By Adolf Jülicher
THE HISTORY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
THE PRE-CANONICAL PERIOD OF NEW TESTAMENT LITERATURE
§ 34. The Canonical Authorities of the Apostolic Age
1. From its very birth, Christianity was a book-religion. Nor is this statement of Holtzmannʼs in any wise upset by the solemn contradiction of B. Weiss: ʽThank God, that is not the case.ʼ The assertion that ʽChristianity was Life from the beginning, and because this Life pulsates in its records, they cannot be interpreted and understood on the theory of the indebtedness of the one to the other,ʼ constitutes no antithesis to the assertion that it is a book religion. This means, in scientific language, that the Christian religion—and none but the Christian during its actual rise—possessed from the first a Divine Book; a Canon of absolute sanctity; for without this fact the history of the New Testament Canon would be incomprehensible. It was not only when the Books of the New Testament were written, or when they were gradually collected and read aloud in public, that a Canon first made its appearance among the Christians. Jesus himself possessed a Bible, as did all the Jews of his time, and his Apostles and followers throughout the world. It is immaterial whether the names ʽCanon,ʼ ʽBible,ʼ ʽOld ʽTestament,ʼ were in existence at that time or not; it is equally unimportant whether the Bible at that time was composed of exactly the same Books as those included in the Old Testament of to-day; but at any rate at the birth of Christianity there had existed from time immemorial in the consciousness of every Israelite—whether of ʽthe Dispersionʼ or of the Holy Land—a number of writings carrying the highest authority, which were read aloud to the communities on the Sabbath in portions of some length, and were by this means universally known. These writings contained the infallible Revelation of God to His people, the form in which, even after the extinction of Prophecy, He Himself had remained, as it were, personally in their midst; they were held sacred as the source of all knowledge concerning the Divine Truth and the Divine Will, and as an absolute standard for every member of His people.
This group of writings, the most precious inheritance of a greater age, had been brought together gradually. We can still clearly distinguish three strata: (1) the Law, (2) the Prophets (nebiim) and (8) the Scriptures (Hagiographa) or the ʽother books of our fathersʼ which are mentioned in the prologue to the Greek Ecclesiasticus (132 B.c.) immediately after the Law and the Prophets.
When, as often occurs in the New Testament, and even in the mouth of Jesus in Matt. xxii. 40, the Book of the Revelation of God is described as ʽThe [whole] Law and the Prophets,ʼ this must be taken as a designation a parte potiori, for no one believes that Jesus had any idea of excluding the Psalms or Job. (Cf. Luke xxiv. 44, ʽthe law of Moses, and prophets, and psalmsʼ: here again only the principal part, the crown of these extra ʽScriptures,ʼ is named.) More briefly still, it was possible to speak simply of ʽthe Law,ʼ1 even as including the other sacred documents also. The simplest name is that most generally adopted—ʽThe Scriptures. The addition ʽHolyʼ is rare,2 for this was not required in the mental intercourse of one believer with another. The singular, ʽThe Scripture,ʼ is often applied to a part, or even a single passage in ʽthe Scriptures,ʼ but it may also serve to designate the whole, and this was the more acceptable as it emphasised the unity of that complex collection of writings. It is used above all in those places where the written revelation of God is personified, as in the phrase ʽthe Scripture foretold itʼ and ʽthe Scripture hath shut up all things under sins.ʼ3
Now the position adopted by Jesus with regard to this Scripture did not differ from that of his Jewish contemporaries. It is perfectly fitting that Luke4 should make him start from a passage of the Scripture in his first great sermon at Nazareth __standing up to read as reverently as any other man, and sitting down again before he begins to preach. And as he began his task of teaching, so, after his resurrection,5 he ended it by imitiating his disciples into the meaning of the Scriptures, thus preventing any idea of discrepancy between what was there foretold, and what was now fulfilled. Even if his acknowledgment of every jot and tittle of the law6 be not genuine, it is at least indisputable that he had no desire whatever to criticise the sacred things of his people. Even with the forcible words ʽBut I say unto you,ʼ7 in antithesis to ʽYe have heard that it was said to them of old time,ʼ he does not intend to discredit or to undervalue this ʽsayingʼ of former days.
For our part, we may recognise in this impressive sign of a self-confidence not to be misled by the mere letter, however sacred, the sublimity of the New Religion as compared with the Old—the irreconcilable contradiction between letter and spirit;—but in the consciousness of Jesus himself there was no other desire than that of setting forth the whole deep meaning and the ultimate purpose of the commandments of God, in opposition to a conception of that commandment which was merely temporary, superficial and external. Jesus was by nature too unfettered, too creative, to make use of Old Testament words as much as Paul. But though as a fact he repeatedly set the Law at naught (e.g. Mark vii. 1-28 and x. 1-12) with all the authority of one who has come to end it, he never had the intention of quitting the basis of the Old Testament. In principle his point of view towards the Scripture was the same as that of every Pharisee.
2. Nothing was further from the mind of Jesus than the idea of enlarging or of duplicating these Holy Scriptures; he neither wrote anything himself, nor bequeathed any such task to his disciples. Nor is it mere chance that later ages, fruitful as they were in the formation of legend, never ventured to credit Jesus with the command to prepare those fictitious Scriptures which were composed under the name of every possible Apostle. When he called his disciples, he bade them work, like himself, by word of mouth, and the greater number of them have left not a single line behind; some were probably ignorant of the art of writing. They had the Scriptures, they had the Christ, whose speedy return they confidently expected; and even if the practical tasks of the moment had left them time for authorship, there are yet no grounds for supposing that they had any intention of writing, far less of writing books which should rank with the Law and the Prophets. Paul himself had no idea of creating a new sacred literature; his writings were all occasional; in his Epistles he merely endeavoured to supply for the moment the lack of his own personal presence on certain definite occasions. It did not occur to him to demand that they should be treasured as long as the world endured, that they should be dispersed through the rest of Christendom, read aloud in the public worship of other communities—perhaps even of those of which he knew nothing—or placed in the same rank as the Prophets and the Psalms. In Col. iv. 16 he desires the church to exchange the letter written to it for that which he had sent to the neighbouring church of Laodicea. This exhortation shows that such a forwarding of Paulʼs letters was not a matter of course, and even here it is only enjoined to a strictly limited extent. This Epistle to Laodicea, several to the Corinthians, and probably many more of which no trace remains, disappeared early: an inconceivable occurrence if the recipients had thought that they held Canonical writings in their possession.
The Apostle certainly did bring a Canon to the heathen he had won; but it was no other than that which he himself had brought with him from Judaism. ʽThe Scripturesʼ were undoubtedly read aloud in the Pauline churches as they were in the Jewish Christian, and among the Jews; for the Apostle always takes for granted a considerable acquaintance with the Old Testament: he draws from it innumerable arguments for his demonstrations,8 which are as binding in his readersʼ eyes as in his own. Beyond these he knows no other written authorities. It is true that in 1. Cor. il. 9, words are quoted prefaced by ʽAs it is written, and in Eph. v. 14 by ʽWherefore he saithʼ (that is, in the Scriptures), which we do not now find in the Old Testament, but we learn from the Fathers that such passages are drawn from the Jewish Apocrypha (the Apocalypse of Elias and others), which, in the condition of the Jewish Canon at that time, the Apostle might have treated as the Word of God no less than the ʽWisdom of Solomon.ʼ And if by the ʽScriptures of the Prophetsʼ9 through which the great mystery had been made known unto all nations, Paul meant the Apostolic writings, including the Epistle to the Romans, none of his readers would have understood him, precisely because of that addition ʽof the Prophets.ʼ He never quotes from any other Epistle of his, nor takes for granted that they were known to any but those to whom they were addressed; and as little did he appeal to the written teachings of any fellow-Apostle. His letters reveal a strong self-confidence; he wishes that his warnings and exhortations shall have a lasting effect; what he writes is truth, and in 1. Cor., after strictly distinguishing10 between a precept that emanates from himself and one laid down by the Lord, and after clearly characterising the proposed solution of moral problems as a simple opinion of his own (γνώμη, νομίζω) he closes the discussion11 with the forcible expression ʽAnd I think that I also have the Spirit of God.ʼ But even such assertions as that put forward in vii. 25 in support of his opinion, ʽI give my judgment as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be a believerʼ [πιστός elsewhere means no more than ʽtrustworthyʼ |, show plainly that he does not claim an extraordinary authority for his Epistles. In his estimation they rank no higher than any oral declaration; the Spirit of God to which he appeals, belonged to all Christians alike12: it was no exclusive possession of his or at best of twelve other Apostles. It is true that the Charismata, the Gifts of Grace, in which this possession of the Spirit appeared and was effectual, were bestowed in manifold degrees, and Paul certainly did not undervalue his Apostolic, his Evangelistic charisma; but although he very carefully classifies the gifts of grace,13 he nowhere makes mention of any charisma of authorship, and even if he had, the words of the thirteenth chapter of 1. Corinthians, ʽFor now we know in part,ʼ would still hold good.
In short, Paul demands from those churches to which he had given the Gospel—even the words ʽall the churchesʼ of 1. Cor. vii. 17 should be limited in this way—a pious reception of, and obedience to, his exhortations, because with them he feels himself as a father among his children.14 But he never thought of making similar demands upon strange churches (that of Jerusalem, for instance) and, conversely, he repelled such claims made by strange Apostles in his own Church. He has no knowledge whatever of the ʽChoir of the Apostlesʼ as a new point of unity for the whole ʽUniversal Church,ʼ as a supreme and infallible court for all. We must presume the same standpoint for the Primitive Apostles; in the face of Gal. i. 2 and Acts xxi. 17-26, it would be worse than childish to believe that Christians in the Holy Land or elsewhere accepted Paulʼs Epistles as Divine writings.
But what if the Apocalypse belongs to the Apostolic Age? That would make no change in our conclusions. It is certainly written in a solemn and lofty style; its author threatens15 with eternal ruin anyone who should add to or take away from ʽthe words of the book of this prophecy.ʼ Once and again he apostrophises his ʽhearers,ʼ16 showing that he expected not only to be read, but to be read in public. But he shares this expectation with the authors of every Jewish Apocalypse; for since the Apocalyptic seer renounces the personal, oral effectiveness of the prophet, he can only gain the desired influence on wider circles by finding readers for his ʽScriptureʼ in private and in public. Now herein, as he knows by experience, lay that danger of falsification or mutilation which he endeavours to avert by his threats. He wishes not to be rated specially high as a writer, but as a prophet whom God had permitted to look into great mysteries (cf. p. 279). He has to deliver a special Revelation of God to his servants,17 and the word of God18 is the substance of his testimony. Therefore he demands for it the same reverent acknowledgement as each of the hundred prophets of Corinth demanded for their discourses, or as Paul demanded for his own utterances—unless indeed it be suggested that the falsification of his Epistles would have been indifferent to him. But he can scarcely have thought of the addition of his book to the ʽScriptures,ʼ in any case not more than did the authors, say, of the Apocalypses of Enoch or of Ezra. Hermas (a simple Roman Christian of about 135) is no less concerned in later times as to the diffusion of his Revelation of the ʽShepherdʼ; he even asserts that he had received instructions from heaven as to the means he should take to make known his book to ʽall the Chosenʼ; nevertheless, he did not consider his visions, exhortations, and parables as ʽHoly Scriptureʼ in the same sense as Isaiah and the Psalms. The writers of Revelations and Hermas strive their utmost to secure the desired influence over their contemporaries; their concern is for practical success, not for their meed of honour. The idea of placing new Canonical books side by side with those which had been handed down from former ages, was absolutely out of keeping with the Apostolic times; the wealth of living Canonical material—the multitude of prophets, of speakers with tongues, of teachers, which was to be found in every community, did not permit the consciousness to arise of any need for a new Holy Scripture, to act, as it were, beside the great prophetic Books of the past as the glad interpreter of prophecy fulfilled. The creation of a Canon is always the business of poorer times that wish to secure something at least from the riches of earlier days, and to compensate themselves for the scantiness of their possessions by exalting their dignity to the highest possible degree.
8. And yet there existed even in the oldest Christian communities an authority beside the Law and the Prophets— nay, placed unconsciously high above them—an authority the recognition of which was the distinctive mark of separation from the unbelievers who revered only the Law and the Prophets. This new ʽCanonʼ was Jesus Christ.
John19 was not the first to place the words of Jesus simply on a level with the words of God, or to allot to the Comforter the task of bringing all that Jesus had said to the remembrance of the disciples. Paul himself looked upon that which he had received from ʽthe Lordʼ20 as belonging to the things beyond which there was no appeal. He is glad to be able to settle a doubt concerning the resurrection ʽby the word of the Lordʼ21; still more characteristic is 1. Cor. vii. 10, where an ordinance is issued with the words ʽnot I, but the Lordʼ; that point being thereby settled at once. In vv. 12 fol. he brings forward his personal opinion, and this requires a detailed argument; in ver. 25 he states regretfully that “concerning virgins he has no commandment of the Lord,ʼ and so can only give his own judgment.. Again, in 1. Cor. ix. 14: ʽEven so did the Lord ordain that they which proclaim the Gospel should live of the Gospelʼ—a contravention of this commandment on the part of believers being as little to be thought of as a contradiction of the sacred words of Deut. xxv. 4,22 mentioned in ix. 9. Some such words of Jesus must certainly have formed part of the fixed substance of Paulʼs preaching of the New Life, and if his accountʼ23 of the inauguration of the Last Supper, especially in the introductory formula, sounds as if he were dealing with expressions which had long been fixed and settled, this does not indicate that he is here quoting a written record, but is explained most simply by the fact that Paul had already told this story times without number, and so had unconsciously given it a stereotyped form—depending, as I think, upon the first impressive report of it which had been given to him in Jerusalem. In any case the words of Jesus (unhappily so few) which are found in Paulʼs letters, are, for him, sacred and absolutely binding, not because they were written in any sacred book, but because he was convinced that they were the genuine words of Jesus. He never quotes such words with any of the forms he uses when appealing to the ʽScriptureʼ: it is purely arbitrary to attribute to Jesus the words of 1. Cor. ii. 9 fol., and of Eph. v. 1424; and there is no trace of Paulʼs having used any primitive Gospel, or, in fact, any written information whatever concerning Jesus. The (old) Scripture and the Lord: these were for Paul as well as for all Christians of his time the infallible sources of knowledge. Yet this contained the germ of a new Scripture. If later ages would not see their Lord pass utterly from among them, they could only hold him fast by setting his words on record; and these records of him could not fail at last to occupy wholly the place which had been his.
1) Rom. iii. 19.
2) Rom. i. 2; 2. Tim. iii. 15.
3) Mark xv. 28; John vii. 38-42; Rom. iv. 3; 1. Tim. v. 18; James ii. 23; Gal. iii. 8 and 22.
4) Luke iv. 16 fol.
5) Luke xxiv. 44-47.
6) Matt. v. 17-19.
7) Matt. v. 21-48.
8) In Romans alone sixteen times καθὼς γέγραπται or γέγρ. γάρ.
9) Rom. xvi. 26.
10) 1. Cor. vii. 10, 12.
11) 1. Cor. vii. 40.
12) Rom. viii. 14 fol.
13) Rom. xii. 1. Cor. xii—xiv.
14) Gal. iv. 19; 1. Cor. iv. 15.
15) Rev. xxii. 18.
16) Rev. i. 3, xxii. 18.
17) Rev. i. 1.
18) Rev. i. 2.
19) xiv. 1, 9, 10, 21, 24, 26.
20) 1, Cor. xi. 23, xv. 1 fol.
21) 1. Thess. iv. 15.
22) Cf. Acts xx. 35.
23) 1. Cor. xi. 24 fol.
24) See above, p. 464.