There is a modern legend promoted by scholars and entertainers that claims the New Testament was put together several centuries after the death of the apostles. Prior to the fourth century, the story goes, Christianity was rich with divergent gospel accounts and scriptures. These works were suppressed because of their mystical and feminist leanings by a church interested in consolidating its relationship with a new found friend in the Roman Emperor Constantine. And so, all works that did not fit within mainstream orthodoxy — such as The Gospel of Thomas — were cast off by the ecclesiastical hierarchy as heretical.
Standing in the way of this conspiracy theory are several facts. For example, there is evidence that suggests that the canon of the New Testament was already formed at least 150 years prior to the Imperial embrace of Christianity. In his book, The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins highlights some reasons to doubt a late-developing canon:
The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages, neither Nestorians nor Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. The Syriac Bible omits several books that are included in the West (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation). Scholars like Isho’dad wanted to carry the purge further, and did not feel that any of the Catholic Epistles could seriously claim apostolic authorship. The only extraneous text that a few authorities wished to include was the Diatessaron itself. The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins.
Jenkins’ book explores the history of the Nestorians and Jacobites, two sects which flourished in the Middle East and eastward through the Middle Ages. What separated them from the West was their belief in the nature of Jesus. Otherwise, these branches from the east looked much like their European brethren in terms of liturgy, ecclesiastical structure, monastic traditions, etc. The fact that these eastern branches considered Matthew through John as the sole authoritative accounts of the life of Jesus is significant. This offers further confirmation that the New Testament was canonized independent of Western church councils or Imperial edict.
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