Although most discussions about the development of the canon focus on the patristic period (second century and later), there is much canonical gold yet to mine from the pages of the New Testament itself. Unfortunately, this step is often skipped.
There are a number of possible reasons for why it is skipped. But perhaps most people just assume that the whole idea of a “canon” is a late development anyway, and thus we wouldn’t expect to find anything about it in the New Testament books themselves.
Aside from the fact that such a position already presupposes an entire canonical “worldview” known as the extrinsic model (for my critique of this model see my book The Question of Canon), it keeps us from noticing some fascinating clues.
One passage that I think contains a number of intriguing clues is 2 Cor 3:14 when Paul says, “When they read the Old Covenant, that same veil remains unlifted.”
Often overlooked in this passage is that Paul understands a covenant to be something that you read. In other words, for Paul (and his audience) covenants are understood to be written documents.
When we look at Paul’s Jewish context this should come as no surprise. So close is the relationship between the covenant, and the written documentation of the covenant, that Old Testament authors would frequently equate the two—the covenant, in one sense, is a written text.
- “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it” (Ex 24:7; cf. 1 Macc 1:57)
- “And he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant” (2 Kings 23:2; cf. 2 Chron 34:30)
- “He declared to you his covenant…that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets (Deut 4:13)
- “He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant” (Ex 34:28)
- “The covenant written in this book” (Deut 29:21).
These passages indicate that covenants were largely conceived as something written or read; i.e., something in a book. It is precisely for this reason that warnings were given not to change the text of the covenant (Deut 4:2), and there were concerns about it being in the proper physical location (Ex 25:16).
If so, then what shall we make of Paul’s statement in 2 Cor 3:6 that he and the other apostles are “ministers of a new covenant”?
Given Paul’s statement in 2 Cor 3:14 that we just noted, it would be natural to think that Paul has in mind a new set of written documents that testify to the terms of the covenantal arrangement in Christ.
As Carmignac argues, “In order to use the expression ‘Old Testament’ he [Paul] must also be aware of the existence of a ‘New Testament.’” Carmignac even goes further and suggests that this ‘New Testament’ may have had contained a number of books in order for it to be parallel with the Old.
The likelihood that Paul views the new covenant as having written documents increases when we make the simple observation that Paul is claiming for himself this distinctive covenantal authority within a written letter to the Corinthians. And scholars have observed how this very letter functions as a “covenant lawsuit”against the Corinthians.
Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they regarded the letter itself as bearing some sort of covenantal authority.
All in all, 2 Cor 3:14 provides a number of curious clues about the origins of a new canon of Scripture.
David King says
1 Corinthians 14:37 is another indication of a functioning NT canon.
Ken Temple says
Great content, both the blog post and the comments!
Also, as some commentators have noted, it is clear that 2 Timothy 3:15 is about the OT and then in verse 16, Paul is expanding it to the new testament, in principle, to “all Scripture”.
Usually many interpret verse 16 as only about the OT, but the apostle seems to be expanding that meaning from verse 15 to all Scripture in verse 16; and since he already wrote that the gospels are on the same level as Scripture as the law in 1 Timothy 5:18, and along with 1 Cor. 14:37 (as David King points out), the evidence is good within the NT itself that sees itself as “Holy Scripture”, even if some books have not been written yet at the time of 1 Corinthians (55 AD) or 1 (64 AD) and 2 Timothy (67 AD). the principle of all this together would include the other books written later, like Hebrews (68 AD) and John’s writings (80-96 AD), and even more so if John wrote all of his 5 books before 70 AD. (and even 2 Peter, which if dictated by Peter from prison to Jude (explains the similarity in language, content, and style), would be around the same time as 2 Timothy, before they were both executed, around 67 AD. Maybe Jude 3 indicates it was the last book written – “the faith that was once for all time delivered to the saint”. ( ? even after Revelation, ?)
Ron Henzel says
In the context of current canonical debates, this is a very, very astute observation.
David King says
Ron, I could not agree more, and I am very grateful for Dr. Kruger’s post!
I love stuff like this. Thanks for sharing an honest look at the scriptures.
John Bush says
Very, very good point.
Dan Moore says
I find Paul’s admonition to Timothy, to include reading alongside of exhortation and teaching (1 Tim 4:13), as another indication that the early church worked off of written NT manuscripts (e.g., gospels).
I also wonder whether 2 Tim. 1:13-14 (Ὑποτύπωσιν ἔχε ὑγιαινόντων λόγων…) is actually referring to protecting the accuracy of manuscript exemplars, rather than maintaining the integrity of Paul’s verbal teachings, as is implied in our English Bibles. Recall that Timothy was the one holding Paul’s books and manuscripts (2 Tim. 4:13).
The treasure referenced in 2 Tim. 1:13-14 has a similar feel to the treasure that Jesus asserts will be produced by the promised kingdom scribes (Matt. 13:52; 23:34).
Any recommendations on publications that explore the possibility of 1st decade gospels?
Dan, If 1 Tim 4:13 refers to the Gospels and 1 Tim was written around 64-65 A.D., then you believe the Gospels were written before that. I agree (see J Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke who contends that when Paul writes of one who is famous for preaching the gospel in 2 Cor, he refers to Luke writing his Gospel. That would means Luke was written before 2 Cor in 56 A.D.). Paul’s secretary in 1 Tim was Luke and he seems to quote Lk 10:8 in 1 Tim 5:18 which, if it is indeed a citation, identifies Deut and Lk together as Scripture. Does 2 Tim 3:16ff then also refer to the Gospels as God-breathed Scripture (cf. 2 Pet 3:16)? From our standpoint with a closed canon, yes, but 2 Tim 3:15 speaks of the Scriptures Timothy knew as a child which could only be the OT.
I think you meant that Paul was quoting Luke 10:7, not Luke 10:8, in 1 Tim 5:18.
Dan Moore says
Dante – The writings to Timothy offer a lot of good circumstantial evidence for early NT scriptures, and I’ve appreciated Dr. Kruger’s assessment of the evidence provided by 2 Cor 3:14. Paul’s general lack of treatment of the life story of Jesus in his writings also stands as evidence (from silence), for we know that the people of the era loved this type of material.
Thanks for the Wenham book referral; it is now on order.
To me, the interesting question is in how early Matthew and Mark could have been written, if the patristic musings are discounted, and whether Paul had these in-hand for his first missionary journey.
Considering that the bulk of the new covenant is represented by epistles, 2 Corinthians 3 adds to the fascinating topic:
Carmignac is right to call it a “Testament.” A Covenant, for example, may say: “do this and live,” while someone who broke the Covenant needed a sacrifice (which showed a ‘testament remedy’). The Mosaic Law was both covenantal and testamental in that it consisted of regulations, commands on the one hand and the laws of sacrifice (which of course, hearkened back to a sacrificial sign given at Eden). So for canonical inclusion would be all the words of this “Last Will and Testament” which The Maker gave to His servants to pass on to the beneficiaries. The great and precious promises of what Jesus secured for us are very live options.
Dr Bill Cooper says
I think that the almost unpublicised fragments of New Testament books discovered in Qumran Cave 7, and sealed up in that cave by AD 68, should help settle the matter. The books represented and their fragments are: 1 Timothy (7Q4 = 1 Tim 3:16-4:3); Mark’s Gospel (7Q5 = Mark 6:52-53) (7Q6, 1 = Mark 4:28) (7Q7 = Mark 12:17) (7Q15 = Mark 6:48); James (7Q8 = James 1:23-24); Acts (7Q6 = Acts 27:38); Romans (7Q9 = Romans 5:11-12); and 2 Peter (7Q10 = 2 Peter 1:15). This is a New Testament library (which includes at least 4 different copies of Mark’s Gospel), along with a fragment (7Q19) of a commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (See my New Testament Fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls. 2017. CSM. Also pub. on Kindle as The Authenticity of the New Testament Fragments from Qumran.)
Richard Klaus says
Dan Wallace has looked at some of the evidence for 7Q5-https://bible.org/article/7q5-earliest-nt-papyrus.
Paul A. Douglass says
When Paul asserts – within a decisively Jewish context in Romans 9:4 – that the covenants pertain to Israel, your application of covenants requires limits. As the apostle himself bore witness, his heart’s desire strongly favored his own inheritance. That there is a new covenant speaks to the fact that the old one was incomplete. The work of Christ was not thoroughly finished, nor understood within the confines of its pages, and so it became necessary to add an addenda – one that specifically targeted Israel. Paul had explained this exact limitation in Romans 2, and quite pointedly in Romans 3:19, 21, &22. Gentiles did not have the base of the law as a foundation to faith, but only Christ himself as the cornerstone – the “Rock of Offence” as the predominantly Gentile church understands it. If the Apostle himself sees this distinction, what right do we have to apply your notion of covenants to the entire conjoined body of believers within the church? We must not mingle law and grace in the same way as the Judaizers, and this was, indeed the finding of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 15 & 21).
Gary McCutcheon says
I have always enjoyed Peter’s declaration in 2Peter 3:15-16, where he talks about Paul’s letters as “Scripture.” Was this not most likely prior to AD68?
Gary Shogren says
Interesting thought, but not sure I see it. The OT prophets spoke of a New Covenant that would NOT be written out as books, like the Torah, but is manifest in transformed human behavior – “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…” (Jer 31:33)
And Paul takes the very same direction in 2 Cor 3 – “you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written NOT with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit.” Again, clearly NOT written document/s but transformed humans, which others can “read.”
2 Cor 3:14 thus loses its value as evidence, given that throughout the chapter Paul keeps affirming that he is not speaking of written letters or documents but the value of the Corinthians themselves to testify to his ministry. Isn’t 3:14 then a “faulty analogy,” that if two covenants are alike in some way, then they must be alike in all ways?
Michael Kruger says
Thanks for the comment, Gary. I have addressed this very issue in my book The Question of Canon, 109-112. In short, most scholars do not think Paul’s point in 2 Cor 3:6 pertains to the medium of the covenants–as if one covenant liked to write things down and the other didn’t. See also extensive treatment of this very issue by Scott Hafemann, Paul, Moses, and the History of Israel (Tubingen, 1995), which is a full-length treatment of this very text, and he reaches the same conclusion as myself and most other scholars on this text.
Without contradicting or denying Dr Kruger’s point here, I see S Hafemann’s name and want to simply note that in this volume, along with many other books and articles by him, he extols biblical theology while denying the law-gospel contrast. He turns law into grace and grace into law, thereby denying the gospel itself. I don’t have the volume in front of me so I cannot supply page numbers, but this is a central objective that characterizes his writings. He follows in the steps of Daniel Fuller.
How does the statement that the new covenant is “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (3v6) fit with this? Paul seems to be drawing a contrast between the covenants, not saying that they have the same features. And he says that the Corinthian believers are the letters, not his writings. I can’t see how the context supports the inference of the article.
Michael Kruger says
See my reply above to Gary Shogren.
Dan Moore says
The concept of covenant/canon can also be seen in 1 Pet 4:11, where those speaking are instructed to speak as though speaking the “oracles of God” (ὡς λόγια θεοῦ ), using the same language as is used in Acts 7:38 to refer to the (written) 10 commandments as handed down at Sinai and in Rom. 3:2 to refer to the (written) body of the covenantal law as given to the Jews. This suggests that the apostles understood that there was a new body of written scripture at-hand which was comparable to the prior covenant/canon. And it also nicely ties into my comments against 1 Tim 4:13 above, where Paul (in a written letter) admonishes Timothy to include reading in his exhortations and teaching.
As a side-note, this is the same language that Papias uses to speak of Matthew’s written composition (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. l3.39). (Dr. Kruger touches on this in QoC p.185).
That’s some really thought, Dan. re: 1 Tim 4:13 … Makes me think of 2 Tim 4:13. “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” I think it was David Trobisch who suggests that the parchments were Paul’s copies of his letters that he left with Timothy. Paul wanted them so he could instruct Timothy to keep them all together. At least so far as the Pauline corpus goes, it has its roots in Paul himself. Trobisch uses this as the explanation for how private letters to Timothy (and Titus) would have come to be included in the NT. Earlier in this thread Bill Cooper said a fragment of 1 Tim along with other random NT fragments was found in Qumran Cave 7 that dates back as early as 68 AD. I don’t know how they know the fragments were in that cave as early as 68, but that would fit well with Trobisch’s thesis. While I would like to embrace Trobisch’s view here, I am hesitant as it requires Paul to have written two copies of each letter. Cf. E Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (IVP) or Secretary in the Letters of Paul, WUNT 2. Richards goes so far as to speculate on how many hours and how much money it would have cost Paul to write each of his letters.
Dan Moore says
I would speculate that the “treasures” that Timothy was holding (per my comments against 2 Tim. 1:13-14 above) went far beyond copies of Paul’s manuscripts.
But more importantly, I want to challenge any presuppositions against Paul’s ability (and the early church’s ability) to make copies of published materials. With respect to Paul, can you imagine any accomplished author not keeping a copy of his own works, for the sake of intentionally re-using some materials and for avoiding unintentional redundancy? But especially in Paul’s case, where the publications were traveling long distances (e.g., 2000+ km from Rome to Ephesus)?
And we are talking Paul here, the spokesman of God and beloved of the early church (Corinth excepted). I fear that we too easily buy in to the viewpoint that the early church was uneducated, wholly illiterate, and impoverished. Rather, we should fully expect that the church represented a cross-section of society. We know that collections were sent by various churches to support the ministry (e.g., Acts 11:29 says that funds were sent for ministry – εἰς διακονίαν – not specifically for food), and we know that there were wealthy patrons. I think that we should anticipate that Paul (generally) had available the resources needed to perform the mission that he had embarked on.
(Dante – Sorry if this diatribe comes off as though aimed at you! This just reflects my frustration at the various modern commentaries that have embraced the viewpoint that the early church could not have produced written material during the early years of the church. Also, wanted to say that I’m enjoying Wenham’s book, alongside Dr. Kruger’s QoC!)