Ideas have consequences. The idea that the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), under the authority of Roman Emperor Constantine, established the Christian biblical canon attempted to show how the Bible originated from conspiracy and power play on the part of a relative few, elite bishops. That this idea persists today can be shown not only from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code but also from scanning Twitter (and even some blogs):
The Holy Bible: Texts of shady origin collected by competing bishops on order of politically motivated Roman Emperor Constantine to stabilize his empire and since then repeatedly adapted to suit the needs of contemporary rulers and clergy, but never made to comply with reality.
— Positief Atheïsme (@positiefatheism) March 9, 2018
The tweet combines several elements. Though it does not mention the Council of Nicaea by name, that is usually the chief venue at which these bishops carried out Constantine’s politically motivated order and where they created the Bible. There is no historical basis for this idea that the Council of Nicaea discussed and established the Canon of Scripture and thus created the Bible. As the early Christian canon lists and other evidences show, there were discussions over the canon before and after the Council of Nicaea. Furthermore, none of the early records from the Council nor eyewitness attendees (e.g. Eusebius or Athanasius) mention any discussion over the Canon of Scripture. So whence did this idea originate?
The Origin of the Council Myth
The source of this idea appears in a late ninth-century Greek manuscript, now called the Synodicon Vetus, which presents itself as an epitome of the decisions of Greek councils up to that time (see pp. 2-4 here). This MS was brought from Morea in the sixteenth century by Andreas Darmasius and was bought, edited, and published by John Pappus in 1601 in Strasburg. I give the English translation of the relevant section from the source, linked above:
The council made manifest the canonical and apocryphal books in the following manner: Placing them by the side of the divine table in the house of God, they prayed, entreating the Lord that the divinely inspired books might be found upon the table, and the spurious ones underneath; and it so happened.
According to the source, the church has its canon because of a miracle that occurred at the Council of Nicaea in which the Lord caused the canonical books to stay on the table and the apocryphal or spurious ones to be found underneath it. From Pappus’s edition of the Synodicon Vetus, this quotation circulated and was cited (sometimes even as coming from Pappus himself, not the Greek MS he edited!), and eventually found its way into the work of prominent thinkers such as Voltaire (1694–1778). In volume 3 of his Philosophical Dictionary (English translation here) under Councils (sec. I), he says:
It was by an expedient nearly similar, that the fathers of the same council distinguished the authentic from the apocryphal books of Scripture. Having placed them altogether upon the altar, the apocryphal books fell to the ground of themselves.
And a little later in sec. III, he adds:
We have already said, that in the supplement to the Council of Nice it is related that the fathers, being much perplexed to find out which were the authentic and which the apocryphal books of the Old and the New Testament, laid them all upon an altar, and the books which they were to reject fell to the ground. What a pity that so fine an ordeal has been lost!
Earlier in his article, Voltaire had already mentioned that it was Constantine who convened the council. At the Council of Nicaea, therefore, the fathers distinguished the canonical from the apocryphal books by prayer and a miracle. The publication of Synodicon Vetus by Pappus’s edition in 1601 and the subsequent citing of the miracle at Nicaea, especially by Voltaire in his Dictionary, appears to be the reason why Dan Brown could narrate the events so colorfully and why many others continue to perpetuate this myth.
Thus this myth of the Council of Nicaea’s role in the formation of the biblical canon was promulgated over the years. Dan Brown did not invent it but certainly exploited it and perpetuated it in this generation. Although the history of the canon of scripture is a bit messy at junctures, there is no evidence that it was established by a relative few Christian bishops and churches such that convened at Nicaea in 325. Christians discussed the canon’s boundaries long before and after this council.
UPDATE (4/26/18): it is possible to read Jerome’s words in the preface to Judith, “But since the Nicene Council is considered (legitur lit. “is read”) to have counted this book among the number of sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request (or should I say demand!),” as a reference to Nicaea discussing the scriptures, and therefore the beginning of the myth. I didn’t include it previously because it seems so different in kind from the later myth, and there could have been discussions about “scriptures,” which would differ from a vote on the canonical list and differ further still from the later miracle story. Since adopters of Nicene orthodoxy such as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Hilary of Poitiers do not include Judith in the canon, we need to read Jerome not as referencing the canon but the scriptures. This interpretation is in line with fourth-century biblical theory. How others read Jerome on this point could have been different, and thus Jerome’s statement, misunderstood, could be the departure for the later myth. I still have many questions about this conclusion. For more on the Jerome prefaces to Judith and Tobit see the article by Ed Gallagher on the question.
About the Author
Dr. John Meade is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. He has recently published The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis with Oxford University Press. You can learn more about him at his faculty page and also follow him on Twitter at @drjohnmeade.