In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biblical Canon

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Primary Textual Sources
  • Old Testament Canonization
  • Old Testament Text Criticism
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls and Canon Formation
  • New Testament Canonization
  • New Testament Textual Criticism
  • Issues Related to Canon Formation
  • Translations and Canon Formation

Biblical Studies Biblical Canon
Lee Martin McDonald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0017


A biblical canon is the collection of books that comprise the sacred scriptures or Bibles of Jews and Christians. The study of canon formation, that is, the study of the origin, transmission, and recognition of the books that comprise the Bibles of Judaism and Christianity, has expanded considerably in recent years. Many books, articles, and essays have emerged that also raise new questions about the origin and canonization of the books that comprise the Jewish and Christian Bibles. These new studies are giving rise to questions that were once thought settled in most religious communities, especially those regarding the criteria employed to select the biblical books and the consistency with which those criteria were applied in the canonization processes. Likewise, these recent studies are focusing more on the social contexts that led both Jews and Christians to establish their biblical canons as well as on the literature that was excluded from those collections. These matters are complex and solutions are dependent upon the expertise of several fields of related inquiry, namely historical criticism and interpretation of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as knowledge of the so-called Intertestamental literature or the late Second Temple writings (apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books) and early Christian apocryphal texts, including the now famous Dead Sea Scrolls and other recent discoveries of the Judaean Desert. Scholars of canon formation also depend heavily on those with expertise in the fields of textual criticism, early church history, rabbinic Judaism, and linguistics. The following lists of books reflect the breadth of the fields of inquiry necessary to make informed judgments on the emergence of the canons of the Old and New Testaments and they also are an important place for students and scholars of canon formation to begin their investigations of this important field of inquiry.

General Overviews

The following sources focus on the origin and development of both testaments and tend to be more of an overview than some of the more specific books that examine the canonization of one of the testaments. Generally speaking, the volumes fall into one of two categories, namely, those that espouse an early formation of the biblical canons (before the time of Jesus for the Old Testament and mostly accomplished by the end of the 2nd century for the New Testament). Scholarship has been moving away from this traditional perspective toward a view that says there was no fixed Old Testament canon in the time of Jesus or before and the New Testament did not reach its final shape until the 4th and 5th centuries. Auwer and de Jonge 2003 provides an excellent collection of diverse positions on ancient biblical canons. Barton 1997a and Barton 1997b give a brief but valuable discussion of the most important issues related to canon formation that are often overlooked. Bruce 1988 presents the traditional perspective on both the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT) (the OT before the time of Jesus and the NT by the end of the 2nd century CE). Campenhausen 1972 presents the most informed arguments for ending the OT before the time of Jesus and the NT canon by the end of the 2nd century. McDonald 2009, McDonald 2017a, and McDonald 2017b argue the case against the traditional arguments for both testaments, arguing that the OT was not complete or finished until the 2nd to the 5th centuries CE. McDonald and Sanders 2002 gathers thirty-one articles on the formation of both testaments, highlighting the debates among scholars on these matters. McDonald 2009 focuses on the significant role that the ancient manuscripts tell about the formation of the Bible and concludes with a statement about canon formation and inspiration.

  • Auwer, J.-M., and H. J. de Jonge, eds. The Biblical Canons. BETL CLXIII. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003.

    This is an important collection of essays on the origin and formation of biblical canons. There are thirty-eight contributors to the volume; some of the most significant chapters for canon studies are those by Thomas Söding, Arie van der Kooij, Johan Lust, Eugene Ulrich, Johann Cook, John Barton, H. J. de Jonge, M. de Jonge, and J. Verheyden.

  • Bartholomew, Craig G., Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, eds. Canon and Biblical Interpretation. Scripture and Hermeneutics Series 7. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.

    This collection of essays focuses mostly on canon issues and the theological implications derived from them for both Old and New Testaments. The scholars come from a conservative tradition, and generally they define canon as an early function of the biblical literature and draw earlier conclusions on the dating of the biblical canon. Most notable contributions for canonical formation are from Brevard S. Childs, Denis Farkasfalvy, Christopher Seitz, and Stephen B. Chapman.

  • Barton, John. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997a.

    Introduces the complex subject of canon formation. Especially helpful in its exploration of the meaning of canon, the most significant issue that divides scholars and regularly leads to different conclusions. Barton also distinguishes between the notion of scripture and canon and deals carefully with the origins of both Old and New Testament canon formation as well as how the early church interpreted this literature after its sacredness was determined.

  • Barton, John. How the Bible Came to Be. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997b.

    This short digest of the canonical processes is useful and offers valuable information for the beginning student and nonspecialist. Although Barton’s view that all of the books of the Old and New Testaments were recognized as scripture by the end of the 2nd century CE is not defensible, the volume offers an excellent summary of the issues involved in canon formation.

  • Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988.

    Argues for an early completion of both processes and also for considerable unity on the matter among all Jews of the 1st century CE. Claims a 2nd-century date for the essential completion of most of the New Testament canon. Contains many useful references to ancient literature, and gives a careful assessment of most of those sources, but assumes that the early church answered 2nd-century heresy by constructing a biblical canon. This is similar to Campenhausen and Metzger.

  • Campenhausen, Hans von. The Formation of the Christian Bible. Translated by J. A. Baker. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.

    The classic text on canon formation of both testaments and while now dated in some areas, it describes and interprets valuable ancient sources related to the formation of the Bible. The author dates the NT canon largely to the end of the 2nd century CE and as a result of church responses to 2nd-century heresies (Marcionites, Gnostics, and Montanists).

  • Chapman, Stephen B. The Law and the Prophets: A Study in Old Testament Canon Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

    This new volume is a revised second edition of the author’s earlier Yale University dissertation (1998), published in 2000, and includes an update and assessment of much that has been published since then. It is carefully written and argues that the Hebrew Bible was finished before the time of Jesus and that the church’s Old Testament and its shape were determined earlier as well. Scholars will debate some of his more conservative conclusions, but they are articulated well and demonstrate careful research.

  • Coogan, Michael D., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Contains numerous essays on the origin and canonization of the Bible, writings not included in the Bible, and discussions of related literature, including historical introductions to the books that comprise the Old and New Testaments. Internationally known scholars who have previously made significant contributions to their topics write many of these articles. These two volumes are an appropriate starting place for canon research and the origin of the Bible. Many of the articles included are foundational and provide pivotal information for all current canon inquiry.

  • Gallagher, Edmon L. “The Old Testament ‘Apocrypha’ in Jerome’s Canonical Theory.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20 (2012): 213–233.

    DOI: 10.1353/earl.2012.0016

    An important contribution to the understanding of “apocrypha” in Jerome’s thinking in the 5th century.

  • Gallagher, Edmon L. “The Blood from Abel to Zechariah in the History of Interpretation.” NTS 60 (2014): 121–138.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688513000246

    This article goes against traditional understanding that when Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking about a complete collection of Hebrew scriptures. His arguments are compelling and future discussions of those New Testament passages used to argue for an earlier fixed Old Testament for the church are no longer convincing.

  • Hovhanessian, Vahan S., ed. The Canon of the Bible and the Apocrypha in the Churches of the East. Bible in the Christian Orthodox Tradition 2. New York: Peter Lang, 2012.

    A small but important collection of essays on the status of the formation of the Bible in Eastern churches, especially in regard to the use of the so-called apocryphal books in the Eastern Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In most canon studies, scholars regularly omit discussions of significant effects that the Eastern churches had on the shape of the Bible in their region.

  • Marsden, Richard, and E. Ann Matter, eds. The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2, From 600 to 1450. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Besides the forty-four contributors, Marsden writes the introduction to this 1,045 page volume that contains invaluable information on the formation of the Bible in the Medieval Period. It contains essays that focus Part 1: Texts and Versions; Part 2: Format and Transmission; Part 3: The Bible Interpreted; Part 4: The Bible in Use; Part 5: The Bible Transformed. The contributors present a lot of foundational material central to and necessary information on the development of the Bible in the medieval period.

  • Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199639557.001.0001

    The importance of Origen’s 3rd-century contributions to the move toward a biblical canon for the church is highlighted in this volume. Canon scholars are aware of Origen’s influence in the thinking of the later Eusebius and other Church Fathers who formed the biblical canons for the subsequent churches. Martens presents a compelling case for Origen’s exegetical efforts to present the church’s one compelling message in the scriptures and the fluid state of the not-yet-fixed biblical canon of the later church, though Origen was clearly aware of the diversity of opinion circulating in the churches in the 3rd century and openly welcomed several of the Deuterocanonical books in the Septuagint that were not in the Hebrew Scriptures.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin. Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2009.

    Few textual critical works on Old or New Testament address the significant text critical issues related to canon formation. This volume addresses those issues asking what precisely is in the ancient biblical manuscripts and what those variants suggest.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

    Deals both with the Old and the New Testament canon formation. Rejects the notion that the OT was completed by the time of Jesus, and also rejects notion that the NT canon was largely completed by the end of the 2nd century CE. Rather, the Old Testament canon emerges for the rabbinic Jews in the 2nd century CE and Christians by the 4th century, and the New Testament canon is largely completed by the middle to end of the 4th century CE.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin. The Formation of the Biblical Canon: The Old Testament, Its Authority and Canonicity. Vol. 1. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017a.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780567668790

    This volume is an expanded version of the third edition of the Old Testament portion of the earlier The Formation of the Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). It responds to earlier criticisms of the third edition, reinforces many of its earlier arguments for a later formation of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament canon, but also adds considerably on the earlier formation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the oral and memory transmissions of those texts, the relevance of the text critical analysis of those texts, and has a more detailed analysis of the third part of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim), and adds considerably to the lists of ancient canon catalogues that reflect on the actual Scriptures recognized by the communities in which those canon lists were found. Finally, this volume addresses the question of the role of the Old Testament Scriptures in establishing the identity of Jesus and how those Scriptures were first interpreted in the early church.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin. The Formation of the Biblical Canon: The New Testament, Its Authority and Canonicity. Vol. 2. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017b.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780567668790

    This volume is an expansion of the earlier The Formation of the Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) focusing on the formation of the New Testament canon of scriptures. It reinforces arguments for a later formation of the New Testament canon, namely the 4th and 5th centuries, but acknowledges that the matter was not settled for all Christians until considerably later. The discussion of the Muratorian Fragment is significantly expanded and responds to and refutes recent arguments for a 2nd century dating of that catalogue and contends that the evidence favors a late-4th- or early-5th-century dating of that document. There is a greater focus on the importance of textual criticism and the canonical text of the New Testament Scriptures for the church as well as the relevance of the surviving manuscripts of New Testament writings and their translation. The volume also responds to earlier criticisms of the 3rd edition and reflects on the transmission of the New Testament well into the pandect Bibles of the late medieval period. Finally, this volume responds to the recent argument that the New Testament writers were consciously aware of writing sacred Scripture when they wrote and dismisses that notion as anachronistic.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin, and James A. Sanders, eds. The Canon Debate. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

    A collection of articles by thirty-one biblical scholars dealing with a variety of issues, including matters of text and transmission as well as the rabbinic and early church influences on canon formation. The breadth of the subjects discussed and the perspectives that generally, though not completely, favor more flexibility in understanding the notion of fixed biblical canons in Antiquity are the strength of this volume.

  • Paget, James C., and Joachim Schaper, eds. The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to 600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139033671

    This is one of the most up-to-date collections of relevant articles on the formation of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, that employs some of the best scholars in the field of canon formation. Articles on the formation of both testaments and related issues, such as the artifacts of materials used in producing ancient manuscripts as well as early church use and recognition of religious texts as sacred scripture. Some of the articles reinforce earlier positions on canon formation and how noncanonical writings were viewed in Antiquity. This exhaustive volume of 979 pages focuses on Part 1: Languages, Writing Systems, and Book Production; Part 2: The Hebrew Bible and Old Testaments; Part 3: the New Testament; Part 4: Biblical Versions Other than the Hebrew and Greek; Part 5: The Reception of the Bible in the Post–New Testament Period. The contributors to this volume examine “Texts and Versions,” “Format and Transmission,” and the “Bible Interpreted,” the “Bible in Use,” and the “Bible Transformed.” Many of these articles discuss topics that are pivotally significant and foundational for understanding the history and development of the biblical canons of the Old and New Testaments. This volume is not to be ignored.

  • Riches, John, ed. The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 4, From 1750 to the Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    After Riches’s introduction to the volume, the essays include Part 1: Producing the Text, Part 2: New Modes of Study of the Bible; Part 3: Reception of the Bible Geographically; Part 4: Reception of the Bible Confessionally; and Part 5: Thematic Overview: Reception and Use of the Bible, 1750–2000. This volume focuses especially on modern receptions and interpretations of the Bible.

  • Rothschild, Clare K. The Muratorian Fragment, WUNT Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021.

    This new volume (520 pp.) will doubtless become the standard text on the origin and occasion of the Muratorian Fragment. She presents important and compelling new arguments for a late-4th- or early-5th-century dating of this canon list, noting that the only parallels to it are from that period, especially the relationship between Pius and Hermas, Miltiades as a heretic, and the naming of the “Cataphrygians” instead of “Montanists,” all of which only have parallels in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. This volume significantly expands her earlier article, “The Muratorian Fragment as Roman Fake,” NovT 60 (2018): 55–82.

  • Sanders, James A. Scripture in Its Historical Contexts. Vol. 1, Text, Canon, and Qumran. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 118. Edited by Craig A. Evans. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1628/978-3-16-155967-9

    The essays in this collection are largely rewritten in light of new research and include many excellent chapters with new additions that aid considerably in an understanding of the formation of the Hebrew Bible in light of the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This hefty new volume (548 pp.) is essential for understanding the formation of the Hebrew Bible and the church’s First Testament. Its volume 2 focuses on Exegesis, Hermeneutics, and Theology (2019).

  • van der Kooij, A., and K. van der Toorn, eds. Canonization and Decanonization: Papers Presented to the International Conference on the Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions (LISOR) Held at Leiden, 9–10 January 1997. SHR LXXXII. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

    An important collection of essays that highlights a number of aspects related to the canonization of the Bible with special attention given to the decanonization of writings that no longer garnered widespread acceptance in religious communities. Articles by J. Z. Smith on “Canons, Catalogues and Classics” as well as H. M. Vos on “The Canon as a Straitjacket,” and all of the articles in section are relevant to questions related to canon formation.

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