Biblical Authenticity: The Council Of Nicaea


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.”

Sophie: “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.

3. References

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.≈

Biblical Authenticity: The Apocrypha

BibleThe last blog I posted — “Biblical Inerrancy and Textual Criticism” — has been by far the most popular blog I’ve ever written.  It got a few comments on WordPress, but got 53 comments (so far) on Facebook, some of which continued into fairly involved debates.  The most I can say from the feedback I’ve received so far is that I may have overstated the case against the authenticity of the long ending of Mark, but my position on the issue remains unchanged.  However, the most popular question I received on that blog is with regard to which books are included in our current Bible, and how those decisions were made.  Especially since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, this is an issue that cries out for some clear thinking!

This topic — which books are included in our Bible — covers not only the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles (the Apocrypha), but also the so-called “Gnostic” gospels, the role of the Council of Nicea, The Da Vinci Code, and several other closely-related events that collectively call for a blog to address the question.  I’ll try to cover all these issues with some clarity in the next few blogs.  Let’s start with the Apocrypha.

  1.  The Apocrypha.  Plainly stated, some Christian denominations — specifically, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestants — add six or seven books to the Old Testament canon, as well as additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.  These additions are called the “Deuterocanon” (second canon) by those denominations, and the “Apocrypha” (hidden writings) by nearly all others. These additional books and edits to Esther and Daniel are normally included in the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible, and include:

The First Book of Esdras
The Second Book of Esdras
Additions to the Book of Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach)
The Letter of Jeremiah (often combined with Baruch as a single book)
The Prayer of Azariah (normally added to Daniel 3)
Susanna (normally added as Chapter 13 to the book of Daniel)
Bel and the Dragon (normally added as Chapter 14 to the book of Daniel)
The Prayer of Manasseh
The First Book of the Maccabees
The Second Book of the Maccabees

These books range from 300 BC (The Letter of Jeremiah) to about 30 BC (The Wisdom of Solomon), are not included in the Hebrew Bible, but remain in dispute.  Even this list itself is not agreed upon by all.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church accepts this list as canon, with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh.  Eastern Orthodox accepts the list as canon, but includes both books of Esdras and Manasseh.  This expanded (“second”) canon was proclaimed as the divinely inspired Word of God at the Council of Trent in 1546, though previous councils (including some in the first four centuries) rejected them.

But are these books Scripture?  Are they inspired, are they canonical?  This is the question.  The answer is we simply don’t know, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate.  Some of the early church fathers accepted the Apocrypha as canonical (Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement), others rejected them (Athanasius, Josephus, Cyril, Origen, Jerome).  Our earliest Greek manuscripts — Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Siniaticus, and Codex Vaticanus — include portions of the Apocrypha, interspersed throughout the Old Testament.  Some believe that the tortures mentioned in Hebrews 11:35 are referring to the torture of the Maccabees recorded in 2 Maccabees 7 and 12, so advocates have at least one potential New Testament reference to the Apocrypha.  However, the New Testament never directly quotes from any book of the Apocrypha, and never refers to any of them as Scripture, authoritative, or canonical.

Modern scholarship remains sharply split, largely along Catholic/Protestant lines.  Great Protestant theologians and scholars (Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Bruce Metzger, William Nix, F. F. Bruce) continue to strongly reject the Apocrypha, citing many of the reasons here.  Geisler, in particular, vehemently rejects these additional books based more on their content, which he calls unbiblical, heretical, extra-biblical, fanciful, sub-biblical, and even immoral.  For those interested in further study, I’ve included a bibliography below.  Next up — the Council of Nicea!


Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1988
Geisler, Norman and Nix, William, A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1986
Hauer, Christian and Young, William, An Introduction to the Bible:  A Journey into Three Worlds, Second Edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990
Metzger, Bruce, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1977