Cracking the Da Vinci Code

Primary Sources for the Ancient Mind: Scripture Before Nicea
by The Rev. Jonathan Wilson

The Four Gospels were Authoritative Long Before Constantine

It is Dan Brown’s contention in The Da Vinci Code that the Roman Emperor Constantine in cahoots with “the Vatican” authorized the four gospels of the Bible and removed the rest. In fact, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not imposed on the Church by the Council of Nicea. The final selection for the canon of scripture did not occur until 50 years after Constantine died.
Furthermore, these selections did not reflect a top-down agenda, but rather, a grassroots discernment of the Holy Spirit in the written materials already used in worship. One hundred fifty years before the Council of Nicea, the Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, wrote the article Four Gospels Only.
The occasion for Irenaeus to write is that, by the year 170, the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were widely attested throughout the reach and breadth of the Christian faith. Other gospels were regarded heretical by most, but were used among some sectarian groups. These sects had it in their interest to whip up a controversy questioning what was already widely accepted in the Church and had been for generations. As he writes:
“For that according to John relates his supreme, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father…But that according to Luke, taking up his priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God….Mathew, again, relates his generation as a man…for which reason it is, too, that the character of a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with the prophetic spirit coming down from on high…”
These gospels were available to pagan detractors, a famous one being Celsus, whose arguments against Christianity continue to persist. Around 180, Celsus wrote a book entitled The True Word in which he argues against the Christians point by point. Origen preserved much of this work in his counter argument Against Celsus.
Celsus writes, “But we must examine this question whether anyone who really died ever rose again with the same body. …While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you says, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery…”
It is interesting to note, first, the depth to which Celsus understood the details in the content of the Christian testimony. The "hysterical female" is Mary Magdalene weeping in the garden as described by John, and "perhaps some other" suggests he knows that the other gospel accounts place more women at the tomb rather than Mary alone. Second, that he in his pagan framework dismisses as beneath contempt the testimony of Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection. In other words, it might be news to Dan Brown and the esotericists that women were subjected to intense chauvinistic persecution in their pagan settings.
By contrast, the testimony of a woman is inseparable from the early Church’s roots and beginnings, as Mary's testimony is itself attested in all four of the gospels, all of which were deemed as authoritative one hundred fifty years before Constantine. Being the normative expressions of Christianity, these four gospels were used in reference by a pagan in his chauvinistic arguments of opposition.
A fragmentary document attested to around the year 200, still 125 years before the Council of Nicea, sets forward a canon of scripture. The precise origins of this document is unknown, although internal references show that it is from within the church in Rome. The fragment picks up with Luke and John, so that Matthew and Mark are not named in what has survived.
In its choosing the "several" gospels it lists the following criteria: "Though various ideas are taught in the several books of the gospels, yet it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by one Spirit all things are declared in all of them concerning the Nativity, the Passion, the Resurrection, the conversation with his disciples and his two comings, the first in lowliness and contempt, which has come to pass, the second glorious with royal power, which is to come."
It then lists as accepted by the churches, the book of Acts, the epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, the Epistle of Jude, at least two(?) of John's epistles (whether it is all three is ambiguous because of the separation and syntax in the fragment), one(?) from Peter, and Revelation. In this last case, of Peter and Revelation, the Roman Church acknowledges that of these "some of our friends will not have read in the Church." This canon omitted Hebrews and James.
Specifically rejected are the writings of Valentinus, Miltiades, and Marcion.
To this day the Nestorian Church of the East does not include Second Peter or Revelation in its Bible. Furthermore, the eventual inclusion of Hebrews and James demonstrates that this canon set forward by the Roman Church at this early stage was not binding. "The Vatican" did not have final authority - the work of the Spirit in giving shape to the Bible was a continuing process of discernment throughout the Mediterranean world.

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