Too Many Bibles I: A Nestorian Canon Blows Apart Brown's Thesis
by Jonathan Wilson
Early disputes about what makes a Bible show the Vatican's limits.
Where does "The Bible" come from? Dan Brown postulates that the Bible was assembled by agents of Imperial Rome, working with "the Vatican," to present a deified Jesus Christ, thus excluding forever the alternative history of the Gnostic gospels.
This explanation rings with plausibility among people who believe that the Vatican had that kind of clout and reach and power. Readers on this site have already seen how this paints an unrealistic picture of history. But that is not just the opinion of this Christian writer being upset with Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" and getting defensive.
Where Dan Brown's explanation falls apart is in the face of history: It is a fact that the Vatican did not and could not control the shape of the Biblical canon, because other Biblical canons within the tradition of Christianity also took shape.
Let us begin at the time of the Council of Nicea. When this was convened, no church convention had settled on a final list of writings that would be included versus excluded from the Bible. Subsequent councils visited this issue until, by 450, two distinct Christian Bibles were in place.
The Bible most widely used includes the entire Hebrew Scriptures, the 27 books of the New Testament, and the "apocryphal" books, also called the "intertestamental" literature. This Bible is used in common by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Communion. This would be the "Bible" of Dan Brown's reference.
In the western part of the Roman Empire, St. Jerome's Latin translation called the "Vulgate" became the Vatican's standard critical edition, considered "inerrant." The eastern Roman Empire continued to use the Greek texts of the Septuagint (the Hebrew Scripture and Intertestamental books translated into Greek) and the New Testament (originally composed in Greek). From the fifth century and forward there was dispute between the Greek-speaking Christians and the Latin Christians of Rome as to whether the Latin Bible could be set on an equal footing with the Greek texts. Here again, the Vatican's power fell short. Adding fuel to this fire is that Jerome did not copy everything that the Greeks included: the Greek Orthodox Bible includes some apocryphal literature that the Roman Catholic Church does not by virtue of St. Jerome's choices.
Now if you really want to get confused, consider the Slavonic Bible, which includes apocryphal material rejected by the Eastern Orthodox. Where is this monolithic unity-by-conspiracy that Dan Brown asserts?
In addition, western Christians had developed a view of the Bible that esteemed the Hebrew Testament and the New Testament on a higher level than the intertestamental literature. This view is based on the assessment that the Jews themselves do not view any texts with non-Hebrew originals as being divinely inspired. Because the books of the intertestamental literature are only attested in Greek, they are rejected by Judaism as "apocryphal."
This western view is not shared by the Eastern Orthodox, according to the forward of the "Orthodox New Testament," a New King James Version with study notes by scholars of the Eastern Orthodox Church in America. The conviction of the orthodox Church is that the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures to which the intertestamental books were appended, is the received "Old Testament." They make no distinction in their theology of inspiration for the intertestamental books. Once again, Vatican determinations could not be enforced because the Vatican lacked the power to compel the Eastern churches to conform.
Furthermore, Brown and the esoteric Grail Quest completely ignores the existence of the Nestorian Canon, the Bible in use by the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church of the East. This Bible excludes the New Testament books of Revelation, Jude, Second John, Third John and Second Peter, because the use of those books was not attested in the churches of Persia early enough to have been woven into the canonical tradition. (See "The Nestorian Pages" at http://gbgm-umc.org/bible/canon2.stm)
Why, if the Vatican had as much power as Dan Brown describes, would the existence of a separate canon be allowed or tolerated?
It was not tolerated. The Nestorians broke from "orthodox" Christianity in the 5th Century. The point is, the Vatican was powerless to prevent the Nestorian Christians from doing what they were going to do with the Bible they had.
It is also an informative historical fact, that even though the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Slavonic churches disagreed about which text could be considered the truest, and even though the Nestorians adopted their own New Testament, NOT ONE OF THESE CHRISTIAN COMMUNIONS INCLUDED GNOSTIC GOSPELS.
Not one. The limits of Vatican power before and after the Nicene Council is obovious because of the existence of Slavonic, Nestorian, and Greek Orthodox communions that did not submit to the Pope. If Gnostic Christian communions were also viable, they should have endured, because the Vatican did not have the power to stamp them out. If Gnostic Christianity was viable, we should have seen an enduring Gnostic community develop a New Testament canon that included, for example, the Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Thomas.
It did not happen because the Gnostic faith ran out of steam, as most fantasies do. The criteria of apostolicity had caused the Nestorians to dispute Second Peter, Jude and Revelation. In fact, they took a MORE conservative view of what ought to be included. The Nestorians wanted nothing to do with the Gnostic texts, because the Gnostic texts had no credibility.
So we see that the decisions for what became the Bible were not localized to "the Vatican," and furthermore, the decisions were not uniform across Christianity. What was uniform was the rejection of the Gnostic texts.