One popular belief today is that the New Testament canon was determined by Constantine and Nicaea. This belief was popularized by the fictional book, ”The Da Vinci Code”, written by Dan Brown. However, this belief is absolutely false.
The Assertion that the Canon Was Determined by Constantine
The Da Vinci Code
“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.”
“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked.
“Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”The Da Vinci Code
The Real Origin of the Canon – Not Determined by Constantine or Nicaea
The truth is that Christians, not any council, determined which books are part of the canon, not which books should be part of the canon. The books of the canon are self-attesting because of their external and internal consistency. In other words, in contrast to books that are not part of the biblical canon, the canonical books are historically accurate and theologically consistent.
The Council of Nicaea
There is simply no record of the Council of Nicaea discussing the biblical canon at all. The topic of the council was to determine the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.
Looking at the Nicene Creed, the 20 Canons of Nicaea, and the Synodal Letter of Nicaea, there is no reference at all to the canon of Scripture.
The Origin of the Myth that the Canon Was Determined by Constantine
The myth that Constantine commissioned the Council of Nicaea to determine the New Testament canon seems to originate from a story from an anonymous pseudo-historical source from about 887 AD, over five hundred years after the Council of Nicaea, called the Synodicon Vetus. The Synodicon Vetus is considered pseudo-historical because it is filled with unusual and fictional anecdotes that are not found in any other source.
One such anecdote is that at the Council of Nicaea, bishops stacked all of the books that were candidates for the canon on the altar, and then prayed that the inspired, canonical books would end up on top and that the non-canonical books would fall to the bottom.
The divine and sacred First Ecumenical Council of three hundred and eighteen God-inspired fathers was convened at Nicaea, metropolis of the province of Bithynia. Its presiding leaders were the presbyters Vito and Vicentius taking the place of Rome’s Pope Sylvester and his successor Julius, Alexander of Alexandria, Macarius of Jerusalem, Eustathius of Antioch, the presbyter Alexander representing Metrophanes of Constantinople, Hosius the bishop of Cordoba, and Constantine the apostle among Christian emperors. This holy council attached the term “consubstantial” to the Holy Trinity, fixed the time of the divine and mystical Passover, and set forth the divinely inspired teaching of the Creed against all heretics, Arius, Sabellius, Photinus, Paul of Samosata, Manes, Valentinus, Marcion, and their followers. It condemned also Meletius of Thebais, along with those ordained by him, and Eusebius of Nicomedia. The canonical and apocryphal books it distinguished in the following manner: in the house of God the books were placed down by the holy altar; then the council asked the Lord in prayer that the inspired works be found on top and–as in fact happened–the spurious on the bottom.The Synodicon Vetus (English Translation, Chapter 35, Page 29, Emphasis added)
This story is obviously untrue, and only people who are so blindly opposed to Christianity that they would believe anything would believe this story.
Voltaire was a French Enlightenment philosopher who lived from 1694 to 1778. Because he was committed to his belief that the Church Fathers were ignorant and stupid, he believed this obviously untrue story from the Synodicon Vetus and repeated this story in several of his writings. For example:
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.Voltaire, ”Philosophical Dictionary, Councils, Section III
Then, because of Voltaire’s popularity with opponents of Christianity throughout history, many people agreed with Volaire’s belief that this obviously untrue story about the canon was actually true. Through Voltaire, the belief that the New Testament canon was determined at Nicaea became popular.
Jerome’s Preface to Judith
Jerome’s Preface to Judith was written less than 100 years after the Council of Nicaea, and it says this:
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. […] 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…Jerome’s Preface to Judith
He at first did not want to translate Judith because it was not in his Hebrew manuscript, but he says he agreed to translate Judith “because this book is found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures.”
We simply do not know exactly what Jerome is talking about here. The most likely explanation seems to be that Jerome is simply saying that one or more of the bishops at the Nicaea used parts of Judith to support an argument. As we have already seen from examining what The Council of Nicaea produced, the canon was simply not part of the discussion. If the council had produced a canon that included the book of Judith, we would certainly know about it.
Perhaps the book of Judith came up during the discussion of the topic of clerical celibacy:
Receive the widow Judith, example of chastity, and with triumphant praise acclaim her with eternal public celebration. For not only for women, but even for men, she has been given as a model by the one who rewards her chastity, who has ascribed to her such virtue that she conquered the unconquered among humanity, and surmounted the insurmountable.The Book of Judith
Although Thomas Paine does not mention the Council of Nicaea specifically, this excerpt contains the same, completely unsubstantiated, concept that the canon of Scripture was voted upon.
Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes, were voted to be the word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people, since calling themselves Christians, had believed otherwise — for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other. Who the people were that did all this, we know nothing of; they called themselves by the general name of the Church, and this is all we know of the matter.Thomas Paine, ”Age of Reason”, Part First, Section 4
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code is officially labeled as fiction. Yet, many people believe the kinds of wild, completely unsubstantiated, theories purported in this book.
Constantine needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicaea. At this gathering […] many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon – the date of Easter, the role of bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus…
From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history. Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him Godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned.Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
Of course, there are absolutely no historical sources that support these wild assertions.