Book Excerpt: Who Decided the Canon of Scripture (excerpted from The Word by Craig Smith)

The following is an excerpt from Craig Smith’s latest book, The Word:  Understanding & Trusting the Bible in an Age of Skepticism (purchase the book here)

Who Decided The Canon of Scripture?

Probably the best answer to this question is:  no-one.  What I mean is this:  no one person or even one group of people decided what books would be included in the Bible.  Contrary to what many modern critics of the Bible say, the fact is that the books that would eventually make up the Bible were recognized as God’s work by multitudes of God’s people over a long period of time.

This is a fact that most modern skeptics of the Bible simply fail to understand.  Consider, for instance, the following common claim as articulated in the bestseller, The Da Vinci Code:

“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them.”

“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked.

“Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm.  “The fundamental irony of Christianity!  The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”

I’m not even sure where to start debunking this ridiculous claim.  I suppose we should just start at the beginning:

1. There were not “more than eighty gospels” considered for the N.T.  If we define “gospel” as a book which claims to be a historical report of the sayings or deeds of Jesus of Nazareth,[1] there are no more than 15, including the canonical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.[2]  Even if we expand the list to include other ancients texts which speak about Jesus but don’t claim to be historical records of his life (they are more like the epistles/letters of the N.T.), the list is only 52.[3]

2. Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code) shows an astonishing ignorance of the Bible when he has his character say that “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” are “among” the gospels chosen for the N.T.  These books are not “among” the gospels – they are the only four gospels in the N.T.!  The other books of the N.T. are not “gospels” by any stretch of the imagination!

3. Constantine the Great was not a pagan![4]  His conversion from paganism to Christianity is well-documented.[5]  In other words, Constantine was a Christian!

4. Constantine did not put together the Bible as we know it.  He only demanded that the Christian leadership of his day assemble to settle some doctrinal matters which were causing political instability.  This assembly was called the Council of Nicea, which some people claim was responsible for the formulation of the Bible, but even if this were true (which it is not – see below), this would not mean that Constantine himself was responsible for the Bible as we know it!  By the time Constantine arrived on the scene in the latter part of the 4th century, the N.T. was already well-established and the O.T. had been established for at least 600 years!

But if Constantine didn’t decide which books belonged in the Bible, who did?  Again, the answer is that no one person or even one specific group of people made this decision. Instead, the canon of Scripture developed over a long period of time as God’s people recognized those books which demonstrated the evidence of having been inspired by God.

The process by which the Bible came together in the form that we know it can be thought of in four simple stages:

1.  Inspiration

2.  Recognition

3.  Protection

4.  Translation

We’ve already talked about inspiration in detail in the last chapter, so now let’s turn our attention to the other three steps.

The preceeding is an excerpt from Craig Smith’s latest book, The Word:  Understanding & Trusting the Bible in an Age of Skepticism (purchase the book here)

[1] I am using a very loose definition here in order to be as generous as possible in my response to those who are skeptical of the canon of Scripture.  A far better definition of “gospel” would be something like:  a narrative recounting of both the deeds and teachings of Jesus intended to serve as an apologetic for the beliefs and practices of the early Christian community.  If we use this definition, there may well be no more than four gospel accounts (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  Several of the other so-called “gospels” were written too late to have anything to do with the early Christian community and a few of the earlier ones, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are really only a list of quotations supposed to have come from Jesus.

[2] In addition to the canonical texts, these additional “gospels” include the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas the Contender, the Gospel of Truth and Sophia of Jesus Christ.  In the interest of fairness I have included this last one, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, in the list though it may not quite qualify as a “gospel” even in the loose sense of the word being used here. 

[3] See Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels:  Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Books, Inc., 2006).

[4] “Paganism” is a broad term used to refer to a whole series of non-Christian religions, most of which revolved around the belief in many gods that affected nature in various ways.  Constantine was probably a pagan before his conversion to Christianity, but he certainly wasn’t one during the time-frame that Dan Brown is talking about here.

[5] R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 55.