Ideas have consequences. One idea that has yielded dangerous consequences is the notion that the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), under the authority of Roman emperor Constantine, established the Christian biblical canon.
Did the Bible originate from a few elite bishops selecting which books to include? Should we credit a Roman emperor with creating the Bible? No. This falsehood has been used to cast suspicion on the origins of the canon, which undermines the Bible’s authority.
Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, planted this idea in our culture, and many now think Constantine or Nicaea established the Bible. But Brown didn’t invent this story. He only perpetuated it through his fiction. (Same goes for popular spy novelist Daniel Silva’s latest book, The Order. He admits in an author’s note: “Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy will no doubt take issue with my description of who the evangelists were and how their Gospels came to be written.”)
Nicaea and the Canon in History
There is no historical basis for the idea that Nicaea established the canon and created the Bible. The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity and other early evidence show that Christians disputed the boundaries of the biblical canon before and after Nicaea. For example, even lists from pro-Nicaean fathers such as Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. AD 350) and Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. AD 367) don’t agree on the inclusion of Revelation. None of the early records from the council, nor eyewitness attendees (Eusebius or Athanasius, for example), mentions any conciliar decision that established the canon.
There is no historical basis for the idea that the Council of Nicaea established the canon and created the Bible.
In the preface to his Latin translation of Judith, Jerome wrote:
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!).
Could Jerome be referring to a formal decision to include Judith in the canon? That’s unlikely.
The earliest adopters of Nicene orthodoxy—from Athanasius to Gregory of Nazianzus to Hilary of Poitiers to Jerome himself—don’t include Judith in their canon lists. If a decision was made at Nicaea on the canonicity of Judith, the earliest adopters would’ve listed it among the canonical books. But they don’t. Rather, Jerome is probably describing discussions in which some fathers may have referred to Judith as scriptural. In any case, these discussions didn’t end in a formal conciliar decision on the canon’s boundaries. It seems Jerome’s statement, though, was later misunderstood to say that Nicaea decided on the canon, which leads us to the rest of the story.
Nicaea and the Canon in Legend
The source of this idea appears in a late-ninth-century Greek manuscript called the Synodicon Vetus, which purports to summarize the decisions of Greek councils up to that time (see pages 2–4 here). Andreas Darmasius brought this manuscript from Morea in the 16th century. John Pappus edited and published it in 1601 in Strasburg. Here’s the relevant section:
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 this source, the church has its canon because of a miracle that occurred at Nicaea in which the Lord caused the canonical books to stay on the table and the apocryphal or spurious ones to be found underneath.
From Pappus’s edition of the Synodicon Vetus, this quotation circulated and was cited (sometimes as coming from Pappus himself, not the Greek manuscript 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 writes:
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.
A little later in section III, Voltaire 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!
Voltaire earlier mentions that Constantine convened the council. At Nicaea, then, the fathers distinguished the canonical from the apocryphal books by prayer and a miracle. The publication of Pappus’s 1601 edition of Synodicon Vetus—and the subsequent citing of the miracle at Nicaea, especially by Voltaire in his Dictionary—appears to be the reason Dan Brown could narrate the events so colorfully and why many others continue to perpetuate this legend.
Matter of Authority
As our culture becomes increasingly secular, many will continue to cast doubt on the Bible’s origins and especially on early Christianity’s role in the canon’s formation. Although the history of the canon is a bit messy at junctures, there is no evidence it was established by a few Christian bishops and churches convened at Nicaea in 325.
Christians need to prepare their minds for action in this age and confidently assert that the biblical canon is the work of God, recognized by churches over many years’ time. In the vivid words of J. I. Packer, “The church no more gave us [the] canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity.”
- Ed Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (OUP, 2018).
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (IVP, 1988).
- Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible (Rose Publishing, 2015). Interview with Timothy Paul Jones.