Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament

Article excerpt

Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. By David L. Dungan. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2006. xii + 212 pp. $17.00 (paper).

This is a very engaging and informative book, and much can be learned from it. Whereas the role of Roman imperial politics in the first great ecumenical council of Nicea in 325 has received considerable attention, comparatively little has been written about the role of politics in the formation of the Christian canon of Scripture, which was formalized in the late fourth century. The core arguments are found in chapters 1 through 6, which are the most persuasive.

Chapter 1 surveys the major religions and concludes that a true canon of Scripture is a rare event, occurring only three times: in third-century rabbinic Judaism, fourth- and fifth-century Mediterranean Christianity, and seventh-century Islam. This peculiar phenomenon of canon is not any accumulation of sacred texts, but a legal concept that fixes the text, and is enforced by religious and/or governmental authorities.

Chapters 2 through 4 explore how the dominance of the Greek polis throughout the Greco-Roman world led to a demand for accuracy, precision, and mathematical certainty in politics, culture, and religion. The dominant metaphor was the carpenter's ruler, or kanon, which assumed various roles in both second-century Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, but had not yet become associated with a fixed selection of sacred writings. Chapter 4 explores the work of the third-century Greek historian Diogenes Laertius, who attempted to certify the authenticity of a philosophers writings, coining the designations of "genuine" and "true," "spurious" (rejected) and "disputed" (doubted). Dungan argues that this framework was later appropriated by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fifth century.

Chapter 5 presents a richly detailed analysis of key passages of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, as he sought to determine which Christian writings were to be authoritative. A monumental achievement in its day, Ecclesiastical History was an open-ended, public, and collaborative effort by churchmen to determine objectively whether a document was authored by a disciple of Christ. …