After five chapters, I took a break from Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God — terrific but dense with information and ideas, and not a book to try to absorb quickly, I think — and picked up David L. Dungan’s Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. I found it both interesting and disappointing. Interesting because it clarified a lot for me about the political situation in the Roman Empire in the first few centuries, especially as to why the early Christians were so hostile toward the Jews who didn’t follow Jesus, and why the Christians wanted so strongly to distance themselves from them.
Disappointed because after four terrific chapters about the history leading up to the canonization of the New Testament, including the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christian thought, when we finally get to chapters five and six, about Eusebius and Constantine, Mr. Dungan suddenly reveals his agenda and becomes an apologist and cheerleader for the perfect scholarly correctness of Eusebius’s judgments about which books were worthy of inclusion and which were not. A whole lot of church politics, then, is being glossed over. For that matter, even by Mr. Dungan’s own account, Eusebius took the books that he knew were of dubious authorship at best, and he divided them into two groups, the ones that his branch of Christianity approved of and used (which made it into the New Testament), and the ones that only other branches of Christianity approved of and used (which didn’t). This is presented as being good scholarship rather than politics, and give me a break.
So after a long buildup, full of interesting political information, when we finally get to the actual making of the New Testament, there really isn’t much about the politics involved in it, despite the book’s subtitle.