Constantine's Bible

This weekend I read an interesting book.

Characteristics: (where 1 is bad, 3 is average, and 5 is superb)

  • Interestingness: 4.5
  • Subject Matter: 4.5
  • Organization: 4
  • Binding: 3

Dungan has written a very interesting book in his Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. The point of the book can be summarized as follows: the idea of a canon comes from the Greeks, the early church used these ideas and came to a rough consensus, then Constantine jumped in and squashed all innovation and/or ability for the church to discuss this intelligently without fear of getting killed by said emperor. Now for a little more detail.

The book is to a significant degree built around Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius was a fourth century writer, and his Ecclesiastical History has turned out to be one of the most important sources for the history of the early church. In Constantine’s Bible, Dungan focused on Eusebius and how he recorded the thoughts and arguments of the Christian bishops in regard to authentic writings of Jesus’ followers. What were the main criteria? The primary three criteria were as follows: 1) does it accurately teach the gospel of Jesus Christ (as defined by the teachings passed on through the succession of bishops), 2) was it written by one of Christ’s apostles, Paul, or a close associate, and 3) was it used by bishops in churches of apostolic succession in public worship as a source for theology and praxis?

What books were actually "in" by these criteria? The books that were acknowledged as genuine by all the bishops were the four canonical gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul (Hebrews was included here), 1 John and 1 Peter. There were a few disputed books that were approved by many, which included James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2, 3 John. Revelation was more hotly disputed, though was ultimately considered "in". A number of documents were approved by some bishops, but disputed by most, including the Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Revelation of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, Institutions of the Apostles, and the Gospel according to the Hebrews. And besides those there were a great number that were just rejected by all.

So where did Eusebius and the early church get these criteria, and even the use of the word "canon"? As it turns out, they got it from the Greeks. It was the Greeks who first started caring about the authenticity of documents. It mattered to them if the writings of Plato were actually written by Plato, for example. His point, that this was not a real concern for Judaism (and I would add earliest Christianity), is probably sound. At least as far as we can tell, that does not seem to be as big an issue for them. Pseudepigraphy was big in Jewish circles, and there is not a lot of evidence that they were bothered by it. Often when I hear someone say something along the lines of "the early church got this or that idea from the Greeks" I normally cringe, because either they are wrong and they actually got it from Judaism, it rose up in their thinking without outside influence, or the thought borrowed from the Greeks was the wrong one to borrow, and should be returned post-haste (unfortunately there is no "return to sender" for ideas). But in this case, I have to say "bravo!" These are good ideas, and we should thank the Greeks for them. His case for borrowing is not water-tight, but it is strong, so he is probably right on this point.

By the fourth century there was mostly a consensus among the majority of bishops as to what the true apostolic writings were, though there was some disagreement and discussion was still going on. But when Constantine converted, all of this discussion was over. He had no place in his kingdom for a state religion that had serious debates. He could not allow it and would fix it as the self-proclaimed "universal bishop" (his hubris at this point so bothers me as I wonder what right he would think he would have to call himself that). So both Christological and canonical discussion would come to a close via his influence. And since Eusebius had a profound amount of influence on Constantine, it was Eusebius’ work that Constantine used to close the canon, if you will.

Here are the strengths of the book:

  1. Easy to read. I rarely found my mind wandering while reading this book. His style is good and he can write a pretty engaging story, especially after the first couple of chapters.
  2. Short read. I read almost all of it on Friday and Saturday. He’s not overly wordy.
  3. Great with his sources. You rarely read a book this good about quoting his sources. And he went above and beyond by commenting on these quotations, often at length. I did not actually check all of his sources. Hopefully he was fair and accurate. Assuming this, I must say his use of sources is definitely one of the strongest points of this book.
  4. Great buildup. He can tell a story, and it really leads you straight up to Constantine.

The book has only one weakness. The buildup to Constantine was great, but the section on Constantine and canon was disappointing. Given the title of the work, this makes the climax double disappointing. I think the point he makes, that Constantine (with influence he should not have had) killed legitimate continuing discussion among the bishops on what was actually canon, is right. But I would have loved to see more discussion and more proof. Are the sources just not there? Is it historically not clear enough for someone to paint a clearer picture? The chapter on Constantine had more content on his conquest of Rome and influence on the 4th century church in general (the council of Nicea in particular) than on his influence on canon. This weakness would be much less of one if the book had a different title. With a title like Constantine’s Bible you would think it would have more about Constantine and the Bible.

Despite the one weakness, I loved the book. I found it interesting and very thought-provoking. There is a lot more to talk about than what Dungan covered in the book, but that is not surprising nor a reason to avoid it. What he does cover he covers well. Look to other books on canon to cover more of the material.

As for audience, I think anyone could read this book. You do not need background in church history, Greek, or New Testament studies, though it would help. All you need is a desire to learn and to think. I told my wife about it and I think we are going to read through it together after we finish our current book.

I had checked out the book from the DTS library to read it, but since I liked it so much I just ordered it from Amazon. They have it for $11.56 (as of the time of this writing), and it is definitely worth every penny. As issues of canon and the writings of early Christian splinter groups make the news more and more these days (they are all the rage, aren’t they?), it is good to have books that can clearly explain elements of the canonical process. I agree a great deal with the tenor of Dungan’s closing remark: "Although our modern grasp of what the early Catholic authorities accomplished may go hand-in-hand with a number of disagreements as to specific books they included in the New Testament, their objectivity, honesty, and dedication are nevertheless worthy of our sincere admiration and respect." (139)