The Authority to Canonize the New Testament
The apostles of the 1st century certainly had in their midst the complete and final Old Testament scriptures. This canon, with its various books and divisions, served as a model for any further canonization involving New Testament books. The environmental background inherently governing the sociological outlook of the Jewish people provided the religious standards for the canonization of the New Testament. Though by the 1st century there were some religious differences among the Jewish people, the basic framework of society was retained from the time that Ezra canonized the Old Testament. This common religious heritage (with the Old Testament canonization being a historical guide) allowed the New Testament to develop along similar lines. Professor Souter said:
“The idea of a canon, or exclusive selection of sacred books for use in public worship, is ultimately derived by the Church from Judaism, and some account of the formation of the Jewish Canon of the Old Testament seems necessary as a model on which, consciously or unconsciously, the later New Testament Canon was formed.”
The Text and Canon of the New Testament 1
If this is the case, then we should look for some high-ranking priests or a prophet with the authority of Moses having a hand in the creation of the New Testament, because this is certainly the manner in which the Old Testament came into existence.
Some historians would have people believe that the church of the early 2nd century (or even the 3rd or 4th century) probably formulated the final New Testament. There has always been a problem with this appraisal because there is not a sliver of evidence that such a thing took place. The truth is, when the early church fathers began to talk about the canon of the New Testament near the end of the 2nd century, it is assumed that it was already in their midst. The first recorded discussion among Catholic scholars about the books of the New Testament only concerned whether certain books in the canon were of lesser rank, not which books were needed to form the official canon. 2
“What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council. When at last a Church Council — the Synod. of Hippo [Carthage] in A.D. 397 — listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity. As Dr. Foakes Jackson puts it: `The Church assuredly did not make the New Testament’.”
Bruce, Books and the Parchments 3
Actually, if one will read Second Peter carefully and analyze it for what it says (as we did in the last chapter), it shows that it was the apostles Peter and John who officially canonized the New Testament books. It will be seen that the canonization was done in two stages. The first stage was when Peter went to Rome to discuss with Paul the collection of Paul’s letters that needed to go into the canon. Peter then wrote Second Peter (just before his own death) to tell Christians about this divine canonization that was being authorized by Peter and John. Indeed, with Peter’s death not long afterward, it was left to the apostle John to complete and finalize the full canon of the New Testament.
There was a special reason (to be explained shortly) why John was selected by Christ to authorize the final and complete canon of the New Testament. But with the first (and partial) canonization created just before Peter’s death about 67 C.E., we find Peter telling Christians that both he and the apostle John had the authority to present the Christian world with some official documents that were to be received by Christians in the same manner that they accepted the Old Testament scriptures. Both Peter and John possessed the authority of Christ Himself to do this work, but they also had the testimony of the Old Testament to accomplish this important task. That is right. There was actually an Old Testament prophecy that the disciples of Christ would be instrumental in bringing the New Testament teaching into a divine canon of scriptures. To see this point, it should be recalled that Christ informed His disciples that He was going to complete the revealed word of God to mankind. Look at Matthew 5:17:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
This verse should be noticed carefully. Though Christ assured the disciples that the Old Testament would remain steadfast in its sanctity, he did say he would fufill the Law and the Prophets. What does the world “fulfill” actually mean? Charles B. Williams, in his translation of the New Testament, provides a footnote to this verse which reflects Christ’s intention. He said that the word signified “the picture of Old Testament teaching as an unfilled cup, but filled by Jesus.” 4
Williams provides the accurate meaning of this word. “To fulfill” signified to bring things to the brim — to the very top. It is like having a glass half-full of wine. By adding more wine, one could fill the glass to the top. Thomas Newberry, the editor of the Englishman’s Bible shows Matthew 5:17 as meaning: “think not that I am come to unbind the Law, or the Prophets: I am not come to unbind, but to fill up.” 5 It simply means that Christ thought of Himself as responsible for bringing the revelation of God to its complete fulfillment — to the very brim. In effect, His adding to the Law and the Prophets was an authority for attaching His written messages to those of the Old Testament. Jewish scholars have long understood this to be the meaning of Christ. In the Talmud they regarded Matthew 5:17 as reading: “I came not to destroy the Law of Moses, but to add to the Law of Moses.” 6
Christ did not mean that He would personally add to the Law and the Prophets by composing books of His own. A reading in the Old Testament revealed to the apostles that it was they who were to be responsible for the writing and the selecting of the documents which would comprise the New Testament. In a section of Isaiah which the apostles understood as applying to the life of Christ on earth, they found a prophetic responsibility given to them. It was written in the long prophecy of Isaiah chapter 7 to chapter 12, and the section pertaining to the apostles was in Isaiah chapter 8.
“Sanctify the lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be to you for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offense to both houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. Bind up the testimony, seal the Law AMONG MY DISCIPLES. And I will wait upon the Lord, that hides his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him.”
Though the above message was written in the 8th century before Christ, the apostles interpreted it as having a contemporary application to them. There can be no doubt of this because both Peter and Paul referred to Isaiah 8:14 as having a relevance to their times. Using this section of Isaiah, Peter taught that Christ had become the chief cornerstone, but to the disobedient of Peter’s day, he had become “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:6–8). Paul, speaking of the Jews’ rejection of Christ, wrote (referring to this section of Isaiah): “As it is written, behold, I lay in Sion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense” (Romans 9:33).
Understanding that the apostles thought that Christ fulfilled Isaiah 8:13–17 in their time, they were able to learn a great deal about their own responsibilities. Isaiah told his readers that this “stone” and “rock” would “bind the testimony and seal the Law among my disciples” (Isaiah 8:16). The actual “binding” and “sealing” which in Isaiah’s day could have been accomplished by Isaiah’s own disciples was no doubt interpreted by the apostles as typical of what the Rock of Israel (Christ) was to do through his own disciples in his own time (verse 18).
What do the words “bind” and “seal” signify? The Hebrew for the word “bind” means “to close.” The word “seal” means practically the same — “to cap off, to enclose.” This is exactly what the apostles did with the message which the “Stone” and “Rock” gave them. They were to complete it. Bind it up. Close it shut. The authority to perform such an important job may have been reflected in Christ’s teaching that the apostles had power “to bind on earth” (Matthew 16:19). The word “to bind” has the significance of authorization or giving judgment, just as the word “to unbind” means “not to receive or not accept.”
Recall again the intention of Matthew 5:17: “I am not come to unbind the Law or the Prophets.” Christ did not wish to undo the Old Testament, but his disciples were commissioned “to add to” and “to complete” the Bible. In a word, the apostles felt that they had authority, even from the Old Testament, to bind, seal, authorize and canonize the Law and Testimony of Christ. This meant to put the teachings of Christ in a book, just like the Old Testament was given to the early Jews.
When one reads through the New Testament, it is possible to observe a number of important statements which indicate that further scriptures beyond the Old Testament were des tined to emerge. just before his crucifixion, Christ gave his disciples some instructions regarding their role in receiving new and significant messages from God.
“I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father has are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you.”
The above scripture has Christ telling the disciples that the Spirit would “show you things to come” (verse 13). This indicates that the understanding of prophecy would be afforded them. Was this a reference to the Book of Revelation? That book is wholly devoted to prophecy — to “things to come” (Revelation 1:1). 1n the next chapter we will show information that will demonstrate that Revelation was prophesied by Christ to be written by the apostle John.
There is another point about the section of scripture transcribed above. Christ said that all the truth was going to be given to the apostles back in the 1st century. In John 16:13 the text actually says that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all THE truth.” The definite article indicates that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth would be dispatched to those apostles. This is an important point because it shows that the Christian community of believers did not have to wait until the 3rd or 4th centuries before all THE truth could be given. This is quite different than is usually taught today. It is normally assumed by scholars (and they are simply guessing) that the canon of the New Testament came into existence sometime in the early or middle 2nd century, and was finalized in the 4th century. This guessing is patently not true. Early Christian scholars did not believe such teaching. Augustine, one of the most ardent supporters of the organized church of the 4th and 5th centuries believed that the New Testament canon came into existence in the time of the apostles themselves. He stated:
“Distinguished from the books of later authors is the excellence of the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments; which, having been established in the time of the apostles, hath through the succession of overseers and propagators of churches been set as it were in a lofty tribunal, demanding the obedience of every faithful and pious understanding.”
Contra Faustum Man. 11. 7
How different from what is generally accepted today! In our present age, it is common to hear that the 2nd 3rd, or 4th century church canonized the New Testament in some unknown and mysterious fashion. This is in no way true.
“The striking fact that the early councils had nothing whatever to do with forming the Canon of the New Testament, has been so emphasized by a number of writers that one is astonished that it is not more widely known.”
Urquhart, The Bible 8
The Christian community of the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th centuries had nothing to do with the canonization of the New Testament. The canonization, as we will come to see, was accomplished in two stages and it was fully brought to fruition in the last decade of the 1st century. Christ had made it clear that the disciples would receive “all the truth” back in the 1st century. Some of this truth was to be a knowledge “of things to come” — prophecies of the future. These truths of the Gospel were written down and canonized first by Peter and John about 66/67 C.E., and then finally by John himself about 96 C.E. Peter and John did their canonizations with authority. Note how Peter states this fact.
“We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and corning of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. ... We also have a more confirmed word of prophecy.”
2 Peter 1:16, 19
The apostles had the word of prophecy more confirmed. What does the word “prophecy” mean in the context in which Peter was using? Most people would automatically assume that it means they could foretell the future. But in the way Peter intended it, the word did not have that significance in the above reference.
All Jews of the 1st century understood the word “prophecy” in a much broader sense. There were three different ways of looking at the word. It certainly signified the classical meaning of being able to tell the future, and the person able to do this was customarily called “a prophet.” The apostle Paul also used the word as meaning one who spoke forth the word of God no matter if the message was about the future, the present, or the past (1 Corinthians 14:5, 24–25). This latter usage simply signified one who teaches the Gospel.
Yet there was a third meaning, and this is what Peter had in mind when he said that he and John had “the word of prophecy more confirmed.” This usage meant that the people who could be called “prophets” were those under the prophetic spirit and able to write inspired scripture. Josephus, the Jewish historian, was well acquainted with this type of usage for the word “Prophet” or “prophecy.” He said that no succession of prophets had come on the scene within Judaism from the time of the Persian king Artaxerxes (the 5th century B.C.E., at the close of the Old Testament canon) until and including the period of the 1st century. 9 In a word, Josephus thought that “the spirit of prophecy” had ceased with Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Great Assembly who canonized the Old Testament.
The apostle Peter, however, said the “word of prophecy” had returned, and that he and John were in that category of authority. They were on the same level of authority as all the earlier writers of the Old Testament scriptures. All the writers of the Holy Scriptures were called prophets even if they did not possess the prophetic office as did Elijah, Isaiah, Malachi, etc. For example, David, Solomon and Asaph the psalmist were called prophets though their writings were not in the Prophets’ Division of the Old Testament. 10 Indeed, the use of prophecy by holy men of God reached back to the very beginning of history. Abel, the son of Adam, was called a prophet (Luke 11:50). And in Acts 3:21 and Hebrews 1:1 we are told that the practice of prophecy extended back to all past time, to the very beginning of the world.
The Jewish people in Christ’s time simply believed that all holy men of God were prophets and that all their writings were prophecies. This, of course, did not mean that they all foretold future events. 11 And, most significantly to our present study, any holy man of God who wrote any part of the Holy Scriptures was called a prophet. Professor Lee remarks that it was an “invariable rule that all witnesses of the Old Testament should be prophets.” 12 Whitaker also recognized that any writer of Scripture was thought to be a prophet and to possess the prophetic spirit. 13
This indication of authority was recognized throughout the New Testament. When Christ said, “Abraham said unto him, they have Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 6:29), he was not referring to the Prophets’ (i.e., the Second) Division of the Old Testament. He meant all the writers of Scripture who followed Moses. Luke noted this: “Having begun from Moses and all the prophets, he [Christ] expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:37). When Paul reasoned with the Jews out of the Law and the Prophets (Acts 28:23), he was teaching from the whole Old Testament. The Jewish people in the first century were well aware that “prophecy ceased,” in their estimation, when the canon of the Old Testament was finally established (cf. Ecclesiasticus 36:15; 1 Maccabees 4:44–46; 9:27). Indeed, as Josephus said, these prophets of the Old Testament ceased their activities when the Old Testament canon was completed. 14 But Peter said the prophetic word was restored with him and John. This clearly shows that he and John were informing their readers that they were going to present the Christian community with a new batch of inspired scriptures to accompany the books of the Old Testament. 15
When one reads Second Peter in the proper way, it shows that Peter was telling his readers that the prophetic spirit had been revived and that the apostles had the authority to use it for the production of inspired scriptures. That is what he and John were going to leave in the hands of the Christian community before they died. One of the main reasons that the apostle Peter wrote Second Peter was to tell Christians of this fact. Their writings (and the other documents which they sanctioned) were not going to be like the fables of others because Peter and John had “the word of prophecy more confirmed.”
The books they were selecting were God-ordained and were as inspired as the Old Testament. “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). The word interpretation in the King James Version actually means “origination” or “evolvement.” Peter was indicating that the prophetic scriptures which he and John were leaving with Christians were not their own private ideas and words. They were nothing less than the direct teachings of God.
This dogmatism of Peter is reflected also in his evaluation of the apostle Paul’s epistles which he mentioned as being on an equal par with “the other Scriptures” of the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:15–16). Certainly, if Paul’s letters were in 66 C.E. being reckoned as Scripture, the letters of James, Jude, Peter, and John were as well — especially if they were selected by Peter and John to be in the New Testament canon. The apostles were assured by 66 C.E. that “the prophetic spirit” had returned to earth in the persons of Peter and John (along with Paul). This was a signal that more Holy Scriptures were being given to Christians in an official manner to present the final messages of God to the world.
As anyone can see, I have emphasized (and reemphasized) the matter that Second Peter records the authority of Peter and John to canonize the New Testament, but I do not apologize for the emphasis. This is simply because most people, even scholars, have failed to see the point of what Peter was relating in his first chapter of Second Peter. This is why the matter has to be accentuated. The truth is, Peter plainly endeavored to show that he and John were given “the word of prophecy more confirmed” in order to canonize more writings among the sacred and official library of books, as Ezra and Nehemiah in their day canonized the Old Testament. Peter was simply exercising his authority to write, collect, assemble, and design a New Testament canon. This official group of books was expected to remain in an authoritative way “until the day dawn” — until the second advent of Christ back to this earth. That is exactly what the epistle of Second Peter states and I see no reason why Christians today should not accept it.
Peter and John were not the only ones who had “the word of prophesy more confirmed.” The apostle Paul also had the authority to write “prophetic scriptures.” At the end of the Book of Romans is an interesting section of scripture which relates to the matter of canonization. Paul said that his writings concerning the message of Christ were to be acknowledged as “the Prophetic Scriptures.” This meant that Paul thought he was writing sacred Scriptures. Note the context of Paul’s belief.
“Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my Gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the Prophetic Scriptures, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known unto all nations for the obedience of faith.”
Romans 16:25–26 16
Paul did not mean in the above statement that the knowledge of the mystery was to be found in the earlier prophets of the Old Testament, as the King James Version would lead one to believe. He expressly stated that the teaching given to him had remained a secret from the world, and that it was now being divulged through Paul and the other apostles. This fullness of the teaching of Christ was what Paul called “my Gospel” (verse 25). This spiritual information came to Paul through a torrent of revelations. Paul explains:
“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”
2 Corinthians 12:7
Paul was referring to the operation of the Holy Spirit in leading him, as it did the other apostles, into what Christ called “all the truth.” Christ said that the apostles would finally receive the complete truth from him (John 16:13). Paul made mention of this fullness of the Gospel in his Ephesian epistle.
“How that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery; which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
Ephesians 3:3, 5
This is pretty plain. The mature teaching of “the Mystery” was that part of the Gospel which Christ knew his disciples could not bear before they received the Holy Spirit. They were to be given this mature teaching of the Gospel at a later time. Paul stated that his apostolic commission was to present those new prophetic scriptures concerning “the Mystery” to the people of the world. Paul even realized that he was the one responsible for teaching the full, final and mature teachings of “the Mystery”:
“Wherefore I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill [the same word used by Christ in Matthew 5:17 — “to fill to the top”] the word of God. Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now [in the middle 60s C.E.] is made manifest to his saints.”
This is an important statement relative to the canonization of the New Testament. It tells us in no uncertain terms that Paul knew he had been given a special commission to help fulfill (that is, to “fill to the top”) the word of God. This is why Paul had little reluctance in telling people about the high calling that he had. Paul considered that the teachings he recorded represented the very commandments of God. “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things I write unto you are the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 14:37). These are strong and authoritative words. No man could make such assertions unless he was convinced in his own mind that he had the prophetic office to write inspired scripture. Notice also:
“Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches.”
1 Corinthians 2:12–13
“We thank God without ceasing, because, when you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God.”
1 Thessalonians 2:13
When one comprehends that Paul himself was aware of his role in completing the full message of God to this world, then the statements of Peter in his Second Epistle begin to make sense. Peter readily acknowledged that the apostle Paul was given an equal commission along with himself and John, to write “prophetic scriptures.” This is exactly what Paul called his own writings in Romans 16:25–26 and the apostle Peter boldly ranked those writings of the apostle Paul alongside the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:15–16).
It is no wonder that Peter, after the miraculous signs concerning the Temple in Jerusalem which happened in the spring of 66 C.E., made his way to Rome to see Paul. Peter’s journey would have been for one main purpose: to see Paul before the martyrdom of them both. This conference between the two great apostles was to discuss and to formulate a number of letters and writings which would be the first step in providing a sacred canon of New Testament books for the Christian community and the world.
The meeting was successful. Peter (in late 66 or early 67 C.E.) wrote his Second Epistle to those throughout the region of Asia Minor about this canonization. This last letter of Peter was written especially to inform Christians about the conclusion of this important task which was his final contribution to the Christians of his time and his contribution to all in future generations. Peter, Paul and John were giving to the world the final revelation of God in written form.
The first, or initial, canonization was done in about the year 67 C.E. when Peter dispatched to the apostle John the collection of Paul’s letters (and other writings of the apostles) which John was to finally secure for acceptance by the Christian community. Peter knew that he, himself, would not be able to do anything but to collect and authorize (with John) such a collection because his death was imminent. But the apostle John was prophesied to live much longer than Peter and to present himself to Christians “until Christ would return” (see John 21:22–25).
The precise role of John in finalizing the New Testament (and why it was he who was chosen by Christ to do it) will be explained shortly. Suffice it to say now that this first, and initial, canonization by Peter and Paul (and given to John) was to present new sacred scripture written under the prophetic spirit that would last the Christian community until the return of Christ. Just when and by whom the finishing touches of the New Testament came into final form will be discussed in the next chapter.
1 Alexander Souter, The Text and Canon of the New Testament (London: Duckworth, 1913), p. 149. This belief was shared by the eminent textual critic Professor Caspar René Gregory in his Canon and Text of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), p. 13.
2 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III.25.
3 F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1950), p. 111.
4 The New Testament: A Translation in the Language of the People by Charles B. Williams (1937), Footnote g.
5 Thomas Newberry, Footsteps of Truth, New Series, XI, 1893/4, p. 281.
6 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 116b; cf. Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883), p. 537, n. 2.
7 St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean [Contra Faustum Manichaeum], A.D. 400, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, First Series.
8 John Urquhart, The Bible, its Structure and Purpose (New York 1904), p. 37.
9 Josephus, Contra Apion I.8 ¶¶40–42.
10 For David: Matthew 27:35 citing Psalm 22:16–18 and Acts 2:30 citing Psalm 2:6–12, Psalm 72 and Jeremiah 23:5. For Solomon: Acts 7.48 citing 1 Kings 8:27 and 2 Chronicles 6:18. For Asaph: Matthew 13:35 citing Psalm 78:2.
11 Cf. John 4:19; Acts 11:27, 13:1; 15:32; 1 Corinthians 12:28–29, 37; Ephesians 2:20, 4:11; and Titus 1:12.
12 Inspiration of the Holy Scripture, p. 60.
13 William Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton. Originally written in 1588; 1610 [Latin], English ed. trans. by Fitzgerald (Cambridge: University Press, 1849), pp. 49–50.
14 Josephus, Contra Apion I.8 ¶¶40–42.
15 For a further demonstration of this use of the words “prophet” and “prophecy” in the first century, see Lee pages 53–60 and Whitaker, pages 49–52.
16 See the original Greek for the proper expression of “the Prophetic Scriptures,” italics mine.
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