Ariel Sabar has penned a devastating exposé of the forged fragment known as Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. The article is well-researched and well-written—but it also includes a couple of historical errors that seem to have become conventional wisdom in far too many news articles.
“After Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century and church leaders began canonizing the small selection of texts that form the New Testament,” Sabar writes, “Christians with other views were branded heretics.”
But did Constantine actually convert the Roman Empire to Christianity? Is this when Christians with other views were branded as heretics? And was it really not until the fourth century that Christians knew which books belonged in the New Testament canon?
Statements of this sort can be found scattered throughout scores of news stories and blog posts—but they’re every bit as false as the fragment that Sabar so effectively exposes as a fraud.
Did Constantine Convert the Roman Empire?
In the first place, the fourth-century Emperor Constantine never “converted the Roman Empire” to any religion. Constantine did have an experience in AD 312 that led him to claim later that he became a Christian; in 313, his Edict of Milan confirmed Galerius’ earlier edict legalizing Christinity.
Constantine never, however, made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Neither did he command the conversion of his subjects to Christianity. The elevation of Christianity to the official religion of the Roman Empire didn’t happen until 391, more than a half-century after Constantine’s death.
Were Other Forms of Christianity Branded as Heresy after Constantine?
Persons who rejected the apostles’ teachings about Jesus were seen as heretics long before the fourth century. From the earliest stages of Christian faith, church leaders stood their ground against anyone who distorted or added to the testimony of the eyewitnesses of Jesus and their close associates. In the first century, Paul commanded a young pastor named Titus, “Warn a divisive person [αἱρετικὸν = “heretic”] once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Titus 3:10).
In the late second century, a pastor named Irenaeus penned a multi-volume work entitled Against Heresies or On the Detection and Overthrow of False Knowledge. Long before Constantine reigned over the Roman Empire, Christians had rejected a broad range of heretical teachers, including Cerinthus and Marcion and Valentinus.
Emperor Constantine’s concern with heresy seems to have been limited to its potential divisive impact on his empire. When Constantine was finally baptized, it was not at the hands of an orthodox pastor. He received baptism from a pastor in the city of Nicomedia who taught the heresy of Arianism, the belief that Jesus was not always co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father.
Did Fourth-Century Church Leaders Canonize the New Testament?
Perhaps most important, no one “began canonizing” the New Testament in the fourth century. Even while the New Testament books were being written in the first century A.D., the words of people who had actually seen the risen Lord Jesus—especially the words and writings of the apostles—carried special authority in the churches (see Acts 1:21-26; 15:6—16:5; 1 Corinthians 4—5; 9:1-12; Galatians 1:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26-27). After the apostles’ deaths, Christians continued to value the testimony of eyewitnesses and their associates. In the first decade of the second century, Papias of Hierapolis put it this way:
I did not … take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who … recited the commandments given by the Lord. … So, if anyone who had served the elders came, I asked about their sayings in detail—what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s followers.
A generation later, when someone in the Roman church wondered which Christian writings should be considered authoritative, this emphasis on the eyewitnesses persisted. After listing the books that he viewed as authoritative, here’s what one group of Christians wrote regarding a popular book known as The Shepherd that was circulating in the churches:
Hermas composed The Shepherd quite recently—in our times, in the city of Rome, while his brother Pius the overseer served as overseer of the city of Rome. So, while it should indeed be read, it cannot be read publicly for the people of the church—it is counted neither among the prophets (for their number has been completed) nor among the apostles (for it is after their time).
Notice carefully the reasons given in the second century for not allowing The Shepherd to serve as an authoritative text in the churches: This writing could not be added to the Old Testament prophets because the time of the Hebrew prophets had passed (“their number has been completed”), and—with the deaths of the apostles—the time of the apostolic eyewitnesses had also ended (“it is after their time”). This text didn’t forbid believers to read The Shepherd; he simply pointed out that the book should not serve as an authoritative text for Christian congregations (“it cannot be read publicly for the people of the church”).
From the first century forward, Christians viewed testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of Jesus as uniquely authoritative. The logic of this standard was simple: The people most likely to know the truth about Jesus were either eyewitnesses who had encountered Jesus personally or close associates of these witnesses. Twenty of the texts that appear in our New Testament today were never questioned—including the four Gospels and the letters of Paul. When it came to the rest of the texts in the New Testament, the questions had to do with whether these writings could be traced reliably to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord Jesus or to close associates of eyewitnesses. Some of these questions did persist for many years. Yet the shape of the canon was not primarily determined by fourth-century church leaders, and the ascension of Constantine to the position of emperor certainly did not detemrine which texts became part of the New Testament. In fact, it seems that Origen of Alexandria may have recognized and listed the same texts that we find our New Testaments today sometime in the mid-third century.
Although Christians did indeed wrangle for some time about the authority of certain writings, it was something far greater than political machinations that drove the resulting decisions. The goal at every stage of the discussion was to determine which texts could be clearly connected to eyewitnesses of Jesus. The standard for determining what sorts of books were authoritative was established long before Constantine, and Christian teachings were being assessed by a clear rule of faith even in the earliest decades of Christian history.
Read the article by Ariel Sabar, then watch the video above. How should the exposé of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife change the ways that we respond to new discoveries that claim to change what we know about Jesus or the early church? How has the information in this blog post and video sharpened and enriched your understanding of early Christian texts?