourth century canon argument could stand, the number of manuscripts in competing gospels where “we should expect the “heterodox” Christian books to outnumber ‘orthodox’ ones, it is in Egypt,” yet, we do not see that.[25]

Conclusion

I have made it clear that Ehrman’s claim that there was no agreed upon canon until the fourth is false. This has been clearly demonstrated that the early church affirmed and preserved the text of the self-evident, apostolic written witness very early. While Ehrman was correct to mention some of these details within the early church’s treatment of scripture before Athanasius, he failed to arrive at the correct conclusion. Sadly, Ehrman’s definition of the canon doesn’t allow him to do that. Once the definition of canon is clarified and all of the facts are weighed, it becomes very plain that scripture was received as authoritative very early and God guided that process of recognition. I hope my research can be used to strengthen the faith of other believers and to clear up a complicated issue with the unbeliever. I want everyone to know that we truly do have the correct text and words in the Bible.


BIBLIOGRAPHY


Jones, Timothy Paul. Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.


Jones, Timothy Paul. How we got the Bible, Torrence, CA: Rose Publishing, 2015.


Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013.


Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005.


Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 1999.


Lanier, Greg, A Christian’s pocket guide to how we got the Bible. Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, IV20 1TW, Scotland, Great Britain, Christian Focus Publications, 2018.


Hill, Charles E. Who Choose the Books of the New Testament? Bellingham, WA. Lexham Press, 2022.


Hill, Charles, E. Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. Oxford, United Kingdom. Oxford University Press, 2010.


Kruger, Michael J. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018.


Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the origins and authority of the New Testament book. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.



Footnotes:

[1] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 153 [2] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 36. [3]Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 12. [4] Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 29. [5] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 29. [6] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 30. [7]Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 36. [8]Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 35. [9]Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Devleopment of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 1999), 137. [10]Jones, Timothy Paul. How we got the Bible,(Torrence, Ca: Rose Publishing, 2015), 118. [11]Jones, Timothy Paul. Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 124. [12] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 153. [13] It should also be noted that the “claim that early Christians had no Scripture on which to base their declarations that some group was heretical and another orthodox is simply mistaken. The Old Testament books would have provided that initial doctrinal foundation. Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the origins and authority of the New Testament book. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 137. [14] Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 159-160. [15] Kruger, Michael J. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 208. [16] Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Devleopment of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 1999), 142. [17] Jones, Timothy Paul. How we got the Bible, (Torrence, CA, Rose Publishing, 2015), 92. [18] Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 157. [19] Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 169. [20]Hill, Charles, E. Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. (Oxford, United Kingdom. Oxford University Press, 2010), 50-51. [21] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 31. [22] Lanier, Greg, A Christian’s pocket guide to how we got the Bible. (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, IV20 1TW, Scotland, Great Britain, Christian Focus Publications, 2018), 16. [23] Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the origins and authority of the New Testament book. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 106. [24] Hill, Charles E. Who Choose the Books of the New Testament? (Bellingham, WA. Lexham Press, 2022), 20. [25] Hill, Charles E. Who Choose the Books of the New Testament? (Bellingham, WA. Lexham Press, 2022), 20.


To Download the original formatted paper that I submitted for my MDiv in Apologetics & Philosophy class on the History of the Bible, click below.

Note: I have edited the paper a little since I originally submitted it. I received a good grade, but wanted to expand on a few points and smooth out a few things.


Ehrman's Errors by Caleb (edited draft)
.docx
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