CNT = Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
ECD = J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978)
TAF = Michael Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005)
TCD = Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)
In the process of addressing the standards by which the early Christians judged which books should be included in the New Testament canon, J.N.D. Kelly wrote:
"the criterion which ultimately came to prevail was apostolicity. Unless a book could be shown to come from the pen of an apostle, or at least to have the authority of an apostle behind it, it was peremptorily rejected, however edifying or popular with the faithful it might be." (ECD, 60)
How far back can we trace the standard of apostolicity, which "ultimately came to prevail", and is it valid? Lee McDonald and James Sanders write:
"There is little doubt among canon scholars that authorship by an apostle was the most important factor considered by the church leaders of the fourth and following centuries. If it was believed that an apostle produced a particular writing, that writing was accepted and treated as scripture." (TCD, 7)
We can trace the concept back further. Eusebius, who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries, said that he relied on earlier sources for his conclusions about the canon. He refers to the New Testament documents as "the sacred writings which they [the apostles] have left us", and he refers to the standard of "apostolic orthodoxy" (Church History, 3:31). Everett Kalin writes:
"As far as Eusebius is concerned, what is required for canonicity is that a writing come from apostolic times and itself be apostolic, either in the sense that it was written by an apostle or handed down by the apostles." (TCD, 403)
Peter Balla comments:
"It remains plausible that from a very early time, indeed, from the production of apostolic writings claiming high authority, there was a process involving the writings, attributed to Jesus' apostles, that were being read and re-read in the congregations of the mainstream church. These writings guided the early Christian community in their everyday life and in their beliefs just as did the Septuagint ('Old Testament')....The fact that writings attributed to the apostles were copied repeatedly, as per the manuscript evidence, and that they were published in codices, points to their widespread usage in the congregations, probably in worship from an early date, though we do not know exactly when." (TCD, 384-385)
Lee McDonald includes ante-Nicene sources, like Irenaeus, when he writes:
"From early times the church's most important weapon against gnostics and other 'heretics' was its claim to apostolicity, which guaranteed that its oral and written traditions were genuine....The authoritative New Testament literature reflected the 'apostolic deposit.' The church upheld the apostolic witness in its sacred literature as a way of grounding its faith in Jesus, represented by the apostles' teaching...when the apostolic authorship of ancient writings was doubted, typically their canonical status was also questioned....The church excluded from the biblical canon any writings that it believed were written after the period of apostolic ministry." (TCD, 424-426, 431)
Irenaeus refers to:
"the only true and life-giving faith, which the Church has received from the apostles and imparted to her sons. For the Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God; to whom also did the Lord declare: 'He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and Him that sent Me.' We have learned from none others the plan of our 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." (Against Heresies, 3, Preface; 3:1:1)
Elsewhere, he refers to the four gospels as "the Gospels of the Apostles...which have been handed down to us from the apostles" (Against Heresies, 3:11:9). Notice that even the gospels of Mark and Luke, who weren't apostles, are seen as apostolic books. The Christian faith is apostolic, and apostolic documents are scripture.
Francois Bovon notes that the same standard is found in earlier sources:
"In my opinion, the Gospel-Apostle structure, manifest from the first generation of Christians, prepares the way for the formation of a new body of scriptures as a complement or counterpart to the holy scriptures (the Septuagint) inherited by the church. The formation of the New Testament canon was therefore the logical materialization of this theological structure....it [the early church] recognized the importance of these two elements, Gospel and Apostle, Christ and his disciples. The First Epistle of Clement of Rome (ca. 95-98) clearly defines this demarcated structure: 'The apostles received the good news for us from our Savior, Jesus Christ; Jesus, the Christ, was sent by God. Thus Christ comes from God and the apostles come from Christ; the two were sent out in good order by the will of God' (1 Clement 42:1-2). For his part, Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 115) encourages the Magnesians to remain firm 'in the teachings of the Savior and the apostles.' He urges the presbyters and deacons to support the bishop as their invaluable spiritual leader; as leader, the bishop in turn must submit to the apostles of Christ. Some years later, between 110 and 130, Papias of Hierapolis insisted on an apostolic mediation that would bring the Christians of his time into contact with the early manifestation of truth in Jesus....In his Apology, Aristides (ca. 140) inscribes the faith of Christians within the structure of Gospel and Apostle....there is evidence of a parallel track traveled by other Christian communities and movements. What is striking about these other texts, be they gnostic, Jewish-Christian, or apocryphal, is that they are also aware of the bipolar structure of Gospel and Apostle, even if they occasionally order them in different ways." (TCD, 522-525)
As Everett Ferguson observes, the "Gospel and Apostle" structure seems to be another way of referring to apostolicity:
"A shorthand expression of the authorities recognized by Christians was 'prophets and apostles,' it being understood that the Lord's authority stood behind both. This appears already in 2 Pet 3:2, 'Remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.' It serves as a summary of the scriptures read in church, according to Justin, 1 Apol. 67.3 (cf. Dial. 119.6). In the Muratorian Fragment, lines 77-78, the Shepherd was excluded from public reading because it did not belong to either of these categories. Compare the 'prophetic and apostolic meadow,' Clement of Alexandria's summary of the sources of knowledge (Strom. 1.1). This terminology may be seen as sketching a theology of the 'pre-Canon' or 'proto-Canon.' The two-part Christian Bible may also be anticipated in the reference to 'the books and the apostles' in 2 Clem. 14.2." (TCD, 306-307)
Why, then, would these early sources, sometimes the same sources, include a reference to "Gospel" along with a reference to the apostles? Perhaps for more than one reason. As Bovon notes, above, the term "Gospel" can be equated with Christ. Jesus was the authority behind the apostles, so there may have been a desire to emphasize that fact by including a reference to the gospels, biographies of Christ, along with the reference to apostles. And the Old Testament was commonly referred to by the bipolar, as Bovon puts it, structure of the Law and the Prophets. The bipolar structure of Gospel and Apostle may have been intended to parallel that Old Testament structure, even though the New Testament structure could be collapsed into one category and sometimes was. Jesus didn't write the gospels. Two of the gospels were written by apostles, and the other two were written by associates of the apostles. Note the passage from Irenaeus quoted above, in which he refers to all four gospels as apostolic. Similarly, Justin Martyr refers to the gospels as "the memoirs of the apostles" (First Apology, 67), even though he knows that some of them were written by "those who followed them" (Dialogue With Trypho, 103). It seems that the Gospel and Apostle structure Bovon refers to isn't different from apostolicity in any way that's significant in this context. Serapion comments that "we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ" (Eusebius, Church History, 6:12). The word "Gospel" in "Gospel and Apostle" may have been intended to emphasize the fact that the authority of Christ was behind the authority of the apostles.
Everett Ferguson comments on the early acceptance of apostolic documents as scripture:
"Although second-century Christian authors accepted the Old Testament as scripture, they used the New Testament writings, in relation to their quantity, much more than the Old Testament. Citation as 'scripture' appears to be less significant than the overwhelming use and importance attached to the writings that form the core of our New Testament....In terms of the significance of scriptural status, there is no time when Christians did not treat the writings that would become the New Testament as scripture." (TCD, 298)
Clement of Rome refers to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians as having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (First Clement, 47). Though the early Christians would sometimes refer to non-canonical sources as inspired, it's worth noting that Clement's comments are consistent with seeing 1 Corinthians as scripture. Papias and a source he appeals to, probably the apostle John, refer to the accuracy of Mark's gospel, including how Mark wrote without error (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39). Again, though such a view of Mark could be held by somebody who didn't view the book as scripture, the comments of Papias and his source are consistent with the scriptural status of the gospel of Mark. Polycarp refers to Ephesians as scripture (Letter To The Philippians, 12). The Epistle Of Barnabas refers to the gospel of Matthew as scripture (4). Second Clement does the same (2). Justin Martyr comments that Christian churches in general read the gospels along with the Old Testament scriptures in their church services (First Apology, 67).
We can go back further than the earliest patristic sources. Christianity came out of Judaism, a belief system that had a concept of scripture for hundreds of years prior to the time of Christ. The earliest Christians believed that God had become a man, had delivered a new revelation, had established a kingdom, and had commissioned the apostles (Matthew 28:18-20, John 1:1-14, Acts 1:8), who would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30). The apostles were foundational to the church (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 2:20, 4:11, 2 Peter 3:2, Revelation 21:14). They were comparable to the prophets of the Old Testament era (2 Peter 3:2), who wrote scripture, among other things. It seems unlikely that the earliest Christians would have believed that the God of Israel had communicated His revelation to His people through scripture for centuries, but would only give His people fallible writings from those who were commissioned to deliver the most significant revelation of all.
In a letter that some would consider the earliest Christian document we have today, the apostle Paul referred to the message of the apostles as "the word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Elsewhere, Paul refers to what he's writing as "the Lord's commandment" (1 Corinthians 14:37). He expects his teachings, oral and written, to be followed (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and he expects Christians to separate from those who don't follow those teachings (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 3:14). As Lee McDonald notes:
"It is also clear that Paul's letters were intended to be read publicly in churches, and this implies that they were viewed as something like scripture. Notice, for example, the authoritative tone in many passages in his letters that suggests that Paul also viewed his writings as authoritative if not prophetic (1 Cor 5:3-5; 6:1-6; 7:10-11, 17-20, 40; 11:23-34; Gal 5:1-4, passim)." (TCD, n. 9 on 419)
Everett Ferguson writes:
"Moody Smith's 1999 presidential address to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston carries us back to the very composition of the gospels. Accepting the distinction between scripture and canon, Smith examined the gospels for indications that the authors understood themselves to be writing scripture. He finds appreciable evidence in Matthew and Luke that they were continuing the Old Testament story, were imitating it, and were writing a definitive account of the coming of Jesus and his place in the history of salvation. The intent of Mark and John in this regard was less obvious, but there is evidence that they too were functioning as scripture from quite early. This is implicit, according to Smith, in the commonly accepted view that Matthew and Luke used Mark, and in the way that 1 John presupposes the Fourth Gospel and was engaged in exegetical controversy over its meaning. The continuity of these gospels with the Old Testament story contrasts with the apocryphal gospels, notably the Gospel of Thomas. This finding coincides with the fact that there is no time in Christian history after the writing of the four gospels when one can find evidence of their not being accepted as scripture." (TCD, 303)
John's gospel refers to how the apostles will be guided by the Holy Spirit in "all things" and will remember what Jesus taught them (John 14:26, 15:26-27), the sort of supernatural guidance that would occur if a gospel like John's were written as scripture. Paul seems to cite Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18. Paul's letters are referred to as scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16. John tells us that Christ commanded him to write (Revelation 1:11), and he tells us that Christ approved of the contents of the book (Revelation 22:7).
It seems, judging from both the New Testament and patristic sources, that apostolic documents are scripture. The concept didn't originate in the fourth century or in some earlier post-apostolic generation, but within the apostolic era itself.
The meaning of apostolicity should be clarified further. It wasn't enough for a document to be written during the time of the apostles or by a disciple of an apostle. As Bruce Metzger observed:
"Although both [Clement of Rome and Ignatius] display a certain air of authority, there is no longer any consciousness of apostolic authority. They look back at the venerable figures of the apostles as leaders in an age now past (1 Clem. v. 3-7; xlii. 1 ff.; xlvii. 1 ff.; Ign. Trall. ii. 2; Magn. vi. 1; vii. 2; xiii. 1)....Polycarp's mind is not only saturated with ideas and phrases derived from a considerable number of writings that later came to be regarded as New Testament Scriptures, but he also displays latent respect for these apostolic documents as possessing an authority lacking in other writings. Polycarp, as Grant remarks, 'clearly differentiates the apostolic age from his own time and, presumably for this reason, does not use the letters of Ignatius as authorities - even though they 'contain faith, endurance, and all the edification which pertains to our Lord' (xiii. 2)'." (CNT, 5, 63)
Men like Clement of Rome, Papias, and Polycarp were perceived as disciples of the apostles, yet their writings weren't considered scripture. It should be noted that the apostle John seems to have lived until around the close of the first century, and that First Clement was written in the late first century. Irenaeus refers to the apostle John as having lived until the time of the emperor Trajan (Against Heresies, 2:22:5), who came to power in the year 98. And First Clement has been dated earlier than that. Michael Holmes notes that there "is widespread agreement in dating this letter about A.D. 95-97", and he gives some reasons why (TAF, 23-24). Some people date First Clement even earlier. Yet, First Clement wasn't commonly considered scripture by the early Christians. It seems that it wasn't enough for a document to be written in apostolic times, even by a disciple of the apostles, like Clement. Some people would also date other documents outside of the canon, like The Shepherd Of Hermas, to the late first century.
The best explanation of the data is that apostolicity involved apostolic approval. Clement may have written his letter when John was still alive, but without the approval of John. And Polycarp, for example, didn't write until after the death of the apostles. Not only does defining apostolicity as involving apostolic approval make more sense of the exclusion of a document like First Clement, but it also makes more sense as a concept. Why conclude that a document is scripture just because it was a Christian document written during the time of the apostles? We have good evidence for the authority of the apostles, but not for the authority of all Christian writers in the timeframe in which the apostles lived. The latter doesn't follow from the former.
If apostolicity, defined as apostolic approval, is a canonical criterion, then what are the results of the application of that criterion? Does it justify our twenty-seven-book New Testament? Or something less than that? Should we trust the early Christians' judgments about who wrote the relevant documents and whether the documents are apostolic? I'll address those issues in future posts.