Teabing cleared his throat and declared, “The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven. The Bible is a product of man, my dear, not of God…man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book…[Jesus’] life was recorded by thousands of followers across the land.” Teabing paused to sip his tea and then placed the cup back on the mantel. “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.”
“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked.
“Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great…Christians and pagans began warring, and the conflict grew to such proportions that it threatened to rend Rome in two. Constantine decided something had to be done. In 325 A.D., he decided to unify Rome under a single religion. Christianity.”
“The twist is this,” Teabing said, talking faster now. “Because Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status [from human to God] almost four centuries after Jesus’ death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling his life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke. From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history.” Teabing paused, eyeing Sophie. “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits, and embellished those gospels that made him Godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned.”
Brown, Dan, The Da Vinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, Doubleday, New York, NY, 2003, pages 236 – 240
The film was even more explicit. Listen to the last few seconds of this clip, from the same scene quoted above:
Teabing: “Now, listen to this. It is from the Gospel of Philip.”
Teabing: “Yes, it was rejected at the Council of Nicaea, along with any other gospels that made Jesus appear human.”
Here’s another clip:
“A this council, the various Christian sects discussed, debated…many topics, including the acceptance and rejection of certain gospels, the date for Easter, and…of course…the immortality of Jesus.” If you can believe it, this sort of nonsense is where most people — including many well-meaning Christians — have developed their impression of what happened at Nicaea.
I am still amazed, 15 years after the release of the novel, that this book and movie still drive what many people think actually happened at Nicaea. Last month I did 17 speaking engagements in 4 states, and I think I received this question in every single one. Da Vinci Code or not, there remains an overriding impression that Constantine gathered church leaders in a small city in Asia Minor over 1,500 years ago and “decided which books should be in the Bible.” Some books were inspired, but didn’t make it in because they didn’t further the church’s agenda, and others were altered or included for the express purpose of the church retaining power and control over people’s lives. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. So, what really happened at the Council of Nicaea?
1. Historical Context. Let’s start with a bit of a history lesson (bear with me for the next few paragraphs, this context is important). In the early 4th Century, there were at least two Roman emperors — Constantine, and his enemies and rivals Maxentius and Licinius. Eventually, Constantine defeated the other two, and unified the Roman Empire. In that effort, he also became aware that there were various religions among the realm, and at first permitted all with some tolerance. A pagan follower since childhood, Constantine retained his paganism (and his divinity) throughout, until the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD where he finally defeated Maxentius. Just prior to that battle, Constantine maintains that he received a vision where Jesus Christ spoke to him in front of a glowing cross, and said, “In this sign, conquer.” He had the symbol (both a cross and Christ’s monogram) engraved on shields and flown on banners, and easily defeated the larger army of Maxentius. Interpreting this as a sign, Constantine converted to Christianity, ending centuries of persecution, torture, and martyrdom under Nero and Diocletian. Several myths we can do away with here: First, Constantine’s conversion was not a “deathbed” conversion, as The Da Vinci Code states, he was a public and practicing Christian for most of his later years. Second, Constantine did not make Christianity the “official religion of the Roman Empire,” as you will hear many state — he only made it legal, and ended the persecution of Christians that had persisted for centuries.
However, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity also landed him in the middle of an ongoing debate among the Christian factions surrounding Rome and Asia Minor. The Trinity had been a core doctrine of Christians for many years at this point, but the exact definition of the term continued to trouble many bishops, popes, and theologians. While today we are mostly happy to call it a “divine mystery” or something similar, that dismissal was not sufficient for the pious in the fourth century. It seems the Christians were largely united in persecution, but once the persecution stopped, it provided them time to work through some difficult doctrinal issues. The most troublesome dispute for Constantine came from Alexandria, where Arius — pastor of the influential Baucalis Church — came into conflict with his bishop, Alexander. The conflict was one for the ages, and one that would still be relevant today.
Arius openly challenged the other pastors in Alexandria and its Bishop, Alexander, by asserting that the Trinity is resolved simply by believing that the Word (Logos) who became flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) was not God, but a created being, a “lesser” God of some sort, or just a created being without eternality, omnipotence, or (most importantly) divinity. This teaching made the Trinity simpler and appealed to many of Christian converts from paganism — Jesus is a “divine hero” of sorts, greater than an ordinary human being but at a lower rank than the eternal, omnipotent God. The belief that Jesus Christ is only a created being, not divine, retains the title today of the “Arian Heresy.” Unfortunately for Constantine (but fortunately for all future generations of Christians), Bishop Alexander would not allow the heresy, and called a synod (assembly of all the clergy) at Alexandria in 320. The assembled clergy condemned the heresy, and excommunicated Arius. Arius gathered the support of his closest friend, Bishop Eusebius from Nicomedia, and returned to Alexandria ready for a spiritual and doctrinal fight. Riots broke out throughout the city, and Constantine knew he had to intervene.
2. The Council. In 325, Constantine called for an ecumenical council to meet in Nicaea, the capital city of Nicomedia. About 300 bishops traveled from all over the Roman Empire to attend the council, with Constantine himself presiding. He gave brief opening remarks, encouraging them to come to some agreement over the issues that divided them, ending with the reminder that “…division within the church is worse than war.” He then left so the church leaders could resolve the disagreement.
A. The Arian Heresy. Arius was called forward to testify, he boldly stated his theology: “The Son of God was a created being, made from nothing, there was a time when He did not exist, He was capable of change (unlike the Father), and could commit both good and evil.” Clear heresy on multiple points, he was quickly condemned by almost the entire Council, led by Alexander’s brilliant assistant, Athanasius. Christ is not a created being, is not a sub-deity beneath God the Father, cannot do evil, is unchanging, and is equally divine and omnipotent with the Father.
B. The Nicene Creed. The leading bishops realized that the heresy would continue unless clearly denounced by the council. Constantine took another leadership role, and with Eusebius and several other key bishops, drafted what is still known as “The Nicene Creed.” One key phrase stands out: “…Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…”. This phrase directly refutes the Arian heresy, and in this form the Creed passed almost unanimously, with only two bishops refusing to sign (who quickly found themselves in exile with Arius). “True God of true God” and “of one substance with the Father” affirmed the deity of Christ in unequivocal terms. It is important to note that, despite the monologue of Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code, the Council did not “decide on the immortality of Jesus,” that was the belief of the church dating back to the middle of the first century. If anything, the Council reaffirmed the deity of Christ, against heresies to the contrary.
C. The Gospels and the Canon. Unfortunately for Mr. Teabing, the Council of Nicaea had absolutely nothing to do with which books were included in the Bible, and absolutely nothing to do with other gospels or the Gnostics. As we discussed in the previous blog, the Council of Trent (1,200 years later) ruled on the canon of the Apocrypha, but no such thing took place at Nicaea.
That should be sufficient to inject some truth into the fiction of The Da Vinci Code and other rumors. You can see an abbreviated version of these points here, and read about them in any of the sources below. Next time, we’ll deal with all those pesky gospels that were “left out” of the Bible, including the Gnostics and others.
Brown, Dan, The Da Vinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, Doubleday, New York, NY, 2003.
Duchesne, Louis, Early History of the Christian Church, Volume II: The Fourth Century, Kindle Edition, Cambridge University Publishers, England, 1902.
Hastings, Adrian, Ed., A World History of Christianity, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1999.
McManners, John, Ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1990.
Noll, Mark, Turning Points — Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Third Edition, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2012.
Shelley, Bruce, Church History in Plain Language, Third Edition, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2008.≈