Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #3: “The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books”

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

One of the most basic facts about the New Testament canon that all Christians should understand is that the canon is intimately connected to the activities of the apostles.

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).

In sum, the apostles had the very authority of Christ himself.  They were his mouthpiece.  As such, their teachings, along with the prophets, were the very foundation of the church.  Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). If the church wanted to know the true Christian message, they would always need to look back to the teaching of the apostles.

But, the apostles didn’t just teach about Jesus orally.  At some point—a very early point—the apostolic message was written down.  Often it was written down by the apostles themselves.  At other points it was written down by companions of apostles who were recording their message.  Either way, the authoritative apostolic message found its way into books.

For obvious reasons, the church would value apostolic books over and above other type of books. And this is exactly what happened.  The books that the church regarded as apostolic were the books that were read, copied, and used most often in early Christian worship.  These are the books that eventually became the New Testament canon.  The canon is the byproduct of the ministry of the apostles.

In fact, the church’s overt dependence on apostolic writings is precisely why we see a proliferation of “apocryphal” books in the second century (and later) that were named after apostles.  We have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and even the Gospel of the Twelve!  Rather than raising doubts about the apostolic nature of the New Testament, these apocryphal writings actually serve to confirm it.  They show that the early church valued apostolic books so much that forgers had to try and mimic the genuine ones in order to get a hearing.  For more on the late date of these apocryphal writings, see prior post here.

Of course, some modern scholars dispute the apostolic authorship of some of the New Testament books, claiming they were written by later authors only pretending to be the apostles.  However, these claims are by no means proven, and many other scholars dispute them.  Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the early church was in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars two thousand years later.

In the end, the New Testament canon exists because of an early Christian belief that the apostles spoke for Christ.  That belief led Christians to value apostolic books.  And those apostolic books eventually formed the New Testament that we know today.

Comments

Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #3: “The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books” — 13 Comments

  1. @Pete Black

    True, but Luke was the close traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and likely had close connections to both the Apostle Peter, and Mary herself, who, although not an Apostle, certainly had firsthand knowledge of the events. We might also add that Mark was not an apostle, but again, it would seem he knew Paul well. The point he was trying to make was that the Gospels are reliable because they were authored by people closely connected to the events therein described.

    Furthermore, he make the case that the Apostles had an authority that is different than any we have in the church today, therefore their teaching, told first hand or conveyed through Luke and Mark, have authority as well. This is why the preached Word of God still works. Because we speak with the authority of the Word of God.

    I thought it was a great article, and I’ve enjoyed what’s been written so far. I look forward to the upcoming articles.

  2. “Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the early church was in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars two thousand years later.”

    I think this is a particularly important point. Is there a resource (preferably, one accessible on-line) that elaborates on this argument? It has always struck me as intuitively true, but this is the closest I’ve seen someone come to actually making the argument.

    • @Mike Gantt

      I don’t know if it helps at all Mike, but I have found the Reformed Theological Seminary available through iTunes U very helpful. You do need to access it through iTunes, but they do a series of lectures called History of Christianity (free of charge), which deal a lot with the formation of the New Testament canon etc.. I know I found it extremely helpful, and would recommend it to anyone who would like to look at things in a more in depth manner.

      • John,

        I followed your advice, found the History of Christianity I course, and the segment labeled “The Canon.” While it would be helpful for someone looking for introductory information on the formation of the canon, it did not elaborate on the statement above about the early church being “in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars” as I had hoped.

        • Haha, fancy seeing you here, Mike :)

          We went back and forth regarding the nature and necessity of the church in the modern era a while back on the Gospel Coalition blog.

          I’d recommend checking out Kruger’s book “Canon Revisited”. I haven’t completed it yet myself, but the book is quite good. It’s available in hardcover and e-book formats, but not free anywhere so far as I know.

          I cannot say for certain whether it addresses that particular argument in a section I have not yet read, but similar argumentation has been demonstrated on some points up to the page I’ve read to, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the next section (that on the Apostolic origins of the books) contained some reasoning along those lines. Definitely worth a read, if you have some spare cash.

  3. Even Eusebius, the great 4th century church historian, rejected the canonicity of 2 Peter (H.E. 3.3.1) and casts significant doubt on the authorship of Revelation. If we Evangelicals are going to appeal to the Church Fathers, we must be prepared to acknowledge some unsettling ramifications and ask some tough questions to arrive at a more mature faith. Were the early Church Fathers inspired (in the same way as the Biblical authors) as they developed the canon? Is the coherence of the canon dependent on authorship when so many of the NT books are anonymous or possibly pseudonymous?

  4. Though not an apostle, Mary was certainly the first disciple: called personally and accepting of that call. Luke, like Matthew, may have used Mark as his primary source, but he also was a good investigative reporter for his time.

    • What scripture are you refering to…which Mary? I am still in the early stages of peicing together main arguments regarding Jesus, the disciples & time frames & your comment has caught my attention.

        • I would say Mary was called by God & not a disciple of Jesus in that she didnt leave everything behind to follow as the disciples did. I’m not putting one above the other, each task has its own sacrifice & honour. She was also involved in Jesus ministry & the first miracle at the wedding at Cana…God working throughout history with ordinary people is just as miraculous.

          • I believe that she was a disciple. She was called, she left her good name and her respectability, and she followed him to the cross. She was in the upper room at Pentecost as well. Luke lists the other women who followed him and supported him: Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others. But Mary was the first to believe that he was the Son of God.

  5. Why are Luke and Mark NOT considered apostles? Being an apostles is not a title, but a function in the church, (the body of Christ). Eph. 4:11. They both fit the definition of “apostle” according to Thayers and other lexicons.