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Biblical Canon Lists: A New Book

February 28, 2018

There is a recently-published valuable resource for study of the formation of the Christian biblical canons:  Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity:  Texts and Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2017).  The publisher’s online catalog description is here.

The authors’ primary purpose is to lay before readers a collection of early evidence about what writings were treated as part of a canon, focusing on evidence of the first four centuries.  So, the main part of the book is given to setting out this evidence:  Jewish canon lists (chap 2), Greek Christian canon lists (chap. 3), Latin Christian lists (chap. 4), the Syriac Christian list (chap. 5), and a discussion of the writings included in selected Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Hebrew Manuscripts (chap. 6).  An Appendix gives brief information on a number of other writings that are mentioned in early sources but did not get included in either Jewish or (some) Christian canons.

The major benefit of this book is that, for each list included, the authors give a brief introduction, and the actual text in the original language and with an English translation, plus copious notes.  In one handy volume, you have pretty much all the key evidence, which makes this volume a unique contribution.

The authors don’t aim to plead any particular case about the many disputed questions involved in the formation of the Christian canons (and there are more than one).  But the first chapter is a 56-page review and analysis of the questions, with copious citation of the scholarly literature.  The citations  and bibliography are impressively up to date, with works published as recently as 2016.

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  1. Thanks for the good review of this book Larry. It is a superb volume and both young scholars are planning on extending their focus well into the Medieval period and eventually well into the modern era. I have profited from their research in my recent volumes. I know both men well and Ed was kind enough to add clarity in some of the lists in my work. While we do not agree on some of the details, they are most kind to those with whom they disagree and I applaud their sensitivity toward fellow scholars and their gentle spirits. I think their work here will the the standard on canon lists for years to come. Thanks also for mentioning The Canon Debate volume! —Lee Martin McDonald

  2. George Bot permalink

    I am interested in finding out why the advice of biblical scholars like Oecolampadius, Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Bodenstein of Karlstadt and Cardinal Cajetan on what constituted the New Testament canon, hence what was inspired and thus should be considered scripture, was not followed by Christians. It would be marvellous if the book elaborates on why their views were rejected by Christians

    • First, the book is about the early canon lists from the 4th century and earlier. Second, it’s about the early canon lists, from the 4th century and earlier. Got it?

      • George Bot permalink

        Then why does the New Testament canon lists from 4th century and earlier differ from the great biblical scholars like Oecolampadius, Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Bodenstein of Karlstadt and Cardinal Cajetan. Who s list is correct , after all, we do hold the above mentioned scholars to high esteem .

      • George: The question isn’t who’s right. The authors of the book don’t plead for any particular version of canon. They’ve given resources with which others can engage the question. Let it go. Or take it somewhere else.

  3. Robert Mathiesen permalink

    There also exist authoritative canon lists, not the same as the Greek, Latin and Syriac ones, in Old Armenian (grabar), Old Ethiopic (ge’ez) and Old Chiurch Slavonic. They have been published; it’s a pity they weren’t included. Their inclusion would have made it easier to understand the history behind the Greek and Latin ones.

    • The authors mention these other lines of canon discussion, and indicate that they focus on the main Western and Eastern traditions.

  4. Griffin permalink

    This is an interesting and important subject: which ancient writings made it into the Bible, the Canon, and which did not. And where and when the winnowing or editorial process took place.

    What would be the best books on this subject? Including some of the more speculative ones.

    Interestingly, it seems this process continues to this very day. Many (seven) books in the Catholic bible were taken out by Protestants. And though Catholic bibles today include them, I’ve heard they are recently calling them “apocryphal,” as Protestants have long done.

    A survey or update that goes up to the present day would be useful, therefore.

    • The “Canon Lists” book gives the ancient evidence of canon-formation. The books that form the “Deutero-canonical” writings in the Roman Catholic Bibles were not always part of the Christian canon, but were made canon only in the Council of Trent.
      The major resource book reviewing issues: Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002)

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