THE AUTHORS WERE APOSTLES OR PROPHETS
Drs Norm Geisler and William Nix
The same principle applies to the New Testament: propheticity determines canonicity. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Apostles, by their very office, were accredited spokesmen for God. It was they whom Jesus promised:” The Holy Spirit … will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you “(John 14:26) and the Spirit of truth … will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). It was the “apostles’ teaching” in which the early church continued (Acts 2:42) and it was the apostles who were given special signs (miracles) to confirm their message (Heb. 2:3–4). Those confirmatory signs were given to other apostles than the twelve, such as the apostle Paul, who had “the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12). There was also the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10). Some “prophets,” such as Agabus, even gave messages from God to apostles (Acts 11:27–28). John the apostle considered himself one of “the prophets” (Rev. 22:9). So, in the New Testament as well as the Old, the determining factor in whether a book was canonical was its propheticity.
Every New Testament book was written by an apostle or prophet. Thus each book has either apostolic authorship or apostolic teaching. And in either case it possesses apostolic authority. Matthew was an apostle. Mark is considered by many to be “Peter’s gospel,” because Mark was closely associated with the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 5:13). That relationship notwithstanding, Mark had his own God-given ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Tim. 4:11). The author of Luke was an associate of the apostle Paul (Col. 4:14; Philem. 24). Luke also wrote Acts (1:1). John was an apostle. He wrote John, three epistles bearing his name, and Revelation (Rev. 1:4, 9). Paul wrote at least the thirteen epistles that bear his name (Romans-Philemon). The author of Hebrews is not known for sure. But whoever its author was, he received revelation from God (Heb. 1:1), the truth of which was confirmed by the twelve apostles (Heb. 2:3–4). James was a half brother of Jesus (James 1:1; Gal. 1:19) and a leader in the apostolic church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13; Gal. 2:9). The apostle Peter authored two epistles (see 1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 2:1), although he used Silvanus as a scribe to pen the first one (1 Pet. 5:12). This leaves only Jude, who was also a half brother of Jesus (Jude 1:1; cf. Matt. 13:55), and he too spoke with prophetic authority (vs. 3, 5, 20ff.).
There is good evidence that all twenty-seven books of the New Testament come from the apostles and their associates. Indeed, even some liberal scholars are now insisting on a very early apostolic date for the New Testament books. Bishop John A. T. Robinson, father of the so-called “Death of God” movement, has more recently concluded that “all the various types of the early church’s literature … were coming into being more or less concurrently in the period between 40 and 70.”21 The renowned archaeologist William F. Albright came to the same conclusion, declaring that “every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75).”22 Jesus died in A.D. 33,23 so the New Testament was written during the lifetime of the apostles and eyewitnesses (see Luke 1:1–4; 1 Cor. 15:6).
Ample evidence confirms that all the books of the New Testament are apostolic or prophetic. The question that remains is whether all the apostolic books are in the New Testament. Two books in particular have been called into question: the so-called Epistle of the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16) and a Corinthian epistle some believe was written before 1 Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 5:9). These books pose a problem concerning canonicity because they were both prophetic and yet are allegedly not in the canon. If propheticity is the key to canonicity, how is it that some prophetic (or apostolic) books are not in the canon? There are two basic responses to this question.
First, it is possible that these books were not prophetic, for in addition to their divinely authoritative writings, the prophets and apostles had private or personal correspondence. They may even have had grocery lists, travel itineraries, or the like. Such items were not inspired. Shemaiah the prophet and Iddo the seer had some “records” (2 Chron. 12:15) that were probably not inspired. There seem to be two keys as to whether or not a writing by a person (who was a prophet) was prophetic. First, it had to be a public, not strictly a private writing. That is, it had to be offered to the people of God and not merely a private record. For example, of Solomon’s 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs only those publicly presented by Solomon were immediately recognized as authoritative (see chap. 13 discussion). Second, it had to be teaching something to the people of God. In short, it had to be a word from God for the people of God. Even Paul’s so-called private epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon) fit these criteria, as do 2 and 3 John, which many believe were written to individuals. All of these books contain instructions written to leaders of churches, and the books were obviously circulated and collected by the churches. Otherwise they would not have been part of the Bible through the centuries. The Bible does not guarantee that everything a prophet says or writes is from God but only that what he teaches as a truth from God is really from God. In short, a prophet is not infallible in his private utterance but only in his prophetic utterances. Hence it is possible that the prophets wrote other things which were not prophetic.
Second, it is possible that a book could be prophetic but still not canonic. For although all canonic writings are prophetic, it is possible that not all prophetic writings are canonic. That is, perhaps God did not intend that all prophetic books would be preserved for posterity but only those select few He deemed necessary for the believer’s faith and practice. If that be so, then propheticity is only a necessary condition of canonicity but not a sufficient condition. In that case there would be another condition for canonicity. The most likely candidate for such a further condition would be acceptance by the people of God of the books they deemed of value to the broader Christian community. But this view would mean that there are (or could be) books that are inspired words of God but not part of the Inspired Word of God. This is not only highly unlikely but is also unnecessary.
There is another more plausible possibility: all prophetic books may be in the canon. That is, it is possible that no prophetic book has been left out of the canon. There are plausible explanations for the only known books that are apparent exceptions to this principle, as the following discussion indicates.
1. “The Letter … from Elijah” (2 Chron. 21:12–15). This is a public prophetic exhortation. Hence, it had divine authority and thereby qualified for the canon. But as a matter of fact, the letter is in the canon. The letter is included as part of the text in 2 Chronicles 21:12–15. Because it is in the canon, it poses no difficulty.
2. “The records of Shemaiah the prophet” (2 Chron. 12:15). This book was definitely written by a prophet, and it seems certain that it is not identical to any of the existing books in the Old Testament. However, it is possible that the book, though written by a prophet, was not prophetic. It is called a “record.” Perhaps it was a mere geneological enrollment without any implied or stated religious instruction or exhortation. In that respect it is unlike the canonical books of Chronicles, in even which the geneological sections contain religious instructions and redemptive material, such as the messianic lineage (see 1 Chron. 5:25; 9:1, 22).
3. “The Chronicles of Samuel … Nathan the prophet … and Gad the seer” (1 Chron. 29:29). These books correspond to 1 and 2 Samuel in their content and coverage. Hence, it is possible that if their contents were prophetic they are contained within the confines of the canonical books of 1 and 2 Samuel. On the other hand, they may have been mere uninspired records kept by these public servants and used later as a factual basis for the inspired books of Samuel.
4. “The vision of Isaiah the prophet” (2 Chron. 32:32). This is an inspired writing, but it is probably the same as the canonical book of Isaiah, which was collected within a larger corpus called “the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel” (v. 32; see also 2 Chron. 33:18).24
5. The “many” accounts referred to by Luke. Luke said, “Many have undertaken to compile an account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1). There are two possible explanations for this comment. First, if Matthew and Mark (and even John) wrote before Luke, they could be the “many” others to whom Luke refers. The Greek word “many” (polloi) can mean as few as two or three. On the other hand, even if other gospel accounts are in view, those other records may not have been prophetic. That is, it is possible that they were not offered by an accredited prophet as a message from God for His people. Thus, being non-prophetic by nature, they would not be candidates to be included in the canon of Scripture.
6. The so-called “real” Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9). This book poses a much more serious threat to the theory that all truly prophetic writings are in the present canon of Scripture. For it was definitely written by an accredited apostle (Paul), and it did contain religious instruction and exhortation (1 Cor. 5:9–13). Hence, either this so-called “real” First Corinthians must be contained within one of the existing books of the Bible or else the theory fails. There are two possibilities for identifying the book to which Paul refers with an existing book of the Bible. First, he may be referring to part of the present 2 Corinthians (e.g., chapters 10–13), which was put together with another part of his Corinthian correspondence at a later time. Second Corinthians chapters 1–9 is definitely different in tone from the rest of the present book (chapters 10–13), which could indicate that it was originally written on a different occasion.
Second, there is also the possibility that Paul is referring to the present Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5:9, that is, to the very book he was then writing. It is true that he uses an aorist tense here, which could be translated “I wrote,” thus identifying some previous letter. But the aorist tense could refer to the book at hand. Such a device is called an “epistolary aorist,” because it refers to the very epistle in which it is being used. Although the aorist tense could be translated “I wrote,” the aorist tense in Greek is not a past tense as such. The Greek aorist tense has primary reference to the kind of action, not the time of action it portrays. It identifies a completed action that may even require a long time to be accomplished (cf. John 2:20). Hence, Paul could be saying something like this: “I am now decisively writing to you.” That would certainly fit the urgency of his message in the context. Further, the same epistolary use of the aorist is found elsewhere in this very letter (1 Cor. 9:15). Moreover, there is no indication from the early history of the church that any such letter (other than the existing 1 Corinthians) ever existed. The reference to Paul’s enemies in 2 Corinthians 10:10 need not be taken to mean that he actually wrote many other letters to them. It may mean no more than “what Paul writes is weighty.” The “now” (KJV) of 1 Corinthians 5:11 need not indicate a later letter. It can be translated “rather” (RSV) or “actually” (NASB). In short, it is not necessary to take 1 Corinthians 5:9 as a reference to any other epistle than the present 1 Corinthians, which is in the canon.
7. The epistle of the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16). This epistle is another authoritative book. It is clear from the facts within it that it was written by an apostle who enjoined both its reading and circulation among the churches (Col. 4:16). Hence, if this Laodicean book were not one of the present twenty-seven books of the New Testament, then a truly apostolic book would have been excluded in the canon. And if that be so, then one would have to reject the view that all prophetic books are in the canon. However, such a conclusion is not required. It is entirely possible that this letter is really the book of Ephesians. The following evidence may be offered in support of that thesis: (1) The text does not call it the epistle of the Laodiceans. Rather, it is called the “letter that is coming from Laodicea,” whatever it may have been named. (2) It is known that Paul wrote Ephesians at the same time he wrote Colossians and sent it to another church in the same general area. (3) There is some evidence that Ephesians did not originally bear that title but was a kind of cyclical letter intended for the churches of Asia Minor in general. As a matter of fact, some early manuscripts do not have the expression “in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1) in them. It is certainly strange that Paul, who spent three years ministering to the Ephesians (Acts 20:31), has no personal greetings in the book, if it were intended only for them. Paul had numerous personal greetings in Romans (chap. 16), and he never ministered there prior to writing that epistle. In view of all those factors, it makes sense to conclude that the so-called Laodicean letter is probably the canonical book of Ephesians. Add to that the fact that no “epistle of the Laodiceans” is referred to in early church writings, and one has a convincing case that no such apostolic book is missing from the New Testament canon. If so, then it is possible that not only all the canonic books are prophetic, but that all prophetic books are in the canon.
Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded., pp. 212–216). Chicago: Moody Press.