Did the Authors of the New Testament Know They Were Writing Scripture?
You'd think that the answer would be an easy, "yes," but a startling number of people--including New Testament scholars--say "no."
I'm always taken aback when I'm reading along and suddenly encounter a statement like, "Of course, the authors of the New Testament didn't know that they were writing Scripture. Their writings only came to have this status later."
How do you know that?
Let's take a look at the issue . . .
What Scripture Is
Today we often think of a particular book as Scripture based on whether it is in the Bible. If it is in the Bible, it's Scripture. If it's not in the Bible, it's not Scripture.
This may be a practical test for us today, but it's not the way the New Testament authors thought of Scripture. Back when they lived, there was no book called "the Bible." Instead, there were a collection of books, which were originally written on scrolls, that they thought of as Scripture.
Only the invention of new forms of publishing technology allowed these to be put together as the single volume that we now call "the Bible."
Also back in the day--their day--the canon of Scripture was not yet completed, which means that it was still open. There was no closed canon, and so they also couldn't use the test "Is it one of the books of the (closed) canon?"
If you can't define what Scripture is by relating it to "what's in the Bible?" or "what's in the canon?" how can you define it?
The answer that the first Christians would have given if they had been asked "What is Scripture?" would probably have involved these concepts:
- A book of Scripture is a sacred book.
- A book of Scripture is an divinely authoritative book.
- A book of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
These provide important clues to whether the authors of the New Testament thought they were writing Scripture. Before we apply them, though, we should look at another way of approaching the issue . . .
What Scriptures Did the New Testament Authors Recognize?
When the New Testament authors quote from the Old Testament, they overwhelmingly (around 80-90% of the time) quote from a particular version of it: the Septuagint. This was a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was used internationally by the Jewish community.
When we look at the particular books that belonged to the Septuagint, we find that there are a number of different types, including:
- Foundational books: These tell about the founding of the Hebrew community (Genesis-Deuteronomy).
- Historical books: These tell the ongoing story of Israel's history under God's providence (Joshua-2 Chronicles, plus 1-2 Maccabees).
- Prophetic books: These contain oracles and visions given through the prophets (Isaiah-Malachi).
- Wisdom books: These contain divine wisdom on a variety of topics, written in several different forms including poetry (Job), songs (Psalms, Song of Songs), short sayings (Proverbs), meditations (Ecclesiastes, Wisdom), etc.
It's not unreasonable to think that if we find the New Testament authors writing books of these types then they would have seen themselves as writing Scripture.
So if we apply that test, what results do we find?
The Book of Revelation
This one is so obvious that it's blinding. The book of Revelation present itself as a prophetic revelation like the prophetic books of the Old Testament, whose imagery and language it frequently uses.
How could John not think he was writing Scripture?
The only ways I could see a person writing a book of this sort and not think he was writing Scripture would be if he was a fraud who was writing to deceive people into thinking he was writing Scripture--or if he was some kind of fiction author who thought he was writing fiction in the form of a prophecy.
There is no evidence that John was doing either one of these things.
He comes across as straightforward and sincere--even ardent.
So Revelation is an easy "gimmie." Its author thought he was writing Scripture.
Also easy are the Gospels. They belong to the class of foundational books, just like the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) does in the Old Testament. They tell the story of how the New Israel (the Church) was born through the ministry of Christ, just like the Pentateuch tells the story of how the Original Israel was born through the ministry of Moses.
In fact, the Gospel authors directly parallel Jesus with Moses (Matthew does this in particular) and the Twelve Apostles with the Twelve Patriarchs of Israel.
Furthermore, the Gospel authors portray Jesus as greater than Moses. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ was regarded as the greatest event in God's plan of the ages--ever.
So anyone writing a Gospel to be read in the churches had to have the idea that he was writing Scripture.
As John Paul II said on one occasion:
Another "consolation" of the Holy Spirit for the Church was the spread of the Gospel as the text of the new covenant. If the books of the Old Testament, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were already a source of consolation and comfort for the Church, as St. Paul says to the Romans (Rom 15:4), how much more so were the books which related "all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning" (Acts 1:1). Of these we can even more truly say that they were written "for our instruction, that by endurance and by the consolation of the scriptures we might have hope" (Rom 15:4) [General Audience, March 13, 1991].
We also have evidence in the epistles that the Gospels were regarded as Scripture.
The Brother Whose Praise Is "In the Gospel"
In 2 Corinthians 8:18-19, St. Paul writes:
18 And we have sent with [Titus also] the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches;
19 And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind [KJV].
I've quoted this from the King James Version because most modern translations render what verse 18 says dynamically rather than literally.
What Paul literally says is a brother "whose praise is in the gospel" and who, as revealed in verse 19, was a travelling companion of Paul.
Do we know any travelling companions of Paul who wrote a Gospel?
And perhaps that's what he's referring to here. He's sending Luke along with Titus to visit the Corinthians.
Or maybe not.
The verse is ambiguous, and it could mean something else. It could mean, in keeping with modern, dynamic translations, "the brother whose praise is in the service of the gospel" or "in preaching the gospel."
Whether you think it means this kind of thing or whether you think it is a reference to Luke will depend on when you think Luke's Gospel was written.
Note that St. Paul speaks of "the brother" (singular), as if there is only one of his companions whose praise is "in the gospel." That would fit Luke well if we are talking about a written gospel, but it would be hard to see who he's talking about if we're not. Lots of Paul's companions (e.g., Timothy, Titus), could be said to have their praise in the preaching of the gospel, and all of them could have their praise in the service of the gospel.
(Note that Mark was also a companion of Paul who wrote a Gospel, but he is better known as a companion of Peter, and at one point Paul and Mark had a falling out, so Luke is the more likely choice.)
"The Worker Is Worth His Wages"
Less ambiguous is 1 Timothy 5:17-19, where we read:
 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;
 for the scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages."
The command about not muzzling an ox comes from Deuteronomy 25:4, but the statement that the worker deserves his wages is Luke 10:7--the only other place in the Bible this statement appears.
So here we have a direct New Testament reference to Luke as Scripture.
We thus have a consciousness being displayed, in the New Testament age, that Luke--and, by extension, the other Gospels--were Scripture.
Acts of the Apostles
If Luke thought he was writing Scripture when he wrote his Gospel then he would have thought the same thing when he was writing Acts.
Acts is the direct sequel to the Gospel of Luke, it picks up where the Gospel left off, and it fits the same mold as the Old Testament historical books, which continued the story of Israel from where the Pentateuch left off.
Acts is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament historical books, filling in the history of the New Israel down to his own day (c. A.D. 62) from the point where the foundational document (the Gospel) stopped.
So we have good evidence that the authors of Revelation, the Gospels, and Acts knew they were writing Scripture. That leaves us with the epistles, which we will look at soon.
In the meantime, what do you think?
By the Way . . .
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