The Great Missing Canon Question

It has become popular conventional wisdom that Christianity didn't have a Bible until the fourth century. Prior to Emperor Constantine, so it is said, there was no "fixed" number of books in the New Testament. It was a fluid time of negotiation in which lots of books vied for inclusion in a collection of books considered to be "Holy Scripture," including some that were eventually left out (e.g., Gnostic gospels).

And then, as the legend goes, the powerful Constantine and his cronies tired of the chaos, authoritatively put their foot down, and selected the 27 books that would be the New Testament. Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code went so far as to suggest that this occurred at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Kurt Eichenwald, in his ridiculous hit piece on the Bible in last month's Newsweek, repeats the claim that Constantine "ultimately influenced" which books made it into the New Testament.

There are lots of problems with this mythical telling of church history, not the least of which is that the Council of Nicaea never even addressed the question of what books "belong" in the New Testament, much less dictated it. Oops. 

There's an even stronger historical indicator, however, that by the time Constantine reigned the books of the New Testament were near universally understood.

In 331 Constantine wrote a letter to Eusebius of Caesarea asking him to prepare 50 Bibles for use in Rome's churches. Remember, books were not printed at this time; they were copied by hand. A commission for 50 volumes was an astonishingly large request and a massive undertaking. 

If you look carefully, there is something very important missing in the letter.

It apparently never occurred to the Emperor to instruct Eusebius what books to include in the Bibles. And it never occurred to Eusebius to even ask. There is only one plausible interpretation of these deafening silences: the status of the Christian canon was implicitly understood. Can you imagine a world in which there is hot controversy over the number of books in the New Testament, receiving a request from the Emperor of the known world for copies of the Bible, and not clarifying what he wanted in them? Neither can I.

That's because there was no hot controversy. Whatever messy confusion had existed about the question had obviously been so settled in the public mind that Constantine didn't feel the need to specify, and Eusebius didn't feel the need to ask. Moreover, I would suggest that for that level of implicit understanding, the question must have been settled for a very long time. Remember, this is a request from the Emperor: sort of a maximal, life-or-death kind of situation (what if he left out Constantine's favorite book!?). I would personally interpret this to mean that the question of the canon cannot have been a live issue in Eusebius's living memory. Sure, he was aware of "disputed books," but if he had lived through a period of "hot debate" about it, there seems to me no question but that he would have done his due diligence and asked.

Thus, the great canon controversy, far from being authoritatively "settled" in the fourth century by Constantine, wasn't by then even controversial at all.

Meeting Old Friends

On New Year's Day I met some old friends. I slept in. While in the shower in the late morning, for some inexplicable reason a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip came into my head. When I was done showering I asked my 12-year-old if she had a Calvin book hanging around somewhere. To my delight, she did. I hadn't read Calvin and Hobbes in twenty years, not since reclusive artist Bill Watterson (heartbreakingly) ended the strip in 1995. Sure, I've seen a single strip now and then, but I haven't spent any time reading them, one after another.

Over coffee, I spent the next couple of hours reading the book, and I was blown away. It amazes me how differently I see these comic strips at age 38 compared to how I read them as a boy. In my youth I was amused, yes. And only. Now, I am equally amused, but have an appreciation that goes far beyond amusement.

The first thing I noticed, and I mean really noticed, was how incredible Bill Watterson's artwork is. The pure economy with which he packed in action and dialogue, without a hint of being tedious, is really something to behold. His skill at portraying motion mesmerized me and had me really looking at the drawing. His massive backgrounds supporting "Spaceman Spiff" and "T-Rex" are wonders to behold. Moreover, the pure cleverness of the writing is so consistent; I don't believe there ever was a single strip that was a "dud." Like when Calvin, being scolded by his mother, comes up with a lavish story to cover his tracks and then later tells Hobbes: "Mothers are the necessity of invention."

How's that for a brilliant wordplay?

Second, reading Calvin and Hobbes as a parent is quite simply a doubling of the original delight. I always loved Calvin because I could identify with him. But now I love Calvin because I identify with his parents. The sarcasm of his father and the loving, patient frustration of his mother ring so true. It really amazes me that the comic strip made it ten years without either of them ever being named. It is universal parenting. If you have a son or daughter, you can relate to Calvin and Hobbes.

Third, the recurring themes of transcendence, meaning, and friendship are timeless. Calvin's occasional philosophical monologues to Hobbes, as they fly down a hill on a toboggan or red wagon, tend to be truly profound. They are just flawless works of art. And, try as I might, I never can make a snowball as perfect as Calvin could.

I felt like I was meeting friends I hadn't seen in twenty years. Calvin, Hobbes, Suzy Derkins, Moe, and Ms. Wormwood.  If you grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes, or if you read them regularly as an adult when the strip ran, do yourself a favor: find a book and reacquaint yourself.

And I am not the only one who feels this way. I discovered this documentary (Now available on Netflix) about Bill Watterson's impact on the comic strip world with Calvin and Hobbes, and it is very enjoyable. It is not an exaggeration to say that Watterson changed the medium with his brilliance, and you'll hear basically every major comic artist today say so: even those who disapproved of his maniacal non-licensing stance * or otherwise felt threatened by his greatness.

* Incidentally, some theorize that the enduring power of the strip was (counterintuitively) supplied by the fact that nobody ever had a "Hobbes" plush toy, a "Calvin" lunchbox, or saw millions of decals in the back windows of cars like "Garfield." The saturation arguably harms the art in the long term. Watterson turned down possibly HUNDREDS of millions of dollars for that decision; whatever you make of it, there's no not respecting it.

Some very informed people in that movie say that Calvin and Hobbes is one of the three or four most influential comic strips of all time. But three of those four are comic strips few outside the comic strip "guild" even know about or can remember. So as a layman I feel perfectly justified in my opinion that Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest comic strip ever created.

Funnily enough, one of my fondest memories was sitting in my childhood home with an adult family friend, Greg, reading a Calvin and Hobbes book out loud on our couch. We laughed, and I mean really, truly, belly-laughed, for a very long time over that book. He, an adult, laughed so hard I remember his cheeks were bright red.

And it was on a New Year's Day.