Goodies from The Biblical Canon

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.
(page 29)

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.
(page 35)

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.
(page 110)

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.”
(page 146)

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.
(page 221)

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).
(page 297)

Failure to mention an ancient source does not necessarily mean this source was either unknown of not viewed as authoritative by Irenaeus.
(page 301)

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.
(page 347)

“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.
(page 420)


  1. Kevin,

    Thanks much. As I recall, this book had some serious errors before that Mr. McDonald claimed were products of his editor, correct? Is this an updated edition?

    The last point is confusing to me; can you put it in some context or explain what you make of it?


  2. Hi Justin! You’re very welcome. I’ve mentioned McDonald’s The Biblical Canon before, in these three posts. These selections are from the currently available edition, not any new corrected edition, which may or may not happen. We’ll just have to wait and see about that. I’ve sent him a list of corrections I’ve found, for that eventuality, and some points for his consideration.

    Anyhow, the last quotation involves an observation about what the ancients would discuss when they would bring up issues of the Biblical canon. Only very occasionally does any discussion regarding inspiration appear. Most often, the issue discussed is that of authenticity, which directly relates to authority, and also correlates to orthodoxy. The criteria he lists as appearing in discussions for the formation of the New Testament canon, as observed in Ecclesiastical writers, are included in chapter 14, section II: Apostolicity, Orthodoxy, Antiquity, Use, Adaptability, and Inspiration. The first three categories may be seen to relate preceptions regarding the origins of the text, while the latter three regard later use of the text in its recognition as authoritative. That is, anything Apostolic will of course also be orthodox and ancient, and the use of the texts in later writers reflects their adaptability, seen as a continuously possible application which is held to directly represent the work of the Holy Spirit in making the texts eternally useful in the life of the Church. Yet the discussions in the Church Fathers themselves discuss those criteria in more or less descending order of frequency, with Apostolicity being the most commonly discussed criterion and Inspiration being the least commonly discussed. This is only based upon the precise discussions recorded, of course. As I indicated above, the entire set of criteria may also be viewed as more organically related, and less distinctly separated, particularly in the life of the Church.

    I hope that helps!

  3. Hi Matt,
    I wouldn’t think he does. That’s a tradition internal to the Orthodox Church, and not otherwise widely known, I think, particularly in the Protestant world.

    The life of St Simeon the God-receiver speaks to modern issues as well. For those who don’t know it, in Orthodox tradition St Simeon, who greeted the Lord on His presentation in the Temple (Luke 2.25 ff), was one of the Septuagint’s translators. When he came to the Hebrew passage in Isaiah 7.14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” he thought it would be more accurate to translate “Behold, a young woman shall conceive.” While he was writing, an angel appeared, corrected him, and told him that he would live to see this properly translated prophecy fulfilled in the birth of the Lord from a Virgin. So, tradition says, he was 360 years old when he finally was allowed to depart in peace, having at last seen the Lord and held him in his own hands!

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