Nicaea and the Biblical Canon

Davenant’s own Matthew Hoskin had a thread that caught my attention a few weeks ago:

Hoskin clearly knows of what he speaks here and doesn’t need any help from me. And while I don’t normally go in for Twitter/X content, since I’m feeling full of Christmas mischief and had to study this topic for the last five years, I cannot help but pile on here. Now, the poster’s main claim of interest is that Constantine and “his” bishops voted on the books of the Bible. To quote the opening of the authoritative work on the biblical canon lists:

The popular idea that a council of bishops, perhaps at Nicaea, restricted the holy books of the church in order to suppress dissident literature cannot find support in the evidence available to us. In the early period of the church’s history, there was no official statement regarding the biblical canon, and the same is true for contemporary Judaism. The closest analogue to official statements, besides the regional councils, comes only from individual bishops who at best enjoyed authority over a limited geographical area. Up to the present day, there never has been a vote on the biblical canon which all Christians would feel bound to accept.[1]

Charitably assuming good faith on the part of the poster and its sources, I wonder if there’s possibly some confusion here with the later, regional synod of Laodicea (traditionally 363/4, but any time between 341 and 381). The bishops at this council did “ban” the use of certain texts in explicitly ecclesiastical contexts, but they were not saying that all non-canonical texts ought to be destroyed, which would have been silly on all sorts of fronts. Some manuscripts for the canons of Laodicea also have an extra, final regulation listing a biblical canon—or rather, books that were acceptable for singing or reading in church—but even the historical veracity of this item is disputed.[2] Besides, this synod was local, small, and not overseen by the emperor.

Back to Nicaea itself, let’s humor the original claim and assume there was indeed a vote on the biblical canon there under the emperor’s eye. It’s still fairly easy to demonstrate that 1) Constantine was not the crucial actor there, nor 2) was the council’s choice decisive for what we have today in the pews. For starters, Eastern Christians continued to debate certain books into the early Middle Ages and even into the early modern era, so whatever Nicaea decided clearly didn’t settle much of anything.[3] To wit, in the mid-500s, Junillus Africanus, Justinian’s own chief legal officer, wrote an exegetical primer for some Latin friends back in North Africa who wanted to know if he had encountered any helpful teaching on the subject in Constantinople. Here, Junillus notes that the status of certain texts was still debated by Christians in the Oriens, and this fact seems to bother him not a bit. So whatever is alleged to have happened at Nicaea, clearly it didn’t take, nor were much later officials in a more Christianized empire especially vexed that the jury was still out on a handful of books.

Two crucial participants at Nicaea were Eusebius of Caesarea and (then-presbyter) Athanasius of Alexandria, both of whom had sharply different opinions about the council’s Christological outcome and starkly diverging relationships with Constantine himself. Eusebius, writing at the latest a year before Nicaea and probably more like a decade earlier, gives his own assessment of Christian sacred literature in Ecclesiastical History 3.25. And—surprise of surprises—Eusebius acknowledges that there is some debate about certain books’ authenticity, ranking the New Testament material by the standing Christian consensus. (Elsewhere, Eusebius says that the entire Old Testament is “undisputed,” in an interesting contrast.) As I have argued, we cannot overlook the fact that Eusebius was not afraid of debate on this subject: he’s interested in presenting the status quaestionis as a historian and philologist.[4]

Eusebius was generally a fan of Constantine, and the emperor himself respected Eusebius enough to ask him to produce fifty biblical codices for Constantinople (a huge undertaking for that era). There was no sinister collusion in this: of all the people in the world at that time, Eusebius, who had researched the issue and had an extensive library at Caesarea, was the precise scholar to ask. We don’t know the exact content of the codices in terms of books, but we should notice that it was Constantine asking the world’s premier expert to oversee the project and presumably choose the books, not the emperor dictating a list through fiat. While some have suggested that Constantine’s patronage here softly but effectively “closed” the canon by putting the imperial stamp on whatever Eusebius decided, that doesn’t explain why Greek Christians continued to debate the exact canonical books for the coming centuries. In fact, over that timeframe, Eusebius’ opinion on the book of Revelation arguably lost out.

If Eusebius had a relatively comfortable relationship with the emperor, his opponent Athanasius did not, though the latter would become the ne plus ultra of Nicene defenders in the decades after 325. At the start of Lent in 367, Athanasius issued his own biblical canon to his subordinate bishops of Libya and Egypt. For his list of New Testament canon, twenty-two of Athanasius’ twenty-seven books belong to this highest-grade consensus (“undisputed”) of Eusebius’s list, while the other five exclusively fill out Eusebius’ “disputed” tier just below it. That is, Athanasius’ canon largely overlaps with Eusebius’ list of consensus books; Athanasius was just a bit more confident about some of the smaller catholic letters. In terms of scale, actually, even the book ratios are somewhat misleading because they fail to account for the amount of text in each book. Looking at stichometry (i.e., how many lines of text in Greek per book) as a rough-and-ready indicator, about 90% of the lines in Athanasius’ canon belong to Eusebius’ “agreed upon” books, and that jumps all the way to about 97% if one (in my view, correctly) includes the somewhat more complicated case of Revelation. While there are indeed some finer distinctions to be discerned between their respective textual catalogues, we should not overlook the forest for the trees and miss the significant confluence between Eusebius and Athanasius here.

And as the rest of Athanasius’ letter, written more than forty years after Nicaea, abundantly demonstrates Christians were still arguing among themselves or else unsure about which books were fully authoritative and in what contexts.[5] A later Coptic biography observes that the monks who received Athanasius’ letter in spring of 367 were “rejoicing and marveling” at what he had done with the canon specifically, which strongly suggests there was some novelty in the definitiveness of Athanasius’ canon.[6] If Nicaea had settled the canon four decades earlier, clearly these monks didn’t get the memo.

In Eusebius and Athanasius we have two different, contemporary bishops, two different approaches to Nicaea, two different relationships with imperial power, one written before Nicaea and the other several decades later. Even so, the two give strikingly similar assessments of Christianity’s sacred writ—and neither of them settled what remained a running debate for centuries onward.

Addressing the rest of the poster, the parenthetically referenced dates gesture vaguely to the reign of Theodosius I as the starting point of religious persecution and book-burning. My own take is that Theodosius was largely reverting to the norm of imperial religious policies, while the era between him and Constantine was in fact unusually tolerant toward religious non-conformity.

For example, the rules and actual practice of book-burning also have much more to do with Rome than Christianity per se: a reasonably common Roman practice dating back to the Republic. Texts of magic, astrology, esoteric philosophy, and sectarian theology all faced intermittent official proscription by the Roman state. In 181 BC, “rediscovered” books of the Roman king Numa containing Pythagorean doctrine were declared forgeries by the Senate and burned publicly by one of the praetors. Augustus himself once burned around 2,000 books of divination. Despite de facto religious toleration in many cases, Constantine also got in on the act, repressing some unspecified Christian sectarian literature as well as the writings of the condemned-at-the-moment Arius, who had brashly challenged the emperor and exhausted his patience. According to Daniel Sarefield, “From [Constantine’s] death in 337 C.E. until Justinian’s in 565, his successors would explicitly order or otherwise act to destroy prohibited texts with fire on more than one dozen other occasions.”[7] Earlier in the timeline than Constantine, however, Diocletian himself had ordered (302) that the Manichees’ books be burned, along with their ringleaders. It is not as if the classical pagans had a dramatically more open, tolerant society than its Christian successor.

So yes, Christian emperors (and later popes) did destroy nefarious religious texts from time to time, but this was longstanding practice. As earlier Christians knew uncomfortably well, it was Caesar’s wide prerogative to regulate and curb “superstition”—so too when Caesar converted. Christian scholars themselves, meanwhile, continued reading apocryphal, non-canonical, and heretical material down into the Middle Ages—even when they doubted or disagreed vehemently with the contents. We can perhaps fault Christian rulers and other institutional actors for their occasional and theatrical censorship. In historical fairness, however, we ought to acknowledge that plenty of modern Western society has its own censorious streak, for good or ill.

And if these interactions of Christianity with the later Roman empire interest you, you should look into Hoskin’s upcoming class on the subject.

  1. Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1–2. Gallagher and Meade have, in my opinion, by far the best book on this subject available.
  2. Gallagher and Meade, 131.

  3. The classic example is the book of Revelation. See Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, Guiding to a Blessed Ending (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 1–46.
  4. Andrew R. Koperski, “Eusebius, Revelation, and Its Place in the New Testament Canon,” Journal of Early Christian History 11, no. 3 (December 2021): 79–94.
  5. See the full letter reconstructed from Greek and Coptic in David M. Gwynn and David Brakke, eds., The Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria, with the Festal Index and the Historia Acephala, Translated Texts for Historians 81 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022), 231–46.
  6. The Bohairic Life of Pachomius 189, in Armand Veilleux, trans., The Life of Saint Pachomius and His Disciples, Pachomian Koinonia, vol. 1 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1980), 230.
  7. Daniel Christopher Sarefield, “‘Burning Knowledge’: Studies of Bookburning in Ancient Rome” (Dissertation, Columbus, The Ohio State University, 2004), 224.


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