The Canonization by Peter
The apostle Paul could survey the historical environment within the Christian community of late 66 C.E. and what he saw disturbed him very much. It was nothing like the relatively stable condition that existed up to the time of James’ death in 62 C.E. Not only was it apparent that Christ was not returning to earth in that generation, but Christians were now being bombarded from within by many people teaching a variety of false doctrines. These ranged the gamut from being actively rebellious against all constituted authority (both religious and secular) that Peter prophesied about in 2 Peter chapter 2, to the statements of the apostle John that many antichrists had arisen among Christians who were changing the fabric of Christian teachings about the nature and mission of Christ. The apostle Paul appraised the chaotic situation in Asia Minor that had come on the scene since the death of James in 62 C.E. by stating: “All the men of Asia have turned away from me” (2 Timothy 1:5). The prospects for the future were no brighter.
“Now the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils. Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.”
1 Timothy 4:1–2
In the next epistle to Timothy Paul wrote:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
2 Timothy 4:3–4
There was by 66 C.E. a corruption of the Christian faith occurring on all sides and the immediate and future outlook was even more dismal. At least, this is what the apostles thought. And worse yet, Peter knew by the time he wrote his Second Epistle that he was soon to die, that Paul’s fate was already set, and that an insurrection against apostolic authority was underway on a large scale, and still there were many years (even centuries) ahead for the Christian community of believers.
With such a prospect in front of him, it became essential to provide future Christians with the purity of the truth of Jesus Christ as Peter and the rest of the original apostles understood it. It would have been a dereliction of duty for the apostles to have abandoned any attempt to secure the true teaching which they had the responsibility to teach. Some standard reference document or book (or a canon of Scripture) was needed that could be reckoned by all as an official statement of the real truth of Christianity. This was especially important for the future, for if the original apostles themselves could not stem the tide of false doctrine and rebellion to Christ while they were yet alive, what would happen in the generations ahead without them?
Would it not seem reasonable to any thinking person that it was of utmost importance that some document of an official character be produced by the apostles before their deaths so that later people could have in their midst the basic and pure truth of Christ if they wanted it? The apostles were well aware by 66 C.E. at the latest that Christ was not returning to earth in their generation. Does it seem sensible that the apostles would simply die and let others (whom they knew nothing about) formulate an official set of standard scriptures? If they could not trust the doctrines of many (probably most) in their midst when they were alive, how could they depend on those of later times whom they did not know at all — and with the prophecies informing them that heretical teachings were going to get more out of hand? “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).
Clearly, the apostles were aware of the situation that was in their midst and the prospects for the future. But would the apostles be negligent in answering the need? If one will pay close attention to the last letter written by the apostle Peter, it will be found that the apostles were in no way negligent in this regard. They understood the problem, and they set about to remedy the situation before them. Indeed, the last few months of Peter and Paul’s lives were devoted to the very project of leaving to those of the future (which includes you and me) an official standard of written works which would secure, for all who wanted it, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In short, it was the apostles themselves who saw the need for a New Testament canon of scriptures and it was they who produced it. When the 1st century Christians finally came to the realization that Christ was not returning to earth in their generation, they began to write accounts of Christ’s life and documents about his teachings for posterity, and they were doing it in the manner they thought best. Luke referred to this and said that “many” were composing such Gospels (Luke 1:1). While this might appear a good thing at first sight, it must be remembered that these written Gospels were being produced within an environment of religious and political insurrection.
How could one be certain the various accounts were presenting an accurate narration? It is because of this that Peter and John began to show concern about the matter. If any people were fully aware of what Christ did and taught, and if any people were able to sanction the accuracy of any written history of Christ’s life, it was the apostles. Something had to be done to provide a shining light of truth to those of the future. It was within this background that Peter wrote what we call today his Second Epistle. Let us see what Peter did to secure for those of the succeeding centuries the purity of Christian teaching.
The principal subject of Peter’s Second Epistle was “the precious and exceeding great promises” of Christ (2 Peter 1:12). To preserve these for posterity he explained what he was about to do.
“Wherefore, I shall be ready, always, to remind you of these things [the promises of Christ], though you know and are firmly fixed in the present truth [the truth that Peter was presently giving them]. 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 showed me. But I will also give diligence that at each time [notice this phrase ‘at each time’] you may be able after my death to recall 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 were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
“For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when such a voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice we heard borne out of heaven, when we were together with him in the Holy Mount. And we [who were with him on the Mount of Transfiguration] have the prophetic word more confirmed [than these fablers]; whereunto you do well to take heed [to our sayings], as to a lamp shining in a murky place, until which time the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts. Knowing this first that no prophecy of scripture is of its own evolvement. For no prophecy was ever borne by man’s will, but men spake from God, being borne on by the Holy Spirit.”
2 Peter 1:12–21, with improved Greek meanings
It is important to realize that Peter was aware of his impending death (John 21:18–19). But even though his death was imminent, he assured his readers that “I shall be ready always to remind you of these great and precious promises.” How was it possible for them to be such ready reminders of what the promises of Christ were, and to have them always in their midst, if he was going to die in a matter of days or weeks? Any verbal type of admonition that he might give them would perish with him at death. But Peter said he would make sure that Christians would always have the truth with them. The only way this could rationally be accomplished is for Peter to leave with Christians some authorized written record: “But I will also give diligence that at each time you may be able after my death to recall these things to remembrance.”
The phrase “at each time” gives us an interesting bit of information. It means that his readers could return again and again to consult the document he was leaving them, even after his death, in order to be assured of what those great and precious promises of Christ really were. Clearly, he is speaking about a written document. The Expositors Greek Testament says that Peter is about to leave “some systematic body of instruction.” 1 The International Critical Commentary is even more specific in its statement that written records were being left by Peter.
“It seems clear that what is promised is a document, to which his disciples would be able to turn and confirm their belief. ... The apostle does not say that the document of which he is speaking should be written after his death, but that it should be written so as to be of use after his death.”
Volume on “Peter” 2
“The whole clause signifies that there shall be left behind, when Peter is dead, some record to which at each occasion, when the need arises, they may appeal for a reminder of his lessons, which they would probably not have always in remembrance.”
The Speakers Commentary 3
We have in this account of Peter a record of Peter’s task in canonizing some part (or parts) of the New Testament. The Speakers Commentary interprets Peter’s final words as: “I will not be wanting on my part says Peter, to supply you with the means for your guidance and encouragement when I am taken from you.” 4
Peter, moreover, was not the only one involved in this canonization. When one reads Peter’s account carefully, it says “we” (plural) will not be leaving you “fables” (plural). And Peter states that what will be left will be the truth inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The description of this official teaching to be left by Peter shows that it would contain not just one account, but that “we” will not be giving the Christian community cunningly devised “fables” (plural). It is important to recognize that it was not only Peter who was leaving these documents to serve as a standard for Christian teaching, but someone else with Peter would be behind the effort. The context of Peter’s writing shows that the person was the apostle John. Peter makes this clear in this section of Second Peter.
“For not by following cunningly devised fables, made WE known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but WE were eyewitnesses of his majesty. ... And the voice WE heard borne out of heaven, when WE were together with him in the Holy Mount. And WE have the prophetic word more confirmed.”
2 Peter 1:16, 18–19
There were three human beings with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. They were Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (John and his brother James). James, however, was the first of the apostles to be killed (Acts 12:1–2). When Peter wrote his Second Epistle, John and he were the only remaining apostles given the opportunity of being on the Mount of Transfiguration and to hear the voice of God himself. To Peter, this unique and awesome experience was proof positive that he and John had been given the word of prophecy in a “more confirmed” way. While many persons might have taken it in hand to write several accounts of Christ’s life and teachings, Peter was making it clear to his readers that only he and John had the proper authority to do so in an inspired way. This is why he reminded his readers that “we [Peter and John] have the prophetic word more confirmed” — more than any others who might write Gospels in the future or who had written them in the past.
Indeed, Peter said that they were the ones who had been graced with the power of the Holy Spirit to do such things: “no prophecy was ever borne by man’s will; but men spoke from God, being borne on by the Holy Spirit.” Peter did not believe that this kind of prophetic responsibility originated within the mind of man, not even within Peter himself. “Knowing this first that no prophecy of scripture is of its own evolvement [or, as the Greek word actually means, private origination] (2 Peter 1:20).”
Notice the phrase “prophecy of scripture.” Peter had just said that both John and he were commissioned with a more confirmed “word of prophecy.” He then interpreted what this signified by equating it with the “prophecy of SCRIPTURE” which was not of man’s origination. In a word, Peter is saying that the documents that he and John were leaving to the Christian community were to be considered like any “prophecy of scripture.” The use of the word “Scripture” brings the matter of inspired writings into the picture.
In simple language, Peter was saying that the two remaining apostles who witnessed the Transfiguration were collecting a set of official works which would have their apostolic approbation. These documents were to be considered by Christians as “more confirmed” than any others in circulation. And besides that, these documents were to remain in the presence of Christians to be consulted “at each time” the Christian community needed to do so in order to learn the truth of “the great and precious promises” of Christ. These official writings (documents) were to last until the second advent of Christ and to be esteemed as being on an equal basis with the Old Testament Scriptures.
“I stir up your sincere mind by reminder; that you remember the words spoken before by the Holy Prophets, AND the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.”
2 Peter 3:1–2
To be able to be reminded of all the teachings of the apostles of Christ required Christians to have some kind of written documents of an official nature which could be consulted whenever they needed to study the essential truths of Christ.
What we will come to see is that there were two canonization periods in which New Testament books were placed in a canon. The first canonization was accomplished by Peter and Paul in Rome (which I will explain shortly). This first, or partial, canonization of several documents was then sent to the apostle John to finally arrange and add his authorization to that of Peter and Paul. As a matter of fact, the final canonization was designed to rest with the apostle John. This was because of a special rank that he possessed to perform the job. This is one of the main reasons that Christ had John to live much longer than Peter or Paul, and that he was prophesied to present the final collection of New Testament books to the Christian community and to all the world.
As we will later see, this authorization and commission which applied to John was given by Christ and recorded for us in the last chapter of the Gospel of John. More on this as we proceed in this book. But let us now look at the first (and partial) canonization that was affected by Peter and Paul in the city of Rome while the apostle John remained in the cast for other reasons.
The first part of Second Peter shows that Peter and John were going to leave the Christian community with a set of official documents to teach later Christians the true Gospel of Christ. But did this collection of documents include any letters of the apostle Paul? Peter was aware that there were many people during his time (especially conservative Jewish Christians) who were highly suspect of Paul and his teachings. It seems that even Peter himself may have raised his eyebrows on occasion. But by 66 C.E., things had changed.
In the spring of that year the miraculous signs associated with the Temple at Jerusalem had taken place (with sure evidence that God had abandoned the Temple) so the teachings of Paul began to be understood by the other apostles in a better light.
Paul had written some majestic pieces of Christian literature explaining the real meaning of Christianity, especially in a philosophical sense. The other apostles came to recognize the wisdom that God had given to Paul. And now, in mid-66 C.E., Paul was in prison in Rome awaiting the possibility of a death sentence from Nero the emperor. Peter must have known about Paul’s situation. With Paul not being able to do much about the matter, what was to happen with the literature written by Paul? What to do with Paul’s literary efforts was one of the main reasons why Peter journeyed to Rome in the summer of 66 C.E. Since Christ had told Peter that he would also suffer a martyr’s death, Peter went to Paul for the express purpose of canonizing particular letters of Paul alongside those of Peter, John and the other apostles and disciples.
The discussions between the two apostles were no doubt very productive. The outcome was Peter informing his readers in Second Peter that Paul had also provided basic spiritual information regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notice how Peter secured the writings of Paul as being equal to the Old Testament scriptures as far as inspiration was concerned.
“And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given him, wrote you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of things hard to understand, which the unlearned and unsteadfast wrest, as also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”
Peter must have been talking about a particular collection of Paul’s letters because he used the phrase “all his letters” as equal to the writings of the Old Testament as far as inspiration was concerned. Peter could hardly have been referring to all and every piece of written material composed by Paul over his 30 or so years of ministry. The phrase “all his letters” only makes sense when Paul’s letters were viewed as a collection that Peter’s readers would have been aware of and recognized. And we find Peter giving his authority to that collection of Paul’s letters.
This statement of Peter shows that he looked on Paul’s letters as being in the same classification of inspiration as were the Old Testament books. Indeed, Peter felt it was necessary to mention that Paul’s epistles were also inspired. Peter knew that some people of his time (especially Jewish Christians who were still ardent followers of the Mosaic Law) were doubting the inspiration of Paul’s teachings, and that in the future some other Christians might also question their legitimate standing. This is one reason why Peter felt it necessary to single out Paul’s letters for a special comment by him. They had to have the sanction of being divine literature (inspired as much as Peter’s writings and those of the Old Testament), so Peter made a deliberate mention of Paul’s letters (all of them) as being equally inspired literature.
Among other things, some individuals might later doubt if his letters should be included in the divine canon of the New Testament because Paul was not an original apostle of Christ. To prevent such appraisals from occurring, Peter makes the simple (yet authoritative) statement that Paul’s letters (with subjects being hard to understand) were truly inspired scriptures as were the Old Testament.
This reference by Peter is a clear indication that he recognized the letters of Paul (no doubt a particular set of letters) as being inspired. The Expositor’s Greek Testament was assured that an equal rank was being accorded: “The examination of the whole passage [of Peter] ... leads to the conclusion that the Epistles of St. Paul are regarded as in the same rank with the Old Testament Scriptures.” 5
Look for a moment at the statement of Peter about the letters of the apostle Paul. It seems as if the apostle Paul was then dead when Peter wrote his Second Epistle. Note that Peter referred to Paul’s activity as being in the past. “Paul ... wrote you, as in all his letters” (2 Peter 3:15). Furthermore, the fact that Peter said that Paul’s letters were being twisted out of context indicates that Paul was no longer alive to counter the charges or to write additional letters clarifying the difficulties that Peter and the others found hard to understand.
“The reference to Paul, to be found in the Second Epistle of Peter, is favourable to the supposition that the apostle of the Gentiles was now dead; as, had he been still living to correct such misinterpretations, it would scarcely have been said that in all his epistles were things `hard to be understood’ which `the unlearned and unstable’ wrested `unto their own destruction.’”
Killen, The Ancient Church 6
The Second Epistle of Peter is an official document written to inform Christians about the first canonization of the New Testament. Peter went to Rome specifically to meet with the apostle Paul to decide what letters of Paul would find an inclusion in this initial canonization. And now, Second Peter gives an authorized statement to show how Peter and John (not long before Peter’s death) took a collection of Paul’s letters and then gathered together other written records which the apostles themselves either wrote, had authorized to be written, or they were sanctioning already existing works, and the two apostles placed them into a position of canonicity.
If one would simply believe what Peter said about this matter, it would have to be reckoned that Peter’s Second Epistle was written, among other things, for the express purpose of showing that the apostle John and himself were the ones ordained of God to leave Christians with the canon of the New Testament — and that a collection of Paul’s letters were to be a part of it. This means that it was not some later church leaders who, in some unknown and haphazard way, collected the 27 books of the New Testament to be attached to the 22 of the Old Testament to form what we call the Holy Bible. In no way.
The biblical evidence points solidly to the apostles themselves as the ones who canonized the New Testament books. It was they who saw in their own generation the urgency, just before their deaths, of securing such a canon. With false doctrines and rebellion (even to apostolic authority) on all sides, and with future prospects looking even worse, they completed their task of preaching the Gospel to the world by starting and finishing the canonization of the New Testament. I have not the slightest doubt that this is the case. The next chapters of this book will help to show the rationality of this belief.
1 Expositors Greek Testament, ed. by Nicoll W Robertson (Hodder & Stoughton, 1903), vol. V. p. 129.
2 Carl Bigg, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude. International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 265.
3 The Speakers Commentary, ed. by Thomas L. Strange, New Testament, vol. IV (London, 1871), pp. 244–245.
4 The Speakers Commentary, New Testament, p. 245.
5 Expositors Greek Testament, vol. V, p. 101.
6 William D. Killen, The Ancient Church: Its History, Doctrine, Worship, and Constitution Traced for the First Three Hundred Years (London: J. Nisbet, 1859), p.159.
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