Scripture and Its Interpretation

A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible


6. From Books to Library: The Formation of the Biblical Canons

Reviewing the Chapter

  1. What are some possible interpretations of the word “canon” as applied to the Bible?
  2. What was the nature of the Jewish canon in the late Second Temple period?
  3. What were some of the major developments among Christian leaders in the understanding of the Old Testament canon in the second, third, and fourth centuries?
  4. What sorts of categories of early Christian writings did some church leaders propose as they tried to decide which books were in or out of the canon?
  5. According to this chapter, what is the traditional view of the rise of the New Testament canon? How does this chapter challenge that view, and what role does scriptural interpretation (hermeneutics) play in the question of the development of the New Testament canon?
  6. In early Christianity, which books seem to have been part of a “stable core” within the emerging New Testament canon, and which books were part of the more debated “fringe”?
  7. What are some of the major developments in the transition from a stable core to a closed New Testament canon?

Engaging a Central Issue

Respond to the following claim Michael Holmes makes in this chapter (p. 129):

If by the late second century there was as yet no formal canon in the sense of a closed collection of Scriptures, there were, without question, emerging proto-canons, different groupings of authoritative writings by which different strands of the Christian movement defined themselves—virtually always, it would seem, in conjunction with a hermeneutical [interpretive] perspective that decisively and distinctly shaped their interpretation. Each strand offered its own take on what it meant to be a Christian, its own perspective on what the essence of Christianity was, and this was often accompanied by a different view of which writings counted as Scripture.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Is the canon of Scripture a list of authoritative books, an authoritative list of books, or perhaps an authoritative list of authoritative books?
  2. Is the canon of Scripture intrinsically authoritative, or does its authority derive from something outside of itself?
  3. How important is it to the church (or a church) to have a formal closed canon of Scripture?
  4. Suppose a genuine but previously unknown letter written by Paul were to be discovered. Should it be added to the NT canon? On what basis should the decision be made? And by whom?