This blog is a part of the “From Testimony to Testament” blog series where we are tracing the history of how the New Testament came to be. Read the introduction here.
At this point I think it would be a disservice to go into an in depth study of the other non-gospel books in the NT. That would take up way too much blog space, and you would probably stop following this series and miss some of the really important aspects coming up. I think it will be sufficient to discuss the unique features of the writing and content of some of these books and leave it at that.
These “books” are simply letters. I think that this demystifies them a little, in a good way. When we think of books from the ancient world, we tend to think in terms of fable, but “letters” describes much more accurately what they are: real correspondence from apostles and church fathers to the churches and church leaders dealing with their specific issues in their specific context. Note* The only document that escapes this description is the book of Acts. Acts is a concise history of the spread of the church after the ascension of Jesus and is really just an extension of the gospel of Luke.
Writing of the Letters
These letters were all written between the late 40’s AD and the early 90’s AD. This is between 15 to 60 years after Jesus’ death. One thing we should notice is that this means that they were all written while a direct witness to Jesus could have still been alive [we know from the biography of Polycarp (a disciple of John, not a Pokémon) that people could live until their 80s in the ancient Roman world]. In fact, the authorship of the two latest books written, the Gospel of John and Revelation, affirms this truth as both are commonly attributed to the apostle John (although, which John wrote Revelation is still disputed even among conservative scholars). All of these letters assume the reality of the Jesus described in the gospels.
Paul Wrote Scripture. . .
Probably the most interesting feature of these letters is found in the letters of Paul. It seems that the church from very early on actually considered these letters to be scripture. In 2 Peter (written around 65 AD), Peter refers to Paul’s writings, while Paul is probably still alive, as scripture:
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (3:15-16)
The other scriptures would be the OT. Peter here puts Paul’s letters on par with the Old Testament. That’s a big deal.
Also, in the Jewish context, it was fitting to only read the OT scripture out loud during the course of a worship service, yet Paul exhorts the churches to read his letters aloud: “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). The value put on these letters from early on assured that they were copied and brought to other churches.
And So Did the Rest
It would not be a far stretch to say that the churches would value letters from the apostles, Peter and John, and the half-brothers of Jesus, James and Jude, as much as they valued Paul’s. It seems highly likely that these letters were copied over and over again and spread throughout the church. In fact, this is what the historical evidence points to as the earliest manuscripts we find are from areas far from the origin of the original writing. It is almost certain that these letters were read aloud as scripture during the early church’s worship services.
Really Old Hymns
Another very interesting feature of these letters is that some of them preserve early oral traditions of the churches. Let me give an example of what I mean by that. In Philippians, Paul seems to quote a poem or hymn that the church would have known:
[W]ho, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:6-11)
Conservative scholars are pretty sure that this material predates most, if not all, of the writing of the New Testament. This is a problem for those that say that Jesus became more divine in the stories of the disciples as time went on. In this Philippians segment we see a divine Jesus having the form of God and giving up the equality of God that he once had. It seems that Jesus was considered divine from very early on.
The conclusion of all this is to say that the New Testament letters were so highly valued, even as scripture, that there copying and transmission would have been taken with the utmost care. In our next blog, we will finally discuss how the New Testament gospels, books, and letters started disseminating throughout the Roman world.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)
Read the previous “From Testimony to Testament” blog here.
For further reading on this topic check out:
The Cradle, The Cross, and The Crown – Andreas J. Kӧstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles