Autumn Seminar: Why These Books? Intro to OT and NT Canon

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 10.30.44 PMChrist Church Cambridge is hosting a variety of seminars (see full listing) this autumn, covering a range of biblical and church-related topics. I am leading a 4-week series covering how and why we consider the biblical books authoritative for faith and practice. Specifically, we will be covering the following questions, among others:

  1. What exactly is canon, and why does it matter?
  2. Who “picked” the books (if anyone), and on what grounds?
  3. Who decided we needed a canon in the first place, and who “closed” it?
  4. Why are some books considered part of the biblical canon and not others?
  5. Why do the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches have different canons?
  6. What are we to make of all the other works that are roughly contemporaneous with the OT/NT but which were not received as canonical?
  7. How can we know we have accurate copies of the right books?

The seminar audios and handouts for each class will be posted below as they become available. If you would like the full set of teaching notes, feel free to email me.

Audio and Outlines

Apologies that the audio is not the best quality.

(9/16) Introduction to canon: What is canon, why does it matter? How does covenant relate to canon? Did the authors of the biblical books know what they were doing? Audio Handout
(9/23) Old Testament Canon: How did the “Hebrew Bible” emerge? What do we make of the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls? Audio Handout
(9/30) New Testament Canon (Part A): Standard extrinsic model (criteria of canon); Reformed self-authenticating model Audio Handout
(10/7) New Testament Canon (Part B): Do we have accurate copies of the canonical books? What do we make of the apocryphal gospels and other non-canonical works in the NT era? Audio* Handout

* Apologies that this audio only represents the last 30 minutes of the session (on apocryphal gospels). I forgot to turn on the recorder for the first hour (on textual transmission).

Further Resources

5 thoughts on “Autumn Seminar: Why These Books? Intro to OT and NT Canon”

  1. Follow-up to Session 1:
    Near the end of the recording, one of the attendees asks for more clarification regarding the relationship between apostolic consciousness (which I push pretty hard in part 3 of the talk) and canonicity. In sum, he asked why the NT author’s internal awareness that he was writing with some measure of authority has any bearing on whether that writing ultimately “made it into the canon,” so to speak. That is, even if the author did know he was writing with authority, doesn’t that still mean he would be surprised that LATER Christians were still using that writing?

    I followed up with the chap via email but thought I’d post my reply here, too, as my answer during the seminar was not altogether coherent.


    Presumably Paul or Mark or any of the NT authors physically wrote down other documents: receipts for purchases, grocery lists, letters to their mothers, whatever. Just because those writings were penned by an apostle (or someone in the apostolic circle, e.g., Luke) does not *in itself* render them canonical. (We’ll get to this in the 3rd class in more detail). We would only consider those writings in which the apostolic author saw himself as writing in an authoritative way for the church as candidates for canonicity (and only those).

    In other words, the reason why apostolic consciousness is so important is that such a phenomenon forms the ultimate dividing line within *that writer’s* own writings, distinguishing (a) that which they were producing as part of executing their calling to be the “foundation” of the church (Eph 2:20) from (b) that which they were producing simply as educated adults who wrote stuff down. When the writer saw himself in mode (a), in which he was fulfilling his calling to be an apostle in transmitting the new covenant / gospel / teachings of Christ in written form to the church Christ founded upon the apostles, THEN he was by definition writing something that would necessarily be recognized by the church — under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — as “canonical.”

    Hence, if Paul wrote, say, a 14th letter (e.g., the missing letter to Corinth), one option to help answer the question “Why don’t we have that letter in our canon?” could be that he wrote that missing letter under a different mode than he wrote 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Perhaps it was “just” a letter, not an binding letter written *as an apostle who was exercising the direct authority of Jesus Christ*. Not everything Paul said or wrote was done as an authorized emissary of the Lord; but when he was in fact exercising that office, THEN it bore that authority. Given the Jewish (and early Christian) understanding of how covenant documentation worked, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Paul et. al. would have suspected that what they were writing AS EMISSARIES OF CHRIST (e.g., in that mode) would have formed part of the collection of authoritative documentation of the New Covenant (=”canon” by our definition). It appears, at least, that Peter viewed Paul’s writings that way in 2 Peter, and Paul in 1 Tim 5 quotes both the OT and Luke equally with the formula “For the Scripture says…”

    That’s why I wanted to demonstrate via piling on the evidence that across nearly all the NT writings and representing nearly all the authors, we have explicit positive affirmation that they were writing these works under the mode of an authorized apostle speaking the “word of Christ,” not just human opinions. Granted, we don’t have such comments in all the letters, but the evidence we do have is quite strong.

  2. Follow up to session 2:
    Given that I possibly left folks a bit confused on the issue of the “other” books given my rushed discussion of them, I thought I’d send out links to a few posts I’ve made that give a brief and ordinary-Joe focused summary. In particular I’d draw your attention to the sections at the end of each post (“Connecting to the pew”) where I try to answer the question, “What does this have to do with me today?” I was glad we got into that some tonight, but hopefully these resources will be beneficial to those who want to dig deeper.

    — The best place to start is here: The Early Church Bookshelf (, which discusses a bit more about apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and loads more relating to all the religious writings that were around at the time of Jesus and the early church.

    — For more on the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT from around 250-150 BC), see The Septuagint: The KJV of the Ancient World (

    — And for the Dead Sea Scrolls, see the start of a series of posts at

  3. Follow up to session 3:
    Great to be with you all again last night. I was encouraged by our discussion, and I hope the group exercise helped to give you a tangible sense for some of the issues surrounding the NT canon discussion. Though I didn’t get to spend to much time on it, I hope the main practical takeaway resonated: namely, that we have both good historical evidence as well as theological reasons for believing that Jesus’ sheep have indeed heard his voice (John 10:27)—that is, that the church he established has recognized and received the writings he authorized through his apostolic circle to be the “new covenant” book (alongside the “old covenant” book, of course).

    I thought I’d send out a link to a very helpful series of short blog posts by one of the leading scholars on NT canon today, “Ten Basic Facts About the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize” ( You’ll see that a lot of our themes are emphasized in this series as well as a few others that we haven’t been able to cover. If you are hungry for more after that, I refer you to a second series of posts, “10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon” (, which deals with some of the topics we’ve discussed as well (what is “canon,” did the authors think they were writing scripture, etc.).

    Some folks asked afterwards about the “other” books that were listed on the table on page 3 of the handout, such as Shepherd of Hermas and Didache. In addition, some folks may be interested in looking into the writings of many of the “church fathers” I mentioned (Origen, Irenaeus, et. al). As a preview to next week, if you are interested in looking into those works, check out this site:

  4. Follow up to session 4:
    As before, I thought I’d follow up with a few extra links for further reading, if you are interested. Also, I’ve posted an updated handout (with answers filled in and a bit more data) and audio to the webpage for the seminar.

    Textual transmission and manuscripts

    Apocryphal Gospels and other NT pseudepigrapha

    • The Biggest Lost Sheep — a post I wrote about about one particular story in Gospel of Thomas (parable of the lost sheep) that gives you a sense of the difference between Thomas and the canonical gospels
    • Harry Potter Jesus — a summary of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the boy wizard version of Jesus
    • Not Being Mary’s Baby’s Daddy — a reflection I wrote on the Protevangelium of James (another apocryphal work I didn’t mention tonight), in which I attempt to demonstrate how we can find some helpful things in these writings if we use them carefully
    • As mentioned before, information about any of the non-canonical works can be found here: Be aware, however, that the compiler of these files takes a pretty aggressive stance on the dates of many of these (i.e., pushing them earlier than most scholars would support), and the links included to various introductions to these works can be a mixed bag (some more liberal, some more conservative). But at a minimum you can find links to translations of the texts.

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