According to The Da Vinci Code, “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen…the Bible as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” (231).
Once again, a few corrections are in order. First, just to be more precise, the number of ancient gospels in existence is actually closer to thirty, not eighty. What Brown is referring to are the Gnostic documents found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, most of which are not gospels.
Second, Constantine facilitated the production of about 50 New Testaments, but he had nothing to do with the contents. Not only that, but the Council of Nicea, over which Constantine presided, had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament.
Third, although the boundaries of the New Testament were still in dispute during Constantine’s time, the essential core had been agreed on for over two hundred years—long before any councils met to discuss the issue. This core included Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First and Second Thessalonians, First and Second Timothy, Titus, First Peter, First John…and most churches even agreed on Revelation. Cyprian (d. 258), Origen (d. 254), Tertullian (d. 212), Muratorian Canon (late 2nd century; omits First Peter), and Irenaeus (d. 195) all accepted this core including Revelation. None of the Nag Hammadi documents are ever included, probably because including these in the church’s Bible would be like including “gangsta rap” in our hymnals :-)
Some of these authors accepted more than this core. Irenaeus, for example—fully 130 years before the Council of Nicea—quotes extensively from almost every book in our New Testament. Irenaeus calls these books “Scripture,” indicating his belief that they were inspired by God, and he even calls them the “New Testament” (twice). Further, Irenaeus seems to see no need to argue that these books belong to the New Testament—their acceptance as Scripture is so widespread that he just takes it for granted that all will agree. In fact, what really irritates Irenaeus is not that the “heretics” reject his New Testament—they don’t—but that they rip passages out of context and make words and phrases mean things they couldn’t possibly have meant in their original context. For example, the heretics often take Greek words that St. Paul uses and turn them into names for their numerous gods, something that would have appalled St. Paul!
Irenaeus quotes from every book in the modern New Testament except Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John. Altogether these books make up only about six pages out of about 230 pages in a modern New Testament. The fact is that we don’t know whether Irenaeus rejected these books or whether he just didn’t have occasion to quote from them because they are so small.
All over the Roman Empire the church seemed to agree on this core. Other New Testament books, like Hebrews (10 pages), James (3 pgs), 2 and 3 John (1 pg), and Jude (1 pg), for example, were accepted by some churches but questioned by others even into the fourth century. Some books once considered sacred by some churches were eventually rejected, including the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. None of these are part of the Nag Hammadi documents and they have certainly never been suppressed!
Even before Irenaeus, there are hints that the Gospels and Paul’s letters were accepted as Scripture. For example, Valentinus (a Gnostic leader, 1st half of 2nd century) cites Matthew, Luke, John, Paul’s letters (except 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), Hebrews and Revelation as authoritative. Tatian (a Gnostic, d. 172) produced a harmony of the Gospels—which included only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Justin (d. 175) referred to the “memoirs of the apostles” and scholars agree that he was referring to the four biblical gospels.
In the letter known as Second Peter, dated by scholars as early as AD 60’s to 130’s—over 200 years before the Council—the author puts all of Paul’s letters in the category of Scripture. The author of First Timothy (5:18), dated from the AD 60’s to 80’s, writes, “For the Scripture says,” and quotes from a phrase found only in Luke 10:7. Also in the first century, a church leader know as Clement of Rome quotes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew—though it is not clear whether he is quoting from Matthew or from oral tradition. There is no such ambiguity in the letter of Barnabas, however, which was written in the first or second centuries and clearly quotes from the Gospel of Matthew as scripture.
The point of all this is that the impression is sometimes given by Dan Brown (who is clueless) and some scholars who know better, that the New Testament was created almost from scratch in the fourth century by some powerful Christian bishops who met to consider eighty gospels, but who kept only those that agreed with their views and kicked all the others out. This is pure nonsense.