Did Paul Himself Create the Very First New Testament Canon?


Let’s just admit it.  We rarely pay attention to the final greetings that Paul offers at the end of his letters.  Such personal statements are, well, too personal—they just don’t seem meant for us. However, our unfortunate neglect of these passages can leave a variety of treasures undiscovered.  One such passage may even bring unexpected illumination about the origins of the New Testament canon.  In 2 Tim 4:13 Paul says to Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” Paul makes a curious distinction here between “the books” (ta biblia) and “the parchments” (tas membranas), suggesting they are two different kinds of writings.  Scholars widely regard the first of these as a reference to books of the Old Testament, most likely on scrolls. We do not know how many of these Old Testament books Paul had in mind, but it must have been limited to a reasonable number that Timothy could have borne during his travels.

But, what is Paul referring to when he mentions “the parchments”?   The term membranas is significant because it is not a Greek word, but a loan word transliterated from the Latin membrana.  The history of this term in the first century makes it clear that it is a reference to a parchment codex.  The codex book format was different than that of a scroll.  Whereas the latter had writing on only one side (and was rolled up to protect that writing), the codex had writing on both sides of the page and was bound at the spine—like our traditional leaf books today.  What is interesting about early Christians is that they vastly preferred the codex book format over the scroll even though both the Jewish world and the Greco-Roman world preferred the scroll. Indeed, the reason for the widespread and early use of the codex amongst Christians is a great mystery that scholars have sought to solve for a very long time.

As for the content of the codices which Paul mentions in 2 Tim 4:13, a number of suggestions have been made over the years.  Given that Paul distinguishes these codices from the Old Testament writings, many scholars have rightly argued that they likely contained some sort of Christian writings.  This may have included a variety of things such as excerpts of Jesus’ teachings or early Christian testimonia (Old Testament proof texts supporting Messianic claims about Jesus).  Given the fact that Paul appears to cite Luke’s gospel elsewhere (1 Tim 5:18), and has an established relationship with Luke (Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:11), we must even consider the possibility that these codices contained the gospel of Luke (!).[1]

However, one of the most compelling possibilities is that these notebooks contained (among other things) copies of Paul’s own letters.[2]  It was not at all unusual in the Greco-Roman world to keep copies of (and even publish) one’s own letters.  Cicero exemplifies this practice as his personal secretary, Tiro, kept extensive copies of his letters. Cicero would occasionally receive a complaint from friends that one of their letters (from Cicero) was lost or damaged; on such occasions Cicero would quickly dispatch a replacement copy from his own collection.  And where did Cicero make/keep copies of his letters? He tells us: “I am jotting down a copy of this letter into my notebook.”[3]   In other words, Cicero kept copies of his letters in a codex.

If these “parchments” in 2 Tim 4:13 contained copies of Paul’s letters in a codex, then this opens up fresh insights the development of the New Testament canon.  Such a scenario might begin to answer the question of why early Christians preferred the codex over the scroll.   Since Paul had already begun to use the codex to contain his letters it is not difficult to imagine that early Christians would have retained that format when it became desirable to circulate a defined Pauline letter collection more broadly to the churches.  Moreover, this scenario provides a compelling explanation for why some letters of Paul were preserved for the church and some letters were ultimately lost (1 Cor 5:9).  The answer appears to be that some letters were lost because Paul, for whatever reasons, did not make a personal copy of them before sending them out. Thus, they were not available when Paul’s completed letter collection was circulating more broadly to the churches.

Most importantly, 2 Tim 4:13 provides additional support to the idea that, at a very early time period, Christians conceived of their religious writings in two parts: the Old Testament writings (ta biblia) and their Christian writings (tas membranas).   In Paul’s day the latter would have still been fairly undefined, including not only copies of his own letters, but possibly excerpts of Jesus tradition, Christian testimonia, and the like.   However, even though the content was undefined, there are hints here of a “proto-canon” of sorts, where valuable Christians texts are gathered into one place, in the form of a codex, with some even written by apostles.

If so, then perhaps the beginnings of the New Testament canon can be traced back to Paul himself.

[1] If Acts is dated before Paul’s death (given the odd, truncated ending), then it is reasonable to put Luke in the early to mid 60’s.  This would allow Paul to know about it before writing 1 Timothy.

[2] E. Randolph Richards, “The Codex and the Early Collection of Paul’s Letters,” BBR 8 (1998): 151-166; David Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994); Gamble, Books and Readers, 100-101.

[3] Fam. 9.26.1.


Did Paul Himself Create the Very First New Testament Canon? — 21 Comments

    • Thanks, Steve. Yes, this observation has been made by Porter, Richards, Trobisch, Skeat, and a number of others. Given that, it is interesting that it has not received more attention in the broader world of canonical studies.

  1. I read this argument in your book the other day. It’s better read in the context of your discussion. So (readers), if you have not read the book, do so.

    • Thanks, Rich. Yes, no doubt the argument makes better sense in the larger flow of that chapter in my book. However, I wanted to make it accessible in blog form to a wider audience.

  2. Pingback: What I Read Online – 05/17/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  3. Pingback: Did Paul Himself Create the Very First New Testament Canon? :

  4. I am not so much of a scholar but that is a nice Rembrandt. I find the articles interesting & they give me some added biblical perspective…

  5. Good stuff! I look forward to reading the book (it’s working its way up my list).

  6. At least one key problem here…

    Paul didn’t write 2Timothy. ;)

    Though 2 Timothy has always seemed more Paul-ish to me than 1 Timothy and Titus.

    • Yes, no doubt some scholars would make this objection. But, I think strong arguments have been made for its authenticity. Though I cannot get into those here!

      • Thanks for being a good sport about that comment. And yes, arguments certainly have been made by competent scholars for its “authenticity.”

    • hey, Stephen, all the more reason to read Canon Revisited – to revisit this question (though Pauline authorship of 2 Tim. is not the aim of the book). :-)

      • Thanks Rich. Canon Revisited is currently atop a stack of evangelical scholarship on canon formation on my desk. Read the intro last night, actually.

  7. Dear Rich, Stephen, Mike,

    It appears that what is happening is that liberal, critical scholarship is having to deal with new findings that P46 is not what they thought. At http://www.pastoralepistles.com is the following:

    “At the Society of Biblical Literature meeting Edgar Battad Ebojo presented a paper titled, “P46 with the Pastoral Epistles: A Misleading Proposal? Reinvestigating the Evidence of the Missing Last Pages of P46” P46 is an early significant document containing Paul’s letters (plus Hebrews) which is missing its last pages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_46). It has commonly been stated that the document would not have had enough pages to include the Pastoral Epistles, and, therefore, this is evidence that the Pastorals were not considered Pauline at this early date. However, in 1988 Jeremy Duff published an article [“P46 and the Pastorals: A Misleading Consensus?” NTS 44 (1998): 578-590] arguing that the Pastoral Epistles would fit because the scribe was beginning to squeeze more words in per page in the last pages we have.

    Ebojo provided meticulous examination of P46, character count, per line, variations, etc. The detail was impressive. He demonstrated subjectivity in the work of much of the preceding discussion and ended with the suggestion that P46 is not the place to look for information on the authorship or canonicity of the Pastoral Epistles.

    Ebojo’s work was exemplary in its detail and helpful in its modesty in its claims.
    Saturday, November 19, 2011.”

    It is the premise of liberal, critical scholarship that frequently is based on “UNBELIEF.” This UNBELIEF is couched in sophistry that give Plato, Aristotle and Socrates a run for their money. Most of their arguments are based on silence, a priori assumptions not including ad hominem arguments all the while claiming to know better than the Apostolic Fathers and 2nd-3rd Century AD churches.

    • Thanks, Bryant. Just a word of clarification: I was at this lecture by Ebojo last year in San Francisco. I had to slip out before it was over, but my memory was that he was arguing that P46 did NOT include the Pastorals. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Pastorals were not canonical or scriptural (nor does it mean that Ebojo thinks that). It simply means that P46 may not have included them. As I argue in my book, I think P46 may have intentionally been a collection of just Paul’s letters to churches, thus leaving out the Pastorals and Philemon. Separating Paul’s letters into these two categories was not unprecedented–the Muratorian fragment does this.

  8. Dear Mike,

    I thank you for the clarification. I added the quote above for the purpose of highlighting the remarks from http://www.pastoralepistles.com in case others did not know about the lastest on P46/ I did understand that P46 was not the place to look for the Pastoral Epistles since P46 most likely did not include them as you have also stated. I do like the idea that the Muratorian fragment, et als, that there two separate lists: Pauline Church epistles and Pauline Private epistles. In fact, the NT began the pattern since the Canon has the Pastorals and Philemon last.

    Now, the question is what is to be done with Hebrews since it is considered Pauline, but appears to be the bridge between the Pauline and the General Epistles; or the beginning of the General Epistles since Hebrews and James are both addressed to Jewish-Christian believers.

  9. Dear Mike,

    Have you read the following? It would explain a lot about why the Gospels did not have names originally attached to them, but were still known who had wrote them. It would also cause some problems for the liberal and Ehrman crowd.

    Anonymity of the Gospel Writers as an ANE Literary Tradition
    Posted on May 9, 2012 by Mike Gantt

    Paul Regnier left this comment on a post by James McGrath. It describes how Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) writers had a tradition that elevated the importance of what was written above the writer. Here is the comment without the context:

    Hi Mike,

    I thought I would share with you my thoughts on Neil’s post about anonymous faith documents.

    For myself, I don’t see the anonymity of the Gospels as a problem. Think of it another way – the scholarly consensus generally views Mark as composed by an anonymous author who was not an eyewitness to the events he narrates, who writes around 70 A.D. possibly from somewhere in the East of the Roman world.

    OK, now let’s just suppose that tomorrow we found a piece of evidence that conclusively proved that Mark was written in the year 70 by a person named Judas who was writing from Alexandria and who was not an eyewitness to the events he narrates. Now this would no doubt be fascinating and add much to our understanding of “Mark”, but for me it wouldn’t in any way change my view of the historicity (or otherwise) of its contents, and I do not for a second think that such a discovery would change the minds of any mythicists either.

    The other point that bears thinking about is this – it seems that the authors of the gospels purposely did not give their names. They are anonymous, not pseudepigraphical. There is a big difference. Ironically, if the NT Apocrypha are anything to go by, the grander the claims of authorship in Christian historical writing, the less reliable the source!

    There is an article by Baum that would seem to suggest that the writers of the earlist gospels are following the literary conventions of the Ancient Near East in writing anonymously, rather than Roman conventions – they had no desire to earn fame or praise for themselves, therefore no need to draw attention to themselves. It was all about the gospel they were spreading.

    http://www.armin-baum.de/wp-co… – I’ve not read the whole article yet, I’ll have to track it down. It seems an excellent point though.

    If Baum is right of course, it means that by evaluating the NT sources on the basis of their author’s identifiability, is simply a value judgement: it is saying that a stylistic device that was important device for Roman authors should form the yardstick for a group of authors who were following an entirely different set of conventions. I think that’s plainly a mistake.

    I have a different set of problems with Neil’s assessment of faith documents (I have no problems with the term per se), I’ll share those some other time.

    PS: I don’t claim to be an expert on historiography, so I’m going to discuss the above with some of my colleagues in the History department and also get some reading material from them. I reserve the right to change my mind

    Authorship of the gospels is often a contentious issue, but as Paul and A. D. Baum show, it doesn’t have to be.

    • Thanks, Bryant. That’s a big quote, but let me make a few comments. First, I think the authorship of the gospels matters more than this individual implies. I think Armin Baum’s article (which is excellent) is not trying to say that the stated authorship of the gospels doesn’t matter, rather he is simply explaining why the gospels are formally anonymous. Put differently, a formally anonymous document is not an indication that its historical authorship was unknown (or irrelevant). I have made a brief argument for the why the attributed authors of the gospels are reliable: see last video here: http://michaeljkruger.com/videos/

  10. Dear Mike,

    What are your thoughts about the following from http://blogforthelordjesuscurrentevents.wordpress.com/?

    “Earliest Christianity Was Not a Literary Enterprise
    Posted on May 19, 2012 by Mike Gantt
    The apostles did not hire literary agents so that they might become best-selling authors of the story of Messiah. By most scholarly accounts, the first writing of the apostles that we have was written 15 to 20 years after the first post-resurrection sermon – and even that writing was a only a short letter that went to one church in Greece, far from Jerusalem where the ministry had begun with thousands accepting the message.

    To properly understand the New Testament documents we must recognize them for what they are and not try to make them something they are not. They are the byproducts of a vibrant social movement. They are not a comprehensive catalog of that movement.”