What Do Manuscripts Tell Us About the Origins of the NT Canon? A Response to John Meade

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

October 10, 2017

Over at Evangelical Textual Criticism, John Meade has posted an article reviewing chapter seven of my book, Canon Revisited.  In particular, he challenges a number of the arguments I use to show how NT manuscripts may illumine our understanding of the development of the NT canon.

Meade focuses his comments on two issues, namely the number of manuscripts and the use of the codex.  Before offering a response to those issues below, let me begin by making a simple observation about the purpose of this chapter.  If one understands the flow of the argument in the book, and sets chapter seven in the larger context of the prior chapters, it will become clear that the exploration of these manuscripts is not intended to provide a definitive answer to which books are in the canon. Nowhere do I argue that we know which books are in the canon simply be looking at the features of early Christian manuscripts.

Indeed, the prior six chapters are making a very different argument about how we know which books are in and which books are out (an argument I will not rehearse here).  The discussion of manuscripts, then, is provided simply as something that further illumines the history of the canon.  It provides a general (but not absolute) confirmation of what we see from other kinds of evidence (patristic and otherwise).

Quantity of Manuscripts

There are few things more frustrating for an author than to make an argument, follow it up with an important qualification, and then have someone critique you as if that qualification were never made.

When it comes to the quantity of NT manuscripts, this seems to be what Meade has done. I was very clear in chapter seven that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the number of manuscripts of a book and that book’s place in the NT canon. Nowhere do I argue that we know which books are in the canon simply by looking at which books left behind the most manuscripts.  Indeed, I expressly state, “the relative popularity of books (on the basis of extant manuscripts) is not the whole story” (239).  And one example is that we have only one copy of Mark from this time period.

Meade acknowledges that I made this qualification but seems unsatisfied. He complains, “[Kruger] should contrast the one MS of Mark with the three of the Gospel of Thomas, but he does not do so.”  I am baffled by this complaint because this is exactly what I was doing!  In this very section of the chapter, just a couple pages before, I mentioned that Thomas had three manuscripts.  And then, at the end of this same section, I expressly point out that this is not the whole story because Mark has only one.  Obviously, I am acknowledging that Mark has less than Thomas. Is it just that Meade wants me to say it in the very same sentence?  It seems any thoughtful reader would easily get my point.

And then again, as if I never made the qualification above, Meade simply repeats his argument at the end: “But the Gospel of Thomas has more early evidence than the Gospel according to Mark and many other books were written onto the codex form, and yet, early Christians do not describe these other books as canonical.”

But this point only holds if I were arguing there is a one-to-one relationship between manuscripts and the canon.  I definitively said I was not making that argument! But Meade just barrels on as if I was.

By focusing solely on exceptions like the Gospel of Mark, Meade seems to be missing the forest for the trees.  He seems hesitant to acknowledge that there does seem to be a general trend in our manuscript numbers that are relevant for the emergence of the canon.  And that trend suggests “apocryphal” material was not as popular as what we would call “canonical.”  Yes, there are exceptions to the trend. But there is still a trend!  And the significance of that fact for the canon seems unacknowledged by Meade.

Put differently, just because the quantity of manuscripts doesn’t tell us everything about the canon, does not mean it tells us nothing about the canon.  It’s almost as if Meade has an all-or-nothing approach–either the manuscripts provide exact boundaries or maybe they are not that valuable after all.

But, why must it be either-or?

Moreover, the idea that the quantity of manuscripts can illumine our understanding of canonical history is certainly not a new idea .  In Canon Revisited, I cite several other scholars that share the same approach:

  • C.H. Roberts, “Once the evidence of the papyri is available, indisputably Gnostic texts are conspicuous by their rarity” (Manuscript, 52).  Would this not be relevant for our understanding of how the canon formed?
  • Larry Hurtado, “[low numbers of apocryphal manuscripts] do not justify any notion that these writings were particularly favored” (Artifacts, 22).  Again, would the relative popularity of a writing not be a relevant consideration (though not an absolute one) for understanding canon?
  • Scott Charlesworth, “If the ‘heterodox’ were in the majority for so long, the non-canonical gospels should have been preserved in greater numbers in Egypt. But the early papyri provide no support for Bauer’s view” (“Indicators of Catholicity,” 47).  Given the relevance of Bauer’s claims on the development of the canon, Charlesworth’s point seems particularly relevant.

Use of the Codex

Secondly, Meade rehearses my observations that the codex was used very early by Christians and that virtually all known NT manuscripts are in the form of a codex.  Moreover, there seems to be some connection between the codex and the development of the canon.  None of these observations are really new, and most are widely acknowledged.

Meade doesn’t really contest any of these observations, but simply points out the difficult case of codex Sinaiticus which contains the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas at the end (Meade only mentions the Shepherd).  What should we think of the inclusion of these books?  Scholars have had different answers.  And Meade objects to my proposed solution to that conundrum.

I will say a word about my solution in a moment.  For now, let me just observe that however one solves the odd place of the Shepherd in Siniaticus, it doesn’t change the overall importance of the codex for the formation of the canon.  None of the points I made about the codex (which, again, are not new) are affected.  After all, are we really to think that all other scholars making these same points about the codex (Stanton, Skeat, Hurtado, even Elliott) had never noticed the Shepherd at the end of Sinaiticus?

I mention this only to point out that Meade’s objection is a bit off the point.  The way he presents his objection implies (perhaps unintentionally) that it calls into question my overall conclusions. But I am not seeing how it does so. He may not agree with my proposed solution about Sinaiticus (and that’s fine), but what does it materially change about the significance of the codex?

Moreover, Meade makes it sound like my proposed solution about codex Sinaiticus was a significant part of my argument.  Instead it was merely one sentence (!) in an entirely different chapter (276).  Obviously, I had no time to develop it (nor did I think it necessary to do so).  It’s a bit disingenuous for Meade to pick up a single line like this and then present it as a substantive basis for rejecting my position.

The quick overview of my proposed solution is that I think it is significant where the Shepherd appears in codex Sinaiticus–at the very end, even after Revelation.  If one can see an analogy between the order of books in a codex and the order of books in canonical lists (a connection that is not hard to make, in my opinion, but something Meade rejects), then we may learn something from the way disputed books appeared at the end of canonical lists (like the Muratorian fragment).  Horbury makes a similar argument about the Wisdom of Solomon.

Now, the paragraph above is not a developed argument (though I am sure it will be critiqued as if it was one), and merely makes the point that there may be multiple ways to understand the presence of the Shepherd at the end of this codex.

For the record, I think it is also very possible that the producers of Sinaiticus thought the Shepherd was Scripture.  I am not ruling that out.  But, I also don’t think there is anything in my argument about the codex that requires it.  The only way it would require it is if I were making the argument that all books on codices were automatically Scripture (something that I am clearly not arguing).


At the end of Meade’s piece, he sums up his main complaint:

“But my critique is that [Kruger] and others should describe what early Christians actually thought about these books according to their clearest statements on the subject before turning to material evidence, which is not self-interpreting.”

In other words, I should have covered patristic evidence first and then looked at the manuscripts. The irony, of course, is that is exactly what I did. In the prior chapter (6), I argue for a “core” canon of books present very early within the Christian movement.  And I do so primarily on the basis of patristic evidence.  Then at the end of chapter seven, I make this statement,

“All of these factors [concerning manuscripts] provide remarkable confirmation of the Patristic evidence surveyed in the prior chapter” (259).

It is hard to know how I could have said it any clearer.

In the end, I think Meade and I probably agree more than we disagree.  And I appreciate his interaction with my chapter.  But I think many of his concerns could’ve been answered with a more careful reading of my arguments.



Discover more from Canon Fodder

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading