Wednesday, February 06, 2008

McDonald on the Biblical Canon

Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority ( Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007).

This book is the third edition of an earlier work entitled The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (1988, 1995). It has three sections, Part 1 deals with introductory issues, especially the notion and use of the terms ‘Scripture’ and ‘Canon’; Part 2 deals with the ‘Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Canon’ and Part 3 deals with ‘New Testament Canon’. Primary texts in English translation are cited abundantly throughout (and a number of appendices provide lists and catalogues of various canon lists). Broadly speaking McDonald argues that the OT canon was not fixed until at least the second century, and that the fixed and closed NT canon was formed during the fourth to the sixth centuries. To some extent the discussion and even some conclusions reflect the author’s own theological journey from a conservative theological starting point to the rather more open perspective which he now apparently adopts (I counted thirty question marks in his ‘final reflections’).

In such a wide-ranging work there are bound to be issues with which one might take a different view of how the evidence might be construed; especially on issues reflecting earlier appreciations of canonical reflection than McDonald’s schema allows, such as the date of the Muratorian Canon, or the reliability of Eusebius’ notes about earlier canonical information and reflection.

But it is interesting that an author on the canon can make so many mistakes in referring to manuscripts and textual criticism - and that these mistakes follow the general Tendenz of his overall programme. I noted the following:

1. on p. 262 he says: 'When the author of the Gospel of Thomas ends his work with the words "The Gospel according to Thomas", this is probably the oldest document actually claiming to be a gospel. But this mistakes the Coptic colophon from the fourth century Nag Hammadi codex as an authorial conclusion. On this basis we might as well say that the author of John entitled his own work as 'The Gospel according to John' because that is what is says in P66.

2. on p. 354 he says, firstly that Codex Vaticanus 'apparently intentionally omits the Pastoral Letters'' and then he complains that he editors of the NA27 'do not tell us that Hebrews is only partly included, that it is not currently where it was originally intended (the page numbers are out of sequence), or that a later scribe added both the conclusion of Hebrews and all of Revelation'. This is the sort of half-digested information, incorrectly summarised, which one dreads in under-graduate essays.

  • A manuscript doesn't do anything intentionally, although it may have things done to it by people. In this case, since Philemon is also missing (not mentioned by McDonald), it is perhaps more likely that the PEs and Philemon followed Hebrews in the original of Vaticanus, than that these were 'intentionally omitted' (by the compiler).
  • Nor of course can a manuscript have an original intention; the reference to the page numbers is presumably supposed to be a reference to the chapter ennumeration (not page numbers) in Vaticanus which presumably reflects a different place for Hebrews in an exemplar (#1-58: Romans, 1 & 2 Cor, Gal; then #70-93: Eph, Phil, Col, 1Th, 2 Th; then: #59-64: Hebrews) - in this situation it would seem to be completely intentional that the compiler of Vaticanus has shifted the place of Hebrews (which was always the most flexible item in the Pauline corpus).
  • Why he should complain that the NA27 doesn't give us full information relevant to the detailed contents of B he never explains. Of course, he may not have known where to look, since NA27 does include almost all of the information he thinks is lacking (p. 690 in my edition: 1 Tim to Philemon is lacking; Hebrews 9.14 to the end is lacking; Revelation is lacking).

3. on p. 357-8 and n.13 he argues (following Professor Ehrman) for considerable fluidity in the text of NT manuscripts into the third century. He then quotes Aland and Aland in support of this, when they said that ‘some 10 to 20 percent of the Greek manuscripts have preserved faithfully the different text types of their various exemplars’ (from Text, 70). But this is a gross misunderstanding of the argument made by Aland and Aland at this point, which is not at all to do with the early period, and is actually an argument in favour of faithful copying, since the Alands are talking about the later Byzantine-dominated period - in that period we still get 10 - 20 % of manuscripts preserving non-Byzantine text tyes.

4. on p. 382 on the subject of non-canonical Christian writings included in biblical manuscripts, he writes that ‘Codex Claromontanus, a bilingual Greek-Latin manuscript dating to the fifth-sixth century, includes Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul, and Revelation of Peter.’ This is very misleading. Claromontanus contains no such texts; except for a Latin canon list secondarily inserted into Claromontanus which lists, in addition to the NT documents, those three works, and also the Epistle of Barnabas.


  1. One wonders how such a work was ever published by Hendrickson.

  2. Thanks for the post, this was helpful. I have been meaning to pick up this book but have reservations now. Do you have a similar book that you would recommend instead of this one?

  3. I think Metzger's book on the Canon of the New Testament is useful as a resource of information. It doesn't address the issues raised in recent debate though.
    A useful book on the recent debates is The Canon Debate (edited by McDonald I believe). Others might have some advice on this.

  4. Yes, The Canon Debate was edited by McDonald and Sanders.

    Peter, is the edition you read the corrected reprint that came out just in the last couple of months? If it's the original printing, there are numerous errors that have been since cleared up. Whether such loose language as you mentioned was tightened up or not, I don't know. I've yet to receive a copy. See hereand here, particularly Lee's comments indicating editorial shenanigans.

  5. What is a "fixed" canon? What is it about the varieties of canons now in existence that makes one "fixed" in a way that is different than the varieties of canons (both Jewish and Christian) at any other age?

  6. "I think Metzger's book on the Canon of the New Testament is useful as a resource of information."

    For a basic reservoir of data, I would go with Westcott's NT Canon over Metzger's any day, and supplement it with Theron's Evidence of Tradition.

  7. Well, I'm glad it wasn't just me! I don't believe in "fixed" canons, almost any and every literary canon I can think of has proven itself to be something less than fixed as the community(s) change their canon. Christianity is no different as a religion with no fewer than 3 canons of Scripture currently, 2 of them quite ancient, and no agreement on order until the age of print.

  8. I think The Canon Debate a useful collection of essays, but plagued, as most discussions of canon in Judaism and Christianity are, with a lack of awareness of discussions of canon in other fields, even in the Greco-Roman world!

  9. Kevin,
    Thanks for that info. I guess it is pretty clear that Hendrickson must cut some corners to produce books fairly cheaply. I obviously have no idea whether or not these problems have been created or exarcebated by some incompetent editor. I suspect my copy was the first printing of 2007 as I have had it for six months or so. If these issues have already been fixed in a corrected reprint then let do anyone me know and I'll change the tone of the post.

  10. That's an interesting observation about the book. Can you recommend another book on the canon that is more sensitive to those types of comparative things? And what greco-roman canons do you think are important for that? Do you mainly mean Homer?

  11. Sorry, I needed an editor to help me spell "exacerbate".

  12. Eric,

    A) No, I can't recommend such a book, so far as I know none exists! There's a pamphlet by Nahum Sarna from the Library of Congress that discusses the Hebrew canon in a context of Assyrian and Egyptian canonical activity, but it is very little known, though inexpensive! I don't have it here, but will dig it out when I get home and post title details. But it is a short pamphlet, not as full a treatment as one would like.

    B) Mostly I would see canonical activity as a scribal and library practice, so for the Greco-Roman world Homer is certainly at the heart of things. But those librarians at Alexandria, and other places, made lists of the "canonical" authors of various genres: who are the epic poets to read, who the philosophers, etc. The Alexandrians are by far the most influential, but certainly not the only ones to do this. The Assyrians seem to have done such things as did the pre-Hellenic Egyptians, and the Persians. I think we should look that direction and when asking the question of how fixed the Christian or Hebrew canons are, look first to how fixed or how fluid those canons of epic poets are.

  13. A very well-informed little bird tells me to look for the corrected reprint in (perhaps) early March.