Review: 'Creating the Canon' by Benjamin Laird and 'Scribes and … – The Gospel Coalition

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Some are disappointed to discover that canon studies has little to do with medieval-era siege weapons. (That would be cannon studies.) How our Bible came to be––a slightly less explosive topic––is more important for its enduring apologetic, pastoral, and personal significance.
Common objections to Christianity include arguments against the authority or coherence of the Bible. Within the church, the way we believe the Bible was formed will affect how we read it ourselves and the way we teach it to others.
Though canon formation can often fall through the trapdoor of technical minutiae or stall in a quagmire of qualifications, two recent books on the biblical canon can help those navigating this important aspect of biblical studies.
Benjamin Laird, associate professor of biblical studies at Liberty University, published Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy, and the Authority of the New Testament. Laird’s book focuses on questions about the formation of the New Testament.
John Meade is professor of Old Testament and Peter Gurry is associate professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary. They serve as codirectors of The Text and Canon. Together, they’ve authored Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible, which recounts the history of the whole biblical text.
Both books cover similar questions, with Laird’s book taking a narrower focus, but their approaches complement each other. Each of these volumes provides arguments that can strengthen a believer’s faith in the text God has provided for his church.
Despite the profound influence of the New Testament, a variety of questions related to its background and history remain common. Contemporary readers often find the subject of the canon’s origin and formation to be complicated and confusing, while scholars continue to struggle to find agreement about basic elements of the canon’s development. In this engaging study, Benjamin P. Laird explores several misunderstood, disputed, and overlooked topics in order to provide fresh insight and clarity about the canon’s creation and modern relevance.
In their broader scope of inquiry, Meade and Gurry present the historical sequence of the canon’s formation. This story can be challenging to recount because there’s no single, detailed record of the process. To reconstruct the story, historians must piece together a variety of evidence.
Meade and Gurry divide their work into three parts as they move from the basics of the copying of the text, through the reception and canonization of these biblical books among the believing community, to a concluding survey of the many early and varied Bible translations from the ancient world up until the modern era.
They begin with the question “Where did the alphabet come from?” After a series of similar and more expansive discussions, the book ends with an account of the explosion of contemporary English translations. The result is an accessible and coherent origin story for the biblical canon.
In contrast to the high-level overview of the whole canon in Scribes and Scripture, Laird’s Creating the Canon focuses on the question of New Testament formation. His approach is more overtly apologetic, as he seeks to answer the perpetual questions “Where did the New Testament come from?” and “Why can I trust it?”
Setting these books alongside one another and comparing them to other books on the topic, it’s apparent there’s a wide range of ways to cover canonization. Laird zooms in on a different subset of questions than Meade and Gurry, examining at length the meaning and coherence of concepts like “original autograph.” Laird also gives direct attention to the initial composition and theological authority of biblical texts, which Meade and Gurry reference but don’t consider extensively.
The approaches vary, but the quest to convince the questioning and inform the faithful is at the heart of both volumes.
Though the story isn’t new, a careful account of canon formation provides a starting point for countering problematic versions of this history. It serves to debunk myths that have accumulated, sometimes from within the church, and that are often parroted against Christians.
A careful account of canon formation provides a starting point for countering problematic versions of this history.
For example, there was no vote at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD or affirmation by Constantine that created the canon. This common cultural myth is undermined by a succinct overview of the development of a consensus among the churches. The canon wasn’t shaped by a specific individual’s mandate or through the will of an elite group of scholars. By the time of the Nicene Council, the shape and content of the biblical canon among the churches was, for the most part, old business. Both books tell this story well.
Though some Roman Catholics argue differently, Meade and Gurry show that the status of the Old Testament Apocrypha was hotly debated prior to the Reformation. Books like 1 and 2 Maccabees weren’t ejected from the canon by the reformers; they’d never been consistently included. On the contrary, correspondence and statements of key theologians reveal debate among both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities leading up to the formal proclamations at the Council of Trent.
These aren’t new challenges. However, the value of both volumes is that they tell the story of canonization clearly. Both books summarize large amounts of ever-growing research to provide accessible responses to these perennial questions.
Though the New Testament was composed centuries ago, recent resources allow contemporary scholars to flesh out existing accounts with newly available data. Research must also evolve to answer questions that arise from new cultural assumptions. For example, Laird pushes back against mistaken ideas that the New Testament books, mainly the epistles, were written like an email or a personal letter.
It probably wasn’t the case that Paul scribbled out Philemon in one sitting and immediately sent it to his friend. According to current research into ancient writing, biblical authors almost certainly employed scribes, letter carriers, and coauthors as they composed their narratives and letters. Laird also argues there were likely multiple physical versions of a given text. These may have been shared privately or with a smaller group before being copied or sent to others.
Most biblical authors would have written with a broad audience in mind rather than a limited group of people. The initial and subsequent audiences of these texts probably heard them read aloud in small and large group settings.
The Bible, therefore, isn’t a haphazard collection of individual correspondence that has been intercepted by those who were never meant to overhear these words. Instead, the inspired biblical authors used a variety of textual tools as they wrote from within the community of faith to the community of faith. These social and literary realities of the Bible’s origins inform our claims about the nature and authority of the text.
Amid many cultural storms, our cognitive anchor is the canon of Scripture. The church is a textual community with a vested interest in the shape and meaning of the Scriptures. This is why Christians must continue to study and rehearse the story of how the Bible came to be.
Amid many cultural storms, our cognitive anchor is the canon of Scripture.
Both Creating the Canon and Scribes and Scripture equip readers to reflect on the significance of this social and theological reality. Meade and Gurry show the reliability of biblical texts and the historical continuity of contemporary Christians with the earliest recipients of the biblical writings. Laird offers a complementary emphasis on the importance of apostolic authority for understanding the theological function of the canon.
No single treatment can cover the sprawling and interconnected web of topics required to tell the story of how the Bible came to be and why it matters. Written as they are with clear prose, updated research, and measured conclusions, these two works will serve the church well for years to come.
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Ched Spellman (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Cedarville University.
If we’re going to see young people transformed, we can’t keep them at arm’s length.


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