What factors actually formed the New Testament and the faith of the early church? Conspiratorial reconstructions suggest that church leaders selected texts that preserved and expanded their own political powers. If so, what shaped the early church were books and theological beliefs that were chosen with the goal of control. The problem is, the core beliefs of the earliest Christians—belief in a bodily resurrection, for example, and the existence of only one God—were well-established before the deaths of the apostles.
Were there some political intrigues in the early church? Certainly! Were certain texts excluded from the church’s authoritative books? Of course. And were some alternative Scriptures suppressed in the early church? In some sense, yes. But this “suppression” didn’t turn physical until after the early fourth century A.D., when Emperor Constantine began to use political power to influence the church’s policies. By this time, the core of the New Testament was already established. Were there times when people’s motives were not particularly pure? Most likely. Yet, throughout this process, the primary standard for truth wasn’t the word of powerful overseers, and it wasn’t anyone’s desire to preserve personal power.
The standard ran something like this: Testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord was treated as uniquely authoritative. That’s why The Shepherd of Hermas, Gospel of Peter, and Acts of Paul slipped into obscurity while the twenty-seven books in your New Testament stood the test of time. Over time, Christians came to the conclusion that these twenty-seven books could be reliably connected to apostolic eyewitnesses of the risen Lord Jesus. What’s most significant about this process is that twenty or so of the New Testament texts were never questioned. The eyewitnesses of Jesus were always known to have been the sources behind these books.
So what about the conspiracy theory that the early church’s political struggles were what molded our Bible as well as our most essential beliefs? I think that we can consider that conspiracy cracked. What molded not only the beliefs but also the Bible of the first Christians was an intense desire to know the eyewitness truth about Jesus.
“The Bible didn’t arrive by fax from heaven,” one character in The Da Vinci Code claimed—and, in this, he was correct. The Bible didn’t arrive on earth in a single transmission, sent directly from some divine facsimile device … but the New Testament didn’t come to us through Emperor Constantine or Athanasius of Alexandria either. The New Testament documents were inspired, written, and recognized as authoritative over several centuries. Yet a definite standard governed the entire process, and this standard wasn’t the word of a powerful emperor or bishop. It was a dogged determination to make certain that every authoritative text had its source in someone who witnessed the actual events.
Suppose that you hear about a book or a discovery that points to political intrigues in the early church. First, look carefully at when it happened. Chances are, the intrigues occurred long after the first century A.D. when Christians recognized certain crucial beliefs about Jesus. Even if the intrigues may have occurred in the first century, remember this: The central question is not, “Were there some political actions and motivations in the early church?” There were. The real question is, “Does reliable evidence exist to suggest that the truths taught among the earliest Christians reflected eyewitness knowledge of Jesus?” The answer to this question is a resounding yes.
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