Was the Canon Politically Motivated?

On a different note, a friend asks:

Also, some people told me that the Bible is B.S. because at the Council of Nicea, church leaders selected canon for political motives. Also, someone told me that an entire book of the new testament is so inconsistent with the style of the other books that religious scholars believe it was added after the original books of the had been consolidated. This book is said to contain a story about Jesus and a prostitute or something. DO you know what this might refer to?

Lots of people say lots of incredibly stupid things about the Bible, the New Testament, and Jesus. We live in a post-Watergate age, where we love to see the dirty laundry of those people who act like they’re so wholesome, those people we secretly fear might be better than us. It’s incredibly easy to start a vicious and unfounded rumor about celebrities, or politicians, or anyone who is out in the limelight. Moral figures are particularly wholesome seeming, and so it’s a particularly lurid treat when one (or many) of them behave in an evil, or even merely human, way. But the ultimate Good Boy is Jesus. He seems so perfect, and all these people (myself include) go around saying He is perfect. Wouldn’t it be juicy if it turned out that He had a secret side so unwholesome you wouldn’t describe it to your own mother?

There’s a second motivation, too. Imagine for a moment that you’re someone who once had some faith (or maybe never did), and lost it, but you’re aware that it’s something missing from your life. You wish you could just believe, but it just doesn’t “click” for you, like it seems to for some people. A “sour grapes” mentality kicks in, and you start to tell yourself, “they’re just sheeple, they’ll believe anything.” Some people take this mentality to the extreme: Bill Maher made a movie where he finds the dumbest religious people he can find, so he can act like all religious people are that absurd. Well, finding the triple-X secret about Jesus would pretty well solidify that you, O clever skeptic, are the brave and brilliant soul, while the masses who pray, pay, and obey are just stupid sheep.

There’s just one problem: historical evidence doesn’t actually support any of these seedy conclusions. From an historical scholarship perspective, they’re an absolute joke, and the people who act like they aren’t are either themselves gullible, or trying to grind an enormous axe with the Faith for very un-academic reasons (or both). The result, as G.K. Chesterton described in his book The Superstition of Divorce:

The modern world will accept no dogma upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas upon no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as superstition without examination. But preface your mark merely with “they say” or “don’t you know that?” or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper; and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say.

So with that in mind, let me pick this apart, if I may. The Council of Nicaea didn’t set the canon at all, so we needn’t worry whether they were politically motivated when they did it or not. The actual history of the Bible is that there were local canons which differed in details, but had most of the same books. The differences in canons meant that the Church had to settle it, and it did at the councils of Rome (382 A.D.), Hippo (393 A.D.), and Carthage (397 A.D.), with Pope Innocent I promulgating it as an official canon in 405 A.D. (you can read about it here). All of that means that it’s pretty unlikely some sneaky 4th century clerics were jet-setting around the globe to tinker with the canons everywhere from Sardis and Laodicea (in Turkey) to Rome to Hippo and Carthage (in North Africa).

The people in the very early Church were much more literate than they are now, so the idea that a book that they had previously thought to be the word of God would be discarded merely because some conniving bishop said to seems silly. It is, in any case, a strong statement in support of the Catholic Church (inasmuch as even these skeptics are forced to begrudgingly acknowledge the top-down structure of the early Church).

If I had to guess which book was the one “so inconsistent that it must not belong,” my hunch would be Revelation, since it is markedly different in style. This is, of course, because it is markedly different in purpose. It unveils some visions of the last times, and shows a sort of cosmic portrayal of the Church. The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn explains the parallels between this book and the Mass. The other books in the Bible are generally either biographies of Jesus (the Gospels), histories of the Apostles with some biographical information about Peter and Paul (Acts), letters to specific local churches facing specific issues (the Pauline epistles), and open letters written to the entire church (the catholic letters — catholic here meaning “universal”). There are actually a lot of different styles between the books. Romans gives something of a systematized view of justification and covenant, while 3 John is a simple, pleasant letter not unlike something you or I might write (except that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit). Lots of Old Testament books sounds like Revelation (Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, for example), but usually people who think Revelation shouldn’t be in the New Testament think that God changes His personality between the OT and the NT (which is silly).

As for the “Jesus and the prostitute” thing, it’s either:

  • Imaginary scandal-making: I’ve no doubt some enemies of Christ and Christianity fomented absurd rumors, and I am aware of some Jewish writings which alleged that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier, a claim that was obviously just meant to slander her name (for starters, how would the writer know??); or,
  • It’s a reference to the “Whore of Babylon” from Revelation, a part of the end-times prophesies. If you’re starting to wander down this path, you’re really going to need to be careful. Prophetic interpretation isn’t meant for the average person – it’s a specific gift of the Holy Spirit, and lots of people come up with really crazy things when they fly solo on this.

Hope that helps,

Joe.

I would advise anyone curious in this question to check out John Armstrong’s take.

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