What Are The Most Popular Myths About the Council of Nicaea?

The Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 CE, helped resolve some of what the Christian Church practiced. However, myths have persisted in what the Council accomplished.

Feb 18, 2024By Ryan Watson, MA History, BA History
popular myths about the council of nicaea

 

The Council of Nicaea is the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church following the time of the apostles (it was not the first council, as an apostolic council in Jerusalem was recorded in the book of Acts).  It was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 325 CE, and held in what is now Turkey. It primarily dealt with matters concerning the nature of Christ, and led to the development of the Nicene Creed. Due to its importance in Christian history and some misunderstandings regarding Christian theology and history, several myths arose as to what was established at the council.

 

Myth #1: The Council Created the Biblical Canon

codex sinaiticus
The Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century CE. Source: The British Library, London

 

The Council did not even review or discuss the books of the Bible and their Canonicity – the “real” scriptures. Books like the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and internet meme arguments have promulgated the myth that the books of the Bible were decided upon at Nicaea. The decisions made at Nicaea – not just the Nicene Creed, but the actual decisions, called “canons,” which we have recorded, made no mention of the canonicity of any Biblical books.

 

A good understanding of the writing and transmission of Biblical texts is useful to understand canon issues. Many books that are considered controversial, were known to be either forgeries or written long after the time of the Apostles, and were often creations of gnostic (secret knowledge) heresies claiming connections to Christianity. Books considered (not declared) part of the New Testament canon needed to be written by or from the time of the Apostles.

 

Myth #2 – The Council of Nicaea Came Up with the Trinity

holy trinity
Holy Trinity, by Casper de Grayer, 17th Century. Source: MutualArt

 

The Trinity – that God is one Being in three Persons – was a concept that had long been debated and discussed before the Council of Nicaea. The early Christian theologian Tertullian, though not necessarily a Trinitarian himself, used the term in his writings which date from the late second to early third century. By the fourth century, before the Council, a general consensus had arisen that agreed on the formulation we now have. The Council was the culmination of some of the debate regarding the nature of the Trinity, and a rejection of Arianism, which held that the Son was subordinate to the Father. 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

Myth #3 – The Council of Nicaea Invented the Deity of Christ

saint nicholas stained glass
Saint Nicholas stained glass window, 1340-50. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Possibly even less debatable than the idea of the Trinity is the concept that Jesus Christ was in some way divine. The matter at Nicaea was as to how divine Jesus Christ was, whether He was God or if His divinity was just less than God. At Nicaea, the Arians – the followers of Arius who believed that Christ was not fully God – lost out and were cast out of the Church (Christian legend even holds that Nicholas of Myra – yes, THAT Nicholas – slapped Arius at the council). The idea that Jesus Christ is God was held since Biblical times, and is even derived from a general and technical meaning of New Testament texts.  Apostolic fathers who lived just after New Testament times such as Polycarp, Ignatius, and others also have writings which affirm the deity of Jesus.

 

Myth #4 – The Council of Nicaea Changed the Christian Sabbath to Sunday

Saint Ignatius of Antioch being devoured by wild animals.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch being devoured by wild animals.

 

As with many of the previous myths, the idea that Sunday was made the holy day for Christians at Nicaea can be refuted by looking at documents which predate the Council.  Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Magnesians, written in the 100s, mentions the regular practice of Sunday worship by Christians.

 

The Council of Nicaea considered issues of Christ’s divinity, church practices, and some other Christian matters. Misconceptions, some due to lack of knowledge, some due to religions wanting to claim a connection to historical Christianity, and some due to fictional works have promulgated ever since. With the availability of the decisions made at the Council, we can have a good understanding of the historical realities of the Council and make informed decisions regarding the history of Christian theological matters.

Author Image

By Ryan WatsonMA History, BA HistoryRyan Watson is a husband, father, underwriter, writer, and reseller. He graduated with a Bachelor's and Master's in History from Louisiana Tech University in the early 2000s. He focuses on Biblical, post-Biblical, and medieval history with occasional dabblings in other arenas.