Bible! A Bible!
Luke P. Wilson, “Lost Books & Latter-Day Revelation: A Response to Mormon Views of the New Testament Canon,” Christian Research Journal, Fall 1996, 27-33. Reviewed by John A. Tvedtnes and Matt Roper.
We are grateful to Luke Wilson for his efforts to define such terms as
"Mormon views," “Revelation,” “New Testament Canon,”
“historic Christianity,” and “Christian orthodoxy.” Our
gratitude comes not because Wilson has clarified these matters for us, but
because he is wrong on all counts, which gives us the opportunity to set
the record straight.
begin with “historic Christianity” and “Christian orthodoxy,”
terms used by Wilson (p. 27) to
refer not to the entire Christian world of either the twentieth century or the
time of the apostles, but to a specific segment of that world, namely,
modern evangelical Protestantism. We have a great deal of respect
for the evangelical movement and its courageous stand for righteous
principles and a Christ-centered life. In our opinion, members
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals
should be linking arms in the struggle for a decent society.
Instead, we find that the vast majority of the anti-Mormon literature in
circulation comes from those with whom we agree on many New Testament
issues, the evangelical community. But the evangelical movement is a
far cry from “historic Christianity.” Not only is it at great
variance with the older Christian churches (Roman Catholic, Eastern
Orthodox, Monophysitic), but it is not even close to early
Christianity. This point was made by evangelical writer David
Bercot in a book entitled Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up.1
While we do not wish to dwell on such negativisms, we shall return
later to a discussion of how the early Christians viewed the concept of
Wilson is correct in stating that the basic disagreements between
Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals are “over the nature and extent of
revelation from God” (p. 27). And he is right to make this an
issue for discussion, since it critically impacts our relationship.
But he is wrong in most of his assertions about the Bible and the nature
of revelation, as we shall demonstrate.
When Wilson states that “it is a basic tenet of Christian orthodoxy
that the Bible is complete and the canon of Scripture is closed,” he
refers to the Bible as acknowledged by Protestants, not to the Bibles of
the older Christian denominations, which are not the same as the one Mr.
Wilson uses. The Catholic Bible, for example, contains the 14 books
known as the Apocrypha, missing from modern Protestant Bibles.
Bibles used by the Armenian and Abyssinian (Ethiopic) churches contain
books not known in our western Bibles. Who can reject out-of-hand
the validity of books revered by churches founded long before Martin
Luther was born? Who is more “orthodox”?
It is unfortunate that Wilson represents statements by some Latter-day
Saint writers as the official belief of the Church. The fact that he
uses such sources rather than authorized LDS publications implies that
there is no official stand on most of these items. He lists four
“Mormon argument[s]” (p. 28, 31) against the concept of a closed canon
of scripture and states that “the Mormon church offers four
reasons for rejecting the historic Christian position that the 27 New
Testament books are the final installment of divine revelation” (p.
29). Of the four, only one represents the official position of the
Church, i.e., “that God continues to give new revelation through latter-day
prophets” (p. 29). He draws the others solely from the
writings of individuals who, while they are Latter-day Saints, were not
speaking for the Church. This is not to invalidate any of the
“arguments” presented by these individuals, only to say that it is
wrong to indicate that they are offered by “the Mormon church.”
Teachings of Jesus”
Wilson cites “the first Mormon argument” as “the claim that some of
Jesus’ teachings were intentionally never recorded because of their
sacred nature” (p. 28). There are really two issues here.
The first is whether some of Jesus teachings were omitted from the New
Testament. The second is whether Jesus ever taught in secret.
For the first, we note the last words of the apostle John: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). We are both unwilling and unable to dispute these words from an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry and teachings. Wilson tries to mitigate the implications of John’s declaration by stating that “certainly nothing essential is lacking from the canonical books of the New Testament” (p. 28). This is an unfounded and naive assumption, based on the a priori belief that the Bible contains everything God wants us to know. We shall return to this subject later.
On two separate occasions, when Jesus alluded to his forthcoming death, his disciples “understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying” (Luke 9:45; 18:33-34). Evidently, Christ declined to explain the matter to those closest to him.
In John 14:26; 16:13-16, we read that, at the last supper, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would bring all things to the remembrance of the apostles. This, some have claimed, makes the Bible complete. But other statements made during the last supper indicate that Jesus was unable to deliver all of his teachings during his mortal life. He told the apostles, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16:12) and promised them, “The time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father” (John 16:25). Hugh Nibley has observed that, since Jesus was arrested soon after he made these comments, he must have delivered these promised teachings to the apostles after his resurrection. They are not, however, in the Bible as it exists today.
As to whether Jesus taught anything in secret, Wilson cites John 18:20-21, in which Jesus declares, ”I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.” Wilson incorrectly asserts that Jesus made this declaration “under oath before the Sanhedrin” (p. 28), citing Matthew 26:63 as evidence (note 3). But since, in Jewish jurisprudence, no witness could be made to testify against himself,2 the high priest was performing an illegal act when he told Jesus, “I adjure thee by the living God,” and Jesus was legally under no obligation to respond to the question. Moreover, the Matthew 26 and John 18 passages discuss two different matters. In the former, the high priest asks if Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God,” while in the latter he inquires about “his disciples, and of his doctrine.”
More significantly, the argument that John 18:20-21 proves that Jesus taught nothing in secret is contradicted by Wilson's earlier admission that Jesus did command Peter, James and John to keep the transfiguration experience a secret until after the resurrection (p. 28). Jesus’ statement to Caiphas was made before his death and resurrection. But we do not believe that Jesus lied or contradicted himself. In John 18:20-21, Jesus declares that he did not teach secret doctrines “in the synagogue, and in the temple.” This leaves open the possibility, even the likelihood, that he sometimes taught his disciples in secret, and there is clear evidence that he gave his disciples information not intended for the general public. In Matthew 13:10-16, after Jesus had given the parable of the sower, “the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (see also Mark 4:10-11; Luke 8:9-10). He then proceeded to explain the parable to his disciples (Matthew 13:18-23). Jesus’ parables are frequently accompanied by the enigmatic phrase, “he that hath an ear to hear let him hear” (Mark 4:9), a phase that obviously implies that a deeper meaning to be found only by those who are truly prepared and receptive who seek for it.
By way of illustration, Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23) apparently held esoteric meaning. Papias, one of the earliest Christian writers after the apostles, who interviewed many of those who had heard the Apostles’ teachings, tells us that one of the unwritten teachings of the elders said that “those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there . . . but that there is distinction between the habitation of those an hundred-fold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold; for the first will be taken up into the heavens, the second class will dwell in Paradise, and the last will inhabit the city; and that on this account the Lord said, ‘In my Father's house are many mansions.’ ” Papias affirmed that the three divisions alluded to by Jesus refer to “the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance in steps of this nature.”3 The same teaching is mentioned by Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria who quote it as one of the oldest teachings of the early Christians.4 In the Clementine Recognitions, a conservative Christian work believed by many historians to contain many of the oldest Christian teachings, Peter explains to Clement, “Be this [meaning his baptism] therefore the first step to you of three; which step brings forth thirty commands, and the second sixty, and the third a hundred, as we shall expound more fully to you at another time.”5 The Christian writer associates ritual baptism with those who produce thirty-fold in the parable of the sower, thereby implying that there are additional ritual steps (which he relates to the parable of Jesus) that would be explained to the Christian convert “at another time.” The Greek word for “mystery” (musterion) which occurs in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:11) may also be significant in this context. Musterion is usually defined as “a secret” expressing “the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites and is derived from the word muo which means literally ‘to shut the mouth.’”6 At the time of Jesus and the apostles it often denoted practices found in the Greek mystery religions. These “mysteries” or rituals often presented or enacted a religious story in which “the destinies of a god are portrayed by sacred actions before a circle of devotees in such a way as to give them a part in the fate of the god.”7 These rites were only to be revealed to those deemed worthy. “Integral to the concept of the mysteries is the fact that those who wish to take part in their celebration must undergo initiation; the uninitiated are denied both access to the sacred actions and knowledge of them.”8 One of the most significant elements of the rites was the promise of future salvation and life. “The holy mystery of the rites is this sanctifying union between the suffering deity and the devotees, who in the mysteries acquire a share in the destiny of the god and hence in the divine power of life.”9 Those who so participate promise not to reveal what they have learned to the uninitiated. In fact, this “vow of silence” is “essential to all mysteries, and is a feature implicit in the etymology.”10 Do Jesus’ references to the “mysteries of the kingdom” allude to a similar ritual or rituals focusing on Christ’s own suffering and atoning sacrifice?
Several Bible scholars have argued that the Sermon on the Mount was originally considered “insider information.” Jesus’ statement, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matthew 7:6) refers to something specific. Betz has argued that the reference to “pearls” by Jesus alludes to a collection of sayings or teachings, while that which is “holy” likely refers to esoteric ritual or rituals, possibly the sacrament or something else.11
Wilson’s reference to Matthew 10:27 as supportive of his view (page 28) is also misleading, since this passage clearly states that Jesus did give his disciples private information, but told them that they should proclaim it openly. That the early Christians read this passage differently than Wilson is evidenced in Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 160-215), who wrote, “’But what ye hear in the ear,’ says the Lord, ‘proclaim upon the houses;’ bidding them receive the secret traditions of the true knowledge, and expound them aloft and conspicuously; and as we have heard in the ear, so to deliver them to whom it is requisite; but not enjoining us to communicate to all without distinction, what is said to them in parables.”12 In another place, he notes that Jesus “allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God.” Then, referring to Luke 8:17, Clement adds, “And if one say that it is written, ‘There is nothing secret which shall not be revealed, nor hidden which shall not be disclosed,’ let him also hear from us, that to him who hears secretly, even what is secret shall be manifested. This is what the oracle predicted. And to him who is able secretly to observe what is delivered to him, that which is veiled shall be disclosed as truth; and what is hidden to the many, shall appear manifest to the few.”13 He then goes on to note that some unwritten teachings had been lost.
The recent discovery of fragments from a lost Secret Gospel of Mark is also of interest. These fragments are thought by some scholars to contain teachings that predate the canonical Mark. They allude to an early Christian ritual established by Jesus called “the mystery of the kingdom of God.” It apparently began with the initiate wearing a linen cloth over his naked body, required several hours of instruction, and culminated in the Christian initiate passing through several curtains or veils.14 According to Clement of Alexandria, an apostate named Carpocrates, having been “instructed by them and using deceitful arts, so enslaved a certain presbyter of the church in Alexandria that he got a copy of the secret Gospel, which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies. From this mixture is drawn off the teachings of the Carpocratians.”15 Clement further states that a true copy of this work was still kept in Alexandria at the time of his letter; however we do not possess that work today and it seems to have been lost.
Early Christians would have disagreed with Wilson’s statement that “nothing essential is lacking from the canonical books of the New Testament” (p. 28). Paul wrote of the “hidden wisdom” that was not available to all and that could be gotten only through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:7-14; cf. Colossians 2:2-3). Peter concurred with this view when, after noting the revelation he received from God in company with James and John on the mount of transfiguration, he adds that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but the holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:16-21). Paul also noted that it was “not lawful” for him to reveal some of the things he learned in his heavenly vision (2 Corinthians 12:4), reminding us that the “new name” mentioned in Revelation 2:17 is known only to the individual who receives the stone in which it is written.
Tertullian, one of the “Church Fathers” who flourished around A.D. 200, wrote, “We believe that the apostles were ignorant of nothing, but that they did not transmit everything they knew, and were not willing to reveal everything to everybody. They did not preach everywhere nor promiscuously . . . but taught one thing in public and another in secret: some things about the resurrection they taught to everyone, but some things they taught only to a few” (De Praescriptionibus, 25-26). John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (died A.D. 407) declared, “Paul did not divulge all his revelations, but concealed the greater part of them; and though he did not tell everything, neither was he silent about everything, lest he leave an opening for the teaching of false apostles” (De Laudibus Sancti Pauli Apostoli Homilia 5). Paul himself confirms this idea in his correspondence with the Corinthians: “I . . . could not speak unto you as unto spiritual . . . I have fed you with milk, and not with meat” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).
The author of Clementine Homilies 19.20 credits the apostle Peter with saying, “We remember that our Lord and Teacher, commanding us, said, ‘Keep the mysteries for me and the sons of my house.’ Wherefore also He explained to His disciples privately the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. But to you who do battle with us, and examine into nothing else but our statements, whether they be true or false, it would be impious to state the hidden truths.”16
Origen, a Christian scholar of the third century A.D., wrote of the mysteries the Christians kept hidden from the world (Contra Celsum 1.1, 3, 7). Clement of Alexandria also wrote of the mysteries found in Christianity (Stromata 5.10.63; Clementine Homilies, 19.20). The fourth-century writer Saint Basil also mentioned the mysterious rites practiced in Christianity (On the Spirit 27, 29). A number of other early Christian documents speak of secret teachings and practices. Such LDS temple rites as baptism for the dead, prayer circles, handclasps, and new names are frequently mentioned in early Christian pseudepigrapha.17
That there are missing scriptures is confirmed by the Bible itself, which speaks of scriptural works that are not found in the Bible, such as the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7; cf. Exodus 32:15‑19, 32‑33), the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14), the Book of Jasher (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18), the Manner of the Kingdom, written by Samuel (1 Samuel 10:25), the Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41; cf. 1 Kings 4:32‑33?), the Book of Samuel the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29), the Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29), the Book of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29; 2 Chronicles 9:29), the Prophecy of Ahijah (2 Chronicles 9:29), the Visions of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 9:29; 12:15; 13:22), the Book of Shemaiah the Prophet (2 Chronicles 12:15), the Acts of Abijah . . . in the Story of the Prophet Iddo (2 Chronicles 13:22), Book of Jehu (2 Chronicles 20:34), the Acts of Uzziah written by Isaiah the Prophet (2 Chronicles 26:22), the Sayings/Words of the Seers (2 Chronicles 33:18‑19).
Wilson acknowledges that “representatives of the Mormon church18 have cited as examples of lost books the epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans (see Col. 4:16) and a third epistle to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 5:9),” but the best response he can offer is that “we can only conclude that God chose not to preserve them” (p. 32). The circular argumentation here astounds us. The two epistles are not scripture because they are not in the received Bible; the received Bible is a priori the sole representation of God's word to man; since these epistles are not in the Bible, God chose not to put them there. None of these assumptions can stand the test of logic or even of biblical authority.
Of the missing books, Wilson says, “one wonders why even a Mormon should take the suggestions of his church19 seriously, since the First Presidency of the Mormon church has not chosen to incorporate any of these rejected books into its edition of the King James Version Bible. It would surely have done so if any of them were known or came to be known—through the first Presidency’s claimed gift of prophet, seer, and revelator—to be of sacred revelation” (p. 32). The fact is that Latter-day Saints are guided by the Lord's words to Joseph Smith, when he told him that the Apocrypha contained both truths and interpolations of men and must be read with the Spirit (D&C 90). Moreover, it is clear that many books that did not end up in our modern Bibles influenced the authors of the New Testament. In a recent review,20 we wrote:
Parallels between New Testament writings and the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are widely acknowledged by biblical scholars. Such show that these extrabiblical texts strongly influenced the language and style of Jesus and the apostles. The United Bible Society's Greek New Testament lists over 116 New Testament allusions or quotations from the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.21 These include not only the books known as Apocrypha but additional works such as 1 Enoch. According to R. H. Charles, “The influence of I Enoch on the New Testament has been greater than that of all the other apocryphal and pseudepigraphic books taken together.”22 According to Charles, “Nearly all the writers of the New Testament were familiar with it, and were more or less influenced by it in thought and diction.”23 He then lists over 128 examples from New Testament writers.24 He notes that these influences were so pervasive that, “without a knowledge of the Pseudepigrapha it would be impossible to understand” the author of Revelation.25
The second-century Christian scholar Origen also noted that some passages of the New Testament had been taken from pseudepigraphic works. He wrote, for example, that the information in 2 Timothy 3:8f was not found in “public books” (i.e., the canon of scripture), but in the Book of Jannes and Jambres. (The Ambrosiaster of the fourth century A.D. noted the passage was “an example from the apocrypha.”) Origen further contended that 1 Corinthians 2:9 was a quote from Secretis Eliae, the “Apocalypse of Elijah” (Commentary on Matthew 27:9)—a fact later denied by St. Jerome (Epistle 101 to Pammachius and Commentary on Isaiah, Volume 17). The phrase is not found in the known (but incomplete) version of the Apocalypse of Elijah available to us in our day. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (died A.D. 403), noted that Ephesians 5:14 is a quote found “in Elijah” (Against Heresies 42), though the passage is not found in the incomplete Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah known today.
In Acts 7:52, Stephen indicates that the prophets “which shewed before of the coming of the Just One” had been slain. Jesus spoke of the prophets sent to Jerusalem who were killed (Matthew 23:37). The Book of Mormon also indicates that there were prophets in ancient Israel who were slain because they testified of Christ (1 Nephi 1:19-20; Alma 33:15; Helaman 8:19). We would ask Mr. Wilson just whom these prophets were who spoke of Christ to come and were slain. Why is their testimony of Christ not in the Bible? Could it be that we have lost their writings?
The question of missing scriptures is, in fact, principally one of the canonization process, which Wilson discusses at length, though with little understanding. He declares that the acceptance of a formal New Testament canon at the third council of Carthage in A.D. 397 “was merely affirming what had already been largely settled by A.D. 175-200” (p. 31) and cites two modern writers to the effect that “as early as A.D. 100 the four Gospels and the major epistles of Paul were widely recognized as Scripture” (p. 32).
Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time said of him, “We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is” (John 9:29). The Jewish reaction to Jesus is paralleled by the modern Christian reaction to Joseph Smith and the reluctance of the Jews to accept the gospels and other New Testament writings as scripture is the same as the reaction of many Christians today to the Book of Mormon and modern revelation. In this respect alone, the early apostles had much more in common with the Latter-day Saints than with the rest of the Christian world. Wilson seems not to understand this, nor does he acknowledge how the canon was developed.
Thus, for example, Wilson cites the Muratorian Canon’s reasons for rejecting the Shepherd of Hermas (p. 33), but fails to mention that the document also excludes from its list of canonical works the New Testament books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John. Wilson also quotes Irenaeus regarding the standard by which doctrine was accepted in the second-century church. In the list of New Testament canon included by Irenaeus in his book Against the Heresies, he omits 2 Peter and 2-3 John and notes that the epistles of Hebrews and Jude had lesser support in the church; he also denied the Pauline authorship of Hebrews.26
Another second-century Christian writer, Origen, after mentioning books he considered fiction and forgeries, drew up a list of writings he believed to be generally accepted by Christians, along with a list of others acknowledged in only some places.27 The former included the four gospels, thirteen letters which he attributed to Paul (including Hebrews), Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. The second list included Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Barnabas and The Shepherd (of Hermas).
Eusebius, the great fourth-century Christian historian, also compiled a list of “genuine” and “disputed” New Testament books. Among the questionable books he listed Hebrews, Revelation, the epistles of James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2-3 John, and other books that he acknowledged were accepted in some Christian circles, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Peter, the Gospel according to Peter, the Preaching and Revelation of Peter (Ecclesiastical History 3.25; see also 3.3).
Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century, in his poem “On the True and Genuine Scripture,” listed all of the New Testament books except Revelation. His contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), prepared a list of authorized New Testament books for his Catechism, but omitted the book of Revelation. Another contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (A.D. 296-373), in his Thirty-ninth Pascal (Easter) Letter of A.D. 367, was the first to list all twenty-seven books found in our current New Testament as authoritative. He permitted the reading of the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas, but did not place them on equal footing with the canon.
It was Athanasius’ canon list that was accepted by the council of Laodicea (A.D. 363), in its Canon 60, excluding the book of Revelation. The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) accepted the canon approved at Laodicea. The canon was also discussed at the Councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397), held in the Tunisian cities bearing their names. At Carthage (the third council held there), after much disagreement on certain books, it was decreed that only the 27 books comprising our current New Testament be read in churches (Canon 48). The Council of Carthage also established the order of the New Testament books as we know them today, i.e., the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles (general, then pastoral), the Catholic Epistles, and Revelation. All Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) books were accepted at Hippo and Carthage, including the Apocrypha, which had been rejected at the Council of Laodicea.
The Synopsis Sanctae Scripturae (Synopsis of the Sacred Scriptures) has been falsely attributed to Athanasius, who died in A.D. 373, though it was likely written in the sixth century. The New Testament list corresponds to ours, but the document notes that the Shepherd of Hermas was read in many churches. Among the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic books in the list are 1-4 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, Odes of Solomon, an unknown Ptolemaic history, Susanna, Apocalypse of Elijah, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Book of Eldad and Modad, Enoch, the [Twelve] Patriarchs, Prayer of Joseph, Testament of Moses, Assumption of Moses, and pseudepigrapha attributed to Abraham, Zechariah the Father of John (the Baptist), Baruch, Habakkuk, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Biblical scholar Thomas A. Hoffman, discussing the question of canonicity, wrote, “One obvious and crucial question about normativeness remains: is the number of these normative writings coextensive with the present canon? R. Brinkmann has suggested that “it is theoretically possible that a lost epistle of an apostle could still be accepted into the canon, although practically the church regards the canon as closed. This at least implies the possibility of the existence of a book presently outside the canon that would possess the other two components. A reading of the history of the canonization of our NT suggests that possibly such books as the Shepherd of Hermas, the First Epistle of Clement, or the Epistle of Barnabas might have the first and second components and simply lack the third. The reasons why they were eventually dropped from the canon are not that clear. The larger OT canon of the Orthodox churches also suggests the same possibility.”28
Of the Shepherd of Hermas, another scholar has written, “Over the span of about four centuries, beginning with the initial appearance of ‘The Shepherd’ and ending with the final adoption of the New Testament, Hermas’s book stood as perhaps the strongest potential entrant that failed to join Christianity’s canon of sacred literature . . . ‘The Shepherd' received its strongest support for canonical adoption during the first 150 years of the Christian era. Church fathers before the early second century believed that Hermas’s work was divinely inspired; that is, that the Holy Spirit had infused the writer and moved him to convey God's message to mankind. In addition, the book met the test of ‘universality’—that is, all branches of the Church revered it as the word of God despite their disagreements on other matters of doctrine and ritual."29
The fact that a book revered as inspired by the earliest Christians, and included in some of the earliest real Bibles, should be rejected by later Christians, suggests that the canonization process was much more complex than Wilson would have it. It further supports the LDS concept of an apostasy from the true Church, in that later generations of Christians were no longer being guided by the inspiration of the first Christians.
Of particular interest is that the earliest complete Bibles (collections of books, rather than individual scrolls), the Greek codices, are not in complete agreement with today's western Canon. For the Old Testament, they include the 14 books known as the Apocrypha. Codex Vaticanus, written late in the first half of the fourth century (by A.D. 350), includes, in the book of Job, the additional 400 half-verses found in Theodotion but not in our Job. Codex Sinaiticus, written about the same time, adds the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas to its New Testament. Like Vaticanus, it omits the last twelve verses of Mark. Codex Alexandrinus, prepared early in the fifth century A.D., includes Clement's two epistles to the Corinthians in the New Testament.
When one considers the stress that Martin Luther placed on the authority of the Bible and the concept of biblical inerrancy prevalent in some modern Christian circles, it is ironic that Luther did not fully accept the Bible. He cast doubt on some traditional dates and authorship of biblical books. He questioned the Mosaic authorship of parts of the Pentateuch, the Solomonic origin of Ecclesiastes, and declared Job to be allegory. Kings, he said, was “more to be believed than Chronicles,” with which it disagrees in many particulars. Esther was “without boots or spurs.” Indeed, he had serious questions about the Old Testament books of Esther, Jeremiah, Job, the Song of Songs and Jonah.
Luther had his doubts about some New Testament books as well. Of Jude, he wrote, “He quotes sayings and stories found nowhere else.” “Although I praise the book, it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books.” “St. James is really an epistle of straw compared to them for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” It is “not the writing of any apostle."30
Luther's disdain of the Epistle of James results from the fact that James wrote of works, as opposed to the faith of Paul’s writings, and “does not mention the Passion, the Resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ.” Luther concluded his preface to James: “All of the genuinely sacred books agree in this that all of them preach Christ and deal with Him. That is the test to judge all books, when we see whether they deal with Christ or not, since all the Scriptures show us Christ (Rom. 3) and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ (I Corinthians 15).” “What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul taught it; again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic, even though Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod did it.” “St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul's epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is good and necessary for you to know.” He went on to call these books the “kernel and marrow of all books.”
Having placed emphasis on the New Testament books that glorified Christ, Luther ended up discounting four of the doubtful seven writings to which Erasmus had reference: Hebrews (which refused a second forgiveness to apostates), James (which seemed to exalt works at the expense of justifying faith), Jude (which Luther thought derived from 2 Peter and gave no clear witness to Christ), and Revelation (which was not clear and did not properly teach Christ, being, in Luther's opinion, neither apostolic nor prophetic). All these he placed at the end of the New Testament in his translation. Another reformer, John Calvin, similarly rejected the book of Revelation from the canon.
Luther's definition of canon is clearly at variance with the one that Wilson cites from Irenaeus (p. 30) and with his list of “three criteria”:31 “Apostolic origin . . . Continuous usage by the church . . . Harmony with the Old Testament and apostolic teaching” (pp. 31-32). By contrast, Luther cared not whether an apostle or a non-Christian wrote the book, as long as he glorified Christ and taught faith, nor did he care about ties to the Old Testament.
To his credit, Wilson acknowledges that “the epistle of Clement, the epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the apocalypse of Peter” were popular among early Christians (p. 32). But he is too dogmatic in his assertion that “the rejected books failed to meet the basic criteria of verified apostolic origin and were not in full harmony with known apostolic teaching” (p. 32). The very fact that early Christians accepted them, while Christians living centuries after the apostles judged them to not be authoritative, should make us question their rejection. Wilson notes that, “by the last half of the second century there was already universal agreement among the far-flung Christian congregations regarding the inspired nature of 20 of the 27 New Testament books,” adding that “by the end of the fourth century recognition of these [other seven] books also was virtually universal” (p. 30). Again, we ask, why should the opinion of fourth-century Christians be more valid than that of second-century Christians?
The Use of Pseudepigrapha in Early Christianity
Despite the canonical lists, which, as we have seen, did not agree, a number of early Church Fathers continued to cite non-canonical (pseudepigraphic or apocryphal) books. By the time of Justin Martyr (died A.D. 164), the Christians in Sunday service read “the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets” (Apology 1.67). But his quotes show that these were not identical to the four Gospels, but contained “apocryphal” material.
Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 160-215) mentioned and quoted some books unknown in our day, as well as a number of pseudepigraphal works. He knew 1 Enoch and cited such books as the Apocalypse of Zephaniah (Stromata 5.11.77), Aristobulus of the second century B.C. (Stromata Books 1, 5, 6), Ezekiel the Tragedian (Stromata 1.23.155f), and the Apocryphon of Ezekiel (allusion in Quis Dives Salvetur 39.2, fragment in Stromata 7.16). Eusebius wrote that Clement, in his Stromata, used “testimony from the Antilegomenoi, the disputed Scriptures; also from that book called the Wisdom of Solomon, and that of Jesus the son of Sirach; also the Epistle to the Hebrews, that of Barnabas, and Clement, and Jude,” plus Greek and Jewish writers (Ecclesiastical History 6.13).
Clement referred to the Gospel according to the Hebrews and to a statement attributed to Jesus, which it contains, “He that marvels shall reign, and he that has reigned shall rest” (Stromata 2.9.45). We can compare this with the unattributed statement in Stromata 5.14.96, “He that seeks will not rest until he finds; and he that has found will marvel; and he that has marvelled shall reign; and he that has reigned shall rest.” This appears as Logion 2 in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, except that the words “and he that has reigned shall rest” are missing. It is also in the corresponding Greek version in Oxyrhyncus Papyrus 654, where it is fragmentary.
Tertullian, the great North African theologian who flourished around A.D. 200, mentioned or quoted some works unknown today, as well as some pseudepigraphic works. He held 1 Enoch in high regard and referred to a story found in the Testament of Job 20:8f (De anima 14.2-7). He also quoted some of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel (De Carni Christi 23). He mentioned, in his Apology for the Christians, the Acts of Pilate, comprising the report of the death of Jesus said to have been sent by Pilate to Tiberius Caesar (as cited by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 2.2).
Despite his canonical list and his rejection of spurious books, Eusebius managed to make use of a number of pseudepigraphic works. He quoted from the Prayer of Joseph (Preparation of the Gospel 6:11), Ezekiel the Tragedian (Preparation of the Gospel 9,28-29), Demetrius the Chronographer (Praeparatio Evangelica Book 9), Sibylline Oracles 1:137-46 (Praeparatio Evangelica 13.12.5), Aristeas the Exegete (Praeparatio Evangelica 9.25.1-4) and the second-century BC writing of Aristobulus (Ecclesiastical History 7.32.16-18, some also in Praeparatio Evangelica 8.10, 13.12, 7.14). He also mentioned the Epistle of Barnabas and noted that the letter of Agbarus, prince of Edessa, and Jesus’ reply thereto, were still in the archives at Edessa, written in Syriac, and obligingly provides a Greek translation (Ecclesiastical History 1.8, 13).
Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (died A.D. 403) mentioned the pseudepigraphic book of Eldad and Modad (De Fide 4.5), quoted from the Ascension of Isaiah (9:35f), mentioning it by name (Against Heresies 67:37), and named and quoted part of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel (Against Heresies 64.70, 5-7). He cited the Acts of Paul and Thecla as a true story (Against Heresies. 68). He cited the Protevangelion of James, though noting that he rejected it as canonical.
Gregory, bishop of Nyassa (d. 396), is known to have quoted from the Apocryphon of Ezekiel (Against the Jews 3). Sozomen, a fifth-century church historian, wrote that the Revelation of Peter was read annually on Good Friday in some Palestinian churches (Ecclesiastical History 7.19).
George Syncellus, a Byzantine monk of ca. A.D. 800, mentioned or quoted some books unknown today, along with known pseudepigrapha. He used a few extracts from 1 Enoch (6:1-10:14; 15:8-16:1) in his Chronographia. He wrote of “the Little Genesis” (Jubilees) that some called “an apocalypse of Moses” (Chronographia 1.5), but also used the title Apocalypse of Moses for a separate work (Chronographia 1.48). He noted that the Little Genesis was also called the Life of Adam (Chronographia 1.7).
The Peshitta, the Bible of the Aramaic-speaking Christians of the Middle East, was prepared in the fourth century A.D. Its earliest versions excluded 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation, which were later added in imitation of the Greek Bible. Some branches of the Syriac Church still exclude them, however. Also known in Syriac are five apocryphal Psalms of David, transmitted in the same manuscript together with a didactic poem by the Nestorian bishop Elijah of Anbar (tenth century), and now known from one of the psalters found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
No serious Bible scholar would suggest that the Bible text has remained uncorrupted. As early as 1707, before most of the New Testament Greek manuscripts known today had been discovered, Mill’s Greek New Testament, published at Oxford, listed over 30,000 variant readings in the text. There are a dozen known variants for a single verse, 1 Corinthians 2:4. By 1985, over 500,000 biblical variants had been catalogued for both Old and New Testaments, from known Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) manuscripts, not counting variants found in other versions (e.g., the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament).
After the New English Bible was produced, the committee had L. H. Brockington prepare a book, The Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, listing all of “the readings adopted by the translators of the New English Bible,” when they had to decide whether to accept one manuscript reading over another. The book is 269 pages long and only includes those variants on which a decision had to be made in opposition to the Massoretic Hebrew text that underlies most English Bible translations.
The problem of variants in Bible manuscripts is reflected in the title of one of the books written by the renowned Bible scholar, Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. This description of the Bible was not written by Joseph Smith or one of his followers, but by a Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary.
The earliest New Testament manuscripts were very fragmentary and are therefore useless as evidence that the New Testament as we now have it reflects the original text of the books it comprises. The earliest nearly complete New Testament documents are the fourth century A.D. codices. There was plenty of time during the intervening centuries for corruption to enter the text.32
Very Early Christian writers noted examples of textual corruption. Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) accused the Jews of removing portions of the Old Testament that prophesied of Christ to come. He referred to missing portions of the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezra, citing the missing words (Dialogue With Trypho 72-74). Two other second-century writers, Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:20; 4:22) and Melito of Sardis (Homily on the Passion), cited one of the same passages, the latter attributing it to both Isaiah and Jeremiah. Ironically, none of these missing parts has been restored in any Christian Bible.
During the rabbinic council held in Yabneh (Yamnia) in A.D. 90 to determine which books would be accepted as authentic scripture, there were many disagreements over the canonicity of Ezekiel, whose description of the temple service in the last days (chapters 40-48) contradicted the rules laid down in the Torah. Of this, one of the rabbis said, “When Elijah comes, he will explain the difficulty.” Others were not content to wait so long. Rabbi Hananiah literally burned the midnight oil for many nights revising the text of Ezekiel. Of him, it was written in the Talmud, “Blessed be the memory of Hananiah, son of Hezekiah: if it had not been for him, the book of Ezekiel would have been hidden [i.e., withdrawn from public reading]. What did he do? They brought him three hundred measures of oil, and he sat down and explained it” (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 13a-b). By this, it was understood that the rabbi had modified the text to make it acceptable to the council. According to Abot de Rabbi Nathan 1, the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes were originally considered parables only and became accepted as scripture only after being “interpreted.”
Several of the Church Fathers of the first centuries of the Christian era quote from Ezekiel items that are not found in the biblical book of that name. Epiphanius (Against Heresies 64.70.5-17) attributes to Ezekiel the story of the blind and lame men, which is also found, without attribution, in TB Sanhedrin 91a-b), but which is unknown from Ezekiel’s writings. 1 Clement 8:3, citing Ezekiel 18:30-31, adds ideas not found in that passage but which are also included in the version found in one of the Nag Hammadi texts, The Exegesis on the Soul (II,6) 135-6. Tertullian (De Carne Christi 23) noted that Ezekiel wrote about a cow that had given birth and had not given birth—a story repeated by Epiphanius (Panarion Haeresies 30.30.3), Gregory of Nyassa (Against the Jews 3), Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 7:16) and in Acts of Peter 24. Clement of Alexandria (Paedagogus 1:9) attributes to Ezekiel words that partially parallel the thoughts in Ezekiel 34:11-16 but which are quite different. From these examples, it is clear that the Ezekiel text possessed by the early Church differed from the one in today’s Bible.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are two fragmentary copies of a document (4Q385, 4Q386) that have been termed “Pseudo-Ezekiel” because it has passages from the biblical Ezekiel that vary from what is found in the standard Massoretic Hebrew text. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century A.D., declared that Ezekiel had written two books of prophecies (Antiquities of the Jews 10.5.1), though only one is found in the Bible.
There are also a number of passages in the New Testament that are not found in all of the ancient manuscripts. The most well known are found in Mark 16, John 8, and 1 John 5. The latter involves the words “the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). These words are missing in 250 Greek New Testament manuscripts and are found in no manuscript from before the seventh century A.D. They only appear in four manuscripts written after 1400. Most scholars believe that a scribe added these words as an explanatory gloss.
Most ancient authorities omit the passage of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. The passage is bracketed in the Revised Version, with a footnote. The Revised Standard Version relegates it to the margin, with a note. It is not found in the major Greek codices: Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, Ephraemi, Regius and the Washington and is missing from others as well. Most scholars think that it was first written into the margin as a comment in 8:15, “Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.” Some ancient authorities insert it with variations in the text as it stands today or at the end of the gospel or after Luke 21:38. Eusebius cites Papias regarding the “story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39). This suggests that the story may have been borrowed from the Gospel of the Hebrews, which is no longer extant.
The two oldest Greek manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) and some other authorities omit the last twelve verses of the gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), while still other authorities (including codices) have a different ending to the gospel. Both Jerome and Eusebius reported that the oldest manuscripts known to them ended with the words “for they were afraid,” though Eusebius objected to the ending and was followed by others. The twelve verses are found in Irenaeus, all second-century Syriac manuscripts, most other versions and all other Greek manuscripts. But they are omitted in some old Armenian codices, two of the Ethiopic, K of the Old Latin, and an Arabic lectionary.
The “shorter ending” is found in Greek Codex L and was added to the margin along with the “longer ending” by the American Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It reads “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus Himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
The Washington manuscript has an ending of its own, part of which is quoted by Jerome as found in some manuscripts. After verse 14 of the longer ending, it reads: “And they replied saying, this age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow what is under the unclean spirits to comprehend the true power of God; therefore reveal thy righteousness. Already they were speaking to Christ; and Christ told them in addition that the limit of the years of the authority of Satan has been fulfilled, but other terrible things are at hand, even for the sinners on whose behalf I was delivered up to death, that they might turn to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the heavenly spiritual incorruptible glory of righteousness.” It doesn’t sound like Mark. The longer ending was written before the end of the second century, since it is quoted by Irenaeus ca. A.D. 185 and by Tatian’s Diatessaron ca. A.D. 170.
Scholars who have studied the usual of the ending of Mark, used by the King James Bible, have noted that it contains a vocabulary very different from what is normal to Mark. Nevertheless, it is considered strange for Mark to begin a book with the “good news” and end it with “for they were afraid.” Moreover, it is logical to assume that he did include Jesus’ appearance in Galilee, which is prophesied in 14:28 and 16:7. The ending was likely broken off at an early stage and a new one later written.
Were the New Testament Writings Sabotaged?
Wilson complains that it is unreasonable to believe that the church could fall into apostasy early on in its history—a scenario suggested by the LDS belief that the biblical documents were corrupted rather early. “It requires us to believe that the spiritual condition of the Christian community and its leadership in the very shadow of the apostles was so bankrupt that major extractions could be made from their writings, undetected or unchallenged” (p. 29). Yet this is precisely the picture one derives from the apostle's own writings. Paul tells the Ephesians leaders that future apostates would arise from their own leadership, some of whom were no doubt weeping at Paul’s departure (Acts 20:29-31). Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians suggests that false apostolic letters may have been circulating within the Christian community even then (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Even John’s well known warning against any who “add unto” or “take away from” the words of his book (Revelation 22:18-19) takes for granted that wicked people would do so and probably had been known to do so before that time. Writing half a century after John’s revelation, Dionysius of Corinth complained, “For I wrote letters when the brethren requested me to write. And these letters the apostles of the devil have filled with tares, taking away some things and adding others, for whom a woe is in store. It is not wonderful, then if some have attempted to adulterate the Lord’s writings, when they have formed designs against those which are not such.”33
Of “the alleged sabotage of the apostolic writings [by] apostates” suggested in 1 Nephi 13, Wilson writes, “the Mormon church has been unable to provide a credible explanation of when and how this took place” (pp. 28-29). Since we have already noted evidences for textual corruption, the mechanism seems to us to be secondary. The very fact that it happened is a fait accompli that any objective individual examining the variants in the text should readily accept.
Wilson’s demand for a precise time is based on the concept of a Bible that came into being full-blown. In actual fact, the canon, as we have demonstrated earlier, was slow in developing. Individual documents written by apostles and prophets could readily have been lost or modified before they spread to all the early Christian congregations. This would have been particularly easy during the period when there was no unanimity about which books should be accepted and read.
Wilson addresses the various New Testament passages that Latter-day Saints have used to show that there would be an apostasy and finds them wanting. He also cites other New Testament passages that he believes provide evidence against an apostasy. We shall examine these here.
Wilson maintains that “Christ promised that His church would never fall into total apostasy: ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18)” (p. 29). Christ cannot have meant, in this passage, that the Church would never fall. The Greek word rendered “prevail” in the King James Bible is katisxusousin, literally, “be strong against,” and it is often used in the sense of “restrain.” Gates do not attack churches (or anything else) with the intention of destroying them. Gates are not offensive weapons! They are intended to keep people in or keep people out. The gates of hell (Hades in the Greek text) are obviously intended to keep people in, as prisoners. Christ, however, opened those gates when he went into the spirit world to make it possible for the wicked of previous eras to hear the good news of redemption (1 Peter 3:18‑20; 4:6). Christ’s visit to Hades (the realm of the dead) is a common theme in early Christian literature, where we often read that Christ broke down the gates of Hades. The keys he gave to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 and which came to all the apostles (Matthew 18:18) are the power of sealing people up to everlasting life. They release us from the captivity of the devil, opening the gates of hell for even the dead.
Wilson claims that “the New Testament nowhere predicts a total apostasy” (p. 29). A total apostasy, however, is not required in order that plain and precious truths be lost from sacred writings. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2-3, Paul wrote that Christ would not return to the earth until after a “falling away” (the Greek work is apostasia, from which we get “apostasy”). Wilson objects that “this verse and its context (1:7-2:12) describe apostasy in terms of end-time event, especially the coming of the Antichrist, and there is no indication that it will be universal” (p. 29). To be sure, Christ’s second coming is an “end-time event.” But Paul says that Christ would not return until “there come a falling away first.” He does not say how long before Christ’s return that event would take place, so we need not consign it to the last days. Indeed, Paul noted that “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7), indicating that the apostasy he foresaw was not an “end-time” event.34
An examination of the full text of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 is revealing: “Let no man deceive you by any means: that day shall not come, except there come a falling away (apostasia) first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition. Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” In Ephesians 2:21, Paul indicated that the Church is the temple of God. From this, Paul’s meaning in his letter to the Thessalonians is clear. The Lord’s coming will be preceded by a time of apostasia or rebellion against God in which the evil one will usurp the Church as his own. The temporal structure will apparently remain, but because of rebellion and iniquity it is no longer the Lord’s Church and kingdom. Paul further noted that there was a restraining influence (the original meaning of “let” in 2 Thessalonians 2:7). A restraint on false teaching was the apostles who had the power and authority to correct false doctrine (Ephesians 4). From Paul’s statement, we learn that this restraint would soon be removed or “taken out of the way.”
Paul’s declaration to the Thessalonians is supported by Peter, who declared that, before Christ would return, there would be a “restitution [the Greek word means “restoration”] of all things” (Acts 3:18-21). If nothing had been lost, there would be no need of a restoration. Significantly, Peter also noted that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7), implying that the loss of all things was imminent.
Wilson discounts Paul’s words in Acts 20:30, saying that it does not suggest a universal apostasy. He adds that, from the evidence of “Revelation 2:2 we find that the Ephesian saints heeded the warning of Paul,” having detected the false apostles among them (p. 30). Had he read a few more verses, he would have found the Lord telling the church at Ephesus, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love . . . repent and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5). Since, in John’s vision, “the seven candlesticks . . . are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20), the Lord’s threat is clear: Unless they repent, he will remove the Ephesian church!
Wilson argues that John’s reference to the saints being overcome by the beast (Revelation 13:7) only has reference to events during the last days before the Lord’s second coming (p. 30). While we do not wish to be too dogmatic, there is merit to the argument that the first ten verses of Revelation 13 may refer to the apostasy of early Christians. John foretold that the beast would make war with the saints and overcome them. We disagree with Wilsons claim that “this passage is not describing apostates, but heroes of the faith” (p. 30). A careful reading of John’s revelation indicates that John uses the word overcome in reference to those who overcome sin and the world and are thereby saved (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7). It refers to salvation, not physical survival, except in Revelation 11:7, where the beast overcomes the two prophets, who are slain. Consequently, when John observes that the worldly kingdoms exemplified by the beast overcome the saints this may refer to apostasy of remnant of the Church who survive with whom the devil makes war (Revelation 12:17). After the beast’s triumph over the saints of the Church he then has power over the all the earth. In chapter 14 an angel from God comes so that the gospel may be preached to all that dwell on the earth. Why would an angel need to come with the gospel and preach it to everybody? As chapter 13 makes clear, it is because the saints of an earlier time had been overcome by the world allowing evil one to usurp the Lord’s kingdom.
Wilson claims that “Christ promised his Apostles that their converts’ faith would endure” (p. 30), citing, as evidence, Jesus’ words to his apostles that he had chosen them to bring forth fruit that their fruit “should remain” (John 15:16). Wilson fails to show how this statement shows that there was no apostasy. The Lord obviously blessed the apostles in their mission and many were saved through their labors, but Jesus also foretold that the time would come when the apostles would be killed. He told them,
Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved (Matthew 24:9-11).
From this passage, we learn that only those who endure the temptations and persecutions of the world faithfully and are not overcome will be saved.
As evidence that there was no apostasy, Wilson notes that, in the early chapters of the book of Revelation, “Christ commended faithful churches at the twilight of the apostolic era” (p. 30). While it is true that the Lord commended the faithful saints of the seven churches, yet a careful reading of chapters 2-3 of Revelation reveals a church struggling against and in some cases apparently losing the battle against worldliness and apostasy. The Lord, through John, used the symbols of candlesticks to represent each of the churches (Revelation 1:20). Christ warns the Ephesians that if they do not repent he would remove their candlestick out of its place (Revelation 2:5). In other words Christ would take away his Church from them. Five of the seven churches are threatened with judgment or destruction. Two churches appear to have been singled out as being especially faithful, the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia (the ones to which Wilson makes reference). The Church at Smyrna is commended, but warned that they will experience tribulation, imprisonment and martyrdom, yet they are to find comfort in the fact that they will thus receive the crown of eternal life and not be hurt by the second death (Revelation 2:10). The Lord speaks of keeping the faithful of Philadelphia “from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (Revelation 3:10). Wilson cites this passage as evidence against the apostasy, yet the reference to the “hour of temptation” which comes upon “all the world” can just as plausibly be interpreted as a reference to the great apostasy. Wilson assumes that their being kept “from the hour of temptation” must refer to the physical survival of the Philadelphian saints, yet it can just as easily refer to the faithful Philadelphians being taken out of the world through martyrdom before the Apostasy is complete. If the seven churches are typical of other Christian congregations of the time, it is clear that apostasy was a serious problem.
Wilson also cites 2 Timothy 2:2, where Paul instructs that his teachings should be committed “to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also,” and adds that “if universal apostasy immediately followed the apostles, either these inspired instructions were inadequate, or the apostles themselves failed to follow them” (p. 30). There seems to be no logic behind this conclusion, except to assume that whenever Paul gave instructions they were always followed—which, from passages cited earlier, we know not to be the case. The apostles and Timothy may have done everything in the power to teach the truth and still have people reject it.35 Even Jesus could not convince everybody. This is not because there was something wrong with the message or with the messenger, but simply because people knowing better often choose evil anyway. In a passage not cited by Wilson, Paul also warns that the time will come when they would no longer listen to Timothy’s counsel and teachings, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers having itching ears And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
As evidence that there was no total apostasy, Wilson notes that “Matthew 24:4-5, 10-13 says that “‘many will be deceived . . .’ Many, but not all” (p. 29). Similarly, “1 Timothy 4:1-3 predicts that ‘in the latter times some shall depart from the faith,’ but not all,” while “2 Peter 2:1-3 predicts that ‘many,’ but not all, will follow the pernicious ways of false prophets to come” (p. 30). While his point regarding these scriptures is well-taken, they actually contradict one of his earlier assumptions, i.e., that Latter-day Saints are wrong in proposing a “very early dating for the New Testament Scriptures,” for “it requires us to believe that the spiritual condition of the Christian community and its leadership in the very shadow of the apostles was so bankrupt that major extractions could be made from their writings, undetected, or unchallenged . . . One can only label such a radical view of events an ‘instant apostasy’” (p. 29). Indeed, the apostasy was already under way in the time of the apostles, as noted earlier.
Wilson is correct in stating that “it is a cardinal tenet of Mormonism that the canon of Scripture is not closed and that God is still revealing new truth through latter-day prophets” (p. 32). “Why does historic Christianity reject such a view? There are two basic reasons. First, because the New Testament portrays the office of apostle as limited to the first generation of Christians, and makes no provision for the succession of others to this one-time office” (pp. 32-33). This argument cannot be supported from the New Testament, and the contrary is true, that the New Testament provides ample evidence that apostleship and revelation continued after the first generation.
Not only was Matthias selected, by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, to replace the fallen Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:13-26), both Paul and Barnabas are subsequently termed “apostles” (Acts 14:14; Romans 1:1, 5, 13; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 4:9; 9:1-2, 5-6; 15:9; 2 Corinthians 1:1, 5; 12:11-12; Galatians 1:1, 17; 2:8; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:6; 1 Timothy 1:1; 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:1, 11; Titus 1:1). Paul also indicated that James, the brother of Jesus, was an apostle (Galatians 1:19). When Paul wrote that “James, Cephas [Peter], and John . . . seemed to be pillars” in the Church (Galatians 2:9), he could not have had reference to James the brother of John, for the death of this apostle, recorded in Acts 12:2, took place before the event to which Paul refers took place in Acts 15.
Wilson cites Ephesians 2:20 as evidence that the “writings [of the original apostles] are the church’s foundation and final authority” (p. 33). But the passage in question says nothing about the “writings” of these men. It says that the saints “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” If writings were meant, then we should expect that the Bible would contain some of Jesus’ writings, which it does not. The real foundation of the Church is Christ, with his chosen apostles and prophets. Paul explained in the same epistle that the Lord “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). This does not sound like a one-time apostolic office, any more than teachers and pastors are a one-time office. Rather, Paul makes it clear that these offices were intended to remain in the Church “till we all come in the unity of the faith.”
The need for ongoing revelation should be self-evident. Whenever the Lord sends a prophet, he gives him a message tailored to the needs of the people at the time. One would not expect, for example, that every prophet should build an ark just because God told Noah to do so, or to go to Nineveh as God told Jonah. So while the message of salvation through Christ has not changed, there are other needs that can be filled only by ongoing revelation. In his day, many Jews rejected Jesus because he did not fit their preconceived notions of what the Messiah should be. Jeremiah and other prophets were rejected because they did not fit the preconceived notions of the people about what a prophet should be. Things haven’t changed much.
The pattern of the scriptures should tell us that God deals with his people through ongoing revelation. Were it otherwise, we would have no Old and New Testament books. The very fact that Paul was receiving revelation after Matthias was called to fill the vacancy in the twelve left by the death of Judas is evidence that God continued this pattern after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. On at least three occasions, he was visited by Jesus himself and given new revelation (Acts 9:3-6; 22:5-10, 17-21; 23:11; 26:13-18; Galatians 1:11-16), and he was visited at least once by an angel of God (Acts 27:23).
Paul was by no means one of the original apostles, nor even Judas’s replacement, yet he continued to receive revelation throughout his life. In Ephesians 3:4-6, he spoke of his “knowledge in the mystery of Christ,” which has not been known in earlier ages, but “is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” to wit, “that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” To the Corinthians, he wrote of the things that “God hath revealed . . . unto us by his Spirit,” noting that it is only through the Spirit of God that man can know the things of God “because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:9-14). To Paul, there was no closed canon and God did not discontinue revelation.
That the early Christians agreed with Paul is evidenced by the story of the miraculous escape of the Jerusalem Christian community from the city prior to its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70. Eusebius recounts the story: “But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war [which began in A.D. 66], to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook” the people (Ecclesiastical History 3.5.3). The revelation mentioned by Eusebius, not being of a doctrinal nature, did not come to the apostles, however, for they had, he notes, “been driven out of the land of Judea” and had gone to preach the gospel among the nations (Ecclesiastical History 3.5.2).
Wilson’s “second reason the Christian church does not look for latter-day revelation is that the Bible presents Christ’s incarnation, atoning death, and victorious resurrection as the once-for-all culmination of God’s plan of salvation foretold and foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Heb. 1:1-2; 9:26-28; 10:10; Jude 3). Thus, how could additional revelation add anything essential to the Christian message?” (p. 33). By this reasoning, we should expect no new revelation after the atonement of Christ, and yet, as we have seen, Paul and others continued to receive revelations after that time. In Paul’s case, the great revelation of how the gospel was to go to the Gentiles was a critical part of the plan of salvation, as was the decision made by the elders and apostles at the council in Jerusalem to not impose upon the Gentile converts circumcision and other requirements of the law of Moses (Acts 15).
Wilson’s retort to this would surely that “there is no biblical basis for expecting further revelation. The church’s task is rather to preach and teach and defend the faith once-for-all delivered unto the saints (Jude 3), until Christ returns.” This is a common objection based on a false premise, the meaning of Jude 1:3, which some modern Bible translations render “once for all.” Indeed, it is the modern evangelical concept of biblical inerrancy that has led to the rendering “once for all.” The King James Version simply speaks of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” The Greek work rendered “once” (or “once for all”) is hapax, which simply means “once.” However, it does not denote finality. This is clear from the following New Testament passages, where the same Greek word is used in a context where no one would understand it to mean “once for all:
“ye sent once and again [literally, ‘once and twice’] unto my necessity” (Philippians 4:16).
we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again [literally,
‘once and twice’]” (1 Thessalonians 2:18).
“Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more [literally ‘once’] I shake not the earth only, but also heaven” (Hebrews 12:26).
Indeed, the same Greek word is found two verses later in Jude 1:5, where the author wrote, “I will therefore put you in remembrance, that ye once knew this.” If he has to remind his readers that they “once” knew it, then he makes them know it again, and therefore a translation of “once for all” makes no sense at all.
If the gospel (more correctly, faith) was to be delivered but once to men on the earth, then Paul would be wrong in writing that the gospel had been revealed earlier to Abraham (Galatians 3:8f). And if the gospel was revealed in the days of Jesus, never to disappear from the earth, there would be no necessity for the angel John saw coming in later times to reveal the gospel to the inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 14:6-7). We can either conclude that Jude 1:3 does not give the whole story, or we must conclude that the Bible contradicts itself.
Is the Bible the Unique Word of God?
In his discussion of the New Testament canon, Wilson cites Metzger’s statement that there was “a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament” by the second century A.D. (p. 32). While this is certainly true, one wonders at the role that “unanimity” on the major New Testament books and an “unsettled” situation for the rest translates into the Bible being the unique word of God and, in the view of most evangelical Christians, inerrant.
According to Eusebius, the second-century Christian writer Papias noted his preference for the “living and abiding voice” (i.e., continuing revelation) over the teaching of books. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (died A.D. 166), expressed a similar thought:
When I heard someone saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved. But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified (Ignatius to the Philadelphians 8, short recension).36
Protestant Bible scholar
Floyd V. Filson, reacting to the tendency to believe that the Bible is the
sole word of God, wrote:
possible, however, to stress the Bible so much and give it so central a
place that the sensitive Christian conscience must rebel. We may
illustrate such overstress on the Bible by the often-used (and perhaps
misused) quotation from Chillingworth: “The Bible alone is the religion
of Protestantism.” Or we may recall how often it has been said that the
Bible is the final authority for the Christian.
If it will not seem too facetious, I would like to put in a good
word for God. It is God and not the Bible who is the central fact for the
Christian. When we speak of “the Word of God” we use a phrase which,
properly used, may apply to the Bible, but it has a deeper primary
meaning. It is God who speaks to man. But he does not do so only through
the Bible. He speaks through prophets and apostles. He speaks through
specific events. And while his unique message to the Church finds its
central record and written expression in the Bible, this very reference to
the Bible reminds us that Christ is the Word of God in a living, personal
way which surpasses what we have even in this unique book. Even the Bible
proves to be the Word of God only when the Holy Spirit working within us
attests the truth and divine authority of what the Scripture says. Faith
must not give to the aids that God provides the reverence and attention
that Belong only to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our hope is
in God; our life is in Christ; our power is in the Spirit. The Bible
speaks to us of the divine center of all life and help and power, but it
is not the center. The Christian teaching about the canon must not deify
We echo his
sentiments and commend them to all readers of the Bible.
David W. Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at
Today's Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity (Tyler,
TX: Scroll Publishing, 1989). 2.
George Horowitz, The Spirit of Jewish Law: A Brief Account of Biblical and
Rabbinical Jurisprudence with a Special Note on Jewish Law and the State of
Israel (New York: Central Book Co., 1963), 641; Ze'ev W. Falk, Hebrew Law
in Biblical Times (Provo: Brigham Young University and Eisenbrauns, 2001),
It is possible, however, to stress the Bible so much and give it so central a place that the sensitive Christian conscience must rebel. We may illustrate such overstress on the Bible by the often-used (and perhaps misused) quotation from Chillingworth: “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestantism.” Or we may recall how often it has been said that the Bible is the final authority for the Christian. If it will not seem too facetious, I would like to put in a good word for God. It is God and not the Bible who is the central fact for the Christian. When we speak of “the Word of God” we use a phrase which, properly used, may apply to the Bible, but it has a deeper primary meaning. It is God who speaks to man. But he does not do so only through the Bible. He speaks through prophets and apostles. He speaks through specific events. And while his unique message to the Church finds its central record and written expression in the Bible, this very reference to the Bible reminds us that Christ is the Word of God in a living, personal way which surpasses what we have even in this unique book. Even the Bible proves to be the Word of God only when the Holy Spirit working within us attests the truth and divine authority of what the Scripture says. Faith must not give to the aids that God provides the reverence and attention that Belong only to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our hope is in God; our life is in Christ; our power is in the Spirit. The Bible speaks to us of the divine center of all life and help and power, but it is not the center. The Christian teaching about the canon must not deify the Scripture.37
We echo his sentiments and commend them to all readers of the Bible.
1. David W. Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today's Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1989).
2. George Horowitz, The Spirit of Jewish Law: A Brief Account of Biblical and Rabbinical Jurisprudence with a Special Note on Jewish Law and the State of Israel (New York: Central Book Co., 1963), 641; Ze'ev W. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (Provo: Brigham Young University and Eisenbrauns, 2001), 59-60.
3. Papias, Fragments 5, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:154.
4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:36:1-2, and Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 6:14.
5. Clementine Recognitions 4:36, in Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:142-43.
6. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1890), 49.
7. Gerhard Kittel Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 4:803.
8. Ibid., 4:804.
9. Ibid., 4:805.
10. Ibid., 4:806.
11. Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 495-98.
12. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.12, in Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:313.
13. Stromata 1.1, in ibid., 2:302.
14. William J. Hamblin, "Aspects of an Early Christian Initiation Ritual," in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990), 1:202-21.
15. Ibid., 210-11.
16. Ibid., 8:336.
17. These are treated in the FARMS books on ancient temples being edited by Donald W. Parry, the first of which, Temples of the Ancient World, was published in 1994.
18. Again, the use of the term "representatives" incorrectly implies an official doctrine of the Church.
19. Again, the implication that the Church has an official policy on what books should be in the Bible.
20. John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, "'Joseph Smith's Use of the Apocrypha': Shadow or Reality?" in Daniel C. Peterson, ed., FARMS Review of Books 8/1 (1996): 333.
21. Kurt Aland, et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, second edition (London: United Bible Societies, 1968), 918-20.
22. Robert Henry Charles, The Book of Enoch (London: Oxford University Press, 1913), xcv.
23. Ibid., ix, n. 1.
24. Ibid., xcv-cii. Most Bible scholars do not make the figure as high as the one Charles gave us.
25. Robert Henry Charles, The Revelation of St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), 1.lxv.
26. Consider the following comment from Carolyn Osiek, "The Shepherd of Hermas: An Early Tale that Almost Made it into the New Testament," Bible Review 10/5 (October 1994): 49: "The Shepherd of Hermas was one of the most popular Christian texts in the first centuries of the church. True, it did not make it into the final cut; that is, it was not included in the New Testament. But it was considered canonical by the influential second century church father Irenaeus. Tertullian, another prominent church father of the next generation considered it scripture until his own theology changed and he disagreed with it. The third-century theologian and compiler of the Hexapla, Origen, highly revered it, as did many other Christian leaders."
27. The list appears in both his Homilies (Commentary) on the Gospel of Matthew and his Homilies (Commentary) on the Gospel of John, as noted by Eusebius.
28. Thomas A. Hoffman, "Inspiration, Normativeness, Canonicity, and the Unique Sacred Character of the Bible," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44/3 (1982): 462-63.
29. William Jardine, Shepherd of Hermas: The Gentle Apocalypse (Redwood City, CA: Proteus Publishing, 1992), 15.
30. All citations are found in Holman's Edition of Luther's Works, Vol. VI, "Preface," translations by Dr. C. M. Jacobs, and this in turn by by William Harrison Bruce Carney, "Luther and the Bible, Its Origin and Content," chapter 2 in O. M. Norlie, ed., The Translated Bible 1534-1934, Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Translation of the Bible by Martin Luther (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1934). See also Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957) 34. Luther's statement regarding the relative value of the New Testament books (calling James "straw") appeared in the first (September 1522) and second (December 1522) editions, the third edition (1524) and the small octavo edition of 1530. In his Vorrhede to the epistles of James and Jude, Luther gave a further evaluation. In his Vorrhede to Hebrews, he again compared Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelations with the books that preceded them.
31. One might wish that Wilson would provide us with some ancient authority for his assertions about these criteria, rather than the modern source he cites.
32. We have a parallel case with the Koran, with variant forms of the different surat being known already in the first generation, resulting in the necessity to select which would be considered authoritative and destroying the rest.
33. Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:765.
34. Paul made a number of statements indicating that apostasy was already a problem in his day. To the Galatians he wrote, "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:6-7). To Timothy, he lamented, "This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me" (2 Timothy 1:15). This seems to have fulfilled the prophetic warning he issued to the elders of Ephesus: "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30).
35. Perhaps we should ask Mr. Wilson if people such as Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker were "faithful men . . . able to teach others also." If so, how did they fall? Could the same thing have happened to Christians of Paul's day?
36. The long recension reads as follows: "For I have heard some saying, If I do not find the Gospel in the archives, I will not believe it. To such persons I say that my archives are Jesus Christ, to disobey whom is manifest destruction. My authentic archives are His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which bears on these things, by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified. He who disbelieves the Gospel disbelieves everything along with it. For the archives ought not to be preferred to the Spirit."
37. Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible, 20-21.