III. New Testament Witness to the Transmission of the Autographa
In accord with Christ’s prayer (John 17:8), the saints and the churches immediately received the books of the New Testament as they were given by inspiration. The seven churches recognized the Revelation of John as Scripture immediately upon receipt of the book (Revelation 1:11), the Thessalonians immediately received the Word of God, for they were believers (1 Thessalonians 2:13), and, led by the Spirit, churches in general received the scripture, which they knew was being penned in their day (Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 14:37; Ephesians 3:4-5; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:12, 25; 2 Peter 3:2; Luke 1:3) as the ascended Christ gave it (John 16:13). When Paul wrote 1 Timothy in the early 60s, he recognized Luke’s gospel, which had been composed only a few years earlier, as “scripture” equal in authority to the books of Moses (1 Timothy 5:18; Luke 10:7; Deuteronomy 25:4). Paul’s declaration concerning the inspiration of “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 consequently refers to both the Old Testament (OT) canon and the NT, which, by the time of the inspiration of 2 Timothy, God had, other than the Johannine writings, almost entirely revealed to man. Peter (2 Peter 3:2) refers to the OT books (v. 2a) and the NT books (v. 2b), and calls the collection of “all epistles” by the apostle Paul[i] scripture, equal to “the other scriptures,” (2 Peter 3:15-16), the OT (1 Peter 2:6); all of this OT and NT scripture is affirmed to be as sure as the audible voice of God speaking from heaven (2 Peter 1:16-21).[ii] John closes the NT canon with the solemn warning of Revelation 22:18-19 (cf. Proverbs 30:5-6), evidencing his recognition, one with which his audience would have concurred, of the inspiration of his work (cf. John 21:24) and the completion of the New Testament. The saints recognized the NT as an inspired treasure immediately upon its composition.[iii]
The assembly of the NT into a cohesive unit also began very early;[iv] as 2 Peter 3:15-16 indicates, the process was far advanced before Peter’s death c. A. D. 68, and so even before the revelation of the final NT books. The NT writings were copied and distributed from church to church (Revelation 1:3). Paul wrote Galatians to “the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2), which would involve the copying of his epistle. Colossians 4:16 provides a striking example of this practice. Paul commanded that his newly inspired epistle to the church at Colossae be read in that church (v. 16a),[v] then copied and read in the church of the Laodiceans (v. 16b). At the same time, the Colossian congregation was to “read the epistle from Laodicea” (v. 16c). That church, which had not received an inspired autograph,[vi] had copied another assembly’s canonical epistle, which was being read in their church; the Colossians were to take this epistle, copy it, and read it in their own assembly. At least three generations of transmission are documented here: the original church which received the inspired letter, the copy made for the Laodiceans, and the copy of that copy now brought to the Colossian church; if the Laodiceans had not transcribed their epistle directly from an autograph, even further epistolary generations are required. Furthermore, the apostolic precept for such multiplication of canonical copies of epistles in Colossians 4:16 would certainly have spurred other assemblies to follow a similar practice—nor did Paul begin to encourage such copying only upon penning Colossians 4:16 (note 1 Thessalonians 5:27—not that church alone, but “all the holy brethren,” are to get this epistle; cf. John’s blessing on those who read and hear his book, Revelation 1:3, which required the distribution and multiplication of copies); he would have already exhorted the churches to such an end. 1 Timothy 6:3 indicates the early circulation of the gospel records—canonical and authoritative (cf. 5:18) “words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” were available, and opposition to them brought one under church discipline (6:5).[vii] Paul’s “yet not I, but the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10) suggests that both the apostle and the Corinthians had at least one gospel in their possession. When churches exchanged members, traveling evangelists passed through, Paul or others visited assemblies on missionary journeys, and on vast numbers of other occasions, the distribution of NT Scripture would certainly have been in progress. Even apart from the excercitation of Colossians 4:16, the church’s recognition of the new inestimable treasure given her from God by inspiration, and its vast importance in the Christian life (cf. Romans 10:17; Matthew 4:4) would of itself have been a powerful motivation to multiply apographs.
Great care was taken to preserve the inspired documents, as the church recognized her role as the guardian of Divine truth (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 4:6; 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14; 2:2). Accuracy in copying was considered extremely important (Revelation 22:18-19). As a result, accurate replicas of the inspired documents were distributed as rapidly as Christianity itself.[viii] New Testament evidence buttresses the believer’s confidence in God’s promises to preserve the autographa for all generations; the widespread distribution of accurate apographs of the recognized, canonical NT books validates the promised impossibility of their successful universal corruption.
[i] Lewis Foster (“The Earliest Collection of Paul’s Epistles,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS), 10:1 (Winter 1967) p. 44-54) argues very plausibly that Luke first collected Paul’s epistles into a canonical whole. He also mentions that “in antiquity to retain copies of letters dispatched to far places was customary. Because of the uncertainty of the postal system and because of the desirability to have a dependable record of what was originally written in case question should later be raised about the correspondence—both of these reasons fully justified the common practice of making copies of correspondence.” (Foster, “Earliest Collection,” pg. 50). Since the church at Philippi sought to collect the epistles of Ignatius during Polycarp’s lifetime (pg. 280, The Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952), certainly churches were collecting the inspired corpus as well.
[ii] Consider further that the epistle Paul wrote to the audience of 2 Peter (which was the same as the audience of 1 Peter, 2 Peter 3:1), the Jewish diaspora (1 Peter 1:1), must be the epistle to the Hebrews, since no other Pauline letter is addressed to them. Paul is therefore the author of Hebrews, and this epistle was recognized, along with the other 13 in his corpus, as canonical immediately.
[iii] Wilbur Pickering, in his Identity of the New Testament Text, chapter 5 (electronically accessed), has a good discussion of early recognition of the inspiration and canonicity of the NT in his section, “Were the N. T. Writings Recognized?”
[iv] Physical evidence for such early compilation exists. The “identification of papyrus fragment 5 from Qumran cave 7 with Mark 6:52-53 . . . [makes] the probability that 7Q4 is to be identified with 1 Tim. 3:16, 4:1,3 and 7Q8 with James 1:23-24 . . . very strong. . . . That someone should have such a collection of New Testament writings at such an early date may suggest their early recognition as Scripture and even imply an early notion of a New Testament canon” (Appendix B, The Identity of the New Testament Text, Pickering). A theologically liberal critique of the identification of these papyri with the NT is found in “That’s no Gospel, It’s Enoch! Identification of Dead Sea Scrolls Challenged,” Peter W. Flint (Bible Review, Peter W. Flint, April 2003, pgs. 37ff.).
[v] This public reading of the epistles placed them on an equal level to the Old Testament, which was also read in the assemblies of the saints (Deuteronomy 31:11; Acts 13:15; 1 Timothy 4:13). Furthermore, we must conclude that individual believers were not satisfied with public reading of the Scriptures in the weekly assembly, but aspired to own their own personal copies, that, as the noble Bereans, they might all search the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11).
[vi] It has been supposed by some, based on the subscription to 1 Timothy, “the first to Timothy was written from Laodicea, which is the chiefest city of Phrygia Pacatiana,” that this epistle from Laodicea was 1 Timothy. While, if this is the case, two generations, instead of three or more, are specified in Colossians 4:16, it would still demonstrate the proliferation of NT copies—and would show that an inspired epistle specifically directed to the man Timothy was immediately received by God’s people as something with universal and binding validity.
A pseudepigraphical “epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans” is extant, but it is universally recognized as a forgery. The text is reproduced in the introduction to Colossians in Notes on the New Testament by Albert Barnes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998 (reprint of 1884-5 ed.)).
[vii] The CT attacks church discipline by removing “from such withdraw thyself,” aÓfi÷staso aÓpo\ tw◊n toiou/twn, from 1 Timothy 6:5.
[viii] An interesting archeological confirmation of this rapid spread is the Rylands Fragment of John P52, which is dated to the first third of the second century. The existence of a codex of John in an obscure Egyptian village c. A. D. 125 illustrates the speed with which the NT books were distributed. (see JETS, 10:1 (Winter 1967), pg. 42). “Pantaenus [went] to convert the Hindoos, and, whatever his success or failure there, he brought back reports that Christians were there before him, the offspring of St. Bartholomew’s preaching; and, in proof thereof, he brought with him a copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel in the Hebrew tongue, which became one of the treasures of the church on the Nile” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Elucidations II: “Pantaenus and his school,” AN:II:12480). This testifies to the presence of Scripture in India in the first century through the witness of the apostle Bartholomew (Matthew 10:3). Further information about the collection of the NT canon is found in “Factors Promoting the Formation of the New Testament Canon,” Wilber T. Dayton, and “The Canon of the Gospels,” Merrill C. Tenney, JETS 10:1 (Winter 1967) pgs. 28-35, 36-44 respectively. All citations of Ante-Nicene patristic writings, unless otherwise specified, come from Church Fathers—The Ante-Nicene Fathers (AN), ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, American reprint of the Edinburgh ed.; electronic text from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (http://www.ccel.org), as hypertexted, corrected, and prepared by Oak Tree Software, Inc. for Accordance Bible Software (http://www.accordancebible.com), version 1.1. Citations of Nicene or Post-Nicene writers come from either Church Fathers—The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, First Series (NPN-1) or Church Fathers—The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series (NPN-2), ed. Philip Schaff, T & T Edinburgh. These texts have also been accessed electronically from an Accordance software module based on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library text (also version 1.1). Citations will state the module (AN/NPN-1/NPN-2), the chapter division, and the paragraph # from Accordance for that module. In the passage above concerning Pantaenus, AN:II:12480 means the Ante-Nicene Accordance module, chapter 2 in the “Elucidations” section connected with Clement’s Stromata, paragraph #12480 in the Ante-Nicene module. In footnote #18, AN:XXXVI:20373 means the Ante-Nicene Accordance module is cited, chapter 36 in The Prescription Against Heretics, paragraph #20373 in the Ante-Nicene module.