Were the New Testament Authors Aware of Their Own Authority?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 28, 2021

Sometimes, even in the academic world, things get said so many times that people assume they are true.   And when that happens, no one bothers to look at the historical evidence in a fresh way.

One example, which is fairly routine these days, is to assert that the New Testament authors certainly did not think they were writing Scripture, nor had any awareness of their own authority. Mark Allan Powell, in his New Testament introduction, affirms this view plainly, “The authors of our New Testament books did not know that they were writing scripture.”[1]  Gamble takes the same approach, “None of the writings which belong to the NT was composed as scripture…[they] were written for immediate and practical purposes within the early churches, and only gradually did they come to be valued and to be spoken of as ‘scripture’.”[2]

Now, from one perspective, I understand what these authors are trying to say.  Certainly none of the NT authors wrote with an awareness of a 27 book canon and understood their place in it.  They could not have fully foreseen the shape and scope of this collection.  But, these scholars imply that there was no authoritative intent when the NT authors wrote—and that is a very different thing.

But, is it true that the NT authors had no awareness of their own authority? I think not. The NT authors show evidence that they understood their writings to contain authoritative apostolic tradition.  Since the apostles were commissioned by Christ to speak for him, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so, then these writings would have borne the authority of Christ himself.

Thus, whether we call these books “Scripture” is a bit beside the point.  To the earliest Christians, they were “the word of God.”

Now, in a blog post such as this we can hardly work through each book of the NT (nor would we need to do so in order to establish the overall point).  So, we will offer a brief comment on a few select passages:

1 Thess 2:13.  In perhaps Paul’s earliest letter, he is explicit about his own authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ when he reminds the Thessalonians, “You received the word of God, which you heard from us, and accepted it not as the words of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (2:13).

By the phrase “word of God” (λόγον θεοῦ), Paul is no doubt referring to the authoritative “apostolic tradition” which they had already passed to the Thessalonians through their oral teaching and preaching. But, if Paul’s apostolic instruction bears divine authority, are we to think that the instruction contained in 1 Thessalonians itself does not?  Is this letter somehow exempt from that very authority? Paul acknowledges elsewhere that the mode of delivery for his apostolic instruction is secondary, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15).

1 Cor 14:37-38.  This passage is one of the most explicit about Paul’s apostolic authority, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.  If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor 14:37-38).

Most noteworthy about this passage is that Paul directly addresses the precise nature of his writings and declares that they are a “command of the Lord” (κυρίοu ἐντολη,).  Such a phrase is common throughout the Old Testament as a reference to either the commands that come directly from God himself or to the commands he has given to Moses. So confident is Paul of his authority to speak for the Lord that he declares that anyone who does not recognize the authority of his writings is himself “not recognized.”

Luke 1:1-4.  Luke makes express claims to be passing down apostolic tradition. In his prologue, Luke claims that the traditions included in his gospel have been “delivered” to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”

Most scholars view the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as a clear reference to the apostles. And the term “delivered” is a standard reference to the way that authoritative apostolic tradition is passed along. Thus, Luke understood his gospel to be the embodiment of the authoritative apostolic “Word” that had been delivered and entrusted to him. Craig Evans comes to the same conclusion about the prologue, “Luke does not see himself primarily as a biographer, nor even a historian.  The Lukan evangelist is a writer of Scripture, a hagiographer who is proclaiming what God has ‘accomplished among us.’”[3]

Rev 1:1-3. The most explicit claim for a book’s authority no doubt comes from the author of Revelation.  The opening line of the book directly claims that it is the inspired prophecy of Jesus Christ delivered to John by an angel (1:1).  Consequently, there is a divine blessing attached with this book: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (1:3).

Moreover, the authority of this book is heightened by the inclusion of an “inscriptional curse” at the end, warning the reader not to add nor take away from this document lest they suffer divine judgment (22:18-19).  On the basis of these explicit statements, even McDonald is willing to acknowledge that Revelation “claims for itself such a lofty position that [it] would come close to the notion of inspiration and Scripture.”[4]

This has been a very quick sampling of NT passages, fitting for a blog post like this.  However, even this brief glance raises questions about the contention that the NT authors were unaware of their own authority.  It matters not whether we want to use the term “Scripture” to describe these books; if they bore apostolic authority then they bore Christ’s authority and would have been viewed as the very words of God.

N.T. Wright sums it up well,

It used to be said that the New Testament writers “didn’t think they were writing ‘Scripture.’” That is hard to sustain historically today.  The fact that their writings were,  in various senses, “occasional”…is not to the point.  At precisely those points of urgent need (when, for instance, writing Galatians or 2 Corinthians) Paul is most conscious that he is writing as one authorized, by the apostolic call he had received from Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, to bring life and order to the church by his words.[5]

[1] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 50.  See also McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 249.

[2] H.Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 18.

[3] Evans, “Luke and the Rewritten Bible,” 201.  It is worth noting that there is some evidence Luke was regarded as “Scripture” quite early. 1 Tim 5:18 cites “the laborer deserves his wages” and introduces it with “For the Scripture says.”  Although it’s possible that 1 Tim 5:18 may be citing some apocryphal source, the only known match for this citation is Luke 10:7. One must at least consider the possibility that 1 Timothy is citing Luke’s gospel as Scripture.  See discussion in J.P. Meier, “The Inspiration of Scripture: But What Counts as Scripture?,” Mid-Stream 38 (1999): 71-78.

[4] McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 31.

[5] N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 51.


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