How We Got our New Testament

It’s 45 AD and there is simply no New Testament, no collection of books that we now call the New Testament. There is not an authoritative set of documents to which you can go for determining what you believe, no texts that can be read in “public worship.” This Written Text dimension of our faith and our worship is central; in 45 AD it was non-existent. Yet, those Christians in 45 AD were Christians every bit as much as we are.

In the beginning was the gospel itself, not the New Testament. The gospel gave rise to the New Testament not the New Testament to the gospel. Paul outlines the gospel in 1 Cor 15, the Gospels fill in the lines in the four Gospels, and the Acts tells the story of the gospeling apostles Peter and Paul, and the rest of the New Testament contains texts written by gospel-bearing “apostles” as they taught gospeled church communities in the Roman empire.

How did we get our New Testament? Warren Carter, in his Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, examines this question. He dates the NT writings period from appr. 50 to appr. 130. We will get into his ideas but I want to say up front that I personally grew tired of the date-the-books issues in NT studies because there is too much “If I can prove this date as having weaknesses then it must be this date” when that logic can be reversed and the whole thing deconstructs. I hold dates loosely in my hands. I also doubt anyone who knows definitively when a given book was written. Now to Carter:

1. The first written books now in the NT were the letters of Paul. He wrote before the Gospels were written. Paul has 13 letters to his name in the NT. But 1 and 2 Cor (2:3-4) make it clear that Paul wrote others, but the 13 are the only ones that survived in the churches as authoritative letters. Paul’s letters are shaped for a particular context at a particular time, and his letters are interactive communications between him and his churches (and other leaders too).

2. We often think of Paul’s theology, but is his theology one theme (justification, “in Christ”) or a set of ideas (gospel)?

3. Carter believes there are seven secure letters of Paul (Rom, 1-2 Cor, Gal, Phil, 1 Thess, Philemon) and six disputed letters probably not written by him. These were not forged deceptions but a kind of “WWPS” (What would Paul say?) letters by those who knew Paul or who followed Paul. Carter thinks the decisive element in rendering such judgments is theology: does the theology of the disputed letters match the theology of the authentic letters? Carter would help this discussion if he provided a full discussion of the amanuensis, or secretary hypothesis, and there is a really, really good book on this by Randy Richards (Paul and First Century Letter Writing). If Paul composed his letters with a secretary and in the company of others and gave the others a hand in the process … well the whole “theology” thing gets reframed. I’m simply not convinced we can prove “Paul” did not write those disputed letters.

4. Other letters. He thinks 1 and 2 Peter were probably written after Peter’s death. He’s not sure on James; Hebrews is discussed but not much on authorship.

5. Gospels. They tell the gospel through the lens of the whole life of Jesus. Carter sees indications of post 70 AD language in the Gospels (Mt 22:1-10; Mark 13:2; Luke 19:41-43; 21:20; John 11:48). Thus he dates them 70-100 AD. He thinks they are composed in dependence upon one another: Mark and Q and then Matthew and Luke and John.

These books that became part of our New Testament, and we’ll look at this one more time next week, were written over a generation (or two, in Carter’s case). We did not first get the Gospels and then Acts and the Epistles and then the Revelation but the process was a dialectical process of interaction over time.

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  • Eric Weiss

    Yet, those Christians in 45 AD were Christians every bit as much as we are.

    So what would they have believed about the members of the Godhead and the relationships between the members, as we Trinitarians would say? What did it mean for them to believe in “one God, the Father” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ”? A form of subordinationism? And what about the Holy Spirit?

  • scotmcknight

    One of the earliest statements along this line is 1 Cor 8:4-6 where we see Paul (and he’s probably reflecting common belief) probing the relationship. Clearly, the articulation took time; from the beginning Jesus is Lord, and that confession meant some questions would have to be answered.

  • Nathan Northup

    “There is not an authoritative set of documents to which you can go for determining what you believe, no texts that can be read in ‘public worship.’ ”

    What about the Tanak? In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul applies the promise of the commandments to children outside the land of Israel (6:3). Or what about the idea expressed to the Corinthians that the events recorded in Exodus and Numbers “were written down for our [at least the Corinthians’] instruction. . .”?

    I guess I’m wondering how much of what we call the Old Testament had authoritative guidance in the early apostolic Church outside of Israel?

  • JoeyS

    I find the Didache fascinating in that, the community obviously had segments of Matthew, or possibly Mark, but no reference to Pauline speech or theology.

    What is most interesting to me about it, though, is that they seemed to take those teachings of Jesus quite literally, especially in regards to personal wealth and generosity.

  • Scot, sorry as this is a bit of a tangent, but you say, “I’m simply not convinced we can prove “Paul” did not write those disputed letters.” Others can and do confidently claim the opposite, that we cannot prove that Paul *did* write those letters. So what I’m wondering is, in the face of this sort of authorial ambiguity, how do we reframe the “whole theology thing” in a way that makes sense? What’s the proper way to handle the whole Pauline and/or deutero-Pauline corpus in terms of its authority and applicability across time and cultural context? Or does it simply not make a difference?

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks Nathan, yes the Tanakh was read as scripture, but I’m speaking here of a NT.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, you are right. Many do know with more confidence that Paul did or did not write Ephesians, for instance. Here are the sorts of things that can happen: (1) it is inspired and Scripture no matter who wrote it or when; (2) the authentic Paulines are given precedence over the inauthentic Paulines; (3) theology is mapped along the lines of chronological development and then one discerns how best to read Paul’s letters.

  • NateW

    It seems to me that early Christians had a deeper concern for and focus on the transference of the Spirit than of precise theological understanding. (1 Cor. 2:1-5) it seems to me that we often get this reversed today.

  • Scott Austin

    This stuff is why the standard evangelical statements about scripture (most notably my own tradition’s use of the adjective “perfect”) are troubling to me. It is possible to hold scripture in extremely high regard while still recognizing that 1) the canon does not exist in its present form without Tradition and 2) there are many legitimate questions about how precisely we are able to understand the content or origins of the texts. I wish more evangelicals would be honest about this.

  • The Didache closely corresponds to (but may yet be independent of) Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, and possibly also Luke’s versions. But the Didache’s section on bishops seems loosely similar to the pastoral letters, and the eschatological section seems to have some parallels to Paul’s talk of the ‘man of lawlessness’. The Didache really could go either way, as an early attestation to divergent traditions, or a later revision of known (i.e. apostolic) ones.

    The emphasis on charity may come from a pre-existing Jewish tradition, such as found in Tobit.

  • Steven Winiarski

    “We often think of Paul’s theology, but is his theology one theme (justification, “in Christ”) or a set of ideas (gospel)?”
    The center of Christ’s theology was Christ Himself. The problem is Christ is a person, not a single idea, creating an abundance of theological themes. And each theological theme has an abundance of themes attached to it. In Christ, for example, is attached to redemption, justification, His blood, it carries the idea of union in places, so on and so forth.
    It may seem like a cop out to say Christ is the center, but any other theological concept is just not adequate enough to express the sum of Paul’s theology.

  • jegribble21

    This is some great stuff. Those book will have to go on my already-way-too-long reading list.

    I have one issue, though. I don’t understand why we keep using Jesus’ Apocalypse as reasons to date the Gospels later than they would by all other indications be dated. Jesus was a prophet–and an astute one, at that. It seems reasonable that his disciples took his words to heart and that these warnings spread throughout their community.

    Sure, there are other reasons to date Luke and John later. But Mark and probably Matthew, as well, have suffered under the weight of our skepticism for long enough.

    I don’t get it.

  • beau_quilter

    “These were not forged deceptions but a kind of “WWPS” (What would Paul say?) letters by those who knew Paul or who followed Paul. ”

    What do you think of Bart Ehrman’s arguments that pseudepigraphy was forgery?

  • Monte Harris

    Greetings Scot. Monte here. The way you introduced this post reminded me of what I’ve mused about concerning Abraham. He had no scriptures to speak of, and yet related with God and was used as a model of faith. While I’ve typically interpreted Abraham’s story as to give more credence to religious experience, I wonder if my interpretation is merely “primitive” and ignoring what came later (the Hebrew Bible and New Testament). Do you propose we should wrestle with the tradition like the early churches did in assembling the Bible, rather than simply rely on what’s been handed down? Or might we use tradition as a lens through which to piece together answers to our current context? Just some thoughts. Thanks for your post and time.

  • Andrew Dowling

    There’s really a whole lot of internal evidence against the Olivet Discourse being passed down from Jesus through the oral tradition. I’d start here at the 11th paragraph:

  • AlanCK

    Scot, what criteria does Carter use to determine a letter to be “secure” as opposed to “disputed”? I honestly cannot see the disputed status of Ephesians and Colossians as anything other than the existing confessions and bias of the Biblical Studies guild.

  • I believe this recent post by Denny Burk, challenging some statements from Andy Stanley, show the naiveté in our evangelical views about Scripture.

  • AHH

    Wow, that is a telling post.
    At first I thought it was going to be a critique of Stanley’s semi-bogus statement “Jesus talks about Adam and Eve.” But Burk seems to even agree with that dubious statement as he takes the discussion in even less edifying directions.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Ha, yes they are both way out in lala land.

  • So the N.T. was a part of the historical process.

    And to think that I was taught that it floated down from Heaven on a parachute with a big bow tied around it.

    The finite can truly contain the infinite. Just like our Lord Jesus Himself.


  • tanyam

    Can you recommend a good read about how the canon of scripture was decided? Now and then you’ll hear someone say, “this was left out because. . . ” or “four gospels were included because. . . . ” but do we really know anything about the decision making? Anything about rationale?