Whenever I speak on the origins of the New Testament canon, I am regularly asked about whether there are brief, accessible books on the subject—the kind that could be given to lay folks in the church. Unfortunately, my books on canon usually don’t qualify (e.g., Canon Revisited clocks in at over 300 pages).
For years, I have been asked to write a shorter version, but just haven’t had the time. Thankfully, others have stepped in to fill that gap. Let me mention two wonderful little books that have just come out in the last few years.
Just this year, Chuck Hill, professor emeritus of New Testament at RTS Orlando, has released, Who Chose the Books of the New Testament? (Lexham, 2022). This little volume is part of the Questions for Restless Minds series edited by D.A. Carson.
In 81 short pages, this book covers a lot of ground. It deals with the Walter Bauer-inspired idea that the canon is merely the result of politics and power, as well as the popular evangelical approach which argues that we can solve the canon problem merely by adopting so-called “criteria of canonicity.”
Instead of either of these approaches, this volume advocates a self-authenticating model of canon where these books, in some sense, imposed themselves on the church because of their distinctive qualities. Then, Chuck shows how the historical data supports this idea that the books were received naturally and early within the burgeoning Christian movement.
The other volume is A Christian’s Pocket Guide to How We Got the Bible (Christian Focus, 2018), by Greg Lanier, Associate Professor of New Testament at RTS Orlando.
In just 107 pages, this little volume also packs a punch. It approaches the origins of the canon in a very similar way as Chuck Hill above, but this volume offers two distinctives. For one, it also covers the OT canon—a subject which is quite complex and always needs attention.
And second, it also covers the issue of textual transmission. In other words, Lanier asks not only whether we have the right books, but also whether we have the right words. For those looking for a brief introduction to the issue of textual reliability, this is a good place to start.
Both of these little volumes are excellent pathways into the world of the biblical canon. If you are looking for something short and to the point—for yourself or for a friend—then you will want to get a hold of each of them.
Rodney Harvill says
Do you have any recommendations for a layman who has taken the time to learn biblical Greek and who is working on learning biblical hebrew? Not just for New Testament, but also Old Testament. For the record, I am most of the way through Eugene Ulrich’s book The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible. Dr. Ulrich brings up text differences in the Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch and various Qumran texts relative to the Masoretic text. While some of the differences are minor, such as orthography, some are more significant. He argues that this is indicative of scribes reworking texts to make them more relevant to their time, but I am not quite comfortable with this proposed explanation. When one is dealing with forensic evidence such as these different texts, there are often different possible explanations, but I am in no position to come up with any myself. What is available out there?
I hope this is not out of line for comments on this post, but the post serendipitously showed up as these questions were bouncing around my head.