There seem to be a number of legends about the First Council of Nicaea (325AD) in circulation on the internet, presented as fact. Some people seem to think that the council, which was the first council of all the Bishops of the Christian Church, either invented the New Testament, or edited it to remove references to reincarnation (or whatever) or burned large numbers of heretical works, or whatever. This is not the case. This page documents the problem, and provides links to all the ancient source material in order to allow everyone to check the truth for themselves.
Here's my first example, from usenet:
> In tracing the origin of the Bible, one is led to AD 325, when > Constantine the Great called the First Council of Nicaea, composed of > 300 religious leaders. Three centuries after Jesus lived, this council > was given the task of separating divinely inspired writings from those > of questionable origin. > The actual compilation of the Bible was an incredibly complicated > project that involved churchmen of many varying beliefs, in an > atmosphere of dissension, jealousy, intolerance, persecution and > bigotry. > At this time, the question of the divinity of Jesus had split the > church into two factions. Constantine offered to make the little-known > Christian sect the official state religion if the Christians would > settle their differences. Apparently, he didn't particularly care what > they believed in as long as they agreed upon a belief. By compiling a > book of sacred writings, Constantine thought that the book would give > authority to the new church.
Here's a second version of the same idea:
> The references in the Christian religion of reincarnation, I am told, > were removed by the Council of Nicea. (See Note A)
Here's a third version of this idea:
> Also, we do know that there were many books of supposed prophets > floating around up until 312 CE when the Council of Nicea decided > which books were scripture and which ones were burned. Thanks to > the notorious habit of early Christian leaders of destroying > books/scrolls, we may never know what doctrine existed before the > Council of Nicea.
And another even more extreme example:
Author: Laulak Siddique <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 2000/12/06 Forum: alt.religion.islam In article <USiX5.email@example.com>, "Laulak Siddique" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote: > Christianity consisted of many sects. By converting Constantine > (The Great) the Paul heresy triumphed as the concept of trinity and the ending of the > Mosaic law (which made swine flesh permissible) brought this version of > Christianity very close to the Hellenic paganism that was practiced in Rome > and Greece. At Nicea Constantine had 300 versions of the Bible burnt, thus > legitimising and patronizing only the Paulic heresy.
And another (I'm not making any of these up):
Subject: Re: Snipper continues trying to shift the burden of proof to the atheists From: "St. Clarence" <email@example.com> Date: 2001/01/07 Newsgroups: alt.atheism,alt.agnosticism,alt.christnet.atheism,alt.christnet.calvinist ... >Actually, legend has it that at the Council of Nicea, Constantine was >unsure of what else to include as a holy scripture (which later the batch >became the Bible). He threw the batch that he was to choose from onto a >table. Those that remained on the table were in, those that fell off were >out.
|The most common source of the misinformation at the moment is the Da Vinci code, on Amazon here:|
A new version of the story (June 2001), which also includes a very confused version of the 'Secret Mark' theory of Morton Smith (not 480, obviously):
Dave Crisp <...> wrote in message news:<firstname.lastname@example.org>... > There are one or two places where there is evidence of which is 'right', > the most famous example perhaps being the account of the raising of Lazarus > which was removed from Mark on the instructions of the Council of Nicea as > it hat overtones of a 'mystery cult'. [source queried - answer:] > If you could give me a couple of days, I could probably dig out the entire > text, which was contained in a letter sent in 480 by the Bishop of > Alexandria to one of his underlings; who was involved it trying to stamp > out a group of 'Heretics' who were still using the original version.
Newsgroups: soc.culture.jewish, (etc) Date: 1996/05/08 > The Roman Catholic Church created the canon of Christian > scripture at the Council of Nicea, at the same time that they determined > the doctrine of Trinity (through the assasination of a few of the voting > bishops, by one vote). (See Note D)
And the legend reappears in the Da Vinci Code.
These all sound individually quite confident and authoritative. But how do we find out if they are true? The answer must be to assemble all the primary data; any documents issued by the council, and any ancient accounts of its proceedings.
Documents Issued by the Council
The 318 bishops issued a creed (Symbolum), 20 canons, and a letter to the church of Alexandria. An English translation of these is available from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3801.htm
Ancient Accounts of the Council
I admit that I was a little stumped as to what these might be. However, I searched the internet. I also went through Quasten's Patrology looking for any references, and drew up a table of references from that.
From http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm :
The adhesion [to the creed] was general and enthusiastic. All the bishops save five declared themselves ready to subscribe to this formula, convince that it contained the ancient faith of the Apostolic Church. The opponents were soon reduced to two, Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais, who were exiled and anathematized. Arius and his writings were also branded with anathema, his books were cast into the fire, and he was exiled to Illyria.
But the accounts of Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Rufinus may be considered as very important sources of historical information, as well as some data preserved by St. Athanasius, and a history of the Council of Nicaea written in Greek in the fifth century by Gelasius of Cyzicus.
Other information about the council is available from the church historians, which also detail action taken by the Emperor Constantine to enforce uniformity after the council. (The works of many of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers are available online at https://www.tertullian.org/fathers2) I have these references for accounts of the council, all of which I have read (see Note C):
[The following authors do not mention the council at all, although I checked them in case they might: Zosimus, The New History(Byzantina Australensia 2, tr. Ronald T. Ridley, 1982); Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus (ed. H.W.Bird, 1994, Liverpool University Press); Eutropius, Breviarum (ed. H.W.Bird, 1993, Liverpool University Press)]
From all of which we learn that the council made a ruling on the date of Easter and condemned the views of Arius. After the council, Constantine ordered the burning of the works of Arius and his sympathisers, and the exile of himself and his supporters, and followed this later in his reign by action against Christian schismatics and gnostic heretics.
From these there appears almost no evidence that the council of Nicaea made any pronouncements on which books go in the Bible, with the ambivalent exception of Jerome, or about the destruction of heretical writings, or reincarnation. However it did condemn Arius and his teachings, and the Emperor Constantine did take the usual Late Roman steps to ensure conformity afterwards. However these were not put into effect; and Arianism made an almost immediate comeback. Even Arius was recalled by Constantine.
1. Those who wish to check further may wish to consult the standard reference collection (in Latin) of all the known documentation of councils of every kind:
Mansi, J.D., Sacrorum Concilium Nova et Amplissima Collectio, 31 volumes, 1759-98. Reprinted and continued 1899-1927. Not checked.
This includes not merely general councils but local ones also.
2. Hefele, C. and Leclerq, H., Histoire des conciles, I, Paris 1907. Not checked
3. Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius, Harvard 1981. This does discuss the council of Nicaea. Checked.
4. Tanner, Norman P., SJ, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, (London: Sheed and Ward; Washington. D.C: Georgetown University Press. 1990). 2 vols. v. 1. Nicaea I to Lateran V -- v. 2. Trent to Vatican II. -includes the documents in the original Greek and/or Latin text, a reproduction of Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, and English translations. Checked.
Here is a short bibliography of useful material assembled by the author of the Medieval Source book:
Denzinger, Heinrich, ed., Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionem et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum. Editio 37. (Friburgi Brisgoviae :
Herder, 1991) -often cited as just "Denzinger" this includes both conciliar and papal pronouncements. The new edition is easier to use than older
For conciliar decrees in particular see:-
Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, ed. Josepho Alberigo et al, 3rd edition, (Bologna: Istituto per le scienze religiose, 1973) -this covers all Ecumenical councils including Vatican II. The older 1962 edition is useful for the councils before this.
Some libraries may not have [Tanner] yet, in which case the much older Schroeder edition may be used:-
Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation, and Commentary, by Rev. H. J. Schroeder, O.P., (St. Louis, Mo.: London: B. Herder, 1937) -this gives the Greek and Latin texts and should be available in any Catholic university library, but may be a little hard to find elsewhere.
An easily available, and trustworthy, English translation of the various canons and decrees of the first seven councils usually called "ecumenical",
along with the full texts of a number of other important early councils is available in:-
Henry R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, their canons and dogmatic decrees, together with the canons of all the local synods which have received ecumenical acceptance, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2nd Series, Vol. XIV, general editor Philip Schaff, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, repr. 1988) -despite its long title and citation this book is easily available at a very reasonable $24.95, sometimes less. (And is online at https://www.tertullian.org/fathers2).
The following councils' documents are included:-
1. Nicea I 325AD
Neocaesarea c. 315AD
Antioch in Encaenis 341AD
2. Constantinople I 381AD
3. Ephesus 431AD
-- these three only accepted by the "monophysite" churches
4. Chalcedon 451AD
-- these four accepted by Anglicans [?]
5. Constantinople II 553AD
6. Constantinople III 680-681AD
*Council in Trullo/Quinisext 692AD
-This supplies canons missing from the 5th and 6th councils. Its decrees were accepted at the 7th, and form the basis of Orthodox canon law. Not strictly an "ecumenical" or "local" council.
Sardica 343 or 344AD
Code of African Church/Carthage 419AD
[Canons received by Quinsext and Ratified by Nicea II] Canon 2 of the Quinsext also accepted disciplinary rulings of a number of fathers - these also are printed.
7. Nicea II 787AD
Note A. This idea may derive from some confused statements in Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb, Elm Tree Books, London (1983), ISBN p-241-11106-6. Unfortunately the book seems to be a fictionalised autobiography, so all the personae are more or less fictional, as a note on the frontispiece makes clear. (MacLaine is apparently a New Age propagandist). The book is without any footnotes, index or bibliography. Quotations are typed from the original.
"So, are you religious, Kevin?" I asked.
He choked involuntarily on his tea. "Are you kidding? What church would have me? I'm treading on their territory. I say folks have God inside them. The Church says it has God inside of it. There's a phrase in the Bible which states that one should never countenance spiritual entities other than God. Most Christians go by that. But then the Bible says nothing about reincarnation either and it's quite well known that the Council of Nicea voted to strike the teaching of reincarnation from the Bible."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Well, most serious metaphysical students of the Bible know that. The Council of Nicea altered many of the interpretations of the Bible. The man Jesus studied for eighteen years in India before he returned to Jerusalem. He was studying the teaching of Buddha and became an adept yogi himself. He obviously had complete control over his body and understood that the body was only the house for a soul. Each soul has many mansions. Christ taught that a person's behavior would determine future events--as karma, as the Hindus say. What one sows, so shall he reap."
I didn't question these rather sweeping assumptions. I offered Kevin a cookie. He seemed to like sugar. He ate it in two bites. (p.182. 'I' is MacLaine's persona - 'Kevin' is a medium).
And another later on:
"... He said that when Christ returned to Israel he taught what he had learned from the Indian masters, that is, the theory of reincarnation.
"But David," I said, "why aren't these teachings recorded in the Bible?"
"They are," he said. "The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretations were struck from it during an Ecumenical Council meeting of the Catholic Church in Constantinople sometime around 553 A.D., called the Council of Nicea. The Council members voted to strike those teachings from the Bible in order to solidify Church control.
"The Church needed to be the sole authority where the destiny of man was concerned, but Christ taught that every human being was responsible for his or her own destiny -- now and future. Christ said there was only one judge--God--and he was very opposed to the formation of a church of any kind, or any other kind of ceremonial religion that might enslave man's free will or his struggle for truth."
This confirmed what Kevin had said, but it seemed logical that anyone heavily into reincarnation would have read about that famous Council.
The sun began to set behind the waves now, sweeping a pink-purple slash across the clouds above the Pacific. (pp.236-7. 'David' is another persona, identified earlier only as 'a painter and a poet').
The occasion referred to here is clearly not the First Ecumenical Council - the First Council of Nicaea - but the Fifth Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Constantinople). This council condemned the propositions known as Origenism, and with them the pagan idea of the transmigration of souls (not reincarnation), which some writers had picked up as a technical idea from Greek philosophy without realising all the implications. The idea that the bible was edited to remove the idea in 553 is not consistent with the extensive manuscript evidence for the text (including complete codices) from the 3rd century onwards.
It would seem reasonable to propose that a hazy recollection of these passages lies at the root of this legend.
Note B. I have managed to trace the source of this strange idea a bit further, to Voltaire, in fact. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique, in the section Conciles, we find what must be the original. (The work is online - here is a link to the page on Councils). The idea is repeated in each of the three sections of this article, of which these are extracts:
Section I ...
"Heureusement, pour remplacer leurs signatures et conserver le nombre mystérieux de trois cent dix-huit, on imagina de mettre le livre où étaient ces actes divisés par sessions, sur le tombeau de Chrysante et de Misonius, qui étaient morts pendant la tenue du concile; on y passa la nuit en oraison, et le lendemain il se trouva que ces deux évêques avaient signé(59).
"Ce fut par un expédient à peu près semblable que les Pères du même concile firent la distinction des livres authentiques de l'Écriture d'avec les apocryphes(60): les ayant placés tous pêle-mêle sur l'autel, les apocryphes tombèrent d'eux-mêmes par terre.(etc)
Note_59 Nicéphore, livre VIII, chapitre xxiii. Baronius et Aurelius Peruginus sur l'année 325. (Voltaire.)
Note_60 Conciles de Labbé, tome I, page 84. (Voltaire.)
Section II ...
"En 325, grand concile dans la ville de Nicée, convoqué par Constantin. La formule de la décision est: « Nous croyons Jésus consubstantiel au Père, Dieu de Dieu, lumière de lumière, engendré et non fait. Nous croyons aussi au Saint-Esprit(65). »
"Il est dit dans le supplément, appelé appendix, que les Pères du concile, voulant distinguer les livres canoniques des apocryphes, les mirent tous sur l'autel, et que les apocryphes tombèrent par terre d'eux-mêmes.(etc)
Note_65 Voyez l'article Arianisme. (Voltaire.)
(70)Tous les conciles sont infaillibles, sans doute: car ils sont composés d'hommes.
Il est impossible que jamais les passions, les intrigues, l'esprit de dispute, la haine, la jalousie, le préjugé, l'ignorance, règnent dans ces assemblées.
Mais pourquoi, dira-t-on, tant de conciles ont-ils été opposés les uns aux autres? C'est pour exercer notre foi; ils ont tous eu raison chacun dans leur temps.
On ne croit aujourd'hui, chez les catholiques romains, qu'aux conciles approuvés dans le Vatican; et on ne croit, chez les catholiques grecs, qu'à ceux approuvés dans Constantinople. Les protestants se moquent des uns et des autres; ainsi tout le monde doit être content.
Nous ne parlerons ici que des grands conciles; les petits n'en valent pas la peine.
Le premier est celui de Nicée. Il fut assemblé en 325 de l'ère vulgaire, après que Constantin eut écrit et envoyé par Ozius cette belle lettre au clergé un peu brouillon d'Alexandrie: « Vous vous querellez pour un sujet bien mince. Ces subtilités sont indignes de gens raisonnables. » Il s'agissait de savoir si Jésus était créé ou incréé. Cela ne touchait en rien la morale, qui est l'essentiel. Que Jésus ait été dans le temps, ou avant le temps, il n'en faut pas moins être homme de bien. Après beaucoup d'altercations, il fut enfin décidé que le Fils était aussi ancien que le Père, et consubstantiel au Père. Cette décision ne s'entend guère; mais elle n'en est que plus sublime. Dix-sept évêques protestent contre l'arrêt, et une ancienne chronique d'Alexandrie, conservée à Oxford, dit que deux mille prêtres protestèrent aussi; mais les prélats ne font pas grand cas des simples prêtres, qui sont d'ordinaire pauvres. Quoi qu'il en soit, il ne fut point du tout question de la Trinité dans ce premier concile. La formule porte: « Nous croyons Jésus consubstantiel au Père, Dieu de Dieu, lumière de lumière, engendré et non fait; nous croyons aussi au Saint-Esprit. » Le Saint-Esprit, il faut l'avouer, fut traité bien cavalièrement.
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. (etc)
Note_70 Ce fut dans l'édition de 1767 du Dictionnaire philosophique que parut un article Conciles, composé de ce qui forme aujourd'hui cette troisième section. (B.)
The substance of these is the same; "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." -- "It is reported in the Supplement of the Council of Nicaea that the Fathers were very embarassed to learn that there were secret or apocryphal books of the Old and New Testament, putting them on a altar; and the books to be rejected threw themselves to the ground".
The source of this remarkable story is given as an appendix in Fr. Labbé's Conciles vol I, p. 84, which I gather first appeared ca. 1690. [It would be nice to place this online also].
The story preceding it in Section I rather gives the game away - that two bishops died, and the Fathers, not wishing to alter the miraculous number of 318, placed the creed for signature in their tombs overnight, whereupon miraculously their signatures were also added. None of this is in the primary material, and sounds rather like folklore of the middle ages, as indeed does the story about the apocrypha.
'Chinese whispers' no doubt accounts for the rather different tone of the two reports.
See also Note E, which discusses Voltaire's source.
By chance I came across this remark about Voltaire in the Collected Essays and Addresses of Augustine Birrell (London, 1922), vol. 1 p.49; "Voltaire, who knew Pope, asserts that he could not speak a word of French, and could hardly read it; but Voltaire was not a truthful man, and on one occasion told lies in an affidavit."
Note C. This page is a work in progress, although I had not intended it so when I originally wrote it on 26th August 2000. Some time later I obtained a copy of T.D.Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, which made mention of other writers who are not in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection and may have said something about Nicaea. These are difficult of access, often late or fragmentary. As I have obtained access to them, I have made it available. I add all the information I have, to assist recovering the data.
These are the additional possible references:
I have received an email pointing out that, since I have not been able to consult these works, it is untrue to say that I have read all the evidence that exists. Obviously this may be true - provided that these writers do in fact have anything to say! However as may be seen most of the references so far have been trivial or repetitive, and I really do not believe that we will find anything in these scraps, where the contemporary writers are silent. I would be delighted to have the opportunity to learn otherwise, of course.
Note D. This idea - that the bible contents were voted on at Nicaea - seems to be derived from the 18th century writer Thomas Paine. A series of statements on this subject -- apparently from his imagination -- appear in his work The Age of Reason. Of course it would be unfair to pillory a writer of the pre-scientific era, relying on memory of other mens' books while in prison.
It would seem that Paine is still remembered in the United States as a propagandist in their revolution. No doubt this accounts for the continued dissemination of the idea. The relevant section of his work is online here.
Note E. Andrew R. kindly sent me a further note on the origins of the legend:
Andrew Hunwick, in his critical edition of Ecce Homo by Baron D'Holbach (Mouton de Gruyter, 1995) seems to have made an exhaustive effort to unwind this tangled thread (pp. 48-49, footnote 25):
QUOTE: "The question of authentic and spurious gospels was not discussed at the first Nicene Council: the anecdote is fictitious. It occurs in the clandestine text La Religion chretienne analysée ('Christianity Analyzed', ascribed to Dumarsais, and published by Voltaire in an abridged form in the Recueil necessaire ('Essential Collection,' 1765), where the source is given as the Sanctissima concilia (1671-1672, Paris, vol II, pp 84-85) of Pierre Labbe (1607-1667), which purports to follow the Year 325 § 158 of the Annales ecclesiasti (1559-1607) of Baronius (1538-1607), though be it noted that Baronius, while recording the adoption of certain gospels, and the rejection of others as spurious, does not recount by what means the distinction was made.
Voltaire repeated the fictitious anecdote several times, giving Labbe as his source: see B. E. Schwarzbach, p. 329 & n. 81. Doubts had earlier been expressed, notably by Tillemont (see L. S. Le Nain de Tillemont, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire ecclesiastique ['Memoirs by way of church history', 1701-14, 2nd ed., Paris, Robustel - Arsenal 4° H.5547], vol VI, p .676.)
In fact the anecdote pre-dates Baronius by over six hundred years: it occurs in an anonymous Synodikon containing brief surveys of 158 Councils of the first nine centuries. Brought from Greece in the sixteenth century by Andreas Darmasius, this document was purchased and edited by the Lutheran theologian Johannes Pappus (1549-1610). It was subsequently reprinted, notably in the Bibliotheca graeca… of Fabricius, the first edition of which was published in 1705-1707, and which D'Holbach may well have consulted. The anecdote may be found in Synodicon vetus section 34, 'Council of Nicaea' (Johannes Albert Fabricius, Biblioteca graeca… [1790-1809, Hamburg: Bohn], Vol XII, pp. 370-371.)" -END QUOTE-
This is very interesting, although I have not as yet looked at these references. However, the Vetus Synodicon has been issued in a critical edition recently, with notes and English translation, based on manuscripts rather older than those written by the notorious trickster Darmarios:
John DUFFY & John PARKER (ed.), The Synodicon Vetus. Washington : Dumbarton Oaks, Center for Byzantine Studies (1979). Series: Dumbarton Oaks texts 5 / Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae. Series Washingtonensis 15. ISBN 0884020886.
The Vetus Synodicon dates from after 887 AD, the latest events recorded in it. The work lists every ecclesiastical synod that has ever been held from the beginning, giving a chapter to each. Early material is derived from Eusebius, and then from other church historians. However the compiler adds small details not recorded by these historians -- the number of bishops attending synods, etc -- which the editors suggest he invented himself. Some of the synods are doubtful or imaginary. "In his zeal ... the writer was anything but a careful researcher, and although in places his sources or copyists may be at fault, he himself must be held responsible for most of those numerous errors which in the past have prevented scholars from treating the SV as a historical document above suspicion." (p. xv)
Here is the section on Nicaea, chapter 35 (p.29.)
35. The divine and sacred First Ecumenical Council of three hundred and eighteen God-inspired fathers was convened at Nicaea, metropolis of the province of Bithynia. Its presiding leaders were the presbyters Vito and Vicentius taking the place of Rome's Pope Sylvester and his successor Julius, Alexander of Alexandria, Macarius of Jerusalem, Eustathius of Antioch, the presbyter Alexander representing Metrophanes of Constantinople, Hosius the bishop of Cordoba, and Constantine the apostle among Christian emperors. This holy council attached the term "consubstantial" to the Holy Trinity, fixed the time of the divine and mystical Passover, and set forth the divinely inspired teaching of the Creed against all heretics, Arius, Sabellius, Photinus, Paul of Samosata, Manes, Valentinus, Marcion, and their followers. It condemned also Meletius of Thebais, along with those ordained by him, and Eusebius of Nicomedia. 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.36
36 Since the story is related only by SV, it is not possible to know if it belongs to an older tradition or where our author might have come across it.
Note that 'Apocryphal' (a)pokru&fouj) and 'spurious' (kibde&louj) works in Eusebius HE do not mean heretical ones -- they refer to works which are orthodox but not part of the canon. The footnote tells us that the story is first recorded here, in the late 9th century. Is this perhaps the origin of the whole fairy-tale?
Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse. Additional information will be added as and when available. Greek portions use the freeware SPIonic font from Scholars Press.
Last updated 24th August 2001.
Note E added 26th July 2002.
Augmented 28th December 2002 from VS.
Note on Voltaire added 29th March 2003.
This page has been accessed by people since 26th August 2000.
Return to Roger Pearse's Pages