There is a meme going around on Facebook that says the Council of Nicaea decided which books could be in the Bible in 325 AD. Supposedly Emperor Constantine manipulated the Council to pick the books that would further his political agendas. Regardless of what one thinks about the Bible or Christianity, this is simply historically inaccurate. There is no evidence that the Council ever discussed this issue. The philosopher Voltaire started this false idea in the 18th century based on a 9th century legend that all scholars agree is spurious. (In the legend, all the possible biblical books were put on a table and the false books simply fell off the table all by themselves leaving the biblical books we have today still on the table. No credible scholar, Christian or otherwise, believes this can be traced back to the 4th century or that it has any historical value.) Voltaire’s hatred of Christianity led him to engage in a 18th century version of “fake news.” Modern conspiracy theorists have picked it up and dressed it up in academic sounding language. But there is not one shred of historical accuracy in it. The Council of Nicaea did not even discuss which books were to be included in the Bible, much less make any decisions about it.

The truth is that by 170 AD the church was functioning with a Bible much like we have today (with a few exceptions). The Muratorian Fragment dates to that time and gives a list of biblical books that is very close to the one we have today. The church had to be using these books as Scripture long before this for them to make this list, pushing the practical use of these books as the Bible to the early 2nd century at least. No council decided on these books. The early Christians valued them and treated them as Scripture because they believed they could be traced back to the apostles. The Church naturally valued writings above all others that could be traced back to the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life. It was the pragmatic use of the books in the spiritual life of the church that lead them to be considered Scripture, not the arbitrary decision of any council. Please note that nothing I have said thus far presupposes the supernatural truth of Scripture (which I do believe). What I have presented is the most historically plausible model for the origin of the New Testament given the evidence that we have.

Now a person could still respond that the church picked the wrong books or that those books are not accurate, etc., but that is not the point of this essay. Instead the question is “did the Council of Nicaea pick which books to be in the Bible?” The historical evidence overwhelming says, “No.”  170 AD, when the Muratorian fragment was written, is 155 years before the Council of Nicaea. The church in its spiritual life had already been functioning with a group of books as the Bible that is very close to the one we have today for over a century and a half before Nicaea. Not only is there no evidence that the Council ever discussed this matter, it would have been unnecessary for them to do so. The issue had already been decided practically in the life of the church.


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