FIRST-PERSON: Who selected the books in the New Testament?

by Mike Licona, posted Friday, May 19, 2006 (12 years ago)

Editor's note: This column is the last in a five-part series examining the claims of "The Da Vinci Code," which hits theaters today.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)--"More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.... The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great ... [who] omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."

Such is the claim of "The Da Vinci Code" by author Dan Brown.

Were there more than 80 gospels as Brown claims? Bart Ehrman is an atheist New Testament critic who specializes in the Gnostic writings. In his book "Lost Scriptures," Ehrman lists 17 gospels not included in the New Testament. When we add the recently revealed gospel of Judas and the four New Testament Gospels, we come to a total of twenty-two, rather than the “more than eighty” stated in The Da Vinci Code. We know of a few others, such as the gospel of Barnabas. But these are much later than even the Gnostic gospels. For example, a gospel of Barnabas may have circulated in the latter part of the fifth-century. But we know nothing of it, except that it was rejected by the church. A gospel of Barnabas appealed to by some Muslims appears to be a different text altogether and written around the 15th century.

This brings us to Brown’s next claim: The Roman Emperor Constantine was responsible for the approving of the writings we find in today’s New Testament, since he omitted earlier gospels which spoke of Jesus in human terms and embellished the four New Testament Gospels in order to make Him divine. Four major assertions are here made. The first is that the Gnostic gospels in the Nag Hammadi library are earlier than the four New Testament Gospels. Except for a very few scholars on the far left, nearly every scholar in the world holds that the four Gospels in the New Testament are the earliest Gospels and that the Gnostic gospels in the Nag Hammadi library were written later.

Brown also asserts that the Gnostic gospels spoke of Jesus in far more human terms than the New Testament Gospels. This, too, is inaccurate. One of the major differences between Gnosticism and what Jesus taught is that Jesus said one could find the truth in Him and that He is the light. Gnosticism taught that truth and light are found in oneself. Accordingly, Gnosticism did not speak of Jesus in human terms, but rather spoke of Gnostic humans in divine terms.

Brown’s assertion that the four New Testament Gospels were embellished by Constantine to speak of Jesus’ divinity is likewise mistaken. A number of manuscripts which predate Constantine contain passages that clearly refer to the divinity of Jesus. For example, a manuscript dated c. A.D. 200 (known as P46) contains at least four texts where Jesus is spoken of as divine: a prayer to Jesus addressing him as divine Lord and asking him to come, Maranatha (1 Corinthians 16:22); an early creed referring to Jesus as YHWH (Romans 10:9, 13); an ancient Christian hymn that says Jesus existed in the form of God, was given the name/title above all names/titles, and will be honored one day when every knee will bow before Him (Phil 2:6-11); a text where Jesus is referred to as “the exact representation” of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). What makes these passages all the more interesting is that all four come from letters which predate the four New Testament Gospels. Therefore, even if Brown was correct on this point -- and I challenge him to find a single bona fide scholar in agreement -- we have Christian writings even earlier than the four New Testament Gospels that clearly speak of Jesus as divine.

The fourth and final major assertion of Brown is that Constantine selected the writings to be included in the New Testament. Canonicity was a lengthy process that involved much debate and disagreement. Always beyond dispute were the four Gospels and all of Paul’s letters. It was not until A.D. 367, more than 40 years after the Council of Nicea, that we find in the writings of Athanasius a list of the 27 books and letters which are included in today’s New Testament. In short, the writings had to have apostolic authority and have received widespread and long-term acceptance from the universal church to be included in the New Testament canon.

We have seen in this article that, contrary to the claims of "The Da Vinci Code," the writings in the New Testament were selected after much reflection and debate over the course of hundreds of years and that the writings that made it are not only the earliest, but also those which contain the original traditions about Jesus and the early Church. Moreover, Jesus was thought of in divine terms from the earliest time in Christianity. Nothing spoils the creative statements found in "The Da Vinci Code" like the facts.


Licona is director of apologetics and interfaith evangelism at the North American Mission Board.

Download Story