Who Cares about How the Bible Came to Be? A Reflection on Two Recent Books


Who Cares about How the Bible Came to Be? 

If someone is interested in talking about canon studies, I would wager that they may be much less engaged when you clarify that you’re not speaking about medieval era siege weapons (that would be cannon studies). While less explosive, the question of how the Bible came to be has enduring apologetic, pastoral, and personal significance.

Many of the common objections to Christianity include arguments against the authority or coherence of the Bible. The way you think the Bible came to be will also impact the way you teach it to others and how you read it individually. Accordingly, there will always be both interest and urgency around this question of canon formation.

Though this topic can often fall through the trapdoor of technical minutiae or stall in a quagmire of qualifications, two recent books on the biblical canon have provided some navigational assistance for those traversing this rich terrain of biblical studies. 

Telling an Untold Story

Part of what complicates the task of telling the story of how the Bible came to be is that there is no detailed account of this process in the ancient world. In order to tell this untold story, a historian must piece together sometimes very different types of evidence.

One of the most effective ways to communicate these complex processes is to set them within a historical sequence. This is where John Meade and Peter Gurry excel in their recent book Scribes & Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible. The three parts of their work track this story from the copying of the text (part 1), the reception and canonization of these biblical books among the believing community (part 2), and the many early and varied translations of the Bible from the ancient world up until the modern era (part 3).

Meade and Gurry are scholars of the Old and New Testament text and canon, respectively, and their discussion reflects this expertise. For example, they begin with the question, “Where did the alphabet come from?” and end with an exploration of the explosion of contemporary English translations. The result is an accessible and coherent origin story for the biblical canon. 

Pursuing Canonical Catechesis

While a historical account of how the Bible came to be has considerable explanatory power, there are still lingering questions about specific turns on the winding road of canon formation. In his book Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy, and the Authority of the New Testament, New Testament scholar Ben Laird tackles several of these areas of inquiry. This volume is structured as an answer to a series of follow-up questions that are prompted by the orienting question, “Where did the New Testament come from?” 

Several of these issues relate to the story that Meade and Gurry tell, but many of them also ask pertinent prior questions. For example, Laird discusses the early manuscript evidence for biblical texts, but he also examines at length the meaning and coherence of the concept of an “original autograph” of a particular writing. In the opening and closing sections of his book, Laird also gives direct attention to the initial composition and theological authority of biblical texts (something included but not reflected upon extensively by Meade and Gurry).

Both volumes accomplish their own aims well, but together they complement each other’s distinctive areas of emphasis and omission. 

Historical Myth Busters

One of the functions of a comprehensive account of the canon formation process is that it provides a starting point for countering problematic alternative versions of this history.

Meade and Gurry, for instance, argue against the commonly held notion that the biblical canon was decided by vote at the council of Nicea with the authority of the Roman emperor Constantine behind it in 325 AD. The primary means they use to demonstrate that this was not the case is to provide a succinct overview of the general consensus that developed centuries earlier among the churches apart from the mandate of any individual or group. 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.” 

They also clarify misconceptions about later periods like the lead up to the Reformation era. One might think that the Roman Catholic Church had a settled stance on the Old Testament Apocrypha (books like 1–2 Maccabees). On the contrary, Gurry and Meade show that in the correspondence and statements of key theologians there were debates and disagreement among both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities leading up to the formal decisions at the Council of Trent (which pronounced the Apocrypha to be “deuterocanonical”).

Timely Updates to an Ancient Story

A vexing issue that plagues popular treatments of the biblical canon is the distance between a revised scholarly consensus on one hand and accessible articulations of this research on the other. This is one of the key culprits in misleading accounts and one that Meade, Gurry, and Laird are able to avoid. Both books by necessity simplify and summarize large swaths of data, but they do so with a careful method and within the parameters of the available evidence. 

An example of this is the widespread belief that biblical authors wrote their books or letters in the same way we might send a personal note or email today (a single individual composing a message in one sitting and sending it once to another person or group). In Laird’s discussion of NT writings, he clarifies each of these components of the writing process with recently established research. Biblical authors almost certainly utilized scribes, letter carriers, and co-authors as they composed their narratives and letters. There were also likely multiple physical versions of an author’s writing that may have been shared privately or with a smaller group before it was ready to be copied or sent to others. Most biblical authors, too, would have written with a broad audience in mind rather than a limited group of people. The initial and subsequent “readers” of these texts likely also heard them read aloud in small and large group settings. 

The Bible is therefore not 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 can enhance our understanding of how written texts were produced and also inform our claims about how the biblical collections formed.

The Church as a Textual Community

At this point, we can raise a practical question: Why would the Christian community need to study and rehearse this story of how the Bible came to be? How could this kind of hard work be relevant to churches facing pressing challenges in today’s world? 

Perhaps the most direct answer to this question is that the Christian church is a textual community that has a vested interest in the shape and meaning of the Scriptures. Both of the works considered here equip readers to reflect on the significance of this social and theological reality. Meade and Gurry show the reliability of biblical texts and the profound historical continuity that the believing community has with the earliest recipients of the biblical writings. A complementary feature of Laird’s work is his strong concluding emphasis on the importance of apostolic authority for understanding the theological function of the NT canon.

No single treatment can cover the sprawling and interconnected web of topics that are required in order 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 believing community well for a long time. 

Book Review
August 16, 2023


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