Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum, 40 Questions about the Text and Canon of the New Testament

Quarles, Charles L. and L. Scott Kellum. 40 Questions about the Text and Canon of the New Testament. 40 Questions and Answers Series. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2023. 350 pp. Pb; $26.99. Link to Kregel Academic

Charles Quarles (PhD, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary) is a research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He contributed the Matthew volume in the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament series (B&H Academic, reviewed here). He recently published Matthew in the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Lexham 2023, reviewed here). Scott Kellum (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior New Testament and Greek professor at SEBTS. He co-authored The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament with Quarles and Andreas Köstenberger (B&H Academic 2009).  He wrote the Acts volume for the EGGNT series and Preaching the Farewell Discourse (B&H, 2014, reviewed here). In this new volume of Kregel Academic’s 40 Question series, Quarles answers questions on the text of the New Testament, and Kellum deals with the canon of the New Testament.  Text and CanonIn the book’s first part, Quarles answers questions on the transmission of New Testament Manuscripts and the theory and practice of textual criticism.  The transmission of the text deals with copying manuscripts and what errors might occur as those manuscripts are copied. This leads to a discussion of the reliability of manuscripts scholars use when creating editions of the Greek New Testament. Question 5 is important: Did Scribes attempt to Change the Theology of the Text? Here, Quarles is responding to Bart Ehrman, who is well known for his argument that scribes made serious changes to the Greek New Testament in order to support theological orthodoxy. In response, Quarles argues that there is no evidence for theological tampering. However, Quarles ends the section by quoting Tommy Wasserman, saying that deliberate changes are often limited to certain manuscripts (P72, codex Bezae) or isolated passages. Following Gordon Fee, Quarles says that when deliberative changes occur, it is seldom motivated by someone trying to score theological points. He also responds to a few of Ehrman’s examples.

Questions 13-14 discuss with King James only and the Majority Text. Questions 18-19 treat the two longest controversial passages, the long ending of Mark and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). “Mark probably originally ended with 16:8, or the original ending was lost very early” and “it is reasonable to conclude that the shorter ending is the best choice among the possible options.” But he adds this conclusion is “nowhere close to a certainty!” (174). The Pericope Adulterae is “clearly early and possibly historical, it does not appear to have been an original part of the gospel of John” (181).

At 187 pages, the first half of this book is an excellent primer on textual criticism, useful for university or seminary an intermediate New Testament Greek class. Some professors might like more on the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method, but the constraints of the 40 Questions series limit the space available for this developing methodology.

In the second half of the book, Kellum answers questions concerning the canon of the New Testament.  He begins by defining canon and defining the extrinsic and magisterial models. In the extrinsic view, books were chosen by natural, historical processes. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern churches hold a magisterial view of the canon. The church selects which books are canonical. This is the reason the Apocrypha could be added to the canon at the council of Trent (1545-1563).

In Question 22, Kellum argues in favor of an intrinsic model for New Testament canonization. The intrinsic model holds that canonical books are self-authenticating. The reformers articulated this view in response to the Council of Trent. In general, there are three criteria. First, the books must agree with the rest of the scripture. Second, there must be widespread acceptance of the books. Third, the books must show evidence of a divine nature. Calvin, for example, thought the Apocrypha was the source of the “dregs of theology, purgatory, worship of the saints, satisfactions, exorcisms, and whatnot” (68).  Calvin argued that there was no consensus in the early church that the Apocrypha should be considered canonical, and the books do not bear the marks of divinity because of errors. Calvin said Maccabees do not have “a divine tone” (although it seems fairly subjective). Kellum cites a modern representative of the intrinsic view, Michael Kruger, as saying humans do not authenticate the canon; God allows humans to recognize the canon.”

Kellum responds to Lee Martin McDonald’s critique of the intrinsic view. McDonald points out that many books were disputed in the early church, and some were later rejected. So, the authority of the canonical books is not self-evident. Other than Revelation, no New Testament author claims to be writing Scripture and the earliest readers did not think of Paul’s letters as Scripture or canon. Even if a writer claimed inspiration, that does not make a book canonical. (A writer cannot just say, “I declare inspiration!” and the book suddenly becomes canonical.) McDonald thinks that publicly reading Paul’s letters is not equivalent to the Jewish practice of reading scripture. Kellum says that may be so when they were first read, but shortly after the first reading, Paul’s letters were, in fact, read as scripture. Kellum includes five chapters on the physical evidence for the canon. Here he discusses the development of the codex (book, in contrast to individual scrolls) used by the early church and when various collections of books were grouped together.

Question 38 discusses the possibility of an open canon. He begins with Jesus Seminar alumni Robert Fink and Hal Taussig, who argued that the canon should be considered open, allowing for recently discovered Gnostic texts to be considered alongside the traditional New Testament canon. I would also include John Dominic Crossan here since he places the Gospel of Thomas alongside the four canonical gospels. In response, Kellum points out that canonical books are associated with the apostles, and apostolic authority is non-transferable. If an apostle did not write a book, it would not be canonical. Shepherd of Hermes, for example, was rejected since it was not Apostolic. He states that the Old Testament ends on a “covenantal cliffhanger.” The prophets look forward to a New Exodus and a New Covenant. The final redemption in Jesus means “no further prophetic promises to fulfill” (323). This implies that the new covenant canon was complete, and there is no need for more books. Given the theological assumptions behind this argument, I doubt this would convince Funk or Taussig. Although premillennialists do not argue for an open canon, they would disagree with Kellum’s premise that there are” no further promises to fulfill.”

Kellum discusses the theological implications of cannon in Question 39. First, although not inspiration and canon were not synonymous in the early church, canonical books are inspired by God. Second, canon implies authority. If the canon is God’s word, it is authoritative (Infallible? Inerrant?) The canon contains the “norms and expectations for believers” (330). Third, since this literature was handed down from the apostles, it is the foundation for New Testament theology. These theological observations have hermeneutical implications. Kellum argues that we should read the canon as a whole. The books should all be read equally (no “canon within the canon”). However, practically speaking, the book of Romans seems more important than 2 John. Perhaps what Kellum is trying to get at is that Paul’s theology is not “better” than Peter’s theology (despite what one would think from reading most New Testament theology textbooks). Fourthly, we ought to read the canon progressively. This is more of a whole canon concept since the New Testament is built on the foundation of the Old Testament.

Each chapter ends with five discussion questions. The book includes a helpful seven-page glossary and scripture index. Although there is no bibliography or “for further study” section, the footnotes provide sources for readers to follow more technical discussions in scholarly literature.

Conclusion. 40 Questions about the Text and Canon of the New Testament addresses two critical aspects of biblical studies from a conservative perspective. Both halves of the book are good introductions to their topics. Quarles and Kellum present their material in a style understandable to the non-scholar, making this book an excellent choice for a reader (or Bible study) looking for answers to questions on the text and canon of the New Testament.


Other books reviewed in this series:


NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.