Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 4)?

[Editor’s Note: This is the final post (originally appeared on Aug. 10, 2012) in a four-part series by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collection of Acts and the General Epistles and addresses some lingering questions: who “chose” the NT; can we adjust the canon? His answers provide a helpful apologetic for trusting in and proclaiming the NT. ]

This is my final post regarding the NT Canon. I am sure we will continue the conversation for many years. My prayer is that it has been profitable to the reader and, in some sense, provocative. In this post I want to briefly discuss the rest of the NT documents and clean up a couple of remaining matters.

While we don’t have all the writings of the first and second centuries, the evidence so far suggests an early recognition of the bulk of the NT canon. The following seems a reasonable description. The Synoptic Gospels were written and received rapid acceptance in the churches as the authoritative source of the words and deeds of Christ. Roughly contemporaneous with them, Paul’s letters began circulating as a collection, probably soon after Paul’s death. Shortly after the writing of John’s Gospel, the Gospels were gathered and published as a fourfold Gospel canon. This leaves the question about Acts, general epistles and the Revelation.

Most modern Christians are surprised to find out that the Acts and General Epistles generally circulated together as a codex much like Paul and the Four Gospel Codex. Regarding the manner in which the Acts and the General Epistles were gathered and published and by whom, less can be said with confidence. However, it is likely that the collection of these books was in some way related to the fourfold Gospel codex. When Luke is separated from Acts, it is unthinkable that Acts was simply set-aside without plans for publication. I think it likely that the Acts/General Epistles was published soon after the Gospel Codex with the same canonical implications.

Finally, the Book of Revelation, written in the mid to late AD 90s by the aged apostle John, circulated independently from the rest, likely due to its late production, likely after the publishing of the rest. As a result many questions regarding Revelation lingered.

There were also questions among the orthodox about 2 Peter, Hebrews, and 3 John in the minds of some. Furthermore, some highly regarded other works like the Shepherd of Hermas. In broad generalization, we can describe the questions like this: “Why is this book in the Canon” or “Why isn’t this book in?” Notice that there is an “in” that is constant. That there were questions are only natural and, in fact, reflect the ability of people to have differing opinions. The same types of questions show up in the 16th century as well. Questions in the minds of some, however, do not necessarily reflect widespread chaos regarding the NT documents.

So who chose the NT? The Fathers regarded the NT as “handed down to them.” This is the appeal of the third Council of Carthage in AD 397 and the second-century bishop, Serapion, among others and it is telling of the orthodox attitude. C. E. Hill in Who Chose the Gospels suggests (I believe rightfully) that if you had asked the early church “who chose the NT,” they would have responded, “no one.” They would have considered the question much like “How did you choose your parents?” The documents were handed down to them from the apostles, of whom, as Serapion stated, “We receive as Christ.”

Finally, there is a question regarding if we may adjust the Canon. My answer would be, no. If these were considered the New Covenant documents, then only a newer new covenant would instigate a new canon. We were right to expect a New Covenant, because the OT promised it. There is no indication in Scripture that another covenant is forthcoming. Furthermore, the New Covenant is so expansive in its scope (through eternity) that there is really no room for a newer covenant. No reason exists to expect a new covenant or new scriptures.

What if we actually found an unknown apostolic document, say, 3 Corinthians for instance?  Would its apostolic status force us to adjust the Canon? Absolutely not! Certainly such a discovery would be wonderful. However, because the Pauline collection came from Paul’s retained copies, the exclusion would not have been accidental at all, but by Paul’s choice. That fact that these are missing from the Canon says something about their origin and value among the apostles and their followers. Second, let’s not forget that as evangelicals we should trust in the sovereignty of God. Evangelical Christians may have great confidence in their NT. Let us then, as Augustine said, tolle lege (“take up and read”).

 

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.

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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.

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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.