When Did the Gospels Become Scripture?

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In teaching NT Introduction, I am fond of saying that the authors of NT books would have had no inkling that their writings would become part of something called the New Testament or the Christian Bible, which did not reach exactly its present form until the fourth century. Matthew did not know that his Gospel would begin the NT, although he would be happy to discover that it does. It is well suited for that position and purpose. John did not know that his Gospel would stand in the NT alongside three other, Synoptic Gospels, and that it would be the fourth, presumably to be read after the others. Some exegetes believe that John was actually written with the others in view, but that premise creates as many problems of interpretation as it resolves.l However that may be, the presumption of a historical distance, and consequent difference of purpose, between the composition of the NT writings and their incorporation into a canon of scripture is representative of our discipline.

The question When did the Gospels become scripture? is certainly not a new one. Understandably, it is ordinarily construed as a question about the formation of the canon, in this case particularly the four-Gospel canon. The latter question is important, interesting, and the subject of recent, relevant discussions. For example, in his 1996 S.N.T.S. presidential address Graham Stanton argued that the four-Gospel canon was formed sooner rather than later in the second century.2 More radically, David Trobisch has proposed that the entire NT as we know it was actually assembled, redacted, and published in the latter half of the second century.3 John Barton has argued that by that time the principal elements of the NT were already functioning as scripture, if not referred to as such.4 Needless to say, any discussion of canon or scripture stands on the shoulders of such contemporary figures as James Barr, Brevard S. Childs, and James A. Sanders, not to mention Bruce M. Metzger.s Their contributions and such proposals as I have just mentioned are significant as well as fascinating to me, but I want to pursue a somewhat different tack.

For the purposes of our discussion I accept the distinction between canon and scripture (as set out, for example, by William A. Graham and now widely accepted).6 Obviously "canon" presumes "scripture," that is, the recognition of certain writings as possessing peculiar status or importance. "Scripture" means "texts that are revered as especially sacred and authoritative."7 "Canon" refers to the delimitation of such texts. Significantly, "canon" (...) is not used of sacred writings in the NT, but "scripture" (...) of course is. In most, but not all, cases, "scripture" clearly refers to what Christians call the Old Testament. The existence of scripture as well as canon implies the existence of a religious community that accords status and authority to certain texts. It goes without saying that the community in question believes that such status and authority actually belong to, adhere in, the text because of its subject matter, God in relation to human beings.

The authors of the NT books refer to scripture, but we have assumeddo not think of themselves as writing scripture. We are accustomed to thinking of the Gospels as well as the Epistles as occasional documents generated in specific times and places to address issues of such times and places.a Of course, one generally acknowledges that the letters of the apostle Paul were the means of his apostolic presence among his churches, in which they would have been read aloud (1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16; cf. 2 Cor 10:9-10). 2 Peter 3:15-16 suggests that they were regarded as scripture before there was a NT. The same may also be true of the Gospels, although that is more difficult to document. From Justin Martyr (First Apology 67) we learn that at least by mid-second century "the memoirs of the apostles" (i. …