The Narrative of the New Testament Canon

The Narrative of the New Testament Canon April 25, 2018

The following is taken, with minor adaptations, from the introduction to my commentary on the Johannine Epistles.

The gospel goes to the Jew first. When they resist, Paul turns to the Gentiles, but he hopes by this to provoke the Jews to jealousy, so that in the end Jews will be saved along with Gentiles (Romans 9-11). In the New Testament, the gospel moves from Jew to Gentile and back (in hope) to Jew.

The New Testament canon, arguably, does something similar.[1] The order of the canon expresses the basic structure of New Testament history and basic premises of New Testament theology. Initially, the gospels focus on Jesus’ work among the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Though He has occasional contact with Gentiles, His primary ministry is to Jews. Acts begins in Jerusalem, but ends in Rome with Paul turning from the Roman Jews to Gentiles.

Turn the page, and Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, a neat epistolary continuation of Acts, and the remainder of Paul’s letters are addressed to Christians in Gentile areas and to what are partly (if not predominantly) Gentile churches.

If Hebrews is Pauline, it marks a shift in focus, a canonical replication of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11: Having ministered among the Gentiles, He is now trying to win his brothers according to the flesh. (Hebrews also makes a neat numerological conclusion to a Pauline corpus – 14 letters.) Even if Hebrews isn’t Pauline, it marks a shift away from the concerns of the apostle to the Gentiles.

Following the Pauline letters, the Catholic epistles continue the trend of Hebrews, being epistles to Jewish believers. James addresses the “twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (1:1; Greek diaspora). This does not, I have argued elsewhere, refer to the diaspora of Jews in general, but specifically to the diaspora of Christian Jews following the outbreak of persecution after the stoning of Stephen (see Acts 8:1ff, with its diaspora language).[2]

Even if I am wrong in that conclusion, it remains the case that James writes to Jews, or to people imagined as Jews. Peter does the same, addressing the believers who have been “scattered” (diaspora) from Jerusalem (1 Peter 1:1). If, as seems to be the case (2 Peter 3:1), 2 Peter is addressed to the same audience as 1 Peter, it too addresses these Jewish-Christian aliens. Revelation is the capstone, a final letter from Jesus to His people in Asia and Jerusalem.[3]

Like the Pauline epistles (if Hebrew is included), the Catholic epistles have a numerological structure as well. Seven “Catholic” (“General Hebraic” would be a better description) epistles; then the seven letters to the churches of Asia minor (Revelation 1-3), and the “eighth” letter in Revelation, the big long letter, sent to the Harlot Jerusalem warning of her impending doom (Revelation 4-22). Along the way, thousands of Jews turn to Jesus, and the Bible ends with new creation emerging from the destruction of the great city.

The gospels introduce a complexity, anticipating the movement from Jew to Gentile to Jew. Matthew is addressed to a Jewish audience, Mark and Luke to Gentiles, but John turns his attention back to the problem of Judaism. The gospels thus form a miniature of the entire New Testament canon.

I suggest the following narrative and redemptive-historical logic for the organization of the New Testament canon:

Books Focus
Gospels Jew-Gentile-Jew
Pauline Epistles Gentiles (ends with Hebrews)
Catholic Jews
Revelation Gathering of 144,000


Within that setting, John’s letters are part of the New Testament’s final response to Judaism. They are part of the last-ditch New Testament address to Israel and the problems surrounding Israel’s unbelief. If this speculation about the design of the canon is valid, then it provides general guidelines for understanding the setting and circumstances of John’s letters.

During the Pauline phase of first-century history, the ministry of the church turned to the Gentiles, but John’s epistles are part of a climactic confrontation with Judaism, overshadowed by the promise that “all Israel will be saved.”


[1] I came to the following conclusions through a series of very stimulating conversations with my student, Molly Miltenberger.

[2] The Promise of His Appearing: An Exposition of 2 Peter (Moscow: Canon Press, 2004).

[3] On Revelation, see James B. Jordan, The Vindication of Jesus (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press).

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