Restoring the Original Bible
The Completion of the Canon
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. 1 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 interrested 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. 2 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. 3 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, the first chapter of First John 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.”
emphasis 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. 4 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 of 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 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 (which happened 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, 5 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, 6 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.3.
2 Polycarp, To the Philippians, 13:1-2.
3 Polycarp, To the Philippians, 12:1.
4 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.
5 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.
6 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.24; Epiphanius, Haer, XXVII.14.
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