Constantine and Christianity
In the centuries prior to Constantine’s reign over the Roman Empire, Christians had been severely persecuted. But then, while entrenched in warfare, Constantine reported to have seen a bright image of a cross in the sky inscribed with the words “Conquer by this.” He marched into battle under the sign of the cross and took control of the empire.
Constantine’s apparent conversion to Christianity was a watershed in church history. Rome became a Christian empire. For the first time in nearly 300 years it was relatively safe, and even cool, to be a Christian.
No longer were Christians persecuted for their faith. Constantine then sought to unify his Eastern and Western Empires, which had been badly divided by schisms, sects, and cults, centering mostly around the issue of Jesus Christ’s identity.
These are some of the kernels of truth in The Da Vinci Code, and kernels of truth are a prerequisite for any successful conspiracy theory. But the book’s plot turns Constantine into a conspirator. So let’s address a key question raised by Brown’s theory: did Constantine invent the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ divinity?
To answer Brown’s accusation, we must first determine what Christians in general believed before Constantine ever convened the council at Nicaea.
Christians had been worshiping Jesus as God since the first century. But in the fourth century, a church leader from the east, Arius, launched a campaign to defend God’s oneness. He taught that Jesus was a specially created being, higher than the angels, but not God. Athanasius and most church leaders, on the other hand, were convinced that Jesus was God in the flesh.
Constantine wanted to settle the dispute, hoping to bring peace to his empire, uniting the east and west divisions. Thus, in 325 A.D., he convened more than 300 bishops at Nicaea (now part of Turkey) from throughout the Christian world. The crucial question is, did the early church think Jesus was the Creator or merely a creation—Son of God or son of a carpenter? So, what did the apostles teach about Jesus? From their very first recorded statements, they regarded him as God. About 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul wrote the Philippians that Jesus was God in human form (Philippians 2:6-7, NLT). And John, a close eye-witness, confirms Jesus’ divinity in the following passage:
In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. He created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn't make. Life itself was in him..So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us (John 1: 1-4, 14, NLT).
This passage from John 1, has been discovered in an ancient manuscript, and it is carbon-dated at 175-225 A.D. Thus Jesus was clearly spoken of as God over a hundred years before Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. We now see that forensic manuscript evidence contradicts The Da Vinci Code's claim that Jesus' divinity was a fourth century invention. But what does history tell us about the Council of Nicaea? Brown asserts in his book, through Teabing, that the majority of bishops at Nicaea overruled Arius's belief that Jesus was a "mortal prophet" and adopted the doctrine of Jesus' divinity by a "relatively close vote." True or false?
In reality, the vote was a landslide: only two of the 318 bishops dissented. Whereas Arius believed that the Father alone was God, and that Jesus was His supreme creation, the council concluded that Jesus and the Father were of the same divine essence.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were deemed to be distinct, coexistent, coeternal Persons, but one God. This doctrine of one God in three Persons became known as the Nicene Creed, and is the central core of the Christian Faith. Now, it is true that Arius was persuasive and had considerable influence. The landslide vote came after considerable debate. But in the end the council overwhelmingly declared Arius to be a heretic, since his teaching contradicted what the apostles had taught about Jesus' divinity.
History also confirms that Jesus had publicly condoned the worship he received from his disciples. And, as we have seen, Paul and other apostles clearly taught that Jesus is God and is worthy of worship.
From the first days of the Christian church, Jesus was regarded as far more than a mere man, and most of his followers worshiped him as Lord-the Creator of the universe. So, how could Constantine have invented the doctrine of Jesus' divinity if the church had regarded Jesus as God for more than 200 years? The Da Vinci Code doesn't address this question.
Firing on the Canon
The Da Vinci Code also states that Constantine suppressed all documents about Jesus other than those found in our current New Testament canon (recognized by the church as authentic eyewitness reports of the apostles). It further asserts that the New Testament accounts were altered by Constantine and the bishops to reinvent Jesus. Another key element of The Da Vinci Code conspiracy is that the four New Testament Gospels were cherry-picked from a total of "more than 80 gospels," most of which were supposedly suppressed by Constantine.5
There are two central issues here, and we need to address both. The first is whether Constantine altered or biased the selection of the New Testament books. The second is whether he barred documents that should have been included in the Bible.
Regarding the first issue, letters and documents written by second century church leaders and heretics alike confirm the wide usage of the New Testament books. Nearly 200 years before Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the heretic Marcion listed 11 of the 27 New Testament books as being the authentic writings of the apostles.
And about the same time, another heretic, Valentinus, alludes to a wide variety of New Testament themes and passages. Since these two heretics were opponents of the early church leadership, they were not writing just what the bishops wanted. Yet, like the early church, they still referred to the same New Testament books we read today.
So, if the New Testament was already widely in use 200 years before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, how could the emperor have invented or altered it? By that time the church was widespread and encompassed hundreds of thousands if not millions of believers, all of whom were familiar with the New Testament accounts.
In his book The Da Vinci Deception, an analysis of The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Erwin Lutzer remarks,
"Constantine did not decide which books would be in the canon; indeed, the topic of the canon did not even come up at the Council of Nicaea. By that time the early church was reading a canon of books it had determined was the Word of God two hundred years earlier."6
Although the official canon was still years from being finalized, the New Testament of today was deemed authentic more than two centuries before Nicaea.
This brings us to our second issue; why were these mysterious Gnostic gospels destroyed and excluded from the New Testament? In the book, Teabing asserts that the Gnostic writings were eliminated from 50 authorized Bibles commissioned by Constantine at the council. He excitedly tells Neveu:
"Because Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke. From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history. … Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."7
Are these Gnostic writings the real history of Jesus Christ? Let's take a deeper look to see if we can separate truth from fiction.
The Gnostic gospels are attributed to a group known as (big surprise here) the Gnostics. Their name comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” These people thought they had secret, special knowledge hidden from ordinary people.
Of the 52 writings, only five are actually listed as gospels. As we shall see, these so-called gospels are markedly different from the New Testament Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
As Christianity spread, the Gnostics mixed some doctrines and elements of Christianity into their beliefs, morphing Gnosticism into a counterfeit Christianity. Perhaps they did it to keep recruitment numbers up and make Jesus a poster child for their cause. However, for their system of thought to fit with Christianity, Jesus needed to be reinvented, stripped of both his humanity and his absolute deity.
In The Oxford History of Christianity John McManners wrote of the Gnostics’ mixture of Christian and mythical beliefs.
"Gnosticism was (and still is) a theosophy with many ingredients. Occultism and oriental mysticism became fused with astrology, magic. … They collected sayings of Jesus shaped to fit their own interpretation (as in the Gospel of Thomas), and offered their adherents an alternative or rival form of Christianity."8