The Canonization of Paul's Epistles
There was a common goal which dominated the last few months of the lives of Peter, John and Paul. If one will read their final works, when each was well aware that his death was on the immediate horizon, it can be seen what their desires were. It was most essential that a canon of divine New Testament scriptures be created which would last the world as a standard for Christian teaching until the second advent of Christ.
The apostles came to realize that Christ was not returning in their generation, and that a day in prophetic interpretation was a thousand years (2 Peter 3:3–13). This meant that many hundreds of years remained in human history before the symbolic “Sabbath” called the Millennium could arrive (Hebrews 4:11). Given the severe problems:
the apostles had to take matters in hand to preserve the truths of Christianity. They would have been remiss in their duties had they simply died and left the world without a standard of righteousness to rely on.
This is why Peter came to the conclusion that he and John must leave the Christian community with writings inspired by the Holy Spirit to last them “until the day dawn” (2 Peter 1:19). Thus, the two prime apostles, who were eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration of Christ and who heard the very voice of the Father himself, set about their task. In doing so, Peter mentioned that not only did he and John possess the word of prophecy in a more confirmed way than others (2 Peter 1:19), but that Paul’s epistles (the collective body of books being left with the Christian community) were also as inspired as the Old Testament scriptures (2 Peter 3:15–16).
Since it is clear that the apostles Peter and John reckoned Paul’s epistles as being a part of the sacred writings, we need to ask ourselves if Paul felt the same way about his written documents? Did he see a need to collect some of his own writings to be part of the New Testament canon? Was it he who decided to select fourteen of his letters for this purpose, and did he edit them for inclusion in the canon? These are interesting questions, and surprisingly, we can go a long way in satisfactorily answering them. The truth is, Paul was quite aware of his role in helping Peter and John to canonize the New Testament and just before his death his main activity was to accomplish this task of making a collection of his own epistles (and the Book of Hebrews) to leave to Christians in future times. Let us look at the evidence.
Paul had long realized that the words that he was writing to the people within his jurisdiction of authority had the approbation of God associated with them and that they often represented the very commandments of God.
“If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of God.”
1 Corinthians 14:37
Even more than that, Paul proclaimed to the Colossians that he had been commissioned by Christ to fulfill (or to bring to the top, to the very brim) the teachings of God. He knew he had the job of helping to complete the word of God for mankind.
“Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to complete the word of God, even the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints.”
Colossians 1:25–26 Greek
It is interesting that this reference of Paul about completing the word of God appears in the text to the Sixth Congregation among his seven to the ekkiesias (those seven from Romans to Thessalonians). The next book in this canonical collection was the Seventh Congregation (Thessalonians) which had as its message the main New Testament teaching about end-time events. In other words, in Paul’s last doctrinal discourse to the Christian community he said the Word of God was now complete and that the next event to occur in the history of Christianity would be that mentioned in his message to the Seventh Congregation Christ’s return and the resurrection from the dead. With Paul’s discourse to the Sixth Congregation, the complete doctrinal teachings for the Christian community had been given
Paul’s final appeal to Timothy was that Timothy remain steadfast in teaching the true doctrines of Christ because the outlook for the future was going to be that of teaching fables.
“I charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who by his appearing and kingdom shall judge the living and the dead. Preach the word; be urgent at favorable times or unfavorable ones; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching. For a time will come when they will not endure the sound teaching; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fully bear the responsibility of your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure is come. The good fight I have fought, the course I have finished, the faith I have kept. One thing remains: The crown of righteousness which is laid up for me, the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not only to me, but also to all those who love his appearing.”
2 Timothy 4:2–5 with modern English words from the Greek
The main desire of Paul was that sound doctrine be continually preached after his death because there was going to be a great falling away from the truth and people would begin to believe fables. These fables were also a major concern of Peter and John. This is why Peter said that in the documents he and John were leaving the Christian community, they were not going to be like the fables that were beginning to be published and taught. Knowing also that his own death (like Paul’s) was imminent, Peter said:
“And I think it right as long as I am in this tabernacle [this mortal body], to stir you up by reminder; knowing that the putting off of my tabernacle comes swiftly, even as our Lord Jesus Christ also showed me. But I will also give diligence that at each time you be able after my decease to call these things to remembrance. For not by following cunningly devised FABLES, made we known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we [Peter and John] were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
2 Peter 1.1–16
It was the circulation of fables, and the prospect of more being published, that convinced Peter, John and Paul (in the last months of their lives) to do something about the preservation
of the true doctrines of Christ. With this in mind, let us now look at what the apostle Paul did to play a part in this responsibility.
Realizing that his death was very near, Paul asked Timothy, his faithful worker in Christ, to urgently meet him in Rome. Paul considered Timothy’s journey to be of utmost importance and he was urged to expedite it as soon as possible. “With speed come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9). Paul was in immediate need of assistance, and this was especially so since most of his colleagues had either abandoned him or had Journeyed to other regions of the Empire. He was left alone in Rome. He wrote: “Only Luke is with me” (verse 11).
With this pressing situation in mind, notice the two requests that Paul instructed Timothy to accomplish. For one, he wanted John Mark (the one who wrote the Gospel of Mark) to come with Timothy to Rome because he had a service [a particular ministry] that he wanted him to perform. And secondly, Paul desired Timothy to “bring the cloak I left at Troas with Corpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments” (verse 13).
These two requests were very important to the canonization of Paul’s epistles. Note carefully that Paul urgently needed John Mark and some important documents that Timothy knew about. Let us first look at the reason he wanted John Mark to accompany Timothy to Rome.
John Mark was a very prominent person in the early history of Christianity. And in the matter of canonization, he significantly appears at a crucial time. We are told he was a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), which may indicate he was a Jew with Levitical prestige (Acts 4:36). At any rate, he occupied a prime social position in the Jerusalem congregation and his mother’s home was the place where it was common for the apostles to meet (Acts 12:12–17). And though there was a disagreement between Paul and Mark in their early careers (Acts 15:36–41), this was not a permanent thing and Paul later called John Mark his “fellow-laborer” (Colossians 4:10–11). Paul’s appeal was for John Mark to accompany Timothy to Rome so John Mark could perform a special service (ministry) for Paul. What was this service?
This is where the apostle Peter enters the picture. Though John Mark was often an associate of the apostle Paul in his ministry among the Gentiles, history and tradition attest to his closer relationship with the apostle Peter. In his first epistle, Peter refers to Mark as “my son” (1 Peter 5:13). Peter must have been a frequent visitor to the home of John Mark in Jerusalem (that is, his mother’s home). Peter no doubt took Mark under his wing while he was a young man and he became a close assistant of Peter.
Papias of the late 1st century said that John Mark was Peter’s “interpreter” or his official secretary and the writer of the second Gospel. As we have pointed out in a previous chapter, the Gospel of Mark really has the earmarks of being the Gospel of Peter. And indeed, it was. This means that John Mark was the one who helped Peter in his literary efforts and other ministerial duties. We find him with Peter in “Babylon” (a cipher for Jerusalem, not Rome or the Babylon on the Euphrates) (1 Peter 5:13). But we also find him in attendance with the apostle Paul just a little earlier in time (Colossians 4:10–11).
These indications may show that John Mark was a type of liaison between Peter and Paul — one time he was with Peter and the other with Paul. And just before his death, Paul made his urgent request for Timothy to bring John Mark with him to Rome. He also wanted Timothy to bring along some important items that Paul called “the cloak, the books, and especially the parchments.”
In effect, Paul was asking for Peter’s right hand man to come immediately to Rome for a special service. Though Paul did not ask Peter himself to journey to the capital of the Empire, the fact that he asked for John Mark was practically tantamount to the same thing. Paul knew that the apostles Peter and John were the only remaining witnesses to the Transfiguration, and this gave them a special commission for the preservation of divine truth which would last the Christian community of believers through the spiritual corruption prophesied to take place in the future.
Timothy and John Mark were asked by Paul to fetch three important items and bring them to Rome. “When you come, bring the cloak [Greek: phelonen] I left with Carpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). It is interesting that the phelonen, usually considered to be a heavy outer garment, would be mentioned alongside the paper scrolls (actually scrolls made from the papyrus plant) and the parchments (these were animal skins on which permanent documents were normally written).
It seems odd that a heavy coat would be in the same context with literary documents. Most scholars, however, point out that Paul wanted Timothy and Mark to hurry to Rome before winter (verse 21) and that he probably wanted the phelonen which he left with Carpus in order to keep himself warm when the cold would set in. This may be the case, but there are some difficulties with this interpretation. The truth is, the word phelonen had another meaning in the Greek world at the time, one that was intimately connected with scrolls and parchments.
Vincent, in his Word Studies in the New Testament, has this to say about the word phelonen.
“Hesychius explains it as originally a case for keeping the mouthpieces of wind-instruments; thence, generally, a box. Phrynicus, a Greek sophist of the second half of the third century, defines it as `a receptacle for books, clothes, silver, or anything else.’ Phelonen was a wrapper of parchments, and was translated figuratively in Latin by toga or paenula `a cloak,’ sometimes of leather; also the wrapping which a shopkeeper put round fish or olives; also the parchment cover for papyrus rolls. Accordingly it is claimed that Timothy in 4:13 is bidden to bring, not a cloak, but a roll-case. So the Syriac Version.” 1
The fact is, the word phelonen can mean either a cloak (and it is commonly used that way in Greek literature) or it could mean a receptacle for the placement of scrolls and parchments. It is the context which must determine what the apostle Paul meant by the use of phelonen in 2 Timothy 4:13. Since the word is found right next to scrolls and parchments, the immediate context would suggest a “book cover,” a “book case,” or “book slip” into which scrolls or pages of books were placed. As Vincent stated, the Syriac Version of the New Testament understood it in that manner. Chrysostom, in the 4th century, commented on this very reference of Paul’s and stated that some thought Paul meant a “book case” — a receptacle for books. 2 Even Jerome mentioned this point. 3
What is meant can only be determined by the context, because the word can signify either a heavy outer coat, a book case or some outer cover for books. Even in our modern times we have problems in interpreting similar words unless a proper context is provided. Let me give two illustrations to show the difficulty. In these examples we will consider the modern words jacket, wrap and cover. Suppose a letter were found in which a woman college student wrote her mother. She said that she wanted her mother to “go to the closet and get out my heavy jacket and send it to me. It will provide the cover I need from the cold. I am now using the wrap you gave me for my birthday and it is not warm enough.” If such a letter were found, the context makes it clear that the girl is talking about outer garments in all instances. But what if the following letter were found.
“Go to the bookstore and buy the latest fiction book you wrote me about. Take the Jacket off, because dust wraps on the books annoy me. Make sure, however, that the book has a hard cover because I don’t like paperbacks.”
Though these two illustrations use exactly the same words, they signify different things. Obviously, no one would get confused over what was intended in either case, because the contexts are plain as to what was meant. But let us return to our word phelonen in 2 Timothy 4:13. It could mean either a book case, a book wrapper, a book jacket, a book cover, or it could mean a heavy outer garment. Vincent in his Word Studies had no objection to it being an ordinary cloak because, like many other modern translators, he noted that Paul asked Timothy and John Mark to come to Rome before winter (verse 21). To many scholars this provides the context in which to interpret phelonen, though admittedly the reference to winter is eight verses away from the use of the word.
On the other hand, the word phelonen is found in the very verse (and context) which mentions the scrolls and parchments that Paul needed. Contextually, it would seem more logical to think of phelonen as being associated with literary documents. Indeed, it is even better to consider it that way because Luke was still with Paul in Rome and surely he could have secured for Paul any protective garment to keep away the cold during the approaching winter. Would it be necessary to fetch an outer garment all the way from Troas to keep Paul covered for the short time he was to remain alive?
The fact is, Paul’s reference to winter (verse 21) is by context too far away for the phelonen to mean an actual cloak. But with the word intimately connected (in a perfect context) with the literary documents which Paul was urgently requesting Timothy and John Mark to bring with them, it seems more probable that the interpretation of the Syriac Version, along with the suggestions found in Chrysostom and Jerome, happen to be correct. It appears that Paul wanted his important book case (his receptacle for carrying books) to be brought at once to Rome — and the request was one of pressing necessity.
Is it unreasonable to assume that the book case contained papyrus scrolls or parchments of the Old Testament scriptures? There were always a large group of people with Paul wherever he traveled, and their baggage would no doubt have contained a copy (or copies) of the Old Testament. Besides, Paul could refer to the earlier scriptures by reading them in the various synagogues in the areas he visited. Of course, Paul was in prison when he wrote Timothy and could not attend the synagogues to consult the scriptures. Yet, Luke was with him. Could not Luke have done this for him, or even to have brought the Old Testament to him in prison from the baggage they had? And besides, what would Paul need with the Old Testament in an urgent way just before he was to be killed? Had he not memorized almost all of it over his 35 years of ministry?
But it was of utmost priority that he obtain “the book case, the papyrus scrolls, and especially the animal skin volumes.” Note the definite articles in front of each of the three items. Since Paul gave no further description about them, it appears that Timothy and John Mark knew exactly the specific things Paul meant, and they realized it was important that they be brought immediately to Rome. There is no doubt in my mind that some particular scrolls and parchment documents were being kept safely by Paul in a specially constructed carrying case or book cover. It also makes sense that they were his own writings which he had brought together and left in Asia Minor with Carpus. Paul now needed them dispatched to Rome immediately. This must be the reason why Paul requested John Mark to accompany Timothy.
John Mark was Peter’s assistant, Peter’s right hand man. He was also his secretary — the one who wrote literary documents for Peter. The service that Paul wanted John Mark to perform may have concerned the retention (or a collection) of some of Paul’s writings. This is as good a reason as any why Paul wanted John Mark in Rome. If it was not to take Paul’s letters to Peter, then it was to talk over the matter of the letters and have Peter come to Paul in Rome.
Since it seems that Paul wrote Second Timothy in the late Summer or Autumn of 65 C.E., then John Mark’s journey to Rome, and back to Jerusalem where Peter probably was, could have been accomplished by late spring of 66 C.E. And with the miraculous events concerning the Temple starting to happen just before Passover 66 C.E. and continuing until Pentecost 66 C.E. (when God abandoned the Temple at Jerusalem), it would have been possible for Peter reach Rome by the late summer of 66 C.E.
If this is the case, Peter’s only reason for going to Rome was to see the apostle Paul relative to the matter of the New Testament canonization. This could have been the main reason that John Mark was involved in the issue since he was the literary assistant to Peter. And recall, Paul urgently admonished Timothy to bring the written documents with John Mark. The historical scenario provided by Paul’s last chapter of Second Timothy demands that a highly important literary activity was under way.
With both Peter and Paul in Rome in the final weeks of 66 C.E. or in early 67 C.E. they could have selected and canonized the New Testament scriptures in their possession and then sent them to the apostle John. Peter was aware that even he would meet his death very soon, just as Christ prophesied.
Since this appears quite possible, it seems that Paul was given the opportunity to edit his own letters for inclusion into the sacred canon of the New Testament. An example of this are the last three verses of Romans in our present versions. These verses are very close to the writing style of Ephesians and Colossians, and they contain a reference that Paul’s teachings were then being called “the prophetic scriptures” (verse 26, Greek). Such use of the phrase “prophetic scriptures” is a sure sign that Paul’s letters were then being considered as sacred and as inspired as were the scriptures of the Old Testament.
Recall that Peter and John considered themselves as having “the prophetic word more confirmed” (2 Peter 1:18) and this was a reference to their written works as being inspired of God (2 Peter 1:20). And now we have Paul saying the same thing about his own writings, that they were “the prophetic scriptures” (Romans 16:26). Paul wrote this editorial remark at the end of Romans long after he had composed the actual letter back in 56 C.E. This is because he made it clear in the editorial footnote that “all the nations” had now received the teaching of his Gospel (verse 26). This could only have been stated after he had returned from Spain in about 62 C.E. This reference dovetails precisely with that which Paul stated in the Book of Colossians (written about 64 C.E.) that the Gospel had now been “preached in all creation that is under heaven” (Colossians 1:23).
These indications are enough to show that Paul edited his own Book of Romans. Since this was done to the ABC book of his collection, he may have done it to others. But what was the purpose for such editing? It was clearly to provide something for a later or different audience, and to bring the earlier documents up-to-date in the teaching of the Gospel. It is sensible that Paul wanted the Book of Romans to be of universal application. In adapting Romans to this need, Paul simply added his brief reference to the advanced teaching of “the Mystery,” which he later fully revealed in Ephesians and Colossians. And importantly, he was now saying that his writings were a part of “the prophetic scriptures” (Romans 16:26). Paul was actually preparing his epistles for canonization.
Just before Paul was martyred, the fourteen epistles of Paul were placed in their proper order. Along with these were arranged other New Testament works in the hands of Peter and Paul. It was at this time, no doubt, that John Mark wrote his Gospel copying down the words of Peter as he dictated them to him. Peter then wrote his Second Epistle which mentioned this preliminary canonization, and that he and the apostle John were commissioned by God to fill up the books of the sacred canon.
Peter then sent by the hand of John Mark his Second Epistle (along with the books collected and arranged by himself and Paul) to the apostle John in western Asia Minor. This was the particular service that Paul wanted John Mark to accomplish (2 Timothy 4:11). A short while later (probably in 67 C.E., Peter himself was martyred in Rome. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside-down, and there is no reason to dispute this possibility. But now, the preliminary books were in the hands of the apostle John in Ephesus to complete his prophesied role of finalizing the canon of the New Testament.
The formation of the canon remained the responsibility of the apostle John. As stated in a previous chapter, the apostle John was specially selected to do this job. Not only was John of priestly ancestry, but he had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Christ and was also a kinsman who knew Jesus from childhood. These factors made John to be a special person among the apostles. This is no doubt why Peter handed the actual canonization over to John. It would take John another 30 years or so to provide the final and complete New Testament canon to be positioned alongside the Old Testament to represent the full revelation of God to man. In the next chapter we will show how the apostle John fulfilled his prophesied commission.
1 Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, p. 326.
2 Hom. in loc. vol, XI, p 780, ed. Gaume.
3 Epist. 36, ad Damasum
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