The Johannine Split

If you were to walk into a bookstore or library with a section on the New Testament, and if you were to look for the books that discussed Luke, chances are you’d find a large number of volumes combining Luke and Acts under whatever topic. So “A Commentary on Luke-Acts,” “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” “The Spirit in Luke-Acts,” and so on. This is true also of NT Introductions, which often discuss Luke and Acts together. On one level this makes sense; Luke is the author of both books, the introduction to Acts calls it the second part of a two part work, and there are a myriad of linguistic, narrative, and theological points of continuity.

But on another level, the canonical one, it makes little sense. The fact is that John almost always comes at the end of the Fourfold Gospel corpus (see Metzger, The Canon of the NT, 296), and there are only three cases of Luke coming at the end, each of which are late (6th, 14th cents.) and regionally isolated.

Why don’t we follow the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT in our interpretive practice when discussing Acts? While I would not go so far as to say we should start having “John-Acts” monographs, we ought to consider seriously the fact that Luke almost never comes immediately before Acts in any of our available lists, codices, or MSS. The arrangement of material matters in interpretation, even on a canonical level, and John splitting Luke and Acts ought to give NT readers pause in how the interpret the NT exegetically, narratively, and theologically.

16 thoughts on “The Johannine Split

  1. Just curious Matt, but how would following “the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT” effect your interpretation of Acts? Any examples you can think of off hand?

    And you ask, “Why don’t we follow the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT in our interpretive practice when discussing Acts?” I guess I would reply, because while the order of the NT is logical, it is not inspired. I found it is helpful to consider Acts both as part of a two volume book by a single human author and as part of the larger canon inspired by God.

    • Josh,

      Thanks for these important questions.

      To the first, without diving into all the details, I would answer that John preceding Acts helps draw out some of the new creation themes in the latter book. John ends with Jesus as the new Adam in a Garden, breathing the breath of life into his own little Adams in the upper room (cf. Kostenberger on that); Acts begins with a commission to go into “all the earth” as little Adams, as the phrase “the Word of God increased and multiplied” makes even more explicit in Acts 6, 12, and 19.

      There are two aspects to the answer to your second question. First, the order of literary material makes a difference in reading strategy, no matter if we are dealing with the Bible or any other book. This is a general hermeneutic principle, and one that applies here as elsewhere. So in the example above, the order does not add anything to John or Acts, but instead highlights material already there.

      The second part of the answer to your second question is that although the order is not inspired, it does reflect the interpretive history of the church. Although we shouldn’t put that on the level of inspiration, we ought to take seriously the Spirit’s illumination of God’s people throughout the ages.

      • Thanks Matt for your replies. I trusted that you had thought these things through.

        Just for clarification: Are you arguing that the early church saw this connection between the end of Acts and the beginning of John and this was one of the reasons John precedes Acts in the NT canon? I am assuming you are just saying there is a canonical connection – in a similar way as we might say there is connection between the end of Matthew’s Gospel (the great commission) and then what we see happen in the books of Acts. My point is that I don’t think at the canonical level you need to have Acts after John to see connections anymore than you would need to have Acts after Matthew to see certain connections.

        One more aside before I get to what drew me to your initial post: Could someone make the case we should take seriously “the Spirit’s illumination” of the Church as a reason to favor the Christian ordering of the OT over the Hebrew ordering?

        I have been thinking back through this issue as I am reviewing Schreiner’s new BT for JETS. He uses the traditional Christian ordering for the OT and then uses a kind of eclectic division for the NT: he groups Matthew and Mark together, groups Luke-Acts together, and then puts John and his letters together, etc. He argues that there are many different legitimate ways to divide it up or, in more your words, he basically says there are many different legitimate reading strategies that all give a different angle which are all helpful for getting at the bigger picture. Any thoughts?

        Thanks Matt for your friendship.


      • Thanks for more great questions. To answer your OT question, no I don’t think the OT canon is exactly the same situation as what we get in the NT. For the OT authors, it appears that they intentionally linked their books, and particular groups of books, together using intertextual quotations and allusions. So we are talking about more than just a literary reading strategy; we’re talking about authorial intent. I’m still not willing to say the OT order is inspired, but those intertextual seams are, and so there is more to the OT order than there is in the NT (at least at this point in research; not saying there can’t be seams in the NT).

        To the NT canon – yes, in one sense Acts is a fitting sequel to all the Gospels, as I argued in my book. But John’s placement at the end has a literary impact, one which in my opinion emphasizes the new creation theme. I agree with Schreiner, and with your paraphrase, that different orders help us to see different emphases among the various corpora and individual books. I’m only attempting to take that conversation one step further and say that while there are many different orders, there may be one order that ought to be more prominent in our consideration because of the history of interpretation and current canonical order.

  2. Thanks again Matt! There is much we agree on! But, to the points you made in the first paragraph, wouldn’t we also want to say that Luke “intentionally linked” (to use the phrase you used of the OT authors) his books( Luke and Acts) which should lead us to a prioritize reading the two books together? There seems to be a tension which exists for, on the hand, arguing for the priority of the Hebrew ordering due to authors’ intent versus, on the other hand, arguing for the NT ordering of John-Acts as a more prominent reading strategy despite Luke’ authorial intent.

    • Good point, although what we have with Luke and Acts is not so much what in OT scholarship is referred to as “seams” as we do Luke writing Acts as an intended sequel to the story of Jesus. In that way I’d say Acts still serves its authorially intended sequential purpose, no matter which Gospel precedes it, and again we’re back to the fact that throughout church history John has overwhelmingly come in that position.

      • PS I also meant to mention that the tripartite order of the OT seems to be what is used by the Jesus and the NT authors, which lends more weight to it IMO.

  3. Well, I was thinking I should leave this here, but doesn’t Acts 1:1 seem to be referring specifically to the Gospel of Luke? So my point was, it seems Luke expects his readers to read Acts as the sequel to Luke. And while different than OT seams, your point concerning authorial intent would apply to both cases.

    • Right, it does refer to Luke. You have a point here. My only point continues to be that, even given Acts 1:1, the church has consistently separated the two with John. My interpretation of this history of interpretation is that the church has seen fit to understand Luke’s intent in Acts 1:1 not as an authorially intended stitch that therefore insists on Luke and Acts being read as a unit but instead as an indication that Acts is a sequel to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that fits after all the Gospels.

  4. Okay. Fair enough. I’ll leave it at that. Maybe we can discuss this further in person sometime soon. ETS? And, if we can’t get a winner from discussing, we can arm wrestle to determine a winner?

  5. I see that there has already been some good discussion here. Conversations such as these have to distinguish between the intent and effect of such ordering. The Hebrew Bible is a good example in that the “seams” that may between the Law, Prophets, and the Writings of the Masoretic tradition are not really commented upon in interpretive history and are not recognised in some other traditional orderings.

    My intuitions are that there are a number of reasons why certain books gravitate towards one another: compositional date, chronology, thematic, genre, etc. With John, I see it likely that the book’s genre and chronology is why it is placed where it is. And there are probably a number of effects that are then created.

    • Good point Luke, especially for NT discussions. We have little evidence or rationale for saying why, but can only ask “now, what effect?” I take pains to make that distinction in my book, but may have slipped over it here. Thanks for clarifying that.

      I still see the OT as a different animal though, especially taking into account editorial authorial intent and the testimony of Jesus and the apostles.

  6. Hey Matt,

    I too have always been fascinated by these canonical ordering questions. If I’m reading Metzger right, I think there is only 1 Greek Gospel ms that has the 4 Gospels and Luke at the end… 888 (XIV cent.; Mt-Jn-Mk-Lk)… but it doesn’t have Acts so it doesn’t actually put Luke-Acts b2b. And then there’s 594 with Luke last, but if I’m understanding Gregory (& the INTF) correctly, it only has Mt & Lk (not Mk or Jn… well, maybe Mk? not sure)… and again it doesn’t have Acts either… so we still end up with no Greek mss with Luke-Acts b2b. The VI century item is the canon list in 06, not an extant manuscript of the Gospels with Luke last.

    I find the lack of Luke-Acts b2b in the Grk mss fascinating, especially since there is one ms (743) that did a canonical re-ordering and just contains Jn, 123Jn, & Rev. Me thinks someone liked John. πŸ™‚

    Btw, so if we should read Acts in light of John, should we read the Catholics in light of Acts since that’s the order in most Greek mss? πŸ™‚

    Anyway. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for posting.

    P. S. Go Vols.

    • War Eagle. πŸ™‚

      Good question on the Catholic Epistles. D. C. Parker casts pretty heavy doubt on Trobisch’s and others’ claim that Acts – CE is the dominant order (although you’re the expert!).

      At the end of the day, Luke’s comments above are important – the question is not so much why or when but what effect? So, given the dominant order now (in the West at least), what’s the effect?

      • You know Tenn & Auburn play this season… but I’m not looking forward to it… πŸ™

        I’ll have to look at what Parker says. He’s the best of the best on mss. Maybe he was talking about early on?… I mean, P72 is more than just 1 Pet, 2 Pet, Jude… it’s got quite a few non-canonical things mixed in it. But in medieval mss, the order tended to be Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn), Acts, Catholics, Paul (with Hebrews last after Pastorals, but not always), and Rev (if included, which was rare). English Bibles follow the Latin order (NT), well OT too (based on LXX).

        Interesting thoughts on the canonical order though. I guess I’ve usually consider the order of books to be a secondary thing (along with chapter & verse breaks)… although the chapter & verse breaks can affect interpretation just as much.

        Interesting thoughts.

        GBO. πŸ™‚

Leave a Reply