Since the early years of Christianity, various myths, legends, and even conspiracy theories about the origins of the Bible have enjoyed wide circulation. The discovery in recent decades of many books that were not accepted into the Christian canon has only added to this speculation, spawning numerous best-sellers and television programs. Though the number of theories has grown, however, the three most popular are sufficiently well defined that we can consider them as we might various options on a multiple-choice quiz. So read carefully and then make your selection.
The Big Three
A: Holy Dictation. Promoted by conservative Christians, this view stresses the inerrancy -- that is, the factual accuracy in all matters of faith, history, and science -- of the Bible. Authors, in the grip of the Holy Spirit, received a divine revelation directly from God that they transcribed without error. So while the biblical authors may have written in their own voice and style, the contents of their compositions were nevertheless divinely inspired and controlled. For this reason, there are no errors of any kind in the Bible; hence, if the Bible says the world was created in seven days then, indeed, it was created in seven days.
B: Imperial Decree. Popularized by historical works like The Gnostic Gospels and fictional books like The Da Vinci Code, this view suggests that the official and final contents of the Bible were established by ecclesial councils ordered by Emperor Constantine and his successors. The intent of these councils was both to provide theological unity to the fledgling Christian empire and to stamp out the rise of feminism and other movements in the heavily patriarchal and increasingly orthodox early Christian church. According to Elaine Pagels, divergent theologies like Gnosticism were a threat to the unity and power of the imperial-backed ecclesial authorities, while for Dan Brown there existed a conspiracy to suppress the "true" story of Jesus' romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene, their unrecognized child, and Mary Magdalene's significant influence in the early church.
C: Forgeries & Falsehoods. Who wrote the Bible? All too often, this view suggests, it wasn't who the actual authors purported to be. Rather, much of the New Testament was written either by persons whose identity remains irrecoverably anonymous or by frauds impersonating famous and powerful Christians of an earlier generation. While the gospels represent the former case, many of the letters attributed to the Apostle Paul as well as those attributed to Peter and others represent the latter. As Bart Ehrman has recently argued, the checkered history of the composition of these books undermines the integrity of the New Testament as a whole.
So what do you think -- did you find a satisfactory answer? If not, it will help to remember that multiple-choice tests often offer a fourth choice, "D: None of the Above." As it happens, that choice would be the better answer for this question, as each of the first three possibilities is flawed. For instance, while Mormons have a story that describes the divine transmission of their holy book, Christians by and large have rarely made such claims. In fact, the theory of inerrancy -- a word never used in the Bible -- was only coined only a century ago by fundamentalist Christians seeking to defend the Bible from recent discoveries about its historical origins and fallible conclusions in the realms of history and science.
Similarly, there was no council -- imperial or otherwise -- that established the Christian canon once and for all. In fact, lists describing the most commonly accepted Christian writings that correspond closely to the present Bible were circulating a century or more before Constantine had his famous conversation. Later councils, like that at Carthage (397 CE), affirmed those books that had already gained wide acceptance. While early church leaders clearly opposed theological stances that were later to be described as Gnosticism, many of those writings had already lost favor in Christian congregations apart from and often before their rejection by ecclesial authorities. Similarly, although there is no question that the role and importance of women was grossly underemphasized in some books of the Bible, this reflects as much a strong cultural bias as it does any conspiracy. Further, at significant places in the New Testament women emerge as strong central characters. Note, for instance, that the women are the only disciples to remain at Jesus' cross and are the first witnesses and heralds of the resurrection in all four gospels.
Finally, passing off your work as another's is a more complicated issue than it might first appear. While claiming to be someone else for the sake of profit was roundly criticized in the ancient world as it is today, claiming the authority of a teacher or earlier leader in order to extend the thought and spirit of that author was met with more mixed reviews. Often, the symbolic and traditional importance of the work outweighs correct authorial attribution. For example, while most Jewish and Christian scholars recognize that King David wrote few if any of the Psalms attributed to him, almost no one argues that those Psalms have no merit or should be barred from the canon. At other times, decisions about the value of disputed works are based less on impartial criteria than on the critic's own stance toward the writings in question. That is, scholars both ancient and modern tend to reject such writings as forgeries when they themselves disagree with the content, yet affirm them as worthwhile when the works in question align with their own convictions. For instance, earlier in his career in his book Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman not only lamented the exclusion of some extra-canonical books but also invited modern readers to reconsider their devotional and spiritual value even though he acknowledges that every one of the books rejected by the Christian church for inclusion in the New Testament makes a false authorial claim.
A Grassroots Process
So then where did the Bible actually come from? Or, perhaps better, what process led to the development of the contents of the Bible as we know them today? Typically, historians suggest two standards that influenced how early Christians came to give priority to some books over others as the New Testament canon came into shape, though neither of these elements ever functioned with the precision of agreed-upon criteria.
First, biblical books were frequently associated with one of the original apostles. The Gospels of Matthew and John are named after original disciples (although the texts that bear their names make no such connection), while Mark was thought to be a student of Peter and Luke a companion to Paul. With other books, however -- the Letter to the Hebrews, for instance -- it was more difficult to make such an association.
Second, books accepted as canonical tended to conform to emerging orthodox teaching. The key word in that last sentence, however, is "emerging." During the period in which the New Testament canon solidified, there was as yet no broad consensus about what would later become central tenets of orthodox Christianity. Often, the books that Christian congregations read most frequently influenced the development of accepted teaching as much as orthodox teaching shaped the choice of what books to read. This helps to explain the distinct pictures of Jesus presented in the four canonical gospels -- think, for instance, how different Mark's suffering Jesus is from John's cosmic Christ -- as well as the presence of books as divergent as Romans and Revelation.
Ultimately, the most important factors influencing the final inclusion or exclusion of books into the Bible tended to be far more pedestrian and pragmatic than any of the three theories we considered above might suggest: longevity and utility. That is, the books that ended up in the New Testament were those that proved themselves over the long haul as most helpful in sustaining Christian faith. While apostolic authorship and concerns for orthodoxy exercised some influence, the dominant factor shaping decisions about canonical status was to note what books Christians consistently read when they gathered for worship and instruction.
This "bottom-up" process was by no means simple or uniform. Some books came in and out of vogue, trendy for a time or in a particular place only later to lose favor. It's only in the fourth century that enough of a consensus on what books were consistently helpful had emerged so that a prominent bishop like Athanasius could name with confidence in a letter to his congregations those books that had been widely accepted (367 CE). Athanasius' testimony in the preface to his list is telling: "I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted." To view Athanasius' recommendation as establishing, rather than recognizing, an emerging canon is therefore to overestimate the significance and authority of ecclesial authorities over local congregations, the places where these books were actually read week in and week out.
If this sounds uncomfortably similar to a popularity contest, perhaps we might view it instead as the long-term process by which the early Christians sorted and sifted through various reflections on the faith until a grassroots consensus emerged on what books proved most useful in sustaining faith. Looked at this way, one doesn't have to reach for conspiracy theories to understand why the gospels of Thomas and Judas and similar writings were ultimately rejected. More often than not, these documents contained little of the narratives of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that Christians had come to know and cherish. They are, as even a casual reading will grant, often strikingly dissimilar from the other gospels and writings of the New Testament. Because these works were often absent sustained reflection on the cross, usually lacked a coherent narrative, and sometimes contained rather peculiar theological assertions, is not difficult to conceive that they rarely caught hold of the imagination of early Christian congregations.
Proposing that the composition of the New Testament was a long process of recognizing an emerging grassroots and congregational consensus certainly isn't as dramatic as either the religious myths or political and ecclesial conspiracy theories often ventured. Nevertheless, there is something both sensible and comforting in imagining that over time Christians would esteem most highly those writings that most ably encouraged them on their path as disciples of Jesus. After all, what better benchmark to employ than giving authority to those writings -- even writings as varied as those found in the Bible -- that had the capacity to create and nurture faith?