Reviewed by Michael J. Kruger
In recent years, scholarly interest in the subject of the biblical canon continues unabated. There seems to be a growing fascination with the origins and authority of the biblical books, both in the academy and among popular audiences. One of the latest contributions to this popular field, The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon, comes from Tomas Bokedal, lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen. The book is a revised version of Bokedal’s 2005 Th.D. thesis at Lund University.
Unlike many prior studies of canon, Bokedal explores more than just patristic citations of (or references to) New Testament books. Refreshingly, he is also concerned with a number of other important matters related to canon, such as the definition of canon, the theological and hermeneutical impetus for canon, the liturgical role of canon, and the physical/artefactual remains of canon. These sorts of concerns are evident in the fourfold structure of the book:
- Part One: Linguistic and Tradition-Related Aspects of the Canon;
- Part Two: Material and Textual Aspects of the Canon;
- Part Three: Performative Aspects of the Canon;
- Part Four: Ideational Aspects of the Canon.
In Part One, Bokedal explores the concept and definition of canon. He rightly recognizes that in modern canonical studies there are two main definitions of canon: one is intrinsic (canon as normative books) and the other extrinsic (canon as ecclesiastical fixing/delimitation). While recognizing the legitimate aspects of the extrinsic approach, Bokedal (influenced largely by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Brevard Childs) pushes back against it, arguing that the intrinsic elements deserve more attention. Arguing against Sundberg, Bokedal states, “When a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon is suggested, the concept of canon tends to become separated from the historical process of canon formation” (73).
Once canonicity is viewed as a process that extends further back in time, instead of a single and later ecclesiastical decision, the forces that might have led to the formation of the canon can now be considered. Bokedal states, “We may notice a rather self-evident rationale behind the formation of the Christian Bible” (47). He adds, “The core of the notion of the New Testament canon grew out of ‘internal ecclesiastical motives’ such as the fixation of the authentic and true tradition” (48). In other words, the canon is not simply a product of later ecclesiastical forces but grew naturally and organically at a much earlier time.
In Part Two, Bokedal shifts to the material and textual features of the canon. He explores a wide variety of issues, including written and oral transmission of the text and the hermeneutics of canon. Most notably, he focuses on physical features of early Christian manuscripts—particularly the nomina sacra and the codex—and their significance in the formation of the New Testament canon. Regarding nomina sacra, Bokedal provides a very helpful overview of their history, frequency, and explores the various hypotheses that attempt to explain their origins. Most importantly, he argues, the nomina sacra are connected to the origins of the canon. In addition to functioning as one of the earliest Christian creeds or doctrinal formulations, the nomina sacra also served to mark a book as having sacred status. He states, “The nomina sacra appear to have paved the way for placing OT texts on a par with new ‘apostolic’ (NT) writings; and it seems rather difficult to envisage a Christian scriptural canon formation without them” (122).
In a similar fashion, Bokedal traces the origins of the Christian preference for the codex and surveys the various hypotheses that have been offered to explain this preference; e.g., those from Skeat, Gamble, Stanton, Roberts, Trobisch, van Haelst, and others. While not preferring any one theory, he acknowledges that “[i]n various ways the Christian choice of the codex as the scriptural format seems to be connected with the biblical canon formation” (153). In addition, Bokedal argues that codex and nomina sacra should be seen to function together to provide a distinctive textual identity for Christians that would have been different from that of the synagogue.
In Part Three, “Performative Aspects of the Canon,” Bokedal addresses how the canon functioned in the liturgical life of the church and what impact this might have had on the development of the canon. It was the role books played in public worship that affected their canonical status. He states, “the new Scriptures were put on par with the Jewish Scriptures in a most particular way: They were read, or otherwise used, beside the ‘OT’ Scriptures on a regular basis in Christian worship” (243). Bokedal also examines the relationship between Jewish and Christian worship. He argues that the Christian worship service was in some ways patterned after Jewish synagogue worship and in other ways was intentionally distinctive from it (252-55). He also traces evidence for early liturgical patterns of reading both the Gospels and the Pauline letters.
In the fourth and final section, Bokedal enters a helpful discussion of the “rule of faith” in early Christianity and how it connects with the concept of canon. While interfacing with several other scholars on the rule—such as Robert Wall and Paul Blowers—as well as examining Irenaeus’s use of the rule, he concludes that “Scripture and Rule make up two sides of the same norm” (308). Thus Bokedal rightly recognizes that the rule and the Scriptures are not opposed to one another or in competition with one another but rather complementary. In addition, he points out how the rule has a narrative shape to it. The rule recounts the storyline of the Scriptures themselves—from creation to fall to redemption in Christ. It is surprising, however, that Bokedal does not refer to John Behr’s The Way to Nicea (2001) which covers much of the same ground regarding the rule of faith, particularly as manifested in the writings of Irenaeus.
Also in this section, Bokedal dives into issues related to the authority of Scripture and its authentication. He argues for more of an “intrinsic” approach to canon where texts were recognized as Scripture very early and (in some instances) were functioning as such even by the end of the first century—much along the lines of the classical work of Theodor Zahn. Bokedal even argues, leaning on the work of Moody Smith, that some New Testament books, especially Paul’s, were consciously and intentionally written to be Scripture. This entire line of argumentation allows Bokedal to favorably quote the well-known words of Karl Barth, “[T]he Bible constitutes itself the Canon. It is the Canon because it imposed itself on the church as such, and continually does so … the Bible is the Canon just because it is so” (327).
In sum, Bokedal has provided an excellent contribution to the study of the biblical canon. He is conversant with both primary and secondary sources, provides several interesting and intriguing insights, and is willing to engage many areas that most studies of the canon neglect, such as the definition of canon, the theology of canon, textual realia (codex and nomina sacra), and the intrinsic factors that led to the development of the New Testament. Indeed, I have devoted attention to many of these same areas in several my own works (e.g., The Question of Canon [IVP Academic, 2013]), so was pleased to see that we share much common ground.
The only area of concern I will mention here is that the book felt at times a bit disjointed. Bokedal covered so much material and explored so many different pathways that the book seemed to lack an overall cohesive argument. Sometimes it felt more like a collection of smaller essays than a unified whole. This may in part be because it is a revised version of a doctoral thesis.
Regardless, in the end Bokedal has produced a much-needed and worthwhile volume on canon formation from which scholars will benefit for years to come. As another scholarly work in favor of a type of “intrinsic” model of canon, I hope that it receives substantial scholarly attention and generates more interest in these aspects of canon that are often neglected.
Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, and the newly elected Vice President of the Evangelical Theological Society.