Did Constantine Create the New Testament?

There are popular opinions that challenge the authority of the Biblical Canon and in doing so challenge Christian doctrine. In specific, the most common is to discredit the authenticity and therefore the authority of the New Testament. The general challenge is that the books of the New Testament were selected as a result of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 under the newly converted Roman Emperor Constantine. To place a finer point on the argument, it was Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, who is claimed to have canonized the current 27 books of the New Testament in his Festal Letter of AD 367. The result of this claim is that while there were many competing books, it was the selection of a single person, or at best a select few council members, that would dictate the theological content of Christianity by elevating the books they determined for their benefit as scripture and demoting all others as heretical. The most logical conclusion, for this popular opinion, then becomes that in actuality there are many other sources of theological truth in Christianity and they should be regarded with equal weight and importance as those of the current New Testament Canon. A major proponent of this popular opinion is the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, who has made a name for himself in challenging the authority of the New Testament writings. As Ehrman has stated, “the books that were eventually collected into the New Testament had been written by the second century. But they had not yet been gathered into a widely recognized and authoritative canon of Scripture. And there were other books written as well, with equally impressive pedigrees”.[1] In particular, when challenging the New Testament Gospels, Ehrman further states, “Someone decided that four of these early Gospels, and no others, should be accepted as part of the canon—the collection of sacred books of Scripture. But how did they make their decisions? When? How can we be sure they were right? And whatever happened to the other books?”.[2] It is precisely these statements that lends credibility to the claims against the authority of the New Testament books and being from such a source as Ehrman, one would find it hard to refute the influence of these claims without a historical background. This article will examine the historical background and reveal evidence against the false claim that there was no Canon of scripture before Athanasius wrote his 39th Festal Letter, as well as Ehrman’s theory of competing books with equal importance.

According to Ehrman, “someone decided” [3] which books would be selected as scripture and which would not make it into the Christian Canon. Additionally, Ehrman claims that the “someone” in question was Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria. Ehrman further states that Athanasius wrote a letter dictating what books should be included in the New Testament and that “other heretical books not be read”.[4] To the reader it becomes clear that, in Ehrman’s opinion, the decision of what the Christian Church would consider scripture was left to one person alone, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria.

In order to examine the validity of this claim, an understanding of Athanasius’s letter is required. The letter in question is specifically the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. First, it is important to consider who Athanasius was, and second, what the letter is. Before Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria, he attended the First Council of Nicaea, in AD 325, as the assistant to Bishop Alexander. Emperor Constantine hosted the first official Christian council in order to better organize the once outlawed religion and create an opportunity for church leaders to hash out theological issues. Before AD 312, Christianity was a forbidden underground religion. However, now barely 13 years later, the Emperor of Rome was not only recognizing Christianity as a legal religion, but was assembling a council of its leaders. Christianity could now proudly poke its head out from the shadows and make certain statements about its theology, if first it could settle some debatable topics. The primary focus of the Nicaean Council was to deal with the controversy of the Trinity as well as the celebration of Easter. It was not about picking which books would be in the New Testament and which books would not. That topic was never discussed or relevant to the Council of Nicaea. It is true that there was no assembled New Testament at this point in history, but as will be revealed shortly, that became more a matter of acknowledgement than it was of bestowment. Shortly after the Nicaean Council, Athanasius would be made Bishop after Alexander’s death in AD 328.[5] In the years preceding Nicaea, due to controversy over the Passover Feast and the newly dedicated Easter Feast, Athanasius would write a yearly letter to announce the date which Easter would be celebrated.[6] These letters are known as the Festal Letters, or the Easter Letters. In his 39th letter (AD 367), Athanasius lists the authoritative books that are recognized as Canon. These same books are what is known today as the Bible, which consists of the Old and New Testaments. Athanasius directly names, the same 27 books we regard today in the New Testament, as scripture to the church in his day. In addition, he lists by name a few books that are worthy of reading but not apostolic in authority and therefore not included in the Canon. He lastly mentions that there are other heretical books falsely claiming authority with the intention of leading others astray.[7]

There is no doubt, that Athanasius, as Bishop of Alexandria, carried a great authority in order to administer such letters to resolve the annual controversy surrounding Passover and Easter. Of equal importance is the consideration that as Bishop of Alexandria, one of the larger and revered churches, Athanasius was considered a highly respected leader. All of this to say, that while Athanasius was greatly respected and considered authoritative in the early church, he was not the final authority on church positions, but rather one of many bishops. All of whom had importance, and all of whom had many disagreements on theological as well as liturgical issues, as early church letters reveal. That is to say that there was no ecumenical position where what one bishop stated was therefore Canon, but rather that many councils were held, after the first at Nicaea, to hash out differences and present authoritative positions. Yet none of those bishops, or any other sect, leader, or fringe faction of Christianity, ever challenged the summary of Athanasius’s Canon. To be clear, history has no record of another contradictory account presented by another group with a different list of books that should be considered authoritatively as Canon. Given this point, it now becomes curiously necessary to examine the evidence as to why Athanasius’s Canon was widely accepted without protest.

The definition of the word canon “is a general rule or principle by which something is judged”.[8] As such to attribute the term ‘canon’ to the collection of books used to claim authority over Christian theology is to mean that the teachings within those books become doctrine by which we govern our spiritual life as well as church order. In other words, when there are statements made on theological points and disputes arise as a result of those statements, it becomes the role of those books in the Canon to serve as the arbiter of the disagreement. All things theological are discerned according to the writings deemed as scripture because they are the authoritative source. According to Biblical Scholar, Bruce Metzger, there are two distinctions to make in the definition of canon when referring to the New Testament. As Metzger states, “the New Testament can be described either as a collection of authoritative books, or as an authoritative collection of books”.[9] While on first appearance this distinction seems trivial, it is actually critical to the understanding of what makes the New Testament Canon authoritative. The question to ask of this statement is whether the New Testament books are authoritative because they were determined as such by Athanasius in the late 4th century, or whether they were merely recognized by Athanasius as the authoritative Canon of Christianity. The question of authority then becomes the pivotal argument in the attempt for canonization. When dealing with the New Testament Canon, there is no higher authority than Jesus Christ and his direct disciples or the original apostles. For this exact reason, writings claiming to be authored by disciples began to appear in the mix of Christian literature as early as the end of the first century.

Writings such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas claimed to be authored by the disciple Thomas himself.[10] This claim would appear to satisfy the qualification of authority if it were truly authored by Thomas himself, however, during the mid-second century Irenaeus quotes from it as an example of a “false and wicked story”.[11] The stories contained within elaborate on the childhood antics of Jesus, filling in the mysterious years left empty by the canonical Gospels. In some cases, Jesus was abusive in his divine power and often contemptuous of those around him. The Jesus in these stories is an immature messiah who needs to learn how to handle himself as a deity while in human form. Similarly, in Against Heresies, Irenaeus debunks the usage of The Gospel of Judas as another spurious writing claiming to have alternate insight represented as authoritative truth.[12] Painting the picture of Judas as the unspoken hero, the gospel reveals Judas as having greater insight into the true identity of Christ. His vision leads him to be the one to take the calling of delivering Jesus to crucifixion, making Judas the true sacrifice for humanity as if he is taking one for the team. In addition, later gospel accounts such as The Gospel of Thomas claimed to contain “hidden sayings”[13] that Jesus taught only to Thomas. However, among its earliest audience this gospel was not received as such and even disputed to be authentic. As Hill states, “What we do know is that among those communities of Christians who eventually showed their clear adherence to the four canonical Gospels there is no evidence of a positive adherence of any kind to the Gospel of Thomas”.[14] All of these counterfeit gospels were competing for and against the four canonical Gospels as authoritative scripture, yet none have historical proof of wide acceptance and circulation.

When examining the four canonical Gospels, a completely different image appears. The earliest writings we have of church leadership, outside of the New Testament, in the first century, is that of the Bishop Clement of Rome. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Clement repeatedly quotes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones”.[15]

Not only is Clement quoting directly from Mark 9:38–50, Matthew 18:6–14, and Luke 9:49–50, in this passage, but he is also directing his readers to “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This has direct implication on the authority that was given to the canonical Gospels, as they were taught from, quoted from, and used for instruction in early Christianity, while revered as the words of Jesus Christ. This is not a single occurrence however, Clement repeatedly quotes numerous sayings as “the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” that can only be found in the canonical Gospels. Likewise, among early Church Fathers such as; Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Tertullian (c. 160-220), Hippolytus (c. 170-236), Origen (c. 182-254), Eusebius (c. 263-339), and many others, there is an estimated 19,368 quotes from the four canonical Gospels.[16] When expanding the data set to include the other 23 books of the New Testament there are combined over 36,000 quotes from the first three centuries of Christianity.[17] In comparison, the attempt to find quotations of any of the non-canonical gospels is an almost impossible task. They simply do not exist except for a few scant references, as I mentioned, by early church fathers refuting or debunking them. There was no wide acceptance of these gospels as authoritative teachings. Yet, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have littered the writings of spiritual teachers, both Christian and non-Christian, for the past 2,000 years.

When a comparison is made regarding the copy and distribution of the New Testament writings to the non-canonical writings, the gap widens even greater. For the combined non-canonical writings, including; The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Peter, The Acts of Peter, The Gospel of MaryThe Gospel of Philip, and many others, there are hardly multiple copies of each to be found. Even when given a generous estimate, the number of manuscript copies is barely 100. In comparison, when counting the number of manuscripts of the collection of New Testament writings, there are over 25,000 copies. Although some are partial and others are full, the case stands that the New Testament writings, before they were assembled into one Canon, were widely copied and distributed. Much more than any other competing text. While copies of manuscripts do not directly give authority to the text, the numbers do provide insight into the fact that there was not an equal circulation of all the writings claiming to be of Christ’s authority. There is no comparison to be made against any other non-canonical writing on the basis of usage. For Ehrman to claim that other writings held the same “pedigree” he would have to show similar accounting for any of the other non-canonical writings to be circulated and quoted from with similar frequency. None of which exists. Richard Bauckham has furthered this evidence by claiming that substantiation for the proliferation of the four canonical Gospels to a widely accepted audience can be seen within the non-canonical gospels themselves, by their attempts to add to the story.[18] All of the non-canonical Gospels make attempts to either further or borrow from what was already written and circulated as the authoritative Gospels in order to establish their importance among the authoritative writings. In short, the other gospels are copycats of the story and making attempts to embellish the character of Jesus. They are copycats because before the New Testament was assembled everyone knew what the authoritative Gospels were, they were the same four we know today as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Hundreds of years before Athanasius wrote his Festal Letter codifying the New Testament Canon, there were earlier lists mentioning the circulating writings that the Christian communities were considering authoritative. There was the early mention of the four Gospels by Irenaeus, and similarly Justin Martyr in the mid-second century. There is also Tertullian’s commentary on the Marcionite listing of Luke’s Gospel, and 9 of Paul’s letters estimated to be from the same second century period. However, the first solid listing closely resembling the finalized Canon of Athanasius can be traced to approximately AD 170. The Muratorian Fragment, which is a thorough listing of all writings circulated throughout the Christian community and considered to be authoritative details 23 of the 27 New Testament books as authoritative, broadly received, and taught from as scripture.[19] Known commonly as the Muratorian Canon, all but 4 (Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter) of the final books are regarded as the official representation of Christian writings. Like the eventual letter of Athanasius, the Muratorian Canon was not a formal decree of authoritative writings, but rather it served as an observation of what books were circulated as authoritative throughout the Christian communities. As Bruce states:

One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect.[20]

            The conclusion to the discussion as to whether Athanasius created the Canon, or more directly, whether there existed an authoritative collection of Christian writings before Athanasius, is resolved within an objective study of history. By examining early church writings, it becomes evident that the 27 books of the New Testament, as recorded by Athanasius, were recognized as authoritative long before they were formalized into a Canon. Based on their recording of the teachings of Jesus by those who were physically present during his ministry, they were regarded as authoritatively the words of Christ. Due to their integrity of apostolic authorship they were considered as the highest admonition for truth and holiness. This authoritative value was not something put on them in order to construct a religious Canon but rather, as has been shown, was something recognized innately within the words written as divine.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman. Lost Christianities: The Battles For Scripture And the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 2003), 294

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 53

[5] Archibald T. Robertson, “Prolegomena,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), xiv–xxi.

[6] Archibald T. Robertson, “Letters of Athanasius with Two Ancient Chronicles of His Life: Introduction,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 500.

[7] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Festal Letters,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Henry Burgess and Jessie Smith Payne, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 552.

[8] Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[9] Bruce Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament. (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1997), 283.

[10] Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše. The Other Gospels (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 9.

[11] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 344.

[12] Ibid., 358.

[13] Marvin Meyer. The Gnostic Bible: Revised and Expanded Edition (Shambhala Publications), 44

[14] C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 12.

[15] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 17–18.

[16] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Vol. 1 (Thomas Nelson, 1992), 52.

[17] McDowell, 52.

[18] Richard Bauckham, Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, CA, November 14, 2007

[19] Presbyter of Rome Caius, “Fragments of Caius,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 603.

[20] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, 2009), Kindle Edition, Location 344.