Nicea Myths:
Common Fables About
The Council of Nicea and Constantine

It amazes me how many Nicea myths exist on the internet today.

We are going to address three. These are fables. They did not happen. I'm going to show you how you can know that.

  1. Constantine changed the Bible at the Council of Nicea
  2. The Council of Nicea changed the Sabbath day to Sunday
  3. St. Nicholas slapped Arius at the Council of Nicea

We don't really have to address the second of these Nicea Myths thoroughly, since I already have a page on the subject. We will give a brief, shortened explanation below.

I also have a section below on Constantine's role as pagan sun god.

The only way to to know what really went on at Nicea is to know ...

What and How We know About the Council of Nicea

There is a lot of primary material (see sidebar below) left from the Council of Nicea:

  • A letter from Eusebius back to his church at Caesarea, preserved in The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus and in Athanasius' Defense of the Nicene Definition.
  • A description of the proceedings by Eusebius (who was there) in his Life of Constantine
  • Letters from Constantine and from the council passing on its decisions to the churches.

  • The 20 "canons" [this just means "rules"] passed by the council.
  • Some references to the council by Athanasius, who attended as a deacon before he was bishop; however, his only description of the council is a copy of Eusebius' letter to Caesarea.

Primary Materials

Almost everyone learns about events from "secondary," "tertiary," or even further removed sources.

Those terms mean that you're hearing about something second or thirdhand rather than from an eyewitness. "Primary material" means something written by an eyewitness.

The only way to separate false histories from true ones—and Nicea myths from fact—is to look at primary sources. One secondhand source does not negate another secondhand source.

This page gives you access to firsthand sources on the Council of Nicea. You can read all of them for free at for free at ccel.org. They will let you download .pdf's for a small contribution. The cheapest way to purchase the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series is the link I just gave you, and that will support my site, too.

In other words, we know exactly what the council addressed.

They did not address the following Nicea Myths.

Nicea Myths #1: Did Constantine and the Council of Nicea change the Bible?

The Council of Nicea never addressed the books of the Bible (and thus could not have changed them).

It's just not there.

Proving something negative is always tricky. I can't show you a quote where someone from the 4th century said, "Oh, by the way, we didn't talk about the books of the Bible." You'll have to take my word—and the word of every reputable historian in history—that it's never mentioned.

Or you can go through all the sources listed above, as I did. That they threw out or even talked about the canon is one of many Nicea myths.

Of course, they really didn't have a "Bible" yet, anyway. Their Scriptures were a collection of books, and which books were accepted varied from church to church, though only over a few books, none of them gnostic (like the Gospel of Thomas or the Pistis Sophia).

The Real History of the Bible

We can tell what books were used as Scripture by the early churches.

  • We have letters and books dating all the way back to A.D. 96, just 60 years after Jesus died and over two centuries before the Council if Nicea. Those letters quote certain books as Scripture.
  • There are lists of the books constituting Scripture dating back to around A.D. 160 (the Muratorian Fragment, for example, but there are several before Nicea).

What you find from these sources is that the Bible has always been basically what it is today.

If your concern is a particular book or version (did the 2nd century Bible match the King James Version?), then the differences are significant. Up to four books of the Maccabees, the Book of Wisdom, the Shepherd of Hermas, and others are sometimes included in the 2nd century canon. Books like James and 2 Peter are often left out. Hebrews is questioned on into the 4th century.

However, if your concern is whether gnostic books like the Gospel of Thomas are included, they weren't.

Never mentioned. Gnostic gospels didn't disappear in the 4th century; they disappeared from the day they were written. They were never used by the church.

Nicea Myths #2: Did Constantine
or the Council of Nicea
Change the Sabbath to Sunday?

This fable stems from the fact that there was a controversy over the celebration of Passover in the early church.

The early church celebrated the Jewish Passover, which occurred on Nisan 14 by their calendar. Nisan 14 could fall on any day of the week, so some churches liked to celebrate Passover on the Sunday nearest Nisan 14.

That "Quartodeciman Controversy," as it was called, hit some high points in the 2nd century. Around A.D. 150, when Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, was quite old, he went to Rome to discuss this issue with Anicetus. They decided that each church would continue to celebrate Passover according to their own traditions, as each had received different traditions from their respective apostles (from a letter from Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, to Victor, bishop of Rome, preserved in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History V:24, A.D. 323).

A generation later, Victor, the bishop of Rome, decided to excommunicate any church that did not celebrate Passover on Sunday. Irenaeus and another bishop, Polycrates, wrote Victor to help him recover from this insanity. Once again, the issue was settled with each church continuing their respective tradition.

The Quartodeciman Controversy
and
the Council of Nicea

The practice of each church doing its own thing—as long as it adhered to the rule of faith—could (unfortunately) not last.

At the Council of Nicea it was finally decided that Passover would be celebrated on the Sunday nearest Nisan 14, not on Nisan 14 itself.

This is the only way in which the council addressed the issue of Sunday, the 1st day of the week.

Thus, anything found outside the creed and the canons of Nicea, both available on this site (links in the last paragraph), is just another of the many Nicea myths.

Constantine and the Venerable Day of the Sun

One thing among Nicea myths is that Constantine remained the high priest of the pagan religion until his deathbed (Re: Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church). At that time, he retired from being emperor, renounced his position as leader of the pagan religion, and was baptized as a Christian.

So it is true that Constantine had reason to honor the 1st day of the week as the day of the sun.

However, Christians had already been celebrating the first day of the week as the Lord's day since apostolic times:

  • In A.D. 110, Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Magnesia mentioning that even the Jews who had become Christians no longer observed the Sabbath but were living in observance of the Lord's day (ch. 9).
  • In A.D. 130 or earlier, the Letter of Barnabas explains that Christians observe the eighth day, the day of new beginnings, and the day on which the Lord rose.
  • In A.D. 150, Justin Martyr says that on "the day called that of the sun," Christians come together out of the cities and countryside to study the Scriptures and have communion.
  • In A.D. 200 (or so), Tertullian says that the practice of not kneeling or fasting on the first day of the week is a long standing practice with Christians, possibly going back to the apostles (De Corona 3).

So you see it is apparent that Constantine did not need to change the Sabbath to Sunday. In fact, Christians had a quite different view of the role of the Sabbath in the Christian life.

St. Nicholas Slapped Arius at the Council of Nicea

It's December of 2010 as I write this, and every day someone is blogging that St. Nicholas slapped Arius at the Council of Nicea. I was astonished at how much this was being written because I've looked at all the primary documents, and I'd never seen St. Nicholas mentioned.

As it turns out, that's because he's not.

I'm not as familiar with Medieval Christianity as I am with the rest of Christian history, so I was grateful to find an article at Christianity Today's Christian History section, one of the more reliable sources available on the internet. Usually, their articles are written by actual historians whose credentials are given, though in this case only the writer's name is given. (I am a paid subscriber to their Christian History, and I would recommend that to anyone interested in church history; it's very inexpensive.)

Their article explains that it's only five centuries after Nicea that St. Nicholas is first mentioned. The author's conclusion is, "This should be taken as fantasy because there are pretty good records of the council, and Nicholas isn't mentioned."

I'm grateful for his help, but you and I could have safely concluded the same for the same reason. See the sources I gave above, and you can always know for yourself what's history and what is just legend and speculation.

Nicea Myths: Conclusion

I hope that whenever someone tells you something about what happened at Nicea that you will look at the creed and canons of the Council of Nicea and set them straight. Together we can spread the truth and end the fables.

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