The Theology and History of the Canon

In this episode, we welcome Michael Kruger to the program to speak about the theology and history of the canon. Dr. Kruger is one of the pastors at Uptown PCA in Charlotte, NC, as well as Professor of New Testament and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

Dr. Kruger received his B.S. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary in California, and his Ph.D. from New College, The University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of The Gospel of the Savior (E.J. Brill, 2005), co-author of Gospel Fragments (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the forthcoming The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Crossway, 2010), and has had articles appear in such journals as The Journal of Theological Studies, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, The Expository Times, and The Master’s Seminary Journal.

His research interests center upon Christian Origins, particularly the development of the New Testament canon within the context of the early church. Prior to joining the RTS faculty, Dr. Kruger served in the pastorate for several years at Church of the Redeemer in Phoenix, AZ. There he developed a passion for preaching and ministry which he passes on to his students in the classroom. In addition to his faculty duties, he currently serves part-time as the Pastor of Discipleship Training at Uptown Christ Covenant Church in downtown Charlotte.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

Jared Oliphint

8 years ago

Here is a link to Dr. Kruger’s upcoming book: http://www.crossway.org/books/canon-revisited-case

This was the lecture I referred to in the episode: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/11/10/is-what-we-have-now-what-they-wrote-then


8 years ago

This was a fun podcast, thank you.

I wonder, however, whether adequate distinction is made in these discussions between the canonical and text-critical issues in the NT and those same issues in the OT. Perhaps Dr. Kruger addresses this further in his book, which I am eager to look at when it comes out.

The problem of the MT and LXX versions of Jeremiah is not really analogous the problem of divergent manuscripts of Acts. In the NT, the notion of an “original autograph” is meaningful and relevant; the NT books were likely composed within a period of 50-60 years, by individuals with pen and ink (or dictating to scribes), close enough in time to the events described that eyewitnesses could still be found. Text criticism tries to get as close as we can to The Original Autographs.

The OT books were composed and edited during a period of a millennium (give or take), often centuries after the events described actually occurred. Chronicles is a prime example.

The book of Jeremiah demonstrates the problem of textual development for many contemporary formulations of the doctrine of Scripture. We have a Septuagint witness that is more ancient than the MT and that almost certainly reflects an earlier Hebrew Vorlage. Fragments of both versions exist at Qumran, indicating that, at least within a hundred years of Jesus’ birth, there was uncertainty among some Jewish sects about which version was the “right” one. The most plausible historical explanation seems to me to be that Jeremiah’s prophecies existed in oral form and were written and circulated early in his ministry, and then they were expanded and rearranged into something close to what we have in the MT at a later point in Jeremiah’s ministry. The fact that both versions took hold in the fragmented communities so quickly testifies to Jeremiah’s authority and the authenticity of both. But then what does that mean for us as 21st-century Reformed Protestants? Do we treat the LXX Jeremiah as inspired?

(A good discussion of the Jeremiah problem can be found in J. Daniel Hays’ article, ‘Jeremiah, the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Inerrancy: Just What Exactly Do We Mean by the “Original Autographs”?’, from the book Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics. I’ve also read a good treatment by Waltke, but I can’t immediately recall where.)

So, I don’t know that the question of OT canon was as settled in the NT period as Dr. Kruger implied it was. Rabbinic disputes about the canonicity of Esther and the Song of Songs appear to have continued into the Tannaitic period.

On the self-attestation of Scripture, Dr. Kruger also sidesteps the issue of Jude and Enoch, which I have raised previously on this site. “None of the citations of non-canonical books are cited as Scripture.” Don’t you think that Jude believed that the book of First Enoch preserves the words of the ancient man Enoch? He specifically says, “Enoch, seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying…” Jude appears to have been raised in a Jewish tradition that regarded the Enochic tradition as trustworthy. (I am of course assuming that the book of Enoch is a product of Second Temple tradition and has no validity as an accurate representation of the words of an historical Enoch.)

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the OT issues are more complex, because we are dealing with the influence of Jewish sects upon the early church–more precisely, the Jewish contexts of the early church. The question relates to language (Greek vs. Hebrew) which relates to text (pre-MT Hebrew Bible vs. LXXs) which relates to canon (Hebrew books + Apocrypha). We also have to consider that Christianity grew out of the same sect of Judaism as did Rabbinic Judaism: the Pharisees. By the time of Jerome many in the church preferred the Greek OT, but Jerome’s own Rabbinic studies influenced the church’s embrace of the Hebrew canon. The NT authors appear to have preferred the LXX. So, we have multiple streams of Jewish tradition flowing into NT Christianity, as evidenced by the influence of the LXX (Greek-speaking Diaspora), Pharisaic thought (Paul), and other sectarian books (Enoch, Assumption of Moses, etc.).

Any theological model of the biblical canon that is consistent with the biblical and historical evidence we have must take into account the influence of the non-Christian, (dare I say) non-inspired Jewish community on the canon of the Christian church. That’s where I think a lot of these doctrine of Scripture discussions lose their way.

Jared Oliphint

8 years ago

Thanks for your thoughts, Benj. We need to get together again some time when I’m in town and you’re not crazy busy.

A couple thoughts: I still think Kruger’s point on Jude holds up. Jude isn’t commenting on First Enoch’s canonicity or Scriptural authority, is he? It’s just as valid to understand that the passage doesn’t make any conclusions either way on that matter, which is why a key hermeneutic principle needs to look at other Scriptural passages on the nature of Scripture itself.

Also, would you be able to comment further on the distinction between the OT canon being settled in the NT period and disputes still going on at that time? For example, we are aware that the canon is disputed even today between Catholics and Protestants, but that doesn’t mean the issue of canon isn’t settled, does it? Just because something is disputed and there isn’t complete unanimity doesn’t mean an issue is still open (unless one’s definition of “settled” is too narrow to be functional).


8 years ago

Jared: thanks for your patience with my rather rambling initial comment. Let me summarize my observations.

* Based on the NT’s use of the LXX and allusions to sources that we Protestants consider non-canonical, it seems clear that the NT church had a more fluid understanding of canon than we do, or, alternatively, they were unaware of the uninspired quality of some of the books they used.
* Protestantism has the same canon as Pharisaic Judaism (MT), whereas the early church preferred the LXX and its canon which included the Apocrypha.
* My understanding of the history is that Jerome appealed to his training with (non-inspired) Jewish scholars to clarify the true OT canon as the Masoretic canon and the Apocrypha as deuterocanonical (non-inspired). Ironically enough, because Jerome included the Apocrypha in the Vulgate, the Apocrypha came to take on (inappropriate) authority in the medieval church.
* The Protestant reaffirmation of the Hebrew canon and the text of the MT is essentially a return to Jerome’s view of the canon.

My (provisional) conclusions then are as follows:
* The precise definition of the text and canon of the OT, like the canonical boundaries of the NT, was not entirely clear in the early church, but those boundaries were solidified in the first four centuries.
* The church’s definition of the text and canon of the OT received “help” from the Jewish community stemming from Pharisaic Judaism, a community that we would consider not to possess the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
* The authority of those books, therefore, comes in some measure from the authority that Christ delegated to the church when he ascended. The church, over time, placed its stamp of approval on the books that Protestants consider canonical
* Therefore, even though MT Jeremiah does not reflect the earliest version of the book of Jeremiah that was ever considered inspired, MT Jeremiah is the right one to use in our churches because Protestantism recovered the authoritative teaching of the Fathers like Jerome. Thus, to a certain extent, church authority determined the canon.

This provisional conclusion about the source of Scripture’s authority makes me uneasy. But I haven’t found another model that makes sufficient allowance for the fuzziness of the OT’s boundaries in the NT, the influence of post-Christian Judaism on the process, and my Protestant preference for the MT over the (much older) LXX, all while still protecting inerrancy. Help me, please…


4 years ago

I know your comment was from a long time ago, but I should mention that Roger Beckwith argues in the “Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church” that there wasn’t a separate canon outside Israel. The LXX manuscripts which have non-canonical books exist starting in the 4th century and are from Christians. (And they aren’t perfectly consistent with each other.)

So given all of that, following Beckwith, it seems people make too much of the LXX in regards to evidence for the canon.


8 years ago

Not an expert here at all, but sounds like I found the theme of my masters thesis. I do think RC Sproul gets it right and say that as protestants while do believe Sola Scriptura, we cannot say with certainity that our Canon is 100% accurate. That posistion is impossible when you reject roman theology.


8 years ago


If I may add to Benj’s comments (and if I am welcome here; you, Brack, and I had a relatively intense exchange last time),

I like your questions about OT canon in the NT period and how theologically to assess such disputes. These issues can helpfully transition us to Gaffin’s point in his Van Tilian discussion of canon in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic. We cannot theologically have a canon in our sense of the term and, at the same time, try to find some point outside of it from which to judge what should or shouldn’t be part of it. I, indeed, accept our OT (and NT, for that matter) as our canon for various presuppositional and/or faith reasons that themselves are anchored in these writings, in the authority of the Christ and the Spirit.

Such WTS teaching is what gave me the freedom, if you will, to pursue historical research on issues like canon in early Christianity wherever the evidence takes us. Despite Roger Beckwith’s erudite but often tendentious arguments, from the standpoint of historically assessing the extant evidence, we cannot say that the OT canon was “settled” during the time of Christ or the apostles. While many of the writings of our OT were widely treated like “scripture,” some were not and there were many writings not included in our OT that numerous Jews and early Christians (even the early Christians we like) treated like “scripture.”

In addition to many of the usual ways people discuss this issue, the fact that various literate Jews during this period kept producing writings claiming to be revelation from their God, and that many of these writings were apparently quite widely and enthusiastically used (including by many early Christians), should lay to rest traditional claims of the OT canon being “settled” by the time of the Maccabees, Jesus, the apostles, and so on. Unlike Benj, I don’t think we have evidence that “the Pharisees” (whatever one means by that; we actually know very little about them) had a settled collection of hebrew writings, were necessarily a “group” unified enough to have such a commonly accepted settled collection, or what the precise boundaries of their collection(s) were. I remain unclear on why people think what Josephus says in Contra Apionem offers a “Pharisaic” view. Despite common opinion, Josephus does not claim to be a Pharisee or ardent supporter of them, has relatively little interest in them, and, when he does discuss them, often maligns them in some way.

To be clear, this is not to deny that various Jews, even various Pharisees, conceived of a “closed” collection of ancestral writings. We cannot, however, claim anything like a demonstrable consensus or that some “authoritative” group (whatever that would mean) had a specific collection, the precise contents of which we can know now. Some of the scribes associated with (perhaps) the temple may have created their own collection of notionally national-ethnic-ancient hebrew literature during the latter centuries of the Hellenistic period (on this you can read, among others, David Carr’s excellent recent book, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature [New York: Oxford University Press, 2005]). Even so, (1) such scribes and their collection/creating activities cannot be claimed to represent all or even most Jews, even if these scribes had such an ideology, (2) we don’t know exactly what writings they included among their curriculum, if you will, of ancient hebrew tradition, and (3), as Benj has pointed out, the early Christians whose writings we have and like (e.g., the NT and so on) read and wrote in Greek, not Hebrew. We have no evidence that the actual collections of hebrew ancestral writings directly determined which writings other Jews, such as the various ones who became the earliest Christ followers, would or would not treat as “scripture.”

As Benj knows, one can get much more detailed than simply discussing Jerome’s (at the time) minority position. Read through the Apostolic Fathers and many other early Christian writings from the 2nd and 3rd centuries by Christians we treat as (more or less) “orthodox” and you’ll find 1 Enoch, Sirach, Baruch, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, and so on being treated like “scripture.” One of my favorite examples of this remains how Tertullian, right after his famous “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” quip in (commonly called) Prescription Against Heretics 7, cites the Wisdom of Solomon like other scripture in his work to make his point authoritative. For a bit more fun, Irenaeus includes material from 1 Enoch in his rule of faith; the list could go on and on.

Beyond this, we know many other early Christ followers treated some of these (now) non-canonical Jewish writings like “scripture” because, among other things, they would add introductions, conclusions, and the like to them that further emphasized such writings’ claims to being revelation from God.

The example of Jude’s use of a Greek translation of The Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36; 4th-3rd century BCE Jewish apocalypse) thus isn’t a “problem” or surprising for historians. Jude does what many other literate Jews and Christians do in this period: he treats and uses The Book of the Watchers like “scripture” (excellent and thorough discussion of the reception of The Book of the Watchers among Jews and Christians in Annette Reed’s published dissertation: Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005]). If after examining how Jude uses The Book of the Watchers in the context of his letter, especially using the formula “Enoch…prophesied,” you don’t think he’s treating the writing as though it’s “scripture,” go look at how Matt 15.7-9 introduces his quotation from Isaiah. Think about how you would use Matt 15.7-9 in discussions of canonicity (even authorship!) of Isaiah.

Sorry for the long comment. Wanted to add to some of the issues Benj raised, who does a good job laying out some of the basic text issues relating to the Hebrew Bible in this period. For those of us with religious commitments to biblical writings, and furthermore the drive to handle them as honestly and accurately as possible precisely because of those religious commitments (not that others cannot have such a drive), we thus have the kind of “uneasy” situation Benj describes when it comes to addressing the biblical and other ancient data in relation to our theology of the Bible and canon. For me, like Benj it seems, such an “uneasy” situation doesn’t mean I abandon my religious and theological commitments. It does, however, mean that most traditional evangelical triumphant avenues of defending those commitments are impossible and that we have to reckon with a messier situation. Much more could be said, but I have gone on for long enough.


8 years ago

To correct one of my errors that Stephen addressed: I didn’t mean to suggest that the Pharisees had a closed canon in the first century. I only meant that, since the Rabbis were in some sense the heirs to the Pharisaic tradition, Pharisaism through the later Rabbinic tradition (200-500 CE) had an influence on the Christian canon. However continuous or broken the line of tradition from the Pharisees to the Rabbis was, the point remains that a Jewish community that Christians consider uninspired had a “correcting” (from a Protestant perspective) influence on the church’s OT canon.


8 years ago


Looks like I also misunderstood you somewhat and imputed [a word we all like? 🙂 ] to you the view that the Pharisees had a closed canon in the 1st century. Apologies. I was mostly trying to address how that kind of claim often comes up in discussions of OT canon.

Mark G

8 years ago

I don’t understand what is the issue in this statement “the point remains that a Jewish community that Christians consider uninspired had a “correcting” (from a Protestant perspective) influence on the church’s OT canon.” I haven’t thought about this canon issue since I was in college so please cut me some slack here. The Christian groups that influenced canon weren’t inspired either. It even seems likely that some who influenced canon were not among the elect and others were. I fail to see any difference between un-Christian “Christians” influencing canon and un-Christian Jews inspiring canon. In fact, if we go back into Hebrew history it was pre-Christian Jews who established the canon of the OT. I imagine some of these were more faithful to the “gospel” of OT revelation than others. If God can use the Assyrians to “correct” the Israelites he can certainly use non-Christians to “correct” the canon.


8 years ago

Speaking of interaction with RTS professors and their works, is there any plan for CTC to address Escondido Theology? It’s such an ugly situation I can understand if you just don’t want to get involved. But I’d like to see some “unbiased” (is that word allowed around Westminster Van Tillians?) discussion; that is, with some knowledgeable person who is not aligned with Frame or WSCAL. Maybe Westminster Philly is a good place to look for somebody like that?


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