When Is the First Time We See a New Testament Book Used as Scripture?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 23, 2019

Few issues in the study of the NT canon have generated more discussion (and disagreement) than that of the canon’s date.  When were Christian writings first regarded as “Scripture”?  When was the first time we can see that happening?

For many modern scholars, the key time is the end of the second century.  Only then, largely due to the influence of Irenaeus, were these books first regarded as Scripture.

But, I think there is evidence that NT books were regarded as Scripture much earlier.  And some of this evidence is routinely overlooked.  A good example is the widely neglected text tucked away in 1 Tim 5:18:

For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer deserves his wages.”

The first part of this quote comes from Deut 25:4, but where does the second part come from?  There is one text, and one text only, that matches these words, namely the statement of Jesus in Luke 10:7.

Could 1 Timothy be citing Luke’s Gospel as Scripture?

For some, the mere suggestion that Paul used Luke is unthinkable. Here are the most common objections:

1. Only the first quote is “Scripture” not the second.  This is an intriguing idea, but it just doesn’t work.  This passage is a standard double citation where two quotes are simply joined by the Greek kai (“and”). There’s no reason (in the text) to think the second citation is not included under the heading of “Scripture.”

2. The second citation is drawn from oral tradition.  This is a common suggestion, especially since modern scholars seem increasingly fascinated with oral tradition in early Christianity.  The problem, however, is that Paul plainly refers to this second citation as “Scripture,” thus requiring it to be a written source.

3. Luke was written after 1 Timothy.  If one attributes 1 Timothy to Paul, then it would likely date to sometime in the 60’s.  Since Luke is often dated to the 70’s or 80’s this creates a problem.  However, there are good reasons to think that Luke might date earlier.  If Acts is dated to the 60’s (due to its unusual, truncated ending) then Luke could even be in the late 50’s.  Given the tight historical connections between Paul and Luke, it is at least plausible that Paul would have early access to his Gospel.

Of course, for critical scholars who think 1 Timothy is a late pseudonymous work, then there is actually a better chance that it is citing Luke!

4. 1 Timothy is not citing Luke but another written Gospel text (a Q or Q-like source).  This is a real possibility and should be kept as a live option. But, we should at least ask the question about whether this is a better explanation than Luke.  After all, we know Luke was a real Gospel and we know that Luke eventually was considered Scripture. We know neither of these things about Q. It is still a hypothetical, reconstructed source.

There’s much more that could be said here, but I explore this issue more extensively in my article, “First Timothy 5:18 and Early Canon Consciousness: Reconsidering a Problematic Text,” which appears in a recent Festschrift for my friend Stan Porter: The Language and Literature of the New Testament: Essays in Honor of Stanley E. Porter’s 60th Birthday, eds. Lois K. Fuller Dow, Craig A. Evans, Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden, E.J. Brill: 2017): 680-700.

Unfortunately, the cost of the volume is $280. But, if you do somehow get your hands on a copy (perhaps after winning the lottery), then you should also check out the other fine essays in the volume.  There are 32 chapters with contributions from scholar such as Darrell Bock, Eckhard Schnabel, James D.G. Dunn, Nicholas Perrin, Stephen Westerholm, Craig Keener, Craig Evans, Chuck Hill, and Craig Blomberg.