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Widespread Misconceptions about the Council of Nicea

One of the reasons I’m excited about doing my new course for the Teaching Company (a.k.a. The Great Courses) is that I’ll be able to devote three lectures to the Arian Controversy, the Conversion of the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea (in 325 CE). It seems to me that a lot more people know about the Council of Nicea today than 20 years ago – i.e., they know that there *was* such a thing – and at the same time they know so little about it. Or rather, what they think they know about it is WRONG.

I suppose we have no one more to blame for this than Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, where, among other things, we are told that Constantine called the Council in order to “decide” on whether Jesus was divine or not, and that they took a vote on whether he was human or “the Son of God.” And, according to Dan Brown’s lead character (his expert on all things Christian), Lee Teabing, “it was a close vote at that.”

That is so wrong.

There are also a lot of people who think (I base this on the number of times I hear this or am asked about it) that it was at the Council of Nicea that the canon of the New Testament was decided. That is, this is when Christian leaders allegedly decided which books would be accepted into the New Testament and which ones would be left out.

That too is wrong.

 

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    MarkGabriel  October 9, 2013

    Hey Bart, did these same bishops generate the Nicene Creed during these meetings, or did someone pen it at a later date in summary or as a defence of this stance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2013

      The familiar form of the creed is based on the Creed of Nicea hammered out at the conference.

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  October 9, 2013

    Which side do you think best represents the New Testament teaching on the person of Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2013

      I don’t think there’s a single NT teaching about Jesus, but lots of teachings. None of them deal with the co-eternality of the Son….

      • talitakum
        talitakum  October 11, 2013

        Hi, regarding the NT (Gospels, Acts, Epistles, Revelation) and the “co-eternality” of the Son, I think that your statement is a bit too harsh. When dealing with theology, subjectivity rules 🙂
        In this case we also deal with different ages, places, cultures and vocabulary to analyze a theological stance. So, some say that such theological stances are explicitly present in the NT, some others say that are completely absent, some say that they are implicit, and finally some say that they are present “in embryo”. And in my opinion they all have good points!
        Theology can definitely be a lot of fun…

      • Avatar
        kirbyhopper  February 8, 2016

        Except for the Unitarian position which says all that existed of the Son prior to his conception in Mary’s womb was the Logos of God, which is not a corporeal person, but a thought in God’s mind. A plan, or blueprint, if you will (see definition #2 for logos in Strong’s). I think the first person in church history to consider Christ to have existed prior to his conception as a person was one of the Apostolic Fathers (off the top of my head I don’t remember which one) while the rest of the Apostolic Fathers were Unitarians or possibly Modalists, as near as I can tell.

  3. Avatar
    Kempster  October 9, 2013

    To what extent did the controversy boil down to those who relied on the Gospel of John for their Christology versus those who didn’t accept John? Was the status of the Gospel of John a factor at all?

  4. talitakum
    talitakum  October 9, 2013

    Great post.
    If I can add something regarding the Canon, I’d say that by the end of the II century the 80% of the current Canon (“closed” in year 367, as you specified) was already established – only few letters weren’t included yet.
    This is just to remark your point: both the Canon and the Nicene creed didn’t come out of the blue in the IV century, but they’re rather the results of historical development processes that started at a remarkably early point.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2013

      I’d say that that was true among proto-orthodox Christians — but it is not true for *all* Christians

      1
  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 9, 2013

    This is a very fine and understandable discussion. There are issues you present here that I did not understand until now. I appreciate this presentation very much. I will save this to my computer file. Thank you.

    I would also be quite pleased if you would consider sharing with us here some of the discussions you will include in your new lessons on The Great Courses.

  6. Avatar
    TomTerrific  October 9, 2013

    I would like to see some posts on the formation of canon.

    I would also like to see posts on how the Old Testament became Xtn scripture.

  7. Avatar
    nichael  October 9, 2013

    First, I am _ so_ looking forward to this course (and the forthcoming book).

    Second, I’d add one item to the list of “things people know about the Council of Nicea” –and, judging from my reading, that if they know “one thing” about the Council it is this– that it was when Constantine “legalized Christianity”.

  8. Avatar
    dennis  October 9, 2013

    Good clear , solid summary of the Council . But could you please expand a bit ? Why should the togaed man in the street have two hoots about this question ?

  9. Avatar
    Matt7  October 10, 2013

    Dan Brown. Bill O’Reilly. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Not one reliable historian in the whole bunch. Good thing we have Richard Carrier to straighten everything out for us.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 10, 2013

    Another excellent post. Rubinstein’s “When Jesus Became God” covers fourth century Christianity in detail with lots of evidence that Athanasius and other bishops during the fourth century were incredibly violent.
    I have read all of your blogs and don’t think you have discussed the development of the canon in detailed posts only in brief references. I would be interested in a more detailed discussion.

  11. Avatar
    Jim  October 10, 2013

    I’ve just seen a press release regarding Joseph Atwill’s book from awhile back “Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus” being/has been turned into a documentary. An excerpt for his talk on October 19, 2013 in London reads “Atwill maintains he can demonstrate that “the Roman Caesars left us a kind of puzzle literature that was meant to be solved by future generations, and the solution to that puzzle is ‘We invented Jesus Christ, and we’re proud of it.'”
    Your thoughts on the possibility of the Flavian family’s involvement in starting the Christian ball rolling? (I think Atwill majored in business/computing science and I don’t know if he has any formal NT history training.)

  12. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  October 10, 2013

    This is off-topic. On my Bible App “You Version,” the NIV has changed Mark 1:41 to now read “indignant.” Daniel Wallace mentioned they would.

  13. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  October 10, 2013

    Was 318 historical? Or could the number be fabricated like the Septuagint’s 70? 318 is in the Epistle of Barnabas as a gematria. Seems rather an odd coincidence. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2013

      It comes from Genesis 14:14, the 318 servants that Abraham took with him to recover his nephew Lot.

  14. Avatar
    laz  October 10, 2013

    Hey prof ehrman when did the holy spirit get to become god too….

  15. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 10, 2013

    Sorry for this completely off topic question… I’ve asked you before about the origins of the idea of biblical inerrancy and I *think* you said previously that it really starts in the late 1800s. There’s a guy I know who keeps trying to convince me of the Bible’s inerrancy (that horse left the barn a long time ago for me) and I’ve told him what you said and had even googled it for him. I was doing some more digging on the topic this morning and came across, what appears to me, a very old reference to biblical inerrancy in a letter from Augustine to Jerome (don’t have the exact original source to reference — letter 82?):

    “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. is faulty or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it . . . ”

    Can you comment on this and if belief in biblical inerrancy does go this far back (if not further)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 11, 2013

      Interesting. I asked a colleague who is expert in modern fundamentalism, and this is what he said:

      The quotation from Augustine is very interesting. However, I have not seen any evidence of continuity along the centuries of statements of the kind Augustine made (intended I believe for very different purposes) . Protestant confessions of faith, such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530, do not relate to biblical inerrancy. The Westminster Confession does speak about “infallibility of translation,” but again comes to confront a different concern. Late 19th century conservative thinkers and activists came to confront the relatively new schools of biblical criticism and, to a lesser degree, history of religions, and their arguments and wording were new. Of course, they, and their disciples, were happy to discover and point to precedents, and in general understood themselves to be traditionalists who follow older Christian lines, although their line of thinking was novel.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  October 11, 2013

        Thank you for asking a colleague about my question re: inerrancy vs. infallibility.

  16. Avatar
    jebib  October 11, 2013

    Professor Ehrman, I ask this question in all sincerity: roughly what is the date of the end of antiquity, in Christianity in Antiquity? What is the next era called?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 11, 2013

      Well, there’s no real *set* date, but usually I refer to the period of early Christianity up to 325 CE or so as Christian antiquity, and the 4-6th centures as “late antiquity” (the latter is a common designation for the period).

  17. cheito
    cheito  October 11, 2013

    DR Ehrman:

    I’ve searched the scriptures for an unambiguous answer concerning the question of whether THE WORD who became Jesus always existed or if THE WORD was created by God. I’m leaning towards, God created THE WORD who later became Jesus. At this point I’m not completely certain. This is what I’ve come up with so far. The answers I’ve arrived at hinge on how I interpret certain scriptures and the questions I’ve asked. I will expand on these ideas and edit them in the future as I gain more insight. Please let me know what you think DR Ehrman.

    The WORD was there WITH God at the beginning, and THE WORD was also himself God according to John 1:1. What beginning is John speaking about? I understand the beginning HERE to be the time when nothing had yet come into being. Only God and the Word existed. There was no one, nor anything else created yet because ALL THINGS came into being through THE WORD. So God created all things through THE WORD.

    What does it mean to be the WORD of God? Did the WORD OF GOD always exist? Did the Word of God have a beginning? Did God form THE WORD? Did God endow THE WORD with all His own attributes?

    Jesus is called the only begotten God. (Is ‘the only begotten God’ a correct translation from the Greek DR Ehrman?)
    Why is Jesus called the only Begotten God? Who begot Him? At what moment was He Begotten? What does it mean to be begotten? (John 1:18)

    The writer of Colossians says, (I believe it was Paul) ‘It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Jesus’. So WHEN did the father decide that HIS fullness would dwell in His Son? It had to be at some point before anything else was created. For it then states that, ‘Through Him God also created all things. Thrones, rulers, invisible, visible ‘etc’ Paul also says that Jesus was the first born of all creation? This implies that Jesus was created first and then God created everything else through Him. Doesn’t it?
    (Colossians 1:15-19)

    Paul stated that Jesus belonged to God? What does this testimony mean? I don’t know any Greek. What is the word for ‘belong’ in this scripture verse? (1 Corinthians 3:23) Does jesus belong to God in the same way as we do?

    Jeus existed in the form of God and was equal to God before He became a man as stated by Paul the Apostle. (Phillipians 2:6) How do we interpret, ‘He existed in the form of God and was equal to God?’ How did Jesus become equal to God and managed to exist in the form of God? According to Paul it was the father’s good pleasure for all the fullness of ‘diety’ to dwell in Him. Is this an accurate interpretation? So if it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness of ‘Deity’ to dwell in Jesus Then Jesus exists in the form of God by God’s own doing. Am I reasoning right?

    Jesus Himself said, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; (John 5:26) At what point did God give the son this life?

    Micah stated that His goings forth are from eternity. (Micah 5:2)
    What does it mean that His goings forth are from eternity? Does it mean that He came from Eternity? If so does this declaration conclude that He has always existed since He came forth from Eternity? Is this a good translation of the Greek DR Ehrman?

    Paul recorded, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. (1 Corinthians 8:6)
    If ALL THINGS are from God, does that also include, THE WORD, THE LORD? Paul did say, That Christ belongs to God. Christ stated that God gave him Life.

    I have one more scripture from Isaiah that has puzzled me and perhaps I can make some sense of it now with the idea that God created THE WORD and endowed HIM with all His own attributes so that THE WORD is also called God. Of course I mean THE WORD who became Jesus.

    Isaiah 43:10-“You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and believe Me And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.

    DR Ehrman is this translation accurate? If so then who is this God that was formed.? Who Formed Him? He says there was no other God formed before Me and there will be no other God formed after me. Could this be The WORD speaking? THE WORD who was at the beginning before anything nor anyone had been created? Is this THE WORD whom God endowed with all His attributes including deity? Is this the begotten God? To whom God gave life? The Lord of glory? The Son of God? What do you think DR Ehrman?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      All good questions. I personally think that Second Isaiah understood that Yahweh was the only God there is, and the Gospel of John understood that along with God was his Word, which was also God, from the very beginning.

      • cheito
        cheito  October 14, 2013

        DR Ehrman:

        Isaiah 43:10-”You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and believe Me And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.

        DR Ehrman is the translation above (NASB) of Isaiah 43:10 accurate? How do You interpret,’Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me? Can Gods be formed? Is that what the original language suggests?

        Do you believe Isaiah wrote ‘second Isaiah’?

        When I think of God I don’t think of God being there from the beginning. God has no beginning and no end. He has always been. So to say that Jesus was with God from the beginning is not the same as stating that Jesus always existed just as God always existed. John records sayings of Jesus that seem to say that Jesus Himself was a creation of God.

        Example: When Jesus Himself said, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; (John 5:26) At what moment did God give the son this life? I ask because it says that, ‘God gave the Son to have life in Himself’ and this suggests that at one point Jesus didn’t have this life or didn’t exist. If you don’t have life you don’t exist. If Jesus had always existed like the Father always existed then why did God have to give Him Life? How do you interpret, “God gave the Son to have life in Himself’?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 14, 2013

          Yes, that seems accurate enough. I supposed for lots of ancient peoples, Gods were indeed formed. And I think Second Isaiah was written 150 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem — that’s a common view.

      • Avatar
        willow  December 16, 2013

        Better late than never?

        I’ve never quite understood why God’s “word” had to/has to be something (or someone) other than just that, words, His mere words, spoken, or perhaps not uttered but merely thought, driven by the power, the energy that is Him, that caused things to happen, even such as the Big Bang that is alleged to have set everything in motion.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

          For fundamentalists, it matters that we have *exactly* what God wants us to know – to the very words…..

    • Avatar
      kirbyhopper  February 8, 2016

      Have you considered the second most common use for logos in the bible, which is a thought or intent? So, Jn. 1:1 – In the beginning was the Plan of God, and the Plan was toward God, and the Word was divine. Jumping to vs. 14 – and that Plan became a person, Jesus Christ, who dwelt among us. Jesus is the center of God’s plan, a man in whom God dwelt, reconciling the world unto himself, serving as the forerunner of what we will become as believers, and all things were created in accordance to this Plan – which in worded “all things were created through Christ.”

  18. Avatar
    bradhughes314  October 11, 2013

    Dr. E,

    I was wondering, if you could tell me, where would someone go to find the primary sources on something like the Council of Nicea? That is, is there a specific set of documents from that event that people refer to? And if so, do you know what collection or library they would be held in?

    Thanks so much.. you’re the best!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      The “creed and canons” that came out of the Council are widely known; they indicate what the council ultimately decided on major issues. You can see an English translation of them in the book I co-edited with Andrew Jacobs called Christianity in Late Antiquity, pp. 252-56.

  19. Avatar
    gonzalogandia  October 12, 2013

    One of my favorite series of posts has been your explanation of the Divinity Spectrum that existed in ancient times. You asked “In what essence was Jesus thought of as God?”. If I’m not mistaken, you went to great lengths to posit that the gospels seem to reference Jesus lower on the spectrum, whereas in John, he is exalted much higher.

    You’ve stated in this post that the Council of Nicea was all about where to put Jesus in that Divinity spectrum, but the way you describe it, there was very little difference (I understand there’s a difference, but it’s almost like choosing between option 1 and option 1A). From what I’ve been reading, the argument was not about whether Jesus was God (as you’ve stated) but whether he was further down that spectrum. Is it possible that a large group of believers believed he wasn’t essentially God, but they feared that their religion would lose steam if Jesus wasn’t exactly God? And that’s why the vote ended up the way it did? I understand there’s some speculation involved but is there any possibility of truth to that idea?

    By the way, it would be good to get your take as to what happened after the vote. It seems to be a great story of how it was politically overturned and stayed that way until later in the century. But I want to make sure the stories I’ve read are accurate before I start talking to people about it. 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      Ah, yes. the irony is that after the vote, it appears that the Christian world largely became Arian! But that was resolved at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.

      1
    • Avatar
      JacovZ  October 15, 2013

      Sorry, I’ve only recently become a member. But in which post is this Divinity Spectrum discussed?

      Thanks,

  20. Avatar
    S.P.  October 16, 2013

    Dr Ehrman,

    Didn’t one of the Carthaginian Councils (in 397 CE, I believe it was) have something to say about what goes into the canon of the Bible?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      It was the council of Hippo Regis in 397; it confirmed Athanasius’s list, but it wasn’t an “ecumenical” council, just a local one.

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