I am often asked what role the Roman Emperor Constantine had in shaping the Bible. Much misinformation and rumour circulates about him. Popular books/movies such as the Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail portray him as the Roman Emperor who basically made the Bible into what it is today for his own political ends. Is that true? Let us start with some easy-to-verify facts about him.
Constantine the Great: Facts on-hand
Constantine was the Roman Emperor from 306-337 AD. Many of the Roman Emperors that came before him were openly hostile to the Gospel, killing and persecuting Christians. Emperors Nero, Domitian, Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator movie fame), Diocletian and others succeeded one another with bloody persecutions of Christians. But Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, granting religious tolerance to all views. Constantine became sole emperor of Rome through victories in a series of military campaigns against other rivals. During these campaigns he converted to Christianity from paganism. There is much debate whether his ‘conversion’ was sincere, or whether he did so for political gain.
The Council of Nicaea
In 325 AD Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the first empire-wide meeting of church leaders to discuss various doctrinal controversies. Today some ask if the books of the Bible were changed or corrupted, or even selected (in some back-room conspiracy) for inclusion in the Bible at this Council. In fact, the main debate at Nicaea was the theology of the relationship between Jesus and God. One camp (led by Arius) held that Jesus the Son and God the Father were of different essences, and the other camp (led by Athanasius) held that they were of the same essence. Therefore we know that theological interpretations were staked out and the summary Nicene Creed was authored at this council convened by Constantine.
Corruption or Conspiracy?
But were books of the Bible changed and/or selected at this council? As we saw in the article on Textual Criticism of the Bible, there are many manuscripts surviving today that were copied up to two hundred years before the time of Constantine (and the Council of Nicaea). If this council (or Constantine) changed the documents of the New Testament then the manuscripts that were copied before the Council of Nicaea would be different than those that come after. But the copies show no such change. The timeline below shows that manuscripts for Bibles today predate Constantine and the Council of Nicaea by up to two hundred years. If Constantine and/or the Council of Nicaea changed the manuscripts we would see the changes.
But were the ‘wrong’ gospels selected into the Bible at Nicaea? (Perhaps by Constantine to bolster his ‘side’?) We also know that this was not so because both sides of the debate (Arius and Athanasius) used the same gospels and epistles (the ones that are in the Bible now) to argue their case. Arius and Athanasius did not disagree on what the scriptural documents stated, nor did they disagree on which documents should be ‘in’ the Bible. They disagreed, with heated debate, on the interpretation of the scriptures – the same books of the Bible we have today. We know this because an account of the debates and intrigues of the Council of Nicaea and Constantine’s role in it is preserved for us in the reporting of Eusebius who was one of the delegates to this council. The writings of Athanasius are also preserved.
Constantine vs. the Good News of Gospel
Constantine did have a huge impact on the development of Christianity. The relationship between the Christian Church and the state, how the church was to be governed, the calculating of the Easter day in the calendar were all affected by Constantine. The Council of Nicaea determined that the orthodox doctrine was that Jesus the Son and God the Father were of the same essence (Athanasius’ position). This is why all Christian churches, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox hold to this doctrine. The modern day descendants of Arius (who taught that Jesus and God are not the same essence), like the Jehovah’s Witness, are marginal.
Constantine’s impact also changed Christianity from being counter-cultural and viewed with mistrust by the government, to becoming the cultural standard of Europe, in alliance with government. But the Gospel is not about culture or government power. It is about a Good News message from God freely received in the hearts and minds of people – and then changing their hearts. Just like barnacles collecting on the hull of a ship can distort the streamlining of a keel – and must be removed for the ship to regain its ability to move gracefully in the water – so a lot of Christianity that has developed by and since Constantine might need to be scraped away so we can access the pure gospel. But it can be done. And the ‘scraper’ with which we can find the pure Good News is the Bible. Since the books in the Bible were not invented, modified or corrupted by Constantine or the Council of Nicaea we can use them to get the view of Jesus and his Gospel that has been around since his disciples went forth proclaiming his message. This also allows us to better understand the various conspiracy theories about Jesus, (like did he have a wife or was he ‘invented’ from the ancient Egyptian mystery religion of Osiris, Isis and Horus). It also allows us to understand where terms like ‘Christ’ originate.
But what about the theology and creeds that came from the Council of Nicaea? Are they corrupt? The really good news is that since the scriptures upon which these creeds were developed are open and available to us today, we ourselves can examine these scriptures, understand its message, and assess those very same interpretations and creeds. Almost all themes in the Bible have their origins in the Old Testament, which predates by hundreds of years the influence of Constantine and even that of the Church. For example, prophetic themes about the coming of the Messiah, and the place and day-of-the-year of Jesus’ sacrifice were prophesied in the Old Testament – hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth.
We can therefore examine the Bible for ourselves and see what they say about Jesus, probably the most influential person who has ever lived. We may decide for a multitude of reasons not to believe or accept the Gospel. Or we may decide to embrace it. But let us avoid the really foolish notion of bringing Constantine and the Council of Nicaea into the mix. He would be a poor excuse whichever way we land.