Making the Christian Bible

Written by John Barton Reviewed By Martin Davie

There can be no question that the issue of how the Christian Bible came to be put together is not one that engages the interest or attention of most Christians. Most Christians, it would seem, just accept the Bible as a given without enquiring as to the reason why and by whose decision it contains the books that it does.

This lack of interest in questions concerning the formation of the Biblical canon is somewhat surprising because this is a subject that ought to interest every thinking Christian, particularly those of an Evangelical persuasion. This is because if the traditional Christian claim, especially dear to Evangelicals, that the Biblical books carry God’s own authority, is to have plausibility, a convincing explanation has to be given as to why these books in particular should be seen as having this status.

The fact that Christians ought to be interested in the reasons for the formation of the Biblical canon means that they should be interested in the new book by John Barton. Barton, who is the Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford University, has written a number of technical books on the canon, and in this latest work he attempts to answer in a more popular way two key questions. First, how and when did the various books in the Bible come to be written? Second, how were they collected together to form the ‘Scriptures’ of the Old and New Testaments?

His answer to how the Biblical books were written is that while some of them, such as Paul’s letters or OT books such as Ruth or Jonah began life as books even in our sense, as the writing of one specific person with a message to impart’, many of them are composite works made up of disparate sources brought together over a long period of time. He also argues that the Biblical canon itself emerged over a long period of time and long usage was the key reason for books being considered as holy and therefore included in the canon: ‘… The date or authorship of the books, or both, were pleaded as reasons for sanctity. But in practice a perception that the books had been used since time immemorial was the real reason.’

Professor Barton’s book is extremely well written and easy to follow and can be highly recommended to anyone looking for a good introduction to a moderately critical view of the Bible and its composition. However, I would suggest that from an Evangelical point of view it has three important weaknesses.

1 Many of the critical opinions about the Biblical books which he puts forward, such as the composite nature of the Pentateuch and the book of Isaiah, the non-apostolic authorship of all four of the Gospels and their late date, and the pseudonymous character of some of the Epistles have been shown by Evangelical scholarship to have very serious weaknesses such that a more traditional approach is to be preferred.

2 He does not take note of the very strong case made by Roger Beckwith in his very important work The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (SPCK/Eerdmans 1985) that there was an established Jewish canon of Scripture in the first century corresponding to our OT that was taken over directly by the early Church.

3 He does not engage with the all important theological question about how the existence of the canonical scriptures forms part of the pattern of God’s self-revelation, or with the point made long ago by John Wenham that the Christian attitude to the Biblical canon is (or should be) rooted in Christ’s own acceptance of the OT as the word of God, and in the authority he gave to the Apostles.

Professor Barton’s book is therefore certainly a book worth reading, but, for the reasons I have just outlined, certainly not a book to be read uncritically or to be accepted without serious reservations.

Martin Davie