The Completion of the Canon
The apostle Peter said there were two people who had the authority from Christ to canonize the New Testament. They were himself and the apostle John. They were the only ones by 66/67 C.E. who remained alive as witnesses of the Transfiguration of Christ. Peter in his second epistle said this majestic event gave them a special authorization to receive and to record inspired teachings from God. They had “the word of prophecy more confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19). They ranked with the “prophets” who composed works for the inspired Old Testament. This gave Peter and John the right to select and authorize any documents they saw fit in order to leave the Christian community with official documents that would last them ”until the day dawn” (2 Peter 1:19). This, in summary, was the teaching of Peter in the first chapter of his Second Epistle.
The one who carried Peter’s selected documents to the apostle John was probably John Mark. When Mark left Rome with those documents, Paul was already dead and Peter was near death, if not already dead. Certainly, by late 67 C.E., John was the only apostle remaining who had witnessed the Transfiguration. The responsibility for putting the finishing touches to the canon of the New Testament fell to him. This was in accord with Christ’s prophecy that Peter was to die a martyr but that John would continue to live “until I am coming” (John 21:22–23). This did not mean that John himself would not die as some began to imagine, because Christ made it clear that the two Sons of Thunder (John and his brother James) would be killed for their faith (Matthew 20:23). John’s brother James was the first of the apostles to be slain (Acts 12:1–2), and history informs us that John also met his death through martyrdom. 1
Yet John was prophesied to tarry on earth until the coming of Christ. As explained in a previous chapter, this was a reference to a role that John was to play that would effectively keep him alive and active until the second advent of Christ. What does the phrase “tarry till I come” mean in regard to John continuing “to live” until the second advent? Let us note a principle of literary composition in early times that will help to explain this role of the apostle John continuing to be alive for the next twenty centuries or more. It is an interesting and important biblical point to consider.
The literary principle that we need to understand is found in the apostle Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians. It involves a statement made by the apostle Paul that hardly anyone understands today (and this includes many scholars), but its meaning is quite clear and meaningful if one will simply pay close attention to what Paul stated (and especially what Paul meant). In writing his second letter to the Corinthians Paul stated a literary principle which accompanied that letter. The text is pretty clear in the King James Version, but to make the matter even plainer, I will give a more literal translation directly from the Greek to show us of modern times what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his second letter.
“This is the third time I am coming to you. ‘At the mouth of two witnesses or of three every matter must be established.’ I have said previously and, as if present the SECOND TIME and yet absent, now, I say in advance [of my coming to you] to those who have sinned before and to all the rest, that if ever I come again I will not spare [in my judgment upon the guilty].”
2 Corinthians 13:1–2 (Greek)
Look at what Paul meant. It is plain when one analyzes the context. Paul said he was at that very time coming into the presence of the Corinthians (at the very moment of writing Second Corinthians), yet he said this coming to them was his third time to be in their presence. His third time? What does Paul mean by third time? The only other visit to Corinth (and when he stayed for eighteen months) was when he was there as recorded in Acts 18. There is no record of him being in Corinth a second time — that is, there is no record of a second visit in the flesh (by him actually going to them in person). Yet, he said in First Corinthians that he went to them a second time (1 Corinthians 5:3–4). But in those two verses in First Corinthians Paul said he came to the Corinthians by letter, and not in person. He said: “I verily, as absent in body, but PRESENT IN SPIRIT, have judged already, AS THOUGH I WERE PRESENT.” That is, when Paul wrote First Corinthians he reckoned that very letter to be looked on as though he were PRESENT and that HE IN PERSON was accompanying that letter which we call First Corinthians.
Later, when writing Second Corinthians, Paul stated his readiness to come to them once more: “This is the third time I am in readiness to come to you” (2 Corinthians 12:14). Indeed, he got more specific eight verses later by saying “this is the third time I am coming [present tense] to you ... as if PRESENT the second time and YET ABSENT” (2 Corinthians 13:1–2). In simple terms, Paul meant that this third visit of his to the Corinthians was in the same fashion and in the identical manner as his second visit had been — “as if PRESENT ... YET ABSENT.” This means that both his second visit and his third visit to Corinth were just like his presence with the Colossians when he wrote his letter to them. Paul said: “Though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit” (Colossians 2:5). His second and third visits were only “in Spirit,” but when they read his two letters to the Corinthians they were to view Paul as being present in the flesh (as though he was right in their midst).
He was telling the Corinthians in Second Corinthians that his coming to them in the near future would be his fourth visit, when he was planning to be in Corinth in the flesh (verse 2b). But Paul’s second and third visits to Corinth WERE ONLY BY HIS TWO LETTERS TO THEM. In both First and Second Corinthians, Paul considered his letters to them to be reckoned as if he were with them, “as if PRESENT ... YET ABSENT.” Paul even quoted the statement from the Law of Moses about the need for two or three witnesses (and this means “eyewitnesses”) as applying to his two letters to the Corinthians. Though they were simply “letters from Paul,” Paul considered himself as accompanying those letters. “As if present ... yet absent.”
In summation, Paul meant that his first visit to Corinth was when he was with them in the flesh for 18 months. His second and third visits were when he wrote to them the epistles of First Corinthians (his second visit) and then Second Corinthians (his third visit). His fourth visit, which he was planning, would once again be a visit in the flesh. 2
It was not an uncommon practice for people around the period when Paul wrote to consider that a letter sent to a person or a group (or even the bearer of the letter) was looked on as if the writer were present when the letter was read. That is, that the letter was looked on as if the person was in their presence. There is the Latin letter to a Roman military tribune century an official reason for his prophetic role which states: “Sir, I beg you to look upon him [the bearer of the letter] as if he were myself.” Followed a few lines later with: “Look upon this letter, Sir, and imagine that I am talking with you.” 3 Stanley K. Stowers, in his Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, gives several examples of early classical letters that tell those who receive the letters to treat the letter-bearer (and consequently the message in the letters) as though the writer were there in person. 4
We should note well this custom because it will have a great bearing on what books of the apostles were accorded more authority in arrangement as we will see later in this book. It is a principle that is most important to understand. In effect, when Paul wrote First and Second Corinthians, he looked on himself as being present when those letters were read to the Corinthian ekklesia although he was quite absent from them in the flesh. As Paul explained it: “As if present ... yet absent.” This also helps to understand the prophecy that Christ stated to John that he would continue “until I come.”
One of the keys to understanding what Christ meant when he said that the apostle John would continue To BE PRESENT with Christians UNTIL HIS SECOND ADVENT, is a similar thing that Paul acknowledged in reference to his writing of First and Second Corinthians. Though Paul was not actually present in the midst of the Corinthians when he wrote his two letters (whether by geographically being separated from them or whatever), so John also would continue to be present with all those who would read his writings until the second advent because the writings of John (in the New Testament way of looking at things) would be reckoned as PRESENT when his letters would be read.
Paul gave a similar principle in Romans 4:17 when he said that God calls “those things which be not, as though they were.” That is right. From a New Testament point of view every time you read the writings of Paul, or John (or, indeed, James, Peter, and Jude) it is reckoned by New Testament custom that those men ARE PRESENT WITH YOU though they really ARE NOT (most have been dead for over 1900+ years and still are dead awaiting their resurrections). The apostle John was thus to remain on earth and to be reckoned as a living person through the writings he would leave for future Christians. So, when one reads John’s works (though he himself is dead), he is “alive” and with us through his writings. Among those writings of John was the Book of Revelation about the events surrounding the time of the second advent of Christ.
Historical and biblical evidence points to two time periods for the composition of this prophetic book. The first writing of it (in its initial form) was about 56 to 60 C.E. It was revealed again (perhaps with more material added to the original text) in the last part of the 1st century. Irenaeus, who was a native of Asia Minor and who knew Polycarp, who in turn was a personal acquaintance of the apostle John, said that the Book of Revelation “was seen not such long time ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.” 5
This reference is powerful evidence that John received the visions (at least in their final form) when he was a very old man. Indeed, Irenaeus said that John lived in the city of Ephesus until the time of the emperor Trajan (98–117 C.E.). 6 According to Papias (Bishop of Hierapolis near Ephesus and a contemporary of John), John was martyred by the Jews.
The fact that John had a long history of living and working in the region of Ephesus is well attested and need not be seriously doubted. We will see, however, that John was also in personal contact with Christian authorities in Jerusalem, who returned to the area after 70 C.E. But John was also frequently in western Asia Minor. Irenaeus stated that John composed his Gospel while at Ephesus. 7 And since the Book of Revelation was restored to relevance and was canonized as a book concerning the end-times, as well as written to the seven congregations in western Asia Minor, it can be reasonably accepted that this area was also important as a Christian center after 70 C.E. but this does not mean that Jerusalem and its environs were not important. We will come to see as we progress in this book that Jerusalem (more particularly the Mount of Olives) remained a strong center for Christianity, and it lasted until the time of Eusebius in the 4th century.
John did not create the New Testament on his own. He had helpers. If one will read the writings of John carefully, these assistants can be recognized, and they played a very important part in the overall canonization. References to them are found from time to time cropping up within the contexts of John’s compositions. The elders who helped John were very important. We will see in a moment that many of them were eyewitnesses to the teachings of Jesus in Judaea and they also saw him alive after his resurrection from the dead. They were a part of those 500 people still alive in 55 C.E. whom Paul said were witnesses to Christ’s resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15:6). This means that they were certainly Jewish Christians.
The best place to start in order to observe this circle of John’s helpers is at the very end of John’s Gospel. Throughout his 21 chapters we find the apostle recording what Christ taught along with John’s own comments being given from time to time. But when one reaches John 21:24 (just before the end of the Gospel) there is a remark in the text that interjects what others besides John had to say about the Gospel of John. Notice the verse.
“This is the disciple [John] who bears witness about these things (and WE know that the witness he gives is true).”
Notice the abrupt change from the third person singular to the plural. The last part of this verse is introducing further witnesses other than John who are identified only by the pronoun “WE.” Who were these men? In the Gospel they are not identified, but it can reasonably be assumed that the first readers of John’s Gospel must have been aware of their identities. They must have represented an officially recognized body of men since they boldly gave their witness to John’s written word, “And WE know that the witness he [John] gives is true.”
But there is more. The “WE” passages do not stop with the single verse at the end of John’s Gospel. They occur elsewhere in John’s writings. Notice the short epistle called Third John. John began to speak to a man called Gaius in the first person singular: “I pray that in all things you may be prospering and having good health” (verse 2). Then we find a long string of:
But then, and out of the blue, John introduces a plural intrusion into the text. In this book it says: “in fact, WE also are bearing witness, and you know that the witness WE give is true” (verse 12). Then immediately the context of Third John returns to: “I had many things to write you, yet I do not wish to go on writing you with ink and pen. But I am hoping to see you directly” (verses 13–14).
It is clear that a body of men, other than John himself, were telling the readers of John’s Third Epistle that they too were witnesses to the truth that John was stating. These assistants (or editors) of John must have been well known to John’s readers. All they say is “you know that the witness WE GIVE is true.” Certainly, these men could reasonably be considered a group of John’s right-hand men and known by all.
There is even more. In John’s First Epistle we find the insertion of another “WE section.” Notice 1 John 4:11. After John told his readers that “I am writing” (1 John 2:1), followed by further references to “I am writing” or “I write” in verses 7–8, 12–13 (three times), verse 14 (twice), as well as “I write” in verses 21 and 26, there is then interjected into the context:
“In addition, WE ourselves have beheld and are bearing witness that the Father has sent forth his Son as Savior of the world.”
1 John 4:14
This shows, once again, an intrusion into the text. This was a deliberate attempt to interpose the witness of a body of men other than the apostle John. After these men had included their witness, we find John returning to his “I write you” motif (1 John 5:13). These references indicate that there were other men, clearly known by the original readers of John’s Gospel and his First and Third epistles, who wanted to make sure that they were adding their testimonies to the truth of what John was saying.
Thankfully, it is possible to identify these men in a general way, although we have not been told their names. Since the “WE sections” in John’s Gospel and his First and Third epistles are very similar in content and purpose, it can be reasonably believed that they all represented the same group of men who were assistants (or editors) of John. If this is the case, then we can know more about them because in the first chapter of John’s First Epistle these men are further identified. In fact, the whole of the first chapter gives a rundown of the authority that they had, along with John, in the Christian community. They must have been associated with John between the years of 67 C.E. and 98 C.E. Note carefully the first chapter of First John. So that the authority of these men can come into better view, the whole of the chapter needs to be mentioned.
“That which was from the beginning, which WE have heard, which WE have seen with OUR eyes, which WE have viewed and OUR hands felt, concerning the Word of life (and the life was made manifest, and WE have seen and are bearing witness and reporting to you the everlasting [eonian] life which was with the Father and was made manifest to US), that which WE have seen and heard, WE are reporting unto you, that you may be sharing [having fellowship] with US. Furthermore, this sharing [fellowship] of OURS is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. And so WE are writing these things that OUR joy may be in full measure.”
1 John 1:1–4 (Greek)
The “WE section” continues on through the first chapter of First John. But, abruptly, in chapter two, there is a change to the first person singular: “My little children, I write unto you” (verse 1). This continues until 4:14 is reached, and then there is the single verse which again records a “WE section.” Once their final witness is recorded, John closes with the usual: “I write you these things” (5:13),
Whoever these men were, they figured very prominently in the writing of John’s three epistles. But more than that, they were men from Palestine who had been personal acquaintances of Christ and they were witnesses of his resurrection from the dead. This put them into a relatively high position of authority. After all, how many people in the 1st century could claim such distinction? Even the apostle Paul knew in 55 C.E. of only about 500 who were so honored (1 Corinthians 15:6). These men were certainly a part of that group. They may even have been of more esteem in the eyes of Christians at the time.
Indeed, if one will look at the very beginning of the Gospel of John, these same men gave their own witness (along with John) to the glory of Christ which they had seen with their own eyes. In John’s first chapter there is a prominent (and even glaring) “WE section.” But strangely, most people pass right over it as though it is not even there. It is time that people begin to pay attention to what the text actually says, rather than hurrying over this section of John in a haphazard fashion to get to the next section. If people would slow down and read what John wrote, many would be in for some real surprises. Notice an important “WE section” at the very start of John’s Gospel.
“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and WE beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of The Father) full of grace and truth.”
Scholars are aware that this interjection is the separate witness by John’s assistants or editors 8 but the vast majority of readers of the New Testament simply pass over this reference so quickly that they do not notice the relevance of it. It is time to restore the testimony of these men to its proper place.
Who were these men who interposed their own testimonies at crucial points in the texts of John? One thing is assured. They were almost certainly Jewish because they were witnesses of Christ in the flesh before His crucifixion and after His resurrection. Both the references in John 1:14 and 1 John 1:1–4 show this. As mentioned before, the apostle Paul said there were more than 500 people who saw Christ after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6), and we can be certain that the majority of them (if not all) were of Jewish ancestry.
Were some of these witnesses with the apostle John near the end of the 1st century? An early Christian called Quadratus wrote a short letter to the Emperor Hadrian in 117 C.E. saying that he (no doubt in his youth) had talked to some people whom Christ had raised from the dead. 9 This would mean that about the 90s C.E. there were some witnesses of Christ’s ministry in the flesh still living. They may well have been remaining with John and helping him in the writing of his Gospel and his three epistles. They may even have added a few remarks to John’s works after John’s death (if they thought it was necessary to do so). After all, the official scribes of the Jews added genealogical matters to the Temple scrolls down to the time of Alexander the Great (some 100 years after the close of the Old Testament canon). There would be nothing wrong in adding a few editorial remarks to the divine library of New Testament books if the “Elders” who supported the apostle John were still alive after John’s death.
These suggestions can make sense. The fact is, there appear to be a number of such editorial remarks in John’s Gospel, either in relation to the “WE sections” or distinct from them. The King James Version shows some of them by placing their occurrences within parentheses.
One thing that becomes evident about the “WE sections” of John is that most of the men who composed them were part of that special and select group around John who had been Christians from the very beginning. Their remarks in the Gospel indicate that they had seen the glory of Christ firsthand (John 1:14) and in John’s First Epistle they emphasized their seeing, their handling, and their hearing Christ speak (1 John 1:1–4). This may mean that some of them were other apostles or certainly a part of the 500 who witnessed Christ alive after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). It can almost be certain that they were all Jews, and that they later lived near John when he was performing his job of canonizing the New Testament. These men were those that could be called Elders that helped John in the canonization.
Papias (around 110 C.E.) makes an interesting comment about the Elders who were the disciples of John and who succeeded him. Since Papias was in contact with these Elders and was interested in their testimonies concerning the early truths taught by Christ and the apostles, his comments are valuable. Note what he said.
“But I shall not hesitate also to put down for you along with my interpretations whatsoever things I have at my time learned from the Elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that speak the truth; not in those that relate strange commandments, but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith and springing from the truth itself. If, then, anyone came who had been a follower of the Elders, questioned him in regard to the words of the Elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Ariston and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.”
This account makes it clear that the apostles were dead by the time Papias made this remark about 110 C.E. But, there was still a body of Elders who had firsthand knowledge of what many of the apostles had taught. Papias said he even preferred to speak with them about the teachings they presented about Christ rather than to resort “to the books” which also recorded such things. This seems to make it clear that there already was, within a very few years of the apostle John’s death, a set of books which were regularly being consulted concerning the teachings of Christ and the apostles.
At the same time Papias was making his statements, Polycarp (a disciple of the apostle John who had certainly heard him speak) was collecting the seven letters of Ignatius which Ignatius wrote while on his way to Rome to be martyred. 10 If the seven letters of Ignatius were so important and precious to Polycarp (and to be preserved for posterity and distributed to other Christian communities), then it would seem odd that Polycarp did not possess a complete canon of New Testament books which he would have considered infinitely more sacred. Indeed, Polycarp said in the same letter that the Philippians were “well trained in the sacred writings” (which he called “the Scriptures”) and then he quoted from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. 11 But besides having the sacred writings in his possession, there were still alive some of the Elders who remembered the apostles personally.
The Elders that Papias referred to as being alive just after the death of John might have been the very ones who helped John in the final canonization of the New Testament that were mentioned in the “WE” passages mentioned above. Were they part of John’s select group of men? This seems to be the case. And indeed, some of them may have been a few of the very apostles themselves (and other Palestinian Christians). After all, First John chapter one says that those designated by the pronoun “WE” were those who had seen and handled Christ as well as having been witnesses of his resurrection (1 John 1:1–4).
There is another historical reference to the Elders who helped John write his Gospel and his three epistles. It is what we today call the Muratorian Canon named after L. A. Muratori who discovered the document in 1740 C.E. It is an account of how some of the books of the New Testament came to be. Though it is written in barbarous Latin, and scholars have argued about its intrinsic worth for years, there are some interesting matters mentioned by the document that refer to the “WE “passages of the apostle John’s writings. And because it has often been dated very early (to about 150 C.E. — though this is disputed), it provides a reasonable witness of what people believed about the origin of the Gospel of John and other books. It will pay us to quote an extensive part of the Muratorian Canon. In the section I will transcribe it. The main topic was the Gospel of John.
“The fourth Gospel is by John, one of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and overseers of the churches exhorted him he said: ‘Today fast with me for three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each o€ us.’ That same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should write down all things in John’s name, as they ALL RECALLED THEM TO MIND (or could certify to John). So although various points are taught in the several books of the gospels, yet it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since all things in them are declared by one supreme Spirit, concerning [Christ’s] nativity, his sufferings, his resurrection, his talking with his disciples, and his double advent [i.e., his two separate advents], the first in despised lowliness, which has taken place, and the second glorious with the power of a king, which is yet to come. What wonder then if John so boldly presents each point, saying of himself in his epistle, `What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, these things have we written?’ For so he swears as a witness not only one who saw Christ and a hearer of him, but he was also a writer of all the wonderful works of the Lord in order.”
Italics, capitals, and words in brackets are mine
There can be no doubt that the writer of this work believed that the Gospel of John, though written under the name of the “beloved disciple” (John), was really a cooperative effort in which several of the apostles and disciples took part. And in effect, this is exactly what the “WE” sections of the Gospel of John and John’s epistles demand. This makes “the Elders” of John take on an importance that many people have not realized. It indicates that John became the writer for the remaining witnesses of Christ who were still alive at the end of the 1st century. John’s circle of friends included some of the most illustrious luminaries who accompanied Christ in his preaching tours of Galilee and Judaea.
These “Elders” of John were also mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (early 3rd century C.E.) when he discussed the method that John used in writing his Gospel. He said:
“But last of all, John, perceiving that the observable facts had been made plain in the Gospel [those formerly written], being urged on by friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”
As quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.14.7
This means that sometime between 70 C.E. and his death about 98 C.E. (or thereabouts, since John lived to the time of the emperor Trajan), John was asked by his friends to write a spiritual Gospel, and in this case they were those who had, with him, seen and heard Christ and had been witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. John accomplished that task. And, it proved to be not just the work of John alone but a cooperative effort involving the remaining witnesses who personally observed Christ and his teachings. Though Peter and Paul died in Rome, and they had made the first preliminary canonization of the New Testament, it remained for John and his eyewitness Elders to complete the final written testimony to the teachings of Christ. This was accomplished in the last decade of the 1st century.
There are many reasons to show that the Gospel of John was written last of all the Gospels, and that it was no doubt composed just before John’s death. One of the main things to show this is John’s appeal that the Holy Spirit Christ had promised would recall to mind all the essential teachings of Christ:
“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, AND BRING TO REMEMBRANCE, whatsoever things I have said unto to you.”
Since John was a very old man when his Gospel was written, there were people accusing him of not being able to remember the real teachings of Christ. This is why John invoked the witness of the Holy Spirit to counter this. But John was also, in his Gospel and epistles, constantly appealing to the truth provided by competent witnesses from Palestine. In his Gospel alone, John stressed the word “witness” (or its cognates) 47 times. 12 This was a most unusual emphasis. Why did John resort to such an appeal? No other writer of the New Testament had to constantly remind his readers that he had many kinds of “witnesses” to the truth of what he was writing. But no other writer was being accused of being too old to remember the truths of earlier times.
The fact is, when John wrote his Gospel, there were many people in the world who began to question the accuracy of it, and the competence of John himself. This is one of the main reasons that John emphasized that the Holy Spirit was promised by Christ to bring back a remembrance of “all the truth” to his apostles (John 16:13), and if that were not enough, John also called on a group of his select friends (the Elders of the “WE” passages) who were also eyewitnesses to all that he was saying, and they also vouched for the truth of his statements.
It should be recalled that there were many “Gospels” of Christ already circulating by the time John wrote his works (Luke 1:1), and that both Peter and Paul warned of the fables that were destined to be put forth as the truth (2 Peter 1:16; 2 Timothy 4:4). John (even in his old age) felt that it was incumbent upon him to clear the air with the truth. He thus asked the witnesses of Christ’s earthly life who were still living (the Elders) to cooperate with him in the production of the final Gospel. This was done just before John’s death (about the time he canonized the Book of Revelation).
It is for this reason that many features of John’s Gospel can be satisfactorily explained. This is why he could record the incident of Lazarus being resurrected from the dead while the other three Gospel accounts did not wish to do so. Since Lazarus was now likely dead, and this would prevent any harassment from his admirers or his foes, John could tell the story in detail.
But John left out things too. There is no mention of Christ’s prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem, to which the other three Gospels paid considerable attention. It would have been unwise to mention matters that many had considered as already taken place (and record them as “future” prophecies). And, after all, the Olivet Prophecies had been adequately covered by the other three Gospels written before the destruction of Jerusalem. John’s task was different and for other reasons. He was simply giving a summary of doctrinal and spiritual matters taught by Christ that the other apostles had left out or did not feel necessary to record. His Gospel was a spiritual one.
The time between the deaths of Peter and Paul (about 67 C.E. in Rome) and that of John (soon after 98 C.E.) was most significant in the history of the canonization. Some of the differences in the contents of later manuscripts can be attributed to this period of 30 years. For example, it must be acknowledged that Peter and Paul left with the Christians at Rome a partial canon of New Testament scriptures, though Peter directed the actual (and final) canonization to his readers in Asia Minor, and most particularly to the apostle John himself who must have been resident among them at the time. The whole of Peter’s Second Epistle is devoted to this subject. It was the apostle John to whom one must look (according to Peter) for the final canonization.
The Christian community at Rome was also important and needed the divine canon in their midst. In fact, all the ekklesias (churches) needed to know what writings were considered canonical to insure proper teaching. It is reasonable to suppose that Peter and Paul left a partial canon with the ekklesia at Rome (the same they sent to John) which would last them until John would include his own books and complete the divine library. Since John’s Gospel, his three epistles, and the Book of Revelation were not canonized for almost another 30 years or so, it meant that the Christian communities did not have in their possession a complete New Testament until the last decade of the 1st century.
This period when no full canon was yet available can explain a great deal of the minor (and even major) differences that arose in a few of the early manuscripts. For instance, the original Gospel of Mark which Peter dictated to John Mark in Rome (and that Mark left with the Roman Christians) probably did not contain the long conclusion (16:9–20) or even a short conclusion of one verse which followed Mark 16:8. Thus, for a period of 30 or 35 years, some manuscripts were circulating without the long conclusion. Yet when John and his assistants (the Elders) finally canonized the New Testament, twelve verses were added to the Gospel of Mark in order to complete it. Even the Book of Acts has come down to us in two distinct types of manuscript versions — one which is more replete with historical and geographical information, adding about 10 percent more material to the text. The additions to Acts could also have been made when the final canon was published at the end of the century.
There is also the question of the exact times John wrote his Gospel and three epistles. The Gospel seems to be a late production, though John’s mention of five porches as seemingly in existence in Jerusalem (5:3) and the reference that Peter “will” be martyred (21:19) might indicate the basic writing of the Gospel was early, even before the destruction of Jerusalem. Prof. John A.T. Robinson, in his excellent book Redating the New Testament, 13 thought this to be the case. John’s mention that it was the “last hour” (1 John 2:18) would tend to put the original writing quite early — before the apostles came to see that Christ was not coming back in that generation.
While all of this may show an early “first draft” to John’s Gospel and epistles, the inclusion of the “WE sections” into their texts makes it probable that their final positioning within the divine canon only became a reality when the Book of Revelation was revealed again to the apostle John not long before his death. Actually, the “WE sections” seem to be editorial remarks which were added by John’s assistants (either to buttress the reliability of what John was writing in his old age or to support John’s testimony after his death). From our present state of knowledge we cannot know when during those 30 or 35 years after the fall of Jerusalem that John wrote his Gospel and the three epistles. Certainly, though, they were not canonized as official parts of the New Testament until the last book (Revelation) was accepted again and canonized for all Christians near John’s death,
It is sometimes thought that because the New Testament has come down to us in Greek, that the Gentiles from Greek speaking areas were the ones who had authority to preserve the new canon. There is no scriptural warrant to sustain this belief. Indeed, of the apostles themselves only Peter and John had “the prophetic word more confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19). These two apostles along with James the Lord’s brother were the “pillar” apostles in the Christian communities and even the apostle Paul found it necessary to gain an approbation from them for his work among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1–10). In a particular sense, they were the only apostles specifically commissioned to go to the circumcised (Galatians 2:7–9). As far as Holy Scripture was concerned, it was a well known principle among the Jews that it was they who had been authorized to preserve and protect (and to teach) the Word of God. Paul acknowledged this.
“What advantage then has the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because unto them were committed the oracles of God.”
The word “committed” signifies an entrustment — an official commission. The apostle Paul reckoned that his own ministry among the Gentiles had the same type of authority, and the identical word was used in Greek to describe it (1 Corinthians 9:17; Galatians 2:7; 1 Timothy 1:11; Titus 1:3). Since the Old Testament had been placed into the hands of the Temple priests for its teaching and preservation (Deuteronomy 31:9–11), the apostles must have looked on safeguarding the New Testament in a similar way. Recall that the apostle John and his brother James were of priestly descent, 14 and these beliefs are compatible to the teachings of the New Testament as we have shown. This gave John at the end of the 1st century an official reason for his prophetic role of finalizing the New Testament canon.
At any rate, Peter told the Jewish exiles in Asia Minor that he and John were going to leave them with a New Testament canon and that only these two apostles had “the word of prophecy more confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19). To accomplish his role in canonization, the apostle John gathered around him near the end of the 1st century a body of Jewish elders who helped him in writing (and no doubt preserving) that canon. No one knows how long the original group of men assisted John, but at the time John wrote his Gospel and his three epistles, those men were still giving witness to the accuracy of John’s teaching.
In the next chapter we will see that the apostle John, even though he was an apostle of Christ, was looked on with suspicion by some Christians near the end of the 1st century. This is an important point to realize in the matter of New Testament canonization.
1 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV. 31.
2 The visits of Paul to Corinth were in this manner:
|First visit||Paul is present physically in the flesh with the Corinthians for 18 months|
|Second visit||Paul is present with them by his first letter (1 Corinthians 5:3–4)|
|Third visit||Paul is present with them by his second letter (2 Corinthians 12:14, 13:1–2)|
|Fourth visit||Paul planned to visit the Corinthians a fourth time physically in the flesh.|
Most New Testament commentaries have long discussions regarding how many visits Paul made and how many letters Paul wrote. Dr. Martin correctly cuts through all this by clearly presenting this principle used by Paul, common to his time. DWS
3 Number 122 in Select Papyri: With an English Translation, ed. and trans by Arthur S. Hunt, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932–34), p. 323.
4 Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), pp. 153–165.
5 Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.3.
6 Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies 2.22.
7 Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.11.
8 Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol, I, pp. 880–881.
9 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV.3.
10 Polycarp, To the Philippians, 13:1–2.
11 Polycarp, To the Philippians, 12:1.
12 For the occurrences in John where the Greek noun marturia and the verb martureu are translated by "witness" or "to witness" of cognates, see John 1:7–8, 15, 32, 34, 2:25, 3:11, 26, 28, 4:39, 44, 5:31–34, 36-37, 39, 7:7, 8:13–14, 17-18, 10:25, 12:17, 13:21, 15:26–27, 18:23, 37, 19:35, 21 and 24.
13 London: SCM, 1976. For the extended discussion of an early date for the Gospel of John, see the chapter "The Gospel and Epistles of John, pp. 262–311.
14 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.24; Epiphanius, Haer, XXVII.14.
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