The Canon: Where Did The Bible Come From?
1a: a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council.
1b: a provision of canon law.
Before the internet, history was handwritten, rewritten, copied, discussed, forgotten, remembered, and insisted upon by people in positions of power. Before digital photos, videos, and internet accountability, the victorious pens authored ancient stories. Histories. In those days both uncut truth and selfish bullshit were muddily mixed on hieroglyphs, statues, parchments, stained glass, and coins.
I learned how to play music by listening and studying the musical works of my favorite artists. Like many musicians, I took those influences and made something new; something I could call my music. In short, I built upon a structure already in progress. The fact that it is my music doesn’t negate the fact that those influences are audible. This is how many creative works are accomplished. We study those who have gone before us and make something new of it. Those who give sermons and write books on Christian apologetics and exegesis can relate to the creative impact of their work. They are building upon a foundation in progress. You can see and hear their influences in their work. Philosophers, doctors, and all of the sciences build upon the great works of the past. These “great works” are not merely one person’s contribution; it is that of many people. Albert Einstein knew this well:
“It can easily be seen that all the valuable achievements, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society have been brought about in the course of countless generations by creative individuals. Someone once discovered the use of fire, someone the cultivation of edible plants, and someone the steam engine.” And, “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend upon the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.” -Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions
Theists often say that it would be impossible for men to construct such a brilliant and timeless work as the Bible; that its complexities are far beyond the human mind. They say that the many anecdotes and prophetic pieces of the redemption puzzle are otherworldly. The author of the Bible, they argue, is the divine Holy Spirit and men are merely the vessels of prophetic dictation.
There were people involved with the creation of the Bible who also had amazing literary, creative, and imaginative talent. Do you presume to think that over the course of 2,500 years, the amalgamation of gifted thinkers who contributed to the Bible could not progressively devise such a book? Every gifted priest, disciple, translator, copyist, redactor, scholar, monk, and poet who put ink to the scroll contributed to the nuances and changes that would one day reach a final canon, the final edit. Each one of those people had a different perspective but was nonetheless influenced heavily by the previous generations of scrolls and verbal stories they studied. Political climate, religious opinion, famine, survival, military pressure, and financial trade all played roles in the writing and editing of the individual books. From 960 B.C.E. (earliest Old Testament record) to 1450 C.E. (invention of the printing press) thousands of people wrote, translated, and copied by hand the texts that are now known as the Bible. Together they built an amazing and intriguing collection that continues to enchant the masses. For content, they borrowed heavily from the fables of other cultures (creation, the fall, the flood, etc.) You can definitely hear the “influences” in their music.
To claim that any book is the Word of God is to imply that there is indeed a personal God who speaks personal words. However, because there is no way of actually verifying that a personal God does exist, there are immediate grounds for dismissing any book claiming divine authority. To simply say that a personal God exists is not proof; I could just as easily proclaim the existence of a different god (Hermes, etc.). To look upon a starry night and claim that a personal God created the heavens doesn’t logically prove anything except your ability to articulate a belief system. You can scream at another person ‘til you’re blue in the face that Yahweh can kick Ra's butt, and vice versa. But I could stand right there and ask the both of you, as Elijah did to the priests of Baal, “Where is your god?” “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy (literally ‘on the toilet’), or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1Ki 18:27) Christians and Jews often laugh at the story of Elijah asking if Baal is on the crapper, but it’s not so funny when people like me ask them if Yahweh is taking a dump. Why? Because many think it’s OK to make fun of “false” gods but when someone calls their god false, they throw a conniption fit. This type of double standard arrogance is common in Judeo-Christian life. I can admit this; I was a part of the Christian community for 15 years. By the way, when people argue their religious views, they often threaten a future punishment on those who reject their opinions. I truly think that many Christians also wish this punishment upon those who do not agree with them. History shows that when punishing non believers was legal, many Christians did it with enthusiasm.
The Bible is a remarkable document and anyone who fails to see that has most likely never studied it. A very large portion of people in biblical religions very seldom read it, if ever. Whether you agree with its words or not, the book is fascinating. It was hand-written over a 2,500-year period and by many kinds of people. It has shaped the world’s 3 largest religions. I would say its construction is worth taking a look at.
Who really decided the final set of books of the Bible and by what standard and authority? This question was driven by the following fact: Mainstream, fundamentalist, and orthodox Christian theology declares that the Bible is inerrant. By “inerrant” they mean “the inspired, perfect word of God.” Logically speaking, if the Bible is divine and perfect, then it must have been created by divine and perfect means.
So what is perfect? Perfect is that which is without error or the possibility of error. Perfect, which the biblical God is said to be, cannot be anything other than perfect. Therefore, most would agree that for something to qualify as “God’s word” it must be completely accurate. Fundamentalist and orthodox Christian churches teach that the Bible is without error.
Naturally, as I studied further I began looking for this perfect system that God put into place in order for us to receive his perfect words. There must be, I thought, something in history to confirm the immaculate reception of this perfect book. After all, it is the Bible that sets the perfect standard for Christian salvation, morality, ethics, lifestyle, and church government.
In Christian theology, there are two primary forms of revelation (i.e. God revealed). First, God is revealed in nature. Second, God reveals himself via divinely inspired communication with people. This is where the Bible comes in.
I have heard many Christians make the comment “men at their best are men at best.” This is to imply that to err is human. These statements are often used by Christians when dismissing the mistakes of Christians throughout history. They also quote them when denouncing the repugnant horrors done at the hands of Christians. This seems logical.
Let’s use that same logic on the authors of the Bible. After all, the authors were all human. The scholars of Christian history have even attached these authors’ names to the books of the Bible. There is little evidence, however, that many of the authors’ names are accurate since the books were written long after the actual events are said to have occurred; and that which has no author has no authority. It seems logical to me that if you are going to say that a particular book is inspired and perfect, then the author of that book would be clearly known. That is not the case with many of the books of the Bible.
According to fundamentalist Christian scholars, these men were inspired to write the words which are now the Bible. If “men at their best are men at best” and “to err is human” then what on earth gives anyone a guarantee that these biblical writers were accurate? Again, these books were written and edited long after the actual events are said to have occurred. The answer is that there is no guarantee.
The Bible’s guarantee is as good as the hands that wrote it.
What if God opened up heaven and dropped the original manuscript of the Bible into the hands of the first bishops of Rome? Let’s say, for the sake of argument that he did. Let’s say it’s the year 324 C.E. God opens the gates of heaven and drops a collection of 66 books that are to be called The Bible. So then, from the year 324 C.E. until the Reformation of the 16th Century, the perfect word of God was in the hands of the church clergy.
In those days scrolls and parchments did not last very long under normal conditions. The church, therefore, appointed copyists to recopy the books of the Bible in order to preserve them. This was all done by hand over a period of centuries. Do you know the history of the Roman Catholic Church? Scandal and cold blooded murder rocked the Catholic Church throughout history. A quick internet search will be very interesting for those who haven’t read about it. Sexual scandal, genocide, and the selling of indulgences (i.e., selling get out of Purgatory tickets) have marked the Catholic Church since its beginning. Why on earth would you presume that their level of ethics would be any higher with their stewardship of the Bible and its integrity? Even if the church had received a “perfect” version of God’s word in the year 324 C.E., we would never know exactly what the original manuscripts said because of its many copies, fusions, edits, and alterations.
To make matters worse, however, God did not divinely drop the Holy Writ from the windows of heaven. History shows that it was people who wrote, compiled, copied, rewrote, recompiled, and recopied the books that are now known as the Bible. In reality, the church strongly discouraged anyone to own or read the Bible from its final canonization until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. For over 1,000 years the eastern and western churches dominated the creation, possession, recopying, and teaching of the Bible. So not only did humans write the Bible, it was strictly monopolized by the church for more than a millennium. Nobody even knows exactly what the original man-made books exactly said, much less the verification of authorship. But even if we did know exactly what the originals said, we would still be faced with the problem of its claim of inspiration. You simply cannot escape the fact that “errant” men and not God wrote the Bible. This is where circular logic enters the stage.
When Jesus and the Apostles are said to have existed, the Roman Empire ruled the Palestinian region (The Holy Land). The empire destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E. which scattered the Jews. The Jesus Movement and Christ Cult, in their many forms, were growing in influence throughout the Mediterranean. Because many of those believers would not worship the Roman emperors, they were persecuted over the next two centuries.
Enter the reign of Roman Emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus (Constantine). The date of his birth is said to be around 288 C.E. He became the Eastern ruler of Rome in 305-306 C.E. Though the date of his conversion is unclear, Constantine experienced his great “in hoc signo vinces” (in this sign you shall conquer) vision probably in 312 C.E. before his victory at the Milvian Bridge battle. The story goes that Constantine had a vision of those words on a Christian cross and that this prompted Constantine to pledge to convert if he actually did win the battle. Since he was the victor, the alleged vision eventually led to his Christian conversion.
In 313 C.E. Constantine and his fellow emperor, Licinius, met at Milan and issued the Edict of Milan, confirming that Christianity would be legal and tolerated throughout the empire. The edict in effect made Christianity a lawful religion, but had not yet made Christianity the official state religion. When Constantine defeated Emperor Licinius in 323 C.E., he ended the persecutions against the Christian church and took full control of the Roman Empire. Shortly afterwards Christians faced the Arian controversy which threatened to divide the church. From that point on Christianity was branded the official and authorized religion of the Roman Empire.
Until the year 323 C.E., the various Christian movements were spread out and disorganized. Many believers didn’t associate Jesus of Nazareth with the spiritual Christ. Some simply followed the teachings of the earthly Jesus while others conformed to a Christ that never actually lived in the flesh. Most of the different congregations taught from verbal tradition; the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, a “living and abiding voice.” Most Christians did not regard any writings as inspired by God. Nearly 400 books (scrolls) of various apostles, prophets, and teachers were, for the most part, supplemental to their structure of teaching.
In the first two centuries there was much confusion about the different teachers in Christendom. The separation between Jews and Christians was also murky because many believed that Jesus taught from the Law and Prophets. The old and new covenants were not yet defined for many Christians.
The Emperor Constantine murdered his wife Fausta, and his eldest son Crispus in the year 325; just over a year after he ordered the Council of Nicea to vote on which books would be included in the Bible. They also voted on whether Jesus Christ was a man or the Son of God. That same council also decided that Christ was consubstantial with the father. Therefore, it was a family murderer who was ultimately responsible for authorizing the settling of the debated question of the divinity of Christ.
Now Constantine, while keeping with Roman logic and politics, was about to bring order to the various Christian groups. But how he did it was indeed innovative. He knew that there must be a unified canon text (a written creed) in order to bring ecumenical peace between congregations throughout the empire. Remember that religion and politics are very often involved with each other; the one is most always influenced by the other. If Christianity was to be the Roman religion then it must be brought under submission to the Emperor and his interests. Unification and order was the way that Constantine accomplished this. A written creed or edict was a Roman tradition. A written creed was used as a legal creed.
Obviously, I did not know Constantine personally. What I do know of him is drawn from the volumes of Roman history. What kind of Christianity did he subscribe to, really? Consider Pope Urban II (1042-1099). He is responsible for dictating the 1st Christian Crusade that maimed, tortured, and killed all non-Christians in its path. Those leaders had the support of their people to destroy countless lives in the name of Christ. Those men were, in their own minds, very Christian indeed. But most modern Christians can’t relate to those crusading Christians. Many modern Christians can relate to Constantine because he brought a form of religious unity and political protection to the Christians. His motives for using religion may not have been any more noble then those of Pope Urban II. All of them, including Constantine, convinced millions to do their political and financial bidding against a Christian backdrop.
The motive for Constantine’s conversion is ultimately of no consequence to us. His actions, however, are of the highest import. In the years before Constantine took the throne, the various forms of Christianity were rapidly winning the hearts and minds of many Roman citizens, including the most gifted thinkers. The effort of Constantine’s immediate predecessors, particularly Diocletian, to obstruct the growth of Christianity by way of persecution had failed. At the beginning of the fourth century the church was too large; its leaders were very resourceful and Christianity could not be destroyed. The refusal of Christians to worship the traditional gods, and hence to show honor to the Roman Emperor, created a dilemma for the Roman leaders. By forcing a choice between Rome and Christianity, the emperors badly misjudged the strength and resiliency of Christians. Many died for their faith.
Constantine realized the improbability of purging Roman society of Christians. He, by this time, was also sympathetic to the church. He devised a plan to make room for Christianity under the umbrella of a genial monotheism, which many Christians believed and taught. In granting the church legitimacy, Constantine not only diffused a tense situation, he harnessed Christian energy in service to the State. Please remember that Constantine had previously been the Eastern ruler of a politically divided Rome. Now that he had consolidated the throne and gained complete power over the empire he was not about to see it divided again. I view Constantine dreaming of the legendary days when King David and the Nation of Israel ruled by religious and military consolidation; when the temple and the throne were of one accord. One nation under one God; church and state. Constantine was educated; he most likely remembered that after King David’s death two priests had divided northern Israel from southern Judah. He was not about to make the same mistake and see his kingdom divided over religious influence. The Holy Roman Empire was born. Constantine is, in my opinion, the most important figure in church (and Western) history. He changed the face of religion and of the world.
In 324 C.E. Constantine commissioned all Christian bishops to decide on which books were “inspired” of God. The bishops gathered and are known throughout history as the Council of Nicaea. It was a gathering similar to the one described in Acts 15:4-22 and had nearly 300 bishops. Eusebius (260-339) lists many of them and their country of origin in his writings. Many of those present had, because of recent persecutions, suffered and faced threat of death for their faith. Imagine for a moment, the impact of that. Nazis killed people for less than a generation; the Romans killed Christians for over two hundred years! Can you now see the possibility of Christians on the Nicene Council being politically persuaded in the aftermath of persecution? It is also important to note that the Jews canonized their Old Testament Bible upon returning from the oppressive Babylonian Exile (515 B.C.E.). Reactions to war and persecution have caused some distinct subsequent patterns in those who suffered.
How did the Nicene Council decide which books have supernatural powers? They literally voted on it! Inspiration seems to have had little to do with the selection, however. The primary focus was said to be an issue of apostolic authorship. Those were not the only issues, however. These were real men with real backgrounds. They would cast their votes from many different perspectives and motives. Many of these bishops did not notice the chronological, historical inconsistencies and anachronisms in the books they chose to be the Bible. Later on it was the Christian leader Jerome (389-420 C.E.) who noticed the first errors. He pointed out that the dating and authorship of the Book of Daniel was in question. More on contradictions here.
The bishops on the Nicene Council took a vote. Because Constantine mandated the vote, the bishops had no choice but to do it. Consider what that means. The voting bishops were on Constantine’s payroll and had politically and financially vested interests in canonizing a Bible for Rome. One of the Founding Fathers of America, Thomas Paine (1737-1809), said this:
“But by what authority do you call the Bible the Word of God? For this is the first point to be settled. It is not your calling it so that makes it so, any more than the Mahometans calling the Koran the Word of God makes the Koran to be so. The Popish Councils of Nice (Nicaea) and Laodicea, about 350 years after the time the person called Jesus Christ is said to have lived, voted the books that now compose what is called the New Testament to be the Word of God. This was done by yeas and nays, as we now vote a law. The Pharisees of the second temple, after the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, did the same by the books that now compose the Old Testament, and this is all the authority there is, which to me is no authority at all. I am as capable of judging for myself as they were, and I think more so, because, as they made a living by their religion, they had a self-interest in the vote they gave.”
Money, politics, religion, sex, and love are all a part of the human condition. They are complicatedly intertwined. To say that the canonization process was simply a religious issue is to be very naïve and overly simplistic. If you haven’t already, I implore you to look at this topic in a deeper manner. The very same cultural progression and religious evolution that formed the Hebrew history also formed the Hebrew myths; they grew up together. One tribe conquers another and their gods mix and meld. The stories, rituals, rites, and doctrines change throughout millennia. Myths become fact and faith continues its progression. The further time elapses, the fuzzier the difference between myth and actual history become. The Church was, and is, a product of this ancient system of religion.
In 337 C.E., Constantine died. Let me point out that Rome was founded in the year 753 B.C.E. Before Constantine, Rome had survived over a thousand years as a multicultural and polytheistic nation. In 410 C.E. Rome was conquered by the Visigoths, just 86 years after the commencement of Constantine’s new Christian church-state empire.
The Final Canon
Over the next decades several other Christian councils voted differently, the contradictions of which took centuries more to resolve. Jerome, a scholar and monk, was instrumental in later finalizing the canon. The Gospel of James, Gospel of Mary, Book of Jubilees, Book of Enoch, and many more were all excluded from the canon. Many of the rejected books were read and loved by thousands of Christians. The Gospel of Thomas, though omitted from the Bible, was later included in the Quran alongside the noted virgin birth of Jesus. The Virgin Mary is mentioned more times in the Quran than in the Bible. The Apocalypse of Peter was widely believed to be more authentic than the Book of Revelation. Many scholars think that Peter’s Apocalypse was rejected because it taught that Jesus would eventually let all sinners out of hell. This, according to the Council of Nicaea, portrayed God as too merciful which would lead people to sin (i.e., disobey the church leaders) more often. Out of hundreds of various books only 66 made the final cut; 39 Old Testament, 27 New Testament.
In examining church history, it is impossible to see and prove inspiration at work. The books of the Bible were composed, written, edited, and canonized by ordinary fallible humans. What led the councils to believe that these books were not merely good or spiritual, but actually infallible? There are many different "authorities" in history that articulate the various criteria by which the books were scrutinized by. I will list just of them here. If you study you will find that the various ways these authorities list is always based on opinion of what they think God favors. It is always human opinion. Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict) gives us a list of Christian criteria that a book must meet for inclusion in the canon:
1. Is it authoritative?
2. Is it prophetic?
3. Is it authentic?
4. Is it dynamic?
5. Was it received, collected, read, and used?
There are problems with every one of the listed criteria. The first four categories are subjective judgments. We can’t know if a book is authoritative if we don’t know who the author is! We know the books are not prophetic because none of the alleged prophesies have been verified or proven to come true, absolutely none. We don’t know if a book is authentic because the manuscripts were written many years after the events were said to have occurred. How can we know if a book is dynamic? Dynamic is just another way of saying “lively.” Hey, I think Laura Ingraham is lively! The 5th criteria can be approached somewhat historically. There at least two problems in applying this to one’s faith, however. If you study how religious groups use a book, you are studying the conclusions reached by humans. The books they chose reflect their own religious views; this is another form of circular logic. Naturally, they chose books that agreed with their particular religious views/groups. We cannot know the perfect word of God by studying fallible humans, even if those humans are Moses, Buddha, Jesus, or the Pope.
There has never been one Bible consistently accepted by all churches. There are over 20,000 different Christian sects in the world. McDowell argues that “apostolic authority” is a criterion for inclusion of New Testament books. Once again, this is a subjective and circular argument. For example, why was the Apocalypse of Peter excluded? Was it not because of theological and political opinion? Of course it was. From a historical point of view, there is nothing to warrant Peter’s Apocalypse less “authentic” than the other currently accepted New Testament books. Peter was an apostle! As we read above, Peter’s Apocalypse was widely accepted by Christian leaders before 324 C.E. Biblical scholarship demonstrates that more than half of the books of the New Testament were not written by apostles or by the persons named in the canon. Some books with named authors were rejected and many anonymous books were included. As a result, the church has argued over the canon and its contents for centuries since.
Tertullian, Saint Augustine, and Irenaeus cited and accepted the Old Testament apocryphal books as scripture. However, Athanasius, Origen, and Epiphanius rejected them from the Bible canon entirely. Logically, at least one of these groups of church fathers was mistaken. With the church fathers being so divided about the Old Testament canon, why should we accept that their opinion about the New Testament canon was correct? To put it bluntly, one person’s Bible is another person’s Apocrypha. The extent of this disagreement was only to intensify with the coming of the Reformation in the 16th century. The protestant Christians later scattered into literally multitudes of doctrinally distinct denominations. Many of the protestant churches held to different Bible canons.
The argument is made by many Christians that the books that are now referred to as the Bible have been miraculously preserved by the Holy Spirit. Even if God had performed this miracle, it doesn’t change the historical fact that people (not God) wrote the books in the first place. Again, if you decide who heard from God and who didn’t, then you are using the same process as those who canonized the Bible. To accept the Bible’s inerrancy is to accept the group of men who canonized it as inerrant. By making this choice you also are determining what is inerrant and what is not. You have become a part of the process that dictates to the world what God’s inerrant word really is. Logically, then, you are claiming that your judgment is inerrant! Many Christians shrug this reality off by saying, “the Holy Spirit leads my thinking.” Like love, circular logic can be blinding. I speak from experience.
The decision to include or exclude any particular book in the canon was made under the same influence that all other political and religious decisions have been made. That influence is love, money, power, vengeance, forgiveness, families, sex, unity, greed, loss, royalty, revenge, fear, geography, and all other human issues. It is naïve to assume that your religious heroes were immune to the weaknesses and circumstances that all humans face. It is equally naïve to think that your religious heroes possessed some kind of supernatural infallible powers.
Whenever I hear about someone saying that “God told me” to do this or that, I immediately notice an ancient blunder at play. The mistake is commonly twofold; the teller and the hearer are both guilty of the error. The one claiming to hear God’s voice is proclaiming divine authority, which supposedly no one can argue with. The person hearing the prophecy contributes to the foolishness by listening and following the fool. In my deduction, it is the pinnacle of egotism, arrogance, and dereliction to make the proclamation that "God told me."
The primary point I would like to make in this essay is this: The Christian, Religions have been guided, directed, and ruled by political and military conquering. The canon of the Bible and the expression of orthodox Christianity were directed by a Roman emperor; a family murderer at that. This is the history of what we call “right” or “orthodox.” The determined path of “right” Judeo-Christian religion has always been fenced by political and military power. The Christian doctrines today that are known as “fundamental” were born from Constantine’s version of the Jesus Movement fused with the Christ Cult as published by the Nicene Council. The “Canon” of Nicaea is nothing more than a political, military, and religious maneuvering. Today the rulers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam rule by the same kind of orthodoxy.
Concerning divine inspiration, it stands to reason that if a writer can understand the words he is writing, then he can just as easily be the originator of those same words. The reader can never verify the claimed divine inspiration of any text. Can you read the mind of other people and discern what thoughts are of God and what thoughts are merely human? No.
2nd-hand verbal stories often eventually transform into books full of mythological heroes, villains, and miracles. Those books, in time, become canonized and accepted as orthodox truth. The Greek gods enjoyed many years of “reality” but from myth they came and to myth they returned. If you really think you can discern what the personal words of a perfect God are and are not then you are claiming to have inerrant (perfect, without error) judgment. Logically, that means you have never and will never, ever make a wrong judgment about anything. Are you ready to make that claim? Again, if you are fallible (and you are), why should I trust that you heard and understood the infallible words of an infallible being?
Who was Jesus the man? He was probably a rogue Jewish teacher who offended many conservative priests. He was possibly put to death for his unorthodox, heretical, and politically stirring comments. It is possible that some of the teachings in the New Testament were derived from his various sayings. He most likely had no idea that religious extremists (much like the Pharisees he cursed) would create a religion from the cult of his personality.
Who is Christ the god? He is exactly what the Jewish, Greek, and Roman Christians could produce. He is the amalgamation of thousands of years of mythological and theological figures. He is the ink from countless pens; a messiah who stands as the final sacrificial lamb while promising eternal paradise. Christ, as the resurrected god, is a fusion of many deities. He ushered the transition of a closed Jewish order into an interracial, international religious enterprise. He is the rising sun god of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Roman Empire made Christ religiously and politically immortal.