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Who Decided What Books To Place in Our Bible?

In past blog posts, and on a local message board in which I discuss such things with others, there have been a few people who have asked questions in regards to my statements as to the relationship of the Council of Nicaea to the Canonization of scripture, and my assertion that the men who met at that Council ultimately determined what books appear in the Bible you and I hold in our hands. I haven’t responded to those questions, as I knew that I’d eventually post this article.

FYI: this article is one part (of five) of a paper that I had to write for a Seminary class assignment. You’ll notice it refers to other writings not posted here. Should anyone wish to read the other writings I’d be happy to post them in a future blog post. There are also references in parenthesis to books in the Bibliography from which this paper comes. I’ll post that Bibliography as a comment to this blog post for those who might want that information.


Event #2: Canonization of Scripture

What can possibly be of more importance to the history of the church than the scriptures upon which it is based? Yet few of us have any clue why our Bibles contain the books they contain. Fewer still realize that at the time of canonization, the opinion of the Christian community was split almost 50/50 as to what should and should not be considered as scripture (Pagels, 2004, pages 170-175). While some simply accept the idea that to be considered part of the canon of scripture, writings must be traced to an apostle as the writer or main source, others point out that even those writings traced back to apostles are often in conflict.

Having received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Stanford, and her PhD from Harvard, author Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Ms. Pagels area of expertise is early Christian history. When new religious artifacts are discovered, Pagels is often called upon to help interpret them.

In her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Pagels points out that there are literally hundreds of pages of “gospels” and “apocrypha” written during the first centuries, many of them documents the average lay person isn’t even aware exist, that contain sayings, rituals and dialogues attributed to Jesus and his disciples. In the early years of Christianity many of these documents were just as well known as the 27 books we have in the New Testament of our Bibles today. The Gospel of John, written at close to the same time as the Gospel of Thomas, reveals a minor rivalry even amongst two of Jesus’ own disciples, and many of today’s best scholars believe John’s gospel was written as a rebuttal to teachings attributed to Thomas. One example of rivalry is hinted at by reading the books that are included in our Bibles: while the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke refer to Jesus appearing to the 11 after his Resurrection (Judas was no longer with them), the Gospel of John says Jesus appeared to 10 of them, as Thomas was not present. And it is only in John’s gospel that Thomas is referred to as a doubter. John’s gospel emphasizes that some of the key beliefs put forth by Thomas’ gospel are incorrect. The Gospel of Thomas teaches, for example, that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but potentially in everyone. Thomas’ gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe IN Jesus, as John’s gospel requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity since all are created in the image of God (Pagels, 2004, pages 30-73).

Many amongst the first generations of Christians disagreed with John’s gospel that Jesus was God in the flesh, doubted his writings were scripture, and did not want his book to be part of what we now call the New Testament. Those believers also took issue with the fact that in a handful of places John’s gospel differs with, and even directly contradicts, the combined testimony of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John tells a different version of Jesus’ final days, for example. John also places the story of Jesus in the Temple disrupting the money changers at the beginning of his ministry, while the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke place that as happening at the end of his ministry. Only in John’s gospel do we find the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, which was an act that upset the leaders of the time so much that they wanted to kill not only Jesus but Lazarus as well, because they were concerned that if he were to go on doing such things everyone would believe in him. It is noted that even early defenders of John’s gospel, such as a teacher named Origen, are quoted as saying that the author of John’s gospel might not always tell the truth “literally” but always told the truth “spiritually” (Origen, Commentary on John, 10.4-6).

If John was to be believed, Jesus proclaimed himself begotten of God, equal to God, and God in the flesh. If Thomas was to be believed, Jesus only claimed to have been created by God just as the rest of us, although with a deeper level of connection and understanding. According to Thomas, although he may have been of similar substance as God, Jesus was not fully man and fully God and he wanted the world to know that God’s Light could be found within all of us.

The argument between those who believed the teachings attributed to John and those who believed the teachings attributed to Thomas led to many writings and discussions. It is clear that if the four gospels of our Bibles were Matthew, Mark, Luke and Thomas we’d have a much different view of Jesus than we do now, with John’s gospel as the fourth.

One man in particular, a man named Irenaeus, wrote extensively on such matters. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, and Polycarp was a disciple of John. Irenaeus was very much in favor of showing those who followed Thomas’ teachings the errors of their ways. He was of the opinion that those who disagreed with John had “cast truth aside” and “resorted to evil interpretation” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1, c. 180). He was alarmed to learn that even amongst those in congregations to whom he personally traveled as a missionary, many were divided on whether to believe the teachings attributed to Thomas or whether to lean more towards what was taught by John’s gospel.

Irenaeus’ writings became quite influential in guiding the paths of those that would eventually decide which books belong in our Bibles. His opinion could be summed up with his assertion that if those heretics had been right, we would have no need for revelation and “the coming of the Lord” would “appear unnecessary and useless” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies). Through Irenaeus’ writings, it was made very clear that John’s gospel definitely means that God = Word = Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Irenaeus declared that teachings like Thomas’ gospel were nothing more than gnosticism pushing its influence into Christianity. Even so, the discussion continued after he died in 202 AD, and wasn’t totally settled until late the next century, many years after Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor and ended the persecution of Christians.

When I mentioned in “Event #1” that Constantine, after becoming emperor, gave back to the church all the lands that were taken from it, what I didn’t mention was that Constantine also befriended many of the bishops, even writing them personal letters (Barnes, 2006, pages 208-227). The purpose of the Council of Nicaea in 325 was to resolve disagreements over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Father, in particular, whether He was of the same substance as God the Father or merely of similar substance. As many of us know, this council resulted in the Nicene Creed, which Constantine himself endorsed. Afterward, the official doctrine became such that “all Christians henceforth must accept and participate in the only church recognized by the emperor – the catholic (universal) church.” Even a year before the Council of Nicaea, Constantine made an attempt to legislate an end to “sects” he considered heretical, which included half the Christians in the empire (MacMullen, 1986, pages 59-119). His beliefs on what was or was not heretical (meaning, “wrong teaching”) were greatly influenced by the bishops he had befriended, who were in turn followers of the line of beliefs written by the likes of Irenaeus. Although it is often said that the canon of scripture was issued at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the Council of Carthage in 397, because of the nature of the politics surrounding the Nicene council and Constantine’s endorsement of it, the books that conflicted with the Nicene Creed were already “on the way out.” The desire (or often times: commands) to destroy those books led those who wished to preserve them to hide and bury them in jars or even graves (we have recovered some of these texts even as recently as the mid 1900s).

In 367, Church Father (and bishop) Athanasius, wrote an easter letter that listed the 27 books we now have in our New Testament (it should be noted that Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicaea, and was very much involved with those on “the winning side”). The Western church approved the same 27 books at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at Carthage in 397 (Garlow, 2000, pg 48). In the alternate textbook assigned for this class, How God Saved Civilization, there is a quote by David F. Wright on page 49 that states the following:

Although churchmen in a literal sense created the canon (the Bible), they were only recognizing the books that had stamped their own authority on the churches. The criteria for accepting a book as canonical (authentic) were sometimes complex. Above all, it had to be written or sponsored by an apostle, and also be recognizably orthodox in context, and publicly used by a prominent church or majority of churches… But the eventual shape of the New Testament shows that the Early Church wanted to submit fully to the teachings of the apostles. It had been created by their preaching and now grounded itself upon their writings.

Whether or not one might wish to disagree with the exclusion of certain books from our Bible that for centuries had been accepted as scripture by half the Christian community, and whether or not one might wish to argue that the ultimate list of 27 books of the New Testament was greatly influenced by political pressures and favors from the first Christian Emperor, there is no doubt that the canonization of scripture is one of the most important events in all of church history. It is literally what millions have built their faith, and lives, upon.