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Canon (definition): Those books containing God’s spoken words (the Old and New Testaments otherwise known as Scripture, God’s Word or the Bible) preserved for the purpose of saving (physically, spiritually) His people (the covenant community).

 

A major deterrent to canonical confidence[1], is not only a poor understanding of the canon’s formation, but the intended function of God’s spoken words as communicated in the canon itself. Having addressed the latter (function), this study will address the former (formation). With that in mind, there are several important truths that must be understood with respect to the formation of the Canon – or those books believed to contain God’s spoken words:

 

1. By the time of Jesus and the apostles, the Old Testament had long been accepted by the Jews as the first installment of God’s spoken words.

1.1. First century Jewish historian, Josephus claims that the same books found in (our modern-day) Old Testaments, had long been considered God’s spoken words by the Jews, “For although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured neither to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable” (Against Apion, 1.38-42).

1.2. First century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria likewise acknowledges the Old Testament as God’s spoken words using the same three-fold structure used by Jesus to describe them (Luk 24:44 “the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms”), “The laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated [God spoke] by the holy prophets … and psalms” (On the Contemplative Life, 25; See also Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus and Dead Sea Scrolls, 4QMMT).

1.3. The way that Jesus and the apostles speak about the Old Testament, it is clear they too saw it as the first installment of God’s spoken words (i.e., as Scripture) (e.g., Mat 4:1-11, 9:13, 15:3-9, 22; Mar 12:10; Luk 4:21, 18:20; Joh 5:39, 7:38 10:35; Act 1:16, Rom 4:3; 2Ti 3:15-16; Jam 2:8; 1Pe 2:6).

1.4. Furthermore, 33 of the 39 Old Testament books are referenced or directly quoted by Jesus and other NT speakers[2]. Those not referenced or directly quoted: Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Song of Solomon, Obadiah[3].

1.5. Point not to miss: The OT (as the first canon or installment of God’s spoken words) was not only a forgone conclusion by the time of Jesus and the apostles, but something they and the other NT speakers firmly believed and promoted.

 

2. When the Old Testament speaks about the coming new kingdom (new Israel) and its Messiah, it also speaks about new spoken words from God (i.e., a new “testament” from God)[4].

2.1. Support: 1) (Deu 18:18 “put my words in His mouth and he shall speak”) = Messiah will speak new words from God [fulfilled: Mar 9:7; Joh 6:14, 7:40; Act 3:23-24, 7:37], 2) (Isa 11:1 “rod of His mouth”) = Messiah will judge the earth w/new spoken words from God [fulfilled: 2Th 2:8; Rev 1:16, 11:15, 19:15], 3) (Isa 61:1-2 “bring good news”) = Messiah will bring new spoken words of salvation [fulfilled: Luk 4:18-19], 4) (Isa 2:2-3 “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem [shall go forth to the nations]”) = The new spoken words from God will go forth from Jerusalem to the nations of the world [fulfilled: book of Acts]. David Pao believes Isaiah 2 to be the paradigm for the entire book of Acts[5] (In this light consider, Luk 24:46-47).

2.2. Literature from the Second Temple period make it clear that the Jews knew the Old Testament was not the end of God’s spoken words. IOW: there would be a second installment:

“The Jews of the Second Temple period were not a settled group. Despite having returned to their promised land, they still conceived of themselves as in ‘exile’ – they were still oppressed by foreign rulers (Bar 2:7-10; 2Macc 2:5-18; 4Q504 2-5; T. Mos. 4:8-9). Thus, Israel was in a posture of anticipation and longing; they were waiting for God to fulfill His promises to break into the world and redeem His people…Another way [therefore] to articulate Second Temple expectations…is to say that the Jews of this period viewed the story of the Old Testament books as incomplete. When the Old Testament story of Israel was viewed as a whole, it was not viewed as something that was finished but as something that was waiting to be finished….That Second Temple Jews regarded the Old Testament story as incomplete and in need of a proper conclusion has significant implications for the production of a new corpus of biblical books. If some Second Temple Jews became convinced that the story was completed in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth – such as the earliest Christians did — the it is not unreasonable to think that the proper conclusion to the Old Testament might then be written. Indeed, the very structure of the Old Testament itself, with its truncated and forward-looking ending, naturally leads to the expectation that there would be a second installment of writings to finish the job. Otherwise, one would be left with a play that had no final act.” – Michael J. Kruger (The Question Of Canon)

 

“A new Israel would require new Scriptures.” – David Meade (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism and the Origins of the New Testament Canon of Scripture.”)

 

3. The concept of a new covenant also points to a second installment of new spoken words from God.

3.1. Scholars have long observed that “where there is a divine covenant…there is a divine covenantal document [containing God’s spoken words].”[6]

3.2. So close is the connection between covenant and an accompanying document containing God’s spoken words, that the OT authors would frequently equate the two. To possess a covenant w/God meant to possess spoken words from God (Exo 24:7; Deu 4:13, 29:21; 2Ki 23:2).

3. It is therefore safe to assume that the early Christians – who were also highly covenantal in their understanding of their new faith, were expecting new spoken words from God (a New Testament to go with their new covenant).

 

“The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts [of God’s spoken words for that covenant]…If they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents [of God’s spoken words] to testify to the terms of that [new] covenant.” – Kruger

 

4. At least some of the New Testament authors were aware they were writing the second installment of God’s spoken words (i.e., the New Testament).

4.1. Consider for example, Peter’s use of the word “Scripture” when speaking about the writings of Paul (2Pe 3:16). Paul likewise uses the word “Scripture” when referring to a saying from Jesus in Luke’s gospel (1Ti 5:18 w/Luk 10:17). Certainly, such identification was not lost on the authors themselves. IOW: the authors (Paul and Luke) also shared the view that what they were writing was indeed Scripture (Consider Paul’s words in 1Co 14:37-38).

4.2. Assuming Luke felt the same way about his other book, the book of Acts, means we have accounted for over half the books in the NT (15 of the 27) or 139 of its 260 chapters (53%). Chances therefore are high that those writing the remaining portion also knew they were writing Scripture.

4.3. As additional support, many scholars believe that all of the NT’s authors believed they were preserving apostolic witness – i.e., that God was (through them) preserving (in written form) His (or Jesus’) spoken words to the apostles (Joh 14:26 w/17:8). And their belief shares substantial patristic evidence. The early church fathers, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Irenaeus all believed this to be true. For example, they believed the gospel of Mark to be the embodiment of Peter’s teaching about Jesus (captured by his “ghost writer” Mark, before His death) (See 2Pe 1:3-15; Mark is identified in the NT as “John Mark”, the cousin of Barnabas and close friend to the apostles [Act 12:25]).

4.4. Finally, the literary structure of the New Testament also bears witness to canonical awareness and intent. The NT authors wrote their respective books to mimic the language and patterns found in the Old Testament. For example: 1) the author of Hebrews presents the terms of the new covenant through Christ in the same mode and manner as the terms of old covenant through Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. So close is the literary structure of Hebrews to that of Deuteronomy, that David M. Allen concludes that Hebrews “does not just use Deuteronomy, it becomes the new Deuteronomy.” (Deuteronomy & Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Re-presentation), 2) Matthew appears to be molding his Gospel after the first five books of the Old Testament – or the writings of Moses (the Pentateuch). Even the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel bears witness to Scriptural (or canonical) intent. He begins with a genealogy and ends with a great commission – both vivid echoes of the book of Chronicles (1Chr 1-8; 2Chr 36:23), the last books in Israel’s history and the perfect place to therefore begin God’s new plan (and promise) of deliverance.

 

“Matthew constructs his Gospel partly to reflect the beginning and ending of Chronicles.” – G.K. Beale (The Temple And the Church’s Mission)

 

5. The church’s role was never to determine what should be a part of the New Testament canon, but to recognize what already was.

5.1. In the words of Bruce Metzger, “Neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church.” (The New Testament, Its Background, Growth And Content).

5.2. Based on numerous quotations from the 2nd century early church fathers, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, all 27 books of our modern-day New Testaments had already been recognized as Scripture by the time of – or shortly after, the death of the apostles[7].

 

“We have learned from none other the plan of salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” – Irenaeus (Against Heresies)

 

“The fact that the collections of new Christian Scriptures used by Clement and Irenaeus…on the opposite sides of the Mediterranean Sea, resemble each other so closely, undermines the notion that churches, at a relatively late date in the second century, were only beginning to sort through a large mass of Christian writings.” – Charles E. Hill (Who Chose The Books Of The New Testament?)

 

5.3. Point not to miss: the self-authenticating qualities of the 27 books which make up the NT canon were so obvious, that their place in the Bible – as the second installment of God’s spoken words, was accepted and promoted immediately – or almost immediately after they were written.

 

6. What (then) were the “self-authenticating qualities” that caused the early church to recognize them as God’s new spoken words (i.e., NT Scripture)?

6.1. agreement with the Old Testament gospel, focus and theology: The NT authors used the OT Scriptures to prove their New Covenant beliefs, demonstrating the agreement that existed between their gospel, focus and theology and the prior covenant (OC) (e.g., 1Co 15:3-4; Act 8:35, 17:11, 18:24)[8].

6.2. authorship: All the NT books were written by an apostle – or someone appointed by them to write on their behalf: 1) Mark (for Peter), 2) Luke and Acts (for Paul, [Luke was his travelling companion – Col 4:14; 2Ti 4:11, Phm 1:24]), 3) Hebrews (early church attributed to Paul), 4) Jude (the apostle Judas [Thaddeus] brother of James and half-brother of Jesus – Luk 6:16; Joh 14:22; Mat 13:55), 5) James (an apostle, brother to Jude and half-brother of Jesus – Gal 1:19).

6.3. writing style and format: a common distinction between those books accepted as part of our New Testament versus the many writings that were not, are their writing style and format. Recovered fragments of the NT books were always written in “biblical [or book] majuscule”: a professional upright form of writing used in legal documents. In contrast, other books (pseudo scripture or gospels – e.g., the gospel of Mary) were always written in the informal style of cursive. Likewise, the biblical books were always written on a codex (think of a book w/pages) versus in the informal format of a scroll (the format used by the pseudo documents)[9].

6.4. circulation among the churches

“There may have been eight to ten or maybe even twelve other gospels circulating in the second or third centuries, so, two to three times as many non-canonical as canonical ones. But simply estimating the number of gospels in existence does not tell us how many people or churches were using each one, or for what purpose they might have been using them. Currently, archaeologists have dug up ten fragments from one of the maybe eight to twelve non-canonical gospels dated to the second or third centuries. [In contrast however], the number of fragments of one of the four canonical Gospels from the same period is about forty, so a ratio of four to one. This suggests that, even though there were more alternative [pseudo] gospels than canonical Gospels in existence, apparently these others weren’t being copied and circulated as much as the four.” – Hill

[1] By canonical confidence I mean, confidence that what we possess as God’s spoken words is enough to save us.

[2] See

“Old Testament Passages in the New Testament”, preceptaustin.org; For those not

listed, see Heb 11:32-34 for Judges, Mat 27:30 for Lamentations

[3] Though not referenced or directly quotes these books contain motifs and principles repeated and alluded to throughout the NT (e.g., the Kinsmen Redeemer motif of Ruth; the marriage covenant love of Messiah and His bride motif of SoS; the principles of true discipleship and learning established by Ezra and Nehemiah).

[4] What I will be arguing for in this – and the remaining points, is what has been referred to as the “intrinsic model” for canon formation. Simply put it argues that the phenomenon of canon was one that arose early and naturally as the consequence of the Old Testament witness (the current point) and deliberate sense the church possessed as to the need for writing down what they believed were God’s new spoken words.

[5] See Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus

[6] Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority

[7] See Charles E. Hill’s list in Who Chose The Books Of The New Testament?

[8] For an example of this in the patristic writings, see Justin Martyr’s, Dialogue With Trypoho

[9] See Hill, p.15-18