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The Canon – Part 3: The Letter to the Church in Laodicea

Von Christian

In the last video we saw that ‘the Bible’ itself, especially the books of the New Testament, do not contain any statement that it would be preserved completely intact and correct over the millennia. On the contrary, in the first century – and long after, as we will see – there was no finished, universally accepted canon of scripture. Rather, believers were asked, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, to examine all teachings and writings and letters to see if they were from God. And again and again the question comes up, who decided when and how which letters and writings should be included in the canon of Christian writings.

I would also like to emphasize that so far we have only used the Bible – exegetically, sola scriptura – and have come to this conclusion. And this will be confirmed in this part of the series.

The place of Laodicea will be familiar to many Bible readers as the site of an early church. If one is asked about a letter to the church in Laodicea, one might immediately think of this text:

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!

(Revelation 3:14,15 NIV)

We know the content of this ‘letter’ in that it is printed in Bible today as a part of the Bible book Revelation, whether it was addressed to the church in literal Laodicea, or whether that is to be understood symbolically.

In fact, this is not the only letter to the believers in Laodicea that we know of:

When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.

(Colossians 4:16 NASB 1995)

The letter to the Colossians is included in the Bible, but the letter to the church in Laodicea is not. According to the first verses in Colossians, ‘Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’ wrote the letter to the Colossians and thus also the aforementioned letter to the church in Laodicea.

This raises some interesting questions:

  • Why is the letter to the church in Colosse included in the Bible we have today and why is the one to the church in Laodicea not?
    Perhaps someone is thinking, “Well, it probably had about the same thing in it. Therefore, only one had to be handed down.”
    But that can’t be true, otherwise Paul wouldn’t have written that both letters were to be read aloud in both churches. You would have to get into such arguments that this would have served to confirm or repeat the thoughts.
  • So what was in the letter to the church at Laodicea that was not in the one to the Colossians, which is why Paul wanted both to be read aloud?
  • Why do we today, and everyone else from the last 2000 years or so, know only the one letter?
  • Was one more important than the other?
  • Did God or Jesus have only one planned for the Bible?
  • What role did the Holy Spirit and inspiration play in these letters?
  • How did it come to the compilation of the letters that are contained in the Bible today? So the canon of the ‘New Testament’?
  • Were there any more letters?

As to the last question, there are already hints in the textual witnesses that have come down to us:

Don’t be so easily shaken or alarmed by those who say that the day of the Lord has already begun. Don’t believe them, even if they claim to have had a spiritual vision, a revelation, or a letter supposedly from us.

(2. Thessalonians 2:2 NLT)

We had already dealt with this text in the last part. So already at that time letters were in circulation which allegedly contained statements of the apostles. Why else would Paul have written this:

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.
See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

(2. Thessalonians 3:17 NIV; Galatians 6:11 NIV)

Letters played an important role, as these texts show:

Therefore, brothers, stand firm and cling to the traditions we taught you, whether by speech or by letter.

(2. Thessalonians 2:15 BSB)

An example of this is the decision of the Jerusalem assembly on the subject of circumcision:

Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. … and sent them with this letter: The apostles and the elders, your brothers, To the brothers among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. … So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they assembled the congregation and delivered the letter.

(Acts 15:20,23,30 BSB)

So Paul and Barnabas not only came back with a verbal explanation, but they had a letter with them! I would have liked to read it as well. But it did not become part of the canon, although it was so important! So there were a lot of letters, but only a few are part of the canon. Besides the letter to the church in Laodicea, for example, we are missing this one:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— … But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

(1. Corinthians 5:9, 11 NIT)

Since this letter is called the 1st Corinthians letter in the Bible, we are missing the previous one. So the 1st Corinthians letter is actually already the 2nd Corinthians letter, and the 2nd the 3rd letter. At least.

But not only the apostles or the church in Jerusalem wrote letters:

Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to abstain from sexual relations.

(1. Corinthians 7:1 NLT)

So the congregations wrote some, too. And what significance should the letters have for the communities?

I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.
Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed.

(1. Thessalonians 5:27; 2. Thessalonians 3:14 NIV)

The goal was often to edify or even exhort the brothers and sisters:

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking.

(2. Peter 3:1 NIV)

Beloved, although I made every effort to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt it necessary to write and urge you to contend earnestly for the faith entrusted once for all to the saints.

(Judas 3 BSB)

So there were many letters for the churches in the first century, which were also considered very important. Why have not all of them been preserved?

At this point we have to consider the historical context. At first, there was only one original letter, the so-called autograph. This was to be read aloud. From this alone we can conclude that only a few in the community could read and write. The original of the letter could be read aloud again and again in the same congregation. But what about the others? At what point were copies made and passed on? Who did this and for what purpose?

As it turns out, the oral tradition was at first even more important than a written one. This is only too understandable. If I can ask an apostle directly, that is more important to me than a papyrus that supposedly comes from apostle so-and-so. It was about credibility and reliability. And copies were also not made with the intention of compiling a Bible. Both will be discussed in the following articles.

But let’s keep in mind: There are different explanations why we don’t know any letter of Laodicean (see Wikipedia letter of Laodicean). About the letter of Paul to the Corinthians before his letter, which we call the first one today, we know nothing at all. If God and Jesus as the head of the congregation planned the transmission of the letters very concretely and directed everything exactly, then this would mean the following:

  • Jesus wanted Paul to write at least two letters that we know existed from other letters. But these were not to be preserved.
  • So, did God and Jesus not pay further attention to these other letters or deliberately prevent their transmission?
  • But how would Jesus have achieved this? The letters did not disappear overnight.
  • How would he have influenced people to continue copying certain letters and not others?
  • Is it possible to prove that we know all the necessary letters today, but the Bible does not contain any letter that was warned against at that time?

Isn’t it interesting that just from these few clues from the surviving text, a little reflection can raise interesting questions that touch on our concept of what ‘the Bible’ is?

But what we can state purely from the text of today’s ‘Bible’ is this:

  • There were letters that are mentioned and were so important that they should be read aloud in other congregations.
  • There were letters sent to congregations, also to be read aloud, but we know nothing about them at all.
  • And these letters still have not become part of our ‘Bible’, that is, the canon of the New Testament.

Now, if someone says that God our Father and Jesus our Lord closely supervised the creation of the Bible, it means that they deliberately sorted out these letters that were important at that time.

Let’s also consider, at the end of this part, the assertion from the first part of this series. Do all parts of this sentence stand up to the facts?

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.”

I’ve been a bit strict now, and deleted the ‘any book’ part as well. Why? If someone thinks that every letter of an apostle can also be found in the Bible, then this is not true. And for that, you only need to read the letters that have been handed down yourself. The New Testament does not contain all the letters whose existence is known to us, and the question remains open as to why this is so. They could, after all, have been included in the canon at one time and then later taken out of it. We will see.

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