As our culture becomes increasingly secular, many will continue to cast doubt on the Bible’s origins and especially on early Christianity’s role in the canon’s formation. Although the history of the canon is a bit messy at junctures, there is no evidence it was established by a few Christian bishops and churches convened at Nicaea in 325. Christians need to prepare their minds for action in this age and confidently assert that the biblical canon is the work of God, recognized by churches over many years’ time. In the vivid words of J. I. Packer, “The church no more gave us [the] canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity.”
Ideas have consequences. One idea that has yielded dangerous consequences is the notion that the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), under the authority of Roman emperor Constantine, established the Christian biblical canon.
Did the Bible originate from a few elite bishops selecting which books to include? Should we credit a Roman emperor with creating the Bible? No. This falsehood has been used to cast suspicion on the origins of the canon, which undermines the Bible’s authority.
Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, planted this idea in our culture, and many now think Constantine or Nicaea established the Bible. But Brown didn’t invent this story. He only perpetuated it through his fiction. (Same goes for popular spy novelist Daniel Silva’s latest book, The Order. He admits in an author’s note: “Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy will no doubt take issue with my description of who the evangelists were and how their Gospels came to be written.”)
Nicaea and the canon in history
There is no historical basis for the idea that Nicaea established the canon and created the Bible. The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity and other early evidence show that Christians disputed the boundaries of the biblical canon before and after Nicaea. For example, even lists from pro-Nicaean fathers such as Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. AD 350) and Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. AD 367) don’t agree on the inclusion of Revelation. None of the early records from the council, nor eyewitness attendees (Eusebius or Athanasius, for example), mentions any conciliar decision that established the canon.
There is no historical basis for the idea that the Council of Nicaea established the canon and created the Bible.
In the preface to his Latin translation of Judith, Jerome wrote:
But since the Nicene Council is considered (legitur lit. “is read”) to have counted this book among the number of sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request (or should I say demand!).
Could Jerome be referring to a formal decision to include Judith in the canon? That’s unlikely.
The earliest adopters of Nicene orthodoxy—from Athanasius to Gregory of Nazianzus to Hilary of Poitiers to Jerome himself—don’t include Judith in their canon lists. If a decision was made at Nicaea on the canonicity of Judith, the earliest adopters would’ve listed it among the canonical books. But they don’t. Rather, Jerome is probably describing discussions in which some fathers may have referred to Judith as scriptural. In any case, these discussions didn’t end in a formal conciliar decision on the canon’s boundaries. It seems Jerome’s statement, though, was later misunderstood to say that Nicaea decided on the canon, which leads us to the rest of the story.