The substance of the present work was written toward the close of the year 1875 for the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
. Having been abridged and mutilated, contrary to the author's wishes, before its publication there, he resolved to print it entire. With that view it has undergone repeated revision with enlargement in different parts, and been made as complete as the limits of an essay appeared to allow. As nothing of importance has been knowingly omitted, the writer hopes it will be found a comprehensive summary of all that concerns the formation and history of the Bible canon. The place occupied by it was vacant. No English book reflecting the processes of results of recent criticism, gives an account of the canon in both Testaments. Articles and essays upon the subject there are; but their standpoint is usually apologetic not scientific, traditional rather than impartial, unreasonably conservative without being critical. The topic is weighty, involving the consideration of great questions, such as the inspiration, authenticity, authority, and age of the Scriptures. The author has tried to handle it fairly, founding his statements on such evidence as seemed convincing, and condensing them into a moderate compass. If the reader wishes to know the evidence, he may find it in the writer's Introductions to the Old and New Testaments
, where the separate books of Scripture are discussed; and in the late treatises of other critics. While his expositions are capable of expansion, it is believed that they will not be easily shaken. He commends the work to the attention of all who have an interest in the progress of theology, and are seeking a foundation for their faith less precarious than books however venerable.
It has not been the writer's purpose to chronicle phases of opinion, or to refute what he believes to be error in the newest hypotheses about the age, authority, and composition of the books. His aim has been rather to set forth the most correct view of the questions involved in a history of the canon, whether it be more or less recent. Some may think that the latest or most current account of such questions is the best; but that is not his opinion. Hence, the fashionable belief that much of the Pentateuch, the Book of Leviticus wholly, with large parts of Exodus and Numbers, in a word, that all the laws relating to divine worship, with most of the chronological tables or statistics, belong to Ezra, who is metamorphosed in fact into the first Elohist, is unnoticed. Hence, also, the earliest gospel is not declared to be Mark's. Neither has the author ventured to place the fourth gospel at the end of the first century, as Ewald and Weitzsaecker do, after the manner of the old critics; or with Keim so early as 110-115 A.D.
Many evince a restless anxiety to find something novel; and to depart from well-established conclusions for the sake of originality. This shows a morbid state of mind. Amid the feverish outlook for discoveries and the slight regard for what is safe, conservatism is a commendable thing. Some again desire to return, as far as they can, to orthodoxy, finding between that extreme and rationalism a middle way which offers a resting-place to faith. The numerous changes which criticism presents are not a symptom of soundness. The writer is far indeed from thinking that every question connected with the books of Scripture is finally settled; but the majority undoubtedly are, though several already fixed by great scholars continue to be opened up afresh. He does not profess to adopt the phase of criticism which is fashionable at the moment; it is enough to state what approves itself to his judgment, and to hold it fast amid the contrarieties of conjecture or the cravings of curiosity. Present excrescences or aberrations of belief will have their day and disappear. Large portions of the Pentateuch will cease to be consigned to a post-exile time, and the gospels of Matthew and Luke will again be counted the chief sources of Mark's. It will also be acknowledged that the first as it now exists, is of much later origin than the fall of Jerusalem. Nor will there be so great anxiety to show that Justin Martyr was acquainted with the fourth gospel, and owed his Logos-doctrine chiefly to it. The difference of ten or twenty years in the date of a gospel will not be considered of essential importance in estimating its character.
The present edition has been revised throughout and several parts re-written. The author hopes that it will be found still more worthy of the favor with which the first was received.