A friend of mine recently commented to me, “Of course the writings of the New Testament are all about Politics and Power. Certain men decided what the Bible would say – and they omitted the books that did not fit with their message. I do not trust the Bible for this reason.”
The whiff of conspiracy is like the ignition of rocket fuel. People get interested! 15 years ago, Dan Brown built his career on it.
“The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds…it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” – Leigh Teabing, The Da Vinci Code
Is my friend right? Or has Dan Brown’s fictional universe begun to replace history in popular thinking?
It is worth noting a few historical facts as we consider this.
FIRST – The Christian church was quickly scattered in the first century. Persecution by the Roman authorities was brutal. And so initially, no controlling church organization existed. Because people were scattered across Europe, Asia Minor, etc. In fact – if you read the New Testament (NT), you will notice that many of the books are actually letters written to individuals or churches at that difficult time.
SECOND – because the church was scattered in the first century, not every Christian church had every one of the important, authoritative writings. Not every early Christian believer had access to every letter. It was a more primitive time with regard to travel and communication.
So this comes to the heart of the matter! Who decided what was “Scripture” and what was “wanna-be Scripture”? Who controlled what was in, and what was out when it came to the NT? Is it true that it took hundreds of years before political winds finally blew todays NT canon together?
I would suggest that the evidence suggests – NO – this is not how the NT canon was selected. So what does the historical evidence suggest, then?
FIRST – the majority of the canonical NT books gained acceptance from the earliest of times in the Christian Church. Even before the NT was complete, significant letters were copied in part and as a whole and began to be circulated around the scattered church. This was essentially happening before the later NT books were even written yet. If we want evidence to support this theory, we don’t have to look very far at all. The Apostle Peter, who was a member of Jesus’ inner circle during his time on Earth, refers to Paul – Christian persecutor turned Evangelist to the Gentiles – in these terms.
“This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him— 16 speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.” 2 Peter 3:15-16, NLT
In other words – Paul’s letters were considered to be authoritative during Paul’s lifetime and during Peter’s lifetime in the first century.
What this suggests to me is – that the first century Christian Church was simply recognizing the written works that held authority and had the power to change people’s lives. No council existed to decide which works held to the party line – the people either recognized divine authority in a book – or not.
By the way – notice that a crucial criteria for acceptance was – connection to the early Apostles. Much of the NT is written by these men themselves, some of it (like Mark and Luke) was penned by their close colleagues.
SECOND – a book or a letter was considered Authoritative if it’s teaching was consistent with the established Jewish canon – which Christians refer to today as the Old Testament
THIRD – by the end of the first century, all 27 NT books had been written and received and agreed to by various parts of the scattered church. Yet because communication was poor – not all the written works were available to all the early Christians.
FOURTH – A generation after the last of the Apostles had died, every one of the 27 NT books had been cited as being authoritative by one of the 2nd century Church fathers.
FIFTH – Yes there were debates amongst the churches around some of the books. It wasn’t exactly clear who the author of the Letter to the Hebrews was. Yet its teaching was clearly consistent with the other authoritative works. A book called the Shepherd of Hermes was considered authoritative by some of the early churches. But when it was shared more broadly, people noticed that its theology was suspect. It taught that – if we sin after we have become a Christian – we have blown it and we will never get to heaven. This is at odds with the rest of the NT that teaches people are saved by God’s Grace when we put our trust and our faith in him; and he forgives us when we honestly ask for it. And so – the general consensus was – to reject the Shepherd of Hermes as an authoritative work.
In summary then – the NT cannon was not selected behind closed doors for power reasons. Rather, the fledgling Christian church recognized the authoritative books and so functioned with a working but growing canon from the earliest of times.
So what of the later Councils? What of the famous Council of Nicea that Constantine held in AD 325? Ironically there is no evidence that Constantine was involved in selecting the NT canon at all! It had already existed for decades. Rather – Nicea was all about a powerful leader gathering the Church together to debate heresies that were growing around the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he fully God as well as fully man?
Other later councils met to discuss the canon (Hippo in AD393 and Carthage in AD397). But this was not a politically engineered process. Rather the work of the council was simply to recognize what the growing church had decided years ago. Which books held authority and held the power to change people’s lives. And which did not.
Is the canon closed? Should any books be added to the NT? Was a mistake made? Enter the conspiracy theorists. But surely the question to those proposing a conspiracy is simply this. Show us your case? Present the book that should be included and explain why? If it wasn’t good enough for the early Christians then it sure isn’t good enough for the church of today!
Pop culture may have lost hold of this now…but The NT cannon was not selected behind closed doors for power reasons. Rather, the fledgling Christian church recognized the authoritative books. And they remain powerful life changing works to this day.
Points to Dan Brown, then. Fun book – tragic consequences on pop culture.