This week we continued our discussion of the united narrative of Scripture by exploring the timeline of the New Testament. This Sunday we will discuss the timeline of the Old Testament, but I wanted to deal with the NT first because we will be referencing it in our discussion of the OT, seeing that the OT points forward to Christ and the story of the NT. We deal with a much more compressed timeframe of authorship and recollection with the NT than we do with the OT. Whereas the OT was written over a time period of many hundreds of years, and tells of events which happened over the span of several millennia, The NT was written over a period of less than a century (if we accept the traditional understanding of authorship, i.e. Peter actually wrote 2 Peter and John actually wrote all of his letters and Revelation, etc.). Also, the NT deals with events that are confined to the first century AD. Thus, with the New Testament, we are dealing with a series of events taking place within a relatively short time span, being written within a relatively short time of their actual occurrence.
The books of the New Testament must meet certain criteria of authenticity, which, even though not codified as a whole until the third and fourth centuries, were attested to in writings from the second century of Christianity. Firstly, the NT writings must have apostolic authority, meaning they either originate from an apostle or the disciples of an apostle. Thus, Mark, as a disciple of Peter, lends Peter’s authority to his gospel. Paul, as an apostle, gives us direct authority in his writings, as do John and Peter, along with (traditionally) Matthew. Luke derives his apostolic authority from his closeness to the ministry of Paul, and James and Jude derive their authority from their work as leaders in the early Church (and slightly from their status as the half-brothers of Jesus).
Secondly, the writings must originate within a generation after the resurrection of Christ. This flows naturally from the first criterion, in that if the NT writing bears an apostle’s name, or the name of the disciple of on the apostles. It should come from the time of the apostles or those who directly follow the apostle. However, this is a separate criterion, because it was common throughout the first several centuries of Christianity for writers to co-opt the name of an apostle or early church figure to validate their written offerings. However, as these pseudonymous writings began to appear, scholars realized that there had been no attestation of such writings in the letters and church writings of the second century. In recent years, these “new” gospels (such as gospels of Thomas and Judas) have sprung back up and stirred the interest and curiosity of society. They have been hailed as providing new insights into the world of the Scriptures, and people have been duped into believing in their merit, although they were discredited for the reasons mentioned above hundreds upon hundreds of years ago when they were first written.
Thirdly, the writings of the New Testament must agree in their principal message. That is, they must fit with the original kerygma (preaching) of Jesus Christ. This kerygma has four key components which have then been fleshed out theologically over the years: (1) Jesus Christ is Lord; (2) He is risen from the dead; (3) Repent; (4) The Kingdom of God is at hand. Seeing that the NT was developed in its written form, at its earliest (the early letters of Paul), some fifteen years after the resurrection of Christ, and that the gospels themselves were not written down until, at their earliest (Mark and the supposed gospel Q) twenty to thirty years after the resurrection of Christ, we must understand that the oral traditions and preaching of and about Christ give us our truest access to the early message of the gospel. This early kerygma is tricky to decipher and then use as a criterion for NT authenticity, especially since the best way we can understand the kerygma is be extricating it from the earliest NT writings. In a sense, then, we are stuck in a cycle of self-validation: the NT writings must agree with the kerygma of the early Church, which is only understood through the message of the earliest NT writings. It is, in a sense, circular logic, and is not perfect. However, what is being affirmed through this third criterion of authenticity is that there is a central proclamation concerning Jesus Christ that is common to all NT writings. If a writing does not agree with the other writings of the canon (the writings of Scripture accepted to be orthodox by the Church as a whole) in these four abovementioned ways, then it is not Scripture.
In our next post on the Story of Scripture, we will continue this past Sunday’s discussion concerning the genres of literature contained in the New Testament and the historical context of both the events of the NT and the time of its composition.