Review of Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origins, Transmission, and Authority (Updated and Revised 3rd ed.; Hendrickson Publishers, 2007).  Pp. xli + 546. Paper, US$29.95.  ISBN 978-1-56563-925-6.


The Biblical Canon is the third revised version of McDonald’s earlier work: The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (1st ed., Abingdon, 1988; 2nd ed. Hendrickson, 1995).  Notwithstanding the change in title, the primary focus of this work remains the origins and canonical development of the Christian Bible (with particular emphasis on the New Testament).  This study is ambitious in its scope and voluminous in the range of material treated.  The book is divided into three sections.  In part one, McDonald introduces the basic questions he seeks to raise in this study regarding scripture and canon.  Part two is devoted to a thorough examination of these questions as they apply to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, while part three applies a similar approach to the New Testament.  A series of six appendices contain a wealth of helpful primary data (e.g., ancient canon lists).   

McDonald opens this study with what he calls “some tough questions about the Bible” (pp. 1-12).  By this locution, he refers to a basic set of questions focused on the larger issue of how the Bible became the Bible that we know.  How was this literature produced and why (and how) did it become part of an authoritative collection of sacred writings?  Why do the lists of books differ among different religious traditions?  Moreover, McDonald asks an additional set of questions rarely explicitly articulated in canon studies: which parts of the Bible are more representative of the “earliest strands of Christian faith” (p. 7)? What is the appropriate canonical text for current Christian worship and study (p. 8)?  In framing his study in this way, McDonald intends this work as a rigorous academic study of the biblical canon with implications for contemporary Christians.  

In the second and third chapters, McDonald seeks to define the critical terms “scripture” and “canon” and outline their origins and use in the various biblical worlds (i.e., ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity).  Building upon earlier studies, McDonald asserts that a particular writing was regarded as scripture when it “was acknowledged by a religious community to be divinely inspired and authoritative” (p. 23).  In this sense, writings become scripture before the emergence of any single collection of Scripture.  Moreover, this designation is locally determined.  Indeed, throughout this study, McDonald repeatedly observes the wide variance that prevailed in early Christian communities regarding which books (for both the Old and New Testaments) were regarded as scripture.    

Perhaps the most innovative part of this study is McDonald’s discussion of the origins of the idea of a canon in early Judaism and Christianity and the meaning of the term for the study of the formation of the Bible.  He argues that the Greco-Roman context provides the best setting for the ancient Jewish and Christian turn to canonization.  In particular, the Alexandrian grammarians’ delineation of precise models for grammar and literary style provides the context for the similar enterprise of identifying writings that serve as practical and theological guidelines for Jews and Christians (see especially pp. 44, 46).  McDonald then seeks to resolve one of the thorniest issues in contemporary canon studies: what does canon mean and when is the term appropriate when discussing biblical literature?  He adopts Gerald Sheppard’s notion of “canon 1” and “canon 2.”  The former term refers to the emergence of written or oral traditions that were regarded as authoritative pronouncements from God.  The latter term refers specifically to the standardization of a precisely defined collection of authoritative books.  McDonald sees “canon 1” as by far the more prevalent phenomenon in early Judaism and Christianity.             

The remainder of the book contains McDonald’s careful assessment of the origins of the scriptural writings and their movement from “canon 1” to “canon 2.”  McDonald’s survey of the ancient data and the modern scholarly discussion is encyclopedic in its scope and meticulous in its attention to detail.  For the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, he treats the following general issues: origin of the tripartite canon, the question of the Alexandrian canon, shape of the canon in the 1st century C.E., the Septuagint, the Qumran biblical manuscripts, the Samaritan Pentateuch, evidence for the 22 and 24 book canon in early Judaism, rabbinic discussions of canon, and the scriptures of Jesus and early Christianity.  For the New Testament, the following topics are addressed: the emergence of the written New Testament traditions, development of the idea of a New Testament canon and its stabilization, influence of heretics, importance of scribal and text-critical issues, citations of New Testament writings in the church fathers, and the question of what criteria early communities employed when identifying writings as scripture.   

The book does suffer from some deficiencies, however.  In a work of such length, one would like to see more economy of words and explanations.  Too often, McDonald retraces his steps and returns to discuss previously treated material.  For example, his discussion of 2 Macc 2:13-15 contains three references to Sid Leiman’s theory regarding Judah Maccabee’s role in collecting the Hagiographa—even citing the exact same passage from Leiman twice (pp. 85-87).  In addition, some sections seem to have escaped updating and thus reflect the state of scholarship at the time of the earlier editions.  For example, the discussion of the possible evidence for the tripartite canon in 4QMMT (pp. 90-93) contains no reference to recent scholarship on this question (indeed all the bibliography on this text is extremely outdated).  Finally, McDonald sometimes offers questionable assertions with little or no explanation.  Some are peripheral to the main arguments: For example, Christians were excluded from the synagogue because they did not support the Bar Kokhba revolt (p. 103), synagogues arose in the time of Josiah’s reform (p. 114 n. 1), or the existence of pesher interpretation in Marcion (p. 329).  Elsewhere, however, such oversights have greater implications.  For example, McDonald argues that the incompatibility of Mosaic law with the core message of the New Testament explains the minimal citations of the Pentateuch in the New Testament (as opposed to Isaiah and Psalms).  Yet, in the very list of citations provided, three Pentateuchal books follow Isaiah and Psalms as most often cited (p. 244).  Notwithstanding these reservations, this work is an invaluable resource for all students and scholars interested in the emergence of the biblical canon. 

Alex Jassen
University of Minnesota