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Did the Council of Nicaea Take Away Reincarnation and Give us the Bible?

In this Readers’ Mailbag I’ll deal with two questions that involve modern myths about the Council of Nicaea in the year 325.  Is it true that this is when the church fathers decided which books would be in the New Testament?  And that these authorities also removed all references to reincarnation from the Bible?   If you have a question you would like me to address in a future Mailbag, go ahead and ask!

 

QUESTION:  I’ve noticed many people have the misconception that the NT canon was decided at the Council of Nicaea. Where are people getting this misconception, and can it be quashed?

QUESTION:  I have often heard that original scrolls make reference to reincarnation but that such references were removed at the Council of Nicaea to strengthen the Church’s position that the imperative for living a Godly life this time around necessitated immediate adherence. Is there any truth to this claim?

 

RESPONSES:

First, on the canon of the New Testament, let me say categorically that the Council of Nicaea did not debate or decide which books should belong in Scripture.  We know this because we have actual records of the Council’s issues and decisions.  So where do people today get the idea from?  I suppose it is mainly from reading The Da Vinci Code, where it is stated as a historical fact.

Now, you may say that the novel is fiction and so shouldn’t be taken seriously.  I completely agree.  BUT, if you’ve read the novel, you’ll know that…

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What About the Apocrypha?
How We Got the New Testament (and not some other books!)

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  January 8, 2017

    The Nicene Creed came from the Council of Nicaea. Thanks in some part to Brown, some of today’s Christians may be confused between the Creed and the Canon. They both begin with a C. … Bart, would you give them “partial credit” on an exam?

  2. RASkeptic
    RASkeptic  January 8, 2017

    In a New Testament class at Ouachita Baptist University, I remember being taught that the New Testament cannon was decided at the Council of Nicaea. This was in 1972, long before Dan Brown got it wrong.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      Wow. (But yes, the idea has been around for a very long time. You would think a university professor would know better!)

  3. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 8, 2017

    It’s a shame that such a popular book spread so much false information. I’m gonna try my best not to do that with mine. So, if my bestselling novel has an inaccuracy, just be nice to me. That’s all I ask. 🙂

    • Avatar
      turbopro  January 10, 2017

      funny you should say that: i know a few other hugely popular books–supposedly read by billions worldwide–that spread false information 🙂

      do let us know when you publish your novel.

  4. Avatar
    IanMills  January 8, 2017

    Admittedly, Jerome isn’t “contemporary” with the council but there is this curious passage:

    Jerome’s Prologue to Judith
    “Among the Hebrews the Book of Judith is found among the Hagiographa, the authority of which toward confirming those which have come into contention is judged less appropriate. Yet having been written in Chaldean words, it is counted among the histories. But because this book is found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request, indeed a demand, and works having been set aside from which I was forcibly curtailed, I have given to this (book) one short night’s work translating more sense from sense than word from word.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      Yes, he is not saying that the Council specified a collection of canonical books, but that bishops there cited the book as an authority.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  January 8, 2017

    Neo-platonists believed in reincarnation (i.e.The Transmigration of Souls) and there seems to have been rather heated debates between Neo-platonists and Christians. For example, Porphyry was a noted Neo-platonic critic of Christianity of the 3rd century. Maybe that’s where some are getting the idea that Christians originally believed in reincarnation, later disavowing it, because they wanted to distinguish themselves from their Neo-platonic enemies.

  6. Rick
    Rick  January 8, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, do you have a take on the conjecture that Constantine’s 50 copies of the “sacred scripture” commissioned through Euseubius 6 years after he called the council of Nicea lead some to the conclusion the Canon was also decided at Nicea?

    Do you think Siniaticus and / or Vaticanus were of the 50?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      Normally scholars don’t see any connection: there were certainly copies of the Bible before anyone decided, finally, which books were to be included, and we don’t know of Constantine was requesting a complete set of Scripture or just hte Gospels. In any event. Eusebius, from whom he made the request, is himself explicit that there were some books whose canonical status was undecided (and he was a prominent figure at the Council!). No, I don’t think any of our surviving copies was one of the 50. But there’s no hard evidence either way, of course.

  7. Avatar
    Pegill7  January 8, 2017

    Another misconception about the Council of Nicaea was that the Council made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. I’ve found that notion even in the writings of professional historians who should know better. As is well known it was not until the reign of Theodosius that Christianity was elevated to that status (380).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      Right! I should have mentioned that too! Another huge misconception (I deal with it at some length in my new book The Triumph of Christianity)

  8. Avatar
    toejam  January 8, 2017

    Is there anything in Irenaeus or Tertullian (or other heresy hunters) that indicate that there were alternative schools of Christianity that taught some form of reincarnation?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      There certainly were some Christians who held to some such idea, especially the church father Origen, one of the greatest (probably the greatest) of the first three centuries.

  9. Avatar
    Sharon Friedman  January 8, 2017

    With regard to reincarnation,maybe the Nicean Council idea had to do with the fact that some folks think Origen believed in reincarnation and he was involved with the Council?

    I spent some time trying to figure out what Origen really thought. Seems like he was for universal salvation, but some say he did not specify a mechanism (more lives on earth vs. learning/punishment on the Other Side). I didn’t have time to look deeper. Do you or others on this site know about this, or of a fair-minded publication about Origen’s thinking on this topic?

    I also think it interesting that the authors of Sefer HaBahir and the Zohar drew upon passages from the Hebrew Bible in their discussions of reincarnation. It seems that they are giving interpretations, and perhaps those are less of a stretch in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      Yes, Origen did hold to some view of reincarnation, but he was, of course, long dead by the time of the Council.

      • Avatar
        Sharon Friedman  January 9, 2017

        Yes, his corporal body was dead, but his ideas on the nature of Christ, were still floating around/important to the Council. It was just my random thought as to why people could have linked “him” (ideas) to the Council.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  January 8, 2017

    And yet, having decided Jesus was in essence coterminous with God the Father (for certainly that is implied by what the council decided), they kept those passages in the New Testament books that contradict that interpretation. Paul obviously did not believe this, and he was probably the first important figure in the Christian church to think of Jesus as a divine being who had existed long before his incarnation in human form. Jesus is called “A man chosen by God” in both Peter and Acts–the earliest view of him among his followers was clearly that he was a mortal man born of human parents, who had miraculous abilities and insights given to him by God, in order to perform a task.

    But monotheists can’t worship a man (or even a subordinate divine being). And the worship of Christ, that more personalized human representation of the godhead, was inherent to the still new and growing Christian church. Nor could they alter sacred texts to agree with them (that would be the same thing as admitting those texts proved them wrong). So you could argue they had no other choice but to simply pretend the contradictions in their own holy books were not there. And they’ve been doing that ever since. And the same thing happens in all religions, and really, all believe systems, including secular ones.

    But it’s still irritating. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  January 8, 2017

    Doc, you’ve briefly gone over your take on the exact nature of Paul’s persecution and how the early Christians were treated. I’d like to know more about this subject because I think it’d help explain the apocalyptic mindset (which I *don’t* believe started with Jesus himself). Are there any books entirely about the early persecution which you’d recommend? Anything lengthy and detailed?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      I’m afraid we don’t have much information outside of what can be found in Paul and the book of Acts themselves. There are lots of good books on persecution, from the now-dated but still important classic by W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, to the more recent works by people like Candida Moss (The Myth of Persecution)

      • Avatar
        dankoh  January 11, 2017

        Since I am currently researching the topic of apocalypticism in that period, I’d like to chime in here: The apocalyptic mindset of the Jesus movement is not tied to the early (or later) persecutions of Jesus followers, since this mindset preceded Jesus. Most likely it started in the Hasmonean period (Daniel has apocalyptic elements, which are later taken up in 1 Macc. partly as a response to Daniel), and certainly the feeling that the end of the world was coming any moment was enhanced by Rome’s rough handling of Judaea even in the early years of the first century CE. The Dead Sea Scrolls show lots of this mindset.

        Paul seems to have had the apocalyptic mindset from the beginning; I don’t find any suggestion that he came to it after being “persecuted” for his belief in Jesus (“persecuted” in quotes because I think that overstates the case).

        (In saying this, I am taking “apocalyptic mindset” to mean what is technically “eschatology” – the expectation of the end times; apocalypse originally meant a revealed vision which may or may not be eschatological, but we now use it to mean pretty much the same as eschatology.)

  12. Avatar
    Jana  January 8, 2017

    Thank you very much for clarifying because I too had been taught at University that the counsel at Nicea determined which books were canon. Also, I had read sometime ago even decades ago Geddes McGregor’s book and that too influenced regarding reincarnation. https://www.amazon.com/Reincarnation-Christianity-Rebirth-Christian-Thought/dp/0835605019 Thanks for setting the record straight!

  13. John4
    John4  January 9, 2017

    Fortunately for us conspiracy theorists, lol, they didn’t quite scrub *all* the references to reincarnation, Bart:

    “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

    lolol! 🙂

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 9, 2017

      In all seriousness, people seem to have kept asking of Jesus was Elijah returned, and Herod Antipas supposedly thought he might be John the Baptist returned from his beheading (yeah, I don’t buy that either). So clearly the idea of returning from the dead was widely disseminated, but it was seen as something that might happen to a very special person. Not a routine event. Tellingly, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains all tend to see the cycle of reincarnation as something it is their ultimate goal to escape from.

      I’d be all for reincarnation if you could remember all the mistakes you made the last time. Without any kind of learning curve, I don’t know as I much see the point of it.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 10, 2017

        My wife would like to return as one of her cats.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  January 11, 2017

        Since Jesus was around 28 or so when John the B. was beheaded, one has to wonder what reincarnation theory would account for those first 28 years?

        But just to follow up on your speculation on the Indian reason for reincarnation: Postulate that we think reincarnation is real because we have memories of past lives, however fuzzy and imperfect. If so, then that would amount to a learning curve, albeit a very shallow one. It also raises interesting questions about nature vs nuture – but that’s REALLY getting far afield here!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2017

          Yup, good point! I suppose you have to argue that these people weren’t aware of a previous 28 years of life (just as later Marcion claimed Jesus descended from heaven as a full-grown adult)

  14. Avatar
    Robby  January 9, 2017

    I once had a discussion with a lady who believed reincarnation was taught in the Bible. She used John 9:1,2 as her basis by claiming the man sinned in an earlier life and thus was born blind.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      Yes, it’s a puzzling verse! And the one usually cited. (Niceae didn’t remove it!)

  15. Avatar
    drussell60  January 9, 2017

    A number of years ago I was invited to sit in on few weeks of lectures and teaching from a Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe regarding “The Seven Noahide Laws.” He believed it to be his moral obligation to teach gentiles about these laws as a way to save them. Sometime during one of his lectures he mentioned that Jews believe in reincarnation and that its roots go back to the Torah. Unfortunately, he refused to answer any questions, especially about reincarnation. My question: Does this belief in reincarnation exist only in various groups of Jews, or is it a more common belief? Perhaps I should ask whether this Rebbe was interjecting his own personal beliefs about reincarnation, speaking only for himself.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      My sense is that it is a completely marginal belief within Judaism. Maybe someone else could fill us in more here.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  January 11, 2017

        There is a belief in reincarnation among some Jews; to my (limited) knowledge, it was not unknown among medieval Ashkenazi Jews – who also believed in dybbuks (possession by the dead). But even those who believed in it didn’t do so as a general rule. A soul could be reincarnated or return as a dybbuk only if there was some essential act that he or she was supposed to have done in life but failed to do. Also, a dybbuk (the word comes from the Hebrew “dabaq” – to cling) can be a soul that isn’t willing to give up on life and move on, often because of some romantic obsession.

        It is not a particularly mainstream belief, as you said. But some Hasidim (whose origins are in medieval Ashkenazis) may well hold to it; there is a large mystical strain in Hasidus. As for finding it in the Torah, it’s not hard to find support for almost anything if you look at it in just the right way. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Eskil  January 11, 2017

        “Belief in reincarnation is also one way to explain the traditional Jewish belief that every Jewish soul in history was present at Sinai and agreed to the covenant with G-d. (Another explanation: that the soul exists before the body, and these unborn souls were present in some form at Sinai). Belief in reincarnation is commonly held by many Chasidic sects, as well as some other mystically-inclined Jews.”

        http://www.jewfaq.org/olamhaba.htm#Resurrection

    • Avatar
      Sharon Friedman  January 11, 2017

      A helpful book for me when I took a class on the Jewish Mystics was Does the Soul Survive?
      A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz. Many Hasids do believe in reincarnation and trace those beliefs back to the Kabbala. Here’s a link: http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380599/jewish/Judaism-and-Reincarnation.htm
      Short answer, it has a long history within Judaism.

      But that history post-dates the split with Christianity. Still, I can’t think of a reason why if Jews believe in it, it wouldn’t be OK for Christians too. Since Jesus in Christian scripture, never said “no, don’t believe in it.” Church institutions may have, but that’s a different deal.

  16. Avatar
    Silver  January 9, 2017

    Since persecution has been raised in this post, do we know the persuasion (proto-orthodox, gnostic etc) of those who suffered either in local or empire-wide persecutions? Or were ‘Christians’ just rounded up indiscriminately as trouble-makers?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      There are debates about this — some groups are reputed as being enthusiastic about martyrdom (e.g., the Montanists), others as being opposed to it (some groups of Gnostics). But it’s not clear if these generalizations always hold.

  17. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  January 9, 2017

    Bart 2 questions –

    Pontius Pilate – Jesus having the supper with him..

    Offered his son instead of jesus. Judas Kiss and Jesus a shape shifter. Have you heard of this Bart? lol

    Pontius Pilate’s son reminds me of Mark 14:51-52
    Right after the kiss there he was ..

    A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

    And second question Bart, who was Mark 14:51?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      Mark 14:51: there are about 963 theories about that. The one most people, in my experience, seem to like is that it was Mark himself. I think that’s highly unlikely and unconvincing — but people find it a fascinating idea.

  18. Avatar
    bradseggie  January 9, 2017

    What I heard from evangelicals was that the Catholic Church never thought that the deuterocanonical books were scripture until Trent. The Catholic Church added these books to the Bible because they tend to support Catholic teachings and traditions that were opposed by the Protestants.

    I later learned from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox that it’s not true. The Protestants removed the apocrypha from the Bible because they didn’t like how they supported Catholic teachings, such as praying to the dead. So Protestants are using a partial Bible, edited to support their beliefs.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      Yeah, that’s more Protestant imagination than historical reality!

  19. Avatar
    JSTMaria  January 9, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Regarding the idea of reincarnation hints in the NT. There are two that always throw me: 1. Jesus is asked by his disciples if “this man was BORN blind due to his own sin or the sin of his father…” (something like that)…implying he could have sinned before his own birth???, and 2. Revelation: “I will make you a pillar and you will go out NO MORE.” Go out from where? Like souls continually go out somewhere???
    What do you make of these passages?

    Thanks and Happy New Year!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      I”m not sure about the Revelation passage, but the one from John is one that is often referred to. A very curious verse.

      • Avatar
        jrauch  January 10, 2017

        Bart, isn’t the question being asked to Jesus in John 9:1-2 the result of the teachings in the OT (Numbers 14:18 “…he (God) punishes the children for the sins of their parents..”?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2017

          Yes indeed. But with respect to reincarnation the puzzling bit is the query of whether the man himself had sinned so that he was born blind! How could he have sinned before he was born?

  20. Avatar
    Ophiuchus  January 9, 2017

    Didn’t some Gnostics believe in reincarnation?

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