Read part one.
In the first entry of this two-part essay on the development of the New Testament canon, I outlined some problems with viewing the institutional Church as the selector of the biblical books. The example of Eusebius illustrates how the process was instead a largely decentralized product of many Christian intellectuals developing a consensus.
Here in Part Two, I consider another common misconception: the New Testament canon came out of Roman political coercion, particularly following the conversion of Constantine. If the myth dispelled in Part One mainly appears in intra-Christian contexts favorably inclined toward early Christian history, the present myth is often voiced by those who have a more suspicious view of that same history, including some capable scholars. What we actually know of the past, however, paints a different picture.
The Paperback Version
The misconception addressed in Part One tends to be a vague impression held by many Christians. By contrast, the fable of a canon masterminded by the Roman emperor Constantine is well attested in both popular culture and scholarly output alike. Back in 2003, this notion featured prominently in the fictional bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, which alleged Constantine had banned as many as 80 “gospels” in favor of the four in our New Testament.
In 2007, a New Testament scholar named David Dungan published an otherwise very helpful study on the cultural and intellectual dynamics that shaped the New Testament canon. The monograph, titled Constantine’s Bible, was superlatively more accurate historically than The Da Vinci Code’s fantasy. Nevertheless, it still had as its punchline the notion that the interference of political power played a decisive role in shaping the Bible we have today. Constantine’s policy of intervention supposedly had a chilling effect on the sort of critical scholarship exhibited by Eusebius and his predecessors.
Ironically, Eusebius and his own findings benefitted disproportionately, Dungan argued, because of his close ties to Constantine himself. When Constantine wanted to procure fifty New Testament codices—an enormously expensive undertaking in labor and materials for antiquity—he commissioned Eusebius personally, effectively giving the bishop of Caesarea the last word on the subject. Within several decades, “the former vibrant, active, free atmosphere” was dead.
Sometimes the post-Constantinian Church is presented as Constantine’s colluding accomplice in this repressive turn. In discussing the process of sorting the eventual canon from rejected “apocryphal” writings, another scholar, George T. Servos, puts it rather floridly:
And let us not forget that the proto-orthodox Church from its beginnings throughout history has been notorious for its efficient, if not brutal, suppression of any Christian traditions, written or oral, that were not in agreement with its ‘orthodoxy.’ Can we afford to ignore the argument from the silence of the countless early Christians who were persecuted, suppressed, and hounded out of existence by an increasingly repressive and tyrannical ecclesiastical system?
There is some truth to this description. Particularly by the later fourth century, sharp-elbowed bishops were not afraid to use Roman political power to settle important theological disputes, remove rivals, and quash more incorrigible sectarians. About a century after Constantine and Eusebius, for example, Augustine of Hippo supported state persecution of the Donatists. He also appears to have settled his famous dispute with the Pelagians partly by consolidating political support more quickly. Is it true that this kind of process produced the New Testament canon, however?
The New Testament Pre- and Post-Constantine
Regardless of Constantine’s role, most scholars agree with Dungan that the canon was basically “closed” by the end of the fourth century. Still, this closing had been in process since at least the second century. For example, the so-called Muratorian Fragment, which most scholars date to c. 200, shows that Christians were pondering their authoritative literature well before Constantine.
In the Fragment, we have a group of Christians (probably with close links to the church in Rome) who list the vast majority of the 27-book New Testament as the texts approved (my term) for the church’s use. The Fragment further states that a number of other books are heretical and forged, and thus ineligible for publicly reading in church. Meanwhile, a book like The Shepherd of Hermas has a generally friendly readership among some of the community, but some Christians remain unwilling for it to be read in church. From quite early, then, certain Christians were approaching their authoritative literature with confidence but also nuance.
This canonical nuance continued well past Constantine. Most famously, the book of Revelation was often (but not always) considered non-canonical or even apocryphal in Greek-speaking Christianity until the early modern period. Meanwhile, Syriac-speaking Christians showed considerable reservation about some of the “catholic” or general epistles, like Jude or 2 Peter. Both communities, we should note, were largely located within the borders of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire for much of the relevant history, yet apparently Constantine’s heirs did not enforce a prescribed, standardized New Testament canon.
The Handbook of Junillus Africanus
One of these better-known heirs, the emperor Justinian (527–565), oversaw the partial reconquest of the lost Western regions of the empire, especially in North Africa and Italy. In the capital at Constantinople, one could encounter intellectuals and clerics with varying theological traditions and languages. They hailed from across the Christian world, from the Latin Western Mediterranean to Syriac Mesopotamia on the empire’s easternmost borders.
Justinian’s chief legal officer for a time, a fellow named Junillus Africanus, came from North Africa. When some of his Latin associates asked him whether he had encountered any good exegesis in his time among “the Greeks” in Constantinople, Junillus wrote a short handbook: Regular Institutes of Divine Law, a primer on the Bible and its organization. Junillus reportedly got his inspiration for the treatise from a Syriac-speaking easterner named Paul the Persian.
So close to the seat of political power, we might expect Junillus to take a standardized, black-and-white, top-down approach to the canon, especially for an elementary introduction to the Bible. Junillus, however, highlights regional variations in the biblical canon that he would have encountered at an international hub like Constantinople, specifically singling out eastern concerns about Revelation and the general epistles.
For Junillus, this does not overthrow scriptural authority. He remains unbothered that Christians still debated some of the particular books in the New Testament. Thus, like many other sources postdating Constantine, Junillus demonstrates that Christians had confidence in their authoritative corpus even if some of the particulars remained open-ended. Emperors like Justinian knew very well how to coerce religious conformity, but by most accounts, the New Testament canon did not emerge from such policies.
While the earlier Church may have been more comfortable with certain ambiguities, this does not necessarily mean Christians of the last 1,700 years have erred in trying to establish a firmer understanding of the canon or in developing guidelines for how the biblical books inform theology. It does suggest, however, that the process was more complicated than most of us would intuit from the neat list in our own copies of the Bible. Yet the complexity itself debunks oversimplified and overly-suspicious retellings of the processes involved. In turn, modern Christians are afforded a good reminder in all this: knowing one’s history often helps one’s theology.
For readers with more interest in the canon’s formation, in addition to Constantine’s Bible, I recommend two other accessible resources on the topic:
- Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)
- Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)