The Formation of the Bible (McDonald)


Lee M. McDonald, Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Church’s Canon

Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012

One of the things I just can’t stand is when the History Channel tries to cover anything involving religion. Like many media outlets these days, the History Channel uses controversy and shock value rather than serious investigation to attract viewers to its programs. This is not true every single time, I’ve seen a few decent programs, but it happens enough that I have just given up. The unfortunate truth about issues in the history of religions is that things have moved forward more often by ordinary, mundane processes rather than any tantalizing scandal or conspiracy.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code vividly depicts the Council of Nicaea as a chaotic shouting match in which several ‘Gospels’ were rejected. This may have been the first time many ever realized other ‘gospels’ were produced at all. What do we make of this? If not through some inane conspiracy, how did the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament get to its present form? What of these other ‘gospels’? These are questions about which Christians should have a basic understanding, and Lee McDonald’s book aims to help.

The Gist

Lee McDonald has spent the better part of his career researching and writing about the Biblical canon. But its unlikely many outside of the academic world would be interested in or even have the time for his 592 in-depth treatment of the issue. So he wrote a smaller, condensed book on the issue for a general audience. McDonald does not dumb-down the material, he just leaves out a lot of the minutiae, and sometimes what seems to be something that should require more clarification and discussion doesn’t get for the sake of a simpler presentation.

This book is not a narrative account, but it does tell the story of how the Bible came together. We find that the Bible did not come whole out of heaven, but rather took centuries to come together in its present form. (Even then, Christian groups have slightly different versions of their Old Testaments.) In fact most ancient communities made do with just a few texts of our present Bible. The idea of having all 66 books of the Bible together for individual use and reference is a modern phenomenon. We are quite lucky today.

McDonald is careful throughout the text to provide a little bit of wisdom from someone who has been studying these things his entire life. He wants to reassure everyone that this formational process and the existence of ‘Apocryphal’ or ‘Pseudepigraphal’ and other non-canonical religious literature are not threats to faith or critical problems with our Bibles. He does a good job at helping us make sense of what these things are, and what they are not. A large focus of the book is to give a sense of the credibility of our Bible without at the same time suggesting that there aren’t any problems or difficulties that surround it.

What Stuck

We had gone over this subject in seminary, but for whatever reason I did not fully realize the miracle that our modern Bibles are. We casually carry around with us some of the world’s oldest literature, which is remarkable by itself. But what is more remarkable is that Christian communities existed for 1500 years without complete Bibles in most places, certainly without copies available for every individual.

In that light what really struck me is the nature of our Biblical interpretation today. Right now I can go online and view hundreds of different translations in a variety of languages. I can access a version of the Greek and Hebrew texts—some websites even parse and define words for us lazy students. I can consult any number of commentaries and articles and encyclopedias on any particular issue or text I choose. That has not been the privilege of the church until very recently. Yet so many times we use this kind of access to develop unbelievably complex, and often idiosyncratic, views of faith.

I sometimes wonder if having fewer texts and resources to work with would not have made for a better faith. At least it would have forced Christians to rely more on their practice, their community, and their sacraments rather than their exegetical skills.

Memorable Quotes

…One can more easily understand the familiar reference to Jews, and subsequently to Christians, as the “people of the Book.” As we will see, in a practical sense we can also speak of the “Book of the people” since the Bible was written by human beings and translated, interpreted, and preserved by faithful persons used by God throughout the centuries. (18)

We should note that only in the Reformation era did Protestant Christians begin to reject the apocryphal books, while some continued to read them in worship as late as 1831. (20)

For the most part biblical writings were not initially accepted as sacred literature, that is, at the time when they were first written and circulated among the Jewish and Christian communities. That recognition of these writings as sacred often took a long time during which various communities of faith, both Jews and Christians, welcomed and made use of various portions of this literature in their worship and catechesis, or oral religious instruction. (21)

Generally speaking, scripture is (1) a written document (2) believed to have a divine origin that (3) communicates the will and truth of God for a believing community and (4) provides regulations for the corporate and individual life and conduct of a community of people. (36)

So we can say that the biblical canon was largely fixed for most Christians by no later than the fourth to the sixth centuries, but there was never complete agreement on the matter, and unanimity does not exist in churches today. (64)

New Testament writings and early church fathers do, however, contain many references to non-canonical literature, and often they refer to it explicitly as “Scripture.” For instance. . . . 2 Timothy 2:19 appears to cite Sirach 17.26 in conjunction with Numbers 16:5. It is also likely that Paul, in Romans 1:24-32 makes use of Wisdom 14.22-31 and in Romans 5:12-21 he apparently employs ideas present in Wisdom 2:23-24. . . . Jude 14 expressly cites the pseudepigraphal book 1 Enoch (1:9). (78-79)

Some of the writings that were earlier included in collections of Christian Scriptures were eventually deleted or dropped from circulation because they were either no longer considered relevant to the life and ministry of the merging churches, or they were no longer considered to be reliable witnesses to the story of Jesus. (91)

Even writings that were finally included in the church’s New Testament were initially disputed in some churches in the early part of the fourth century (namely Hebrews, James 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation), but eventually were more widely accepted. (92)

Because Christians base their faith, lifestyle, and hope in the Scriptures that they regularly read, they want to know if the texts deserve such trust. The answer, of course, is yes, but that does not meant hat we know everything that we would like to know about the original text of the Bible. What we do know is that the Bible is very clear on who God is, how one establishes a relationship with God, what God has done fro us in his Son, Jesus, and what the will of God is for our daily living. (135)

God is ultimately the true canon of faith for all believers to the extent that we are willing to submit ourselves to God’s authority. If the biblical canon continues to cal us to a life transforming faith, offers to us an identity as the people of God, offers hope in this life and the next, and provides guidance for living today, then it has continuing validity. (162)

As we have repeatedly affirmed in this book, it is not necessary to change the books and passages in the Bible in order to be informed by the same books that informed th faith of the earliest Christians. Those who read ancient books that are not in their Bibles often find gems that are useful and helpful in explaining other passages of canonical Scripture. (166)


I did not plan to write about this book, but I decided to take our church through a study of the subject and since I used this book as a guide I thought I may as well sketch it up. At first I think it was uncomfortable for some, myself included, to learn that the Bible didn’t come out of heaven in its final form, or that there weren’t formal councils in which everything was decided in a discerning and orderly way. But I have found that the rather organic development of the canon seems to actually give it more credibility.

Instead of some mythological story or the dubious attempt of a small number of people deciding on the canon for the rest of us, what we see is a long, slow process of a similar set of writings coming up over and over again as authoritative and trustworthy among geographically and theologically distant communities of Christians. This developmental story that involves human discernment and divine guidance together suggests a truer and more reliable way for God’s Word to come to its completion and continue to guide his people in faith. I hope you pick up this book and learn a little bit more about your Bible.

  2 comments for “The Formation of the Bible (McDonald)

  1. Stephen Weathers
    May 19, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    “What we do know is that the Bible is very clear on who God is…”

    What do you think about this point?

    • bpierce04a
      May 19, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      I think the author is making a point in reference to questions of original manuscripts and non-canonical literature, and in that sense I agree. I don’t think there’s anything essential that our Bibles do or don’t tell us about God that the original Greek/Hebrew manuscripts or non-canonical literature might offer. And in the broader context from where I pulled that quote I think that’s McDonald’s point.

      In general, however, we can certainly acknowledge that the Bible may not be as direct on this and a number of other issues as we wish. Reading the Bible as if it is cut & dry, black & white has had some negative consequences for the church. At the same time, this is not a new discovery. Jesus himself seems to have a very different way of interpreting the Torah than his Pharisaical counterparts.

      In the end I think with careful study, attention to hermeneutics and exegesis, that the Bible is consistent in its claims about the nature of God. But that’s a big claim that requires a lot of clarification itself!

      Since you raised the question, I suspect you might have some opinions yourself. I’d love to hear your perspective!

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