Study Resources for the New Testament Canon

On this page, we will offer multiple recommendations of books that are useful for the reader concerning the canon of the New Testament. We have two major categories, on the NT canon itself and on excluded books. Within each entries are ordered by author last name.

Formation of the Canon

David Dungan, Constantine's Bible

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Dungan's given us an accessible look at the role of Constantine in the history of Christianity. Was he the Darth Vader who created Christianity? Far from it -- his role was more like that of an Ann Landers.

Perhaps Constantine's most important act was a passive one. Sources like Dan Brown say he collated the New Testament and essentially determined the canon. Dungan says at most, Constantine put a close to canon development by ordering that 50 copies of the New Testament be made; and once that happened, who would dare add or subtract from what was copied? Constantine placed the order, but there's no sign he filled out the purchase request. He ordered the copies, not the content.

Beyond this, Dungan offers a primer on the formation of the NT canon; I didn't find a great deal that was new, but it's still an excellent source.

Excluded Books

Stephen Carlson, The Gospel Hoax

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Make sure you see the subtitle before you mistake it for a Tony Bushby title: "Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark". Not many gave Secret Mark much credence in the first place, and those that did always had to treat it differently than the canonical Gospels. Some even raised the suggestion that Smith had forged the work. In this book Carlson handily makes the case for Secret Mark being "marked down" as Morton Smith's little inside joke on the academy.

Some points made by Carlson -- an attorney -- are more convincing than others. I found especially solid his points that the alleged Clementine letter that Secret Mark is quoted in [55] doesn't cohere with the rules of Greco-Roman letter writing, and commits a serious anachronism [61] with respect to the nature of ancient versus modern salt. Most telling: the Secret Mark quote uses a phrase with specific sexual connotation ("spent the night") that would not have cohered in ancient Greek.

Other arguments are less convincing and seem contrived (eg, the connection made for point 2 between "Morton" Smith and "Morton" Salt), but as a whole, Carlson has done an excellent job in uncovering this academic prank. The only question that remains open is, will scholars who have become so enamored of Secret Mark be willing now to let it go and let bygone theories be bygone theories?


Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels

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There is a certain delight in watching what happens when a secular scholar gets hold of some of the theories now being peddled by Biblical scholarship's left wing. Philip Jenkins is no friend of orthodoxy, but as a Professor of History and Religious Studies, he has taken a long gander at the offerings of people like Crossan, Mack, Pagels, and the Jesus Seminar, and has found their ideas seriously wanting.

Jenkins indicts the left-wingers for the same errors we have: mirror-reading; presenting as though new materials and arguments that have been around for a long time (the idea that Jesus was an Essene mystic was around before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered). This and other ideas are contrary to the lament of the late Robert Funk, who thinks that scholars before his time with his ideas were suppressed.

Jenkins also addresses early-dating of non-canonical gospels for the sake of ideology (i.e., the dream of a demand-less Christianity -- Jenkins' chapter on feminist Biblical scholarship is especially interesting) and against the evidence; layering of the hypothetical Q document and using Q as a basis for dating Thomas early, as well as using it to determine the whole of Christian theology; differing treatment according to canonical and non-canonical sources -- it's not often as detailed as I would like, but it is certainly gratifying to hear it from a neutral source.

Behind all of this Jenkins perceives a desire by liberals to recreate an idealized Christianity that suits them better than the traditional alternative, with the aid of a media that is all too often drawn in by the promise of a controversial story. It is rather interesting as well to note that several of these liberals (Funk, Mack, and Crossan in particular) came from highly conservative backgrounds (and thus are "conspicuously" violating the Seminar warning against finding a Jesus congenial to one's own desires) and are part of a small circle that is patting each other on the back (as I have observed).

Hidden Gospels is a much-needed indictment of this coterie of revisionists.


Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

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This classic book, though it was written some time ago, it lives up to its future lineage as quite the usual mix we've come to expect from the modern Jesus Seminar -- a mix of accurate information mixed in with speculation of varying degrees being passed off as accurate information. You'll have to discern which is which yourself, but this may help you decide.

A good cautionary premise: Pagels is one of those critics beholden to a sort of universalism that supposes that every religious belief is valid if it is valid for the holder. Now The Gnostic Gospels is admittedly an excellent primer for the history of the Nag Hammadi texts, the beliefs and writings of the Gnostic movement, and some aspects of church history. You can trust Pagels on these accounts, certainly, for information if not for critical evaluation. Where you have to watch out with this text is where the typical view on the dates of the Gospels is uncritically accepted, and where it seems that the heretics are given favor just because their beliefs are preferred by Pagels over Christianity's intolerant exclusivism -- her profession of neutrality as to who is "right" or "wrong" notwithstanding.

Case in point: Pagels' treatment of the differences in belief over the resurrection of Christ -- orthodoxy's physical body versus the intangible ghost and spiritual "resurrection" of the Gnostics. The orthodox view is misrepresented by both bad data (the same misinterpretation of "flesh and blood" we have found Robert Price guilty of) and by unwarranted speculation (it is supposed that Luke's Emmaus road story suggests a "different view" of resurrection, when there is no grounds at all for saying that it does), and is not even described with reference to Jewish views of resurrection, which were ALWAYS physical and would seal the matter clearly in favor of the orthodox view. Pagels can hardly be trusted for a fair evaluation of the data when not all of the data is presented.

On the other hand, the Gnostics are given every possible break: Their avoidance of persecution by adaptation of syncretism is seen as a case of independent and worthwhile thinking (hard to believe, when that sort of attitude was normal for the period in Rome); their self-authenticating internal witness to "truth" is described in sympathetic terms; likewise their appeal to having had "secret wisdom" or knowledge, certified only by the claim that the giving of the knowledge to them was secret as well. A critical thinker would not give such claims the time of day, but Pagels is not interested in determining who is right or wrong; she thinks only that the differences were matters of power and politics, where only might made right and the history was written by the winners who were only interested in making the losers look bad rather than in truth versus fiction. Subjective and personal interpretation is all. And postmodernism had its early predecessors.

Of the rest of the work, little needs to be said; the basics are the same, and there are those few outrageous statements you can easily pick out. (Did Martin Luther really mean the same thing as the Gnostics when he said that the true church was "invisible"??) The Gnostics, like Pagels thought that mixing truth with error was just no big deal; but a wiser authority than Pagels tells us that broad roads lead inevitably to destruction.


Arthur Patzia, The Making of the New Testament

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Want to look at a lot of topical material, but not ready to dig into the minutiae? If so, Patzia’s The Making of the New Testament may be just the starter for you. This book is jam-packed with information on a variety of relevant topics.

Not that this jam-packing results in a poor treatment of the subject matter: The author manages to offer a great many details and maintains a scholarly composure throughout this book, informing the reader with an easily-grasped style (one that is smooth and orderly, but not breezy) and never overwhelming with technical terms. A glossary is offered for those few terms that might need a bit more clarification for the beginner. Subjects are arranged in an informal outline style, and items of relevance are very easy to find.

The student will most appreciate Patzia’s detailed descriptions of transcription processes and textual variants. Conservatives may find themselves a bit dismayed by Patzia’s non-commital on certain issues, but should view this in a good light: Patzia writes fairly and as someone without an axe to grind.

In conclusion, we find this work to be an excellent value. The Making of the New Testament should be a top consideration for the making of a personal library.