Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
The Canon was NOT Decided at Nicaea!
06/19/2008 - Tur8infanDr. White has been providing a number of video responses to Abdullah (who uses the screen name Mujtahid2006), a Muslim apologist currently residing in London, England. Having had the opportunity to review several of his videos, I'd like to respond to at a least one point that Abdullah raised. There are certainly many more things that could be said, and Dr. White has been busily preparing some of those statements in video form.
Abdullah, in Is the Bible Corrupt: 2 (a multi-part YouTube movie), provided an argument that appears to have been taken more or less directly from the pages of Isis Unveiled: a Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science, by H. P. Blavatsky, 6th ed. 1891, Volume 2, pp. 251-52. The argument relates to the council of Nicaea and, in essence, claims that the council of Nicaea was instrumental in selecting the gospels we have today from other competing gospels. It further claims (a) that the men of Nicaea were simpletons, and (b) that they used a form of divination to determine which gospels are authentic: they left all the candidate gospels in a closed room overnight, and only four gospels were on the table in the morning, the rest being under the table.
There were, nevertheless, some details of the argument that were not present in the edition of Isis Unveiled that I had located. Initially, I was ready to chalk them up to the creativity of Abdullah. For example, he claims that accounts (a) and (b) are from two respective eyewitnesses. Shortly later, however, I discovered a related source for those additional details. This source was Great Theosophists: Hypatia - The Last Of The Neoplatonists, THEOSOPHY, Vol. 25, No. 5, March, 1937 (Pages 197-207). (Number 12 of a 29-part series), which provides the additional elaboration claiming that Sabinus and Pappus, the two respective attributed authors of the critical comments, were eyewitnesses.
Here Abdullah must be taken to task as being excessively gullible with respect to the Theosophist propaganda, since neither Pappus nor Sabinus were eyewitnesses. Pappus lived long after the council (the Libellus Synodicus (from which the account is drawn) addresses 158 councils for the first nine centuries, down through the so-called Eighth Ecumenical Council in 869). Sabinus too lived after the council, his own history mostly addressing the period from 364-378 (whereas the Council of Nicaea was convened 50 years earlier in 325). He flourished around 425, according to Wace's Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., which is fully a century after the council of Nicaea. There's really no reason to suppose that Sabinus was an eyewitness or that his account was anything other than a party spirit, Sabinus being of a sect that asserted Christ to be of similar substance to the Father, rather than the same substance, as Nicene Christians confess.
Likewise there is no particular reason to give credence to the tale provided by Pappus. The author of the tale does append an account of the divination of the apocryphal works from the real Scriptures at the end of his very brief (less than 500 words) account of the council of Nicaea, but he cites no testimony as to how he arrived at this position, and we cannot seem to trace it back any further than him.
The passage in Latin reads:
Sacros etiam libros et apocryphos, hoc modo manifesto fecit. In domo enim Dei, inferiore loco juxta divinam mensam omnibus colloctis, Dominum invocans oravit: ut qui divinitus inspirati essent, superius; qui autem adulterini, inferius (quod et factum est) invenirentur.William Emmette Coleman translates it this way, (which seems a reasonable translation):
The council made manifest the canonical and apocryphal books in the following manner: Placing them by the side of the divine table in the house of God, they prayed, entreating the Lord that the divinely inspired books might be found upon the table, and the spurious ones underneath; and it so happened.There is nothing more: no context, no source, and nothing even to say which canonical books were found on the table. As Mr. Coleman noted in the article in which he provided this translation (The Bizzare, Notes and Queries, January 1888, volume V, no. 1, pp. 1-3), The narrative is merely one of the many legendary embellishments of the mediaeval ages, and is universally rejected by the world's scholarship as destitute of any historic foundation. This legend has no corroboration.
Mr. Coleman, however, provides two other helpful pieces of information. First, Pappus is simply the editor of the work in which the litany of councils appears, the work actually being the product of anonymous Greek author who lived, it is believed, in the late ninth century. Second, the Pappus quotation was popularized by Mr. Robert Taylor, an antichristian polemic of the first part of the 1800s. It was not popularized because of any historical merit, but simply due to its polemic value.
Essentially, what Abdullah has latched onto is a bit of Theosophist propaganda. There's no significant historical support for the idea that the Council of Nicaea either decided on the canon or sifted through 40 proposed gospels using some sort of divination technique.
H. P. Blavatsky (from whom the combination of Sabinus and Pappus seems to have been derived as well as the eyewitness claims---as noted above) is the famous Madame Blavatsky who introduced what amounts to Tibetan mysticism (complete with Karma) into England, or at least popularized and promoted it. Her following has been called the Theosophists. She was, obviously, not a Christian. More than that, she was not a reputable scholar.
Even then, it appears, as best as I can tell, that the account in her Isis Unveiled is actually taken from an earlier work, such as Judge Ladd's Hebrew and Christian Mythology (1861) or Hone's The Apocryphal New Testament (2nd ed. 1847), in the preface to the second edition, p. xv. But there, we discover that Hone recognizes that this tale of the divination of the gospels is a legend.
Furthermore, Hone himself takes the account of Sabinus from an earlier historian named Socrates (not the Greek philosopher). Socrates points out the claim by Sabinus, namely that all the men of the Nicene council were simpletons (except Constantine and Eusebius), to demonstrate that Sabinus was partisan and biased in his account of the Nicene council. Also, elsewhere Socrates explains that Sabinus purposefully omitted reference to letters that would be unhelpful to his historical case. Socrates, himself sometimes accused of not being fully orthodox, was an historian born about the year 380. He apparently wrote his works after retiring from the practice of law, his history extending to 445. Thus, he would be a contemporary with Sabinus.
Now, plainly Abdullah just lifted his account from the Theosophist works, or from someone else who did something similar. For example, it is the article in Theosophy that appears to have instigated the absurd claim that Sabinus and Pappus were eyewitnesses. Likewise, we see the same jab that Abdullah makes about the question of the key to the chamber in Isis Unveiled. The fundamental problem with Abdullah's claim is this, the claim that the council of Nicaea determined the canon of Scripture simply has no historical weight.
What Abdullah's argument amounts to is repetition (fourth hand) of legends that have no basis in fact. I can understand why the legend mentioned by Hone would be tempting to antichristian mystics like Madame Blavatsky and to Muslims, but that doesn't make it historically valid. It should be noted that these same neo-gnostic legends are being propagated through other sources, such as via Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Serious scholarship (even scholarship quite critical of the New Testament) rejects these stories.
For example, at pages 233-34 of the Da Vinci Code, Brown describes Emporer Constantine as though he were a mastermind behind the council of Nicaea, and describe Constantine as "upgrad[ing] Jesus' status [to God] almost four centuries after Jesus' death...." (Emphasis is Brown's) While Brown does not, at least not in this place, explicitly claim that the canon settlement was at Nicaea, Brown suggests that Constantine "commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those [i.e. the Gnostic's] gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike." (Emphasis is Brown's)
Of course, people need to recognize that the work is fiction - and that Brown would easily use a defense for this sort of ridiculous claim that it is simply conversation within his book, not a scholarly claim. Nevertheless, gullible folks (and here, I'm afraid, I cannot exclude Abdullah based on the evidence above) pick up what he says (or what others like him say) and imagine that it is historical.
Those who think that way need to listen to what Professor Bart Ehrman has to say about the subject. Ehrman delivered an address on the topic: Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Altered Scripture and Readers Who May Never Know, on April 25, 2007, at Stanford University. In the question and answer period he was asked to what extent the New Testament canon or the formation of the New Testament canon were discussed at Nicaea and his answer was simple: "Not at all." The questioner responded by citing the Da Vinci Code and asking who should he (the questioner) believe. Ehrman, after a few seconds of mocking sarcasm, pointed out that "everything he [i.e. Brown] says about the council of Nicaea is absolutely wrong." (Audio available here, from about the 7:30 mark to the 8:40 mark).
It goes without saying that Ehrman is not in the pocket of orthodox Christianity. His non-acceptance of these fables of Nicaean construction of the canon of Scripture are based on the fact that there is no valid historical reason to accept these ideas. Its wishful Islamic thinking to latch on to these sort of straws, and we hope that Abdullah will try to be more careful. Abdullah is being singled out, not because he is the only Muslim apologist to make such a claim. Khalid Yasin has made similar claims, as I noted in this earlier post (link). Abdullah's explanation has been addressed in more detail, simply because Abdullah gave a more thorough presentation, which actually permitted trying to verify the truth of what he had to say.
Only to the glory of God,