In late 2018 (in the UK), Christian Focus released my short book entitled How We Got the Bible. It is part of their “Christian Pocket Guides” series of books that target an educated layperson / pastor / student audience with accessible but still academically-rich content.
In this short volume (~107 pages), I try to distill down to the essentials the vast landscape of issues pertaining to how Scripture came together and made it to the present day church.
Why this book?
This is obviously not the first or only book like this on the market. In fact, I’m very much indebted to my mentors and colleagues Mike Kruger and Chuck Hill for their work on the subject (on the NT side). So why did I decide to add yet another book to the mix?
There are a few reasons:
- A lot of good work has been done on the NT side, but the issues have received relatively less attention (at least within the evangelical/Reformed world) on the OT side.
- Many books in the vein of “canon and text” are somewhat out of date or have not integrated recent research as robustly as they could.
- Many books also operate from faulty assumptions about what it is we are trying to study. Erroneous definitions of “canon” or “scripture” or “authoritative” lead to unclear or dubious results.
- Other than a few books like the classic by F.F. Bruce, very few try to integrate all the issues across both OT and NT—or they are extremely long and too technical to reach a large audience.
So my goal was to tackle all the relevant issues in a systematic fashion across both testaments and do so in a way that non-specialists can access.
Approach of the book
Though the book has five primary chapters, there are actually three questions driving it:
- What exactly is Scripture to begin with? And how does this relate to the questions of canon and text? (Chapter 1). This, for me, is the most important chapter, as it sets the roadmap for how to answer the other two questions.
- How did we get the books that are now deemed Scriptural? (Chapters 2 [OT] and 4 [NT]) These two chapters explore how the collection of books were ultimately recognized within the Jewish and Christian communities, and how that recognition process relates to the theory of “canon” and so forth.
- How did the words of these books make it to us today? (Chapters 3 [OT] and 5 [NT]) At the heart of these two chapters are the complex questions of how the actual words of these scriptural writings were passed down, and whether we have reasons to think that process was trustworthy.
One of the decisions I made at the outset of this book was to focus more or less entirely on primary sources. Though I am, of course, influenced by a lot of scholarship behind the scenes (the most important of which are included in the “Further Reading” section at the back), I wanted to direct the reader’s attention to ancient sources rather than intramural scholarly debates buried in footnotes. So the reader will see a lot of references to biblical and non-biblical sources (all of which are publicly available) as I attempt inductively to construct a global picture of the Jewish and Christian process of canonical reception and textual transmission. While I had to cut a few things here and there for page count purposes, my hope is that this volume, though short, will be a one-stop repository for all the relevant information needed (while minimizing the padding of a lot of footnote discussions about secondary sources).*
Wait…Didn’t this book already come out?
A few months ago, another book with nearly the same name did, indeed, get released by Zondervan: Know How We Got Our Bible, authored by Ryan Reeves and Chuck Hill.
It’s actually a kind of peculiar story. Though we are direct colleagues a few offices down from each other—and even co-teach some courses together—neither Chuck nor I knew we were independently working on a layperson’s guide to canon and text.
The good news is, however, that both volumes are less directly “competitive” than their titles might seem. The Reeves/Hill volume does include a discussion on the ancient period for both OT and NT, but the focus of the book falls on how we got the English Bible (e.g., Tyndale, Wycliffe, KJV, etc.). My book has very little on that topic but focuses almost entirely on the ancient Jewish/Christian period. So they ultimately are nicely complementary. So you should check out theirs too!
Connecting to the pew
Along with many others, I believe the reception of authoritative scriptural books, and the integrity of the transmission of the text of those books, is one of the key apologetic issues of our day. Most Christians want to know whether they can trust the book by which they understand the plan of God and salvation in Christ, but attacks on its integrity are constant from the secular world and the Islamic world (which I address in the book). My hope is that this volume will provide Christians who are struggling with these questions with a quality, academically-thorough, yet readable resource to answer them.
The book, in fact, emerges out of my own pastoral interests. At our church home in the UK and, more recently, at the church where I serve as associate pastor, I have taught seminars on the topic. It was only after teaching through it to my church families that I thought it might be helpful to turn it into a printed resource.
* My decision to go footnote-less was not an easy one, as I am usually quite footnote-happy. Often a book is condemned as non-scholarly if there aren’t footnotes—and often this is justified! My hope is that the reader who doubts the integrity of this book on these grounds alone can, if they need, consult my other publications, where my addiction to long footnotes is more than well-attested. It was actually for me quite the breath of fresh air to focus on primary sources (DSS, Josephus, Philo, Aristeas, church fathers, and the OT/NT) and see how those puzzle pieces can be fit together.