An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 1 - Section 35


§ 35. The Canonical Authorities of Christendom from c. 70 to c. 140

[Almost the only authorities, besides the New Testament, are the Apostolic Fathers, and the Teaching of the Apostles (ʽDidachéʼ). The best editions of the Apostolic Fathers are: ʽPatrum Apost. Opera recensa,ʼ by O. von Gebhardt, A. Harnack, and T. Zahn (3 volume edition with commentary, 1876-77; editio minor, containing the text only, price 3 marks, 1900), and Fʼ. X. Funkʼs ʽOpera Patrum Apost.ʼ vols. i. and ii. 1887-91. For the text and a most thorough discussion of the ʽDidaché,ʼ see Harnack, in the ʽTexte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte d. altchristl. Literatur,ʼ ii. 1, 2, 1886.]

1. A large part of the New Testament writings is the work of the two generations after the death of all the Apostles. On one point there is no change from the earlier position: not one of these unknown authors intended to write a Canonical Scripture. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has certain readers in view whom he knows personally. This is not so with most of the Catholic Epistles. The authors of these address their utterance to the whole body of believers; yet this implies no more than that the Epistle was beginning to become a form of literature. The authors of the Epistles ascribed to James and Peter stand on the same footing as the authors of the Gospels and the Acts; they wish to serve all their fellow-believers, each with his particular gift; but not one of them is conscious of a special inspiration which sheds the glamour of divinity around his book. Following his own unconstrained choice (ἔδοξε κάμοὶ. . . γράψαι) Luke, in his Gospel, ʽtraces the course of all things accurately from the first,1 he only proposes to essay the same work more skilfully than the ʽmanyʼ who ʽhave taken in hand to draw up a narrative;ʼ not to do it under entirely different conditions. John also contains a confession of imperfection in xx. 30 fol. (cf xxi. 25); the author breaks off at this point, not because Godʼs assistance had failed him, but because he is moved by entirely human considerations of what is appropriate and fitting. If these writings had not come down to us as parts of the New Testament, no one would be aware from any self-consciousness on the part of the authors, that there was any difference between these books and other uncanonical productions of the Christian literature of those times.

2. On the other hand, Paul and these later writers, to whatever section of the Church they belong, are at one in making ʽThe Scriptures and the Lordʼ the foundation of belief and life. 2. Timothy iii. 16 speaks of the Scripture delivered by God (γραφὴ θεόπνευστος) and extols the blessing to be found in a careful study of it. Here the word ʽScripture,ʼ no less certainly than in 2. Peter i. 20 fol., means the ancient Holy Scripture given by God to Israel.

Christians with Hellenic culture considered it indispensable to steep themselves in the thoughts of Jewish men of God; almost all Christian authors of the first century show themselves remarkably familiar with the Old Testament, although in truth their comprehension of it was not always made easy by the universally received Greek translation of the ʽSeventyʼ (i.e. the Septuagint). A new Scripture science arises: the art of interpreting the ʽScripturesʼ in a Christian sense, and of drawing from them authority for each idea: and each precept of the new religion. When Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians (xii. 1) confidently expresses the hope that his readers are well versed in the Holy Scriptures, he has this science in mind, and the Gentile Christians in Corinth or Rome were probably as well acquainted with the Old Testament as was the average Jew. But for Christians the ʽcommandment of the Lord and Saviourʼ (ἡ ἐντολὴ τοῦ κυρίου) took its place beside ʽthe words which were spoken before by the holy prophets,ʼ2 while as regards the employment of these words for purposes of teaching or admonition, there is an unmistakable advance from Paul to the writers of the two following generations—the Apostolic Fathers, the authors of the 1st Epistle of Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius, Hermas, even the authors of the ʽDidachéʼ (c. 180),. and of 2. Peter and James. Not in vain, not without response to a need universally felt, did the ʽmanyʼ mentioned by Luke3 strive to keep the tradition of eye-witnesses concerning the Bringer of the Gospel from perishing, and to shape it into a clear and complete historical narrative. In these words of the Lord the Church found her most direct edification, her most infallible guide. Naturally, the farther we go from the Primitive Church, the more complete is the knowledge of the sayings of Jesus obtained from written sources: that is to say, it is drawn from the historical works of the ʽmany,ʼ but there is still a distinction made between the fountain head and the waters which flow from it; a word is not sacred because it stands in one or another Gospel, but because it comes from the mouth of Jesus, or teaches us to know Jesus, or spreads the faith of Christ. The Gospels were treasured as a substitute for oral instruction, just as a church would treasure a letter of its Apostle as a substitute for his personal exhortation, for the time unattainable. They were not considered as records of revelation, and their authors were not looked on as prophets, men impelled by the Holy Ghost, working with the peculiar help of God and under his special supervision, but as trustworthy fellow-believers bearing witness to the Gospel. The freedom with which any Gospel material is quoted—and how many words of Jesus, since lost, must then have been in circulation!—is in characteristic contrast to the growing accuracy in Old Testament quotations. No question as yet exists of ranking the ʽGospels,ʼ all or any of them, with the Holy Scriptures.

In the so-called Epistle of Barnabas (about 125 A.D.) a saying of Jesus, elsewhere unattested, is introduced with the form φησίν,4 which the author uses elsewhere for the words of Scripture,5 but Jesus had been named in the foregoing clause, and it is the most natural course to take him simply as the subject of this ʽhe says.ʼ But Barnabas6 certainly introduces the sentence ʽMany are called but few chosenʼ by the words ʽas it is written,ʼ and according to Matthew xxii. 14, this saying came from the mouth of Jesus. But the conclusion that Barnabas looked upon our First Gospel as ʽScriptureʼ would be premature, considering how much evidence there is against it. The saying, which does not bear a specifically Christian stamp, may very well come from some Old Testament Apocryphon, as does that of 1. Cor. ii. 9, unless indeed the authorʼs memory has failed him, as sometimes happens to greater men than Barnabas. The first who undoubtedly designates as ʽScriptureʼ a collection of the Lordʼs Sayings—of what collection he was speaking, or whether of any particular one, cannot be determined—and consciously places their authority beside that of the ancient Scriptures, is the writer of a homily which has received the misleading name of the Second Epistle of Clement. He is evidently not accustomed to distinguish the God who speaks in the Old Testament from the ʽLordʼ of the Christians (e.g., iii. 5, λέγει δὲ καὶ ὲν τῷ Ἠσαίᾳ, i.e. the same Redeemer who speaks in Matt. x. 32), and after he has quoted a sentence of Isaiah in ii. 1-3 and explained it in detail, he passes on in § iv. to Matt. ix. 13, ʽI came not, etc.,ʼ with the formula ʽand again another Scripture saithʼ (ἑτέρα γραφή). If this is read with vi. 8, for instance, ʽBut the Scripture says also in Ezekiel,ʼ it is impossible not to recognise the fact that here the utterances of the Christian spirit have received a part in the lofty position claimed for the old records of Revelation. But the unknown preacher certainly belongs to a time which is beyond the limits set here (perhaps c. 145), and he has nothing whatever to do with Clement the Apostolic Father, who died about the year 97.

3. Yet the Canon of the two generations of Christians which followed Paul was certainly somewhat more extensive than his had been. Not only did men feel sure of ʽthe Scripture and the Lord,ʼ they possessed besides—so the foundations broadened —a third authority in the Apostles. Paul had already found the Apostles enjoying the highest consideration in the Primitive Community.7 In Galatians ii. he speaks of them as ʽthey who were of repute,ʼ8 and he thinks it of the highest importance to be placed on an equality with them, even in 1. Cor. xv. 9; nor is it by chance that he lays such stress on the ἀπόστολος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ beside the Παῦλος in the superscriptions to his letters. That he uses this word also in a wider sense only shows that the name was associated with the specific idea of a messenger, an envoy; Gal. ii. 7 and 8 show most clearly that the ἀπόστολοι κατ’ ἐξοχήν were those whom the Lord had appointed, and to whom the greatest charge, the Gospel, had been entrusted. To reject them meant to reject the Lord; to contradict them was to contradict the Gospel; they were the authentic interpreters of the perfect Revelation of Godin Christ. This conclusion necessarily followed from the premises recognised even by Paul, but he did not draw it himself, because he was forced in conscience to ʽresistʼ even the Apostles9; because as far as his consciousness reached, the unity in the circle of the Apostles, of whom he counted himself one, was not perfectly established, and a canon without unity, a supreme authority divided against itself, was a monstrosity. His bitterest experiences sharpened his sight for the human weakness even of the Apostles; and so he comes to place the possession of Love even higher than the possession of the Apostolate.10 The Apostles, in his opinion, ʼ were invested with the most important office in the new Church of God,11 but close behind them he ranks the Christian Prophets, who, in noticeably close connection with the Apostles, are extolled in Eph. ii. 20 and ii. 5 as forming, equally with the Apostles, the foundation of the new building —as the inspired recipients of the final revelation.

Even in the purely Jewish Christian communities of Palestine, especially in Jerusalem, the authority of the Apostles in their lifetime can scarcely have been unlimited; the difference in spiritual fruitfulness and religious power between individual Apostles made itself too strongly felt, and, even if we except Paul, perfect unanimity among them was not always the rule.12 The 15th chapter of Acts, and still more vv. xxi. 17-25, unconsciously teach us, in spite of the strong colouring from later conceptions with which they are overlaid, that there could be no question whatever of the autocracy of the Apostles even in the Primitive Community. Later generations were no longer confronted with the difficulties which hindered the contemporaries of the Apostles from conceding to them the high position logically consequent on the relation in which they stood to the Lord and the Gospel. From a distance no dark side appeared in the picture; the world remembered gratefully that it was indebted to them for faith and for sure knowledge; they were the nearest link in the golden chain by which men felt themselves bound to heaven. They were the mediators between the Dispenser of Salvation and those who enjoyed it; in order to believe in salvation mankind must trust them unconditionally: that is, it must regard them as a canonical authority.

This, then, is what actually occurs in all the writings of the post-Apostolic period. Though the name ʽApostleʼ is seldom used in the Gospels, though the want of understanding and the weaknesses of the Twelve13 are mentioned without reserve, this is all intended but to arouse wonder at the result—namely, the greatness they attained under the instruction of Jesus. Practically everything is said with Mark iv. 11: ʽUnto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God.ʼ The concluding scene in Matthew xxviii. 16-20 is scarcely needed; in it the risen Christ, now in possession of all authority in heaven and upon earth, commissions them to be the teachers of his commandments among all the nations, and promises to be ʽwith them alway, even unto the end of the world.ʼ Thus, where the Apostles are, there is the Lord. The phrase of Serapion (c. 200), ʽWe accept the Apostles as we do the Lord,ʼ might have been spoken a hundred years earlier; in the Apostles was embodied all truth. The Apostles alone, the Twelve (no longer they and the Prophets) become the foundation stones of the walls of the Holy City.14 According to the Acts,15 the decisions (δόγματα) of the Apostles are issued as under the authority of the Holy Ghost, and so are naturally binding on every Christian community; to the Apostles is reserved, as it were, the Word of God16; they ordain the newly chosen officials of the Church,17 they hold in their hands the general direction of the new religious society, and the idealising history of ʽLukeʼ can no longer conceive a difference of opinion among the Apostles. The simple fact that anyone should have continued his Gospel by writing an ʽActs of the Apostles,ʼ that under the collective description ʽthose things which have been fulfilled among us,ʼ Luke thus early, perhaps, includesboth Acts of Jesus and Acts of the Apostles, best shows the light in which the Apostles were regarded in his age. Naturally, everything which had any significance among Christian circles in matters of teaching and life, of discipline or the usages of public worship, was now traced back to the Apostles; the word ʽApostolicʼ became a synonym for ʽecclesiastically correct,ʼ and whatever men wished to establish as truly Christian was handed or written down, in good faith, as the rule or doctrine of the Apostles. Thus in 2. Peter iii. 2 the command of the Lord and Saviour is described expressly as being vouched for by ʽyour Apostles.18 God, Christ, the Apostles: Clement19 considered these degrees as no less complete than universally recognised (ὁ Χριστὸς οὖν ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ οἱ ἀπόστολοι ἀπὸ τοῦ Χριστοῦ—both, consequently, springing in their order from the will of God), and the Divinity of Apostolic institutions was thus proved.

Polyearp († 155) exhorts20 us to serve Christ, first as ordained by Christ himself, secondly by the Apostles, and thirdly by the Prophets (here equivalent to the Old Testament). In the seven Epistles of Ignatius, which were written before the Epistle of Polyearp, probably about 115, the author is particularly fond of appealing to the Apostles as an incontrovertible authority. For instance, according to Ignatius, the Lord acts either through himself or through his Apostles,21 and in either case ʽnot without the Father.ʼ The Magnesians should strive to be confirmed in the ʽdogmasʼ of the Lord and the Apostles.22 And according to 2. Clem. xiv. 2, Christian readers knew that the super mundane quality of the Church was attested by the Books and the Apostles (τὰ βιβλία καὶ οἱ ἀπόστολοι), this very passage showing that ʽthe Apostlesʼ were not to be found in books. Single sentences of the Apostles are never quoted—before Polycarp, that is; much less are their letters treated as ʽScripturesʼ; the desire to know how the Apostles had manifested themselves did not exist. The Church of about the year 100 felt that the canonical nature of her ordinances, her organisation, was vouched for by the Apostles, just as that of her ideas and her principles was vouched for by the ʽWords of the Lordʼ; for the Apostles had founded every community on the Gospel, and organised it in conformity with the Gospel. The idea which was to become so familiar, that the genuineness and truth of the traditions about Christ could only be guaranteed by the Apostles as eye and ear-witnesses, did not once find expression in the time of which we are speaking; such witnesses still existed in considerable numbers, and men had not yet become suspicious. In the thought of that period ʽthe Apostlesʼ were a purely ideal Canon, impalpable and uncontrollable, and therefore, in the event of differences, equally to be appealed to by both parties; they were but the expression of the strong conviction that after the ascension of Jesus men had ceased to become dependent for life and teaching on human volition alone, but committed everything to the decision of the highly favoured possessors of the Spirit of God, the called and chosen weapons of Jesus Christ; and that, further, the foundation and organisation of the great Gentile churches, which could not be referred to ʽthe Lord,ʼ had taken place under the direction of infallible authority. Certainly this conviction could not be so universally maintained in the face of violent attacks from without, or of differences of opinion on fundamental questions within the communities; soon there could only be a written source from which to draw decisions as to what was Apostolic or non-Apostolic; if the Apostles were not to fade from sight altogether, some tangible sign of them must be forthcoming and must be handled in a manner worthy of them. Thus through this Canon, ʽthe Apostles,ʼ a fresh movement was begun which was bound to end in the establishment of a strictly circumscribed circle of Apostolic writings and precepts.



1) Luke i. 1-4.

2) 2. Peter iii. 2.

3) Luke i. 1.

4) vii. 11.

5) E.g., vii. 7.

6) iv. 14.

7) Gal. i. 17.

8) Vv. 2, 6c, οἱ δοκοῦντες, with the additions εἶναί τι in 6a, and στῦλοι εἶναι, ʽthey who were reputed to be pillars,ʼ in 9 (i.e., a narrower circle within the Twelve),

9) Gal. ii. 11.

10) 1. Cor. xii. 28—xiii. 13.

11) 1. Cor. xii. 28; Eph. iv. 11.

12) Gal. ii. 12.

13) Cf. also Barn. v. 9.

14) Rev. xxi. 14.

15) Acts xvi. 4 (xv. 23-29).

16) Acts vi. 2.

17) Acts vi. 6; cf. 1. Clem. xlii.-xliv.

18) Cf. the title of the Διδαχὴ κυρίαν διὰ τῶν δώδεκα ἀποστόλων.

19) 1 Clem. xlii. 1 fol.

20) vi. 3.

21) Ad Magn. vii. 1.

22) Ibid. xiii. 1.