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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


4a. The Canon of the Earliest Church

The Christian church began during the Jewish feast of Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Apostle Peter stood in the Temple precincts and addressed a huge assembly of Jews from all parts of the Empire. Three thousand of his hearers acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and were baptized in his name for the forgiveness of sins and for the gift of the Spirit of God.

The earliest church in Jerusalem had two things in their possession: (1) They had knowledge of the historical events involving Jesus of Nazareth as these were announced in the gospel, and (2) they had the literature of Israel—the Old Testament—to show them that these events were the redemptive work of God.

To put it another way, they had a story and a literature. They had the story of Jesus as it was told by people whom Luke called “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). And they had the large collection of texts which had already served for hundreds of years to summon God’s people to holy life and holy worship, and which has given the world the astonishing conception that God moves in events of history and sends spokesmen to tell the meaning of these events.

Peter’s Speech

Peter’s address is recorded in Acts 2:14–40. Or rather, some of it is. We are told that he said more that is not recorded (v. 40). We might summarize the contents of his address as follows:

These things took place according to the deliberate intention of God. They were not random or happenstance. They were not chaotic and meaningless events produced by history happening on its own. They were the culmination of God’s work of redemption begun in Israel and announced by the prophets. They are understandable when you see them by the light of Israel’s literature. And now here is the fundamental fact: Jesus was crucified by the hands of sinful men, but God raised him up. Jesus of Nazareth had come on a divine mission from God. This is clearly seen through the “miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him.” Although the people killed him, God raised him up. This shows that Jesus was the Messiah spoken of by King David when he said that God would not allow his Holy One to decay in the grave. God raised him to his right hand, where he is addressed as Lord, where he received the Holy Spirit promised by God and poured it out upon his people. Thus according to Scripture, Jesus who was crucified is both Lord and Messiah. Therefore repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah and receive forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promised Spirit is for you and coming generations and those who are far away. It is for everyone whom the Lord calls to himself.

The Oral Gospel

To say it in a single word, that which Peter presented to the thousands was the gospel. The English designation “Gospel” is our word for what is called in Greek euangelion. The word euangelion did not originally mean the good news; it was the little gift you gave to the messenger who brought you the good news, or it was an offering you gave to the gods when you heard good news—for the gods had better be thanked before they change their minds! From this original meaning, the word passed over to mean the good news itself, and that is the meaning of the word in the New Testament.

We can recover the gospel preached by the earliest church. It is not only in Peter’s address in the Temple to the crowd of Jews that were in Jerusalem for Pentecost . It is also in Peter’s sermon to the household of the Gentile Cornelius (10:34–43), which by the way looks a great deal like an outline of the Book of Luke.

In addition we have it in the passages in Paul’s writings where he is in debt to received tradition:

I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread . . . (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared . . . (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:2-4).

(You will find further examples at Romans 4:25; 10:8-9; 1 Thess. 1:10; Phil. 2:6-11.)

If that is the content of the kêrygma, the church’s proclamation of the gospel, the similarity is clear between that and the contents of the four books called Gospels. Like the early sermons, these written documents have an interest in the fulfillment of Scripture; they present Jesus of Nazareth as son of David and Messiah; they tell how he performed works of power attesting his divine mission, took upon himself the suffering and death of the cross, and was raised to the right hand of God. And like evangelistic sermons, they seek to produce or strengthen faith in the reader.

Thus the eventual contents of the written gospels were in the possession of the church from the start in its oral preaching and teaching. Together with the Old Testament, the oral accounts of eyewitnesses and ministers of the word functioned effectively as the canon of the earliest church.


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