The Great Missing Canon Question
by Brian Mattson
It has become popular conventional wisdom that Christianity didn’t have a Bible until the fourth century. Prior to Emperor Constantine, so it is said, there was no “fixed” number of books in the New Testament. It was a fluid time of negotiation in which lots of books vied for inclusion in a collection of books considered to be “Holy Scripture,” including some that were eventually left out (e.g., Gnostic gospels).
And then, as the legend goes, the powerful Constantine and his cronies tired of the chaos, authoritatively put their foot down, and selected the 27 books that would be the New Testament. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code went so far as to suggest that this occurred at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Kurt Eichenwald, in his ridiculous hit piece on the Bible in last month’s Newsweek, repeats the claim that Constantine “ultimately influenced” which books made it into the New Testament.
There are lots of problems with this mythical telling of church history, not the least of which is that the Council of Nicaea never even addressed the question of what books “belong” in the New Testament, much less dictated it. Oops.
There’s an even stronger historical indicator, however, that by the time Constantine reigned the books of the New Testament were near universally understood.
In 331 Constantine wrote a letter to Eusebius of Caesarea asking him to prepare 50 Bibles for use in Rome’s churches. Remember, books were not printed at this time; they were copied by hand. A commission for 50 volumes was an astonishingly large request and a massive undertaking.
If you look carefully, there is something very important missing in the letter…
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