The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity

Texts and Analysis

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Edmon L. Gallagher, John D. Meade
  • New York NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2018.
     384 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198792499.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This volume provides an accessible collection of “lists” of biblical books from early Christian and Jewish sources. The lists are provided in original texts (primarily Greek and Latin, though also one Syriac and one Rabbinic Aramaic) and also translation. Each list is also accompanied by a brief introduction as well as thorough notes on issues of translation and interpretation. As such, the editors have compiled a very useful collection of texts that will be of intrinsic interest and value to anyone who works on questions of canon formation in early Christianity (and to a lesser extent in early Judaism).

The introduction and first chapter serve as prolegomena to the volume. The introduction provides the editors’ rationale for what has been included in this volume and the first chapter offers a broad survey of scholarship regarding the formation of the canons of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Following this, there are four chapters that present the lists under examination, which, aside from a chapter on Jewish lists, are divided by linguistic tradition: chapter 3 on Greek Christian lists; chapter 4 on Latin Christian lists; and chapter 5 on the Syriac Christian list. An additional chapter provides the contents of several full Bible manuscripts from the first millennium for comparison with the other lists found in the volume. The editors have also included an appendix entitled “Antilegomena and the More Prominent Apocrypha,” which contains short encyclopedia-style entries on various apocryphal works (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas, Ben Sira, Acts of Paul) and some canonical works (e.g., Hebrews, Jude, Epistles of John), providing brief explanations for how these documents fit into the broader conversation of canon formation.

The texts and translations of lists, which also include brief introductions to the texts and, where applicable, discussions of problems with dating and interpretation, are quite useful. The editors show a broad knowledge of relevant primary and secondary literature, and generally speaking, the treatment of contentious issues (e.g., the dating of the Muratorian Fragment) is even-handed and diplomatic. In the case of the Muratorian Fragment, the editors even refrain from choosing a side on the 2nd-century vs. 4th-century origin in their discussion of the history of scholarship, though the careful reader will note that in the first chapter the Muratorian Fragment is generally supplied as evidence for “early” canonical status for various books. Indeed, throughout the first chapter, the editors generally seem to be concerned with providing positivist interpretations of the earliest evidence possible for the canonical status of the books that ultimately ended up in the New Testament canon, though much of this concern remains implicit in the ways the editors choose to engage and interpret the sources.

Aside from the lists themselves, scholars who study the history of the formation of the biblical canons will rightly wonder precisely what the editors mean by “canonical list” and thus what is included in this volume. The editors devote a few pages to their working definition of canon list in the introduction, which can be summarized with the following excerpt: “A canon list, then, should be a list of the books that an author or council considers to constitute the biblical canon” (xiii). The editors then immediately claim that this definition fits “most of the lists” in the volume, an admission that already clues the reader into the fact that some of the included lists may not necessarily meet these criteria. 

One entry that poses some problems for the editors’ definition is an excerpt from Josephus’s Against Apion in the “Jewish Lists” chapter wherein Josephus discusses the twenty-two books of the Hebrew canon. This excerpt is problematic primarily because it is not technically a list, insofar as Josephus does not actually name the twenty-two books. There is certainly broad consensus as to what Josephus’s list likely included, but the point remains that the contents of Josephus’s “list” must be supplied by the modern interpreter. As such, it can hardly be taken as an example of an ancient canonical list, given the fact that it fails to serve the fundamental purpose of listing the books. 

The inclusion of chapter 6 (“Selected Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Hebrew Manuscripts”), in which the editors provide lists and brief discussions of the contents from full Bible manuscripts dating from the first millennium is also an interesting methodological choice. Presumably, the authors have included this data for comparison with the other canon lists. However, by restricting themselves to only full Bible manuscripts (i.e., containing either the full Hebrew Bible, the full New Testament, or both), they have limited themselves to only a handful of manuscripts, many of which are relatively late. As the editors note, because of size restrictions, the vast majority of surviving biblical manuscripts were never intended to be full Bible manuscripts, so the “list” contents of these manuscripts are not broadly representative of the data provided by early manuscripts of biblical works. Thus, it remains unclear exactly how this chapter contributes to the volume.

With these concerns in mind, this book is a valuable compendium of sources and summaries of scholarship pertaining to the history of the formation of the biblical canons. In addition to texts and translations (most of which are taken from previous publications), the entries include convenient references to previous studies of each canon list included, so this book can serve as a valuable reference to students and researchers at all levels.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Edward Walters is Associate Professor of Religion at Rochester College.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edmon L. Gallagher is Associate Professor of Christian Scripture at Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama. He is the author of Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory (Brill, 2012).

John D. Meade is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona.

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