Thursday, October 18, 2018

Benjamin Laird Reviews Biblical Canon Lists in JETS

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Another review of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity has appeared. Benjamin Laird of Liberty University’s School of Divinity has reviewed it positively in the most recent issue of JETS (61.3; 2018: 617–9). In his introductory remarks, he notes the influx of publications on the biblical canon in the last quarter century but also that there is a paucity of works “designed to serve as a resource for those engaged in the study of the primary sources” (p. 617). In his estimation the book contributes to filling this lacuna, at least as far as the early canon lists are concerned.

Laird’s concluding remarks are positive but perhaps hint at some of his own disappointment with the book:
In sum, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity is a unique, well-written, and clearly presented volume that provides both students and scholars with a valuable resource for the study of the canonical history of the biblical writings. Gallagher and Meade are to be commended for producing a definitive and up-to-date study of the early canon lists in an accessible format. The value of the book is apparent in the fact that the greatest disappointment many readers may have is that it is not wider in scope (p. 619).
As a New Testament professor, Laird comments on the usefulness of the book as a guide to the extant canon lists but also notes:
It should be kept in mind, of course, that because the authors focus specifically on canonical lists, several witnesses to the early state of the biblical canon receive only limited attention or are not discussed. What might be known, for example, of the state of the NT canon from the testimony of several notable church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian receives only scant treatment given that their extant writings do not contain explicit reference  to the content of either the OT or NT in the form of a list (p. 618).
He also includes a comment on Marcion to the effect that since the field has given considerable treatment to him in recent years, the volume might have included more substantive treatment of him and what his writings (known from his critics) might contribute to our knowledge of the early NT canon.

Laird would have liked more treatment of biblical manuscripts than our chapter six provides. Specifically, he would have preferred more treatment of those early MSS that do not preserve the whole OT or NT such as P46.

I appreciate Laird’s overall positive review of our book. Two comments are in order. First, we do acknowledge our book’s limits on p. xv:
Lists are not the only means by which early Christians expressed themselves on the subject of the biblical canon. Scattered comments on individual books or groups of books pepper patristic literature. We have not seen fit to collect all these comments. Some authors of fundamental importance—Irenaeus of Lyons, or Clement of Alexandria, or Tertullian, for example—left behind nothing that could be considered a canon list, though any canon history would have to give serious attention to their statements and practice. They do not receive extended treatment here because their works transmit no canon list, a decision which demonstrates that this book is not a full canon history but a tool for such research.
Second, it’s interesting to me that James Walters’s review of our book in Reading Religion expressed confusion over the presence of a chapter on full biblical MSS in the book in the first place and Laird would have liked more comment on them. [UPDATE 10/18/18: see Walter’s tweet thread for a helpful correction to my understanding of his review]. The former didn’t see what contribution a chapter on full MSS made for the volume, while the latter thinks that such early MSS “often contain valuable insight into the early state of the NT canon” and would have wanted more.

It seems clear to me, then, that the opposing sides in the canon debate interpret the evidence of MSS for the formation of the NT canon very differently. For the one side, full biblical MSS may not tell us anything about the canon, and for the other side, they may grant valuable insight.

[UPDATE based on his thread: rather than Walters and Laird being on opposite ends of a spectrum, they would agree on the value of MSS for the history of the canon; Walters actually concludes that perhaps early MSS may be more important than the lists themselves, a point I’d like him to tease out for me in the future.]

In other news, I have contributed a chapter to Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry’s forthcoming Myths and Mistakes volume on this very question. But I don’t think I’ll let any cats out of their bags until the book is released. :-)

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