Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 4)?

[Editor’s Note: This is the final post (originally appeared on Aug. 10, 2012) in a four-part series by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collection of Acts and the General Epistles and addresses some lingering questions: who “chose” the NT; can we adjust the canon? His answers provide a helpful apologetic for trusting in and proclaiming the NT. ]

This is my final post regarding the NT Canon. I am sure we will continue the conversation for many years. My prayer is that it has been profitable to the reader and, in some sense, provocative. In this post I want to briefly discuss the rest of the NT documents and clean up a couple of remaining matters.

While we don’t have all the writings of the first and second centuries, the evidence so far suggests an early recognition of the bulk of the NT canon. The following seems a reasonable description. The Synoptic Gospels were written and received rapid acceptance in the churches as the authoritative source of the words and deeds of Christ. Roughly contemporaneous with them, Paul’s letters began circulating as a collection, probably soon after Paul’s death. Shortly after the writing of John’s Gospel, the Gospels were gathered and published as a fourfold Gospel canon. This leaves the question about Acts, general epistles and the Revelation.

Most modern Christians are surprised to find out that the Acts and General Epistles generally circulated together as a codex much like Paul and the Four Gospel Codex. Regarding the manner in which the Acts and the General Epistles were gathered and published and by whom, less can be said with confidence. However, it is likely that the collection of these books was in some way related to the fourfold Gospel codex. When Luke is separated from Acts, it is unthinkable that Acts was simply set-aside without plans for publication. I think it likely that the Acts/General Epistles was published soon after the Gospel Codex with the same canonical implications.

Finally, the Book of Revelation, written in the mid to late AD 90s by the aged apostle John, circulated independently from the rest, likely due to its late production, likely after the publishing of the rest. As a result many questions regarding Revelation lingered.

There were also questions among the orthodox about 2 Peter, Hebrews, and 3 John in the minds of some. Furthermore, some highly regarded other works like the Shepherd of Hermas. In broad generalization, we can describe the questions like this: “Why is this book in the Canon” or “Why isn’t this book in?” Notice that there is an “in” that is constant. That there were questions are only natural and, in fact, reflect the ability of people to have differing opinions. The same types of questions show up in the 16th century as well. Questions in the minds of some, however, do not necessarily reflect widespread chaos regarding the NT documents.

So who chose the NT? The Fathers regarded the NT as “handed down to them.” This is the appeal of the third Council of Carthage in AD 397 and the second-century bishop, Serapion, among others and it is telling of the orthodox attitude. C. E. Hill in Who Chose the Gospels suggests (I believe rightfully) that if you had asked the early church “who chose the NT,” they would have responded, “no one.” They would have considered the question much like “How did you choose your parents?” The documents were handed down to them from the apostles, of whom, as Serapion stated, “We receive as Christ.”

Finally, there is a question regarding if we may adjust the Canon. My answer would be, no. If these were considered the New Covenant documents, then only a newer new covenant would instigate a new canon. We were right to expect a New Covenant, because the OT promised it. There is no indication in Scripture that another covenant is forthcoming. Furthermore, the New Covenant is so expansive in its scope (through eternity) that there is really no room for a newer covenant. No reason exists to expect a new covenant or new scriptures.

What if we actually found an unknown apostolic document, say, 3 Corinthians for instance?  Would its apostolic status force us to adjust the Canon? Absolutely not! Certainly such a discovery would be wonderful. However, because the Pauline collection came from Paul’s retained copies, the exclusion would not have been accidental at all, but by Paul’s choice. That fact that these are missing from the Canon says something about their origin and value among the apostles and their followers. Second, let’s not forget that as evangelicals we should trust in the sovereignty of God. Evangelical Christians may have great confidence in their NT. Let us then, as Augustine said, tolle lege (“take up and read”).

 game mobi

Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 3)?

[Editor’s Note: This post (originally appeared on Aug. 9, 2012) is part 3 of the series by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collection of the Four Gospels and their superiority to other “gospels.” He also includes some helpful resources for further reading. Check in next Monday for part 4.]

In Yesterday’s post, I presented the case for the apostolic origins of the Pauline letter collection. Today, I am going to discuss the collection of Gospels. Which is the second corpus that was affirmed as Scripture by the Church. While the Synoptic Gospels were in existence and recognized as Scripture roughly during Paul’s active life, I place the recognition of the Four as a group after Paul due to the late date of the Gospel of John. Today we will look at some of the literary evidence found in the writings that survive and at the empirical evidence found in the manuscripts.

In the same period that Paul’s letters were being written, an apostle and two of their close followers penned narratives that chronicled the words and deeds of Jesus. These began to circulate in the churches in the earliest period of the church. We have quite a few citations of these Gospels in the apostolic Fathers affirming their recognition.

Somewhere around AD 130, the Roman apologist Justin Martyr wrote of the Gospels being read in the churches alongside the prophets. The implication is that this was a standard practice for some time. That they were being read in worship with the prophets shows that they were Scripture on par with the OT. Irenaeus (c. AD 170) compared the four gospels to the four winds and referred to them as “fourformed.” Furthermore, in his critique of Marcion, Irenaeus noted that Heretics would either add to the number of Gospels (like Valentinius’ Gospel of Truth) or take away from the four (Marcion). We could bring more evidence to bear, but let’s summarize it this way: beginning in the early second-century there seems to be clearly set in the mind of the orthodox a four-Gospel canon.

What about the Gospels that didn’t make it? It is often stated that there were dozens and dozens. The truth is that in the second-century the number is about eight to twelve. Most of them were seeking to prop up false doctrine. A great many of the ones that we know validate the four canonical gospels in that they often build off what is revealed in them. For example certain Gnostic works build off the post-resurrection appearances recorded in the canonical Gospels to narrate Jesus delivering “secret knowledge” to initiated disciples. It is the knowledge of the canonical narratives that provide this setting. Some incorporate vast portions of our Gospels. Either way, they actually serve to validate the four. Thus, the literary evidence from both orthodox and heterodox sources affirms the four canonical Gospels rather early.

The manuscript evidence is equally impressive and point to the Church’s reception of the Four Gospels. The Four Gospel Codex (a single book containing these four) is undeniable. Furthermore, the evidence of a common ancestor is impressive. The titles of the Gospels are uniform: they show the same order (with a few exceptions) of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They ALL employ the abbreviation of the divine names (nomina sacra)and they are ALL codices. Someone gathered the four Gospels and published them as a canonical edition. Most Gospel manuscripts or fragments of a manuscript can easily be argued to be from this edition. The earliest Gospel fragments P90 and P52 (both of John, both dated to AD 125) show signs of the four-Gospel codex (nomina sacra and codex form). If so, this tells us that the Four Gospel codex existed before AD 125. Since these documents are from Egypt, we should assume a date well before AD 125. Not only is the collection early it is exclusive. These four Gospels are never found bound with a non-canonical Gospel.

So what is the significance? First, if what we are saying about the early date is true, then the Four Gospel Codex existed within sight of the production of the Gospel of John (AD 80 – 85). This might suggest a host of things about which we cannot be certain, but there is at least one that is quite intriguing. The Fourth Gospel marks the last opportunity to hear of Jesus from an apostle (or even the eyewitnesses of Jesus). I feel that this is linked to the production of the Four Gospel Codex in some way. It could very well be that with the last of the apostles gone, they felt it only natural to complete the set.

To combine the Four as an anthology is to sort LIKE works. So how are they alike? It is not that they were just biographies of Jesus. There were other gospels, after all. No, it is because these were the accepted or canonical Gospels. Their status pulls them together, not just their subject matter. We have only four recognized Gospels. Any other Gospel tells us far more about the people who produced them than they could about Jesus.


For further reading:

G. N. Stanton. The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.

G. N. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 316–46.

L. Hurtado. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

T. C. Skeat, “Irenaeus and the Four-Gospel Canon,” Novum Testamentum 34 (1992): 198–99.

C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London: British Academy, 1983.


Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 2)?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Aug. 8, 2012. It is the second of four by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collections of New Testament books and their apostolic origins. Check in next Monday for part 3.]

Yesterday, I wrote about the idea of the canon. Today, I want to begin to explore the reception of the individual portions of the NT. I believe the publication of the NT as a collection is clear evidence of the belief that these books were the New Covenant documents for the Church. The early manuscripts of the NT circulated in four volumes of codices (a codex is like modern books, not rolls). These are the Four-Gospels, Acts-General Epistles, Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. From the manuscripts and description in the Church Fathers, these are set by the mid-point of the second century (AD 150). Things common in the manuscripts like the nomina sacra (abbreviations of the divine names), titles, and arrangements show a common ancestor(s) for these collections. This means that the collections as collections must be much earlier than AD 150. For most of the collections we can confidently date them into the early second century or late first century (of course, the books themselves are much earlier). The first of these collections to be published (and I believe the forerunner for the rest) is the Pauline letter collection.

As a young Christian, I was taught that Paul’s letters originally circulated individually. Over time Churches shared their letters with one another and a collection eventually grew—Porter calls this the “snowball theory.” It is not likely that this was the case. A collection of Paul’s letters is mentioned in 2 Peter, suggesting that at least some of Paul’s letters were circulating in the late 60s (if we take 2 Peter as authentic as I do). Clement of Rome (c. AD 95) and Polycarp (c. AD 110) know of Paul’s letters and although they do not mention a collection per se, they cite so much of the corpus that it is unlikely they possessed a stack of individual letters. It is more likely that Paul’s letters were published as a collection in a codex.

Published letter collections were not uncommon in antiquity. The author put these letter collections together themselves, then either published posthumously by the author or his students. When an author would send a letter, he would often make a copy to keep for their records. The collection of these “retained copies” becomes the basis for publication. The implication is, then, that the author is responsible for the collection.

There is, quite possibly, evidence for this in the Scriptures. Paul, late in his life, asks Timothy at 2 Tim. 4:13 to bring him “especially the parchments.” This word “parchment” is a word for that describes a papyrus codex. This is possibly Paul’s retained letters. At any rate, retained letters would have originally been in a papyrus notebook format. If so, this explains at least two questions regarding the collection. First, it explains how we have small books like Philemon. How on earth does a 1-page personal letter survive at Philemon’s home? It survived because Paul kept a copy. Second, it explains why certain letters are missing in the Corinthian correspondence. The “former letter” (1 Cor. 5:9) and the “severe letter” (2 Cor. 7:8) are missing because Paul did not retain copies for whatever reason. Then, some individual, whether Paul or a surrogate, takes the codex notebook of letters and publishes it. It is rapidly received as Scripture in the early Church.

The books are generally arranged in the same order as in our English Bibles except for one thing: the book of Hebrews is placed between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy in most manuscripts, although some have it elsewhere. For example, the earliest manuscript (P 46) has it immediately after Romans. The letters are arranged by length and content. Letters to Churches are first (Romans-2 Thessalonians) then letters to individuals (1 Timothy – Philemon) in descending length. Hebrews is placed between these two groupings, I believe because it transitions nicely between letters to churches and letters to individuals, in spite of the fact that it is longer than all but Romans and 1 Corinthians. Although I do not believe Paul wrote Hebrews, I do believe that it has strong connections to him. I further believe that it owes its place among the Scriptures by virtue of its position in the Pauline letter collection. If this collection owes its origins to Paul, it is probable that the inclusion of Hebrews is not a late addition but owes its inclusion to Paul or his followers.

All of this leaves us with two conclusions. Regarding the canonical status of Paul’s letters, that issue has been settled by none other than Peter (assuming 2 Peter to be original). Furthermore, the content of the collection is also apostolic, i.e., the books were collected by Paul. Paul not only collected, but since we know of missing letters, there is a strong possibility that Paul was selective in the content of the collection. This sets us very far from the 4th and 5th century greybeards sorting and sifting. The collection is apostolic in its origin and recognition.


For further reading:

H. Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1995.

E. R. Richards. Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004.

D. Trobisch. Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

S. E. Porter. “When and How was the Pauline Canon Compiled? An Assessment of Theories.” In The Pauline Canon, ed. S. E. Porter. Boston: Brill, 2004.