Lecture 17: Apostolic Origins
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Apostolic Origins
I. Why is the Concept of Covenant Important in the Context of Apostolic Authorship?
One of the things we realize about the New Testament and certainly the word, Testamentum, the Latin word from which it comes; a better word would be New Covenant. This shows that there is a much larger concept under guarding the New Testament. This is really critical to get because of what I lay out in the book; when you start talking about a New Covenant, you are really building on a foundation that is outlined by the Old Covenant. I point out the fact that the New Testament authors really saw themselves as continuing in the tradition of what the Old Testament was already doing. When God makes a covenant arrangement, he gives with it the terms of that covenant in a textual document. So when Jesus said that he was inaugurating the New Covenant, we would expect there to be New Covenant documents that came along with it. You need to understand the link between the Old and the New. It gives us a sense of why we would expect new documents to be part of the New Covenant arrangement.
II. The Covenant of God in the Old Testament was patterned after Covenants Made in the Ancient World
When God says that he was going to establish a covenant, it was patterned after a typically structured agreement already established in the ancient world. This was like a contract from the Hittite world, when you made a covenant from king to king, you had a written documentation of that covenant that setting out the terms and the arrangements of it. So the Israelites would have already had that grid in their minds. And the first Christians, being that they were Jews, would have already had that idea of how a covenant would have been associated with written documents.
III. Jesus Instituted the New Covenant and the Apostles Became the Agents
I use the term, agents of the New Covenant. Paul in 2nd Corinthians 3 uses the term as Ministers of the New Covenant. What I love about the role of the apostles, there were what you might call the official implementer or agents or spokesmen or ministers of the New Covenant. They are installing it; they have the permission and the authority of Christ to speak for him and to operate with his authority. So they were implementing the terms of that New Covenant amongst God’s people. So, when you think about the authoritative leaders and installers of the New Covenant, it was clearly the apostles. They had a distinctive and foundational one-time office designed to begin and install the foundation of the New Covenant. Of course, Paul, himself, saw the apostles this way by describing them as ministers of the New Covenant.
IV. Did the Apostles Understand this Role in Their Lives?
One of the points I labored to make in the book is that when the apostles operated and functioned as apostles in their teachings, they were consciously aware of their own authority. That authority did not limit itself to oral proclamation, but was extended to written proclamation and content. Paul, in fact, does as much; he is to be obeyed whether in his oral teachings or written teachings. His words were to be followed and listened to. So once the apostles understood themselves as ministers of the New Covenant then you realize that their authority extended to anytime they were operating as ministers of the New Covenant. This certainly would include their preaching and oral proclamation and the key point here was when they wrote that message down. So when the apostles in their office of apostles wrote down the apostle message, what would that physical writing have been regarded as? What function would it have played? It would have played the role as a writing that bore full covenantal apostolic authority right from the beginning. So what kind of book is this? In every real sense, it is a Scripture like book. It is a book that would have functioned like a New Covenant document. And so, part of the reason I think this argument is important is that it helps to remind us that when the New Testament writers wrote, it wasn’t like they wrote with one intention, only later did people regards these books as authoritative. They didn’t have the idea of thinking that they weren’t authoritative or anything like that, but from the beginning they knew that these writings had authority. Paul wrote as a minister of the New Covenant and these documents had authority instantaneously. So, this is why I think, unless you grasp the self-awareness of the apostles when they wrote, you will always want to date the canon at a later date. The canon is an early phenomenon when you realize that the apostles were aware of what they were doing.
V. Some Modern Scholars Consider Irenaeus as the First Person who Considered the New Testament Documents as Authoritative.
Peter would be surprised as he referred to Paul’s letter in his 2nd letter. Yeah, this is a repeated reframe with modern scholars, that, once again, it was the later church that first regarded these documents as distinctively Scripture and that in earlier stages, no one bothered to think that way. I think this is fundamentally flawed; we have already seen that the conception of these books bore apostolic authority. The apostles said that they were writing with the authority of Christ.
VI. Why did the Apostles Write at all?
People often ask, didn’t the apostles first delivery their message orally and if so, why didn’t they keep doing this? This second step of writing things down seemed to be a later artificial step. What made the apostles do this? One reason, I think, has to do with the covenantal context. If they had this concept that they were the ministers of the New Covenant, the idea of a New Covenant text would have been a natural normal, even organic next step. Just like the Old Testament had text that documented the terms of the Old Covenant, you can understand why the apostles had that in their minds. So, this is one reason to expect a written text. The second reason would be based on the apostolic mission itself. Their goal was to lay the foundation of the church and bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It would not have been long though before the apostles began to realize that this goal was not going to be able to be accomplished always in person. You can’t always deliver every message orally. They couldn’t travel to every church and every place. If they were going to be effective in their mission, they needed to have some way to replicate their message more rapidly and writing things down would have been a practical step to this. The last thing I want to mention; I think the apostles were aware of their own limited life span. As they begin to age out and die, I think the urgency to write the message down would have increased. People often also ask, why didn’t they write in the early thirties or forties a lot more; they really only started writing in the fifties and sixties. There could be many answers to this question. People began to realize that the apostles were either dying or would be dying and they were leaving their deposit behind in a way that would be preserved and maintained for future generations.