2nd Timothy 3:16 teaches that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (ESV). In order to defend the reliability of Scripture, apologists often have quotes from Bruce Metzger or Kurt Aland stored in their memory banks. Unfortunately, these quotes and most apologetic writing is primarily concerned with the New Testament (NT) excepting two topics; Genesis 1 and Old Testament (OT) ethics. Since many attacks from the skeptical community are centered on the gospel narratives, we need good writings on the NT, but let us not neglect OT issues in our desire to defend the faith. What are the questions being asked in OT studies that affect the apologist? They are at least three: textual transmission, canon and the locale of inspiration in the text.
For instance, how does the apologist respond to the significant differences between Jeremiah in the Septuagint (LXX) and Jeremiah in the Masoretic Text (MT). Are most apologists even familiar with how LXX and the MT relate to each other, or how the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) factor into the equation? What about the Old Testament (OT) canon? We all know that the Gospel of Judas doesn’t belong in the NT, but how do we support the inclusion of Esther, when the book is absent in the DSS and twice as long in LXX as in the MT? How does such evidence factor into our understanding of inspiration? Is it the autographa that were inspired or the finished canonical product? These are fascinating questions, yet largely ignored by popular writing on the OT.
If you find these questions interesting, then you will enjoy Exploring the Origins of the Bible, edited by Craig Evans and Emmanuel Tov. The book contains articles by respected scholars on the origins of both the OT and NT and was compiled from the 2006 Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College.1 The scholars represent the mixture of religious (and secular) worldviews.2 This review will focus on the particular value of this book for understanding the OT issues mentioned above, but will also briefly note its value for NT studies as well.
The first contribution comes from Emmanuel Tov. Tov addresses the differences between the LXX version of the OT and that contained in the MT. How different is the LXX translation from the MT? Tov shows that at points the two texts are rather different, and he offers reasons for these differences. These vary from abridgments, such as in LXX Job, to speculations concerning the nature of different schools behind the texts. This chapter serves as a good introduction to someone new to the field, although should only come as a primer to Tov’s lengthier introduction.3
The second contribution, by James Charlesworth discusses the books “ostensibly outside” the OT canon.4 His article intends to show that the writings outside of what became the biblical canon show the diverse nature of Second Temple Judaism (STJ). Many of his assumptions concerning the Bible go against evangelical arguments, but this should not dissuade the reader from an interesting chapter.5 He states that the canon was diverse and that the various other books that were not included in the OT canon were seen as sacred by their communities. He does not that there was a shape to the canon that predates the time of Christ; the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.6 He suggests that the edges of this tripartite division were fuzzy, but despite this the Law and the Prophets were both established as canonical by the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. with the Writings assuming their final shape shortly thereafter, even if this final shape was not agreed upon by all.
In the third contribution, Stephen Dempster focuses specifically on the shaping of the canon into its tripartite form of Law, Prophets and Writings. From the perspective of this reviewer, the contribution from Dempster amounts to the most important within the entire volume. He discusses the pervasiveness of Torah throughout the entire OT and how this shaped what became the OT canon. For instance, he notes that one could not understand prophets such as Isaiah without reference to Torah.7 Having a word from God was central to Israel’s identity as a people, and thus it shaped how they valued, kept and transmitted His words. For Dempster, this does not preclude a fluid form of the text. The text was shaped and redacted as the people of God came to understand His word more clearly. He speculates that the “crisis of the exile” caused the various collections of God’s word to be brought together from “the temple, the courts and the prophetic circles,” and that this was also the time that the Pentateuch was redacted into its final form.8 He concludes that the factors in shaping the tripartite division were “law” (Torah), “future hope of eschatology” (Prophets) and “the practical importance of human response in the present” (Wisdom and the other Writings). These three sections all point to each other and interrelate in significant ways that neither Dempster’s article nor this review allow space to share.9 Thus, in Dempster’s view, there was a shape to the OT canon stretching back to at least the exile.
The fourth contribution by R. Glenn Wooden offers little to the apologist unless she focuses particularly on the history of the church’s use of LXX and how the LXX factored into the differences between Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox canons. He discusses how using the LXX set the precedent for using translations today and not requiring new believers to learn the original languages. Unfortunately, Wooden uses the essay to argue that evangelicals must rethink inspiration to remove it from “the words of the text as originally produced” to “the text as received and used in the church at various times and in various languages.”10 It may have been from a poor choice of language, but the article came across as primarily intending to challenge the evangelical doctrine of inspiration.11 If that was the intention, then the article did not present the evidence necessary to make such a change.
The following contribution Craig Evans focuses on the canonical gospels versus the non-canonical ones. The content of the article will be familiar to most apologists who have read Evans’s Fabricating Jesus. This chapter serves as something of an introduction, yet do to its audience uses standard academic language. Although substantive in his brief arguments, the apologist would better be served to read Fabricating Jesus.
The subsequent contribution by Stanley Porter provides a fascinating discussion of the beginnings of NT canon formation during the life of Paul. Looking primarily at the internal evidence, he concludes that “there is reasonable evidence to see the origin of the Pauline corpus during the latter part of Paul’s life or sometime after his death, almost assuredly instigated by Paul and/or a close follower or followers.”12 This article should be required reading for apologists interested in the development of Pauline theology and its influence on the earliest church.
The penultimate contribution comes from Lee Martin McDonald, and has its primary value in giving the reader interesting questions to ask about the origin of the text. Since concepts such as “book” or even “codex” were foreign to the ancient world, where do we locate inspiration in the text? How do Christians deal with the realization that historically and currently, most people claiming to be Christian do not agree on the biblical canon?13 Since copied manuscripts naturally have scribal errors and mistakes, should we place the authority in any particular text? How does understanding that many of the OT books had a period of development affect understanding inspiration in the original autographa? These are the types of questions that McDonald’s contribution provokes, yet amidst provoking such questions he gives ample evidence that the reasons for asking these questions are legitimate. McDonald ends his article by taking a somewhat Barthian stance through locating inspiration in Christ Himself who stands behind the text and is witnessed to by the Spirit at work in the reader.
The final contribution by Jonathan R. Wilson discusses the historical work of the Holy Spirit in using a text in its various translations, redactions and editions to bring about a historical work of redemption known as the Kingdom of God. He states that it is “the Holy Spirit who worked in history and guided the writing of Scripture and the formation of the canon.”14 Throughout the contribution he focuses on the miraculous work of the Spirit in using fallen and diverse people and communities to accomplish divine redemption, although the Spirit is not named until the end of the article. Wilson locates the authority of Scripture in neither the canon itself nor in the communities that receive the Scripture, but in the historically complex work of the Spirit of God bringing about His kingdom through a historical interplay of text and community.
In summation, the book offers an introduction to the many interesting discussions at play in the academic study of canon. For the apologist interested in giving a reason for our hope, it offers an introductory view into where academic discussions are headed in regards to understanding the development of the biblical canon. Although many of the conclusions in this volume will not satisfy the inquisitive evangelical, they do offer interesting perspectives and questions that should be asked by evangelicals interested in defending doctrines such as the divine inspiration of the text.
I would recommend this collection for the apologist interested in a primer to the academic study of OT canon. My one caveat would be that it does require a basic knowledge of the field and uses language on par with its intended audience; those in graduate studies. As anyone who has studied apologetics over time understands, the academic questions will eventually become the questions in the pew and we must be ready to begin to answer those questions when they come.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary loves studying Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular. He and his family live in Southeast Asia where he strives to live for the One to whom the Old Testament points.