In the popular novel The Da Vinci Code, Sir Leigh Teabing and Robert Langdon teach Sophie that the New Testament was created in 325 CE by the pagan Emperor Constantine. It included only those books that portrayed Jesus as divine - all those earlier books that portrayed Jesus as human were burned. This is exciting, but not real history. However, the real story of the development of the New Testament is not boring, either!
Historical Evidence for the Development of the New Testament
The long process of the development of the canon of the New Testament can be traced through mentions of scriptures and lists of books that occur in Christian writings over the centuries.
The earliest full list of the 27 books of our New Testament - no more, no less - was in a pastoral letter by St. Athanasius in 367 AD, about 50 years after Constantine's death. There continued to be some debates after that, but the canon was more or less fixed at that time.
The idea of having Christian scriptures in addition to the Jewish ones (the "Old Testament") seems to date from the New Testament period itself. Here Jesus' teachings (1 Tim 5:18, quoting Luke 10:7) and the letters of Paul (2 Pet. 3:16) are already referred to as "scriptures."
After this early period, many books were produced by many different Christian and sort-of-Christian groups. As far as we can tell, books were included or excluded based on four main criteria: they had to be ancient, apostolic (associated with an apostle), have widespread acceptance, and contain orthodox teachings. (Ehrman, 87-88)
These criteria can be seen at work in an account of the initial acceptance and then rejection of a particular book (the Gospel of Peter) by a bishop, as recorded by the church historian Eusebius. The bishop, Serapion, initially accepted the book without reading it, since it was associated with Peter. But upon reading it, he saw that it contained docetic teaching - the idea that Jesus was not really human but only "seemed" to be - and he instructed the churches of his region not to use it anymore.
The first former list of New Testament books is the Muratorian Canon, which was written in Rome around 170 AD. This list includes the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (and no others), the 13 letters of Paul, and several other books that did not eventually make the cut (such as the Apocalypse of John and the Wisdom of Solomon). The list excludes some that eventually did make it (such as Hebrews and James). Altogether, the Muratorian Canon listed 22 or 23 of the 27 books that we have today.
With regard to Constantine's alleged creation of the Bible, there is no mention of anything like this in any of the many sources on his life or the Council of Nicea (where this supposedly happened). For an overview of these sources, see Constantine and The Da Vinci Code. And there is no reason that Constantine would care what books were in the Bible. He wasn't generally interested in the details of the Christian faith - he just wanted the bishops to get along so his empire would be unified.
There is one historical mention of Constantine's involvement with the Bible, and this is probably where Teabing/Brown got the wrong idea. In his Life of Constantine, the Christian historian and bishop Eusebius reports that in 331 AD, Constantine requested Eusebius produce 50 new copies of the Bible for use in the churches being built in Constantinople. Eusebius attaches the original letter written by Constantine making this request:
"Victor Constantinus, Maximus Augustus, to Eusebius. It happens, through the favoring providence of God our Saviour, that great numbers have united themselves to the most holy church in the city which is called by my name [Constantinople]. It seems, therefore, highly requisite, since that city is rapidly advancing in prosperity in all other respects, that the number of churches should also be increased. Do you, therefore, receive with all readiness my determination on this behalf. I have thought it expedient to instruct your Prudence 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 practiced in their art. The catholicus of the diocese has also received instructions by letter from our Clemency to be careful to furnish all things necessary for the preparation of such copies; and it will be for you to take special care that they be completed with as little delay as possible. You have authority also, in virtue of this letter, to use two of the public carriages for their conveyance, by which arrangement the copies when fairly written will most easily be forwarded for my personal inspection; and one of the deacons of your church may be intrusted with this service, who, on his arrival here, shall experience my liberality. God preserve you, beloved brother!" (Life of Constantine, 4.36) As we have seen above, the first full list of New Testament books that corresponds with the 27 we have today did not appear until 367 AD, after Constantine's death.
What Experts Say about the Making of the New Testament
In Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, professor of early Christianity Bart Ehrman writes:
Teabing's conspiratorial view of the formation of the canon is intriguing, but for the historian familiar with the actual process of how some books came to be included in the New Testament while others came to be excluded, it is filled with more fiction than fact. The historical reality is that... the formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on our historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process. (p. 74)
- Athanasius, Letter 39 to the Churches of Egypt - first list of 27 books
- Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.36 - on Constantine's request for 50 copies of the Bible
- The Muratorian Canon - English translation by Bruce Metzger
- Muratorian Canon - Catholic Encyclopedia article
- The Text of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger
- Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament by Bart Ehrman
- The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart Ehrman
- The Canon of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger
- An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown
- Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code by Bart Ehrman