Since the sixteenth century, when Protestants and Roman Catholics debated the extent of the Old Testament, there have been no changes in the shape of the Christian Bible. Protestants and Catholics still differ over the Old Testament Apocrypha; they remain in agreement on the content of the New Testament. And yet, the Canon continues to stir up intense scholarly discussion. A number of the historical and theological issues keep this subject on the front lines of biblical and theological study.

New Discoveries

Actually, history gives us little explicit information about how the Bible was formed, which in itself constitutes a challenge for ongoing re-evaluation of the available evidence. In addition, midtwentieth-century archeological discoveries in the Middle East have greatly augmented the available data. In 1945 a collection of Coptic gnostic documents was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt that provided our single most important source of direct knowledge of Gnosticism and has refocused attention on the development of the New Testament canon. Study of the Old Testament canon received similar encouragement with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and the years that followed.

It should be stressed that the evidence from these discoveries has only indirect bearing on the development of the Canon: nowhere do the Dead Sea Scrolls provide us with a list of the writings accepted as canonical by the Qumran community; neither do the Nag Hammadi materials define a gnostic “Bible.” Thus, scholars are forced to draw inferences—with more or less success—from the fragmentary data. For example, the only Old Testament book not represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls is Esther. Does this indicate, as some scholars believe, that Esther was not regarded as canonical at Qumran, or is its omission merely an accident of history?

These materials generated much early excitement and occasionally some wild speculation—such as the author who predicted “a massive series of changes regarding the shape and content of the Bible.” While the sifting of these materials is still unfinished, such revolutionary predictions are unrealistic.

The Apocrypha

The status of the Apocrypha remains at the center of canonical debate. Since the Reformation, Protestants have argued that the Apocrypha should not be included in the Old Testament because Jesus and the apostles recognized only the more restricted 22 (or 24-) book canon of later rabbinic Judaism. This understanding has been challenged by A. C. Sundberg, Jr., in his monograph The Old Testament of the Early Church (Harvard University Press, 1964).

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The author argued that in Judaism prior to A.D. 90, only the first two sections of the Canon, “the Law” and “the Prophets,” were closed. The third section of the Canon, “the Writings,” had not been finalized; the Jews in both Palestine and Alexandria freely employed a wide range of literature without definite boundaries. After A.D. 70, Judaism and Christianity separated and independently completed the process of canonization. As a result, no appeals can be made to later rabbinic statements or to the practice of Jesus and the apostles to justify the Christian canon of the Old Testament—there are no historical antecedents upon which to ground the church’s decision.

The implications here are serious. If the traditional argument is faulty, we must agree with Sundberg that for Protestants the alternative is either to return to a pre-Reformation stance (implying acceptance of the canonical status of the Apocrypha) or to develop a new (nonhistorical) apologetic for the more restricted Canon.

A number of Protestant scholars have followed Sundberg in endorsing the Apocrypha. With publishers such as Doubleday (Anchor Bible Commentary) and Fortress (Hermeneia) committed to publishing complete commentaries on the Apocrypha, and with increased ecumenical concern for a common Bible, we may expect that Sundberg’s arguments will find increasing acceptance.

For a detailed treatment of this issue, see Roger Beckwith’s magisterial work, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Eerdmans, 1985).

Orthodoxy And Heresy

Another important question in recent literature is the rise of “orthodoxy” in the early church. The crucial work here is Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, which first appeared in German in 1934 but received a new lease on life with the publication of an English translation by Fortress Press in 1971. Bauer contested the traditional understandings of “orthodoxy” as that which was original to Christianity and “heresy” as that which was secondary and deviant. Rather, “orthodoxy,” claimed Bauer, was merely the tag given to the winners of the theological and political battles of the early church. Because of this, Bauer asserted that in some areas the original manifestation of Christianity would later be judged heretical by the orthodox.

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This thesis represents a powerful and sweeping historical reconstruction, which, if accepted, has profound implications for our understanding of the nature and formation of the New Testament canon. Because the New Testament is understood as a production of the “orthodox” party, it follows that the very notion of a canon—or at least this particular canon—must be as secondary as “orthodoxy” itself. The door is then open to discover some other approach to Christian origins (other than a canonical one) that better accords with the spirit of original Christianity.

There can be little doubt that part of the widespread appeal of Bauer’s work is attributable to the current infatuation with theological pluralism. In a day when many theologians wish to make way for the widest possible doctrinal diversity in the church, it is attractive to think that earliest Christianity was perhaps as pluralistic as the present and that one need not opt for an authoritative Canon to be authentically Christian.

Canonical Pseudepigraphy

The third historical issue is the problem of pseudonymity in the biblical Canon. Higher critical scholarship has long held that the authors of various canonical works deliberately misrepresented their identity in an effort to gain a hearing for their message. Books like Daniel, “Second Isaiah,” the Pastoral Letters, and 2 Peter are among those more commonly seen as pseudonymous. Conservative scholars have widely rejected the notion of biblical pseudonymity, believing that this is incompatible with an affirmation of the truthfulness of the Canon.

This issue has taken on fresh importance with the publication of David Meade’s Pseudonymity and Canon. Meade, an evangelical New Testament scholar, accepts the presence of pseudonymous writings in Scripture and seeks to reconcile this with the idea of an authoritative Canon. The key, he says, is found in the interplay of the ideas of revelation and tradition in Old Testament and intertestamental literature and, in turn, their relation to authorship and authority. Meade concludes that “… for many if not most of the Jewish and Christian religious writings which we examined, both inside and outside the ‘canon,’ the discovery of pseudonymous origins or anonymous redaction in no way prejudices either the inspiration or the canonicity of the work. Attribution, in the context of the Canon, must be primarily regarded as a statement (or assertion) of authoritative tradition.”

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Meade’s views have received a prestigious endorsement in Prof. Bruce M. Metzger’s important new release, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1987). However, many conservative evangelicals (myself included) will judge that Meade has too easily accepted the presence of pseudonymity in the Canon and at the same time underestimated the seriousness of the tension between these two ideas. However, his contribution, like that of Brevard Childs (see below), raises important questions about the role of the believing community in the canonical process that will set part of the agenda for continuing study and debate.

The Canon Within The Canon

Modern treatments of the Canon that fall more clearly, though not exclusively, on the theological side frequently discuss the problem of “a canon within the Canon.” The early formulation of this problem is often associated with the name of Johann Semler (1725–91), called by some the founder of the historical-critical study of the New Testament. His four-volume Treatise on the Free Investigation of the Canon (1771–75) was a sharp attack on the orthodox doctrine of Scripture.

Semler objected to the equation of “Scripture” with “Word of God”: not all that is contained in the Bible is the Word of God. The Canon as a whole was therefore rejected in favor of an inner core of truth that had abiding validity. To detect this core one would need some standard, or “canon,” for the biblical canon: Semler wished to retain whatever contributed to moral improvement. The problem here is one of subjectivism: How does one identify this inner canon and how is it to be applied to the biblical materials?

Modern historical-critical scholarship continues to accept Semler’s presuppositions and, as might be expected, has failed to reach any consensus on the shape or content of the inner canon. For some, the inner canon is the oldest proclamation (kerygma) of the early church; for others, it is the justification of the ungodly; for still others, it is the person and teaching of the “historical” Jesus.

Recent scholarship has emphasized strongly the alleged disunity of Scripture. For example, Ernst Kaesemann argues in a frequently quoted article that “… the variability of the primitive Christian kerygma … is already so wide even in the New Testament that we are compelled to admit the existence of not merely significant tensions, but, not infrequently, of irreconcilable theological contradictions.”

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James Dunn, in his influential book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Westminster, 1977), follows the lead of Kaesemann: “… the New Testament is not a homogeneous collection of neatly complementary writings,” because “… the apostles did not all preach the same message and disagreed strongly on several important points.” In spite of this diversity, Dunn says there is still a unity in the New Testament, a canon within the Canon, which is the biblical witness to “the historical actuality of the Jesus who himself constitutes the unifying center of Christianity.”

Dunn’s work is wide-ranging, learned, and stimulating. And we must certainly acknowledge a great deal of diversity of thought and language among the various biblical writers. Yet it is imperative to distinguish complementarity from contradiction. The former suggests that there are multiple perspectives in the Canon that together constitute the full biblical picture; the latter suggests that the different perspectives compete with one another in such a way that if one is true, another is not.

Evangelicals cannot sacrifice the unity of the Canon on the altar of diversity without endangering the whole structure of evangelical theology. And we must not be diverted by Dunn’s remark that all Christians employ a canon within the Canon. It is true that all interpreters have certain organizing principles for correlating the biblical data. But this is far different from denying that all of Scripture is the Word of God.

Canon Criticism

Yale University professor Brevard Childs responds to the prevailing rationalism of modern biblical scholarship in a series of publications: Biblical Theology in Crisis (Fortress, 1979); The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Fortress, 1984); Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Fortress, 1986). Often linked with another Old Testament scholar, James Sanders, as a proponent of “Canon criticism,” Childs actually dislikes the term, and the two approach questions quite differently. Sanders maintains substantial continuity with the traditional historical-critical treatment of the Old Testament, whereas Childs’s work represents much more of a challenge to rationalistic criticism—“an attempt to dispose of the Enlightenment, to destroy its values and drive out its way of dealing with biblical materials,” as James Barr has charged.

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Childs, of course, claims that he does not reject the Enlightenment and its critical research; however, he believes that historical criticism has not provided an adequate method for doing biblical theology. The atomistic approach of the critics has failed to do justice to the biblical Canon as the proper context for theologizing. Childs rejects the idea of the canon within the Canon on the ground that the Scripture as a whole must be the starting point for any exegesis.

There is much here that is valuable. Childs’s warnings about the effects of historical-critical methodology are important for evangelicals to hear. His emphasis on the unity of the Canon is also to be appreciated. The nagging problem in Childs’s work from a conservative evangelical perspective is his neo-orthodox understanding of revelation, which, at the end of the day, prevents him from simply identifying Scripture with the divine Word.

Further Reading

The following selection of books was compiled and annotated by David Meade.

The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, by Roger Beckwith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985). A massive work by a conservative scholar writing on the Old Testament at the time of Jesus, this book argues for a single, closed Canon in this period.

Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, by D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986). This is a collection of articles by noted evangelicals. See especially David Dunbar’s essay on the Canon.

The Formation of the New Testament Canon, by William R. Farmer and Dennis M. Farkasfalvy (New York: Paulist, 1983). This book presents two very different essays, one by a liberal Protestant and the other by a Roman Catholic. Farkasfalvy (O. Cist.) gives an important counterbalance to von Campenhausen’s views, tracing the roots of the New Testament canon back to Jesus.

The New Testament Canon, Its Making and Meaning, by Harry Y. Gamble (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985). This is the best short introduction (95 pp.) to the history and issues of the New Testament canon, written from a moderate theological perspective.

The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, by R. L. Harris (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969). This book is written using a conservative fundamentalist treatment and, as such, rejects most modern methods and findings.

The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance, by Bruce M. Metzger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Metzger, who is one of the foremost New Testament scholars of this century, offers a balanced treatment of canonical scholarship. This book is highly recommended.

David G. Dunbar is president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

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