1. With this book, what audience are you primarily targeting?
McDonald: I am hoping to reach the church audience with this book. There are a number of works in print for university and graduate students, as well as works for scholars. There is very little with credibility that is written for laity and clergy in churches.
2. Would you recommend this book for use in local churches?
McDonald: Yes! I wrote it for the churches.
3. Though accessible, Formation of the Bible delivers substantial historical detail. After finishing the book, what do you hope will be the most important thing readers take away?
McDonald: I am hoping that laity and clergy will have greater confidence in the Bible they read as an inspired document and a greater understanding of how it came together as a sacred book from a historical perspective, but also within the church’s understanding of the activity of God in the process of the formation of the Bible.
4. Thousands of ancient manuscripts containing sections of the Bible have been discovered. While many still require further study, to-date what—as a whole—have we been able to learn about the integrity of the biblical text?
McDonald: We know that there hundreds of thousands of variants in the surviving manuscripts of both Old and New Testaments. We also know that in a number of cases those ancient manuscripts also included some non-biblical books. This lets us know what non-biblical literature also informed the faith of the early churches. Some of that literature was rightly discarded at a later time, but some of it continued to inform early Christianity for centuries. We also know from the surviving manuscripts that few churches in antiquity had all of the books that now comprise our Bibles. As text critical scholars know, the text of the Bible is still a work in progress and new editions of the Greek text of the New Testament and the Hebrew text of the Old Testament are still being produced with revisions to the text in every edition. When we consider that of the more than 9000 copies of Old Testament manuscripts (mostly in fragmentary form), no two are exactly alike. Similarly, of the more than 5740 New Testament manuscripts (many in fragmentary form), no two are exactly alike. What we have are copies of copies and no two are the same! Scholars today have put together an eclectic text that forms the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament. There are no examples of this text today in antiquity! All of the surviving copies, despite the variances in them, were most likely welcomed as inspired sacred Scripture. This lets us know that modern notions of inspiration of the original text should probably be revisited and certainly clarified.
5. You encourage readers to be wary of over simplified answers to questions concerning the history of the Bible. What qualities should the answers thoughtful Christians seek about the Bible’s origins include (what types of documentation, use of evidence, etc.)?
McDonald: Certainly all answers should be informed by current scholarly consensus on the formation of the Bible, but also consider what the surviving ancient manuscripts can teach us, but also what we can discover in the ancient churches about the formation of the Bible. This is not a depressing investigation, but one that frees Christians from inappropriate conclusions about how God has acted in the forming of the Bible using human beings with the skills that they had—or didn’t!
6. Why do you think that the origins of Scripture are so hotly contested when it seems that fair, reasonable judgments can be made in light of the evidence?
McDonald: It is precisely because the evidence is quite thin and requires careful assessment that there is such division among scholars and among the three main branches of Christianity –Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Careful biblical scholars have often-significant differences in their conclusions because the ancient churches left no intentional record of how the Bible came to be. Our conclusions are based largely on inferences from snippets of information gathered here and there over a long period of time.
7. Will you briefly sketch how did the Jewish and early Christian books deemed most important become classified as “Scripture”? What was the process?
McDonald: The books that addressed the life-situations of believing communities and continued to be adaptable to ever new and changing circumstances of those communities, both Jewish and Christian, are the books that survived and became the classic standards of the faith that were passed on in those communities. Initially, as in the case of the New Testament, the traditions in those writings were circulated orally (the Gospels) and eventually put in writing when the apostles (eye-witnesses) were dying and when Christ had not yet returned. In other cases (especially Paul’s letters) the churches perceived the practical advantage of those writings for instruction in the churches. In time, when these and other writings had gained widespread use in churches over a period of time (a hundred years or more), commentaries were written on these books and the process of interpretation of these texts ensued. This process reflects the church’s commitment to and influence from those books. In brief, books were found to be useful, then copied and circulated, read alongside of the Old Testament books, and subsequently they (the New Testament writings) began to be called Scripture. Writings were called scripture before they were put in fixed collections. Those collections became more firmly established by the fourth century AD when lists of sacred books began to appear in several parts of the Roman Empire in churches and church councils.
8. What were the main reasons for rejecting some of early Christianity’s most popular books–such as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermes—from the Canon?
McDonald: One can only surmise here, but likely in the case of the Didache, it was not believed to have been written by the Apostles and it reflected notions of Jewish Christianity more than Gentile Christianity at a time when the church was largely Gentile. In the latter case, the earliest evidence against Shepherd of Hermas comes from the Muratorian Fragment (canon) that indicated that it was an issue of its proximity to the apostolic period, namely it was written later than that time. There were three major apocalyptic contenders circulating in the first century, namely the Revelation of John, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas (which was clearly the most popular for more than a century). Only the first of these survived antiquity. It is likely that because the Revelation of John was attributed to John the Apostle that it was included and the others were not.
9. How did early Christians understand the concept of “Scripture”?
McDonald: They received their understanding of sacred Scripture from their Jewish siblings, namely that the writings were inspired by God and written through prophetic guidance from the Lord. As prophetic figures spoke the Word of God and wrote it down, those writings took on a sacred status in communities. That recognition was not quickly made and in some cases it took centuries of use before it acquired that status. While some writings were perceived to be inspired earlier than others, still the process of recognition as sacred scripture was a long process for writings in both testaments. Many other religious writings were produced that were not placed in that category and they eventually their influence ceased and they were no longer copied and circulated among the believing communities.
10. Should modern Christians be concerned about extra-biblical books from the apostolic and post-apostolic period and the commonly held belief that they undermine the canonized Bible and the church’s most basic doctrines?
McDonald: Most biblical scholars today find considerable value in studying the so-called non-canonical writings because they do offer insight in the growth and development contexts of the Jewish and Christian communities of faith. In most cases there is nothing heretical in the writings that were not finally included in the Christian Bibles and there is often considerable value in the historical and linguistic data that they often supply, especially in terms of the understandings of important biblical words (Son of Man, Messiah, words for time, views of sacred Scripture circulating at that time, various practices such as crucifixions that help us understand more the death of Jesus, and many other notions). I have introduced several of these books to people in churches and noted that they will find some of them fascinating reading. I do not advocate adding these or other books to the Bible or taking any books away, but there is considerable value in the non-biblical books that clarify the meaning of the biblical text. In the midst of some of the value there is occasional nonsense—a contributing factor to their failure to be included in the Bible—but often there is a gem here and there. In most of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books there is little that one can call heresy, though there is some.
11. How much of a role did partisan driven church or state politics play in deciding which books were included in the Christian canon?
McDonald: If I understand your question, none! For the most part, the orthodox position in the churches was well established as the majority perspective in the churches long before the conversion of Constantine after which the Christians gained considerable political advantage and wealth. The majority of the Old and New Testaments were largely recognized and used in churches long before “partisan church or state politics” played any role. When councils met to discuss the parameters of the Bible, they generally reflected the majority positions of the churches in their areas.
Be sure to checkout other upcoming titles from Lee Martin McDonald including: