Who Chose the Books of the New Testament?

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.