Michael S. Heiser
Dan Brown’s best-selling conspiratorial thriller The Da Vinci Code seems like ancient history now. At its peak of popularity, the novel set records both for sales and for irritating scholars with its view that Jesus and the 12 apostles held to gnostic heresies. The book’s bizarre plot focuses on Jesus’ bloodline extending through a child born by Mary Magdalene. Within that narrative, Brown asserts that the New Testament canon was determined by the Roman Emperor Constantine—who was not friendly to gnostic Christianity—at a time much later (fourth century AD) than any New Testament scholar would endorse. Unfortunately, this myth has since taken on a life of its own.
The notion that Constantine decided which books should constitute the New Testament springs from the ancient Life of Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 263–339). Eusebius reports that, in a letter written in ad 331, the emperor instructed him to
… order fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures, the provision and use of which you know to be most needful for the instruction of the Church, to be written on prepared parchment in a legible manner, and in a convenient, portable form, by professional transcribers thoroughly practised in their art.
This same Constantine had earlier convened the Council of Nicea (AD 325), famous for its focus on the full deity of Christ against Arianism, which taught that Jesus was a created being. Brown carelessly conflated the two events in The Da Vinci Code to put forth the preposterous idea that Constantine had decided at Nicea which books belonged in the New Testament. But can we be sure this didn’t happen? And if not, what exactly did Constantine demand in this letter?
We can be certain that the Council of Nicea did not determine the books of the New Testament at Constantine’s request. The date of Eusebius’ correspondence tells us that Nicea did not consider the issue of the canon. Today, anyone can read the 20 decisions rendered at Nicea (coincidentally called “canons”). 1 None of them concerns the New Testament Scriptures. In addition, accounts of what happened at Nicea were described by several early church historians and theologians who lived at the time of the event or shortly thereafter. Their testimony is unanimous in opposition to the idea that Constantine determined the books of the New Testament.
So what did Constantine want? During the first several centuries of the early church, the issue of which books were to be considered sacred and authoritative was uncertain. Several early lists of sacred books have been recovered, as have records of rejected books. Constantine’s order brought the problem to a point of decision. Once the emperor commanded copies of the sacred books to be distributed, early church leaders were forced to produce the item that needed to be copied. The result was a minimalist consensus canon—books considered authoritative by the vast majority of Christian leaders throughout the empire. Books regularly disputed or already rejected were thus set aside in faith that the Holy Spirit had successfully enlightened His believing Church to reach consensus. We hold that consensus New Testament in our hands today.
1. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. XIV.↩