Is the favorite bad boy of ancient history at it again?
When talking about Christian history, it seems like every vile and evil thing in church history goes back to Constantine. Before too long, I’m anticipating I will hear that Constantine was responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials. Most people have no real historical idea of what Constantine did and just know what they have read about him in popular media.
Yesterday I was talking to an atheist on Facebook who gave me the line of “Who knows what Constantine took out of the New Testament?” Well, anyone who knows anything about church history and textual criticism knows the answer to that question. Nothing.
You don’t have to take my word. Listen to what Bart Ehrman says on his blog.
One of the reasons I’m excited about doing my new course for the Teaching Company (a.k.a. The Great Courses) is that I’ll be able to devote three lectures to the Arian Controversy, the Conversion of the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea (in 325 CE). It seems to me that a lot more people know about the Council of Nicea today than 20 years ago – i.e., they know that there *was* such a thing – and at the same time they know so little about it. Or rather, what they think they know about it is WRONG.
I suppose we have no one more to blame for this than Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, where, among other things, we are told that Constantine called the Council in order to “decide” on whether Jesus was divine or not, and that they took a vote on whether he was human or “the Son of God.” And, according to Dan Brown’s lead character (his expert on all things Christian), Lee Teabing, “it was a close vote at that.”
That is so wrong.
There are also a lot of people who think (I base this on the number of times I hear this or am asked about it) that it was at the Council of Nicea that the canon of the New Testament was decided. That is, this is when Christian leaders allegedly decided which books would be accepted into the New Testament and which ones would be left out.
That too is wrong.
So here’s the deal. First, the canon of the New Tesatment was not a topic of discussion at the Council of Nicea. It was not talked about. It was not debated. It was not decided. Period. The formation of the canon was a long drawn-out process, with different church leaders having different views about which books should be in and which should be out. I can devote some posts to the question if anyone is interested (I would need to look back to see if I’ve done that already!).
For Constantine to do this, he would really have to know more about the New Testament than we do today. He would have to know where every copy of every New Testament manuscript could be found and then he would have to have soldiers or other servants who could go and track down all those copies and somehow either destroy them or edit them so that no hint of them was left behind. It they were destroyed, then there could be no evidence that this happened since we cannot point to evidence that was destroyed.
People who say this really demonstrate that they don’t know what they’re talking about and play their hand. It was kind of ironic since this was in a conversation where I said too many atheists online refuse to read what disagrees with them. I stand by that. This is not to say that none of them do, but when I meet an atheist who actually engages, it’s a refreshing exception.
So what evidence is there Constantine edited the New Testament? Really, none. It’s a popular myth in the world of internet atheism and really, internet atheism does itself no service as saying it is a position of reason and evidence. To paraphrase Jesus, these people honor reason with their lips, but their heads are far from it. If you are such a person, you owe it to yourself to read contrary thought and see where you might be wrong.
And if you don’t, you don’t have a commitment to reason and evidence. You have a commitment to your own personal faith.
No. Constantine did not edit the New Testament. He did not determine the vote at Nicea. He did not pick the NT canon. None of those are true. If you are an atheist who wants to go about eliminating what you see as myths, start with your own house first.