We will first discuss the Council of Nicea, which time after time is brought to my attention as being the “disturbance” that “created” the Bible as we now know it. At this point, I generally do not want to continue with the debate or discussion because that statement makes it immediately apparent that the person has very little knowledge of the history of the church, let alone the complex process of determining the “canons” that created the Bible.
Delegates came from every region of the Roman Empire except Britain.[i] The participating bishops were given free travel to and from their Episcopal sees to the council, as well as lodging. These bishops did not travel alone; each one had permission to bring with him two priests and three deacons, so the total number of attendees could have been above 1800. Eusebius speaks of an almost innumerable host of accompanying priests, deacons and acolytes.
The First Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Church. Most significantly, it resulted in the first, uniform Christian doctrine, called the Creed of Nicaea. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent local and regional councils of Bishops (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy—the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom.
The council settled, to some degree, the debate within the Early Christian communities regarding the divinity of Christ. This idea of the divinity of Christ, along with the idea of Christ as a messenger from God (The Father), had long existed in various parts of the Roman empire. The divinity of Christ had also been widely endorsed by the Christian community in the otherwise pagan city of Rome. The council affirmed and defined what it believed to be the teachings of the Apostles regarding who Christ is: that Christ is the one true God in deity with the Father.
The Emperor carried out his earlier statement: everybody who refused to endorse the Creed would be exiled. Arius, Theonas, and Secundus refused to adhere to the creed, and were thus exiled to Illyria, in addition to being excommunicated. The works of Arius were ordered to be confiscated and consigned to the flames while all persons found possessing them were to be executed.
Constantine did not commission any Bibles at the council itself. He did commission fifty Bibles in 331 for use in the churches of Constantinople, itself still a new city. No historical evidence points to involvement on his part in selecting or omitting books for inclusion in commissioned Bibles.
Despite Constantine’s sympathetic interest in the Church, he did not actually undergo the rite of baptism himself until some 11 or 12 years after the council.
Concerning manuscripts that were burned at the order of Constantine, there is really no mention of such a thing actually happening at the order of Constantine or at the Council of Nicea. The Arian party’s document claiming Christ to be a created being, was abandoned by them because of the strong resistance to it and was torn to shreds in the sight of everyone present at the council. Constantine, and the Council of Nicea, for that matter, had virtually nothing to do with the forming of the canon. It was not even discussed at Nicea. The council that formed an undisputed decision on the canon took place at Carthage in 397, sixty years after Constantine’s death. However, long before Constantine, 21 books were acknowledged by all Christians (the 4 Gospels, Acts, 13 Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation). There were 10 disputed books (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, Ps-Barnabas, Hermas, Didache, Gospel of Hebrews) and several that most all considered heretical—Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthaias, Acts of Andrew, John, etc.
Liberal scholars and fictional authors like to purport the idea that the gospels of Thomas and Peter (and other long-disputed books) contain truths that the church vehemently stomped out, but that simply has no basis historically. It is closer to the truth to say that no serious theologians really cared about these books because they were obviously written by people lying about authorship and had little basis in reality. That is one reason why a council declaring the canon was so late in coming (397 AD), because the books that were trusted and the ones that had been handed down were already widely known.
There were probably literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different books in existant at the time of the Council of Hippo(393 AD).[ii] Here they briefly discussed the communications among the churches to define the Christian New Testament canon.
Having read many of these so-called “pseudepigrapha[iii]” is enlighting. Nearly allhave obvious historical errors or obvious contradictions to the well-accepted New Testament books of our present bible. Some (like the Gospel of Thomas) are more subtle, and must be studied diligently to discover why they were not included in the canon.
Readily available online are (Jewish apocrypha) the Book of Enoch (significant errors in the area of natural science), 3 and 4 Maccabees (historical errors) and (Christian Apocrypha) the Gospel of Thomas (doctrinal incompatibilities with other gospels). The so-called “child gospels of Jesus” are the most disturbing. In most, a brat-like child Jesus pulls deadly and debilitating miraculous pranks on his playmates and, sometimes, on their parents as well. Two “Gospels of Mary” that I have read supply wholly different nativity scenes, in addition to other obvious disagreements with accepted scripture (such as the lack of a virgin birth). When most of these books are compared with what earlier “church fathers” had already accepted as authoritative scripture, it is easy to understand why the first ecumenical councils rejected most of these clearly deviant (i.e. forged) scriptures.
There are quite a few collections of pseudepigrapha available from libraries or bookstores. There are also *several* books that we know of from references by ancient writers but no longer have any copies of (since they were not copied by scribes of any Christian sect). Likewise the books of Jubilees and Enoch, previously only available in Greek, have been discovered *whole* in both Hebrew and Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls (leading scholars to believe that both of these books were very popular at the time of Jesus, though not after the Jews established their canon and excluded these books).
What all of this information means: That the religious leaders of their time took great pains, time and trouble, to verify what was to be included in the Bible. The Old Testament had been passed down from antiquity and was verified by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls as well as many other references to the people and events in historical documents found in libraries around the world.
[i] From 40 AD through to c. 410 AD, southern Britain was a part of the Roman Empire, with archaeologists referring to this area as “Roman Britain”, and this time span the “Romano-British period” or the “Roman Iron Age. Eventually all the Celtic and Briton peoples were defeated and the Roman occupation became settled.