Below are some particularly striking excerpts from Lee Martin McDonald’s book, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson, 2007). I thought others might find them stimulating, too.
Just because a text was cited by a well-known church father, one cannot assume that the writing was a part of either his or others’ biblical canon. This was often misunderstood even in antiquity. Every citation or quote must be evaluated on its own merit before being added to someone’s biblical canon.
Evidence that the Prophets had not yet moved into a fixed-canon category by the late third century B.C.E. is seen in the translation of the LXX (ca. 280-250 B.C.E.), when the Law alone was translated into Greek. Had other OT writings been accepted as inviolable Scripture at that time, it seems likely that they too would have been part of that translation project. Later (ca. 150-130 B.C.E.), the Prophets circulated in a somewhat loose collection of Scriptures, as the prologue to Sirach suggests; and the Writings were circulating in a looser form until someone later in the second or first century B.C.E., when they are other religious texts were translated into Greek and added to the LXX.
In an old but still important contribution to canonical studies, Reuss (1891) claims correctly that the question of the biblical canon depends on a theory of inspiration that simply was not present or even an issue for the apostles and their immediate disciples.
De Jonge is certainly correct when he claims that “because Christians were convinced of the continuity in God’s revelation through the great figures of the ‘Old Testament” and through Jesus Christ and his apostles, the distinction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Christian’ was for them only of relative importance.”
The Apostolic Fathers, the closest Christian writings to the time of the NT, quote, refer, or allude to 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Esdras, and 1 Enoch—but not to the canonical books of Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Obadiah, Micah, or Haggai. This is important information for those who argue that Jesus’ canon could not have included the Apocrypha since he does not cite this literature. Does this argument also extend to the flip side and claim that Jesus did not accept Judges, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentation, Obadiah, Micah, or Haggai since he did not cite or quote them? Since the second-century churches were informed by more than the current Protestant OT canonical literature, this reaises the question whether today’s church should reconsider what literature informs its faith and witness.
Again, Irenaeus’s primary concern was to defend the Christian message, which was his “canon,” and he limited this message to the apostolic tradition resident in the church, which in turn was limited to (i.e., found in only) the primary literature of the second-century church (i.e., four NT Gospels and an imprecise collection of Paul’s Letters). . . . For Irenaeus, the apostolic witness was the primary determining principle for the recognition of the authority of the NT Scriptures (Haer. 3.2.2). He did not limit the succession of the apostolic witness, however, to the bishops at Rome alone (Haer. 3.3.2).
Failure to mention an ancient source does not necessarily mean this source was either unknown of not viewed as authoritative by Irenaeus.
This implies that the standard applied to pseudepigraphy was orthodoxy. If a particular writing fit theologically with what was acceptable to a particular Christian community, then the writing itself was acceptable, even though someone other than the author listed may have written it.
“While it is true that the Biblical authors were inspired by God, this does not mean that inspiration is a criterion of canonicity. A writing is not canonical because its author was inspired, but rather an author is considered to be inspired because what he has written is recognized as canonical, that is, is recognized as authoritative.” Inspiration was not a criterion by which a NT book was given the status of Scripture and later placed into a fixed biblical canon, but rather a corollary to its recognized status.