Analysis & Research

Does 2 Timothy 4:13 provide evidence of the preparation of a Gospel collection in the 60s?

In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul makes a personal request of Timothy:

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books (ta biblia), and above all the parchments (tas membranas). (ESV)

Michael Kruger’s view of this passage is that

There is little doubt that ta biblia is a reference to books of the Old Testament, most likely on scrolls. The term tas membranas is noteworthy because it is not a Greek word at all but a transliterated form of the Latin membrana—the same word used by Martial and Quintilian to refer to parchment notebooks.1

He goes on to suggest that these notebooks might have contained “excerpts of Jesus’ teachings … or copies of Paul’s letters.”2 E. Randolph Richards argues that Paul was merely gathering his letters (tas membranas) together, without any intent of publishing a collection, and that it was his followers who later resolved to publish the collection, after his death.3 However, Randolph also cites Harry Gamble, who explains that “In antiquity, collected editions of letters were nearly always produced by their author or at their author’s behest, often from copies belonging to the author.”4 Accordingly, I suggest that the collection which we now have of the Pauline letters can be recognized as an apostolically sanctioned collection, which was gathered and published in the mid- to late-60s, perhaps by Mark and Luke. (It is my belief that Hebrews was included in this collection, as occurs in P46, because the author of Hebrews participated in the publication of the Pauline collection.)

But what I really want to get to in this blog post is to question what the books (ta biblia) actually refer to. And further, can we see in Paul’s request not only an intent to publish a Pauline collection but also an indication that work was already underway towards publishing a Gospel collection in the mid-60s?

In the NT, the singular biblos (βίβλος) is used to refer to the book of Moses (Mark 12:26), book of Psalms (Luke 20:42), book of the prophets (Acts 7:42), etc. Hence, many commentators understand Paul to be requesting a collection of OT works; however, given the substantial Jewish and Christian populations in Rome, these OT works should already be relatively available. Therefore, could Paul be requesting something else here?

Notably, the plural phrase ta biblia (τὰ βιβλία) only appears in three NT passages: John 21:25; 2 Timothy 4:13; and Revelation 20:12. Jeffrey Brickle has pointed out that the use of ta biblia as the last word in John’s Gospel appears to be employed as a counterpoint or frame to Matthew’s use of biblos (Βίβλος), as the very first word in Matthew’s Gospel, such that this is “John’s signatory way of indicating that he considered closed or sealed by his testimony what now consisted of a collection of four ‘authorized’ Gospels.”5 John also appears to have intentionally connected his monograph with the Gospels of Mark and Luke, by his “En arxē (Ἐν ἀρχῇ)” (John 1:1) opening phrase, which connects with “forms of ἀρχή which occur in the opening statements of Mark (1:1) [and] Luke (1:2).”6

If Brickle’s contention is accepted, then this suggests that terms such as book/books were being used to refer to the Gospels at an early date; although we can certainly debate when this terminology came into fashion. Nonetheless, the Gospels were certainly larger than Paul’s writings (the membranos), so the use of a distinct term to refer to such would be fitting.

So do we have evidence here of apostolic involvement in not only the production of a Pauline sub-collection, but also of a Gospel sub-collection?

[Revised 5/18/24 to more correctly reflect what Richards contends, versus Gamble, versus myself.]

  1. Michael J Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), 93. ↩︎
  2. Michael J Kruger, The Question of Canon, 94. ↩︎
  3. Richards also elaborates on the ancient practice of retaining copies of letters previously sent or received. E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 218219. Also refer to Benjamin P. Laird, Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy, and the Authority of the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2023), 153–162. ↩︎
  4. Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 101. Cited in E. Randolph Richards, “The Pauline Corpus,” in Canon Formation: Tracing the Role of Sub-Collections in the Biblical Canon, ed. W. Edward Glenny and Darian R. Lockett (London: T&T Clark, 2023), 283. ↩︎
  5. Jeffrey E. Brickle, “The Memory of the Beloved Disciple: A Poetics of Johannine Memory,” in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz, ed. Tom Thatcher, Semeia Studies 78 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014), 196. ↩︎
  6. Further, “These terminological correspondences not only indicated John’s Synoptic-consciousness but also invited his readers to participate in a multilevel reading that dynamically compared and contrasted his account with the other three.” Brickle, “Memory,” 196. ↩︎

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