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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: How Does Constantine’s Fifty Copies of Scripture Help Us Understand the Extent of the New Testament Canon?

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How Does Constantine’s Fifty Copies of Scripture Help Us Understand the Extent of the New Testament Canon?

Are the Right Books in the New Testament? – Question 12

One helpful factor in determining the extent of the New Testament canon was the command given by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century to have fifty copies of the Scripture produced. We can summarize the events that occurred as follows:

1. Christianity Is Persecuted Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian

At the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity was persecuted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Among other things, the Holy Scriptures of the Christians were sought out and destroyed by the authority of the Emperor in his Imperial Edict in A.D. 303. Christian churches were also burned. Many Christians lost their lives during this terrible period for the church.

2. The Next Emperor, Constantine, Becomes a Christian

The historical irony is that the next Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian. Instead of being a persecuted religion, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. And, instead of ordering the destruction of the Christian Scripture, Constantine ordered accurate copies to be made.

3. Constantine Asks Eusebius to Have Fifty Copies of Scripture Produced

In A.D. 330, Constantine inaugurated his new capital at Constantinople, formerly called Byzantium. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor wrote to the church father Eusebius and asked him to have fifty copies of the Scriptures produced and sent to Constantinople. Each of these copies would have included the entire Old Testament and New Testament in Greek. These copies were to be used in the churches in Constantinople. Eusebius has preserved Constantine’s letter to him in his work called the Life of Constantine.

Constantine asked for the copies of Scripture to be made on the best parchment, or animal skins, and copied by the best trained scribes. The Emperor himself would pay the expense for their production. Eusebius complied with Constantine’s request and the Scriptures were prepared and sent to Constantine.

4. Eusebius Does Not Tell Us Which Books Were in the Canon

While Eusebius tells us that he complied with Constantine’s request, and had these fifty copies produced, he nowhere tells us which books were included in the copies of the Old and New Testament. Though there is no specific list, the issue of their content is not really in doubt. Eusebius, in his other writings, informs us as to which books were universally acknowledged by the church as being Holy Scripture. These are the same twenty-seven books that are in our present New Testament canon.

While Eusebius said that certain of the New Testament books were questioned by some people, the majority of believers accepted these, and only these writings as divinely inspired.

The Importance of Constantine’s Request

This request of Constantine is important for a number of reasons. They are as follows:

1. There Was an Authoritative Scripture That Existed

To begin with, the fact that he could ask for fifty copies of the Scriptures to be produced demonstrates there was such a thing as an authoritative Scripture to copy. The request would make no sense whatsoever if there were not some universally accepted list of books that were considered to be Scripture. Constantine obviously knew of such a list; he did not have to specify to Eusebius the names of the books that were to be copied.

2. These Books Were Already Well-Known to All

Also, the fact that Eusebius does not see fit to provide a list is another indication that these books had already been recognized as being canonical. It was not necessary to explain which books were recognized as New Testament Scripture. It seems that they were well-known to everyone.

3. These Fifty Bibles Would Be a Basis for Other Copies

There is something else. These fifty copies would have also served as a basis for any other copies of Scripture that were to be produced.

Therefore, from the request of Emperor Constantine to the church historian Eusebius, we have further evidence that the New Testament canon was firmly fixed in the mind of believers.

Summary – Question 12
How Does Constantine’s Fifty Copies of Scripture Help Us Understand the Extent of the New Testament Canon?

The request of the fourth century Roman emperor Constantine for the church Father Eusebius to have fifty copies of the Scriptures produced at government expense, gives us further insight into the extent of the canon at that time. To make the request, there had to be such a thing as the Christian Scripture. The fact that neither Constantine nor Eusebius list which books were to be in these copies tells us that a completed authoritative list of sacred books already existed.

Furthermore, this list was seemingly well-known to all. These copies would have served as a basis for future copies of the Bible that were to be produced. This episode is another confirmation that the Christian canon had been settled in the minds of the people for some time.

What Do Early Bible Translations Tell Us about the Extent of the New Testament Canon? ← Prior Section
How Do the Earliest Complete Greek Manuscripts Help Us Understand the Extent of the New Testament Canon? Next Section →
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