The Great Myths 4: Constantine, Nicaea and the Bible

The Great Myths 4: Constantine, Nicaea and the Bible

It seems the “Philosophical Atheism” group on Facebook is going to be the New Atheist bad history gift that just keeps on giving.  No anti-Christian snippet or meme seems to be able to get by this group without it being posted as factual, without any hint of checking its claims.  So the gloriously stupid (and grammatically bizarre) pastiche of nonsense above was posted to “Philosophical Atheism” yesterday, with the group’s followers reverently genuflecting to its mighty historical truth and insight.  The irony of this meme urging readers “Don’t just believe me.  Go look it up.” is particularly amusing.  But okay, let’s “look it up”.

The Myth of the Biblical Canon at Nicaea

This utterly confused meme is referring to the hoary myth that the canon of the Bible was voted on at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and even helpfully includes an image of an icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and key figures from that Council holding a copy of the Nicene Creed formulated by the assembled bishops at Nicaea.  This is the basis of the claim that “Constantine and his bishops voted a bunch of works as the Word of God (325 AD)”.  Of course, there certainly was a council held by the emperor Constantine at his palace in Nicaea between May 20 and around June 19 in 325 AD and at it bishops from across the Roman Empire gathered to vote on several things, including the date of Easter, the role of church law and a number of administrative issues.  The key purpose of the Council, however, was the resolution of the Arian Controversy over the status of Jesus as “God the Son” in relation to “God the Father” in the doctrine of the Trinity. The statement of the Council on this matter formed the Nicene Creed which became the basis of future Christological formulations (and the subject of later disputes on the matter).  

What the Council did NOT vote on or even discuss was the Biblical canon – i.e. which Christian books and texts could be considered divinely inspired and therefore “Scripture”, which were useful but not scriptural and which were actually “heretical”.  Despite this, the idea that the “Bible was created by a vote at the Council of Nicaea” is a pseudo historical myth that has been kicking around for centuries and forms part of several key pieces of pseudo scholarship and pop culture, which reveals the apparently “shocking” but actually rather obvious idea that the Bible was put together by a consensus of human beings.  It certainly formed a key plot element in the schlock pseudo historical thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003) and in its film adaptation in 2006.  Perhaps whoever is responsible for posting this meme to the “Philosophical Atheism” group was living under a rock at the time, but it was one of the claims peddled by Dan Brown as historical that attracted criticism not just from Christians but also from scholars generally.  Agnostic atheist scholar Bart Ehrman was typically emphatic on the subject:


“The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude and he did not order the destruction of the gospels that were left out of the canon. …. The formation of the New Testament canon was a long and drawn out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead.” (Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine)


Even if the “Philosophical Atheism” person was living in a cave in the early 2000s and so missed the memo that this stuff is garbage, even the most cursory fact checking would have at least raised doubts in someone who was a genuine rationalist.  After all, the meme’s bizarre grammar and reference to “Black Ankhwakening” – a crackpot Afrocentrist/Black Revisionist group – should have been a signal that this needed to be checked carefully.  And a quick Google of “Constantine + Bible” turns up a plethora of detailed links debunking the whole idea.  But it seems fact checking is not high on the priority list of the so-called rationalists over at “Philosophical Atheism”.



How the Biblical Canon Actually Developed

As Ehrman notes above, far from being determined by one council and an emperor in 325 AD, the formation of the Christian canon was one of slow development over several centuries.  The whole idea of a “canon” of accepted and authoritative works pre-dates Christianity and began with the development of schools of Greek philosophy.  As works by key philosophers circulated in the decades after their deaths, other works wrongly or falsely attributed to them also found their way into circulation.  So later followers of some philosophical traditions developed rules by which they decided which works were genuine and which were pseudepigraphical forgeries – the word “canon” comes from the Greek κανών meaning “rule”, or literally “measuring stick”.

By the early second century Christianity had a similar problem, with a wide range of texts, letters and gospels in circulation all claiming to be authentic works of the first generation of Christians.  Any given isolated Christian community may well have known of some of them but not others. They may also have had copies of a few of them, but have only heard of others (since copies of any books were expensive and precious). And they may also have used a variety of other writings, many of which did not find their way into the Bible. There was no single, central “Church” which dictated these things at this early stage – each community operated in either relative isolation or intermittent communication with other communities and there were no standardised texts or a set list of which texts were authoritative and which were not at this very early stage of the Christian faith.

Christianity’s parent faith, Judaism, had a similar plethora of religious texts from which it chose a few and considered these to be “Scripture” and especially authoritative as the word of God.  There is evidence that this idea was beginning to be applied to some of the early Christian writings as well, with references to four definitive gospels being made by Irenaeus in the mid second century and a reference to interpretation of the letters of Paul alongside “the rest of the Scriptures” being made as early as c. 120 AD (see 2Peter 3:16).

But it seems that the “heresy” of Marcion was what gave second century Christianity the impetus to begin to define which of these various texts had the status of “Scripture” and which did not.  Marcion was born around 100 AD in the city of Sinope on the southern coast of the Black Sea. After a falling out with his father, the local bishop, he travelled to Rome in around 139 AD. There he began to develop his own Christian theology; one which was quite different to that of his father and of the Christian community in Rome. Marcion was struck by the strong distinction made by Paul between the Law of the Jews and the gospel of Christ. For Marcion, this distinction was absolute: the coming of Jesus made the whole of the Jewish Law and Jewish Scriptures redundant and the ‘God’ of the Jews was actually quite different to the God preached by Jesus. For Marcion, the Jewish God was evil, vengeful, violent and judgemental, while the God of Jesus was quite the opposite. Marcion decided that there were actually two Gods – the evil one who had misled the Jews and the good one revealed by Jesus.

This understanding led Marcion to put together a canon of Christian Scripture – the first of its kind – which excluded all of the Jewish Scriptures that make up the Old Testament and which included ten of the Epistles of Paul and only one of the gospels: the Gospel of Luke.

Marcion tried to get his radical reassessment of Christianity and his canon accepted by calling a council of the Christian community in Rome. Far from accepting his teachings, the council excommunicated him and he left Rome in disgust, returning to Asia Minor. There he met with far more success, and Marcionite churches sprang up which embraced his idea of two Gods and used his canon of eleven scriptural works. Alarmed at his success, other Christian leaders began to preach and write vigorously against Marcion’s ideas and it seems that his canon of eleven works inspired anti-Marcionite Christians to begin to define which texts were and were not Scriptural.

As mentioned above, it was Irenaeus who made the first know defence of the four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – as the oldest and only scriptural ones, and he did so at least partially on the grounds that these four had always been regarded as the earliest and most authoritative.   Interestingly, after two centuries of sceptical analysis, the overwhelming majority of historians, scholars and textual experts (Christian or otherwise) actually agree with Irenaeus and the consensus is that these four gospels definitely are the earliest of the accounts of Jesus’ life.

Not long after Irenaeus’ defence of the four canonical gospels we get our first evidence of a defined list of which texts are scriptural. A manuscript called the Muratorian Canon dates to sometime in the late second century AD and was discovered in a library in Milan in the eighteenth century. It details that the canonical four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – along with most of the other books found in the modern New Testament, as well as a couple which are not (the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter) are ‘scriptural’ and authoritative. It also gives some approval to other, more recent works like The Shepherd of Hermas, but says they should not be read in church as Scripture.

The Muratorian Canon document accepts twenty-three of the twenty-seven works which now make up the New Testament in the Bible. It also explicitly rejects several books on the grounds that they are recent and written by fringe, “heretical” groups and it specifically singles out works by the Gnostic leader Valentius and by Marcion and his followers.

It seems that the challenge posed by Marcion and other dissident groups caused the early Christians to determine which books were scriptural and which were not. And it also seems that recent works, whether they were “heretical” (like the Gnostic gospels) or not (like The Shepherd of Hermas), did not have the status of works from the earliest years of Christianity. It was only these earliest works which were considered authoritative.

So it’s clear that the process of deciding which texts were canonical and which were not was already well under way over a century before the Emperor Constantine was even born. It also continued for a long time after he died. Constantine’s contemporary, the Christian historian Eusebius, set out to “summarise the writings of the New Testament” in his Church History; a work written towards the end of Constantine’s reign. He lists the works which are generally “acknowledged” (Church History, 3.25.1), including the four canonical gospels, Acts, the Epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter and the Apocalypse of John/”Revelation” (though he says this is still disputed by some). He gives other texts which he says are “still disputed”; including James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. He gives other books which are probably “spurious” and then lists others which are definitely considered heretical, including the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Matthias and the Acts of Andrew and John.
So not only did the process of deciding the canon begin long before Constantine, there was still debate within the Church about the canon in his time.

And it continued. In 367 Athanasius wrote his 39th Festal Letter in which he laid out the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament – the first time this canon had been definitively stated by any churchman. A synod convened in Rome by Pope Damasus in 382 AD also considered the question of the canon and, with the help of the great multi-lingual scholar Jerome, settled on the same twenty-seven books set out by Athanasius. At this stage there was still no central authority which could compel church communities in any way but local councils and synods in Hippo and Carthage in north Africa and later ones in Gaul also settled on the same canon.

These local definitions mean that there was actually no definitive statement by the Catholic Church as to the make-up of the New Testament until the Council of Trent in 1546: a full 1209 years after Constantine died. The full development of the canon took several centuries, though the basics of which gospels were to be included was settled by 200 AD at least.

François-Marie Arouet aka “Voltaire”


The Origin of the Myth

So the central historical claim in the meme is total and complete garbage, but if that’s so, where did the myth come from?  It seems that it can be traced to a quip made by Voltaire in reference to a miracle story of no historical value.  François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom-de-plume “Voltaire”, is still justly famous for his wit, his erudition and for his attacks on the established position of the Catholic Church in the France of his day and his advocacy of freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State.  He made several mentions of the idea that the Biblical canon was decided at the Council of Nicaea in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), noting with amusement the rather silly way the Council supposedly chose the relevant books:


Il est rapporté dans le supplément du concile de Nicée que les Pères étaient fort embarrassés pour savoir quels étaient les livres cryphes ou apocryphes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament, les mirent tous pêle-mêle sur un autel; et les livres à rejeter tombèrent par terre. C’est dommage que cette belle recette soit perdue de nos jours.


(It is reported in the Supplement of the Council of Nicaea that the Fathers were very embarrassed to learn that there were secret or apocryphal books of the Old and New Testament, [so] putting them on an altar … the books to be rejected threw themselves to the ground.  It is a pity this beautiful technique is lost to us today.)”

None of the accounts of the Council from the time give so much as a hint about any such event, so Voltaire was clearly working from much later sources.  Some online detective work by Roger Pearse and others has untangled the story of this anecdote, and it appears Voltaire was working from an appendix to the Jesuit scholar Philippe Labbé’s Sanctissima concilia (1671), which is the “supplement” mentioned in the quote above.  But the ultimate source seems to be an anonymous medieval Byzantine work, the Vetus Synodikon , which gave an account of the major synods and councils of the Church up to around 887 AD.  This work became available in western Europe in the early seventeenth century and so seems to be where whole story came from.  And the Synodikon account of Nicaea concludes:


“The canonical and apocryphal books it distinguished in the following manner: in the house of God the books were placed down by the holy altar; then the Council asked the Lord in prayer that the inspired works be found on top and – as in fact happened – the spurious on the bottom.”


This ninth century miracle story is only found in this one work and is not referenced in any earlier material on the Council of Nicaea.  So it appears to have found its way via its publication by the Lutheran theologian Johannes Pappus (1549-1610) to Philippe Labbé’s appendix and thus to Voltaire.  And, thanks to the popularity of Voltaire’s work across Europe, his quip about this miraculous selection of books at Nicaea has given rise to the whole myth.


Constantine’s Bible

Despite the fact that the process of establishing the canon of the Bible began long before Constantine was born and continued after he died and despite him playing no part in it at the Council of Nicaea or anywhere else, the myth continues.  The idea that the Bible was selected by a wicked politician for various nefarious purposes is just too appealing to many people.  And those alleged nefarious purposes include everything from suddenly imposing a divine Jesus on Christianity (according to Dan Brown and his kooky source Holy Blood Holy Grail) to covering up Jesus’ New Age beliefs in reincarnation and Indian mysticism (according to that great scholar, Shirley MacLaine).  But it seems the baseless origins and the crackpot supporters of this silly idea don’t matter to the guys at “Philosophical Atheism”.  Not that any of them checked on this whole thing anyway.

A few of those who are devoted to the whole “Constantine created the Bible” myth have been forced to admit that there is no direct evidence linking the Council of Nicaea to the formation of the canon, so they cling to two pieces of evidence to try to salvage the idea.  The first is a fifth century reference by Jerome in his Prologue to Judith where he notes the Old Testament book of Judith  was “found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures”, which they try to argue means the Council did have some kind of discussion on the make up of the canon.  Unfortunately Jerome is simply noting that Judith was considered scriptural in that it was referred to in the deliberations of the Council.

Alternatively, they point to an account by  Eusebius of Caesarea in his Life of Constantine detailing how the emperor commissioned him to oversee the copying and production of 50 copies of “the sacred Scriptures”.  Exactly which “sacred Scriptures” is not specified, so it’s unknown if this refers to the Old Testament, some canon of the New Testament or both.  But this request (and another one made to Athanasius of Alexandria around the same time) simply reflects the fact that such an enterprise was so massively expensive that it took Imperial sponsorship to fund it and it seems to be one of many acts of patronage of Christianity by Constantine, not some attempt at establishing a canon of his own.  As has already been shown above, the canon was well on the way to being established well before this anyway.

Fact Checking Memes?

So the silly meme posted without the faintest whiff of scepticism or critical analysis by the so-called rationalists of “Philosophical Atheism” is a crackpot myth peddled by New Agers based on an eighteenth century joke and ninth century folk tale.  It’s presented by a Black Revisionist kook, along with other pseudo historical conspiracist nonsense and some appalling grammar and syntax.  The obvious question to ask, therefore, is why the hell “Philosophical Atheism” posted this laughable junk?  Simple – because it’s anti-Christian.  The New Atheist ideologues at “Philosophical Atheism” don’t care about facts, reason, logic or scepticism.  They are just fanatics who post whatever tickles their emotional and irrational prejudices.  Much like many religious believers, ironically enough.

Edit 23.05.17:  After making detailed critical comments on this and other pseudo historical memes on the so-called “Philosophical Atheism” Facebook group I have now been banned from the group, blocked from commenting and all my many detailed comments have been erased.  Thus another great victory has been won for “rationalism” and “free thought”.

17 thoughts on “The Great Myths 4: Constantine, Nicaea and the Bible

  1. Thanks Tim for some good information. While the Catholics affirmed the NT canon in the 1546 as you mention, Wikipedia says "For the Orthodox, the recognition of these writings as authoritative was formalized in the Second Council of Trullan of 692" That seems a little strange to me as they didn't formally split until much later. Do you know anything about that?




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  2. It seems the status of the Trullan Council or Quinisext Council was debated in the west and that, overall, it was not regarded as a true "Ecumenical Council" and therefore not binding on Christendom overall. Bede called it a a "reprobate" synod, and Paul the Deacon an "erratic" one. Your reference seems to be to this Council's endorsement of Athanasius' 39th Festal Letter and therefore his endorsement of the twenty-seven book New Testament canon.




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  3. Interestingly, the utterances of ecumenical councils like Nicea, are also called "canon's." Probably to signify that they define hopefully core, binding doctrines. This might complicate matters somewhat. Possibly this is a source of some confusion.




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  4. it's interesting, too, how close it is to "Baptist history"–Constantine and his dynasty ruined Christianity by making it a capital-C state Church and persecuted all these True Christians ever since (the Baptists naturally say they're the original, Apostolic Christianity, so their absence before the 16th century is proof of their repression, not of total nonexistence)




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  5. It's not just Baptists – the idea that the "true" Christianity was hijacked by the wicked Constantine for political ends and turned into the Catholic Church and that the Reformation just reversed this situation has been a mainstay of Protestant historiography for centuries. It's interesting just how much New Atheist bad history is actually just a repackaging of Protestant historiographical tropes.




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  6. I tend to agree with the Constantine hijacking idea, not necessarily as his deliberate intention, but simply because christianity, like any ideology, is safer when not allied with political power. Power corrupts and tends to draw people in who want the power without the ideology, and that is certainly true (I believe) of christianity through 17 centuries of "Christendom", but also true of socialism (e.g. the actions of Pol Pot, Stalin, etc, are a long way from the ideals of socialism) and probably other movements as well.




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  7. Sorry, but the "hijacking" idea is seriously bad history, largely because it confuses ultimate outcomes with intent. The idea that Constantine co-opted Christianity for his own nefarious political reasons is nonsense. In fact, if he wanted to choose any sect to use to gain support, stabilise the Empire, harness popularity etc., then Christianity was about the worst one to choose in the early 300s. All the evidence works against the idea that this or anything like it was his intention and his initial actions strongly indicate that he did not want to alienate his pagan subjects and did not want to make Christianity the sole religion or even the state faith. This happened later, but the communal nature of religion in the Roman world and the hierarchical nature of political power, patronage and sponsorship of religion made this fairly inevitable once Christianity got a certain momentum in the mid fourth century.

    I don't disagree about the inherent dangers of power combined with religion, but even today we find negotiating a suitable and workable separation of church and state difficult. Again, once Christianity ceased to be a marginalised and periodically persecuted outsider sect, that entanglement was inevitable. The "hijack" idea is pseudo historical garbage.




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  8. The "hijacking" idea makes sense only to people who believe there is no truth. Do you, personally, look around at all the competing ideas and decide which one gives you the most power, regardless of whether it's true or nonsense, and then espouse that? Or do you decide on what to profess based on what you think is true? Why do you think most people in the world are, or have ever been, any different from you? Of course, thinking something is true doesn't mean that it is true. But deciding that everything is false, or that truth doesn't matter, is not how normal people think (even if some do). Most people either try to determine what is true and follow it, or become enamored with an ideology and interpret everything as if it proved the ideology is true. Truth, or what is believed to be the truth, has always been paramount to most people. Including emperors.




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  9. The "hijacking" idea also fundamentally misunderstands the ancient world and people's relationships with gods. Roman religion was a kind of reciprocal bargain – humans gave the gods honour and worship and got protection and favour in return, a little like the relationship between a patron or sponsor and their client or supplicant in many aspects of Roman society. Constantine seems to have genuinely seen his against-the-odds victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge as a sign of divine favour by the Christian God and so felt obligated to respond with devotion.

    Those who doubt he saw some kind of vision and must have been lying also don't seem to realise that people in the ancient world were constantly on the lookout for signs and omens and so "saw" all kinds of things that they invested with divine significance. This was particularly the case in times of stress, so the idea that he saw something that he took as a vision and a sign from a particular god before a battle he probably didn't expect to win makes much more sense that the idea that he simply made the whole thing up for cynical purposes.




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