Diocletian's destruction and Constantine's production of scripture

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Introduction:

  1. 303 AD the Roman Emperor, Diocletian calls for the destruction of all the scriptures of the Christians. Obviously there must have been a set of books (a canon) so well defined and universally accepted, that even outsiders knew which books the Christians considered as scripture.
  2. The edict of Diocletian, therefore shows that long before the first extant "canon lists" came along, a canon already existed. It also forced the Christians to meditate on the subject of which books were most sacred and inspired.
  3. So with the solders knocking at the door and the Christian inside, as Everet puts it: "for the most part they knew what books the soldiers were looking for". (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 317, 2002)
  4. There must have been a well defined canon at this time.
  5. In a most providential twist of events, Roman Emperor Constantine a few years later, enlisted the help of Eusebius, to create 50 copies in codex form, of the entire Bible. Although know one knows for sure what was in this Bible and no definite copies have been located, it proves a definite canon existed in the time period of 275 - 315 AD.

Discussion:

  1. Two major attempts to establish conformity in the empire in the early fourth century C.E. probably also affected the scope of the New Testament canon by causing the church to make conscious decisions about what literature it considered sacred. The first of these was an edict of Diocletian on February 23, 303, to promote religious uniformity. This edict, which remained in effect until 313, led to the persecution of the church and called for the burning of its sacred writings. Diocletian also compelled Christians to turn over their sacred books to the authorities to be burned. The Christians tried to salvage as much of their sacred literature as possible by turning over to them less important texts that were not considered sacred. Those who gave in to pressure and handed sacred scripture over to the authorities were called "traitors" (traditores). On the other hand, those who refused and consequently were imprisoned or killed were called confessors and martyrs (homologetai and martyres). Such distinctions presume, of course, that by this time individual congregations had determined which literature was sacred and which was not, what was worth dying for and what was not. Second, and just as compelling, was Constantine's push for religious unity and conformity within the Christian communities, threatening banishment for those who did not conform. This call to unity is the context in which discussions of biblical canons begin to appear, first in the writings of Eusebius and subsequently in other lists, discussions, an church councils. What may well have triggered Eusebius's interest in defining or delimiting'' the scope of the Christian scriptures was Constantine's request that he produce fifty copies of the Christian scriptures for use in the churches in the new capital of the Roman empire Constantinople. These two historical factors provide the social context that led to the closing of the biblical canon. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Lee Martin McDonald, Identifying Scripture and Canon in the Early Church: The Criteria Question, p 417, 2002)
  2. By the time of the Diocletianic persecution in 303 Roman authorities, in their campaign to confiscate Christian property, included the requirement that Christian books be handed in and burned. In the words of Eusebius, "We saw with our very eyes ... the inspired and sacred scriptures committed to the flames in the marketplaces" in response to the imperial letter "ordering the destruction by fire of the scriptures" (Hist. eccl. 8.2.l and 4). The requirement showed that the authorities knew Christians had an identifiable set of holy writings and knew their importance to the Christian communities. Hierocles, governor of Bithynia and the chief promoter of the persecution, knew the Christian Bible, and had already attempted in two books against the Christians "to prove the falsehood of sacred scripture," by which was meant Christian sacred writings, as the reference to Paul and Peter makes clear. Christians themselves thought they had an identifiable set of scriptures, for they immediately experienced a moral dilemma over giving up documents to the authorities, an issue that became the occasion for the Donatist schism. Christians might hide writings, try to pass off apocryphal and heretical texts, or in some cases debate what to hand over and what not to, but for the most part they knew what books the soldiers were looking for. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 317, 2002)
  3. When the situation reversed under Constantine, the Roman government financed the multiplication of copies of scriptures instead of destroying them. Constantine directed Eusebius to have prepared for the churches in Constantinople fifty copies "of the sacred scriptures which you know to be especially necessary for the restoration and use in the instruction of the church." Eusebius says his prompt fulfillment of the request was acknowledged by letter from Constantine (Vit. Const. 4.37). Constantine knew there was such an entity as the Christian scriptures, required for public reading in the new churches being built in Constantinople, and certain books were copied and others left out. Constantine's commission did not require that Christians decide what the contents of scripture were; it was intended to replace those copies of the scriptures destroyed in the persecution. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Everett Ferguson, Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon, p 318, 2002)

By Steve Rudd 

 

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