Curious About the New Testament Text and Canon?

6 May 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament, Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2023.  Softcover, 350 pages.

Are you a curious person?  I sure am!  One of the great things about being a pastor is always being able to dig into new things, especially about the Bible and theology.  Since you’re reading this, I suspect you’re a curious sort too.  And if you are, a book like this might really scratch that itch to learn something new. 

Most Christians don’t know a lot about issues related to the text and canon of the New Testament.  They generally leave those matters to their pastor or to other scholars.  But wouldn’t you want to know how we got the Scriptures as we have them today?  What’s behind the English translations we use?  Why do we have 27 books in the New Testament?  Who decided we should have those 27?  Broadly speaking, this book answers those types of questions.  While it’s from an academic publishing house, it would be generally accessible to most people with at least a high school education.  Some parts are more technical than others, but the format of the book allows for readers to browse the questions they’re most curious about.  And there is a helpful glossary if you stumble across an unfamiliar term.    

Let me list some of the 40 questions you might be interested in:

  • How did errors enter into the manuscripts?
  • Do the differences between the manuscripts really matter? 
  • With all the variants, can we still speak of inspiration and inerrancy?
  • Did the early church councils decide the canon?
  • Were there orthodox books that nearly made it into the canon?
  • Is the canon closed, or could the church add books to the canon?    

Some of the chapters have a few bonus questions that are quite fascinating too.  For example, “Did the apostles know they were writing Scripture?” and “What if a previously unknown writing [e.g. by Paul] were found?”

I haven’t read a book like this since my seminary studies, so I was intrigued to learn about some of the more recent developments in New Testament studies.  One has to do with the manuscripts of the New Testament and a new approach to textual criticism called the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method.  This method uses a set of computer tools to sort through the thousands of Greek manuscripts in an effort to determine more accurately the original text.  So if you’re a pastor like me and you’ve lost touch with the latest in NT studies, this book could be a helpful way to get up to date.    

I do want to highlight one of the questions:  “Should John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery) be included in the New Testament?”  The book is impressively even-handed in answering this, presenting evidence for and against.  The author of this section (Kellum) concludes that “Although the account is clearly early and possibly historical, it does not appear to have been an original part of the gospel of John” (p.181).  That leaves a question in my mind, one that goes unanswered in this book.  If this is true, does it necessarily mean that this section of John is not part of God’s Word?  For example, I think of various OT books which have evidently been subjected to editorial activity — e.g. the original form of Deuteronomy as written by Moses isn’t the same as the Deuteronomy we have today.  Is it possible that just as there’s been inspired editorial activity with the OT, that there also might have been some degree of inspired editorial activity in the NT?  If so, then it wouldn’t really matter whether the Apostle John himself wrote 7:53-8:11.  Someone else wrote it, but it’s now part of the Word of God.  That could account for the difference in writing style, the way it interrupts the flow of the book, and perhaps also the variety of manuscripts.

Not only will this book satisfy the curious Christian, it’ll also be helpful for answering agnostics and skeptics.   Many years ago now, Dan Brown wrote a famous novel called The Da Vinci Code.  It was then turned into a movie.  It popularized some erroneous ideas about how we got the Scriptures.  Those ideas are still circulating and if you speak with unbelievers, you may hear them.  Quarles and Kellum provide a great reference resource for dealing with those claims. 

I don’t agree with every conclusion the authors reach, but overall this is a book I’m happy to recommend as a great introduction to two fascinating fields of biblical study.                

Originally published in Clarion 73.6 (April 26, 2024)