The Earliest Collection Of Paul’s Epistles -- By: Lewis Foster

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 10:1 (Winter 1967)
Article: The Earliest Collection Of Paul’s Epistles
Author: Lewis Foster

The Earliest Collection Of Paul’s Epistles

Lewis Foster, Ph.D.

A study of the making of the New Testament indicates the presence of different stages through which the Scriptures passed before coming to their final form. First came the time of writing; but before all the writings were completed the period of collection had already begun; and finally the era of canonization provided the final form for the collections. 1 The purpose of this study is to essay the evidence for the earliest collection of Paul’s epistles and, coming to a realization of the paucity of notices concerning the first collection, to offer suggestion by analogy and inference that would seem both probable and assist in treating other problems associated with the writings of Paul.

Failure to differentiate between the two periods of collecting and canonizing has led to frequent misinterpretation of detail. Although the concept of the canon antedated the actual use of the term, it was not until the time of Athanasius (296–373) that the phrase “canon of Scripture” was employed to mean the list of books reckoned as Holy Scripture. 2 As far as our records go, it is not until the decade 170–180 that the church undertook seriously the task of drawing up such lists, e.g. the Muratorian Canon. 3 Discussion concerning these lists continues to the time of the Synods at Carthage in 397 and 419. 4 Harnack describes the activity of the church in this period as that of “selection.” 5 In these years, he maintained, the church was selecting which books belonged to the Bible and which did not. Zahn, however, was opposed to this concept of selection in the sense that the church was granting authority to the books by the decisions of the councils; but Zahn emphasized the idea of “growth.” 6 As each book of Scripture was written it was immediately received as divinely authoritative by those to whom it was directed and remained authoritative as the writing began to circulate and was incorporated into collections. Whereas Harnack’s concept of “selection” is misleading in describing the work done in the period of the canon, it can also be pointed out that Zahn’s emphasis upon “growth” is more appropriate for the periods of writing and collecting rather than the technical period of canonizing

in the years 180–397 when this growth would have already been complete.

A better word to c...

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