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One of the more popular conspiracy theories about Christianity over the past 40 years has been the claim that the Emperor Constantine ‘invented’ the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. But does this claim have any basis in fact?
“So the theory goes, until the Emperor Constantine came along in the early fourth century, nobody actually believed that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God.”
So the theory goes, until the Emperor Constantine came along in the early fourth century, nobody actually believed that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God: everybody believed that he was a great man, a great Teacher — but, nevertheless, just a man.
The theory was put about by so-called non-fiction books such as Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which came out in 1982 and in which the writers claimed to have seen connections between lines of evidence which nobody had ever seen before (always a claim to be suspicious of).
Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s theory was then adapted into the spectacularly successful The da Vinci Code by Dan Brown — and thus the theory entered into the consciousness of a whole new, widespread readership.
The key chapter in the whole da Vinci Code is chapter 55. In this chapter one of the characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, explains to one of the other characters that the divinity of Christ was decided upon by a vote at the Council of Nicaea, at the instigation of the Emperor.
“Plausible-sounding a theory as [The da Vinci Code’s] is — Leigh Teabing’s account is sprinkled with just enough historical fact to make it sound credible […] — it simply doesn’t stand up to a moment’s serious reflection.”
Constantine then ensured the longevity of his theological position by redefining which books constituted the New Testament, rejecting those earlier (and supposedly more authentic) gospels which spoke of Jesus as a mere man, and instead including only those — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — which spoke of him as divine.
Plausible-sounding a theory as this is — Leigh Teabing’s account is sprinkled with just enough historical fact to make it sound credible (e.g., there really was a Council of Nicaea, and it really did decide upon the matter of the divinity of Christ: but not in anything like the way Leigh Teabing describes it) — it simply doesn’t stand up to a moment’s serious reflection.
The whole argument in the novel is predicated on the notion that “history is always written by the winners.”
But is this a sustainable foundation? Is it possible even for an emperor of Rome to eradicate everything he disagrees with? People can be got rid of relatively easily — a reading of the reigns of the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula in I, Claudius shows this — but ideas are not so easily erased.
“It has been estimated that by the end of the third century there were around 5,000,000 Christians living worldwide. Does it seem credible that Constantine could have formed a new version of Christianity, […] and have left no visible trace of the faith of so many people […?]”
It has been estimated that by the end of the third century there were around 5,000,000 Christians living worldwide. Does it seem credible that Constantine could have formed a new version of Christianity, using only those texts which he deemed amenable to his purpose, and suppressing the rest — and have left no visible trace of the faith of so many people, until the chance discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi texts in the twentieth century?
According to Leigh Teabing’s account in chapter 55 of The da Vinci Code, a whole load of texts — gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life, accounts supposedly more authentic than the four Gospels we have in our New Testament — were suppressed by Constantine in order to promulgate his new, divine version of Jesus.
One such text, which the story goes discusses a great deal, and which was found as part of the Nag Hammadi collection of texts in 1945, is the Gospel of Philip. Leigh Teabing, in the story, seems to think that this gospel preserves a more genuine, human version of Christ.
“It seems to me that Dan Brown — without actually saying it in so many words — wants you to believe that these ‘missing gospels’ […] existed in a cultural vacuum.”
It seems to me that Dan Brown, without actually saying it in so many words, wants you to believe that these ‘missing gospels’ — his character alleges there were more than eighty of them — existed in a cultural vacuum. The ‘original’ Christians (as Leigh Teabing thinks of them) composed these accounts of Jesus’ life, and yet nobody from what later become known as ‘orthodox’ Christianity mentioned these texts in writing, commented on them, challenged them, quoted them — nobody, apparently, for upwards of two hundred years!
This is, of course, utterly absurd. Neither the four Gospels in our New Testament, nor the gospels which didn’t make it into the New Testament (didn’t come near making it in, actually), existed in a cultural vacuum. Both the canonical Gospels and the non-canonical ones were discussed, quoted, dissected, evaluated copiously, by orthodox theologians.
Because of this fact, many of the non-canonical gospels which have surfaced over the past hundred years were actually already known about for many centuries. An example is the recently-discovered Gospel of Judas. We have known about this work for nearly twenty centuries, because an orthodox writer of the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in what is now France, mentions it in his five-volume work Against Heresies:—
“[Other heretics] again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, chapter XXXI, §1
On a previous occasion I put together a table showing a selection of the Christian writers, and writings, that we have from before the fourth century. It’s worth repeating here:—
|Writer / Text||Date||Main concern
|Clement of Rome||died c. 100 A.D.||To avert a schism in the church of Corinth
|Ignatius of Antioch||died c. 107 A.D.||To insist that Christ is both God and man
|Polycarp of Smyrna||died c. 155 A.D.||To urge Christians to live holy lives
|Letter of Barnabas||probably 100—130 A.D.||To show that Judaism is in error
|'Mathetes'||c. 130 A.D.||Apologetic — to show that the gospel is true, against paganism
|The Didache||1st / 2nd century A.D.||To give rules for fasting, worship, church organization
|The Shepherd of Hermas||c. 160 A.D.||To urge Christians to live holy lives
|Justin Martyr||died c. 165 A.D.||Apologetic works against paganism and Judaism
|Theophilus||c. 168 A.D. (died c. 181 A.D.)||Apologetic work against paganism
|Athenagoras||c. 177 A.D.||Apologetic — defence of Christianity
|Irenaeus of Lyons||died 202 A.D.||To counter various heresies
The point of reproducing this table here, is simply to show that the four Gospels that are in our New Testament didn’t exist in a vacuum until the fourth century. All of the writings listed above allude to passages in the New Testament; most of them quote passages from it directly.
“For anybody — Constantine or anybody else — to come along in the fourth century and ‘re-invent’ Jesus as a divinity, they would have had to directly contradict not only the New Testament writings themselves, but also the two centuries of orthodox Christian writers after the New Testament who preceded Constantine’s time.”
Therefore for anybody — Constantine or anybody else — to come along in the fourth century and ‘re-invent’ Jesus as a divinity, they would have had to directly contradict not only the New Testament writings themselves, but also the two centuries of orthodox Christian writers after the New Testament who preceded Constantine’s time.
What all of this shows us, is that it simply isn’t possible for the Emperor Constantine to have achieved such a large-scale and successful cover-up — even had he attempted to, which in fact he did not.
The da Vinci Code’s conspiracy theory, as outlined in chapter 55 of the book, may make for fascinating reading — but as history it simply doesn’t stand up.
The Council of Nicaea was about how divine Jesus is, not whether he is divine
What is perhaps the oddest thing of all about The da Vinci Code’s hypothesis, is that it isn’t even close to what the actual issue at stake at the Council of Nicaea was. In fact, it’s almost the polar opposite.
The immediate occasion for the Council of Nicaea was the preaching of Arius, a senior presbyter in charge of Baucalis, one of the twelve parishes of Alexandria in Egypt. He clashed with his bishop, Alexander, by claiming (and preaching in his sermons) that only the Father was truly God: the Son — argued Arius — had not existed from eternity, but had been begotten by the Father as a creature, essentially different from the Father. The rest of creation had then been made through him.
“Nobody — no-one — at the Council of Nicaea thought that Jesus was ‘merely a man’. The issue at stake was in what sense Jesus was divine.”
Constantine may have failed to understand the niceties of this disagreement, considering it a ‘theological trifle,’ but Arius was a persuasive preacher, and by A.D. 324 the controversy was threatening to split Constantine’s Empire. He therefore convened the Council at Nicaea to try to settle the dispute.
In other words, nobody — nobody, no-one — at the Council of Nicaea thought that Jesus was ‘merely a man’. The issue at stake was in what sense Jesus was divine: was he, as Arius argued, only God in a subordinate sense, God having brought him into being at a certain point as a creature? Or was he fully and entirely God, essentially and in every sense in which the Father is God?
Reading Dan Brown’s novel, you may be left with the impression that the divinity of Jesus was a fourth-century innovation, and that his humanity was taken for granted. How far removed this is from the facts!
Sure, in Jesus’ life on earth, and in his own country, people assumed him to be only a man, and were affronted by the claims he was making:—
He went away from there and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.
The Gospel According to Mark 6:1-3
But as Christianity spread, and permeated throughout the Graeco-Roman world, the opposite error became just as prevalent: the view that Jesus was God, but not human.
“As Christianity spread, and permeated throughout the Graeco-Roman world, the opposite error became just as prevalent: the view that Jesus was God, but not human.”
Thus one of the earliest Christian heresies, arising before the end of the first century A.D. and perceptible already in the writings of the New Testament, was Docetism. This was the view that Jesus was not truly human but only ‘seemed’ to be human (from the Greek δοκέω, dokeō, meaning ‘I seem’): he was, according to this view, a phantom.
Towards the end of the second century the Christian theologian Irenaeus, whom we mentioned earlier, wrote his five-volume work Against Heresies. In this work he tackles various Christian heresies which were around in his own day, mainly Gnosticism. Gnosticism is an umbrella term for a great many different theological systems promulgated by different teachers, but one of their common denominators was a belief that the physical world is inherently evil, and hence that Jesus could not have been a physical being made of flesh and blood. He was, in other words, God, but only appeared to be a man.
This isn’t directly relevant to Arius. He wasn’t a Gnostic; he believed that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood human, and he believed the Jesus was — in some limited sense — God.
But I mention Gnosticism and its prevalence in the Graeco-Roman world in the second and third centuries, to show how factually incorrect it is when Leigh Teabing claims that until the fourth century, everybody had taken Jesus as merely a man.
“The canon of the New Testament, while not at this stage finally resolved, […] was nevertheless largely in place: only at its margins was there any lingering doubt about what ‘was’ or ‘was not’ Scripture.”
Nor indeed is it the case that Constantine defined, or attempted to define, the canon of New Testament books. The canon of the New Testament, while not at this stage finally resolved — it would be resolved finally within the next hundred years, at the Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393 and subsequent North African Councils — was nevertheless largely in place: only at its margins was there any lingering doubt about what ‘was’ or ‘was not’ Scripture.
Hence there was no question at the Council but that the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the Gospels to which the theological issue must be referred. Equally, there was no question of citing as authorities any of the extra-biblical gospels, the Gospel of Philip and so on. This is shown by the fact that the debate at the Council was a debate from Scripture: passages such as John 10:30 and Colossians 1:15 were quoted as authorities on either side.
Why does it matter?
There are all sorts of theological reasons why it’s important that Jesus really was both a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and also truly divine.
However, all of this matters for a much more straightforward reason, too.
“If Dan Brown/Leigh Teabing’s version of the events of history is correct, then it means fundamentally we can’t trust what we read about Jesus in the pages of the New Testament.”
If Dan Brown/Leigh Teabing’s version of the events of history is correct, then it means fundamentally we can’t trust what we read about Jesus in the pages of the New Testament. What we are reading is really something promulgated at the behest of a Roman Emperor of the fourth century — then how can we possibly believe anything that it has to say about life, death, the kingdom of God, the present or the future?
However, I have shown in the remarks above that Dan Brown/Leigh Teabing’s version of events is far from being the correct one: indeed it shows a very poor grasp of the history indeed.
“The belief in a Jesus who is both fully man and fully God is in fact the authentic faith of Christian believers going right back to the first century A.D.”
The belief in a Jesus who is both fully man and fully God is in fact the authentic faith of Christian believers going right back to the first century A.D. when the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament were written. It is a faith founded on the four Gospels which have always been the cornerstone of faith for Christians ever since the first few generations of Christian believers.
That means that, as Christians, we can trust what we read in the Gospels: the things Jesus said, the things he did, the claims he made about himself. As one of his followers, Nathanael, said of him,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
The Gospel According to John 1:49
In the next two instalments of this post we shall examine some of the texts from before Constantine’s time, both Scripture and early Christian writings after the New Testament. By doing so, we shall put to bed the misconception that the divinity of Christ was a Constantinian innovation.
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.