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The Son of God, the Council of Nicea, and the Da Vinci Code

In my main lecture during the debate this past weekend, I decided to develop in short order the case that I make in my book How Jesus Became God for how, well, Jesus became God.  (!)   But I chose to do it differently from how I do it in the book, at least in terms of rhetorical strategy.  I chose to start at the *end* of the development (it’s actually nowhere near the end – since Christological arguments continued on for centuries – but it was one sensible ending points), with the controversies over Christ’s divinity in the early fourth century, controversies between Arius and his detractors.

I’m afraid many people today (most?) get their knowledge of Arius, the Arian Controversy, and the Council of Nicea from that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, who wrote about it at length in that great work of historical realism, The Da Vinci Code.   I tell my students at Chapel Hill that if they want to learn about the history of the Middle Ages, the way to do that is not by watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  And if they want to learn about the history of early Christianity, the way to do that is not by reading The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code is wrong about just about everything it says about the Arian Controversy, the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea.   That’s why I wrote my earlier book Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code.  There were tons of books written in response to Dan Brown’s novel, but virtually all of them were by highly religious (and angry) people – either Roman Catholic or conservative evangelicals – who had deep-seated theological reasons for really disliking the book.  I myself did not dislike it so much: I thought for a page-turner at the beach, it was rather fun.  My sense is that people who don’t like it (i.e., most of my friends) are simply expecting way too much of it as a work of fiction.  It’s *not* a great work of fiction.  But it’s a good blow-off novel if you don’t want a lot of substance.  Still, the problem I had with it was that so much information was wrong, even when getting it *right* would not have had any effect on the plot or the characters.   It was just gratuitously wrong.  This included most everything it says about the historical Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the New Testament, and yes, the Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea.

Among other things – just to dispel one myth that so many people buy into – the Council of Nicea (which was called by the emperor Constantine in the year 325 CE) did not, decidedly did NOT, decide…

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….the Council did NOT decide which books should belong in the New Testament.  The issue of the canon of Scripture was not discussed at the Council.  (We know this because we have records of the issues that the council discussed and the decisions that it reached).  The first person to list our 27 books of the NT canon, as the only books of the canon, was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367 CE, over 40 years after the council.  Now it’s true that Athanasius attended the Council of Nicea as a young man.  But neither he nor anyone else at the council was discussing which books should be accepted as the Christian canonical Scriptures.

And one other thing that Dan Brown (and so many others) gets wrong is that the Council did not vote on whether Jesus should be seen as the Son of God or not.   According to Dan Brown (crazily enough), Christians until that time did not see Jesus as a divine being, but only as a human being.   That, says Brown, was also the view of the main figure at the council, Arius.  The council, Brown claims, voted on whether Jesus was to be seen as the Son of God or not, and Jesus’ divinity won out, even though, says Brown, “it was a close vote.”

It wasn’t a close vote and the issue was not whether Jesus was the Son of God.  Everyone at the council – literally EVERYONE – agreed going into the council that Jesus was the Son of God.  The question instead was:  In what SENSE was he the Son of God?

I will talk about the specific issues in my next post.  But for here I just want to stress that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God goes back as far back as we have any Christian sources.  The apostle Paul was our first Christian author, and he is altogether emphatic that Christ was the Son of God.   The Gospels of the New Testament, written from fifteen to thirty-five years after Paul, all agree that Jesus was the Son of God.   In fact, all the authors of the New Testament proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God.

This is the most frustrating thing about the Da Vinci Code.  How can anyone have even the slightest knowledge of early Christianity and not know that every single author of the NT thinks that Jesus was, in some sense, divine, God’s own son?  The only way not to know that is never to have read the NT.  Has Dan Brown ever read the New Testament?  I’m afraid if he were brought up on charges of having read it, there would not be enough evidence to convict.

The big interpretive issue when dealing with the New Testament is the one I mentioned earlier: in what sense is Jesus the Son of God?  Is he the Son of God the way the nation of Israel is said to be the son of God, for example, in Hosea 11:1, as the one(s) chosen by God to fulfill his work here on earth?  Israel obviously is not personally divine; yet it is described as God’s son.  Or is he the Son of God the way the king of Israel was thought to be (e.g., 2 Sam 7:11-14; Psalm 2:1-2), as the individual on earth whom God has chosen to do his will?  Was the king actually understood to be God?  Or is Christ the Son of God in the way that angels are, as described, for example in Genesis 6?  Or is he the Son of God in the sense that he is somehow equal with God in power and authority?  Or something else?

These were issues debated from early times.   And the debates came to a head at the Council of Nicea.  There, everyone agreed that Christ was personally a divine being.  That he was the Creator of the universe.  That he was infinitely above every other being in the cosmos in terms of grandeur and power, apart from God the Father.  But what exactly was his relationship to God the Father, as God the Son?  It was that which was debated at Nicea, and I began my talk in New Orleans by laying out the terms of the debate.

The Controversies about Christ: Arius and Alexander
My Debate This Past Weekend



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  February 16, 2016

    Thank you for putting all of that into perspective – clear and concise.

  2. Garrett20
    Garrett20  February 16, 2016

    Nice! I enjoyed The DaVinci Code as a story… (much like I enjoy “Monte Python and the Holy Grail”). I was in High School when the book came out and I remember my history teacher telling someone in class, “If you believe The DaVinci Code as a historical source, you must think Rocky Balboa actually fought Apollo Creed for the Heavyweight Title.” We are in trouble if we get our history from Hollywood. Unfortunately, I still have friends that subscribe to the “great cover-up”. Too bad The DaVinci Code had no knights that said Ni…

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 19, 2016

      Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a masterpiece. The DaVinci Code is a mediocre beach novel cranked out by a self-serving hack. Please do not utter their titles in the same breath. It’s sacrilege. If you do it again I shall taunt you for a third time, and perhaps say “NI!” to you. Now go chop down the tallest tree in the forest–with a HERRING!

  3. Avatar
    mjordan20149  February 16, 2016

    I read teh Da Vinci Code and found it laughable. In fact, I thought it was a comedy because the errors (as far as the early Christian church’s beliefs) were so egregious.

  4. Avatar
    VEndris  February 16, 2016

    Bart, I found this a little confusing, and I might be just garbling things in my mind. It seems like I heard you say one time that “Son of God” only meant human whereas “Son of Man” meant divine. I thought that ironic. If I remember correctly, you said something similar in your debate with Bass, i.e., if Jesus called himself the “Son of God” that didn’t mean he thought he was god, but if he said he was “Son of Man” it did.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2016

      In some circles Son of God referred merely to humans; not in others. I’ve actually changed my mind about this over the past ten years or so, as I’ve studied all the ancient evidence.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  February 18, 2016

        All Jews believe they are the “sons” of God — made in his image, etc. I’ve not been sure whether this only includes males or is “generic” (not genderic, to coin a word), including all Jews of both sexes. All Jews are certainly not divine, not do they believe they are–regardless of which Jewish sect one refers to–but they surely believe they have the divine spark in them. None of this answers the question of whether any particular Christian sect, religion or creed deemed Jesus divine, but those that do are obviously wrong although they’ll never believe it. I’ve had a prominent book publicist decline to represent my historical novel because It doesn’t assert that Jesus was divine, and as she told me, “Every Christian believes Jesus was the divine Son of God.” So there.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  February 16, 2016

    Most people I know use the name Jesus and the title Christ interchangeably. You do that a little in this post. Paul being the first Christian writer did it some but mainly referred to Jesus as Christ. He seemed to take the title and make it his name. (Maybe like calling the president “Mr. President”) I wonder if Paul mainly referred to Jesus as Christ due to never having met him. The gospels written after Paul call Jesus by his name rather than by a title.
    I seems to me that Jesus was the earthly man and Christ is the cosmic figure that Jesus became after his resurrection. I know that Christians today do not see it that way but was it ever viewed that way in ancient times?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2016

      Yes, scholars today do tend to refer to Jesus as the man and Christ as the figure believed on by the Christian community; but members of that community did use the term Christ as a name as well.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  February 16, 2016

    From my knowledge of the Council of Nicea I understand that the bishops were essentially arguing semantics. Principally, they sought to agree on what “substance” was Christ made up. Was he of the same “substance” as God the Father himself, making Christ and God one “in substance”? Or what Christ of a separate, yet still divine, “substance” that allowed him to still be the Son of God, yet not completely God. I forget the greek words that the bishops were debating over, but — if I remember correctly — much of it had to do with which word for “substance” was more theologically acceptable than another. It was the kind of hair-splitting we would come to expect in Medieval theology.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 16, 2016

      *Looking into it a bit I see that greek words like ousia, homousia and hypostasis were some of the words that the bishops had sematic contentions over.

  7. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  February 16, 2016

    Watched your debate online Dr. Ehrman, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your considerate and patient reply to the gentleman with the “have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior” dogmatic diatribe was particularly inspired. Instead of being combative, you calmly recounted your journey from conversion to de-conversion. I think it’s safe to say that your measured response had a greater chance of being carefully considered by the audience than the antagonistic response the questioner seemed to be trolling for. Well done.

  8. Avatar
    Brian  February 16, 2016

    Well, as Shakespeare said, homoousios or homoiousios, that is the question!

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 17, 2016

    For those interested, the opening 2 hours and 45 minutes of the symposium can be viewed on the Patheos/Youtube website by googling “The Greer-Heard Debate on Jesus’ Divinity with Bart Ehrman ….”

    To view it, one needs to scroll though the first 21 minutes of “nothing” to reach the start of the meeting. So far, I have been able to watch Dr. Ehrman’s opening speech which lasts 35 minutes. He does his usual outstanding job explaining the Arian controversy, exaltation Christology. incarnation Christology, docetism, separationism, modalism, and the Trinity in a way that I can understand. His explanation of the Arian controversy was particularly “clear” and helpful to me and his starting with that issue was a very good idea. That is Dr. Ehrman’s gift, namely explaining stuff clearly. For me, the most thought provoking point was Dr. Ehrman’s discussion about the exaltation of Romulus to divinity showing that ancient people sometimes considered their leaders to be divine and, hence, this divinity claim was not uniquely ascribed to Jesus. .

    Anyway, my Adobe flash plug-in crashed after Dr. Ehrman’s speech, so I will try to view the rest of the Youtube video later. The discussion is far better than the functioning of the video.

  10. Avatar
    mary  February 17, 2016

    Do you mean you expect or want to debate the Theologians on Jesus relationship with god? Or that Jesus was infinitely above everything in the cosmos? It would be very interesting to know what their responses would be.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2016

      No, I’m not really interested in having that kind of debate, since I’m not a theologian.

  11. Avatar
    DanHelton  February 17, 2016

    In “The Secular Gospel of Sophia,” I attempted to take the reader inside the Council of Nicaea and give a far more accurate account of the Arian-Trinitarian controversy than Dan Brown attempted. It is a work of fiction (featuring the surreptitious attendance at Nicaea of a Gnostic who urges Constantine to keep alive the religious freedoms enshrined in the Edict of Milan), but I try to show that as vigorous as the debate at Nicaea was, most of the bishops were separated primarily over the issue of Jesus’ precise relationship to God (subordinate v. equal) and when Jesus came into being (before creation or after). All agreed he was divine. The book also has a detailed portrayal of Athanasius as the primary villain of the story.

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