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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: Why Was the Authority of Certain New Testament Books Questioned? (The Antilegomena)

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Why Was the Authority of Certain New Testament Books Questioned? (The Antilegomena)

Are the Right Books in the New Testament? – Question 16

Most of the books of the New Testament were immediately received as authoritative by the church. These accepted books were known as the homolegomena that is, “the books spoken for.” However, some of the books that are now in the New Testament canon have been, at times, questioned as being divinely authoritative. They are known as the antilegomena, “the books spoken against.” There were seven books whose authority was doubted by some members of the early church. The reasons vary from book to book. We can list the main issues as follows:

1. The Book of Hebrews Was Anonymous

The main problem that some members of the early church had with the Book of Hebrews was that it was written anonymously. While the original recipients knew who the author was, this eventually became forgotten. Although a number of candidates have been suggested, today no one is certain who wrote the book.

There is another issue. The writer makes a distinction between himself and the Apostles. He wrote:

How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:3-4 NRSV)

However, the author does claim authority for his work. At the end of the book the writer says:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. (Hebrews 13:22 NRSV)

From the earliest times, the letter to the Hebrews was accepted everywhere but in Latin Christianity—the western church. The problem was lack of a stated author. However, it was eventually realized that the Book of Hebrews was orthodox in its content, and deserved a place in the New Testament.

2. James’ Authorship and Teaching Were Challenged

Some in the early church challenged the authorship of the Book of James, as well as its teaching. While James was not one of the original “Twelve Disciples,” he was a leader in the early church (Acts 15; Galatians 1). James was most likely the half-brother of Jesus. There were some in the Western church that did not realize whom he was. Once his identity was finally confirmed, the problem vanished in the West.

During the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther questioned the authority of the Book of James. He initially thought it taught salvation by works and called it “a right strawy Epistle.” Consequently, in the first edition of his German translation of the New Testament, Luther put James as an appendix.

However, it must be noted that in his various writings, Luther quoted over one half of the verses of the Book of James as authoritative Scripture.

The main problem that Luther and others have had with James was the content. The issue can be stated as follows: Is James in conflict with Paul concerning how one could be saved? James does put more emphasis on works than do the other New Testament writings.

However, there is no contradiction. James is not so much theological, as it is practical. It fits a much-needed gap between the doctrine and practice of Christianity. When Paul and James are properly understood, there is no contradiction between them. Paul teaches that faith alone saves, while James emphasizes that the faith that saves is not alone.

3. Second Peter Had a Number of Questions about It

The most suspect of all the books of the New Testament is Second Peter. There are a number of reasons as to why Peter’s authorship is questioned. They include the following:

The Two Books Attributed to Peter Were Written in a Different Style

First, the style of the two books, First and Second Peter, is remarkably different. It seems obvious that two different writers were involved.

The stylistic differences may be explained by Peter’s use of an amanuensis, or secretary, who did the writing for him. The first letter may have been written by Silas (Silvanus). We find the following statement made by Peter:

With the help of Silas, Silvanus, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it. (1 Peter 5:12 TNIV)

The English Standard Version translates the verse in this manner:

By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. (1 Peter 5:12 ESV)

The New American Standard Bible renders this verse as follows:

Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it! (1 Peter 5:12 NASB)

The phrase “through Silvanus,” or “by Silvanus,” or “with the help of Silas” may refer to the fact that Silas, or Silvanus, was the writer of the letter, or it may mean that Silas delivered the letter. We are not certain which is correct.

The second letter may have been written by Peter himself, or with the use of another scribe. This would explain the differences in style.

Second Peter Quotes from Jude

Second Peter quotes from the Book of Jude. It is argued that the genuine Peter would never have done this. However, it is just as likely that Jude quoted from Peter rather than Peter from Jude. Even if this is not the case, why should it be a problem for Peter to quote from another part of Scripture to support his argument?

Second Peter Is Cited Later in History

The earliest testimony about Second Peter is relatively late in Christian history. It is contended that the earliest testimony is negative. This shows that some had questions about the authority of this book.

However, there are a number of allusions to Second Peter in the writings of some very early church Fathers.

In addition, this book is contained in P72 - a third century Greek manuscript. This shows that it was collected with other New Testament books at an early date.

Finally, there is a remote possibility that a fragment from Second Peter was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. If true, this would prove that Second Peter was composed before A.D. 70. However, the evidence for Second Peter among the Dead Sea Scrolls is slender at best.

The Writer Tries to Prove He Is Peter

It is also alleged that the author of Second Peter tries too hard to prove that he is actually Simon Peter. For example, he cites his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. He describes it as follows:

For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18 NET)

The English Standard Version translates the verses in this manner:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18 ESV)

The fact that the writers speak of being present at the Transfiguration supposedly shows it was not Peter. This argument is too subjective. The fact that he mentions a significant event in Peter’s life may be because he actually was Peter!

Peter’s Name Was Frequently Forged in the Early Church

It is also a fact that Peter’s name was frequently used in the early years of the church for writings that were not his. However, this proves nothing one way or the other. The forgery has to be proved—not merely assumed.

The Content Shows Its Lateness

There is the argument that the content of Second Peter shows that it is a late production. This argument is also suspect. It is based upon the assumption that statements made in the letter reflect a time later than the first century. Yet, there is no real evidence of this in Second Peter.

While most non-believers reject Peter’s authorship of this book, there are sufficient reasons for believing that Peter was the actual writer.

1. Second and Third John Has No Stated Author

Second and Third John were questioned for several reasons. For one thing, the author was not specifically stated—he is called merely “the elder.”

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth. (2 John 1:1)

In addition, early Christians do not often cite these letters. There does not seem to be much evidence that they were considered to be authoritative by those in the early church.

The reasons for doubting these two letters of John are not very strong. The lack of their wide circulation is easily explained. Both of these letters were addressed to individuals, both are very brief, and neither have much theological content. Consequently, they would not have had very wide circulation. Because of these factors, there were not too many early writers who would quote from them. This led to their slow recognition.

There are a number of arguments in favor of John’s authorship. They include the following:

First, the early church father Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, testified to the genuineness of Second John.

Second, the translation of the New Testament into Old Latin contained these works, as did the Muratorian Canon—a second century New Testament list.

There is more. The believers in Asia were so familiar with John that he could use the term “the elder” without any further explanation.

The term “elder” could be used as a special designation for an apostle and his office. In First Peter we read about Peter’s mention of elders. It says:

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3 NASB)

Second and Third John are written in similar style as First John. First John was widely acknowledged as coming from the Apostle John. Therefore, there is sufficient evidence to link Second and Third John with John the Apostle.

2. Jude Seemingly Quoted from Non-Canonical Sources

The Book of Jude was questioned as being authoritative Scripture for his use of the two books that have never been part of the Old Testament canon; the Book of Enoch and the Testament of Moses.

The Book of Enoch is seemingly cited as an authoritative source. We read the following in Jude:

Now Enoch, who lived seven generations after Adam, prophesied about these people. He said, “Look, the Lord is coming with thousands of his holy ones. He will bring the people of the world to judgment. He will convict the ungodly of all the evil things they have done in rebellion and of all the insults that godless sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14-15 NLT)

This seems to be a direct citation from 1 Enoch 1:9, which reads as follows:

Behold, he will arrive with ten million of the holy ones in order to execute judgment upon all, he will destroy the wicked ones and censure all flesh on account of everything that they have done, that which the sinners and wicked ones committed against him. (1 Enoch 1:9)

There is also a possible reference in Jude to another written work called the Testament of Moses. We read the following:

But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9 NASB)

The Bible says that Moses’ body was buried in an unknown site:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan... Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deuteronomy 34:1,5,6 NRSV)

While Michael the archangel is mentioned in the Old Testament in Daniel 10:13, he is not mentioned in connection with disputing over the body of Moses. In fact, there is no mention of anyone arguing over Moses’ body. Obviously, the source of this story was from outside the Old Testament.

In the Testament of Moses, further details are added to the biblical story. First, we are told that it was Michael the archangel who was given the job of burying Moses. The devil then got into an argument with Michael over Moses’ body. The devil said that Moses was not worthy to be buried because he was a murderer. The Scripture does indeed say that earlier in his life Moses had killed an Egyptian. This account is recorded in Exodus 2:11-12.

Since Moses was a murderer, the devil assumed that this man did not deserve to be buried by an archangel. Thus, the devil believed that he had the right to Moses’ body. Michael, in response, said, “The Lord rebuke you.” This same phrase is found in the Old Testament, in Zechariah 3:2. In this instance, the Lord Himself asserted His own authority over that of the devil.

The account is possibly taken from the work known as the Testament of Moses or the Assumption of Moses. Although this work exists in manuscript form today, the part about Michael disputing with the devil is missing. Early church fathers, however, said that this work contained the story of Michael disputing with Moses. Therefore, it is likely that if the missing part were found we would find this episode.

The Statements Are True, but the Sources Are Not Authoritative

Jude clearly accepted the statement of Enoch as true, as well as the story of Michael and the Devil disputing over the body of Moses as an historical fact.

However, we should view Jude’s citation as similar to Paul citing heathen poets. He did this on three occasions; Acts 17:28, 1 Corinthians 15:23, and Titus 1:12. While the works are not divinely authoritative, the statements cited in these works are true.

Yet, these works contain untruths. Indeed, the Book of Enoch contains much material that is fanciful and mythological. Also, in the Assumption of Moses, there is a statement which is attributed to the devil that says that all matter is inherently evil. This is contrary to what the Bible teaches on the subject.

We should also note that Jude is not introducing either of these citations with such words as, “It is written,” or “God said.” He is citing the truth of these statements that goes back to the original source.

As far as where Jude got the information about the statement of Enoch, we cannot be certain. It is possible that he is citing the book known as the Book of Enoch.

However, it is also possible that he had an ancient written source that was used by him as well as the author of the Book of Enoch. On the other hand, Jude could be citing some ancient oral tradition. We just do not know.

It should be noted that there is also some doubt as to whether Jude is quoting from the text of Enoch. The quotation which we find in Jude does differ in some respects with the text of the Book of Enoch that we now have. For example, Jude makes “the Lord” the subject of the sentence he cites from Enoch; the Book of Enoch does not. In addition, Jude cites the quotation from the perspective of the return of Christ to the earth in judgment. The Book of Enoch does not do this either.

Therefore, the most anyone can say is that this is an apparent quotation of the Book of Enoch by Jude. Even if Jude is citing the Book of Enoch, he is merely citing the truth of the statement, not the divine inspiration of the book. Consequently, Jude is not citing a work as authoritative Scripture which was not included in the Hebrew canon by the Jews.

Interestingly, in the early church, the Book of Enoch was held in high regard. The fact that Jude may have cited from it caused some church leaders to argue for its authority. However, when it was later realized that the Book of Enoch was not written by the biblical Enoch, nor was it an authoritative writing, doubts were then cast upon the Book of Jude for seemingly citing it. Yet, this is not necessary. As we have seen, there is nothing in Jude’s citation that gives any type of authority to the Book of Enoch or for the work known as the Assumption of Moses.

4. The Book of Revelation Was Misused by Some Heretical Groups

It is no surprise that the Book of Revelation would meet some opposition due to the apocalyptic nature of the work. However, it had almost instant recognition almost everywhere. Yet, in the fourth century, some questions arose concerning it. This was due, in part, to some heretical groups misusing the book.

The author clearly identifies himself as John the Apostle:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John. (Revelation 1:1 TNIV)

At the end of the Book of Revelation, John says:

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (Revelation 2:8-9 NRSV)

This work clearly claims to be from John. The only John to whom this could be referring is the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ twelve Apostles.

The Book of Revelation certainly has the credentials which we would expect of a divinely inspired work. Furthermore, the Book of Revelation is necessary to complete God’s account of His dealings with the human race. For without the Book of Revelation, we would not know what will happen in the future.

Observations on the Disputed Books

Three points need to be stressed with respect to these so-called disputed New Testament books. They are as follows:

1. Only Some of the New Testament Writings Were Questioned

It must be stressed that it was only some people in the church, not all of them, that questioned only these seven books. The great majority of the books that make up the New Testament were never questioned by the great majority of the people. The seven books that were questioned were eventually recognized as Scripture by the entire church. The fact that questions were asked about them only demonstrates the care that was taken about this important issue.

2. There Was No Debate Later in History

Once the church formally recognized the twenty-seven books, there was no later debate to add to them—as was the case with the Old Testament Apocrypha. There has been no real debate to add to or subtract from these books since that time. All branches of Christendom—Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, accept these twenty-seven books, and only these twenty-seven books, as New Testament Scripture.

3. There Is Nothing in These Books That Conflicts with the Rest of the New Testament

It must also be emphasized that nothing in these seven books contains any doctrine that conflicts with the other twenty accepted New Testament books. These seven books were not only in continuous use in the church from the beginning, there is nothing in them that contradicts other Scripture. This is what we should expect from writings that were divinely inspired.

Summary – Question 16
Why Was the Authority of Certain New Testament Books Questioned? (The Antilegomena)

The New Testament books that were immediately accepted by all believers were known as the homolegomena. However, there were a few books of the New Testament that had their authority questioned. These were known as the antilegomena—the books spoken against.

It is important that we note that there was only a minority of church leaders who spoke out against the books. These antilegomena included Hebrews, James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude and Revelation. The reason for questioning their divine authority varied from book to book.

Hebrews was questioned because of its anonymous authorship. James was questioned because it seemed to emphasize works more than grace.

Second Peter was questioned for a number of reasons. This includes differences in style between the two letters, the questions that some in the early church had regarding its authority, and the fact that the work quoted from Jude. Add to this the fact that Peter’s name was often forged on many early works. There are also parts within the book that seem to show a late date. It is also contended that the author tries too hard to prove that he is Peter. However, all of these criticisms have satisfying answers. There is no real reason for rejecting Peter’s authorship.

Second and Third John were questioned because the author was not specifically stated. In addition, these letters are brief and do not have much theological content.

Jude was questioned for his supposed use of the apocryphal sources such as the Book of Enoch and the Testament of Moses. Yet, he merely cites the truth of the statements; he does not call these writings Scripture or give any indication that he considered them to be Scripture.

The Book of Revelation was questioned due to the nature of the work. However, it was eventually realized by all that the Book of Revelation belongs in the New Testament canon.

Eventually, when more evidence became available to the people of God, we find that each of these writings were accepted as Holy Scripture.

Finally, nothing in these books contains any teaching that conflicts with other parts of Holy Scripture. When they are examined, their teachings match up perfectly with the rest of Scripture.

Therefore, the totality of the evidence shows that each of the twenty-seven books which is presently found in the New Testament belongs there. Of this, there is no doubt.

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