Sola Scriptura: 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:12-14

Sola Scriptura

We have here been considering the primacy of the Apostolic Tradition as a source of religious authority for early Christians. The Apostolic Tradition has three fundamental components:

    1. The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel
    2. The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—along with his example (of what he said and did), preserved and transmitted by the apostles to the early congregations
    3. The authoritative teaching by the apostles

The first two components were discussed in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior); it now remains to example that last of these three.

3. Authoritative Teaching by the Apostles

We may begin by returning to our previous examination of Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, which is based on three different authoritative sources:

    • Verses 10-11: Paul cites a Jesus tradition (saying/teaching by Jesus) as a command— “not I, but the Lord”
    • Verses 12-14ff: He gives a similar directive, for which no Jesus tradition was available, based on his own inspired apostolic authority— “I, not the Lord”
    • Verses 25ff: He has neither a command from Jesus, nor an inspired directive of his own; rather, Paul offers an authoritative opinion (gnw/mh), as advice, or by way of a recommendation, for believers.

The last two sources fit under the same heading for this article, representing two kinds of authoritative apostolic teaching. The New Testament Epistles are replete with examples of apostolic teaching, which may be divided into three general categories:

    • Theological and doctrinal teaching
    • Ethical instruction, and
    • Guidance on congregational activity and organization

Rather than selecting from the hundreds of passages that deal with these areas, it is perhaps more useful here to consider the place of the Apostolic Tradition as a whole, embracing all three of the components outlined above. The principal noun referring to this Tradition is para/dosi$, from the verb paradi/dwmi (“give along, give over”); it thus signifies something that is “given along”, or ‘handed down,’ from one person to another, and from one generation to the next. Our word “tradition” is cognate to the Latin traditio, which has a comparable meaning to para/dosi$.

Para/dosi$ occurs 13 times in the New Testament; however, eight of these are part of a single Synoptic episode (Mk 17:3, 5, 8-9, 13; Matt 15:2-3, 6). The other five occurrences are in Paul’s letters, thus making the word something of a Pauline term.

The earliest of these, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, is significant, in light of our previous study on 1 Cor 7:10ff (cf. above). If we combine the evidence from both Thessalonian letters, it is possible to compare Paul’s eschatological teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 with that of 2 Thess 1:5-2:15. The teaching in 1 Thessalonians is rooted in “an account by the Lord” (or, “a word of the Lord,” lo/go$ kuri/ou), which could refer to a variety of eschatological sayings/teachings by Jesus, such as those contained in the “Eschatological Discourse”. The wording in 5:2-4ff almost certainly is based on sayings by Jesus as well.

By contrast, 2 Thessalonians 1-2 represents more distinctly Pauline teaching—that is, stemming from Paul’s own, inspired status as an apostle. He attempts to explain and expound the early Christian eschatological framework, such as is found in the “Eschatological Discourse”. Paul concludes his eschatological instruction with these words in 2:15:

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold firmly to the (thing)s given along [parado/si$ plur], which you were taught, whether through an account (of speech) or through our (letter) sent to you.”

Paul includes his current eschatological instruction as part of the various authoritative apostolic teachings he (and other apostles like him) have ‘given along’ to the Thessalonians. The mention of an e)pistolh/ (epistle) simply means that the apostolic authority was the same, whether it was spoken (when the apostle was personally present), or conveyed through writing (when he was absent). It does, however, also anticipate the preservation of letters like 2 Thessalonians, and their eventual inclusion among the New Testament Scriptures.

The same noun (para/dosi$) occurs in 3:6, in connection with Paul’s ethical instruction. The faithful and upright conduct, to which he exhorts the Thessalonians, is contrasted (as a warning) with the conduct of “…every brother walking about (in a) disorderly (manner) and not according to the (thing) given along [para/dosi$] which you received alongside [vb paralamba/nw] from us”. The verbs paradi/dwmi (“give along”) and paralamba/nw (“receive along, take long”) are similar in meaning, describing the same dynamic from two different vantage point—i.e., the giving of the tradition (by an apostle), and the receiving of it (by the congregation). For examples of paradi/dwmi in this context, cf. Luke 1:2; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; 2 Peter 2:21; Jude 3. For other instances of paralamba/nw, cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal 1:9, 12; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1.

Another verb, which can be used, even more forcefully, for the giving (and preservation) of the Apostolic Tradition, is parati/qhmi, “set/place alongside”. This verb can be used in reference to the act of teaching (e.g., Acts 17:3), but it is not used this way in the NT Epistles. Rather, it specifically means “place (something) along into one’s care,” i.e., entrust it to someone (cf. Lk 12:48). It can refer to entrusting a person into another’s care (Acts 14:23; 20:32); however, in the Epistles, it is the Apostolic Tradition, we may say, that is entrusted. This is the specific context in the Pauline Pastorals, in which the apostle (Paul) “places along” the authoritative tradition(s) to ministers such as Timothy (2 Tim 2:2; cf. also 1 Tim 1:18), who will then transmit them to the believers (and congregations) under his charge.

The related noun paraqh/kh, derived from parati/qhmi, when used in this context, is more or less synonymous with para/dosi$, but entailing also the added meaning associated with the verb parati/qhmi described above. The Apostolic Tradition that is “given along” (para/dosi$) is also “placed along” (paraqh/kh) into the care of ministers like Timothy, to be preserved and guarded carefully. This latter noun occurs just three times in the New Testament, and all in the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy). The main passage, in which the noun occurs twice, is 2 Timothy 1:12-14:

“…I suffer these (thing)s, but I am not ashamed, for I have seen the (One) in whom I have trusted, and I have been persuaded that He is able to guard the (thing) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] me unto [i.e. until] that day. You must hold (firm to the) under(lying) pattern of words being [i.e. that are] healthy, which you heard alongside [para/] me, in (the) trust and love th(at is) in (the) Anointed Yeshua; the beautiful (thing) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] you must guard, through (the) Holy Spirit th(at is) dwelling in us.”

Note the chain of transmission, presented as a chiastic outline:

    • God guards [vb fula/ssw] the Tradition
      • this Tradition was placed alongside [paraqh/kh] Paul
        • Timothy heard it alongside [para/] Paul
      • the Tradition was placed alongside [paraqh/kh] Timothy
    • Through God’s Spirit, Timothy is to guard [vb fula/ssw] the Tradition

Timothy is similarly commanded to “guard” the Tradition (paraqh/kh) at the conclusion of 1 Timothy (6:20). It is worth mentioning that most critical commentators regard the Pastoral Letters as pseudonymous ‘Deutero-Pauline’ works. As such, they likely would have been written toward the end of the first-century (c. 90-100), rather than the early 60’s. The specific emphasis on guarding the Apostolic Tradition (from false believers and ‘heretics,’ etc) does seem to reflect a later development, but it is possible that Paul could already be using such language c. 63-64 A.D. I tend to regard 2 Timothy (on objective grounds) as a genuine work by Paul, but find the arguments for pseudonymity reasonably strong in the case of 1 Timothy.

Similar critical considerations go into judging the date (and thus the context) of 2 Peter and Jude—two letters which share with 1-2 Timothy a concern for guarding the Apostolic Tradition against false believers. Note, for example, the wording of 2 Peter 2:21 in the overall context of the eschatological-ethical warnings in chaps. 2-3. Jude is even more pointed in this regard, with the warnings and exhortation framed by the grand statement in verse 3:

“Loved (one)s, (in) making all haste to write to you about our common salvation, I held (myself with) constraint to write to you, calling you along to struggle over the trust once (and for all) having been given along [vb paradi/dwmi] to the holy (one)s.”

By this rhetorical syntax, the author prepares his audience for the forceful warnings that follow. He “held (himself) with constraint” in writing, because he knew that it was necessary to give the tough message warning his readers against the dangers posed by false believers within the congregations. This statement, in my view, truly does represent a relatively late development, as can be seen by the way that the noun pi/sti$ refers, not simply to trust in Jesus, but to the authoritative (apostolic) Tradition as a whole.

In conclusion here, it is also worth mentioning the reference to the letters of Paul in 2 Pet 3:15-16, usually taken by commentators as a sign for a late dating of 2 Peter (and for its pseudonymity). Whether or not this critical opinion is valid (and it may be debated), there can be little doubt that the process of collecting and preserving the New Testament Letters was already underway by the end of the first-century. This very process implies a recognition of the authoritative character of these letters, insofar as they reflect (and preserve) the Apostolic Tradition. It is possible the apostolic missionaries and leaders themselves sought to preserve some written record of their teaching. To be sure, the letters written by the apostles would have been considered just as authoritative as their spoken words when personally present (e.g., 2 Cor 10:11; 2 Thess 3:14, and cf. the discussion above). Indeed, Paul urges the Thessalonians to have his letter read (out loud) to a wide audience (1 Thess 5:27). See also the way the author of the book of Revelation refers to his work (22:6-9, 18-19, etc).

By the end of the first-century, the writings of the apostles—some of them, at any rate—were effectively being treated as authoritative Scripture, on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures, even as the Apostolic Tradition, on the whole, superseded those very Scriptures. Around the same time (c. 90 A.D.), all four of our Gospels had been written, preserving, in a similar way, a different aspect of the Tradition. The process of producing a corpus of New Testament Scriptures was well under way.

Sola Scriptura: 1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25, etc

Sola Scriptura

A fundamental conclusion from our studies thus far is that the Scriptures (of the Old Testament), while continuing to be authoritative for early Christians, possessed a secondary, or supplemental, authority. The primary source of religious authority was located in what may be labeled broadly as the Apostolic Tradition. In the mind of first-century Christians, the Scriptures support and confirm the Apostolic Tradition. In turn, the Apostolic Tradition formed the basis of the New Testament Scriptures. There are three main components to this Tradition:

    • The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel, and the seminal Gospel narrative that developed from it.
    • The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—transmitted from the apostolic witness of what Jesus said and did.
    • The inspired teaching and instruction by the apostles (as representatives of Jesus).

The first of these was discussed in the previous study; here we will be examining the second—the words of Jesus.

2. The Words of Jesus

The apostolic witness (of what Jesus said and did) was at first (c. 35-50 A.D.) transmitted orally; gradually, the sayings and teachings of Jesus were preserved in written form—a process that likely took place during the years c. 45-60. There are three main lines of tradition in this regard:

    • The Synoptic Tradition, as represented principally by the Gospel of Mark
    • The so-called “Q” (for German Quelle [“source”]) material, and
    • The Johannine Tradition (represented by the Gospel of John)

These are altogether separate lines of tradition, with very little overlap, except insofar as each draws on some of the same historical traditions. For the most part, the Synoptic Tradition and the “Q” Tradition, drew upon separate sets of sayings and parables of Jesus; only occasionally do we find Synoptic and “Q” versions of the same historical tradition. Many scholars assume that “Q” existed as a single written document—that is, as an early written Gospel containing sayings and parables (with little in terms of narrative episodes), arranged and joined together based on common themes and shared words/phrases (“catchword-bonding”). I am not so convinced of the existence of a single, distinct Q-document; however, a parallel to such a theorized document can be found in the Coptic/Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”.

The Gospels themselves clearly demonstrate the primacy of Jesus’ words and teachings as a source of authority for early Christians. This is further confirmed by the witness of the other New Testament Writings, though actual quotations or citations of sayings by Jesus are much rarer than one might expect. This can explained according to a number of factors.

In the book of Acts, for example, the focus is almost entirely on the early Gospel preaching (cf. the previous study), and on the confirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. The seminal proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel was centered, almost exclusively, on the death, resurrection and exaltation (to heaven) of Jesus; and, the concern of demonstrating Jesus’ Messianic identity prompted the early preachers and missionaries to focus on the Old Testament Scriptures to support this message. The communication of Jesus’ sayings and parables, etc, would have been reserved for the early instruction (by the apostolic missionaries) in the newly-founded congregations. The preaching in Acts is generally located prior to such instruction, and the teaching in the Letters is subsequent to it.

1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25ff

Paul’s teaching on marriage (and sexual relations) in 1 Corinthians 7 is instructive in terms of the early Christian understanding on the sources of religious authority. Three distinct sources of authority are involved: (1) a command based on Jesus’ words (vv. 10-11), (2) an inspired apostolic directive (vv. 12-14), and (3) an authoritative opinion by an apostle (giving his advice/recommendation, vv. 25ff). Let us consider the first of these:

“And to the (one)s having been married, I give along (this) message—not I, but the Lord—(that) a woman is not to make space (away) [i.e. separate] from her husband” (v. 10)

The verb paragge/llw simply means “give along a message,” but it is often used in the context of transmitting a directive or command, and that is certainly the sense here: the directive is that a woman is not to separate from her husband (and vice versa). Paul claims here that this directive comes from Jesus (“the Lord”) himself, indicating that Paul was aware of the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce (Mark 10:11-12 par; Matt 19:9). Jesus’ teaching is thus the basis for the instruction that Paul gives here, but it is limited to the specific issue in vv. 10-11; for, in the very next verse (12), we read:

“And to the rest (of you) I say—not the Lord—if any brother has a wife…”

In other words, the instruction Paul gives in vv. 12-14 is not based on a transmitted teaching of Jesus, but comes, we may infer, from Paul’s authoritative (and inspired) teaching as an apostle. The implication is that, if a teaching by Jesus is known which directly addresses the issue, then that teaching/saying is given priority. Since no relevant saying was known for the issue in vv. 12-14, Paul had to rely on his own authority as an apostle. This is comparable to a judge or lawyer who cites earlier precedents, when they are on point, as a source of legal authority in making decisions.

Paul speaks even more cautiously regarding the issue in vv. 25ff:

“Now (on the issue) about the virgins, I do not have an order by (the) Lord on (it), but I give (you) a gnw/mh, as (one) having received mercy under (the) Lord, to be (taken as) trustworthy.”

Here he has neither a command from the Lord, nor does he give an apostolic directive, but offers what he calls a trustworthy (pisto/$) gnwmh/. The noun gnwmh/ essentially means “something made known,” usually in the sense of an opinion or advice, etc. Paul’s advice, in this instance, is that believers who are not currently married (or engaged to be married) ought to remain single; yet he is careful not to present this as a directive that needs to be obeyed.

Paul’s tendency to give priority, whenever possible, to sayings/teachings by Jesus, we can assume was commonplace among apostolic missionaries and church leaders. The relative lack of quotations or direct allusions in the New Testament Letters may simply reflect the fact that, for the majority of issues and concerns addressed by the writer, there was no saying or teaching of Jesus, known to the writer, that was on-point.

A notable occurrence of a Jesus tradition cited by Paul is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (cf. also 5:1-7), clearly drawing upon eschatological teaching by Jesus, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus). Other clear allusions to teachings by Jesus are in Rom 12:14-21; 13:8-10 (cf. Gal 5:14); 14:14; 1 Cor 9:14. Many other loose allusions and general parallels (to Jesus’ teaching) can be cited, which demonstrates that, by the 50s A.D. (when Paul was writing), many Christians had assimilated the authoritative teaching of Jesus to the point that it pervaded their own thought and mode of instruction. As a vivid demonstration this, cf. on the letter of James, below.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

A distinctive citation of a Jesus tradition by Paul is found at the heart of his instruction regarding the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In this instruction, Paul addresses problems he sees (and which were reported to him) in how certain believers at Corinth were conducting themselves in relation to the Supper. In particular, their behavior was disrupting the unity of the congregation that should be made manifest through participation in the Supper (vv. 18-22, 33-34). Paul warns that treating the Supper in an unworthy manner was dangerous, and could lead to divine punishment (vv. 27-32).

At the center of this instruction, as a way to exhort his audience to work toward the ideal of unity in their handling of the Supper, Paul cites a Jesus tradition that conforms closely to what we find preserved in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22-24 par). Paul introduces it this way:

“For I received along from the Lord, that which I also gave along to you…” (v. 23)

The chain of tradition is indicated by the use of the parallel verbs paralamba/nw (“take/receive along”) and paradi/dwmi (“give along”). Paul says that he received this tradition “from the Lord”; this should be understood as something that ultimately comes from Jesus (his words), as preserved through the apostolic witness, rather than being the result of a direct revelation to Paul from the risen Christ (cp. 2 Cor 12:9).

For a comparison of 1 Cor 11:24-26 with the Synoptic version, cf. my earlier article in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The Letter of James

The Letter of James provides a good example of how first-century Christians assimilated the sayings and teachings of Jesus, and how these teachings came to take the place of the Old Testament Scriptures as a primary source of authority for religious and ethical instruction. There are many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel.

This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source; cf. above). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the written Torah. There is no indication that the author knew any of the Synoptic Gospels; and, indeed, he may have been writing prior to the publication of the Gospels. Whether or not he was drawing upon some kind of written source, or was simply relying upon oral tradition, is difficult to say.

The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus.

Sola Scriptura: Romans 16:25; Hebrews 1:1-2

Sola Scriptura

In our studies thus far, we have seen how the Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) continued to be authoritative for early Christians, but only in a secondary (and supplemental) sense. The primary source of authority was what we may broadly call the Apostolic Tradition. This may seem to contradict the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura; however, to make such an unqualified conclusion would be quite misleading. In point of fact, the Apostolic Tradition was the basis for the development of the inspired writings of the New Testament—and the greater revelation that was contained in those writings, ultimately to be regarded as sacred Scripture by every Christian.

With the passing of the first generation (or two) of apostles, by the end of the 1st century (and into the 2nd), the authoritative Apostolic Tradition had come to be preserved in written form (i.e., the New Testament Scriptures), gradually taking the place of the communication of that Tradition in the person of the apostles themselves (and their representatives). It seems clear, for example, that the publication of the Gospel of John was stimulated by the death of the ‘Beloved Disciple’, the leading apostolic figure of the Johannine Community (Jn 21:20-24). The authority of the apostles was based on their personal connection to Jesus himself.

The very word a)po/stolo$ (apostolos) derives its significance from the fundamental meaning of the verb a)poste/llw (“set [out] from, send forth”). An apostle is someone “sent forth from” Jesus, as his representative, an idea rooted in the early Gospel tradition and the ministry-work of Jesus in Galilee (Mark 3:14-15ff par; 6:7-13 par; Luke 10:1ff). Commissioned and sent out by Jesus, they were given (and possessed) his own divine (and inspired) authority, to preach (the Gospel) and work healing miracles. This formed the pattern for the broader apostolic mission of early Christians (Acts 1:8, 21-22, etc). The earliest congregations were founded by missionary work that was an extension of this apostolic mission, and thus the principal source of religious authority for these 1st-century congregations was the authority of the Apostolic Tradition.

The Apostolic Tradition has three fundamental components:

    1. The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel
    2. The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—along with his example (of what he said and did), preserved and transmitted by the apostles to the early congregations (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4)
    3. The authoritative teaching by the apostles

A study will be devoted to each of these components; we begin with the first of these.

1. The Proclamation (Kerygma) of the Gospel

The “good message” (or “good news”), the eu)agge/lion, or Gospel, has its origins in the preaching of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15 par, et al), being carried on, even during his lifetime, by his disciples, acting as his representatives (i.e., as apostles) (Luke 9:6, etc). However, following the resurrection (and ascension) of Jesus, the “good message” gradually came to take on a distinctive form—as a thumbnail narrative of Jesus’ life and work. The sermon-speeches in Acts preserve examples of this early Gospel proclamation (kerygma). In these speeches, the Gospel narrative is extremely simple, focusing on the death and resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus, and only slowly incorporating certain details or aspects of his earthly ministry. Noteworthy examples, representative of the earliest preaching, are: Acts 2:22-24, 29ff, 36; 3:13-15; 4:27ff; 5:30-32; 10:37-42; 13:26-32. It is easy to see how these simple narrative statements, over time (c. 35-60 A.D.), would develop into the larger narratives of the Gospels.

It must be emphasized that, from the very beginning, this Gospel proclamation held primary authority for early Christians, taking precedence over the Old Testament Scriptures. This can be seen already in the way that the Scriptures supplement (and support) the kerygma in the sermon-speeches (on this, cf. the earlier study, and throughout the series “The Speeches of Acts”). The revelation of the inspired Old Testament Scriptures (i.e., of the old covenant) are thus subordinate to the Gospel; they continue to hold authority for Christians, primarily, insofar as they point the way to the greater revelation of Christ (in the new covenant).

There are a number of New Testament passages, many of which were written when the composition and development of Gospels was still in its very early stages, which indicate that the proclamation of the Gospel (with its seminal narrative) was being compared with the Scriptures—being on a par with them, and even altogether surpassing them in many important ways. I wish to examine a couple of these passages briefly.

Romans 16:25-26

“And to Him having the power to set you firm(ly), according to my good message [eu)agge/lion] and the proclamation [kh/rugma] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, according to the uncovering of (the) secret [musth/rion] having been kept silent in (the) times (of) ages (past), but now (hav)ing been made to shine (forth) even through (the) writings of (the) Foretellers, according to (the) arrangement of (the) God of the Ages, unto hearing under trust, unto all the nations, having been made known…”

The authenticity of the doxology in Rom 16:25-27 continues to be debated, with many commentators convinced that it was neither originally part of Romans, nor written by Paul. Even if this were granted, the wording reflects genuine Pauline thought (and style), as well as the thought-world of Christians in the mid-to-late 1st century. Three key nouns are used which are largely synonymous in context: (1) eu)agge/lion (“good message,” i.e., Gospel), (2) kh/rugma (“proclamation,” transliterated as a technical term, kerygma), and (3) musth/rion (“secret,” i.e., mystery). All three are important early Christian terms, and they all refer to the seminal message (and narrative) of the Gospel. The expressions and phrases that contain these words are also closely related:

    • “my good message” —i.e., the good news of Christ that is preached by apostles like Paul
    • “the proclamation of Yeshua (the) Anointed” —the genitive can be understood in either a subjective sense (Jesus’ preaching) or objective sense (preaching about Jesus), or both.
    • “the uncovering of the secret kept silent…” —the noun a)poka/luyi$ (“removal of the cover from, uncovering”) emphasizes that the Gospel is a divine (and inspired) revelation, akin to the prophetic revelations (by God) during the time of the old covenant (cf. below).

The use of the term musth/rion (“secret”) in this respect is authentically Pauline (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; cf. also 2 Thess 2:7), though it is perhaps more prominent in the disputed letters of Colossians (1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3) and Ephesians (1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; 6:19). For more on the meaning, background, and use of the term, see my earlier word study. Indeed, of the three terms, musth/rion has the greatest theological significance. Here, it relates to a distinction between the two ages or dispensations—the old and new covenants, respectively—that is fundamental to early Christian thought:

    • Old Covenant (periods of time/ages past): the Gospel-secret has been “kept silent/hidden” (verb siga/w)
    • New Covenant (“now”): it has been “made to shine forth” (vb fanero/w), i.e., has been made manifest, revealed, and has at last “been made known” (vb gnwri/zw).

The Gospel proclamation is expounded out of the Old Testament Scriptures (“writings of the Prophets”), which is fully in accord with the earliest Christian preaching and teaching, even going back to the teaching of Jesus himself. The Scriptures (especially the Psalms and the books of the Prophets) contained, in a secret and hidden way, the seeds of the Gospel (e.g., Gal 3:8); but it required the new inspired revelation of the apostles in order to “uncover” and make known this secret. On this basis alone, the Gospel represents a superior kind of revelation, however it is rooted in the Scriptures and supported by them. Indeed, without the New Covenant revelation, people remain blind to the true meaning of the Scriptures (2 Cor 3:14-16, etc).

Hebrews 1:1-2

“(In) many parts and many ways (in times) of old, God (was) speaking to the Fathers by the Foretellers, (but) upon (the) end of these days He spoke to us by a Son, whom He set (as one) to receive the lot of all (thing)s, through whom also He made the Ages…”

The same dispensational contrast—between the old and new covenants—serves as a key theme that runs throughout Hebrews, and it is established at the very beginning of the introduction (exordium, 1:1-4). It marks the current time—i.e., of the first generation(s) of believers—as a turning point, marking the beginning of a New Age (= new covenant), and presenting  a clear dividing line between the time now and all that has gone before:

    • Old Covenant: “(in times) of old [pa/lai]” —God spoke through the Prophets
    • New Covenant: “at the end [e)p’ e)sxa/tou] of these days,” that is, in the eschatological present time—God has spoken through His Son

There is a clear contrastive parallel here between the Prophets and Jesus (the Son of God), as the source of divine-inspired revelation (communicating the word of God) in each dispensation (and covenant), respectively. The superiority of the revelation in the person of Jesus is obvious, and the author develops the point systematically throughout his work. Here, this superiority is expressed by contrasting the singular revelation in Jesus with the multifaceted way that God spoke through the many different Prophets. For Jews and Christians in the first-century, of course, the revelation through the Prophets (in the old covenant) was known only through its preservation in the Scriptures (the Prophetic writings, including the Psalms). The Torah (Pentateuch) doubtless would also be included, but emphasis is given on the Prophetic oracles as the vehicle for God’s revelation.

The comparison between Jesus and the Prophets, as well as the idea of God speaking (vb lale/w), might suggest that it is the words of Jesus that are primarily in view here. The preserved words and teachings of Jesus are certainly a key component of the authoritative Apostolic Tradition (cf. above), and will be discussed in the next study; however, I believe that a much more comprehensive and holistic view of the Tradition is being expressed here. This can be affirmed by what follows in vv. 2-4, beginning with the statement that God “set” (vb ti/qhmi) Jesus (His Son) to be the “heir of all things”. This phrase reflects the fundamental Gospel tenet of the exaltation of Jesus (to the right hand of God in heaven) following his resurrection (Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56 [cf. Mk 14:62 par]; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1, etc). The earliest Christology was unquestionably an exaltation-Christology, focusing almost entirely on Jesus’ deity, and identity as the Son of God, in terms of his resurrection (and exaltation) by God the Father. However, by the time Hebrews was written (c. 70 A.D.?), early Christians had begun to evince a pre-existence-Christology as well, and Hebrews combines both of these Christologies (e.g., the ‘Christ-hymn’ in vv. 2-4, on which cf. my earlier study; cp. also the study on Philippians 2:6-11.

In any case, the point is that the declaration in v. 2b is a key component of the Gospel kerygma; thus, the contrast between the Prophets and Jesus can also be understood as a contrast between the Prophets and the Gospel. And, from the standpoint of our study, it is important to note that the written record of the Gospel (taking shape during the years c. 35-90 A.D.) forms a close parallel to the written record of the Prophets (in the Old Testament Scriptures).

Statements such as those in Rom 16:25-26 and Heb 1:2 thus are seminal (and foundational) for establishing the authority of the New Testament Scriptures. And, the authority of these new Scriptures (of the new covenant), while being on a par with the old Scriptures—in terms of their divine/prophetic inspiration and revelatory content—far surpasses that of the old. This is a vital principle that must be maintained—for believers, the new covenant in Christ (manifest through the presence of the Spirit) has entirely eclipsed the authority of the old covenant (cf. 2 Corinthians 3).

Supplementary Notes on Baptism

As a supplement to the recently concluded series of daily notes on Baptism (and the bapt- word-group), I thought it worth discussing the mode and form of early Christian baptism. The New Testament writings give no precise directions as to how the ritual was (to be) performed; however, they do contain certain clues which may allow us to reconstruct, at least partially, the ritual as practiced by Christians in the second half of the 1st century A.D.

The Gospels and Acts

To begin with, the dunkings performed by John the Baptist were performed in the Jordan river (and similar water sources, Mark 1:5, 9 par; Jn 3:23). Presumably these would have taken place with the person standing (or kneeling) in the river, along with John, who would have literally “dunked” (vb. bapti/zw) the person down into the water, or, perhaps, taken up water to pour over the person’s head. In the Synoptic account of Jesus’ baptism, it is stated that he “stepped up” (vb a)nabai/nw) out of the water (Mk 1:10 par), clearly indicating that he had previously “stepped down” into the water (i.e. into the river). According to the notice in Mk 1:5 par, those who were dunked gave an account of (i.e. confessed) their sins; presumably, there would have been a corresponding announcement (by John) of the “release” (a&fesi$, i.e. cleansing, forgiveness) of the person’s sin. Assuming the historical accuracy and reliability of all this, these details, taken together, would form the kernal of a ritual (and rudimentary liturgy).

According to the (historical) tradition in John 3:22; 4:1-2, Jesus and his disciples performed similar dunkings, and, almost certainly, the earliest Christian baptisms, as referenced and narrated in the book of Acts, followed the Johannine (i.e. the Baptist’s) pattern. This means that those who were baptized would have been taken to the Jordan (or a similar water-source) and immersed (fully or partially) in the water, with a confession of sin, etc. The main difference was that these early Christian baptisms were performed “in the name of Jesus”, meaning that they involved a confession of trust/faith in Jesus (cf. 22:16), with the corresponding affirmation that this signified that the person now belonged to Jesus (as his follower). This early baptism is perhaps best illustrated in the episode of Philip and the Ethiopian official (8:26-40), which culminates in the official being baptized:

“And as they traveled down the way, they came upon some water, and the eu)nou=xo$ [i.e. the official] said, ‘See, water! What (would) cut me off (from) being dunked [baptisqh=nai]?’ And he urged the vehicle to stand (still), and they both stepped down into the water, Philip and the eu)nou=xo$, and he dunked [e)ba/ptisen] him. And when they stepped up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord…” (vv. 36, 38-39a)

Verse 37 is almost certainly not part of the original text, but reveals the early Christian concern that baptism be tied to a clear profession of faith by the one being dunked:

“And Philip said, ‘If you trust out of your whole heart you are able (to be dunked)’. And giving forth an answer, he said, ‘I trust (that) Yeshua (the) Anointed is the Son of God’.”

It is possible that this addition reflects early baptismal practice (i.e. in the late-first or early-second century). Two other elements were closely connected with baptism in the book of Acts: (1) the laying on of hands (by an apostle or other designated minister), and (2) that the Holy Spirit would come upon the person. In all likelihood each of these were incorporated into the early ritual.

The Pauline Letters

In discussing the passages relating to baptism in Paul’s letters (Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; 2 Cor 1:22, etc), we explored the possibility that he was drawing upon baptismal traditions of the time—that is, how baptism was practiced c. 50-60 A.D. Given the highly formulaic language, and the basic character of the symbolism, this indeed seems likely. It would mean, then, that Paul’s references give us some idea of the mode and form of the ritual itself. I would note the following points:

    • The symbolism of the believer participating in the death (and burial) of Jesus suggests that a literal dunking (i.e. full or partial immersion) was still being employed
    • The language of putting off an ‘old’ garment, and putting on the ‘new’ (i.e. Christ and/or the Spirit as a garment) suggests that ceremonial clothing was involved in the ritual. This would be in accord with similar initiation rites performed in contemporary ‘mystery cults’, etc. The symbolism is so basic, and natural to the ritual action itself, that it is hard to imagine that Christians would not have applied it to baptism at a very early stage.
    • References to anointing in a baptismal context. This could simply be an extension of references to Jesus as the Anointed One (vb xri/w, noun xristo/$), and to the coming of the Spirit as an anointing (Luke 3:22 par; 4:1ff, 14, 18ff). However, it would be natural enough, and quite expected, if this aspect were symbolized in the ritual through an actual anointing (xri=sma) with oil. We know that Christians in the first century did made ceremonial use of oil for anointing (James 5:14).
    • In all likelihood, ceremonial anointing (if indeed it took place) following baptism was meant to symbolize the presence of the Spirit, which Paul elsewhere refers to with the (parallel) image of sealing (2 Cor 1:22; also Eph 1:13; 4:30). Such language may have been part of the baptismal ritual as early as Paul’s time (cf. below).
    • The wording in 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Col 2:12, etc, may well reflect early baptismal formulae, such as would have occurred in performance the ritual, part of a basic liturgy. In addition to a confession of trust in Jesus by the person being baptized, there likely would have been a declaration (by the officiating minister[s]) prior to entering the water, and subsequently after the person emerged from the water. However, we can only speculate as to the details.
The Remainder of the New Testament

The only other direct reference to baptism is 1 Peter 3:21 (cf. the previous note). Most of what can be ascertained from the Pauline references (above) likely applies here as well. The use of the noun e)perw/thma could reflect a formal question/answer process as part of the baptism ritual, though this is far from certain. Baptism is presumably referred to in Hebrews 10:22, and also 6:2 (plural baptismoi/, dunkings/washings), but with little indication regarding the ritual itself; however, 6:1 could possibly reflect the sort of (formal) instruction which would precede baptism.

The noun xri=sma (“anointing”) in 1 John 2:20, 27 probably alludes to the baptismal symbolism of the believer’s union with Jesus through the presence of the Spirit—following the core early Christian tradition of the coming of the Spirit as an “anointing”. Similarly, there may be baptismal allusions in the motif of washing (i.e. washing of one’s robe) in the book of Revelation (7:14; 22:14), as also of the white robes that believers wear (3:4-5, 18; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:14).

It may be possible to reconstruct the first-century baptism ritual, loosely, as follows:

    • The believer descends into the water (i.e. full/partial immersion)
    • This would involve a ceremonial removal of the ‘old’ garment
    • An officiating minister would make declaration regarding the putting away of sin (the old nature), etc
    • The believer makes public profession of faith, probably as part of a simple question/answer liturgy
    • Upon stepping out of the water, there is the ceremonial donning of a ‘new’ garment
    • An officiating minister makes declaration regarding the new life in Christ, etc
    • A ceremonial laying on of hands, and(/or) anointing with oil
    • Symbolic act/announcement to the effect that the believer has been “sealed” with the Spirit, along with an exhortation to live/act in a holy manner (until Jesus’ return)
Other Early Christian Evidence

References to baptism outside of the New Testament, in writings from the late-first and early-second centuries, are not as common or as extensive as one might hope. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) makes two contributions to our knowledge of baptism in this period:

    • It is not proper to baptize without a presiding overseer (e)pi/skopo$) for the congregation (or region) being present (Smyrneans 8:2)
    • Ephesians 18:2 provides the earliest evidence for the mystical/symbolic belief that Jesus, in his own baptism, effectively sanctified the waters that are used (everywhere) when believers are baptized; this would become an important part of the baptism ritual in the Eastern (Syrian) churches.

The manual known as the Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles gives us the only real description of baptism prior to about 150 A.D. Generally dated to the first half of the 2nd century, but perhaps containing material and traditions from the late-1st century, the section dealing with baptism is in the short chapter 7; the instruction may be summarized as follows:

    • Baptism should be performed with the trinitarian formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matt 28:19); in spite of that same directive being uttered by Jesus in the Matthean passage, it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is there any indication that Christians prior to 70-80 A.D. (i.e. when the Gospel of Matthew was likely written) ever used such a trinitarian formula; Didache 7:1 is the oldest direct evidence for its use.
    • Baptism should be done in “living water”, that is, in the natural running water of a river or stream; this suggests a continuation of at least a partial immersion of the believer (and officiating minister) in the water.
    • The baptism involves the pouring of water over the head of the person, presumably while he/she stood (or kneeled) in the water
    • This pouring should be done three times (i.e. “trine baptism”), corresponding to the trinitarian formula
    • The believer should fast (one or two days) prior to baptism, presumably as a sign of repentance
    • In 9:5 it is further directed that no one should partake in the ritual meal (Lord’ Supper / Eucharist) unless they have first been baptized “in the Lord’s name”.

Other evidence from the mid-second century may be summarized:

    • 2 Clement 6:9 emphasizes the need for the believer to maintain the purity of his/her baptism; presumably this sort of exhortation would have been part of the early ritual itself
    • In this regard, baptism is specifically referred to as a seal (sfragi/$) in 2 Clement 7:6; 8:6 (cf. also Hermas Similitude 8.6.3; 9:16:3ff, etc), i.e. something which must not be broken. This language goes back at least to the time of Paul (cf. above), and would have related to the (ritual) symbolism of anointing.
    • Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (c. 150-155), discusses Christian baptism in chapter 61; his instruction generally matches that of Didache 7 (above), though with greater exposition of the theological and ethical signficance, giving special emphasis to the older aspects of repentance and cleansing (from sin) which were first associated with the dunking/washing ritual (cf. above). He also provides a brief notice in chap. 65 of baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) as it is to take place in the congregational setting.

By the late-2nd and early-3rd centuries, more extensive treatments on baptism were being produced, and which have come down to us—most notably Tertullian’s On Baptism, and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. These works demonstrate clearly how the older/earlier traditions were developed and given a more precise and authoritative form.

In terms of the visual representation of baptism, the earliest evidence comes from the 3rd and 4th century Roman “catacombs”. The representations generally support the description in Didache 7, of a partial immersion (i.e. standing in water), while an officiating minister pours water over the person’s head. Below are three examples (including a modern reconstruction):

Early depictions of the Baptism of Jesus followed a similar pattern, establishing an artistic template for the scene—both in Western and Eastern tradition—that would last for centuries:

Note on the Baptism of Children

Several of the images above suggest that children are being baptized. We know that by at least the late-2nd century, children were baptized regularly, though there appear to have been some misgivings about baptizing small children (cf. Tertullian On Baptism §18). The question regarding whether young children (and infants) should be baptized, or whether the ritual is best reserved for consenting adults (possibly including older children), has been the subject of longstanding debate and discussion. Many Protestants, in particular, argue strongly in favor of adult “believer’s baptism”, and against infant (or child) baptism. In spite of this, baptism of infants has been the common practice, throughout much of the Christian world, since the 5th century.

As far as the New Testament evidence is concerned, there is no indication that children (especially infants) were ever baptized. Since the original Johannine dunkings, and the corresponding early Christian baptisms that followed, were centered on a conscious profession of faith and repentance from sin, it is unlikely that they were ever performed on children (i.e., those younger than 12 years of age). The only possible evidence for the baptism of children are the notices of entire households being baptized (cf. Acts 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16), but it is far from certain that this would have included young children. Supporters of infant baptism today cite parallels with circumcision; to be sure, a parallel is made between circumcision and baptism in Col 2:11-12 (possibly also Rom 4:11), but only insofar as the image of removing the outer skin resembles that of “putting away” the ‘garment’ of the old nature. There is no suggestion of its application to children; moreover, Col 2:11-12 is the only such example of this parallel being drawn.

“Gnosis” in the NT: 1 Tim 6:20-21

1 Timothy 6:20-21

“O Precious-to-God {Timothy}, you must keep watch (over) th(at which is) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] (you), turning out of (the way) the free [be/bhlo$] (and) empty voices, and the (thing)s set against (it) from the falsely-named ‘knowledge’ [gnw=si$], which some (person)s, giving a message upon (themselves) about the (Christian) faith [pi/sti$], were without (true) aim.”

This is perhaps the only passage in the New Testament which can truly be called anti-gnostic—i.e., opposed to gnostic teaching. Whether the author of 1 Timothy (whether Paul or pseudonymous) is addressing an early form of the Gnosticism known from the 2nd century A.D. is a separate question. If the letter is Pauline and/or relatively early (c. 60-65 A.D.), then this is highly unlikely. However, things have clearly moved a step or two beyond Paul’s concern to check the Corinthians’ emphasis on spiritual knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:16ff; 8:1-3ff). There is conceivably a connection with the Jewish Christianity represented by the opponents Paul addresses in 2 Cor 10-13, but this could only be called “gnostic” in a very loose sense. It can be no coincidence that 1 Tim 6:20 is the only occurrence of the word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) in the letter—indeed, within the Pastoral letters as a whole—while it is relatively frequent in the undisputed letters (21 times, including 16 in 1 & 2 Corinthians), often in a positive sense. Here, it is entirely negative, marked by the qualifying adjective yeudw/numo$ (“falsely-named”), to distiguish it from true religious knowledge. At the very least, the author is referring to Christians who claim to have a certain knowledge, and, presumably, rely upon the use of that word—which would explain why the author does not otherwise use it himself. The noun is also absent entirely from the Johannine writings, even though the related verb ginw/skw (“know”) is used quite often (82 times). Some commentators have thought that the Christians who produced these writings were combating an incipient form of Gnosticism (cf. 1 John 4:1-6, etc).

Especially significant is the use of the word paraqh/kh, derived from the verb parati/qhmi (“set/put along[side]”), and which I discuss briefly in the last section of  Part 4 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. In the Pastoral epistles the verb and noun are both used in the special (figurative) sense of the collected body of Christian teaching—of Gospel and Apostolic traditions—which have been passed down (from Paul and the first Apostles) and put into the care of trustworthy ministers (such as Timothy). It is this “trust”, this carefully preserved Tradition, which is set against the so-called “knowledge”. Actually, there appear to be two forces against which the minister must contend; he is to “turn out of [the way]” (i.e. “turn aside”, the verb e)ktre/pw):

    • “the free/loose ’empty voices'” and
    • “(thing)s…of the falsely-named ‘knowledge'”

Possibly these are a hendiadys, two expressions for a single concept, or two labels referring to a single group. The first phrase makes use of two words. The first (a) is be/bhlo$, “free”, in the sense of “freely accessible”, and, in a religious context, often indicating something that is “profane”; it is certainly used in a pejorative sense here, perhaps with the connotation of “loose-lipped”, i.e. freely and carelessly uttered. The second (b) is kenofwni/a, “empty voice”, i.e. empty or hollow sounding, but probably best taken literally here—the voices of the people who say these things are “empty”, void of anything true or real. This same expression, using both words, also occurs in 2 Tim 2:16:

“But stand about [i.e. away from] the free (and) empty voices, for (more) upon more they cut (the way) toward a lack of reverence (for God)”

It follows directly after the expression “the account of truth” in v. 15, with which it is set in contrast. The adjective be/bhlo$ also occurs in 1 Tim 1:9 and 4:7.

The second phrase includes two elements: (a) the noun a)nti/qesi$, derived from the same verb as the base of parati/qhmi, only instead of something put alongside (into one’s care), it signifies the opposite, something set against it (in opposition to it); and (b) the expression “falsely-named knowledge”, with the adjective yeudw/numo$. Those who are characterized by these descriptions, and who oppose or threaten the true faith and tradition, are defined further in 1 Tim 6:21:

    • tine$ (“certain, some”)—that is, some Christians
    • e)paggello/menoi (“giving a message upon [themselves]”)—middle voice (reflexive) participle of the verb e)pagge/llw; these people announce (lit. give a message) concerning themselves
    • peri\ th\n pi/stin (“about the faith”)—the word pi/sti$ usually means specifically trust (or faith/belief) in Christ, but here it would seem to signify more properly the Christian faith (religion); however, it may also indicate the profession of faith in Christ by these persons
    • h)sto/xhsan (“they were without [true] aim”)—the verb a)stoxe/w is derived from the adjective a&stoxo$ (“without aim”), i.e. a bad shot, missing the mark

In other words, these people claim to be Christians, professing Christ and speaking about the faith, but are actually in error and ‘miss the mark’. From the standpoint of the author (Paul), it is a matter of the entire Christian faith being at stake, and an urgent need to preserve the true faith and (apostolic) tradition. The comprehensiveness of this understanding is indicated by an brief examination of the other occurrences of the verb parati/qhmi and noun paraqh/kh:

    • 1 Tim 1:18:
      “This message given along (to me) I place alongside (for) you, dear offspring [i.e. child] Timothy, according to the (thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies] brought out before(hand) upon you, that you might fight as a soldier in them, (doing) the fine work of a soldier”
    • 2 Tim 1:12, continuing on from v. 11, speaking of the “good message”, i.e. the Gospel (“unto which I was set” as a preacher, apostle and teacher…)
      “…through which cause I also suffer these (thing)s—but (yet) I do not have (any) shame brought upon me, for I have seen [i.e. known] the (one) in whom I have trusted and have been persuaded that he is powerful (enough) [i.e. able] to keep/guard the (thing) set alongside (for) me unto [i.e. until] that day”
    • 2 Tim 1:14 (note the connection between the paraqh/kh and the Spirit):
      “you (too) must keep/guard th(is) fine (thing which has been) set alongside (us), through the holy Spirit housing [i.e. dwelling] in us”
    • 2 Tim 2:2:
      “and the (thing)s which you have heard alongside me through many witnesses, these you must place alongside trust(worthy) men who will be capable/qualified to teach others also”

The chain of transmission is clear: to Paul, then to Timothy, and then, in turn, to other trustworthy ministers. Timothy himself has received the tradition not only from Paul (“the whole/healthy accounts which you heard [from] alongside me”, 2 Tim 1:13), but from “many witnesses” (2:2). This emphasizes that the tradition has been transmitted within the Community of believers as a whole (on the motif of witnesses to the Gospel, cf. Lk 1:2; 24:48; Acts 1:8, 22; 5:32; 10:39ff; 13:31, etc., and note Heb 12:1).