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.