Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction
Did Constantine ban books from the Bible? Did Constantine invent Jesus as God?
The Council of Nicaea took place in 325 AD, in what is now Iznik, Turkey. In popular culture, the Council of Nicaea is widely misunderstood and misrepresented.
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Here are 7 quick facts to help you understand what really happened:
1. The Council of Nicaea was not about determining books of the Bible
As John Meade notes in The Council of Nicaea and the Biblical Canon and Bart Ehrman notes in Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, there is no record that the topic of what books should be included in the Bible was even discussed at Nicaea.
This idea is simply fiction. The books of the Bible were largely determined by the time of the Council (although the formal Councils of Hippo and Carthage had not yet taken place).
The Synodicon Vetus, a pseudo-historical writing on early church councils up to 887 is the earliest (hundreds of years late) “source” to claim Nicaea determined the books of the Bible . This notion was later popularised by French philosopher Voltaire in the 1700s. None of these sources count as valid historical records.
The Muratorian Fragment approximately 150 years before Nicaea, listed 22 of the known 27 books of the New Testament.
In Origen’s Homilies on Joshua (written about 240 AD), he lists all the books of what is now known as the New Testament.
Want to learn more on how we got the Bible?
2. The Council of Nicaea was about addressing Arianism, whether Jesus was created as a divine Being or uncreated like the Father.
Arius taught that Jesus, though possessing divine and holy traits, lacked, in effect, an ultimate divine trait- namely, being uncreated.
The Council dismissed this notion, concluding that Jesus is homoousios with the Father, of the same substance or essence and, by implication, also uncreated — Begotten, not made.
3. The result of the vote was a landslide
Records on how many people were at the Council vary. Constantine invited 1800 bishops from East and West.
Eusebius of Caesarea counts over 250 bishops present while others such as Evagrius, Jerome, and Rufinius record 318. The Eastern and Coptic Orthodox churches maintain 318 in their liturgies.
Of these 250 to 318 bishops, only 2 opposed the belief Christ was uncreated and of the same essence as the Father. Hardly a close vote!
To be fair, Arius had more fans at the start of the Council. However, as Carroll outlines in The Building of Christendom, “Some 22 of the bishops at the Council, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, came as supporters of Arius. But when some of the more shocking passages from his writings were read, they were almost universally seen as blasphemous (p.10).”
4. Constantine did not vote at the Council and was not baptised until 12 years after
Constantine helped arrange and fund for the Council to take place, however, did not force his view on the bishops, nor vote. The Council was formally opened 20 May 325, however, Constantine did not arrive until June 14.
Constantine was not baptised until 337, 12 years after the Council.
5. Just over one to two decades prior to the Council, Christians experienced intense persecution
The Diocletianic or Great Persecution of Christians, was an extremely severe persecution of Christians commencing in 303 and lasting 8–10 years, depending on the physical location.
Under Diocletian, Maximian, Constantinus, and Galerius, Christian writings were burned and Christians lost their legal rights for failing to comply with Roman religious practices.
Some persecutions during this time also included the burning of Christians along with their books. Brutal torture was common.
It wasn’t until the Peace of Galerius (311) and Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313), that things started to improve for Christians and it became legal to be a Christian.
6. Not political oppressors: the Council looked like an “assembled army of martyrs”
Theodoret of Cyrus describes in Article 57: The Council of Nicaea, “In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.”
What led him to such a conclusion? The truth might shock you. Theodoret explains, “Paul, bishop of Neo-Caesarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt.”
People unable to use both hands, people without eyes, without arms. They are hardly the sort of people who would readily give up on their convictions due to political pressure!
Paphnutius of Thebes
7. Athanasius: Exiled 5 times for a total of 17 years
One of the best-known critics of Arianism is Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius wrote the Contra Arianos or Defense Against the Arians, quoting New Testament books as Scripture before finally listing the 27 books of the New Testament in his 367 AD Easter letter.
Athanasius was hardly a political victor. In fact, he was later banished by…. you guessed it..
In 336, Constantine exiled Athanasius to Rhineland without any formal trial over accusations Athanasius was threatening to interfere with the grain supply from Egypt.
Athanasius was exiled another 4 times by another 3 Roman Emperors, with Arians and opponents of Christianity, frequently clashing with him and pushing for him to be banished. Moreover, Athanasius fled Alexandria another several times due to people trying to take his life.
Does this sound like a political victor to you? Athanasius was no stranger to persecution and demonstrated utmost conviction for his convictions against Arianism.
Athanasius of Alexandria
What’s the point?
Does being willing to suffer for your faith make it true? No. However, what it does show is sincerity. The bishops who voted at Nicaea weren’t the sort to easily bow to political whims.
Moreover, the 7 facts above demonstrate how misleading many modern sources are on Nicaea.
The rise of Christianity from its Roman-persecuted origins is no doubt a miracle. The real question should be if this miracle is based on fact or fiction concerning Jesus?
Did Jesus, claiming to be God, rise from the dead and offer hope and salvation to all or were his persecuted, marginalised early followers severely misled?
If Christianity is true, Christ’s forgiveness and peace is on offer today. Will you seek him?
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