10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #2: “Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon”

Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.

Contemporary challenges to the New Testament canon have taken a number of different forms over the years.  For generations, scholars have mainly focused upon the problem of the boundaries of the New Testament. The perennial question has usually been “How do we know we have the right books?”  But, in recent years, a new challenge has begun to take center stage (though it is really not new at all).  While the validity of the canon’s boundaries is still an area of concern, the attention has shifted to the validity of the canon’s very existence.  The question now is “Why is there a New Testament at all?”  The answer, according to critics of the canon, is not to be found in the first-century—there was nothing about earliest Christianity (or the books themselves) that would naturally lead to the development of a canon. Instead, we are told, the answer is to be found in the later Christian church.  The canon was an ecclesiastical product that was designed to meet ecclesiastical needs. Thus, the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later, artificial development that is out of sync with Christianity’s original purpose—it was something imposed upon the Christian faith. Gamble argues this very point: “There is no intimation at all that the early church entertained the idea of Christian scriptures…Therefore, the NT as we think of it was utterly remote from the minds of the first generation of Christian believers.”[1]

However, are we really to think that there was nothing about earliest Christianity that might have given rise to a new collection of scriptural books?  I will argue here that the earliest Christians held a number of beliefs that, especially when taken in tandem, would have naturally led to the development of a new collection of sacred books—what we could call a “canon.”  In other words, the theological matrix of first-century Christianity created a favorable environment for the growth of a new written revelational deposit. Let us consider what three of these theological beliefs might have been.

1. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the eschatological fulfillment of foundational Old Testament promises about God’s redemption of his people.  It is important to remember the Jews of the first century period were in a state of anticipation—waiting and longing for God’s redemptive deliverance of Israel.  In other words, 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. N.T. Wright observes, “The great story of the Hebrew scriptures was therefore inevitably read in the second-temple period as a story in search of a conclusion.”[2]  What made the earliest Christians unique is that they believed that the story of the Old Testament had been completed.  It was finished and fulfilled in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.  The long-awaited redemption of God had arrived.

If so, it is not difficult to see how this belief might impact the production of new scriptural books. If Christians believed the OT story had now been completed, then it reasonable to think that the proper conclusion to the Old Testament might then be written.  Otherwise the OT Scriptures would be a play without a final act. This possibility finds confirmation in the fact that some of the New Testament writings seem to be intentionally completing the Old Testament story.  It is noteworthy that the first book of the New Testament begins with a genealogy with a strong Davidic theme (Matt 1:1), and the (likely) last book of the Hebrew canon begins with a genealogy that has a strong Davidic theme (1 Chronicles 1-2). This structural feature led D. Moody Smith to declare, “In doing so, Matthew makes clear that Jesus represents the restoration of that dynasty and therefore the history of Israel and the history of salvation. Thus, Jesus continues the biblical narrative.”[3] Davies and Allison agree that Matthew “thought of his gospel as a continuation of the biblical history.”[4]

2. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant.  We must remember that the Jews of the first century were covenantally oriented. N.T. Wright has observed that “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period.”[5]  And it is clear that the earliest Christians were also covenantally oriented, as they saw Jesus as ushering in a new covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22, 8:8).  What implications does this belief have on canon?  The answer lies in the very close connection between covenants and written texts.  It is well-established by now that the very concept of ‘covenant’ (or treaty) was drawn from the ancient near eastern world where a suzerain king would often make a treaty-covenant with his vassal king. And here is the key: when such covenants were made, they were accompanied by written documentation of that covenant.  It is not surprising then that when God made a treaty-covenant with Israel on Sinai, he gave them written documentation of the terms of that covenant.  Indeed, so close was the connection between the covenant and written texts, that Old Testament language would often equate the two—the written text was the covenant!

If this is the background of early Christian understanding of covenants, then the implications are easy to see. 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.  Thus, 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 to testify to the terms of that covenant.  In other words, this Old Testament covenantal background provides strong historical reason for thinking that early Christians would have had a predisposition towards written canonical documents and that such documents might have arisen naturally from the early Christian movement.  At a minimum, the covenantal context of early Christianity suggests that the emergence of a new corpus of scriptural books, after the announcement of a new covenant, could not be regarded as entirely unexpected.

This appears to find confirmation in 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul refers to himself and the other apostles as “ministers of the new covenant”—and Paul makes this declaration in a written text that bears his authority as a minister of the new covenant.  Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they understood Paul’s letter as, in some sense, a covenant document.

3. The earliest Christians believed in the authority of the apostles to speak for Christ. Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15).  When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20).  Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).  Given this background, we come to the key question: what would happen if the apostles put their authoritative message in written form?  How would such documents be viewed?  Initially, of course, the apostles delivered their message orally through teaching and preaching. But, it was not long before they began to write their message down. And when they did so, they also told Christians “Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). And again, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person and have nothing to do with him” (2 Thess 3:14).  It is here that we see the obvious connection between the role of the apostles and the beginnings of the canon.  If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself.  Such writings would not have to wait until second, third, or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to become authoritative—instead they would be viewed as authoritative from almost the very start. For this reason, a written New Testament was not something the church formally “decided” to have at some later date, but was instead the natural outworking of the redemptive-historical function of the apostles.

In sum, these three theological beliefs of the earliest Christians should, at a bare minimum, make us hesitant about confident proclamations from modern scholars that early Christians had no inclinations toward a canon.  On the contrary, these beliefs suggest that the development of a new corpus of scriptural books would have been a natural, and to some extent even inevitable, part of early Christianity.

[1]  H.Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 57.

[2] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 217.

[3] D.M. Smith, “When Did the Gospels Become Scripture?,” JBL 119 (2000): 7.

[4] W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), I: 187.

[5] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 262.


10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #2: “Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon” — 18 Comments

  1. Pingback: Michael Kruger Writes on Misconception #2 About the New Testament Canon | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God

  2. I cannot imagine treasuring the NT canon anymore than I do. Nor can I imagine anyone else treasuring it more than I do. Moreover, I subscribe to all three of your enumerated points. However, I don’t see how they lead to your conclusion or how they support the title of the post. I actually think it’s defensible for someone to say “Nothing in early Christianity dictated that there would be a canon.” It seems that practically all of the NT documents were written for specific purposes in specific situations at specific times and directed to specific groups of believers. Hardly anything in it seems written for posterity, notwithstanding the fact that all the documents serve posterity quite well. Moreover, if there was an intent to establish a new canon, our guys were pretty slow out of the gate – especially if it’s true that the first document was written around 50 CE and the twenty-seventh close to 100 CE. (Hey, if we were placing orders we’d have asked for a hundred of them addressing all sorts of questions we’ve been having to guess at.)

    You don’t have to answer me. I’m looking forward to the rest of your series. Maybe I’ll see things more clearly by the end.

    • Thanks, Mike. Appreciate your thoughts. A few comments:
      1. The fact that the NT documents were “occasional” has no bearing on whether they were written as Scripture (and thus written as part of a future canon). In fact, Richard Bauckham has recently challenged this entire thesis as it pertains to the Gospels. He suggests the Gospels were written with a universal audience in mind, and were not intended for a single audience.
      2. In a future post, I hope to argue further that the NT authors themselves understood (at least to some degree) that they were writing Scripture. If so, then obviously the idea of a canon was not a late development, but a rather early one.
      3. The fact that the NT authors were “slow out of the gate” is a bit misleading. Most scholars view Galatians and James as both written in the 40’s, not that far after Christ’s ascension in the early 30’s. But, even it took a while for all the books to be written, that would not disprove my point here. My point is simple: the canon arose naturally from within the early CHristian movement and was not a later ecclesiastical creation imposed on books originally written for another purpose. The books don’t all have to be written within the first five years for this point to stand.

    • Mike, I feel the force of your comments, but it seems that many of the books OT canon (already established by Jesus’s day) would also qualify as “occasional” too.

      Consider Zechariah, for instance. It is given initially for the discouraged and weak who had returned from the exile and were trying to rebuild the wall and ultimately the temple. Not exactly what we’re called to do, though it does redound to our benefit also in many ways.

  3. Pingback: What I Read Online – 04/11/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  4. “2. In a future post, I hope to argue further that the NT authors themselves understood (at least to some degree) that they were writing Scripture. If so, then obviously the idea of a canon was not a late development, but a rather early one.” Yes. This is a very important point to consider (1 Tim. 5:18 and 2 Pet. 3:15-16). I look forward to your future post.

  5. Dear Mike,

    Excellent article especially with regards to your point #2 & 3. When I read those to sections I immediately thought of Hebrews 1:1-2; 3:1, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoke unto us by ‘his’ Son, … Wherefore, holy brethren,, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the APOSTLE and High Priest of our profession, Jesus Christ;…”

    It appears that since Jesus Christ, Himself also an APOSTLE, one sent with the authority of God, and having the authority of God Himself, to speak the Words of God to His people, and so designate others to have that same authority, it would make complete sense for there to be a “canon,” or “written text” to communicate that word.

    Furthermore, it also indicates that the office of “apostle” is no longer valid for today since those designated as “apostles” (cf. Acts 1) have all died (Apostle John dying ca. 100 AD); thus, fixing the terminus ad quem for the NT Canon to have been written. In fact, any other attempt by any other group to proclaim that their writings (LDS, JW’s, Quran, etc.) are canonical or a revelation from God would be heresy since the Canon would be closed.

    • Thanks, Bryant. I appreciate those comments. I think you are right on the money. The apostolic foundation of the canon is the key to understanding (a) its origins, and (b) its limits. Cf. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the NT Scriptures.

    • Rev. Bryant,

      I’d suggest a counter-point concerning the apostolic office.

      According to Richard Gaffin, also drawing on Acts 1, the office of apostle must be limited to those who were disciples of Christ and eye and ear witnesses to the resurrection, and yet Paul qualifies by exception, having seen the ascended Lord and directly receiving special revelation from him (Gal 1:11-17). This exception seems to me to undermine the “historically limiting restriction” he (and you) see on apostleship.

      Could not the Lord appear to another, making him an apostle and granting him the revelatory teaching in the same (exceptional) way? This could theoretically happen anytime between the ascension and consummation, and some such as Pentecostals and Mormons (wrongly, IMHO) believe that it has.

      Paul does say he was the “last” apostle (1 Cor 4:9; 15:7ff), but in context, this doesn’t seem to me to imply or require the sense of “final for all time” (cf. also Eph. 3:8). Paul does not pass on the office, by say making Timothy an apostle, but the absence of “apostolic succession” (let the reader understand) does not thereby necessitate the end of divinely minted apostles like Paul himself who emphasizes in Gal 1 that his calling, unlike Matthias’, was received independently from the other apostles and directly from Jesus himself.

      What do you think?

      • Thanks for this. I understand what you are trying to say about Paul–if Christ appeared to him directly, why could he not appear to someone directly today? However, there is more to the apostles than simply being called directly by Christ. Apostles are also defined by their distinctive mission: to lay the once-and-for-all foundation of the church in light of the redemptive work of Christ (Eph 2:20). Once that foundation was laid, it is not be laid again. Thus, by definition, it is unrepeatable. Thus, the apostolic office could not continue today; it was designed for a specific purpose and for a specific point in time.

        • Thanks. My thought is that if God wanted to do a some great work (say the conversion of the Jews, or something we haven’t thought of), then why couldn’t he send a new, divinely minted prophet-apostle? The ascended Christ could meet the new apostle, just as he did Paul.

          God has often surprised his people in the history of redemption, and I don’t think his hands are tied, right? The climax of redemptive history has past, but there could be more to be resolved in the application of Messiah’s work.

          One might object: our current revelation is sufficient for the conversion of the Jews etc., but the same was true of the OT revelation (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16 — n.b., “every good work”) and God still saw fit to add canonical revelation.

          • Yes, I understand what you are trying to say. But, I think the Bible itself draws a distinction between the OT revelation and the NT revelation. Sure, people could be converted through OT revelation. But, OT revelation was inherently incomplete because redemption had not yet been accomplished. (indeed this is the whole point of the book of Hebrews). This is why Heb 1:1-4 makes it clear that Jesus is the ultimate, final and complete revelation.

          • Thanks, Dr. Kruger. I guess I don’t get that from Hebrews. I do see that Messiah is the fulfillment and consummation of redemptive history, but I don’t see why that means no more revelation can follow. After all, the apostles themselves wrote after Jesus ascended, providing further revelation (e.g., what to look for in an elder, how to integrate Jews and Gentiles in one body, encouragement to endure suffering, etc.) as they were led by the Spirit.

            One might say, The church didn’t really need encouragement about suffering, as that was implicit in the revelation they already had, which is true enough, but God saw fit to provide such encouragement. He also saw fit to provide wisdom (James) and a vision of the cosmic battle (Revelation). He might see fit to tell us more or call us to some new work. Man may not add to the canon, but God could, right?

            As for 2 Tim 3:16f, I get that straight out of Frame’s chapter on sufficiency in Doctrine of the Word of God: “We should notice that 2 Tim. 3:16-17 ascribes sufficiency to the Old Testament. That is an interesting point, that the Old Testament is actually a sufficient guide for New Testament Christians. As we saw in Chapter 20, Paul recommends the Old Testament as the criterion Christians should use to evaluate new heresies after Paul has died.”

          • I appreciate this. Let me make a few final comments:
            1. You mentioned that the apostles themselves wrote after Jesus. However, this is not an example of “further revelation” (as you put it). The Church, generally speaking, was not aware of what Jesus said and did apart from the apostolic witness. Thus, the apostolic witness is not later revelation, but foundational revelation. It is the sole basis through which the church could have a reliable account of Jesus’ words and deeds.
            2. You mentioned that the church didn’t necessarily need further encouragement beyond what it “already had.” However, without the apostles, the church did not have anything. Although other people certainly would have witnessed Jesus’ earthly life, and would have passed it along, it was only the apostolic witness that commissioned by Christ directly and therefore was authoritative and infallible. Thus, again, it was the apostolic work that laid the foundation of the church.
            3. You cite Frame’s chapter on the sufficiency of Scripture. I agree with his statement. Indeed, the OT was sufficient for helping the Christians identify heresies and train people in righteousness, etc. But, I have no doubt that Frame would also affirm, along with Hebrews, that the OT was not the final revelation. It was not the fullness of what God had to say. He had more to say in the New covenant revelation and that would be his final Word.

      • Dear MF,

        First, I do not wish to get into ecclessiology/church polity and take away from the issue of canonicity being discussed by Mike.

        Second, Paul would be the exception that proves the rule. Furthermore, the Apostle John, John the elder (in apposition to Apostle John) was the LAST apostle to die. Furthermore, Paul referring to himself as being the “last” of the apostles with reference to the resurrection. None of the prerogative, privileges and power (authority) passed on to any one else.

        Third, as long as an apostle remained alive, then any person could appeal to the apostle for adjudication of a problem over that of the judgement and authority of the Pastor/Elder/Bishop of a church. That is the main reason, not the only one, that led to the Montanist Controversy in the late 2nd Century AD.

        Fourth, is it possible, or even probable, that there would be further revelation from God? NO. The canon is closed. There is no more revelation. There may be continued illumination; let us not confused revelation and illumination.

        Fifth, the debacle with Marcion, the Gnostics (Valentinian commentary on John, etc.), Montantist Controversy, led the church to two clear conclusions.

        1) That a gospel, epistle, etc. to be found in the canon had to be by a KNOWN apostle of Jesus Christ, Levi, son of Alphaeus AKA Matthew and John wrote the Gospels of Matthew and John respectively; Paul wrote Romans through Hebrews; Peter wrote I & II Peter; John also wrote I, II & III John and Revelation (accepted as canonical as early as the early 2nd Century AD, but fell into questionable status because of Eusebius’ clearly prejudicial judgement based on Revelation 20 and the literal 1,000 yrs reign of Christ).

        2) That a gospel, epistle, etc. to be found in the canon had to be by a KNOWN associate of an apostle of Jesus Christ, e.g. Mark (primarily Peter; although also associated with Paul and Barnabas on the First Missionary Journey) and Luke (associated with Paul) who authored Luke-Acts; James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus; Hebrews was thought to be by Paul (that is another issue that I am sure Mike will deal with at a later post).

  6. Dr. Kruger,

    Thanks for this post. I’d add John Frame’s point (developed from Meredith Kline, I think) that God intended in the OT, and continues to intend in the NT, to rule his people by a book — Lex Rex, not Rex Lex.

    Certainly there is in-person human agency involved all along the way (e.g., apostles teaching and living-to-be-imitated to elders overseeing), and personal presence is better than the written word for some things (cf. Frame on the “apostolic parousia” in Doctrine of the Word of God, ch. 43). Nonetheless, as you noted, the apostolic books, like the OT canon, were intended as authoritative for the church.