Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bible and the Council of Nicaea

I am delighted to be writing my second [we]blog entry (For an explanation of the brackets, see my earlier post). I want to wish everyone a blessed Memorial Day. May your day be full of remembrance and honor of those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice. It is not mutually exclusive to ask that all civilized human beings abhor war, but to simultaneously expect that they will study and remember our shared history, and to give honor to those who served in war.

I would like to address a pet-peeve of mine, which reared its ugly head in a conversation yesterday. Somehow, it has become both trendy and "common knowledge’ to claim that the contents of the Bible were decided upon at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This idea is false. The specific books of the Bible were neither established nor confirmed, nor even addressed at that famous council. It was never even on the agenda, nor is such an action in the records of the event. Somewhere in recent history, an urban myth claiming this arose and became ingrained in our cultural consciousness. I have not yet been able to figure out when this took place. Subsequently, this modern myth gained a foothold with the claims made by characters in Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code. It was integral to the plot of the novel to maintain that Constantine tampered with the contents of the Bible (particularly the New Testament) at the Council of Nicaea, yielding a canon that omitted positive valuations of the humanity of Jesus. Dan Brown is an excellent novelist and I have appreciated his fiction at times. However, it is inappropriate for anyone to identify him as a scholar or historian or a theologian, or anything other than a talented novelist, be it claimed by him or by his fans. Some early interviews of his have helped to reinforce this misconception. Subsequently, millions of people, wanting to identify a villain amid the early stages of the development of mainstream Christianity, upon whom to heap the blame for two millennia of sexual repression and gender oppression, found resonance with this mythical reconstruction of Christianity and began to propagate it widely as a new "holy grail".

However, that is not where the story of this myth began. Dan Brown only picked up on an already extant misconception and elaborated on it. Evidently, careless reporting by people who have not properly researched the facts has caused this myth to be quoted again and again even by people who should know better. In a 2007 Newsweek interview with Holly Bailey, Governor Mike Huckabee, then a top GOP presidential candidate, spoke about his religious views and erroneously proclaimed that he firmly supported the current Biblical canon of 66 books that was established at this famous 325 AD council. He is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. One would think that he would know better. I do not know the requirements of the seminary that he attended, but I do know that most seminaries (like the one I attended) require only a minimal number of scripture and Christian history courses in order to be considered for ordination and to be competent enough to preach on the Christian scriptures. This does not permit a person to be called an expert in Christian history. After 12 years of graduate school and countless numbers of scripture courses, I feel only barely competent to preach on the scriptures. Perhaps, as it was said of Socrates, I know just how unwise I am. By all appearances, Mike Huckabee is a perfectly good man and I have no interest in impugning his character. But as a minister, one would think that Gov. Huckabee would know better than to believe that it was the Council of Nicaea that established the current Biblical canon.

Here are the facts. The Council of Nicaea, which was convened in 325 AD under the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine I, bore several purposes. One of which was to establish the exact nature of Christ, the Son of God, the Second person of the Trinity, particularly in light of the so-called Arian Heresy. One other purpose was to determine the date on which to celebrate Easter. Other points to be discussed were the Meletian Schism; whether baptisms performed by heretics should be honored; as well as the status of those Christians who had denied their Christianity under the recent persecutions under the former emperor Licinius. Never was the issue of the Christian canon to be discussed, nor was it ever discussed to any substantial degree. For some basic information about the agenda and proceedings of the council, see the following helpful websites: and

From where, then, do we obtain our current Biblical canon? First of all, it is important to recognize that among Christians (this does not even address the fact that the Jewish Bible is quite different from the Christian Bible) there are several Biblical canons, not one. The Protestants use a Bible with 66 books, while the Catholics and numerous Eastern Orthodox faiths use a Bible with 72 books. These include what are commonly referred to as the Apocrypha among Protestants (these are Old Testament era books, such as Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Susannah, among others). The Protestant canon recognizes these books as worthy of study for historical knowledge, but not sufficient for the spiritual guidance of Christians — i.e. fully inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Catholics and Greek and Russian Orthodox, however, do recognize them as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But the New Testament as we know it today, 27 books that were established as sufficient for Christians’ spiritual and moral guidance, were collected over a large amount of time, and were not undeniably accepted by all Christian churches until well into the late fourth or fifth centuries. The first time that we have mention of all of our current books together, as being the proper canon of New Testament scripture is in an Easter letter from the Alexandrian Bishop Athanasius to his congregations in the year 367 AD, fully four decades after the Council of Nicaea. Over the next several centuries, the contents of the New Testament would continue to be debated by various sects of Christianity. Only in much later councils do we find this solidified as an official resolution. For instance, at the 16th century Council of Trent the Biblical Canon was defined, over against Protestant movements to remove the deutero-canonical books mentioned above.

The majority of the prominent books of the New Testament had already been established by common usage and consensus among the Christian churches prior to the Council of Nicaea. On account of this, there was insufficient reason to debate the Bible’s contents at Nicaea. When Constantine requested of Eusebius of Caesarea that he be provided with fifty copies of the Christian Bible for the churches being constructed in Constantinople, their contents were never an issue. Constantine trusted that whatever books Eusebius decided to include would be sufficiently "orthodox" and would have received the common blessing of usage by the majority of churches. On some level, the designation of canonical versus non-canonical appears to have been relatively unimportant at this point, considering the fact that the contents of several actual complete Bibles that derive from that time period vary more than slightly. One of these may have even been an example of these fifty Eusebian copies. One of the five major manuscripts preserved from the fourth and fifth centuries, Codex Vaticanus carries only 22 of the 27 texts of our modern canon, omitting the Pastoral Epistles as well as the book of Revelation! And many of the texts we do have are in an entirely different order than in our canon. Some of the other versions, such as Codex Sinaiticus, carry several additional texts that are not present in our current canon, texts such as the Epistle of Barnabus and the Shepherd of Hermas. One thing that I ask my students is this: does this mean that our Christian ancestors who used these particular versions of the Bible were using versions that were "incomplete" or un-holy, or inspired by the Devil? I doubt that these ancestors would have thought so. This variation merely serves to remind us that the process of canonization of scripture was a gradual one, fraught with many disagreements and pitfalls. If one does believe that the current Biblical canon of 27 books is the correct one, endorsed by the Holy Spirit, then we must recognize that it took a miracle to get Christians to agree upon anything up to that point!

Earlier canons, however, were not nearly as uniform. Many included just a few texts that we would recognize, such as the four gospels of our current canon (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), along with a few of Paul’s letters. Many even incorporated several texts currently lacking in our modern canon. Often, various bishops and theologians gave their blessings to texts that would later be branded heretical, or simply dropped from canonical lists for reasons of their authorship not being verifiable or sufficiently ancient. Examples of these include the Gospel of Peter (endorsed initially by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch), and the Shepherd of Hermas, respectively.

The process toward confirming a fourfold gospel came to a general consensus much earlier than that of the entire canon. However, there were still various prominent segments of the Christian population that utilized alternate texts, such as the Syriac churches that used a gospel harmony called the Diatessaron as their primary gospel text well into the 5th century. This was an unofficial process, driven more by usage and common consensus than it ever was an official decision established by a vote or a council or conference. To marginalize the various churches that used non-standard or non-orthodox texts prior to the establishment of a recognized orthodoxy is to artificially overlay a hierarchy back onto the churches that existed prior to that hierarchy. Such a recognized orthodoxy simply did not exist until very late. Early Christianity was comprised of a vast system of sectarian groups or ‘heresies,’ to use the term in its purest sense. While non-canonical texts such as the Gospel of Thomas or others might never have been held as holy by a majority, it is important for us to recognize that this was not by design or deliberation by councils or hegemonies. It was a matter of course and an organic process that decided which texts would be favored and which would fall into disfavor. We must also remember that there was simply no majority within Christianity for quite some time. There were merely sects, many trying to compete with each other and to cause each other to adopt the same ideology, all the while railing against one another for their deviation from what each considered to be the true teaching.

It is this constant debate that gave rise to the various controversies such as that of Arius. But Christianity was not without its moments of unity within diversity. Christians bled just the same when persecuted by the Romans. In one of the early Christian martyrdom stories, the narrator notices that many Christians of differing sects were all tied to stakes at the same execution, ready to be burned alive. Some of these martyrs were from sects that would ultimately be branded heretical by other sects that would later comprise the orthodox movement. Each held firmly to the name of Christ, regardless of what their theology was, and was willing to die for it.

I remind the reader that it was Constantine himself, who while known as one of the strongest proponents of conformity within the church, was in favor of dropping arguments that could not be settled by human debate. To him, initially, the debate between Arius and his proro-orthodox opponents was one that was unnecessary and tended not toward edification. In his own words, counseling reconciliation for both Arius and Alexander of Alexandria, the two opposing leaders within the Arian controversy, he states: "I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention....It was wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded....For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2.68-69, translation Riley’s). It was the nature of Christ’s divinity that was the focus of the debate that Constantine here calls insignificant. Maybe Constantine has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

Suggested Reading:
Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
MacDonald, Lee Martin, and Sanders, James A., editors. The Canon Debate. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.
Riley, Gregory. The River of God. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Riley, Gregory. One Jesus, Many Christs. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

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