Lee M. McDonald's The Biblical Canon is the cumulative result of 25 years of research since writing a term paper and a thesis on the subject while at Harvard University in the early 1980s and then the Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon in 1995. In the preface he notes that his research has caused him to challenge his own unsubstantiated claims about the origins of the Bible (xv); early Christians had no notion of a closed biblical canon (xvi); the lxx was indeed the first Christian Bible (xvii); the expanded lxx of Alexandria was actually no different than the lxx elsewhere (xviii); the nt canon was not well formed by the end of the second century (xix), etc. McDonald predicts that our new knowledge of the canon will drive attempts to downplay the significance of or even change the current biblical canon (xxxi). Consistent with this sentiment, he boldly questions the inclusion of certain works like Ecclesiastes, Esther, Job, Song of Songs, 2 Peter, and others in the biblical canon (xxxi). Although from a conservative evangelical background, McDonald claims to have carried out his research without foregone conclusions (xxxii).
Chapter 1 (3-19) introduces difficult questions on canon studies. McDonald agrees that the present canon may be changed in principle but not practically (10), and notes that the earliest collections grew or shrank depending on the relevance of the writings (12). Even Paul "'decanonized' much of the OT's emphasis on the law" that was "deemed no longer relevant to Christian faith" (13). While the terms Old Testament and New Testament emerged in the second century, they were not commonly used until the fourth century (15). McDonald in chapter 2, "The Notion and Use of Scripture" (20-37), discusses the meaning of the term 'scripture' in secular and religious literature. Recognition of nt writings as Scripture was a "growing process" neither unanimous nor simultaneous among ancient churches (31). McDonald assumes 2 Peter was written around 120-150 or as late as 180, and argues that both Matthew's and Luke's redaction of Mark and Tatian's Diatessaron show that the Gospels were not initially received as unalterable Scripture (31-2). Hardly a trace of normative Scriptures in Israel is present until Josiah's reforms in 621 b.c.e., and when collections do appear, changes and deletions were common (33-5). Only the Law collection was fixed by the third century b.c.e., a loose collection of the Prophets by 150-130 b.c.e., and a fluid Writings collection some time later than that (35-6). Luke 24:44 implies the Writings category was not a well-known category in the first century c.e. (36).
In chapter 3, "The Notion and Use of Canon" (38-69), McDonald presents a historical sketch of biblical and non-biblical canons, continually noting lack of consensus among Jews regarding the ot canon and therefore concluding that the church "inherited from Judaism the notion of sacred Scripture, but not a closed canon of Scriptures" (55). Furthermore, only that literature that was perceived to have continuing adaptability and life was allowed to survive in the canon (63-8).
Part 2 (71-240) covers issues of the ot canon in chapters 4-8. Chapter 4, "Origins of the Hebrew Bible" (73-113), argues for the gradual acceptance of the three sections as Scripture: the Law by 400 b.c.e.; the Prophets by 200 b.c.e.; and the Writings by the second century c.e. McDonald dismisses the idea that Judas Maccabeus was responsible for canonizing the ot and also the argument that 'psalms' in Luke 24:44 refers to the Writings. Continuing his argument against a complete Hebrew biblical canon by the time of Jesus, he also dismisses the idea that 'Abel to Zechariah' (Luke 11:51; Matt 23:35) was an illusion to the first and last persons killed according to a canonical order of the Hebrew canon. He dismisses the idea that an Alexandrian canon accounts for the Christian acceptance of the deuterocanonical literature, and refutes the notion that Jude was not appealing to 1 Enoch as Scripture. In the end, it was Hillel who was responsible for the present scope of the Hebrew canon both by rejecting some works that the Essenes had accepted and accepting some that the Pharisees had rejected (113).
Chapter 5, "Early Jewish Scriptures" (114-49), contains information on the origin and use of the Greek ot, the Essenes and their scriptures, the Samaritan Bible, the Sadducees and their scriptures, and Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings. McDonald suggests the 25 works cited in the ot were "decanonized" due to the changing of script, inhospitable climate, and repeated ravages of the land (147-8), and that the eleven duplications in the ot indicate "textual fluidity prior to its stabilization" (149).
In chapter 6, "Stabilization of the Hebrew Bible" (150-69), McDonald discusses the earliest citations of a 22- and 24-book ot canon, boldly noting that "none of the lists that contain twenty-two books are the same in either Jewish or Christian sources" (169). Chapter 7, "Rabbinic Tradition (90-550 c.e.)" (170-89), argues that the ot canon "was not fixed because of a view that prophecy had ceased in Israel" (172), that "the so-called Council of Jamnia did not stabilize the canon of the hb/ot" (175), that the Rabbinic restriction of certain books (Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs) and acceptance of others (e.g. Sirach) show that even the Jews did not agree universally until later, and that the Aramaic Targums are too late to be of value in canonical determination. In short, "evidence in support of a clearly defined biblical canon in the first two centuries c.e. is not substantial" (189).
Chapter 8, "The Scriptures of Jesus and Early Christianity" (190-223), argues that the evidence cannot confirm that the only Scriptures acknowledged by Jesus were all the books of the hb/Protestant ot. According to McDonald, apparent biblical citations of nonbiblical literature show "the tenuous boundaries of sacred collections of Scriptures in the first century" (196). He offers the following in support: Mark 10:19 (of Sir 4:1), 2 Tim 2:19-20 (of Sir 17:26), Rom 1:24-23 (of Wis 14:22-31) and 5:12-21 (of Wis 2:23-24), 1 Cor 2:9 (of Ascension of Isaiah 11:34 or a lost Elijah Apocalypse derived from Isa 64:3), Jude 14 (of 1 En. 1:9), 2 Pet 2:4 and 3:6 (of 1 Enoch), Heb 1:3 (of Wis 7:25-26), James 4:5 (of an unknown "Scripture"), several parallels in the nt from Life of Adam and Eve and Apocalypse of Moses (195), and similar citations of such literature in the Apostolic Fathers. McDonald also argues that the early church (with the major exception of Rev 22:18-19) did not share the ot notion that the Scriptures were inviolable, and the early church fathers, church council decisions, and biblical codices all point to a late development of a fixed biblical canon. "The earliest Christian church was not canon conscious" (214), and ironically the current Protestant and Hebrew ot canon likely emerged from Babylon but was not widely circulated and known among Jews of the Diaspora until much later (223).
An excursus, "The Use of the Septuagint in the New Testament" (224-40) by R. Timothy McLay (St. Stephen's University) concludes McDonald's section on the ot canon. McLay argues that a bias in favor of the Hebrew text is wrongheaded and based on three (false) suppositions: (1) a Hebrew biblical canon in the first century c.e.; (2) the priority of the Hebrew text; and (3) the meaning of the Hebrew behind the Greek. McLay's intention is to show that the Hebrew Scriptures was not the sole matrix from which the nt writers developed their theological thinking and drew their citations. Rather, "a multiplicity of texts witnessed to the Scriptures in the first century" and authors "may have drawn upon any of them without distinction" (240). While most would agree with McLay's assessment, how can one tell if nt writers were separated from their Hebrew milieu as much as is claimed? It is certainly possible that the mt tradition pushed aside and even eliminated other Hebrew textual traditions, the echoes of which are now found only in the lxx. One example that begins McLay's excursus is Matthew's citation of Jonah 2:1 in Matt 12:40, which he says "demonstrates Matthew's dependence upon the Old Greek of Jonah" (225), yet I fail to see how this citation could not be from the Hebrew.
Chapter 9, "From Story to Scripture: Emergence of the New Testament Writings as Scripture" (243-84), begins McDonald's treatment of the nt canon. McDonald weaves the historical data to present a gradual process of canonization, first from oral tradition to written documents with regard to the Gospels, then the emergence of Paul's letters as authoritative, and finally the transformation from authoritative documents to Scripture. From many citations of the nt as Scripture in second-century church father, McDonald attempts to show "the tendency on the part of the second-century church to transfer the recognized authority of the teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels to the documents themselves, including the letters of Paul" (280). It is worth noting the logical leaps that McDonald is willing to take in his attempt to show that the four canonical Gospels were not the only ones accepted: "Even in the fourth century, when the four canonical Gospels were widely acknowledged in the majority of churches, we cannot say that only the four canonical Gospels and no others received recognition and acceptance in the churches, for some noncanonical gospels, acts, and letters continued to be read in several churches" (282-3). Such a statement is all too indicative of what one finds throughout the book, an apparent casting of doubt on what came to be the biblical canon based on the practices, in many instances, of a minority or of the scant resources that have survived. If the early church grew the fastest and was the strongest in Asia Minor, should not historical material from that area be given greater weight than material from elsewhere? Instead, evidence from Europe, North Africa, and Egypt, far from the bastion of the early church, are given equal and sometimes primary weight. McDonald agrees that authentic sayings of Jesus survived apart from the biblical record, even if only nine out of 266 instances may be reasonably authenticated (282-4). His question, though he does not answer it, is what to do with these noncanonical but true sayings of Jesus.
In chapter 10, "From Scripture to Canon: Tracing the Origins of the New Testament Canon" (285-322), McDonald focuses on the key figures who he believes helped stabilize the biblical canon. Justin is important for his reference to the church in Rome placing Christian literature alongside the ot for reading and imitation (289). Irenaeus's argument for four Gospels, McDonald argues, was not to limit the Gospels to four but rather to argue for the acceptance of John as a Gospel (294). Although Irenaeus is the first known person to use the terms Old Testament and New Testament, his contribution was mainly in appealing to written documents passed on by tradition as containing the rule of faith. The canon lists attributed to Origen are not his own, as some like Metzger argue, but rather creations by Eusebius and Rufinus (306-7). McDonald seems to agree that Eusebius had three categories (not two, so Kalin), and his first two categories make up the first known list of every nt book, no more, no less, so long as Origen's list in his Homilies on Joshua 7.1 be counted spurious. Diocletian's burning of sacred books, Constantine's call to uniformity, and the imperial decree to produce fifty sacred books all contributed to a more distinct determination and formation of the nt canon in the fourth century. Yet even then, McDonald claims, "The boundaries of the Christian biblical canon were in a state of flux for a considerable time in the church at large. Indeed, what was fixed in one segment of the church could still be under debate in another, and the church never agreed fully on the scope of its Bible" (322).
Chapter 11, "The Influence of Heretics" (323-49), discusses the influence Marcion and his followers, Gnostics, and Montanists (including Tertullian) had on the canonization process. Marcion is seen not as inventing a Christian corpus, but rather as mimicking an already existing tradition of collecting authoritative works (331). McDonald thinks that none of the major heresies indicates any interest in producing a biblical canon, and the church did not respond by producing a canon of Scripture (342).
McDonald in chapter 12, "Books, Texts, and Translations" (350-63), reflects on the art of writing, copying, and the codex on canon formation, including sections on textual criticism and translations. He doubts the authenticity of John 21 and Mark 16:9-20 (357), and relates that the variety in the books contained in various translations shows what books were considered canonical in respective areas of the church (361-2). Only which books to include was debated, not which text was most accurate (363), although some fathers did argue for preferred readings on occasion.
In chapter 13, "Collections and Citations of Christian Scriptures" (364-400), McDonald begins his history of canonical lists, which do not begin until Eusebius in the fourth century. He dismisses Marcion's and Valentinus's collections as not lists in the proper sense, and gives nine arguments against the second-century dating of the Muratorian Fragment in favor of a fourth-century date (369-78). Thus "the notion of a closed nt canon was not a second-century development in the early church and that there were still considerable differences of opinion about what should comprise that canon even in the fourth or fifth centuries" (383). Very helpful is the discussion on the major citations of each nt book by the early church fathers (384-99).
Chapter 14, "The Criteria Question" (401-21), discusses criteria the early church appears to have used in determining canonicity, namely, apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, use, and adaptability, while inspiration was not a criterion but rather a corollary to the received status that Scripture had attained (420).
In chapter 15, "Final Reflections" (422-29), McDonald asks the startling question whether or not the later closed canons were a Christian thing to do (426). If the earliest church even for the first few centuries saw no need for a closed canon, why should Christians now? Other perplexing questions McDonald poses include: Does a closed, written canon limit the inspiration of the Holy Spirit today? Does an inviolable canon legitimize things like slavery? If Jesus and his disciples were not limited to the ot Scriptures alone as authoritative, why should we not accept literature like the Apocrypha? If apostolicity was key to the early church, why does the church not reject writings it now knows were not written by apostles, such as 2 Peter, the Pastorals, and other nonapostolic nt literature? Likewise, if adaptability was key, why then should the church today be limited to the Scriptures that were only applicable to the church in the second to fifth centuries? While McDonald is quick to say he does not favor jettisoning the present canon, he does allow that documents that informed the authors of the ot and nt should also be allowed the privilege of informing us (428). Nevertheless, the questions he raises are only a logical consequence of his interpretation of the history of the biblical canon. Moreover, a sense of the inadequacy of the nt canon alone is perceived when McDonald states, "The documents we possess sufficiently inform the church of the core of the gospel'the good news of God in Jesus Christ. More important, they inform us that Jesus Christ alone is the true and final canon for the child of God (Matt 28:18)" (428). I may be wrong, but the impression is that while the canon is sufficient in the one object of presenting Jesus Christ, in all other matters of Christian practice, its old-fashioned boundaries need not limit us.
McDonald's book concludes with over 110 pages of appendices, including primary sources and questions, lists and catalogues of ot and nt collections, possible nt citations of and allusions to Apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings, a critique of Brevard Childs's canonical approach mainly in that he presupposes the intentional arrangement of the 27-book nt, a 45-page bibliography, and indexes of modern authors, names and subjects, and ancient and biblical sources.
To conclude, The Biblical Canon touches on most of the primary issues involved in the study of both the ot and nt canon. Despite the cautions mentioned above, McDonald should be commended for his work in compiling, presenting, and interpreting much information in a single work. While his conclusions certainly challenge many traditional notions of our Bible and how we got it, such challenges only force traditional-minded evangelicals to do more thorough research and offer sounder explanations if they wish to uphold certain aspects of their system, while perhaps other parts unnecessary to their system may be allowed to fall away. What seems certain, however, is that in McDonald's view the modern evangelical notion that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the written Word of God is no longer tenable.