The Meaning of Canonization
Audio read by Lance Smith - MP3
Audio read by Charlie Corder - MP3
It is unreasonable to imagine that the apostle Paul (or any of the other apostles) wrote only the letters which we find in the New Testament canon. Paul stated that he had the spiritual condition of the various congregations of Christians constantly in mind (2 Corinthians 11:28). Since he was not able to appear personally to answer their questions and give them guidance, the only way he could have fulfilled their needs was through correspondence. This could have been done by sending emissaries and/or by writing letters. Paul and the others must have written numerous letters. He tells us of at least one other to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:9). And when one considers that most apostles had ministries of at least 30 or 35 years, it would not be unreasonable to believe that several scores of letters were written to various congregations of Christians or to individuals.
We need to ask: What happened to all those letters? Also, what happened to the original autographs of the works that appear in our New Testament? The truth is, not a fragment of the originals or of other letters has come down to us today. Why is there no record of them? These are points we must consider in this chapter.
The answer to these questions involves an important fact regarding the canonization affected by Peter and finally by John. Consider this. Both apostles had the authority to form the canon of the New Testament. This meant that they were able to refuse or to accept any writing that they wished. Obviously, if an apostle had the power to select a book for canonization, it must necessarily follow that he also had authority to reject books. This is precisely what occurred when Peter, and finally John, canonized the New Testament and made a distribution of the official documents they had authorized among several of the congregations. Coming from top apostles would reasonably guarantee that the canonized scriptures authorized by Peter and John would be properly maintained by the various congregations to whom the documents were sent. This must have been the manner in which many of the Christian congregations received their standard New Testaments.
But where was the final New Testament canon established and brought to its full complement of books? One thing for certain, the Gospel of John as it now stands (along with First, Second and Third John) with the “WE” passages found within them, indicates that a body of men helped John to finalize the canon — especially his own writings. As explained in a previous chapter, some of these men were individuals who witnessed in a personal way the teachings of Jesus while he was in the flesh. They were also witnesses to his resurrected body within the 40 days that Jesus remained on earth after his resurrection. This has to be the case because that is precisely what is stated in the prologue to John’s First Epistle where we find numerous “WE” passages.
In a sense, the “WE” passages within the Gospel of John and in his three epistles take the singularity of authorship away from those books and places them into a category of a group effort (a final editorial effort) to present the full teachings of God to the Christian communities under the banner of the last remaining apostle, the apostle John. This final canonization must have taken place near the very end of the 1st century while John was still alive; or the “WE” passages could reflect some editing by John’s friends called the Elders just after his death. Since these Elders witnessed the teachings of Jesus in the flesh and were witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, they must have been Palestinian Jews. This fact can help us understand the geographical location where they most likely lived when the final canonization took place.
There is another point that helps show the lateness of the Gospel of John as it now stands in the New Testament canon. That is the fact that it is positioned between the Gospel of Luke and the Book (or Gospel) of Acts also written by Luke. Since it is only logical to place literary compositions of a historical nature so that they follow one another in a chronological fashion in juxtaposition to one another (and this would apply to Luke and Acts), it follows that the Gospel of John evidently was forced into a position between the two historical works written by Luke. It appears that the Gospel of John is an intrusion into the group of documents known as the Gospels.
But why was it placed in this position? If it were indeed written by the apostle John (which it was, with the help of his Elders), it would seem that the Gospel should have been placed before Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts so that those two books could remain together (as most literary editors would place them), and that John’s Gospel would then follow the proper eldership principle being placed after the Gospel of Matthew (James’ Gospel) and Mark (Peter’s Gospel). If this were the case, then the three “pillar” apostles that Paul mentioned in Galatians 2:9 (James, Peter and John) would be together and, according to the eldership principle, followed by Luke who wrote what we could call “Paul’s Gospel” And then the Book of Acts on the heels of Luke Gospel. But this is not the case.
John and his editors (the Elders) placed John’s Gospel between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. This is the only instance in the New Testament that we find an intrusion of a book contrary to the eldership principle within the four divisions of the New Testament. These four divisions are
Why is this the case?
The Gospel of John is really a very different Gospel than the others. Scholars have long recognized this. Indeed, it is common to call the first three Gospels as “synoptic” (meaning they give information in a step-by-step manner very similar to one another), while the Gospel of John is not “synoptic.” John’s Gospel, as result, has very little chronological indications that would make it a type of step-by-step account of Christ’s life.
It is, in fact, a Gospel that focuses not so much on what Christ did when he was in the flesh, but on what he taught. And even here, the teaching is of the most advanced kind. It is actually more of a treatise that explains the philosophy of the Christian faith as based on the mature teachings of Christ that he gave to his disciples in an intimate even esoteric manner. The book is so different from the other Gospels that it could actually stand alone as a separate treatise of advanced Christian teaching. As I result of this, the Gospel of John has the honor of being the most published single work in the history of the world. While the Bible remains the most published “book,” the Gospel of John is the most published part of that most published “book.”
It is because of its uniqueness (with an ability to stand alone) that it is given a singular position at the end of the synoptic Gospels (and before Acts) and in a position contrary to the eldership principle, This fact alone helps show that the Gospel of John is an intrusion into the canonical books of the New Testament and that it is a late (even a final) addition to the divine canon of books placed there by John or his final editors (the Elders). In all other sections of the New Testament, however, the eldership principle is maintained within the four divisions which are mentioned above.
With the exception of the uniqueness of the Gospel of John, the eldership principle helps to show how the various Christian congregations in the early 2nd century could know the proper order of the New Testament books (the order that was finally secured by the formation of complete codices of the 27 books that began to be produced in the time of Eusebius under the direction of Constantine). We should recall that when the apostle Paul wrote his two letters to the Corinthians that he considered himself as being PRESENT with them THOUGH ABSENT when the epistles were read in the presence of the Corinthians. This principle was maintained not only when the apostles were ABSENT in a geographical sense, but it also applied when the apostles were ABSENT by virtue of being dead and in their graves.
The fact is, the letters of people in authority were reckoned (certainly in the New Testament) as if the people who wrote them were in their midst (whether ABSENT through geography or ABSENT through death). They were in their midst WHEN THE LETTERS WERE READ to the people gathered to hear them. This principle of vicariousness even applied to the bearer (or the reader) of the letter from an important person, There are a number of early letters showing that it was common practice for the bearers (or readers) of letters to assume the personal role of the writer when the writer’s letter was presented or read to the intended receivers. 1 Thus, when John in the Book of Revelation states at the beginning “blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy” (Revelation 1:3), it was a common custom to look on the reader as if he were John himself doing the reading. 2
This principle of vicariousness helped the early Christians to know which books of the New Testament had authority in arrangement even if they did not possess a complete set of the 27 books that made up the canon of the New Testament supplied to the Christian communities by John and his Elders. Other than the Gospel of John (which was a clear intrusion into its canonical position between the Gospel of Luke and Acts), all the other letters or treatises written by the apostles or eminent disciples were read as if the men were PRESENT WITH THEM when their documents were read.
Since almost all early Christian meetings were in the homes of the people, and almost always there was a “love feast” to feed the people who attended, the time for the readings from the books of the apostles (as they sat around a table after the “love feast”) would be conducted as if the apostles were PRESENT WITH THEM at the time of reading. It is not to be expected that each “house congregation” would at first have had a complete collection of all the canonical books, but they would have known which ones “to invite to dinner” — to their “love feasts.” Thus, within the proper guidelines of etiquette commonly associated with meals and the protocol seating arrangement of guests around a dinner table (with elders given a proper prominence), this means that each apostle had his writing read to each Christian group within a protocol of eldership shown in the manner suggested throughout the Scriptures. This means that if only a few books of the apostles were available to the “house congregation,” then it would signify that only those apostles from which they had books “were invited to the love feast” because the small congregations only had a few books of the canon.
Even with only a few books or a few apostles “present,” the eldership principle would still be maintained in the seating arrangements, and consequently they would be given the same reading order.
Until the creation of a type of codex form of book that could contain all the 27 books of the New Testament between two covers as we are familiar with today, the order of the books would still be maintained (even if a partial canon were available to small “house congregations”) through the eldership principle according to the custom of rank given in the New Testament. This is because, as the apostle Paul related, when his letters were read those letters of instruction were to be received by the congregations as if he were PRESENT WITH THEM though he was ABSENT. This is what Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 13:1–2. I have given the scriptural evidences for this principle in a previous chapter. And when all the 27 books of the New Testament were finally placed in one codex, this eldership principle applied, because this is what we find in the manuscripts with their arrangement of the books.
It is now recognized that the modern form of a book (with leaves attached to a spine and positioned between two covers) had its origin in the last part of the 1st century. Scholars are now realizing it was a creation of the Christian community. 3 Indeed, the earliest known form of such a book (called a codex, or plural, codices) is a portion of the New Testament. It could be said that the codex form of book was an invention to produce the New Testament itself. Previous to the invention of the codex, the world’s literature was mainly written on papyrus or leather scrolls. But when it became necessary to preserve the canon of the New Testament, the codex was adopted.
This codex form of book had definite advantages to it. One Gospel (say Luke’s) could be written on one scroll about 30 feet long (and there would have been up to ten such scrolls to contain the whole of the New Testament), but the use of the codex allowed the whole of the New Testament to be written on both sides of the leaves and placed between the covers of one book. Not only did this have the convenience of compactness, it also kept the various books in a proper order. Whereas ten or more scrolls were hard to keep in a consistent order (unless, like the Old Testament, they were in the control of priests in the Temple who maintained the correct arrangement), when a codex form was used, then each book would follow the next and always remain in the same order. With such positioning it would be easy to spot when pages were missing or if extra (and unauthorized) pages might be somehow inserted. It wasn’t even necessary to number the pages (though this could be, and was, done on occasion) because it would have been easy to follow the text since the account simply went on from one page to the next.
In the earliest codices the Greek words were written in capital letters and there were no spaces between the words. Not only did this economize on space but it was a deterrent for inclusion of unauthorized words or phrases. A further hedge in keeping the New Testament books in order was the fact that each composition was able to end in the middle of a page and the next book could simply continue on the bottom half of the page. And though it must be admitted that no procedure could safeguard the purity of the New Testament text in an absolute sense, the combination of the factors we have mentioned (plus the fact that the apostle John must have seen to it that there was a distribution of the official codices — either in part or in whole — among several of the Christian congregations) is a reasonable guarantee that the canonized scriptures authorized by John and his editors (the Elders) would be properly maintained. This must have been the manner in which many of the Christian congregations (who normally met in people’s homes and at “love feasts”) received their standard New Testaments.
Inventing the codex was an outstanding accomplishment of the highest order. The next step in mass communications took place a little over 1300 years later when the printing press was invented. And while it appears that the first codex was a part of the New Testament, the first printed book was the whole Bible!
It is not unreasonable to suspect that the apostles, who saw the need for the New Testament to be canonized (and realizing that they had no official priesthood in a Temple to preserve it properly), resorted to the codex as the method for preservation. It may have been the apostle Paul himself who thought of the idea. Recall that he asked Timothy and John Mark to bring with them to Rome “the book case, the scrolls, and the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). Paul had left these items with Carpus at Troas. The residence of Carpus may be important to the matter. He lived at the port city of Troas (the place for sailing to Europe) and right next door to Pergamus, the center of the “book trade” in the 1st century (an area just north of Ephesus).
It may have been no accident that Paul’s “book case” was in the hands of Carpus. Using such an item may have been the first step in the production of the codex form of book. Imagine Paul using a type of folio case as a protection for single leaves of papyrus or vellum on which he had written important teachings. If there were twenty, forty, or a hundred such separate leaves placed alongside one another in the folio case, and with easy access from an opening on one of the narrow sides, it would have taken but little imagination to see how easy it would be to sew the leaves together at the back, then secure them with hard covers on either side and bind them into a common spine at the back.
True, no one can know (at least at the present) if this is what Paul’s “book case” was, but still there is no reason to refute the suggestion. Since it is certain that Christians in various parts of the world began to use the codex form of book from near the end of the 1st century, its creation has to be assigned to the period of the apostles. It is my personal belief that the codex was indeed invented for the express purpose of producing the New Testament (or parts of it) for easy distribution and for a more reliable preservation.
1 Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), pp. 153–165.
2 All writing, without exception, was read out loud. Even when people read to themselves, they read out loud. See Paul J. Achtemeier, “Omne Verbum Sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity” in Journal of Biblical Literature, 109/1 (1990) 3–27. This excellent article is the printed version of Prof. Achtemeier’s 1991 lecture as President of the Society of Biblical Literature. I strongly recommend tracking down this article DWS
3 C.H. Roberts, and T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford, 1987), pp.45–53.
Click here to order the print version of: Restoring the Original Bible
© 1976-2023 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions