The question of whether the Roman emperor Constantine decided which books belonged in the Bible is an interesting one that many people wonder about. While Constantine did have a role in early Christianity, he did not determine the biblical canon – which books would be included in the Bible.
To understand this fully, we need to look at some background history. Emperor Constantine ruled over the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD. During his reign, Christianity went from being a persecuted minority religion to becoming legal and eventually the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 313 AD, Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious tolerance and legal status to Christianity. This was a major turning point for the church. Christians were no longer persecuted and Christianity began to spread rapidly. A few decades later, during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Constantine presided over and exerted influence on an important council of church leaders that denounced the Arian heresy and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity. This council produced the Nicene Creed, an important statement of Christian belief.
While Constantine had a significant impact on early Christianity, the biblical canon had already begun taking shape long before he came on the scene. The process of determining which books would be recognized as divinely inspired and authoritative started in the first centuries after Christ. Early church fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen wrote about and quoted from the books that would become the New Testament. Different regions of the early church used various collections of sacred writings. Over the first few hundred years after Christ, consensus gradually emerged over which books belonged in the Bible, based on criteria like apostolic origin, orthodox teaching, and church usage. By the mid-2nd century, the core of the New Testament canon as we know it was well-established.
The history of the Old Testament canon follows a similar trajectory. The collection of the Hebrew Bible developed over centuries, long before Constantine. The Law and the Prophets were recognized very early as inspired Scripture. The other books were discussed and debated, but the Hebrew canon was largely settled by the rabbinic community around 200 AD, over a century before Constantine. The early church adopted the canon of the Hebrew Bible directly from Judaism.
Constantine does not seem to have had any substantial role in determining the contents of the Bible. He did request and finance 50 copies of the Scriptures for churches in his new capital city of Constantinople, but this was likely just the entire collection in use at the time. He did not play a direct part in selecting the books to be included. The historical evidence shows that the development of the biblical canon occurred through the activity of Jewish scholars and early Christian leaders and councils in the centuries preceding him.
However, Constantine did make an important contribution indirectly. By legalizing Christianity, he allowed biblical scholarship and debate to come out of hiding and flourish openly. Fourth century church leaders could convene councils like Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 AD which affirmed the same 27 books of the New Testament we have today. Constantine helped create a climate where final agreement could be reached on these matters. So while he did not decide the contents himself, the post-Constantine Christian movement provided the fertile ground for the biblical canon to be formally solidified.
There are a few key takeaways on this topic:
- The formation of the biblical canon was a long, organic process that unfolded over centuries before Constantine.
- The early church utilized criteria such as apostolic authorship, orthodox doctrine, and church usage to determine which books were authoritative Scripture.
- Constantine did not play a direct role in selecting the biblical books, though he facilitated the movement that led to final canonization.
- Fourth century councils like Hippo and Carthage formalized the 27 book New Testament canon we know today.
- Constantine made Christianity legal and paved the way for open debate and scholarship on the canon.
So in summary, while Constantine had a tremendously positive impact on early Christianity, the evidence does not support the idea that he determined which books belonged in the Bible. The biblical canon developed through the activity of scholars and church leaders, which Constantine’s policies allowed to flourish.
Now that we’ve covered whether Constantine decided the biblical canon, let’s explore some related questions:
When and how was the canon of Scripture established?
As mentioned above, the formation of the biblical canon was a gradual process over centuries. Here is a brief overview:
- OT books were composed 1400 – 400 BC. The Law and Prophets were accepted early as Scripture, while the other books were debated before the canon settled around 200 AD.
- NT books were written AD 50 – 100. Letters and gospels were circulated early, but different regions used different collections. Core of NT established by mid-2nd century.
- Criteria like apostolic origin and orthodoxy helped early church recognize authoritative books.
- Councils in late 4th century and early 5th century formally ratified the 27 book NT canon.
- The OT canon was adopted from Judaism directly by the early church.
So the canon developed through a gradual process of compiling, circulating, and vetting the texts until consensus emerged over centuries.
Why were certain books included or excluded from the Bible?
The early church had several criteria they used to decide which books were authoritative Scripture. These included:
- Apostolic authorship – Was the book written by an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle? Books tied directly to the eyewitnesses of Jesus were seen as more authoritative.
- Orthodox doctrine – Did the book align theologically with the teaching of Jesus and the apostles? Books with unorthodox theology were treated suspiciously.
- Widespread church use – Was the book used and valued by churches across the known world? Books universally valued had more weight.
- Inspiration – Did the book bear the marks of divine inspiration in its content and reception? This subjective quality set Scripture apart.
Some key books were disputed but eventually included, like James because of its apostolic connection. Some were excluded because of dubious authorship, like the Gospel of Thomas, or problematic teaching, like Gnostic gospels. Application of these criteria led the church to recognize the 27 book NT canon.
What are the oldest manuscripts we have of the Bible? How confident can we be that our modern Bible accurately reflects the original manuscripts?
Some important early Bible manuscripts are:
- Dead Sea Scrolls – Portions of OT books from 150 BC to 70 AD. Demonstrates reliability of transmission.
- Codex Sinaiticus – Most of OT and NT from about 350 AD. Contains whole NT.
- Codex Vaticanus – Nearly complete NT and OT from 325-350 AD.
- Chester Beatty Papyri – Portions of NT from 200 AD.
There are over 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts. When comparing manuscript differences, over 90% are minor spelling errors. No major doctrine is put in doubt by variations. This shows how carefully and accurately the Bible was transmitted over time. While we don’t have the original documents, we can be very confident that our modern translations faithfully represent the original text.
What role did church councils play in affirming the biblical canon?
Church councils were important for formalizing consensus and bringing final uniformity on the canon. Some key examples:
- Council of Hippo (393 AD) and Council of Carthage (397 AD) affirmed the 27 book NT canon.
- Council of Rome (382 AD) recognized current Catholic OT canon.
- Council of Trent (1546 AD) reaffirmed traditional canon against Protestant revisions.
These councils did not establish the canon but rather approved and formalized the general consensus that had already emerged through extensive scholarly debate in the early centuries of the church.
How has the discovery of new archaeological finds and manuscripts impacted our understanding of the Bible?
Key discoveries that have expanded our knowledge of biblical history:
- Dead Sea Scrolls – Confirmed reliability of OT transmission, provided ancient copies of OT books.
- Tel Dan Stele – Supported biblical accounts of King David.
- Pilate Inscription – Confirmed Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.
- Caiaphas Ossuary – Physical evidence linking to high priest Caiaphas.
In addition, tens of thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts continue to be discovered. As scholars study and compare these manuscripts, our understanding of the textual history of the Bible is constantly improving.
Overall, archaeology consistently confirms the historical accuracy of biblical accounts and demonstrates the Bible’s reliability through time. These discoveries provide valuable context and supporting evidence for the world of the Bible.
How did early church fathers view the inspiration and authority of Scripture?
Here are some quotes showing how highly the early church fathers viewed Scripture:
“The Scriptures are perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit.” – Irenaeus
“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures.” – Irenaeus
“The sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth.” – Athanasius
“Let us not hear, let us not understand, other than the voice of the Lord announcing to us by the instrumentality of the prophets and apostles.” – Origen
These fathers recognized the inspiration of Scripture, saw the Bible as the definitive source of doctrine, affirmed apostolic authorship, and exhorted deference to biblical authority. Their high view gave weight to the developing canon.
In summary, while Constantine had an important impact on early Christianity, the evidence shows that he did not determine which books were included in the Bible. The biblical canon developed over centuries before Constantine through the activity of Jewish and early Christian scholars. The early church utilized specific criteria to recognize authoritative Scripture, leading to the 27 book NT canon we have today. Councils in the 4th and 5th centuries formalized this consensus. We can be confident our modern Bible accurately reflects the original inspired texts.