Did Emperor Constantine Create the Canon?

A common claim from people who don’t believe the Bible is the word of God is that the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (Constantine I) created the Bible. They’ll probably acknowledge some version of the texts existed before Constantine legalized Christianity, but say Constantine dictated what books were to be in the Bible, the ones which fit his personal beliefs. The skeptic may claim the result of this fiddling created Christianity as we know it today, which is nothing like the teachings of the ancient guru named Jesus.

Constantine lived from A.D. 272-332, and became the Emperor of the Roman Empire on July 25, 306; Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312. He was involved with the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, which legalized Christianity in the Empire, but the Edict didn’t make Christianity the official religion of the Empire1.

Council of Nicaea

Constantine called the Council of Nicaea2, in A.D. 325, to stop a form of heresy called Arianism, which denies Jesus is of the same essence as the Father, and denies Jesus has existed eternally. The overwhelming majority of the church leaders at the Council condemned the teachings of Arianism, and the result of the council was the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic [universal] and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.3

50 Bibles

In A.D. 331, Emperor Constantine contacted the church historian Eusebius, and asked to have 50 copies of the Bible made to distribute to churches in the new city of Constantinople.

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. 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!4

Eusebius later wrote

Such were the emperor’s commands, which were followed by the immediate execution of the work itself, which we sent him in magnificent and elaborately bound volumes of a threefold and fourfold form. This fact is attested by another letter, which the emperor wrote in acknowledgment, in which, having heard that the city Constantia in our country, the inhabitants of which had been more than commonly devoted to superstition, had been impelled by a sense of religion to abandon their past idolatry, he testified his joy, and approval of their conduct.5

There are two ancient Bibles (including the Old Testament, New Testaments and Apocrypha)6 which some scholars believe might have been part of the 50 Bibles Emperor Constantine asked be made. Codex Vaticanus has been dated to A.D. 300-3257, and has been stored in the Vatican library since at least 1481, when it was listed on an index; no one knows when it originally arrived at the Vatican. Codex Sinaiticus has been dated about A.D. 330-360. The Codex was discovered in several parts between 1844 and 1859, and is currently displayed in four locations8, with the largest part at the British Library. I will likely write articles about these manuscripts in the future.

Summary

In my article How were the Canonical and Non-Canonical Books Categorized?, I wrote about how Eusebius categorized the books which churches has been using as scripture (written about A.D. 310-325). The New Testament has 27 books, and Eusebius’s category “Accepted Writings” contains 22 books which were universally accepted by the church. The next category is “Disputed but Recognized Writings”, and it contains the remaining 5 books of the New Testament. Those are the 27 books of the New Testament.

About 75 years before the Council of Nicaea, the church father Origen of Alexandria made a list of 26 books, and the 27th book he mentions elsewhere in his writings (What are the Earliest List of the New Testament Books?), showing most, if not all, of the books of the New Testament were known as a collection before Constantine was even born.

We know, for example, that Irenaeus of Asia Minor (180 C.E.) fully accepted 25 of 27 books of the New Testament but had some doubt about Hebrews and uncertainty about James. We know that Clement of Alexandria (190 C.E.) fully accepted 26 of 27 books of the New Testament but may not have been aware of 3 John. We know that Tertullian of North Africa (207 C.E.) fully accepted 24 of 27 books but may not have been aware of 2 and 3 John, or Jude. We know that Origen of Alexandria (230 C.E.) and Eusebius of Palestine (320 C.E.) fully accepted all 27 books of the New Testament.9

The earliest known claim that Constantine created the canon goes back to a Byzantine text from about A.D. 887, called the Vetus Synodicon. There are a number of claims in Vetus Synodicon which are not attested to in more ancient documents, so it appears the author added significant embellishment when he was writing the book.

The divine and sacred First Ecumenical Council of three hundred and eighteen God-inspired fathers was convened at Nicaea, metropolis of the province of Bithynia…. The canonical and apocryphal books it distinguished in the following manner: in the house of God the books were placed down by the holy altar; then the council asked the Lord in prayer that the inspired works be found on top and–as in fact happened–the spurious on the bottom.1011

This seems to be the source of the claim Constantine created the canon, but the Vetus Synodicon was written more than 500 years after the council. If atheists can trust this claim in a book written 500 years after the council, why don’t they trust the books of the New Testament, written less 50 years after the events, and written by eye witnesses?

Prior to Constantine’s legalizing Christianity, Christians were at best tolerated in the Roman Empire, and some times persecuted (Persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire). Some emperors before Constantine actively arrested, tortured and executed Christians (and people of other non-Roman Empire-approved faiths), and had their religious books destroyed. It was only after Constantine legalized Christianity that the books of the Bible became widely available to many churches. Constantine did have a tremendous, positive impact on Christianity, but he had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament Canon.

Bonus

Constantine’s mother, Empress (Saint) Helena, was also Christian, and she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land about A.D. 326-328. She collected religious artifacts and is credited with identifying several sites mentioned in the Bible. Unfortunately, Helena seems to have been duped on many occasions. While modern archaeology has confirmed the locations of some of the sites she identified, archaeologists have also rejected quite a few of the identifications.

Resources

O’Neill, Tim. The Great Myths 4: Constantine, Nicaea and the Bible (History for Atheists, May 5, 2017) (Accessed 01-Sep-2019).

Footnotes

  1. Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius I with the Edict of Thessalonica in A.D. 380.
  2. Contemporary sources indicate Constantine did not chair the council or direct the debate.
  3. Council of Nicaea. Nicene Creed (Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325) (CARM.org)
  4. Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine’s Letter to Eusebius on the Preparation of Copies of the Holy Scriptures. Quoted by Eusebius. Life of Constantine, Book 4, Chapter 36. (CCEL.org)
  5. Eusebius. Life of Constantine, Book 4, Chapter 37. (CCEL.org)
  6. Both Bibles have some portions missing.
  7. Dating manuscripts is notoriously difficult, so the dates could be wrong and this could be one of the 50 Bibles, even though the estimated date is before Constantine’s request. It’s also possible this Bible was written before the request, and was even the impetus for the request.
  8. British Library (London, England), Leipzig University (Lipzig, Germany), Saint Catherine’s Monastery (Saint Catherine, Egypt), Russian Natational Library (Saint Petersburg, Russia).
  9. Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 69. (Amazon)
  10. Duffy, John and John Parker (Editors). The Synodicon Vetus; English Translation (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1979). Quoted in: Pearse, Roger. The Council of Nicaea and the Bible (Tertullian.org) (Accessed 02-Sep-2019).
  11. I was unable to find links to online translations of the whole text, but I was able to find several sites that quote this section.
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