Monday, May 10, 2010

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON: Part 2

First Century
            At the time of Jesus there was no New Testament as we know it today.  Simply put, it hadn’t been written yet.  Some scholars have argued for a long period of oral tradition before a significant written record of Jesus or the early church began.  Carson and Moo remind their readers that the world Jesus was born into was highly literate and there is evidence against a long oral tradition.[1]  Still, Jesus wrote no book.  Rather He taught by word of mouth and through personal example.[2]

            The development of the New Testament canon begins with the apostles of Jesus.  The last of the apostles, John, died around the end of the first century.  Given this, a first century date of writing of all of the books canonized in the New Testament is assumed though this subject is debated among scholars to this day.  Specific dates of authorship, though important, will not be discussed here.  The apostles are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall and interpret the words and actions of Jesus (John 14:26; 16:13 – 14).  This is significant as the office of apostle is seen by the early church as having the same authority as the Old Testament prophets.[3]  One example of this is found in 2 Peter 3:15 – 16 where Peter mentions Paul’s epistles and the “other scriptures”.  Another example is found in1 Timothy 5:17 – 18 where Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 placing Luke’s gospel on the same level as Old Testament Scripture.[4]  

            The books of the New Testament were written over about a 50 year period of time in the first century.  Clearly those written by apostles were seen as equal in standing with Hebrew Scriptures and accepted early in church history.  There are, however, five books (Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude) that were not written by an apostle.  Grudem argues that Mark’s association with Peter and Luke’s association with Paul likely led to an early acceptance of their works by virtue of the apostle attesting to their authenticity.[5]  In a similar fashion, Jude was the half-brother of Jesus and was closely associated with James, another of Jesus’ half-brothers and leader of the church in Jerusalem.  This may have led to the eventual acceptance of Jude though the possible reference to the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch (Jude 1:14 – 15) certainly delayed acceptance.[6] 

            The authorship of the book of Hebrews is a curiosity to this seminarian.  Many offer a quote from Origen stating that only God knows who the author is.  This appears to be taken out of context in which it was written.  Origen clearly believed that Paul was the author of Hebrews.  One need only read Origen’s letter to Africanus where reference is made to making arguments some other time to prove Paul is in fact the author of Hebrews.[7]  Twice Origen references Paul and Hebrews in Against Celsus.[8]  There are seven such references in De Principiis![9]  There can be little doubt that Origen firmly believed that the apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews.  Where Grudem argues that Hebrews is self-attesting[10], this early belief in Pauline authorship demonstrated by the letters of Origen from the third century is clear in showing this tradition had been handed down and is likely the reason Hebrews was accepted as authoritative rather than other explanations offered.  Drane too supports the notion of unknown authorship.[11]  Of course, Origen wrote from the East where Hebrews was accepted sooner than in the West.[12]  A Pauline epistle or not, today we certainly find Hebrews in our New Testament canon.

            With the close of the Apostolic Age at the end of the first century, the books that would become the New Testament had been written and were being widely circulated though probably not in their entirety.  Before moving on to the second century, a final note on writings is in order.  As will be discussed later, these 27 books were by no means the only writings from this period.  There were other writings that carried significant weight in the church authored by disciples of the apostles.  Early in the second century, those who directly knew the apostles would become increasingly important.


                [1] Carson, D A, and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction To The New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 24.
                [2] Bruce, Fredrick Fyvie. The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 117.
                [3] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 60 – 62.  There remains significant debate among scholars about whether or not the Old Testament canon was closed during the time of Christ.  Though not the purpose of this work, here it is assumed that the OT canon was closed before the incarnation.
                [4] Ibid.
                [5] Ibid, 63 – 64.
                [6] Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985), 922.  Another instance of a non-canonical book being quoted in the New Testament is Paul’s quote of the Cretan poet Epimenides in Titus 1:12.
                [7] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 388. It is noted that Origen was born in the second century and wrote in the third century but the importance of an early tradition of Pauline authorship bears mention of Origen concerning the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Origen will be discussed later.  Here Origen references Hebrews 11:37 in referring to Paul. 
                [8] Ibid, 485.  Origen references Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and then several sentences references the same writer and refers to Hebrews 5:12 – 14.  On page 622, again Origen speaks of Paul’s quote and refers to Hebrews 12:22.
                [9] Ibid, 239 – 368.  References to Paul and Hebrews include Hebrews 2:1; 6:7 – 8; 8:5; 9:26; 11:24 – 26.
                [10] Grudem, 63 – 64.
                [11] Drane, John William. Introducing the New Testament, Completely Revised and Updated. (Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 2000), 444.
                [12] Bruce, Fredrick Fyvie. The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 192 – 93.

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