St. Melito of Sardis & Sola Scriptura

Unfortunately, not a whole lot is known about St. Melito of Sardis. He wrote around the year AD 170. If the lists of books attributed to him by later Christian authors are any indication, he was a prolific writer, and most sources indicate he was held in very high regard by his contemporaries. Of his many writings, though, only some fragments, mostly found in quotes by later authors, remain to us today.

His significance in the debate over Sola Scriptura is that the oldest list of the books of the Old Testament made by a Christian is attributed to him. This quote is often put forward by Protestants as evidence that their trimmed-down canon of Scripture (which doesn’t include the deuterocanonical books) is the original Christian Old Testament canon. This is an important point in their defense of Sola Scriptura because if Protestants have the wrong canon their entire proposition fails. One unknown but necessary commandment of Scripture is enough to turn Sola Scriptura on its head. Here’s St. Melito of Sardis on the Old Testament canon:

“I accordingly proceeded to the East, and went to the very spot where the things in question were preached and took place; and, having made myself accurately acquainted with the books of the Old Testament, I have set them down below, and here with send you the list. Their names are as follows:- The five books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the four books of Kings, the two of Chronicles, the book of the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, the Book of Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, of the twelve contained in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras.” – St. Melito of Sardis, The Book of Extracts

There are several problems with Protestants using this passage in support of their canon of Scripture, though. Here are a few:

  1. The list does include one deuterocanonical book — the Wisdom of Solomon.
  2. The list doesn’t include Esther, Nehemiah, or Lamentations (although the latter two are assumed to be included within Esdras and Jeremiah, respectively), all part of the Protestant Old Testament.
  3. There is no indication that the books Melito was reading were part of the Masoretic textual tradition espoused by Protestants. In fact, the evidence is in favor of Melito’s books being part of the Septuagint textual tradition, including the fact that Nehemiah and Lamentations may be included in Esdras and Jeremiah; that Melito refers to the books by their Septuagint names (4 books of Kings = 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Samuel, & 2 Samuel; Esdras = Ezra; etc.); and, of course, the fact that Melito’s language was Greek, not Hebrew. For anyone who has compared the Septuagint with the Masoretic, the problem here is plain: there are verses and even large sections of books (such as in Isaiah, for example) that differ significantly between the two textual traditions.

In the end, this list disagrees with both the current Orthodox Old Testament canon as well as the Protestant canon, and this does much more to undermine the Protestant position than the Orthodox. The Orthodox position does not hinge on any given book or verse; our Faith is preserved in the Tradition of our Church handed down through each generation of believers. The Protestant position breaks with one misplaced, misunderstood, or mistranslated word of Scripture.

And, to conclude, there’s absolutely no indication in any of St. Melito’s surviving writings that he believed in Sola Scriptura.

If you’re interested in reading the writings of St. Melito of Sardis, you may do so here.

Running tally:

Father Not Sola Scriptura Sola Scriptura
Didache
St. Clement of Rome
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Papias of Hierapolis
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
St. Justin Martyr
St. Melito of Sardis
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6 comments

  1. Could you tell me how you arrived at the translation, contrary to others, that the phrase 'Wisdom of Solomon also' (yours) and not 'also call the book of the Wisdom of Solomon' (others)

  2. The Greek is ambiguous and can mean either. Literally translated, it read something like “… Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, …”
    I think that the translation I use is the more likely of the two, however, for a few reasons, including:
    1. The Wisdom of Solomon was largely considered Scriptural by the Jews of Palestine at that time, which group's canon is what St. Melito uses for his canon list. (which was a mistake on his part for a number of reasons, but that's another topic altogether)
    2. The translation you here propose has its origins in Protestant apologetics. There's no reason, short of a Protestant bias, to assume that Melito is mentioning two names for one book, as he does this with no other book although several of them have alternate names.
    3. The syntax of the paragraph and sentence, to me (with what sorry little knowledge of Greek I have) and to many scholars of Greek language, indicates two separate books.

  3. Trust me, I would be more inclined to agree with your translation, but when I post about it later, I want support when questioned.

    I believe that the book of Wisdom is a key to understanding early Christian apologetics regarding the deity of Christ, among other things, and am happy to see this translation of Melito advocated.

  4. I wrote to Stephen Carlson (who knows and — I believe — teaches ancient Greek and heads the blog Hypotyposeis at http://www.hypotyposeis.org/weblog/index.html) about the matter after you asked, looking for a little better information to give you. His response might be of some help:

    Hi David. The relevant phrase from Eusebius, H.E. 4.26.14 is Σολομῶνος Παροιμίαι ἡ καὶ Σοφία. I haven't done any research on this, but it looks like it means “Solomon’s Proverbs, Wisdom too” (and the Loeb edition should have a comma there).

    If it were to mean that Proverbs was also known as Wisdom, wouldn’t it have to use a plural article and read instead Σολομῶνος Παροιμίαι αἱ καὶ Σοφία?

    There we have it. Plainspeak.

    Also, I agree with you that the Wisdom of Solomon is very important when it comes to understanding Christ's divinity and the early Christian view thereof. The second chapter especially has always stood out to me because it was such a shock to read it for the first time and see such clear prophecy.

  5. You and me both, David. The first few chapters play well into the Gospel story, and more especially into Luke's account whom I believe used Wisdom in his community. Further, we can find traces of it throughout the NT.

    For me, Wisdom is the little 'Q' – a very real source and foundation for the Church

  6. Hi all,

    Do you have some book that explains this problem about the inclusion or exclusion of the book of Wisdom by Melito?

    I am from Brazil, I have the same conclusion analyzing the greek text, but I need a greek scholar to confirm it.

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