What should we make of the claim in Dan Brown's popular novel The Da Vinci Code that Constantine created the New Testament canon and suppressed 80 "gospels" in favor of the now-established four?

It is true that many works about Jesus (now labeled gospels) circulated both in the first century and later. But Brown's claim is hardly serious history; the vast majority of Christians had been reading precisely our four Gospels as Scripture since the second century at least, as writings from Irenaeus make clear. Church authorities did not wait until Constantine to fish out gospel pretenders.

In fact, the decision to canonize certain gospels rested far more on the dependable teachings handed down from the apostles to bishops than on any imperial fiat. Irenaeus, the first bishop to identify the books of the New Testament, was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of Ignatius, disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus narrowed the canon not according to his own whims or interpretations, but through the "rule of faith" (a loosely formulated confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the saving work of Jesus) handed down by the apostolic church.

Further, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John differ in kind from the second- and third-century works called "gospels," which reflect little or no apostolic tradition and do not even fit the same genre as the canonical Gospels. The four first-century Gospels we possess are, as the church long understood and recent scholarship has confirmed, ancient bioi, or "lives" of Jesus. (A bios focused on the most relevant events of a person's life, commonly leaving gaps in the chronology.) These Gospels include many elements of Jesus' Judean culture, Aramaic figures of speech, and so on; ...

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