The Biblical Canon Lists, Book Review

Title: The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis
Author: Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2017
Price: $46.95 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 337
In this volume, Edmon Gallagher and John Meade provide a valuable resource for those studying the formation and reception of the biblical canon by collecting and contextualizing “canon lists” from the first four centuries of early Christianity. They define a canon list as a “list of books that an author or council considers to constitute the biblical canon” (xii).

For each major list, Gallagher and Meade include an orientation to the historical occasion of the list, the text of the list in its original language, an English translation of the list, and a series of footnotes where they flag points of interest, outline scholarly discussions, and provide analysis of specific textual details.

After a survey of the field of canon studies, they include Jewish lists (from Josephus and Baba Bathra 14b), Greek Christian lists (like Melito of Sardis, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nazianzus), Latin Christian lists (like the Muratorian Fragment, Codex Claromontanus, and Hilary of Poitiers), and a Syriac Christian List (the St Catherine’s Monastery Syriac list). They conclude with a selection of lists drawn from Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Hebrew manuscripts that include the full contents of the biblical canon and an appendix that describes significant writings that were disputed in the history of the formation of the canon (like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas).

When considering the story of canon formation, there are many types of evidence and data that must be considered (e.g., manuscripts, citations, patterns of use). However, Meade and Gallagher argue that canon lists provide a strategic window into the canon formation process because “in most cases,” these lists “unambiguously report what the compilers of the lists considered to belong to the biblical canon” (xiv). Consequently, “they bear an undeniable importance in the history of the canon” for more than other “types of data, the lists directly inform us of the books considered canonical in early Christianity” (xiv).

While they recognize the limits of what canon lists can explain, Gallagher and Meade maintain that neglecting this type of evidence would be a clear mistake. Their volume itself illustrates this dynamic, as it includes a lengthy preliminary section discussing the necessary definitional question of canon and other relevant methodological issues that help clarify the role that canon lists play in the formation of the biblical canon (78 pages).

 In their original literary setting, several of the lists mentioned are in the form of discussions, homilies, or commentaries (e.g., Josephus’ “list,” the Muratorian Fragment, or Origen’s Homilies on Joshua 7). As this volume showcases both explicitly and implicitly, then, considerable interpretive work is required both to access and assess these writings/documents.

By having these important lists classified, categorized, and contextualized, readers will be able to note both the continuity and discontinuity of their contents but also of their form and literary setting. The inclusion of a chapter on manuscripts also communicates the way the canon lists relate to the broader constellation of physical evidence that helps us tell the story of how the canon came to be. In sum, as a tool for research on the biblical canon, this volume succeeds and will serve students and scholars for many years.

Also in SWJT, forthcoming.
Book Review
October 11, 2019


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