Da Vinci’s Nicaea
by Travis Bookout
The Da Vinci Code:
I recently read The Da Vinci Code. I realize I am a little bit late on this blog since most of the buzz about that book died out years ago. But I have always been a little bit behind on social trends anyway, so I figure I’ll just sit back in my No Fear t-shirt, put in my new Hanson c.d., and write down a few thoughts.
I enjoy teaching and studying about how we got the Bible and the formation of the Old and New Testament canons. I had negatively referenced The Da Vinci Code several times in teaching without ever actually having read it. I referenced it based on hearsay and book reviews. But I always felt a little uncomfortable with that, so I decided to sit down and read the book for myself. Honestly, I kind of liked it. I thought it was well written, an entertaining story, and a topic worthy of discussion. Dan Brown, the author, seems to be a pretty intelligent man who knows a little about a lot. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I am reading his earlier work Angels and Demons right now.
There were, however, several historical blunders in Dan Brown’s book. Probably the worst was his claim that many non-canonical gospels were discovered in the 40’s in Nag Hammadi and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In reality, the Dead Sea Scrolls contained the library of a Jewish community living in Qumran until about AD 68. Their library was discovered in 11 caves by the Dead Sea in 1947. They were not a Christian community, and no Christian gospels were discovered in their library (although a small number of scholars speculate a tiny fragment that might contain a piece of Mark was discovered in cave 7). So Brown was way off on what he said about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Brown also claimed that there were roughly 80 gospels that were rejected by the church because they did not present Jesus as divine. The actual number of known (not necessarily discovered) non-canonical gospels is closer to 40, and generally these present Jesus as far more super-human than the 3 synoptics (although His Deity can still be seen in these also). For a more in-depth critique of the historical blunders of The Da Vinci Code, see Bart Ehrman. The blunder I want to primarily focus on was made about the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
Beliefs about the Council of Nicaea:
There have been many times in personal Bible studies, primarily with college-age skeptics, that the Council of Nicaea was brought up. I have been told that the Council of Nicaea started Christianity. I’ve been told that the only reason I worship on Sunday is because of a decree by the Council of Nicaea. I have been told that the only reason that I believe Jesus is divine is because of the Council of Nicaea. I have been told that the only reason my New Testament contains 27 books is because of the Council of Nicaea. It seems like people toss the Council of Nicaea around as the origin of any uniquely Christian belief or practice.
I always wondered where on earth people got the idea that the Council of Nicaea did any of these things. Especially that it had anything at all to do with the New Testament canon. Thanks to Dan Brown, I might have figured it out. Sir Leigh Teabing, a major character in The Da Vinci Code, makes the claim numerous times that Emperor Constantine decided which books would make up the New Testament at the Council of Nicaea. This is completely fabricated. The Council had zero to do with the canon. However, it was an important council. In the event that you are curious or someone brings it up to you, it might be helpful to know a few things about it.
The Truth about the Council of Nicaea:
The Council of Nicaea was the first major ecumenical council of the ancient church. It was called by Emperor Constantine, the first Emperor to pay lip service to being a Christian. In Alexandria, Egypt there had been several large disturbances. There had been a serious disagreement about the nature of Christ by a prominent teacher, Arius, and a bishop, Alexander. Arius taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist (Arianism, not to be confused with Aryanism). Thus, Jesus was a created being, lesser than the Father. Alexander taught that Jesus was eternal, and equal to the Father. After excommunications, lines being drawn, riots in the streets, an attempt to unify the empire was called in AD 325 in Nicaea.
Bishops from all over the ancient world assembled and discussed many issues. The date at which Easter would be celebrated, the exaltation of bishops in Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and the substance and nature of Jesus were among those issues. The 27 year old Athanasius argued on Alexander’s behalf for the eternal equality of Jesus to the Father, and Eusebius (not the church historian, who was also present) argued for Arianism. The council agreed with Athanasius, and made an official decree about the eternal nature, substance, and equality of Jesus with the Father. This decree actually didn’t influence the church for very long, since Arianism grew exponentially after the council’s decree, leading to the excommunication of Athanasius.
What the Council Did Not Do:
The Council did not decide that Sunday would be the day of Christian worship. That practice had been the norm since the days of the New Testament (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2), and was unanimously confirmed by many Christian writings which predate the Council of Nicaea (Didache, Ignatius, Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Epistle of the Apostles, Tertullian, and Eusebius). Consider this quote from Justin Martyr around AD 155:
“And on the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a city or a rural district. We all make our assembly in common on the day of the Sun, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and taught his disciples these things” (Apology, I, 67:1-3, 7).
The Council did not have anything to do with the New Testament canon, which had already started forming in the days of the New Testament (2 Peter 3:15-16). In the 2nd century, Irenaeus wrote about the four Gospels, “It is not possible for the Gospels to be more in number than they are nor again to be fewer. Since there are four regions of the world in which we live, and four universal winds (and the church is scattered over all the earth), and the gospel is the pillar and support of the church and the spirit of life, it is fitting for the church to have four pillars” (Against Heresies 4.11.8). His reasoning might not be great, but he does help us learn about the four gospels in his day. Long before the council of Nicaea, certain books were being collected, copied, circulated, and viewed as Scripture.
Finally, the Council did not create the doctrine of the deity of Jesus, as Dan Brown claims. The Gospel of John is replete with reference to the Deity of Jesus (John 1:1-3; 8:58; 20:28), and His equality with the Father (John 5:18-29). This belief is corroborated with many other New Testament references (Matthew 3:3; 14:33; Mark 1:3; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 1:8; Titus 2:13, etc.). Even Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia at the beginning of the 2nd century, after learning more about Christians, wrote that they habitually gathered early and sang hymns “to Christ as to a god.” Long before the council of Nicaea, Christians viewed Jesus as divine, eternal, and equal to the Father.
Dan Brown is a talented writer, but an early Christian historian he is not. Myths about the Council of Nicaea rage, but knowing a few facts about it can help you be prepared when you’re called on to give an account for what you believe.