How the Bible Became the Bible
Class 3: Constantine Lays Down the Law
(This post is for my internship project at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Franklin, TN: a series of classes on the Christian biblical canon.)
In this class, I discuss the era during which the Roman Empire picked up Christianity as its official religion. Christianity – at least what we know as the orthodox segment of it – gained power, and the government created laws in its favor. This changed the way Christianity operated, since it was usually under persecution or at least looked on as insignificant or disdainful. When Emperor Constantine the Great ordered the production of 50 Bibles, it helped to cement which writings would be used as scripture by the church.
- From 293-313, Roman Empire ruled regionally by emperors and caesars
- In late 312, Constantine, fighting for control of half of the empire against a stronger opponent, prays to the “Supreme God”
- Constantine sees a “cross of light” in the sky along with the words, “by this sign you will be the victor”
- Marches to battle under banner of cross with first two letters of “Christ” (Christians still use this symbol today; we call it the “chi rho”) and wins.
Edict of Milan (313)
1. With another powerful emperor, Constantine issues edict giving complete religious freedom to all and ordering that all lands, goods, and house churches that had been taken from Christians during previous persecutions be restored to them.
2. Goals: unity (through freedom of religion/conversion to Christianity) and victory (through unity and through appeasement of Christian God)
Constantine’s Involvement with the Church
- Called himself “bishop over those outside the church”; also called the “13th Apostle”
- Called councils to resolve church disputes (and recalled councils if he didn’t like the decisions)
- Built many churches
- Established Sunday as day of Christian worship
- Allowed Christian soldiers leave to worship on Sundays, part of an effort to encourage conversion
- Punished Christian heretics (so we gotta take that whole “religious freedom” thing with a few grains of salt)
1. Commissioned Eusebius (of Class 2 fame) to oversee crafting of 50 Bibles for new, grand churches. Project finalized 334-336.
2. So, Eusebius’s lists very influential in making of these “Emperor-approved Bibles, which would be used for worship in 50 major churches.
3. Didn’t officially close debate over Christian scriptures, but highly influential because these scriptures had government backing and would be used in such established communities.
Effects on Christianity
- One branch of Christianity (“orthodox”) given power over others
- Disputes were settled by force, banishment, and law
- Because of this greater use of force, debate had to go underground. (non-orthodox Christians in hiding)
- The terms “canonical” and “non-canonical” in regards to Christian writings first come into use. (These words have greater force that Eusebius’s words “acknowledged,” “disputed,” etc.)
Dungan, David L., Constantine’s Bible, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
McDonald, Lee M., The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, rev. and expanded ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
Next Class: July 12. Topic: The Reformation Changes the Bible