** Did Roman Emperor Constantine compose the New Testament Canon? Why was the Canon closed? Why were some New Testament books almost left out? **
Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous. Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show. It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge. The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface. So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.
Did Constantine control the decisions about what books were included in the Bible?
So, the popular conspiracy theory goes that Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become Christian, and those at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, decided which books would be included in the Bible.
The Old Testament was set long before Constantine was born. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that shows that the books of the New Testament were considered Scripture long before an “official” canon for the New Testament was set.
For example, in 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul gives two quotes and calls them both Scripture. The first quote is from Deuteronomy 25:4, and the second quotes Jesus from Luke 10:7. This illustrates that Paul considered the Gospel of Luke — or at least the words of Jesus — as equal in authority to the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Then, in 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to Paul’s writing as Scripture. This clearly shows that the first generation of Christians already considered certain written works the new, divine written words of God.
Further, in the writings of the early church fathers – including Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp – in the first half of the second century (about 100-150 AD), they quoted extensively from the works of the New Testament, showing that they found them authoritative, even explicitly calling them Scripture at times.
Early challenges to the traditional teachings of Christianity gave the young church good reason to clarify which writings taught proper Christian doctrine. For instance, a rich, influential man named Marcion, who believed there were two Gods in the Bible (an evil God of the Old Testament and a good God of the New Testament) attempted to rid the church of anything he perceived as “Jewish.” This included getting rid of the whole Old Testament and putting together his own version of the “New Testament,” with only the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, editing out anything he perceived as too Jewish. His teachings were official rejected by the church in 144 AD.
Also, Gnosticism, a belief that mixed Christian beliefs with the philosophy of Plato, believed the material world was wholly evil and unredeemable, and because of this, Gnostics believed God never became “evil” flesh. Thus, Jesus Christ only appeared to have a human body. The Gnostic produced many false “gospels” written in the 2nd Century and after.
Thus, these situations showed the church a need to be clear what written works were truly Christian. Lists exist from the early church fathers, dated about 200 years before Constantine, listing authoritative Christian writings, including all four Gospels, Acts, and most of Paul’s letters.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which was arranged at Constantine’s request, is not where the New Testament canon was made “official” as many people wrongly think. The Council of Nicaea is where the church worked out the proper biblical understanding of the nature of Christ’s divinity in relationship to the Father, as well as some other odds and ends, like how to determine the date of the observance of Easter. No evidence of any debates or discussions about which books belonged in the Bible exists from the Council of Nicaea. The “official,” “closed” list of the New Testament Canon occurred not until 367 AD, a whole generation later. But, as stated above, the books of the New Testament were long established as the scripture of Christianity long before this, as evident by the “Muratori Fragment,” a list which includes nearly of the book of the New Testament dating from the mid-second century in Rome.
Why was the inclusion of James, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 John and 3 John in the New Testament disputed?
The Book of James has been questioned because the teachings of James appear to contradict the teachings in Paul’s letters. James teaches that faith needs to be joined with works, meaning that faith needs to be complimented with actions. James says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). But Paul, in several places in his letters, emphasizes that Christians have salvation only through faith apart from works. Thus, Christians have salvation through God’s grace alone; only through God’s work, not their own, can sinful man be redeemed. On a closer reading, we see that James and Paul do compliment each other. James is stating that works is the outcome of salvation, not the means of salvation – something Paul would agree with. A person’s actions are the evidence of salvation in that person.
2 Peter is disputed because the written style of 2 Peter is very different than the style of 1 Peter. Often, ancient letter writers dictated their ideas to scribes, who wrote them down. We see evidence in Paul’s letters that he used a scribe at times. It was not uncommon for the scribes to not record the thoughts of the speaker word-for-word, but in their own words. This means that they recorded the ideas but wrote them out in their own style. It can be safely assumed the author dictating the ideas would approve of the final product, perhaps signing it or writing some closing sentences in their own hand. Again, we see evidence of this in Paul’s letters.
Jude, 2 John, and 3 John are so short that some have questioned whether they should be in the New Testament simply because they are so brief. Can such short letters convey any significant information? Of course, this comes down to opinion, not factual evidence, and Christians today still find godly wisdom in these three short letters.
Why was Revelation included in the New Testament Canon despite controversy?
Revelation is a notoriously difficult book to understand. The genre (or style) in which Revelation is written is called apocalyptic literature, which has a lot of strange symbolism depicting spiritual things. Revelation is unique to other apocalyptic literature because it also includes prophecy and letters to churches. Despite all of this, the authorship of Revelation by the Apostle John, one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, is secure, and Revelation meets the requirements for inclusion in the New Testament.
Main Source of information for this post:
Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014).