In this video, I explore and debunk a few of the common myths surrounding the Council of Nicaea, as propagated by books like The Da Vinci Code; movies like Zeitgeist, The Movie; and groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The myths I address in this video:
1. Constantine headed the Council and/or dictated its decrees.
2. Nicaea determined the canon of the New Testament and had other books destroyed.
3. The Bishops at Nicaea betrayed the truth Christian Faith.
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My script for the video:
As I said in my last video, What are you wearing?, I’ll be exploring some of the common modern myths surrounding the Council of Nicaea in my next couple of videos. So, let’s get started.
Myth #1: Constantine was in charge of the counsel and presided over it and/or dictated its decrees.
While St. Constantine did both convoke and attend the Council, he neither presided as head nor was he involved in the actual decision-making. St. Alexander of Alexandria, as Pope of Alexandria and therefore ranking Patriarch, originally presided over the Council, but resigned his position because he believed it to be a conflict of interest, as he was also the chief accuser of Arius, whose heretical ideas were on trial at the Council. He was replaced by St. Ossius of Cordoba.
Often included alongside the myth that Constantine headed the Council is a picture of him striding into the Council in full imperial regalia and glory, taking his place triumphantly at the head. I have often seen Eusebius of Caeasarea’s “Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine” quoted in this regard thus:
“And now, all rising at the signal which indicated the emperor’s entrance, at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones.”
But, if the passage is read in context, it gives a very different picture than if you read that selection alone:
“As soon, then, as the whole assembly had seated themselves with becoming orderliness, a general silence prevailed, in expectation of the emperor’s arrival. And first of all, three of his immediate family entered in succession, then others also preceded his approach, not of the soldiers or guards who usually accompanied him, but only friends in the faith. And now, all rising at the signal which indicated the emperor’s entrance, at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones. Such was the external appearance of his person; and with regard to his mind, it was evident that he was distinguished by piety and godly fear. This was indicated by his downcast eyes, the blush on his countenance, and his gait. For the rest of his personal excellencies, he surpassed all present in height of stature and beauty of form, as well as in majestic dignity of mien, and invincible strength and vigor. All these graces, united to a suavity of manner, and a serenity becoming his imperial station, declared the excellence of his mental qualities to be above all praise. As soon as he had advanced to the upper end of the seats, at first he remained standing, and when a low chair of wrought gold had been set for him, he waited until the bishops had beckoned to him, and then sat down, and after him the whole assembly did the same.”
Whereas the commonly quoted portion of this passage reflects Eusebius’ own impressions of Constantine, namely, that he was “like some heavenly messenger of God,” the passage quoted above records the actual actions and demeanor of the Emperor. And what were they? (1) He entered without his normal entourage of soldiers and guards, instead accompanied only by “friends in the faith.” This is an indication that his entrance was the very opposite of a show of force; so much for him strong-arming the Bishops into submission. (2) He proceeded past the assembled Bishops with “downcast eyes,” a “blush on his countenance,” and a quickened pace. All of these behaviors are indications of nervousness and all of these are the body language of an individual who recognizes himself to be standing in the presence of superiors, not inferiors. (3) Once he reached his seat, he waited (perhaps hesitated?) to sit until he was coaxed to do so by the Bishops. So much for Constantine presiding in splendor at the Council. One further interesting note on Eusebius: As a semi-Arian, he never fully accepted the Canons of the Council of Nicaea, but he nonetheless wrote rather glowing accounts of the participants and proceedings.
Myth #2: The canon of the New Testament was decided at Nicaea, after which there were burnings of the books decided against.
This is complete and utter falsehood with absolutely no grounding in reality. Nicaea never discussed the canon of the New Testament, much less formally decided it; in fact, the canon of the New Testament as we know it today didn’t come about for another 42 years after Nicaea, in AD 367, and, even then, there was plenty of debate afterwards. The agenda at Nicaea included addressing Arianism, deciding a univeral date for Pascha (or Easter), addressing the Meletian Schism, deciding whether Baptisms by heretics were valid, and determining the status of those Christians who had renounced the Faith in the recently-concluded persecutions. The canon of Scripture was nowhere on the docket.
Myth #3: The Bishops at Nicaea betrayed the true Christian Faith taught by the Apostles.
Although it is possible, it would be very time-consuming and cumbersome to go through each canon of the Council and each line of the Creed and put them side by side with similar statements from early Christian writers. Instead, I think the easy way to answer this accusation is to take a look at the Bishops who were at the Council, who are being called traitors by a statement like this, and see if these really were men who would be willing to compromise or betray the Faith. It’s important to remember at this point that official persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire had ceased only 12 years prior, with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313. The Bishops taking part in this Council had been wanted men only 12 years before. In fact, as recent as two years before, in 323, the Bishop of Pontus had been tortured to death under the orders of Licinius, the main contender against St. Constantine for the title of Emperor. Most of the Bishops present at the Council had gone into hiding and been hunted during these persecutions. Many had been tortured. Nearly all had lost friends, family, and members of their flock to martyrdom. Here are a couple of quotes from famous 4th century historians:
St. Theodoret of Cyrus writes: “… many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. … Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.”
Socrates Scholasticus writes: “… in this assembly the number of bishops exceeded three hundred; while the number of the presbyters, deacons, and acolyths and others who attended them was almost incalculable. Some of these ministers of God were eminent for their wisdom, some for the strictness of their life, and patient endurance [of persecution], and others united in themselves all these distinguished characteristics.”
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time thinking that men that were willing to suffer for the Faith during the Diocletian Persecution of 299-313 would then turn around and betray it only 12 years later. They didn’t lapse during 14 years or more of sustained persecution but they lapse in a matter of days at Nicaea; this myth betrays logic.
The usual number of Bishops that are counted as being in attendance at Nicaea is 318. Each of them, in addition, was allowed to bring along with him two priests and three deacons. This is already about 1800 people present and that’s just the clergy! Many lay members of the Church were also in attendance. Socrates Scholasticus even records that a layman, whom he describes as being a “confessor” (that is, one who has suffered for the Faith but not been martyred) , corrected the Bishops when the dispute between the Orthodox and Arian parties became especially heated. We don’t know exactly how many people were in attendance at the Council of Nicaea, but, clearly, it was a large number. Is anyone really willing to seriously assert that all of these people simultaneously decided to betray the Christian Faith? I seriously doubt it.