Was the Canon fixed at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD?

In Outgrowing God, Dawkins brings up the issue of the development of the canon of Scripture. He says,

The canon was largely fixed in AD 325 by a conference of church leaders called the Council of Nicaea, set up by the Roman Emperor Constantine – the one whose conversion led to Europe becoming Christian. He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 26). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And then asks the question,

What’s so special about the particular four gospels lucky enough to be chosen for the canon by a bunch of bishops and theologians in Nicaea in AD 325?

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 38). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So how was the canon fixed? Was it a unilateral decision made by a group of men in the fourth century? What was so special about the Gospels? Was it merely by chance they were chosen, making them lucky to be included? Were there other credible Gospels competing with the four in the New Testament who were just unlucky not to be chosen?

Let us examine these claims made by Dawkins:

What was the Council of Nicea?

The council of Nicea was the first worldwide ecumenical gathering of the church held in 325 A.D. (Knoll, pg 40). The primary issue discussed at this council was the divinity of Christ. At this time, there was a great controversy between Arius and Athanasius as to the relationship of Jesus, the son, to God, the Father. Constantine called the meeting to keep the church from splitting as it had threatened to do over the Donatus controversy. The Bishops were gathering to discuss the matter and come to an understanding of the divinity of Christ. It is not true that the canon was decided upon at this council.

What is the canon?

“Canon” is the word commonly used to refer to those books authorized by the church for inclusion in the Bible. The term “canon” comes from the Greek kanon meaning “any straight rod or bar; rule; standard of excellence” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So, to imply that the canon was selected without some standard or criteria is an oxymoron. By definition, there were criteria for deciding which books were and were not included in the New Testament.

What were the criteria used to determine which books should be included in the canon?

The decision to include each of the 27 books in the New Testament was not a hasty one. In fact, it wasn’t one decision at all. It was a series of decisions and examinations made over nearly two centuries. All of the books of the New Testament were written before AD 100.

For example, Ehrman provides the following dates for the Gospels (Williams, pg 48):

Matthew AD 80-85

Mark AD 65-70

Luke AD 80-85

John AD 95

Ehrman is not a Christian, and these are very conservative dates. Some date the Gospels even earlier.

These Gospels were grouped together from a very early period. The Muratorian fragment is a canon list which can be dated to about AD 170. This list includes all but four of the books in our current New Testament plus two that are not included. Irenaeus includes all four Gospels in his book Against Heresies in AD 180. So, we see that these books were considered authoritative and authentic far before the council of Nicea. Origen (ca. 185 - ca. 254) was using all 27 books of the New Testament nearly 100 years before Nicea (Knoll, pg 29). By the end of the fourth century, this list had become standard, as evidenced by the first time all 27 books were used in a canon list in a letter by Bishop Athanasius in 367 and in a document from a synod in Carthage in 397 (ibid).

John Meade says, “Canon lists represent the culmination of a process - not the beginning of one. Therefore, the presence of lists does not establish a canon but rather evinces a time when the complete canon crystallized. For example, even though Athanasius in 367 was the first to include all twenty-seven New Testament books into one canon list,… he did not invent this list. He compiled a complete list of books that were already recognized as canonical…” (Gurry and Hixson, pg. 250-251).

The decision was not a unilateral one made by a “bunch of Bishops and theologians in Nicea.” It was a gradual process which took place over centuries.

In addition to the vote of time, there were strict criteria used to determine which books should be included. I am in debt to my friends, Christian Gunzel and Laura Farley, who sent me their papers on the development on the canon from which some of the following quotations are taken.

Apostolicity

Of all the criteria, this was the most important one.

“Where a writing was held to come directly from a disciple of Christ, to arise from the circle or direct influence of one chosen personally by Jesus (for example, the Gospel of Mark was widely held to derive from Peter’s eyewitness reports), or to express in a pure form the message of the apostles about Christ, that writing was accepted as canonical” (Knoll, pg 29).

And Gamble, concerning apostolicity, says, “authorship by followers of apostles, derivation from the general time of the apostles, or even simply an agreement of content with what the church took to be apostolic teaching” (Gamble, pg 68).

It was important that the Gospel accounts were written by eyewitnesses or by those who were in close relation with an eyewitness or apostle.

It is widely held that the authors of the Gospels are as follows:

Matthew: a tax collector from Capernaum, one of Jesus’ disciples.

Mark: not one of the Twelve, but is believed to be Apostle Peter’s interpreter in Rome.

Luke: Not one of the twelve, was a doctor who accompanied Paul on some of his trips.

John: one of the twelve disciples, the younger brother of James.

The above list comes from Peter Williams’ book Can We Trust the Gospels? I mention this because Peter Williams is an example of one serious Bible scholar which Dawkins claims doesn’t exist (Dawkins p 22).

Catholocity

It was important that a book was applicable to the entire church. This is why the letters of Paul were a bit problematic early on. Paul’s letters are generally written to specific churches and individuals, which caused some to question whether what he had written was for the entire church at large. So, the material had to be relevant to the church at large to be included in the canon. Had an apostle’s grocery list been discovered, it is doubtful it would have been included in the canon of Scripture.

General Acceptance Among the Churches

In addition to the above, the churches down through the ages needed to accept the authenticity and authority of the Scriptures. Tradition was to have its say in the formation of the canon. This tradition can trace its roots back to the apostles themselves. Such as when Peter says in 2 Peter 3:16, “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” These “other scriptures” are the writings of the Apostles (Knoll, pg 27).

Was the Number Four Used as a Determining Factor on Which Books Were Canon?

The favoured four gospels were chosen, in part, for weird reasons which owe more to poetic fancy than to history. Irenaeus, one of those influential figures in the early history of Christianity known as the ‘Fathers of the Church’, lived a century before the Council of Nicaea. He was convinced that there had to be four gospels, no more and no fewer.

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 27). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Unsurprisingly, the number four was not a criterion used to determine which books should be included. No one who has studied the development of the canon would say so. Irenaeus’ comments, which Dawkins mentions were in defense of including all four recognized Gospels in the canon list (again this is in the second century, not the fourth century with the councils). At this time, a man named Marcion was arguing that Luke was the only true gospel and left out all of the others. Irenaeus wrote a defense of all four Gospels, listing several reasons why they should all be included. I say all because there were only four.

Dawkins makes it out to seem as though there were six or seven or more Gospels from which a selection was made. And since Irenaeus had an affinity for the number four, he decided there should only be four Gospels. This creates a false narrative. In truth, Irenaesus’ reasoning was posteriori. His argument was along the lines, “Of course we have four Gospels! Doesn’t that fit this pattern?” and not necessarily that we should have four Gospels because of this same reasoning.

Irenaeus does claim that we should not have any more or any less than this number, however, we must keep in mind he was writing a defense in a dispute with someone. This often causes us to overstate our case to make it as emotionally forceful as we can. Something a lot of writers do when they are writing defenses, something of which Dawkins is familiar. Had there been five or six Gospels, Irenaeus would have found some pattern that those numbers fit in order to provide a defense for them. Further, the final say of what was in the canon was not left to him.

Were other Gospels Written at the Time of the other Gospels?

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only gospels in the official canon but, as we’ll see, plenty of other gospels of Jesus had been written around the same time.

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 26). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The short answer to this question is no. There were no other gospels, that we know of, written around the time the New Testament Gospels were being written. There is good evidence that there were other writings about the events found in the Gospels, but these have been lost in time. All of the non-canonical gospels Dawkins mentions are dated well into the second century, long after any eyewitnesses had died.

The only gospel which comes close is the gospel of Thomas. This gospel, as we have it, consists of 114 sayings (Wikipedia, The Gospel of Thomas). It is incredibly difficult to date as there is no narrative which mentions people or places. In fact, the only place mentioned at all is Judaea, and it is only mentioned once (Williams, pg 63). It has been dated anywhere between 100 AD and 250 AD. Scholars are not entirely unsure that this document hasn’t been added to over time since it is merely a collection of sayings. The opening line casts additional doubt, “These are the hidden words [of] the living Jesus…” This phrasing suggests that this gospel was written by the Gnostics.

The Gnostics were a sect of Christians and Jews who believed that God had given secret knowledge to a few and that salvation rested on attaining such knowledge. This doctrine was a stark departure from the message of Christ and all the other accounts of the apostles. It is generally accepted that the Gospel of Thomas was not written by an eye-witness, was written long after the time of the apostles, and does not give enough information to authenticate the material it contains. It, therefore, is not considered a gospel account on par with the other gospels.

The Gospel of Judas, that Dawkins mentions (pg. 35), is worse off in terms of reliability than the Gospel of Thomas. It has been determined to be a late second-century Gnostic gospel. Similar to the Gospel of Thomas, this gospel claims that the “true gospel” which was only taught to Judas. It was a secret he only told one person. No bible scholar believes this to be the case. Additionally, no bible scholar believes it to be the work of the disciple Judas or any other disciple for that matter.

It lists no place names, which betrays no first-hand knowledge of the geography of Palestine, and only includes two Palestinian names: Judas and Jesus (Williams, p 69). It also contains several names which are not at all from the region, which appear to be a joining of the Greek and late second-century mysticism. Names such as; Adam, Adamas, Adonaios, Barbelo, Eve = Zoe, Gabriel, Galila, Harmathoth, Michael, Nebro, Saklas, Seth, Sophia, Yaldabaoth, and Yobel (ibid). These are not names people would have had in the time and place in which the gospels were written. So, I agree with Dawkins (pg. 36). I can see why any council would reject the Gospel of Judas. An eye-witness didn’t write it, it from 100 years after the time about which it is writing, it provides no authenticating information, and it contradicts reliable historical accounts.

There are several other proposed “gospels,” but each is less reliable than the next. No biblical scholar believes there to be more than four authentic and historically reliable gospels. No gospels, therefore, have been rejected because “a bunch of Bishops and theologians” didn’t like the information it contained.

Conclusion

The council of Nicea and the bishops and theologians who attended it were not solely responsible for the canon as we have it today. Further, the gospels which are included were not accepted without a strict set of criteria. The books had high hurdles that had to be cleared before it could be considered both authentic and inspired. The debate over which books had met the criteria spanned centuries. The considerations were mainly historical. Some criteria were democratic, and a few were doctrinal. There were some gospels rejected because they failed to meet these criteria. There were none rejected at Nicea which had not met rejection before. The canon as we have it today is the one which would any reasonable historian would include given the criteria of historicity alone.

Bibliography:

“Canon.” Online Etymology Dictionary., accessed November 25th, 2019, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=canon.

“Gospel of Thomas.” Wikipedia., accessed November 26th, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Thomas#Date_of_composition.

Gamble, Harry Y. 2002. The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning Wipf & Stock Pub.

Gurry, Peter J. and Elijah Hixson, eds. 2019. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2012. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Third ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Williams, Peter J. 2018. Can we Trust the Gospels?. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.