Bart D. Ehrman
In my main lecture during the debate this past weekend, I decided to develop in short order the case that I make in my book How Jesus Became God for how, well, Jesus became God. (!) But I chose to do it differently from how I do it in the book, at least in terms of rhetorical strategy. I chose to start at the *end* of the development (it’s actually nowhere near the end – since Christological arguments continued on for centuries – but it was one sensible ending points), with the controversies over Christ’s divinity in the early fourth century, controversies between Arius and his detractors.
I’m afraid many people today (most?) get their knowledge of Arius, the Arian Controversy, and the Council of Nicea from that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, who wrote about it at length in that great work of historical realism, The Da Vinci Code. I tell my students at Chapel Hill that if they want to learn about the history of the Middle Ages, the way to do that is not by watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” And if they want to learn about the history of early Christianity, the way to do that is not by readingThe Da Vinci Code.
The Da Vinci Code is wrong about just about everything it says about the Arian Controversy, the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea. That’s why I wrote my earlier book Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. There were tons of books written in response to Dan Brown’s novel, but virtually all of them were by highly religious (and angry) people – either Roman Catholic or conservative evangelicals – who had deep-seated theological reasons for really disliking the book. I myself did not dislike it so much: I thought for a page-turner at the beach, it was rather fun. My sense is that people who don’t like it (i.e., most of my friends) are simply expecting way too much of it as a work of fiction. It’s *not* a great work of fiction. But it’s a good blow-off novel if you don’t want a lot of substance. Still, the problem I had with it was that so much information was wrong, even when getting it *right* would not have had any effect on the plot or the characters. It was just gratuitously wrong. This included most everything it says about the historical Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the New Testament, and yes, the Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea.
Among other things – just to dispel one myth that so many people buy into – the Council of Nicea (which was called by the emperor Constantine in the year 325 CE) did not, decidedly did NOT decide, the Council did NOT decide which books should belong in the New Testament. The issue of the canon of Scripture was not discussed at the Council. (We know this because we have records of the issues that the council discussed and the decisions that it reached). The first person to list our 27 books of the NT canon, as the only books of the canon, was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367 CE, over 40 years after the council. Now it’s true that Athanasius attended the Council of Nicea as a young man. But neither he nor anyone else at the council was discussing which books should be accepted as the Christian canonical Scriptures.
And one other thing that Dan Brown (and so many others) gets wrong is that the Council did not vote on whether Jesus should be seen as the Son of God or not. According to Dan Brown (crazily enough), Christians until that time did not see Jesus as a divine being, but only as a human being. That, says Brown, was also the view of the main figure at the council, Arius. The council, Brown claims, voted on whether Jesus was to be seen as the Son of God or not, and Jesus’ divinity won out, even though, says Brown, “it was a close vote.”
It wasn’t a close vote and the issue was not whether Jesus was the Son of God. Everyone at the council – literally EVERYONE – agreed going into the council that Jesus was the Son of God. The question instead was: In what SENSE was he the Son of God?
I will talk about the specific issues in my next post. But for here I just want to stress that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God goes back as far back as we have any Christian sources. The apostle Paul was our first Christian author, and he is altogether emphatic that Christ was the Son of God. The Gospels of the New Testament, written from fifteen to thirty-five years after Paul, all agree that Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, all the authors of the New Testament proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God.
This is the most frustrating thing about the Da Vinci Code. How can anyone have even the slightest knowledge of early Christianity and not know that every single author of the NT thinks that Jesus was, in some sense, divine, God’s own son? The only way not to know that is never to have read the NT. Has Dan Brown ever read the New Testament? I’m afraid if he were brought up on charges of having read it, there would not be enough evidence to convict.
The big interpretive issue when dealing with the New Testament is the one I mentioned earlier: in what sense is Jesus the Son of God? Is he the Son of God the way the nation of Israel is said to be the son of God, for example, in Hosea 11:1, as the one(s) chosen by God to fulfill his work here on earth? Israel obviously is not personally divine; yet it is described as God’s son. Or is he the Son of God the way the king of Israel was thought to be (e.g., 2 Sam 7:11-14; Psalm 2:1-2), as the individual on earth whom God has chosen to do his will? Was the king actually understood to be God? Or is Christ the Son of God in the way that angels are, as described, for example in Genesis 6? Or is he the Son of God in the sense that he is somehow equal with God in power and authority? Or something else?
These were issues debated from early times. And the debates came to a head at the Council of Nicea. There, everyone agreed that Christ was personally a divine being. That he was the Creator of the universe. That he was infinitely above every other being in the cosmos in terms of grandeur and power, apart from God the Father. But what exactly was his relationship to God the Father, as God the Son? It was that which was debated at Nicea, and I began my talk in New Orleans by laying out the terms of the debate.