Constantine’s Bible?

Written by Drew on June 27th, 2006

“Who decided which were the true books of the Bible as opposed to Constantine’s Bible and all the manuscripts available at that time?”

I can only assume that the above question was stimulated by Dan Brown’s wildly popular novel-turned-movie, “The Da Vinci Code.” A “fact” page at the beginning of the novel claims, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” (p. 1). This has intimidated not a few believers, who read the book and see the basic tenants of their faith under attack. In one place, the character known as Sir Leigh Teabing claims that the Roman emperor Constantine singlehandedly exalted Christ to the status of deity through the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Then he makes the following statement: “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike” (p. 234).

Did Constantine really institute a “new Bible” four centuries after Jesus died? Brown’s character, Teabing, further alleges that the emperor filtered some 80 gospels out of this new work to include only the four we have today. Supposedly, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were useful in Constantine’s goal of deifying Jesus Christ. Is this true? How should Christians respond?

Constantine’s name has been used to support all kinds of movements. “The Da Vinci Code” is no exception. No one can deny that Dan Brown is a great fiction writer, but his history is all wrong. Consider some of the facts.

First of all, Constantine did relieve the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313, but he was far from being the Christian leader described in Brown’s book. While he did claim to be the benefactor of a vision of a cross in 312, he delayed his baptism until shortly before his death in 337. Furthermore, he kept the position of Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the pagan state religion, throughout his reign, something a true Christian would never do. Not only that, his execution of those who might have had a claim to his throne is inconsistent with the conduct of a genuine disciple of Christ. Constantine was interested in Christianity for two reasons: 1) its power to unify Imperial Rome, and 2) its usefulness in preserving classical culture (Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 134). For him, Christianity was a matter of expediency, not faith.

Secondly, the Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with the Bible. Rather, the group of three hundred bishops came together for the purpose of addressing Arianism, which challenged the deity of Christ. Constantine’s “new Bible” is not a matter of the annals of history; it is a figment of Brown’s fertile imagination.

The earliest canon of the 27 books of the New Testament we have belongs to Athanasius, whose work was published in 367–thirty years following Constantine’s death–and is identical to the 27 books of the New Testament we recoginze today. However, no later than the second century lists of the accepted books of the New Testament began to appear. One example is the Muratorian Canon, part of which has been lost. Luke is the first gospel mentioned by name, but it is called the “third” gospel, so we can be sure Matthew and Mark were included as well. Then follow John, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul and others. Only Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1 John are missing, but since part of the list is missing, it is impossible to know if some of these were also included (Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, p. 64).

But even before these lists appeared, the New Testament books were being circulated. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul told his readers, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). In his first letter to the Thessalonians, he instructed that church, “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers (1 Thes. 5:27). Peter recoginized that Paul’s letters were widely studied among the churches and held them on a par with “the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

In addition, not long after the books of the New Testament were penned, influential church leaders were giving them their stamp of approval. Irenaeus, who enjoyed a direct link to the apostle John through his teacher Polycarp, identified all of them except for Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude. His work is enlightening, considering that it was written less than 100 years from the completion of the New Testament. Many others spoke favorably of these books and quickly rejected the extra-biblical material Dan Brown relied upon for some of his conclusions in “The Da Vinci Code.”

No one knows where Brown got his claim that Constantine disposed of 80 gospels to produce the Bible as we know it today. It is true that there are non-canonical “gospels,” but they come nowhere close to 80. One source writes,

Brown claims that the church knew of more than 80 gospels, but only chose four. The Nag Hammadi Library (published in 1977) is considered one of, if not the best resource on biblical and extra-biblical history. This library lists a total of 45 titles, and not all of them were gospels. Another collection, The Gnostic Scriptures (by Bentley Layton) has just short of 40 works, only three of which have the title gospel. Many of these overlap the same works in the Nag Hammadi list. At best, there were 60 works, and the strong majority were not gospel accounts.

In the words of Josh McDowell, the church had recognized the books of the New Testament as Scripture nearly 200 years before Nicaea. “It was only due to the challenge of missions, fraud and heresy that the church leadership felt the need to clearly articulate the list.”

In short, the answer to the question is God decided through inspiration which books would be included in the New Testament. These were “canonized” later, but canonization is more a process of recognition than decision. What the church did in the fourth century, following the reign of Constantine, was to acknowledge the divine authority that was already inherent in the Bible.

 

7 Comments so far ↓

  1. J- Train says:

    Interesting article, Drew. I wonder though, if those that buy into Dan Brown and his stories wouldn’t feel like this is just a case of “he said, she said.” I imagine they would feel like there are two sets of “experts” saying contradictory things. And if you lean towards the “mystical” and like conspiracy theories, I imagine this would hardly dissuade you. Unfortunately ignorance is often times quite stubborn.

    -Joel

  2. Wes says:

    “Ignorance is often times quite stubborn.” That will surely make its way into a sermon in the near future. In regards to those who would still see it as a matter of “he said, she said” The problem is a failure to evaluate the validity and credibility of scholarship. You can find someone who will teach and write almost anything, but that does not make it all true. As Christians we have a responsiblity to sort out the good from the bad. In some cases, such as the divinity of Christ, our eternal souls rest in the balance of our ability to make those determinations. Recently in a Bible class a distinguished gentleman made reference to the fact that the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic and not Greek. When I started to talk about some of the evidence for a Greek New Testament he replied, “You have your scholars and I have mine.” He might have some book that teaches such a false idea but it flies right in the face of strong and established scholarship. He believe the Bible was origianlly written in Aramaic because he wanted to believe that. There was little that I could do change his position. What I could do was stand for the facts in an effort to keep others from being influenced by his false idea. Ignorance is often times quite stubborn.

  3. Drew Kizer says:

    “Ignorance is often times quite stubborn.” Where was that line when I was looking for a title for my blog?

    Some people do not care enough about truth to bother with the real evidence. In 2000, when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore in the presidential election, an acquaintance told me he was voting for Gore. When I asked why, he revealed that his decision was based on parodies he saw on Saturday Night Live.

    This is the same attitude possessed by those who buy into “The Da Vinci Code’s” claims. They’re more interested in an entertaining yarn than the truth.

  4. J- Train says:

    Apparently my line about ignorance was a stroke of genius! I may have to copyright it. It’s already been quoted 3 times. Anyway, I think that’s exactly right, Drew, people like entertainment over enlightenment. It’s like Plato’s cave, getting dragged into the light hurts.

    -Joel

  5. Benjamin J. Williams says:

    Scott Elliott has a great tract on the Da Vinci Code if anyone is interested. His blog can be found at http://www.1peter411.blogspot.com/ and you can contact him there. I have passed the tract out at my home congregation and it has been well received.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I understand that there is a greater tendency for Dan Brown’s story to be incorrect. But the very existence of such an issue does call for serious attention. If it was true, then the whole christian religion as we know it would be a lie!

  7. Anonymous says:

    In most things there is usually some truth if one takes the time to search for it.

    One must keep in mind that the fictional character from the novel/movie basically hated the church and so would tend to exagerate things. So let’s just look at what was said.

    “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike”

    Constantine did in fact commission/finance 50 copies of a bible around the same time as the council of Nicaea. The word “new” however is what’s misleading. Up until that time there probably wasn’t one cohesive “copy” of the bible. So it would have required the church to decide which of the gospels that were widely in distribution to include in that printing. Although he may or not have been involved with that, it did create the first “bible”.

    One of the things that occured at the council of Nicaea was that the council voted against the teachings of the priest Arius. The most controversal teaching was that Jesus was not of the same form as the Father but had been created. The council exiled Arius and Constantine ordered that all his writings be burned.

    The “Nicene Creed” was adopted at this councel as well. A part of the creed is that Jesus is “not made, being of one substance with the Father;”

    So is what was written in the novel true or not? The teachings and writings of Arius could be said to have spoke of Christs’s “human” traits and that the Nicene Creed make Christ more godlike. Since Arius had been exiled, his writings would not have been included in the bible Constantine commissioned.

    So yes, there is mostly truth in what was written. However, given the context it was clearly embelished to imply more than what it should. But then again, all sides do the same in order to attempt to win their argmuents and/or maintain their influence/power over others.

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