I’m holding a copy of the New Testament, 27 books in all. How were they chosen? Were they imposed on the church hundreds of years after Christ by the Emperor Constantine as The Da Vinci Code would have you believe? Let’s investigate.
According to The Da Vinci Code, the Bible as we know it, was the product of a Roman Emperor in the fourth century, who used it as a tool for consolidating power.
“Who chose which Gospels to include?” Sophie asked. “Aha!” Teabing burst and with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.” (The Da Vinci Code page 231)
Is it true that Constantine, ruling more than 270 years after the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, determined what books would constitute the New Testament Canon? First, we have to understand the concept of the canon. “Canon” simply means “read” or “standard”. It’s the standard of our faith. So these would be the books that give the standard of our faith. Books that are considered canonical, in other words part of this canon, are books that Christians consider to be inspired by God and authoritative as the standard of the Christian faith. So where did this canon come from and how is it determined? The books in the New Testament are actually canonical (i.e. divinely inspired authoritative books) the moment they were written. Churches don’t make canons. Churches don’t make books inspired. God makes books inspired and he does that at the moment when he inspires them.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Constantine did not create the canon. What the church recognized as canonical is intrinsic to what the books are. In other words, a book is considered to be part of the canon because it is inspired or as it says in the Greek “God-breathed”. Contrary to the thesis of The Da Vinci Code, scholars believe that the vast majority of the New Testament was recognized by the church as authoritative as far back as the 1st century. By the end of the first century, four-fifths of the New Testament was already being cited as Scripture. There was one fifth of the New Testament where some people in one corner of the Empire held to some books and some people in the other corners of the Empire to others. And it slowly became clear to the church which of these questionable books really were written by the apostles.
The final fifth of the canon was made formal in Constantine’s era but not because of political pressure from the Emperor but rather because in the New Christianized Empire, Christians could more safely come together. Those books that ended up in the canon ended up in the canon because they were recognized over a period of time by a variety of congregations including a variety of geographic regions in part because of their apostolic roots. And so what you get is the testimony of centuries at work in the recognition of the canon as opposed to a particular moment when this took place. It was something the church was really careful about.
Dan Brown often says Constantine created the canon of the Bible. Not so. Neither did the Council of Nicea. The canon wasn’t even brought up. Brown says that he collated or edited, was the redactor for the various documents that got in the New Testament. Totally false. He had nothing to do with it.
What about this claim that Constantine with the aid of the church destroyed competing Gospels in forming the canon. There is a segment of our population today, and the book The Da Vinci Code is an example that criticizes the New Testament as a product of survival of the fittest. And by survival of the fittest, the implication is all the other stuff was weeded. All that remained was orthodoxy. If we’re dealing with data from 70 to 95 AD, and some would say earlier, but if we’re dealing with data from the last third of the first century, is it a surprise that we don’t want competing Gospels to be as authoritative when they were written 100 years later? The evidence shows that there were writings that were suppressed but the key point is that the vast majority of these documents were written much later than the New Testament material, long after the times of the eyewitnesses. There’s no doubt that when Christians came on the scene and the forces that represented orthodoxy did win a political sociological battle, there’s no doubt that that’s part of what these councils were about, was to affirm what Christianity was and to make clear what Christianity was not. And that did include with it some effort to suppress the circulation of documents that fell outside the bounds of orthodoxy. But that doesn’t change the nature of the record that we have in the earlier centuries and the key part of this discussion is not about what happened in the fourth century, the key part of this discussion is what happened in the first and second centuries.
Furthermore we have historical assurance that the books in the New Testament contain the earliest teachings of the Christian Church. One example is the conversion of the Apostle Paul from Christ hater to Christ worshiper. The earliest writings that we have from a Christian are from Paul. He’s riding in the (AD) 50s not only that but he relates his experience in the (AD) 30s. Biblical scholars believe that Paul writing in the 50s AD passes on a saying that had already attained the status of a church creed.
1 Corinthians 15 says “I pass on to you what also was passed on to me”. The language of passing on is the language of tradition passing on tradition. “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ had died for our sins according to the scriptures and that he was buried and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
All the essential elements of what is Christianity that he writes about in the 50s, within 20 years of the events of Jesus, have to be in place for that conversion to take place. So we know that we’re backed up right up against the time when Jesus actually came. Because of the direct connection between the New Testament books and the Apostles, as well as their early dating and correspondence with what the living eyewitnesses knew to be true about Jesus Christ, many scholars believe we can be confident that the Bible we have contains the best, most accurate material, all of the books that got inspired to testify to Jesus Christ and his mission. We ended up with the collection of what best represents a summation of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints as one of the books of the New Testament puts it.
My friend, as you’ve just seen, the books that comprise the New Testament were not forced on the church by some pagan Emperor hoping to further some personal agenda. Nearly every one of these books was accepted as authoritative by all Christians hundreds of years before Constantine. They accepted these books because they recognized that they were inspired by God himself, literally God-breathed. And those words were recorded by human authors. To put it another way, a book is not canonical – a part of the inspired canon – because the church puts its stamp on it, it is canonical because God breathed it and then the church acknowledged that fact.