Who decided what books would go into the New Testament?

I’ve heard it several times before: Didn’t a bunch of politicians just vote on what books to include in the New Testament to make Jesus look impressive and further their own, power-hungry cause?

This is one of the ideas behind The Da Vinci Code book (and movie) which continues to influence and confuse people.

It’s obviously a compelling idea to those who are naturally skeptical, anti-church, or just love a good conspiracy theory.

But for many people, it’s actually a sincere question.

Maybe they don’t use those exact words, but they wonder:

  • Who decided what books would be included in the Bible’s New Testament?
  • What about other “Gospels” or ancient church councils that supposedly excluded certain writings?
  • How do I respond when someone I know asks me how it all came together?

For Christians, these questions are foundational. After all, if the formation of the New Testament was politically motivated, how can we trust what it says about anything—including God, the purpose of life, ethics, salvation, or anything else?

Let me first say that I’m a natural skeptic. All of these questions were once my own. I’ve read historical documents, conspiracy theories, and the “excluded” Gospels, so that I could figure it all out.

Let me share what I’ve learned.

First I’ll explain why the underlying premise for this conspiracy theory doesn’t hold up, and then I’ll explain why certain books were included in the New Testament and why some were not.

The Conspiracy Theory

The underlying premise for the conspiracy theory is that a bunch of politicians at a famous meeting called the Council of Nicaea just voted on what books to include in the New Testament to make Jesus look impressive and further their own power-hungry cause.

In The Da Vinci Code book, a character named Leigh Teabing says, “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”

A few pages later, he embellishes the tale: “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which 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.” (Pages 231, 234.)

So, is Teabing right?

No. The Council of Nicaea occurred in 325 A.D. It wasn’t about approving which books would be in the New Testament but about trinitarian doctrine.

He also says that there were certain stories of Jesus (“gospels”) that were burned and outlawed because they spoke of his “human” traits. Again, this is an inaccuracy. The Gospels that are included in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all speak very openly and candidly about Jesus’ human traits. He gets hungry, angry and even cries. The picture we get is of a very human Jesus.

It’s also helpful to note that it is not the later stories about Jesus that stress his divinity. In fact, the opposite is true. The strongest expressions of Jesus’ divinity are among the earliest records we have. These are found not only in what is widely conceded to be the earliest Gospel in the Bible (Mark), but in the letters of Paul, many of which predate the Gospels.

The further back you go into the historical records, the more you find the explosive revelation that Jesus is both divine and human. This comes through in what he says about himself, other statements about his identity, and in the fact that he became an object of worship virtually overnight. This is especially noteworthy because this happened among Jews who adhered to a strict monotheism where only the one true God was worshiped.

The one thing Teabing says that is true is that other Gospels (stories about Jesus) existed. But we still have many of them. They’ve been widely translated and are on my bookshelf. They don’t contain any secrets. And they certainly don’t portray his humanity any more than the other Gospels do.

Were church leaders just trying to make themselves look good?

Another element of the conspiracy theory is that the early leaders in the church surely changed or embellished documents to make themselves look good and to advance their own power-hungry cause.

But there is no evidence that the church embellished documents to further their own cause. In fact, the documents make the disciples, look bad—not good!

Plus, 1 Corinthians 15:6 highlights the fact that hundreds of living eye witnesses were still walking around talking to each other when the stories were being told. So if any inaccuracies were being circulated, they could easily have be squashed.

If leaders in the early church simply wanted to hoodwink everyone and further their own cause to make themselves look good, why would they leave untouched so many stories that made them look bad or un-credible?

For example, the first eye witnesses to the resurrection were women. In the first century, women were not considered reliable enough as witnesses for their testimony to be admissible in court. We don’t think like that today thankfully, but in the first century that would have really hurt the cause.

So why not change it? Because that’s how it actually happened and the early community was more concerned with preserving the truth than making themselves look good.

Also, why leave in what Jesus said on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Many people don’t realize that he was quoting Psalm 22:1, but for a lot of people it would have made him look bad, as if he didn’t know what was happening.

So why not change it? Because that’s how it actually happened and the early community was more concerned with preserving the truth than making themselves look good.

Further, the leaders in the church—disciples like Peter and others—are consistently portrayed as people who mess up, put their foot in their mouths, and misunderstand Jesus. Peter himself denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:54-62), and Jesus once called him Satan (Matthew 16:24)!

So why not change it? Because that’s how it actually happened and the early community was more concerned with preserving the truth than making themselves look good.

Related post: Why Trust the Bible? (Because Jesus did.)

Conspiracy de-bunked

To summarize, the Council of Nicaea didn’t approve the books of the New Testament by vote; it was about something else; the earliest documents highlight Jesus’ divinity (as well as his humanity) not just the later ones; other “Gospels” continue to be widely available if you want to read them (they’re not secret); and church leaders often look bad (not good) in the biblical stories, undermining the idea that they were just out to further their own power-hungry agenda.

What was the criteria?

Okay, so if there were many ancient documents about Jesus and the early church, why were some included in what we now call the Bible and why were some not included?

It is widely conceded that there were three main criteria for a book to be authoritative:

1. Apostolic

A document needed to have been written by an apostle or companion to an apostle. As Dr. Craig Blomberg, professor at Denver Seminary, explains, “No book… is more than one person removed from an apostle or an authoritative eyewitness of the life of Jesus.”

2. Universal

A document needed to be widely used, recognized and accepted, and couldn’t just be from a remote corner somewhere.

3. Orthodox

This is a word that means “right teaching.” Therefore, a document needed to be faithful to what Jesus and his followers actually taught.

The final list

In short, the New Testament came into being, not after a vote by some politicians, but after a long process of discussion and debate within the community of faith. The first time we encounter an exact listing of the 27 books that are now included in the New Testament is in a letter written in 367 A.D. by an influential figure from history named Athanasius.

Through it all, both before this listing appears and in the debates that continued afterward, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit guided God’s people to ensure they had access to the books that told God’s unfolding story of redemption, renewal and new life in Christ.

Reality check

I know that conspiracy theories can be fun. But in this case, they just don’t pan out: Books that were written by an apostle or companion to an apostle; that were widely used, recognized and accepted; and which were faithful to what Jesus and his followers actually taught came to be included in the New Testament…

And the ones that were not were not.

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