Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 2)?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Aug. 8, 2012. It is the second of four by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collections of New Testament books and their apostolic origins. Check in next Monday for part 3.]

Yesterday, I wrote about the idea of the canon. Today, I want to begin to explore the reception of the individual portions of the NT. I believe the publication of the NT as a collection is clear evidence of the belief that these books were the New Covenant documents for the Church. The early manuscripts of the NT circulated in four volumes of codices (a codex is like modern books, not rolls). These are the Four-Gospels, Acts-General Epistles, Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. From the manuscripts and description in the Church Fathers, these are set by the mid-point of the second century (AD 150). Things common in the manuscripts like the nomina sacra (abbreviations of the divine names), titles, and arrangements show a common ancestor(s) for these collections. This means that the collections as collections must be much earlier than AD 150. For most of the collections we can confidently date them into the early second century or late first century (of course, the books themselves are much earlier). The first of these collections to be published (and I believe the forerunner for the rest) is the Pauline letter collection.

As a young Christian, I was taught that Paul’s letters originally circulated individually. Over time Churches shared their letters with one another and a collection eventually grew—Porter calls this the “snowball theory.” It is not likely that this was the case. A collection of Paul’s letters is mentioned in 2 Peter, suggesting that at least some of Paul’s letters were circulating in the late 60s (if we take 2 Peter as authentic as I do). Clement of Rome (c. AD 95) and Polycarp (c. AD 110) know of Paul’s letters and although they do not mention a collection per se, they cite so much of the corpus that it is unlikely they possessed a stack of individual letters. It is more likely that Paul’s letters were published as a collection in a codex.

Published letter collections were not uncommon in antiquity. The author put these letter collections together themselves, then either published posthumously by the author or his students. When an author would send a letter, he would often make a copy to keep for their records. The collection of these “retained copies” becomes the basis for publication. The implication is, then, that the author is responsible for the collection.

There is, quite possibly, evidence for this in the Scriptures. Paul, late in his life, asks Timothy at 2 Tim. 4:13 to bring him “especially the parchments.” This word “parchment” is a word for that describes a papyrus codex. This is possibly Paul’s retained letters. At any rate, retained letters would have originally been in a papyrus notebook format. If so, this explains at least two questions regarding the collection. First, it explains how we have small books like Philemon. How on earth does a 1-page personal letter survive at Philemon’s home? It survived because Paul kept a copy. Second, it explains why certain letters are missing in the Corinthian correspondence. The “former letter” (1 Cor. 5:9) and the “severe letter” (2 Cor. 7:8) are missing because Paul did not retain copies for whatever reason. Then, some individual, whether Paul or a surrogate, takes the codex notebook of letters and publishes it. It is rapidly received as Scripture in the early Church.

The books are generally arranged in the same order as in our English Bibles except for one thing: the book of Hebrews is placed between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy in most manuscripts, although some have it elsewhere. For example, the earliest manuscript (P 46) has it immediately after Romans. The letters are arranged by length and content. Letters to Churches are first (Romans-2 Thessalonians) then letters to individuals (1 Timothy – Philemon) in descending length. Hebrews is placed between these two groupings, I believe because it transitions nicely between letters to churches and letters to individuals, in spite of the fact that it is longer than all but Romans and 1 Corinthians. Although I do not believe Paul wrote Hebrews, I do believe that it has strong connections to him. I further believe that it owes its place among the Scriptures by virtue of its position in the Pauline letter collection. If this collection owes its origins to Paul, it is probable that the inclusion of Hebrews is not a late addition but owes its inclusion to Paul or his followers.

All of this leaves us with two conclusions. Regarding the canonical status of Paul’s letters, that issue has been settled by none other than Peter (assuming 2 Peter to be original). Furthermore, the content of the collection is also apostolic, i.e., the books were collected by Paul. Paul not only collected, but since we know of missing letters, there is a strong possibility that Paul was selective in the content of the collection. This sets us very far from the 4th and 5th century greybeards sorting and sifting. The collection is apostolic in its origin and recognition.


For further reading:

H. Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1995.

E. R. Richards. Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004.

D. Trobisch. Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

S. E. Porter. “When and How was the Pauline Canon Compiled? An Assessment of Theories.” In The Pauline Canon, ed. S. E. Porter. Boston: Brill, 2004.

Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 1)?

[Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on August 7, 2012. In this four-part series, L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, addresses the complex but very important question of the New Testament canon: why is there a New Testament; why are certain documents but not others included in the New Testament; and what does all this mean for ministry in the church and engagement with the world? Check in next Monday for part 2.]

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. “The NT Canon (the authoritative collection of books) was formed over a period of sorting and sifting overseen by the Holy Spirit that was essentially completed by AD 200. The early church councils settled the fuzzy edges of the Canon.” This was what I heard as a young Christian. I suspect you’ve heard something similar. Upon further study I am convinced that this is at least 100 years too late in its date and places far too much emphasis on the church councils. This week I will address many aspects of the NT Canon to defend my thesis. In this post, I want to briefly explore the origins of the idea of a New Testament. Why did the early Christians endorse the idea of new Scriptures? If someone came to you and said, “we have new scripture for you,” you would rightly refuse it. Why is it that they did not?

Before we do that, however, let’s first correctly understand the early church councils. No evidence exists that the early councils actually debated the Canon. They only listed their books. If we evangelicals embrace the list in the councils we make two mistakes. First, to grant the councils the final word is to give too much authority to these councils. This is something evangelicals have always hesitated to do. Second, they also endorsed the OT Apocrypha as Scripture. If we take them as authoritative, we must also adopt these extra books to the OT. Again, we are on good grounds not to do so. Instead, it is better to evaluate the councils than submit to them. I think it is clear they were endorsing the Testaments as they were handed down to them in Greek. Regarding the NT, the choice is correct. In the OT, they were simply listing the books of the Septuagint that included these extra books. The councils, then, are best understood as a witness to our present 27-book NT.

So then, why were the early believers willing to accept roughly contemporaneous documents as authoritative Scripture? This question comprises two concepts. First, there is the very idea of Canon, i.e., a closed set of authoritative writings that in itself is authoritative. Second, when the question comes to the NT, why add to the OT Canon, which, by definition, is closed?

Because few works survive from the 1st and 2d centuries when these decisions happened, answering these questions is not easy. But there are works that do survive and what they explicitly cite and infer will help answer these questions. Examining the Church Fathers from before AD 150 we see every book of the NT cited as an authority. 3 John is often said to be missing, however, a few sources do show echoes of 3 John. So we see that the books in the present NT Canon were recognized, but what about the whole set?

Many scholars suggest the idea of a canon came from Marcion (a Gnostic-like heretic, expelled from the church of Rome c. AD 144). Marcion did produce a canon that was an edited edition of Luke and Paul’s letters. It is said that the early church’s response was a longer canon. This hypothesis, however, is coming under more and more suspicion in the academy. It is more likely that the origins of a Canon concept are earlier than Marcion. Irenaeus, writing only a few decades after Marcion and Tertullian, about 60 years later, both chastised Marcion for destructive not creative activity. Furthermore, some documents previous to Marcion are responding to the existence of an authoritative set of books. If so, it is most likely that Marcion was editing orthodox documents rather than “orthodoxing” documents.

So why is it a closed collection? Christians inherited the Canon concept from the Jews. So that Christianity already had a Canon: the OT. The Jewish historian Josephus contrasts the OT with a myriad of Pagan scriptures and notes that Judaism has a “fixed number of books.” Certainly sounds like “Canon” doesn’t it? The Second-century Christians not only had a Canon (the OT), there existed a body of literature that they recognized as NT Canon.

Yet it was not just a second-century phenomenon. It is clear that the new Scripture was being recognized very early. Both 2 Peter 3:15-16 (Paul’s letters) and 1 Timothy 5:18 (the Gospel of Luke) affirm new works as Scripture (equal with the OT). What led to this phenomenon?

I believe that the answer is found in understanding that the OT was “the book of the Covenant.” Ancient Near East covenants usually were accompanied by documents stipulating the terms. Within the OT, portions of it were called “the book of the covenant” (see, Exod 24:7; Deut 29:20; 31:9, 26; 2 Kgs 23:2, 21; 2 Chr 34:30). The same description can be found in Second-temple Jewish literature (see 1 Maccabees 1:56–57 and Sirach 24:23) referring to the whole OT. Thus, both the OT itself and later Jews considered the OT to be “book(s) of the covenant.” So then, with the advent of the New Covenant, covenant documents naturally would be expected. It is the prophesied New Covenant that is the impetus for new Scriptures (covenant documents).

This explains a few things for us: 1) the rapid recognition of apostolic documents as Scripture, 2) the limitation to apostolic men as authors for they were the witnesses of the covenant, and 3) it also explains the name of the collection. We are used to “New Testament,” but the title in Greek “he kaine diatheke” is better translated, “the New Covenant.”

Thus, the idea of a NT Canon was not the result of the councils, or a reaction to a Roman heretic. Instead, the NT flows organically from the establishment of a new covenant, predicted by the OT prophets, and instituted in and through the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the very fount, not only of all Christian blessings, but also of the NT Canon.


The following sources were employed in this post (and great for further reading!): Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2d ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997 (reprint, 1987); C.E. Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004; C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010; A. J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, & C. L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B & H, 2009.

For the Record (Chip McDaniel): Why the Old Testament is Important for the Great Commission Task: Some Thoughts from the Mission Field

[Editor’s Note: This post by Dr. Chip McDaniel, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern, continues our “For the Record” series by Southeastern faculty. In this post Dr. McDaniel addresses the relevance of the Old Testament for cross-cultural Christian mission. He surveyed several current and former missionaries to get their thoughts.]

The study of the Old Testament is important for all Christians everywhere in the world who seek to walk with God, understand His program on earth and interpret the New Testament.  There are additional considerations for those who are involved in a mission context.  I have asked several friends who have served in missions for their thoughts on this.  Together they have over 130 years of cross-cultural experience

With respect to all believers:

  • The NT shows the OT’s importance by example.  It often uses the OT as proof for its doctrine (e.g., the many times it uses the formula, “that it might be fulfilled”).  The “all Scripture” of 2 Timothy 3:16 includes the OT.
  • Theologically the message of the NT is clearer with knowledge of the OT.  Regarding the “New Covenant” one friend writes, “The ‘New’ Covenant in the NT isn’t really new, in the sense that it is related to Jeremiah’s teaching on the New Covenant in the OT!  A tracing of the major covenants through the OT can help put the New Covenant into the context of God’s redemptive program.” [EB]  The OT also shows that the Church is not divorced from God’s people and working from the very beginning of time (cf. Hebrew 11).
  • The NT makes allusions to OT persons, places and events.  The message of the NT is clearer if one knows these references.
  • Narrative teaches theology by what it affirms or decries.  There are many more lessons from the narratives of the OT than the NT.  We are told to remember the wife of Lot (Luke 17:32) and to draw lessons from Job’s patience (James 5:11).
  • One of the most beloved sections of Scripture for believers of all ages is the Psalms because it helps us enter into the thinking and emotions of the writers more than other types of biblical literature.  When Paul tells of speaking, teaching and admonishing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the Psalms are certainly a part of what is in view (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians  3:16).  The NT quotes or alludes to the Psalms more than any other book of the OT.

Practical considerations for missions:

  • The educated of other cultures thirst for Western knowledge (especially science) and will be increasingly confronted by a naturalism that ignores God’s part in the origin and maintenance of the earth.  Though the NT teaches that Christ made and sustains the world, much of the doctrine of creation is derived from the book of Genesis and passages scattered throughout the OT.
  • Some cultures identify better with the social setting of the OT.  Tribal and pastoral cultures will be able to identify with the lives of those in the OT.  One of my sources writes that when they told the story of Abraham’s seeking a wife for Isaac, the people were more accepting of the Gospel.  They said, “Up until now we’ve been debating whether we want to hear more from you, whether your stories will just end up Westernizing us and turning our people into moral retards.  But now we know that you’re not importing your Western culture.  Everyone knows that people in the West don’t find their wives that way.  This is our kind of story from God’s holy book.  We are now sure that we want to hear everything you have to tell us [about God].”  [DR]  Another source tells that many cultural bridges to his people group opened when they were exposed to the teachings of the OT.  [DS1]
  • The study of the OT plugs all cultures into God’s total program.  He is not a Western God.  His desire is for a relationship with and praise from His creation.  Those who see the Hebrew Bible as just for Jews and the Greek NT just for Christians are confronted in the OT with the view that, as one friend wrote, “The God of the OT is a missionary God with interest in all nations.” [KH]  Genesis, the Psalms and Isaiah are especially helpful here.
  • The NT is built on the story of God’s solution to the problem but the OT teaches abundantly and clearly what that problem is.  It shows the origin of evil and the career of the evil one in society.  In this regard one writes, “Sadly, many people we meet see that Gospel as being irrelevant and meaningless because they don’t even begin to have an accurate OT worldview from which to appreciate the power and genius of the Gospel.”  [DR]
  • The OT has more illustrations of the futility of false worship.  Those trapped in idol worship must come to realize that idols “don’t provide the solution that’s being sought or advertised.”  This awareness of the vanity of false worship is an important lesson for Gospel messengers to teach in an unreached culture.  [DR].
  • Liberal theologians are taking to the Two-Thirds World a message of liberation theology with much of the teaching from the OT, particularly the prophets. Some are exporting a prosperity gospel with much of its teaching coming from the OT, particularly Deuteronomy and the book of Proverbs.
  • Experience demonstrates the value of a chronological presentation of the stories of the OT leading up to the teachings of the Cross and the Christian life.  One friend writes regarding the teaching through the OT narrative, “…the best evangelism (and discipleship) takes place when placing the content of the gospel in the context of God’s total revelation…many of us are now promoting and training our missionaries to do evangelism ‘slower’ by presenting the OT story first and then the NT continuance of that story.”  [DS2]
  • Some religions of the world derive teachings from the OT, some venerate the OT prophets and some encourage the seeking of truth or wisdom wherever it might be found.  Dialog concerning portions of the OT can serve as a bridge to the claims of Christ.
  • The knowledge of the OT that historically could be presupposed in the West is not present in many cultures (or in the West anymore for that matter).  The significance of the coming of Christ is abundantly displayed in the OT.  One friend writes, “I spend much less time debating Jesus vs. [other faiths’ leaders] and more time from the OT showing why Jesus was necessary and how he came to be through the history of the prophets and the people of Abraham.” [RN]

DR, church planting in Asia

DS1, church planting in Central America

DS2, church planting in Europe and South America

EB, theological education in Europe

KH, theological education in Africa

RN, church planting in Africa and Europe