The Council of Nicea and The Da Vinci Code

March 12, 2006 · updated February 15, 2022

The Council of Nicea (325 AD) was an important meeting of about 300 bishops from across the Roman Empire who met to discuss theological and administrative issues. The Da Vinci Code makes dramatic claims about what happened at this council, most of which are historically inaccurate.

In Chapter 55, Sir Leigh Teabing explains to Sophie Neveu how the early Church consolidated its power by destroying the sacred feminine and making the mortal prophet Jesus into a divine being. But despite his revered status as "Royal Historian," Teabing doesn't know his history all that well.

In The Da Vinci Code

  1. "Constantine needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicea...."
  2. "At this gathering, many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon - the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus."
  3. "My dear, until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet... a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless. A mortal."
  4. "Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicea... a relatively close vote at that."
  5. "Establishing Christ's divinity was critical to the further unification of the Roman empire and to the new Vatican power base...."
  6. Constantine collated an entirely new Bible at the Council of Nicea, containing only books that speak of Jesus as divine. All books that portrayed him as human were burned.

In Reality

  1. True: Constantine did preside over the first ecumenical gathering of the church, which is known as the Council of Nicea (325 AD). He did so in order to ensure unity in the Church, but not to strengthen any "new" Christian tradition.
  2. True: Many aspects were debated and voted upon, including the date of Easter and administrative issues such as those listed.The bishops did debate and vote on the divinity of Jesus, but not whether he was divine. They were there to debate the type of divinity that Jesus was.
  3. False: From the New Testament authors until "that moment in history," nearly every Christian believed that Jesus was divine. He was worshipped and spoken of as "the Son of God" and "God."
  4. False: Jesus as "Son of God" was already long established. The idea that he was divine was neither proposed nor voted on by the Council of Nicea. The debate and vote concerned whether Jesus was divine in the same sense as God the Father, or if he was a lesser deity created by the Father. The vote was not "relatively close" - there were only two dissenters.
  5. False: It is highly unlikely that "establishing Christ's divinity" would be necessary to unify the Roman Empire or give power to the Church (which was not called "the Vatican" back then). Consider the example of Islam, which unified empires and gave great power to religious authorities - its founder was a mortal prophet.
  6. False. While it is true that the development of the Bible was a historical process that took centuries, Constantine had nothing to do with it and the Council of Nicea did not discuss it.

Documents and Evidence on the Council of Nicea

As the Council of Nicea was of such importance to the early church, we fortunately have quite a bit of information about it in ancient documents, including the text of later councils and several Christian letters and treatises.

The Nicene Creed

Like many people, Sophie Neveu only knows of the Council of Nicea because of the famous Nicene Creed, the statement of faith issued by the Council of Nicea. It reflects its decision (by overwhelming majority) that Jesus was divine in the same sense as God the Father, and not in the sense of a created divine being.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homousion) with the Father, by whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion—all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

The second part, which condemns certain views as heretical, makes it clear that the question was not whether Jesus was divine, but in what way he was divine. The "heretical" view, taught by Arius and his followers, was not that Jesus was just a mortal prophet but that he was inferior to God the Father and created by the Father.

This creed is documented in several contemporary sources, including the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus and Acts of Chalcedon, in the Epistle of Eusebius of Cæsarea to his own Church, in the the Ecclesiastical Histories of Theodoret and Socrates, and elsewhere.

The Canons of Nicea

In addition to the creed, the bishops at the Council of Nicea issued 20 canons, or determinations, after the conclusion of the council. Most of them are fairly mundane and deal with administrative matters. The text of each canon is online here.

Ancient Accounts of the Council of Nicea

Several church historians who lived during or shortly after the Council of Nicea documented the events of the council. In addition, writers such as Athanasius (the main defender of Nicene orthodoxy) referred to it in their letters. Following are links to English translations of these ancient sources on Nicea.

Comments by Experts and Authors on the Council of Nicea

Bart Ehrman, a scholar of early Christianity, writes in Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code:

Scholars who study the history of Christian theology will find it bizarre, at best, to hear Teabing claim that Christians before the Council of Nicea did not consider Jesus to be divine.

Our earliest surviving Christian author in the apostle Paul... Paul was producing his letter about 20 or 30 years after Jesus' death (250 years before the Council of Nicea) and in them it becomes abundantly clear that Paul understands that Jesus was in some sense divine....

Constantine, wanting unity in the church because he wanted unity in his empire, called a council to decide the issue raised most poignantly by Arius, whether christ was a divine creation of the Father or was himself co-eternal and equal with God.

The Council of Nicea met in 325 CE to decide the issue. Contrary to what Leigh Teabing asserts, it was not a particularly close "vote." The vast majority of the 200 or 250 bishops present sided with the view of Athanasius against Arius, which was eventually to become the view of Christianity at large.... And more imporant, contrary to Teabing, it was not a vote on Jesus' divinity. Christians for 250 years had agreed Jesus was divine. The only question was how he was divine, and that was what the Council of Nicea was called to resolve.

As we have seen, Leigh Teabing was right to insist that 'the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.' ...Teabing is wrong to think, however, that Constantine had anything to do with the matter.... The formation of the canon started centuries before Constantine, and the establishment of the four-fold Gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was virtually in place 150 years before his day.

On the other hand, it is equally striking that even during Constantine's day the matter was not brough to final resolution - not by him and not by the Council of Nicea, which he called (and which in fact did not deal with the matter of canon). (Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, pp. 15-16, 23, 93)

Michael Haag and Veronica Haag (non-experts) note in their Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code:

The divine nature of Christ was argued from both the Arian and Athanasian points of view, and when the bishops voted on the issue, it was decided in favour of Athanasius by 218 votes to two - not the "relatively close vote" claimed in The Da Vinci Code. (p. 85)

Writing for Christianity Today magazine, Collin Hansen remarks:

Brown is right about one thing (and not much more). In the course of Christian history, few events loom larger than the Council of Nicea in 325. When the newly converted Roman Emperor Constantine called bishops from around the world to present-day Turkey, the church had reached a theological crossroads.

In The Da Vinci Code, Brown apparently adopts Arius as his representative for all pre-Nicene Christianity. Referring to the Council of Nicea, Brown claims that "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless."

In reality, early Christians overwhelmingly worshipped Jesus Christ as their risen Savior and Lord. Before the church adopted comprehensive doctrinal creeds, early Christian leaders developed a set of instructional summaries of belief, termed the "Rule" or "Canon" of Faith, which affirmed this truth. ("Breaking the Da Vinci Code")

More Information on the Council of Nicea