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:
- The list does include one deuterocanonical book — the Wisdom of Solomon.
- 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.
- 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.
|Father||Not Sola Scriptura||Sola Scriptura|
|St. Clement of Rome|
|St. Ignatius of Antioch|
|St. Papias of Hierapolis|
|St. Polycarp of Smyrna|
|St. Justin Martyr|
|St. Melito of Sardis|