Canonicalization of the Bible – censorship or coincidence?

It is a favorite theme for tabloid journalists and some bookwriters to write sensational theories about Jesus. “New and sensasional knowledge” seem to be a good selling point. Likewise, we see speculation in relation to the books that are collected in the Bible. It has been intriguing speculations about writings that did not fit the greater picture that were censored away by the church. Or that there were many gospels which only a few were selected and the rest was destroyed, including gospels about transmigration. At least once a year I read an article in a national newspaper about the sensational Gospel of Thomas or the Q Source.

Hiding the truth?

A problem with many of these claims, is the huge amount of myths not based on historical facts. So let’s look behind the speculations to se what’s real. Let’s start looking at the conspiracy theory of the powerful church that hides in the shadows  and destroys the ‘heretical’ writings they don’t like. The fact is that the Gnostic writings and other texts that were not recognized by the earliest local congregations, is easily accessible from both the church’s publicised material and on internet as well. Throughout church history, there have never been signs of a conspiracy of hiding certain texts. On the contrary, they have been dismissed and warned against in full public. Many of the writings would have gone into oblivion if they had not been referred to by church leaders.


When was it written?

Another typical myth is that the Bible’s New Testament (NT) is written many centuries after Jesus’ death. But scientists are virtually unanimous in that they are written approximately between 55 and 110. They are recorded in a culture where the oral tradition was very accurate and highly valued. Many of the books in NT are also so close to the events described that many eyewitnesses would have an opportunity to object it some of the content was wrong.


How and when was the New testament collected and recognized?

Already “the apostolic fathers”, the generation after the apostles, quoted in their letters from NT – and not from any other hidden or forgotten writings. The gospels and Paul’s 13 letters were widely accepted at least around 130. Between 170-220 they received the same authority as the Old Testament. In the beginning the curch wasn’t centralized, and which documents to use were decided in the local churches. It was first later after the procecutions of christians stopped, they were able to have larger gatherings. The oldest list of New testament canon we have preserved is from the late 100. It had as criteria that the book had to be usable for reading in the Church meeting. Hebrews, John’s three letters and Jude was not in that list. It included Solomon’s wisdom and the apocalypse of Peter which is not included in the Bible today. That list spesifically rejected Hermas pastoral letter, the alleged Paul letters to Alexandria and Ladokiea and the writings of the gnostic Valentinus.


By the year 200, there was a broad consensus among all major churches about the core of the New Testament canon with the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter and John’s first letter. In the mid 300s the whole New Testament writings were generally accepted in the church. The most controversial book that took longest to decide was the Revelations of John. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was the first, in a letter in 367, to list all NT books and declare them canonical. He called them “the sources of salvation”. Athaniasus discerned between the canonical and the apochypical scriptures.


A few books had as we have noted a uncertain status for a fairly long period; Hebrews, Jude, Peter second letter, Revelation, and John’s 2nd and 3rd letter. But they are still on a list of church history writer Eusebio in the early three hundred century. It is almost absurd to assert the popular myth that writings were censored and disappeared after church meetings, when we actually have lists before the councils canonized the Bible, that shows which books were actually in use. We have preserved two documents from early inn the fourth century; Codex Sinaiticus that includes the whole NT (minus Markus 16, 9-20 and John 7, 53-8, 11) and Codex Vaticanus. From around 400, we have Codex Alexandrius and Codex Ephraemi. These are publicly available both via Web and exhibited at libraries.


Did the church randomly select what should be included in the Bible, whichever fitted the views of the priesthood?

It is interesting to look at the basis for the canonization of the Bible. The New Testament canon which was adopted at the Council, was already recognized by the local churches. There were three criteria that were used; where they written by the apostles or approved by them or someone who stood close to them? Were they accepted in the churches? Did they contain the apostolic doctrine? Despite aforesaid disagreement about some writings, it was mainly very small variation in relation to which writings the congregations used. And none of the alternative documents today spoken of as “sensational”, as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, was in use in the churches! So next time someone talks about what’s “taken out” or “should have been in” so feel free to ask them to support their claims. In relation to the now popular gnostic writings, it is also worth remembering that the Gospels came with (then) accountable information that was openly proclaimed. Gnostic writings have not verifiable substance and in fact aimed to be hidden esoteric knowledge (hence gnostic of gnosis – hidden revelation).

Gnostic writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and so on were never even considered since they were written 150-200 years later than the New testament and was not used by the local churches. Even orthodox theology written by the apostolic fathers much earlier, were not included in the Bible because they were not written by the apostles or their disciples. It was a large consencus about which scriptures you used, and the Gnostic scriptures was never close to being in use among Christians.