Hypothesis: A council of men invented or edited the Bible in any way.

There is a common conception that at one or more times in history, men of power convened in councils and in essence fabricated or altered the Bible to suit their whims. If this were true, the argument claims, it would cast a shadow of doubt across the reliability of the whole of the Bible. Such a council would certainly have corrected textual disagreements, removed and added doctrine in their favor, and suppressed evidence. This is simply not true.  Let’s take a look at what really happened.

First Council of Nicaea (AD 325)

The youngest book of the Bible dates to between AD 70 and 95. This places the First Council of Nicaea some 250 years after its completion. Of course, in AD 70, no two people possessed a complete volume of the Bible. Though the Old Testament was largely available in its complete form at institutions of learning, the books of the New Testament were circulated as letters from house to house and village to village. These letters were received from personal relations to the author. For example, I might write a letter and give it to a friend to deliver. You know both myself and my friend, so you receive a letter from him knowing that it came from me. Thereafter, the recipient began to copy the letter and distribute it. This meant in a relatively short amount of time, we had quite a few copies of each letter floating throughout the region. As expected, we have very few old copies of the complete New Testament codex (volume or book). In fact, the oldest codices still intact probably date to just after the First Council.

Note: Before you cry conspiracy, consider that before the time of the First Council, most books were written on rolls of animal skin or papyrus plant. A complete volume of the New Testament would have been intentionally separated into multiple scrolls.

So now we reach the First Council itself. They would have had access to these many New Testament letters and of course, the Old Testament. So what did they actually do at this council?  They issued a creed, separated the computation of the date of Easter from the Jewish calendar, instituted 20 extra-biblical laws, and wrote a letter to the church of Alexandria. There is no mention of anything about the construction of the Bible at all.

Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787)

Some seven hundred years removed from the completion of the Bible, another council met in Nicaea. By this time, Roman Catholic heresy was in full swing. In fact, the sole purpose of this meeting was to reinstate the idolatrous practice of icon worship. Again, no reconstruction of the Bible. I only give it special attention because often “the Council of Nicaea” is referenced without regard to whether it was the first or second.

Council of Trent (AD 1545-1563, with interruptions)

It wasn’t until the mid sixteenth century that you could even argue that a council attempted to renovate the Bible. Though this Roman Catholic endeavor was primarily a counterstrike against the Protestant Reformation, one of the council’s products was the Roman Catholic canon of the Bible.

A canon is a list of books considered authoritative as scripture. Jews generally consider what we call the Old Testament as canonical. The Roman Catholics add a few books to the intertestamental period. These books are called the Apocrypha meaning “those having been hidden away.” Ultimately, the New Testament contains 27 books or letters, regardless of tradition. For a complete comparison, please examine the Wikipedia article on the Books of the Bible.

At the time of the Council of Trent, the Old Testament was long canonized. By the time of Jesus, the Old Testament was already translated into Greek, and  known as the Septuagint (LXX). The Greek writing New Testament authors at times actually used the Septuagint when quoting the Old Testament. The apocryphal (intertestamental) books may or may not be considered canonical, but weigh little in this discussion. Remember, the original argument is that a council suppressed, rewrote, and destroyed the original and intended scriptures. To the contrary, the inclusion of the Apocrypha, while potentially introducing additional doctrine, does not alter the other books or diminish their authority.

The Roman Catholic canonization at the Council of Trent confirmed not only the Old Testament (with Apocrypha), but also the New Testament. However, it must be noted that this too was long after the true canonization of the Bible. Some 31 years earlier, Desiderius Erasmus had compiled a Greek New Testament for common printing. A German Bible translation containing both testaments was first printed in 1534. The oldest intact codices are from some 1200 years before Trent. In addition, there is the Latin Vulgate (5th century) and the Aramaic Peshitta (2nd Century). While the council did indeed declare a canon, it had absolutely no effect on the accuracy or reliability of the Bible. The text available today is practically identical to what was available before the 16th century.

All Other Councils (AD 325-1965)

There were other councils throughout the years. Most of them established or affirmed some heretical doctrine(s) or addressed some issue of the day, but none of them affected the Bible.

Closing the Canon

In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a tremendous amount of upheaval in Christendom. In 1517, Martin Luther published The Ninety-Five Theses in protest to the Roman Catholic heresies of his day. A casual glance at history might suggest that Luther revolutionized Christianity. On the contrary, he sought to return it to the orthodoxy of the Bible. Unfortunately, he failed to repair the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, the printing press put the Bible into the hands of common people. While the scripture was hidden from the people, the corrupt papacy could say it said almost anything. This ultimately led to the poorly named Protestant Reformation. Though much of the spirit was in opposition to the heresies of Roman Catholicism, the effect was a renaissance of biblical understanding.

The Roman Catholics held the Council of Trent during this time and declared a canon. In various ways, the protestants did the same. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) included a declaration of canon. Many, including Christians, will erroneously refer to these events as the closing of the canon. The canon was truly closed the moment the final book was received.

Drawn across the landscape of time before the printing press, we find overwhelming manuscript evidence about the Bible. There are reportedly more than 5000 ancient manuscripts for just the New Testament with less than 100 years separating the evidence from the originals. In contrast, there are only 7 copies of the works of Plato and they are 1200 years separated from the originals. Among the New Testament evidence, scholars claim a 99.5% textual agreement. In addition, we have the writings of so-called church fathers, the educated of antiquity. While these men were fallible and some of them downright corrupt, they quoted the Bible and left us written evidence to the fact. We can use this dated evidence to compare for textual reliability. We can also use ancient translations like the Septuagint, the Peshitta, and the Vulgate to shed further light.

At no point in history was a council convened to fabricate the Bible. While unscrupulous men have certainly attempted to alter the accuracy of the Bible in their favor, the scriptures claim that God would prevent them from doing so, and it would seem that he has. There is still room for a lively discussion about the inclusion of apocryphal books, but regardless of the councils, we still have access to all of those books today and can choose for ourselves.

Verdict: False