“The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown’s super-selling novel, has brought mass attention — and mass confusion — to historical issues, among them: How did we get the New Testament? Who decided what to include, and when and why?
The “canon” (official list) of 27 New Testament books was chosen from among numerous writings and the process was more complicated than many realize.
Brown’s version, presented as factual, comes through the words of two of his fictional characters — a Harvard professor and a retired “British Royal Historian”:
“The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by” the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine. He “commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that make him godlike.” The compilers’ had a “political agenda,” to solidify their “power base.”
Both liberals and conservatives reject Brown’s contentions. Even the secular humanist magazine Skeptical Inquirer acknowledges that the earliest Christians believed in Jesus‘ divinity (see Paul’s letters and Larry Hurtado’s 2003 blockbuster book “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity“).
Three centuries later, Constantine summoned a council that officially defined the already existing belief that Jesus the Son is eternal and fully equal with God the Father.
How were the 27 books chosen? The early church considered dating, fidelity to past Jewish and Christian teaching, and links with Jesus’ apostles.
There’s a user-friendly rundown for general readers in the little conservative classic “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” (Eerdmans, InterVarsity) by British scholar F.F. Bruce, now deceased.
“Introduction to the New Testament” (Doubleday) by Raymond Brown, also deceased, of Union Theological Seminary provides further information. More technical tomes include “The Canon of the New Testament” (Clarendon) by Bruce Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary.
On dating: Jesus was crucified around A.D. 30. Experts say Paul wrote his earliest letters around 50 and John, the last of the four Gospels, dates from 90 to 100. Liberals think a few of the 27 books were written after 100; conservatives put them earlier. There were allusions to many of the 27 in three Christian writings dating from around 100.
Several books the ancients rejected as spurious have been promoted in recent years by a liberal faction that dates them considerably earlier than do other scholars.
The New Testament books are by far the best-attested ancient writings. For example, only 10 good texts exist for Caesar’s “Gallic War,” known to high school Latin students, with the oldest written fully 900 years after the original.
By contrast, thousands of New Testament manuscripts survived the centuries. Two key collections dated at around 350 contain the entire New Testament (Codex Sinaiticus) or most of it (Codex Vaticanus). There are also important chunks and fragments dating from 130 to 350.
Jewish authorities began defining the Hebrew Bible after Jerusalem fell in 70. Christianity reaffirmed those Scriptures in 144 when the heretic Marcion wanted to reject ties to Judaism (though early Christians used a Greek translation with several “Old Testament” books that Jews excluded.)
Marcion also proposed a selective list of New Testament books (a cut-down Luke plus 10 of Paul’s letters), which helped provoke churches to define a broader Christian canon.
Matthew, Mark, Luke (uncut), John and 13 letters of Paul won ever-widening acceptance, particularly after 150. (Syrians preferred a unified narrative compiled in 170 from the four Gospels.)
Shortly before or after 200, the Greek-speaking East and Latin-speaking West had agreed upon 20 books (the four Gospels, the 13 Paul letters, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John). But complex debate continued about the other books in what became the New Testament (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation).
A list by Egypt’s influential Bishop Athanasius in 367 (three decades after Constantine died) soon became the consensus — and continues 16 centuries later.