Among the dozen or so criticisms of my book The Christ Conspiracy by Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? (24) appears the following, regarding the time and effort spent on the canonization of the New Testament part of the Bible. In this criticism, Ehrman quotes my book and summarizes another point, commenting in brackets:
“It took well over a thousand years to canonize the New Testament,” and “many councils” were needed to differentiate the inspired from the spurious books (31). [Actually, the first author to list our canon of the New Testament was the church father Athanasius in the year 367; the comment about “many councils” is simply made up.]
In this regard, Ehrman himself has done much to demonstrate that the NT canon changed over the decades to centuries, so that point is accepted.
The Muratorian Canon and Athanasius
The oldest extant canon appears to be the Muratorian Fragment, dated at the earliest to around 200, more than a century and a half before the time of Athanasius:
…the Muratorian fragment is evidence that, perhaps as early as 200, there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to the twenty-seven-book NT canon, which included four gospels and argued against objections to them. Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings are claimed to have been accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the 3rd century.
In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of the books that would become the twenty-seven-book NT canon, and he used the word “canonized” (kanonizomena) in regards to them. The first council that accepted the present canon of the New Testament may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (AD 393)… (“Development of the New Testament Canon“)
The claim that “the canon” was not finalized for a thousand years refers to the eventual canons of different denominations established at later councils:
… some claim that, from the 4th century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today), and that, by the 5th century, the Eastern Church, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon. Nonetheless, full dogmatic articulations of the canon were not made until the Canon of Trent of 1546 for Roman Catholicism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 for Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Greek Orthodox. (“Development of the New Testament Canon“)
As we can see, my contention that it took over a thousand years to develop the canon is accurate, as is my claim that such a formation required “many councils.”
The many councils
Despite Ehrman’s calumny (once again) that I “made things up,” the fact remains that there were many councils at which Christian doctrine was hashed out. In The Christ Conspiracy (31), I provided relevant quotes describing how these meetings were conducted, sometimes rather violently and brutally. These gatherings included the well-known First Council of Nicaea (325), as well as the Council of Constantinople (381), First Council of Ephesus (431), Council of Chalcedon (451), Second Council of Constantinople (553), Third Council of Constantinople (680-1), the Quinisext Council (692) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787), this latter serving as the “seventh of the first seven ecumenical councils.” The penultimate council listed here, although not well known, included discussion of the biblical canon, as did earlier councils.
In his thorough analysis of these councils, Voting about God in Early Church Councils (2), Yale University historian Dr. Ramsay MacMullen provides long lists and a map, remarking:
From the two and a quarter centuries post-325, surviving evidence allows the location of 255 councils on the map and in time… Two or three might better be called conferences; and, besides, the great majority of the rest were not focused on theology; rather, on internal government: as, what were the rights of deacons against presbyters? or what office should determine the rites of baptism? Yet their procedures and participation were no different than in those assemblages focused on credal questions. To understand one sort is to understand all.
Again, there were many councils held to discuss Church doctrine and organization, a number of which focused on credal questions, i.e., theological issues. Added to this list is the Council of Trent (1546), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) and the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) at which the Catholic and Protestant canons were finalized. To reiterate:
The Christian Biblical canon is the set of books Christians regard as divinely inspired and constituting the Christian Bible. Books included in the Christian Biblical canons of both the Old and New Testament were decided at the Council of Trent (1546), by the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) for the Catholic Church, the Church of England, Calvinism and the Orthodox Church respectively. (“Development of the Christian biblical canon“)
The bottom line is that, rather than having been set in stone by the infallible finger of God from the beginning, the biblical canon has been changed by men over a period greater than a millennium, and, indeed, to this day remains different in the Catholic and Protestant Bibles. These facts provide evidence that the Bible has a very human origin and does not represent “God’s Inerrant Word” filled with “accurate history” written down by “infallibly inspired” scribes.
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