Monday, May 25, 2009

From Apostolicity To The Twenty-Seven-Book New Testament


CGM = Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999)

CNT = Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

CPE = George Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000)

FPP = Craig Blomberg, From Pentecost To Patmos (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 2006)

GJC = Craig Keener, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)

HEB = William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1991)

INT = D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction To The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005)

NTI = Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, in The Logos Library System: Deluxe Collection (Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, 1997)

PPJ = Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003)

SPJ = Michael Green, 2 Peter & Jude (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987)

TCD = Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)

In some previous posts (primarily here), I argued for apostolicity as a canonical criterion. If a book was written by an apostle or approved by an apostle as scripture, it should be considered scripture. If we accept apostolicity as a canonical criterion that can give us a New Testament canon, we should then ask whether that criterion can justify the twenty-seven-book New Testament.

There are many posts relevant to the traditional authorship attributions of the books of the New Testament in the archives of this blog. See, also, the New Testament commentaries recommended by Steve Hays here. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo's New Testament introduction (INT) has a lot of good material on the subject. Daniel Wallace has written an introduction to each book of the New Testament, including some comments on authorship. J.P. Holding has a lot of relevant material at his web site.

If the traditional authorship attributions are correct, then at least twenty-one of the New Testament books were written by an apostle. I think that James, the brother of Jesus, should be considered an apostle, given what Paul writes about him in Galatians 1-2. Paul refers to him as an apostle (Galatians 1:19) in the context of referring to the apostleship of Peter (Galatians 1:18-19), and he goes on to refer to James' reputation as a pillar of the church along with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). It seems, then, that James was an apostle in the highest sense of that term, like Peter and John. I would therefore put the number of books written by an apostle at twenty-two.

The remaining five are: Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude. I think that those five books probably had apostolic approval. The books were accepted as scripture by the Christians of the patristic era, whose primary canonical criterion was apostolicity. I trust their judgment, for reasons I've explained in past articles and will discuss further in future posts in this series. In the remainder of this post, I'll be discussing a portion of the evidence that corroborates their judgment.

Before I do so, I want to note that Luke and Acts should be considered together in many contexts, including some of the contexts I'll be addressing below. The two books are highly similar in many ways, and modern scholarship accepts them as the work of one author (FPP, 10). It seems that Acts wasn't something Luke decided to add after writing his gospel, but rather was anticipating as he wrote the gospel. The unity of the two works should be kept in mind.


The end of the apostolic era can be dated to roughly the close of the first century, the time of the death of the apostle John. Christian documents of the first century should be considered works of the apostolic era.

Bruce Metzger finds references to some of the five books in question (Mark, Luke, and Hebrews) in sources who lived in the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century (CNT, 43, 54-55, 62, 71, 90, 148). Since Luke and Acts probably should be judged together, as explained above, the lack of early references to Acts isn't of much significance. Knowledge of Luke is reflected in the earliest patristic sources, and the early date that such evidence suggests for Luke also suggests an early date for Acts. But see Chris Price's discussion of early references to Acts here.

As I discussed in a previous post, all five of these documents were widely accepted as works of the apostolic era by men who lived in the first and second centuries. Since I don't say much about Jude's early acceptance in the article just linked, I'll quote some of Michael Green's comments on the subject:

"The external attestation to this small letter is early and good....By AD 200 it was accepted in the main areas of the ancient church, in Alexandria (Clement and Origen), in Rome (Muratorian Canon), and in Africa (Tertullian)." (SPJ, 48-49)

While Jude isn't as widely used and attested as the other four documents in the earliest generations, it was widely believed to be a first-century work early on.

Papias refers to information he received about the gospel of Mark from a source he refers to as "the elder", probably the apostle John (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39). That source, who probably was older than Papias even if he wasn't the apostle John, refers to the gospel of Mark as the work of an associate of Peter. The common belief that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source also suggests an early date for the book.

The author of Luke and Acts claims to have been alive in the middle of the first century (Acts 16:11). For other evidence of the early dating of Luke and Acts, see Chris Price's article.

Hebrews refers to the Jewish sacrificial system in the present tense, and no mention is made of the destruction of the temple, which occurred in the year 70. Documents written after 70 sometimes use the present tense to refer to the temple and related issues, and somebody writing after 70 might not mention the destruction of the temple, even when the event is as relevant as it would be in the book of Hebrews. But both characteristics make more sense in a document written prior to 70. Hebrews 12:4 tells us that the letter's audience hasn't yet been persecuted to the point of bloodshed, and the audience seems to be in Italy, so the document probably was written prior to the Neronian persecution. The "those from Italy" in 13:24 is reminiscent of the "from Italy" in Acts 18:2, used to describe people who were out of the nation at the time. If the author of Hebrews had been writing in Italy, the phrase "those from Italy" seems awkward. On the other hand, if his audience was in Italy, it would be relevant to mention the greetings of travelers from Italy who were with him as he was composing the letter. An Italian audience would help explain the widespread use of Hebrews in early Roman sources, including Clement of Rome, Hermas, and Justin Martyr (HEB, cli-clii).

Jude identifies himself as the brother of a James who needs no further description (Jude 1), and a James of the first century, especially Jesus' brother, would be the best candidate. Jude's description of heretics doesn't align with the many heretics we read about from sources of the second century, which would make sense if the book comes from a first-century setting. Thomas Schreiner writes:

"Therefore no inductive grounds exist for identifying the opponents with the second century. Everything said here fits well into a first-century setting, before the more developed tenets of Gnosticism appeared. Indeed, it even exceeds the evidence to label the heresy 'incipient Gnosticism,' for we have no real evidence of any Gnostic influence at all." (PPJ, 415)

Much more can be said about the dating of these books, and sources like the ones cited in the second paragraph of this post have more information on the subject. Nothing in these five documents and nothing in the external evidence justifies dating the books later than the first century. The date of these documents is consistent with apostolicity.


The Mark to whom the second gospel is attributed was an associate of multiple apostles. So was Luke. Jude was well-known in early Christian circles (1 Corinthians 9:5) and the brother of an apostle.

We don't have as much information about the author of Hebrews. The earliest sources attribute the book to a companion of Paul or attribute it to Paul himself. The former would put the writer close to the apostles or identify him as an apostle, and the latter would make him an apostle.

Given how differently the authorship of Hebrews is treated by the early Christians than the authorship of any other New Testament book, with such a variety of authors proposed and so much doubt expressed by those who make an attribution, it seems likely that some unusual set of circumstances was involved in the origins of the book. Perhaps a group in Rome had been in contact with the apostle Paul, and some of Paul's companions took up the correspondence as a result of Paul's imprisonment or death or some other factor. One of them was a leader or spokesman for the group. (The letter goes back and forth between "we" and "I". See, for example, 13:18-19.) Thus, a series of names would be associated with the document, including Paul, who was initially expected to carry on the correspondence with this group of Christians, and multiple associates of Paul. In some circles, the letter may have been attributed to the group of Paul's companions rather than to any one of them, with the identification of their leader or spokesman as the author only made by some who looked into the matter further. Or multiple names of companions of Paul who were involved may have circulated, with different names being given emphasis by different people. If an apostle approved of the letter early on, while there was still some uncertainty about the details of the authorship in some places, there may have been a perception that there was no need to pursue the authorship question further. The apostolic sanction was sufficient.

Whatever the situation that produced the unusual uncertainty and disagreement we see in early church history concerning the authorship of Hebrews, the widespread consensus that the letter came from a Pauline source carries some weight. And Barnabas seems to be the best candidate within the Pauline circle. Apollos is a good guess in some ways, but none of the early sources who comment on the subject name him. Luke and Clement of Rome were associates of Paul who were sometimes suggested as the author of Hebrews in antiquity, but the differences between Hebrews and Luke's writings and First Clement suggest otherwise.

Barnabas was a Levite (Acts 4:36), which would help explain the knowledge of Judaism reflected in Hebrews. Tertullian names Barnabas as the author, he does so without expressing the sort of doubt we see in other early comments about Hebrews' authorship, and he states that Barnabas' name is attached to the manuscripts of the book (On Modesty, 20; cf. Tertullian's comments on the importance of attaching an author's name to a document in Against Marcion, 4:2). Tertullian probably would have seen more than one copy of the book in his lifetime. Jerome comments that "many" attributed Hebrews to Barnabas (CNT, 236). He also says that many attributed it to Clement of Rome. But the minority who attributed it to Barnabas was large enough for Jerome to refer to them as "many". Donald Guthrie cites some other sources of the patristic era, later than Tertullian, who also state or suggest that the letter was written by Barnabas (NTI). Tertullian wasn't alone in his conclusion. Apparently, attribution to Barnabas was present in multiple manuscripts in Tertullian's day, and it was an attribution that Jerome knew to be made by many people. And it would help explain the attribution of The Epistle Of Barnabas, since the themes of that document are vaguely similar to those of Hebrews. While the scenario could be reversed, so that Hebrews was attributed to Barnabas on the basis of similarities with The Epistle Of Barnabas, the former seems more likely. Hebrews is a document of higher quality and an earlier date, more consistent with what we know of Barnabas. Why would anybody have attributed The Epistle Of Barnabas to him without something like an influential earlier document attributed to Barnabas that was vaguely similar? An earlier attribution of Hebrews to Barnabas seems to make better sense of the attachment of his name to both documents.

An alleged inconsistency between Hebrews 2:3 and authorship by Barnabas is the strongest objection I've seen. But the passage is speaking collectively, and the emphasis seems to be on the degree of closeness to Jesus. Barnabas was a Christian early on and may have even seen Jesus in one or more contexts during His earthly ministry, but that wouldn't put him in the same category as the Twelve or Paul, for example. I don't see anything in Hebrews 2:3 that would make authorship by Barnabas unlikely.

All five of the documents under consideration seem to have been written by a man who had a close relationship with at least one apostle. Even if Paul was dead when Barnabas wrote Hebrews, for example, the apostles still living probably would have had some familiarity with him, and his letter probably would have been widely circulated.

Apostolic Awareness

How likely is it that one or more of the apostles would have been aware of these books? Craig Keener makes some comments about Mark and Luke that are applicable to the other three documents under consideration as well:

"Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius' letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John's Gospel and the 'postapostolic' period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel 'communities.'" (GJC, 41-42)

Pheme Perkins notes:

"Christianity forged an astonishingly close relationship with books, perhaps as a consequence of its original engagement with the sacred Jewish texts. The production, circulation, and interpretation of books were essential to early Christian communities (e.g., 1 Tim 3:13; Justin, 1 Apol. 1.67). This preoccupation was evident to the cultured opponents of Christiantiy, as Lucian's satirical picture of Peregrinus's career as a Christian bishop indicates (Peregr. 11). Gamble has shown that early Christian literature was disseminated over a wider area and much more quickly than non-Christian works in the same period." (TCD, 356-357)

If each of these five documents was written by an associate of one or more of the apostles, as the evidence suggests, how likely is it that the apostles were unaware of all of these books?

The apostles seem to have been very knowledgeable of and active in church affairs, as the passages Keener cites above illustrate. Since John seems to have lived the longest among the apostles, his knowledge and activity are especially noteworthy. See, for example, John 21:23, the letters of John, and Revelation 2-3. Early extra-Biblical traditions about the apostle John also portray him as highly knowledgeable of and active in church affairs, even in the closing years of his life (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:4; Clement of Alexandria, Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42).

Some comments Vincent Taylor made in another context are applicable here:

"It is on this question of eyewitnesses that Form-Criticism [e.g., as approached by Bultmann and company] presents a very vulnerable front. If the Form-Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection. As Bultmann sees it, the primitive community exists in vacuo, cut off from its founders by the walls of an inexplicable ignorance. Like Robinson Crusoe it must do the best it can. Unable to turn to anyone for information, it must invent situations for the words of Jesus, and put into his lips sayings which personal memory cannot check....However disturbing to the smooth working of theories, the influence of eyewitnesses on the formation of the tradition cannot possibly be ignored. The one hundred and twenty at Pentecost did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information....When all qualifications have been made, the presence of personal testimony is an element in the formative process which it is folly to ignore" (source)

We shouldn't assume that the apostles were "translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection", or were largely ignorant of what was going on around them, when considering these canonical issues.

If Matthew used Mark as a source for his gospel, as is commonly believed, then Matthew was aware of the document. Papias mentions some information he attained on Mark's gospel from a man he identifies as "the elder" (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39), probably the apostle John. It would follow that John was aware of the gospel of Mark. The heavily Petrine nature of the gospel, accompanied by later, but inconsistent, traditions regarding Peter's awareness of the document, make his awareness of it a reasonable possibility.

If 1 Timothy 5:18 refers to Luke's gospel as scripture, as is likely (CPE, 233-235; cf. Paul's application of an introductory formula to texts mentioned second or later in Romans 15:10-12 and 2 Timothy 2:19), then Paul would have been aware of that gospel and probably Acts. There was a popular patristic belief that 2 Corinthians 8:18 refers to Luke and his gospel. The text of 2 Corinthians 8:18 is inconclusive on the matter, and the patristic tradition isn't early or widespread enough to be of much persuasiveness, but it does at least reflect the common patristic impression that Luke wrote early and with Paul's knowledge. That widespread patristic impression carries some weight. It would help explain why Luke and Acts were so widely accepted as scripture so early.

If Barnabas wrote Hebrews, then the considerations discussed above seem to make it likely that at least one apostle would have been aware of the document. Clement of Rome makes use of Hebrews (HEB, cli-clii), and may be assuming that his Corinthian audience will be familiar with the document as well, at a time when the apostle John probably was still alive. If the document comes from the early stages of the Neronian persecution or earlier, as I've argued above, then it was circulating for more than thirty years prior to John's death. It seems doubtful that he never heard of it, while men like Clement of Rome and the Corinthian Christians did.

I'm not aware of any direct evidence of apostolic awareness of Jude, since I reject the idea that 2 Peter uses Jude as a source, but the general principles mentioned above, such as in the quotes from Keener and Perkins, would be applicable to Jude as well.

Apostolic Approval

Matthew's use of Mark suggests that he held a high view of the document. As Craig Keener notes, Matthew "follows Mark and Q closely (by ancient literary standards)" (CGM, 9). He refers to Matthew's use of Mark as "basically conservative" (CGM, 10). Papias' discussion of what "the elder" said about Mark's gospel (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39) suggests that John held a highly positive view of the document as well.

My comments above concerning 1 Timothy 5:18 and 2 Corinthians 8:18 are applicable to apostolic approval, not just apostolic awareness.

The high view of Hebrews reflected in Clement of Rome and so many sources of the second century and the large amount of time the document circulated prior to John's death suggest that the apostles encouraged such a high view of the letter. It's doubtful that the apostles were all unaware of the document or didn't have much influence on the early perception of it.

If 2 Peter uses material from Jude, as most scholars believe, then my comments above on Matthew's use of Mark are applicable. If Jude is the later of the two documents, as I suspect, then I'm not aware of any evidence of apostolic approval of Jude aside from the document's widespread acceptance as scripture by people whose primary canonical criterion was apostolicity. I consider that line of evidence sufficient, but the case for Jude is weaker than the case that can be made for the other four documents.

In some cases, the apostolic approval in view is something less than approval of the document as scripture. Matthew and John could have viewed Mark highly without having considered it scripture, for example. But their positive view of the document at least moves us closer to the canonical status of Mark. It shouldn't be argued that Matthew and John held a low view of Mark's gospel. And when their positive assessment of the book is combined with the widespread acceptance of the document as scripture in the following generations, it seems likely that one or more of the apostles approved of Mark's gospel in the highest sense, not just in some lesser way.

It's noteworthy that none of these documents have any significant obstacle to their apostolicity. Our lack of evidence for the apostolic approval of Jude, for example, aside from its widespread acceptance by people whose primary canonical standard was apostolicity, isn't equivalent to evidence against its apostolicity. All five of these documents are plausible as apostolic works, even though the evidence for some is stronger than the evidence for others.

This post has focused on a historical argument for the twenty-seven-book New Testament by the criterion of apostolicity. Other factors, like the ones I discussed earlier, would also have to be taken into account. The argument from apostolicity is sufficient, but other arguments add more weight to the case for the twenty-seven-book canon.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't notice this until now. This is excellent and very helpful. I look forward to studying this material and improving my currently amateur approach to establishing the canon and using this new information in the future.

    Thanks for the hard work!