It is too commonly believed that after Emperor Constantine reunited the Roman Empire he called the Council of Nicaea to shape Christian documents according to his will for the sake of using it as propaganda, and we really don’t know what the original version of Christianity looked like before Constantine got a hold of it. I have even seen speculation that Christianity was some sort of kabbalah or Dionysian cult before Constantine. While we can never know Constantine’s true motives for allegedly converting to Christianity, the idea that he changed the entire Christian religion by altering its canon of documents is nothing more than a conspiracy theory which is demonstrably false for five reasons.
1. The New Testament Contains Messages and Accounts Which No Roman Emperor Would Actually Want
Constantine’s entire agenda was to unite Rome and reinstate a sentiment of Roman greatness. Why would Constantine put together a religion centered around the hero of that religion being murdered by Roman officials, and the ensuing followers (i.e. Paul) of that hero being persecuted by Rome? Constantine wanted to create pride in the great things the Roman Empire had done. The accounts of the New Testament contradict everything Constantine was trying to accomplish. Therefore it makes little to no sense that he fabricated or significantly altered Christianity.
2. The Council of Nicaea Was Composed of Christian Leaders Rather Than Corrupt Politicians
Supposing that Constantine called together the early Christian leaders in order to drastically change their religion without any resistance from them is the equivalent of thinking that Trump could call together an assembly of Southern Baptist leaders and get them to agree to change their entire body of religious texts and essential doctrines. It’s theoretically possible, but not exactly likely.
3. The Records from the Council of Nicaea Say Nothing About Changing the Christian Canon of Sacred Texts
We have documentation of the issues that were discussed by the council, a letter from the synod to Alexandria, and ancient summaries. Nowhere in any of these original texts do we see discussion of altering the New Testament documents or altering what was considered canonical. The documents from the original council and notes on them can be found here.
This alone should be sufficient evidence, but if someone wants to continue with a conspiracy theory they would need to weave together a story about Constantine bribing and coercing men into fabricating a religion based on stories that seem disadvantageous for Constantine’s agenda then proceeding to pull off one of the greatest public hoaxes by destroying all evidence and testimony that the religion had been seriously changed at Nicaea.
4. Pre-Constantinian Quotations of the New Testament Align With the Texts as We Have Them Today
Thanks to authors such as Origin, Clement of Alexandria, Clement Bishop of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Eusebius, Papias, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr who all quoted documents from the New Testament well before Constantine was ever on the scene, we know with certainty that most books of the New Testament were widely established and accepted since they were quoted by early Church figures authoritatively. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are true. But it does mean they definitively predated Constantine. Furthermore, these early quotations from the New Testament have only a minuscule amount of variation from the texts as we have them today which excludes the possibility of Constantine somehow persuading the entire council of Nicaea to tamper with them.
This is only a very, very brief summary, but I previously wrote a post which goes a little more in depth — The Authority Of The Historical Books Of The New Testament #1: Early Quotations From The Historical Books. For an even more in depth look, I highly recommend Paley’s Evidences of Christianity.
5. The Canon of the New Testament was widely established before the Reign of Constantine
Finally, the Muratorian Fragment from about 170 a.d. confirms 22 of the 27 books in the New Testament, and Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus give us additional versions of the New Testament canon. While the topic of what books were considered canonical was a topic of debate in the early church, we know that a fair consensus had already been drawn on the bulk of the New Testament about a century before Constantine was even born. The only books listed in these early canons which we do not still consider part of our canon today are The Shepherd of Hermas (accepted by Irenaeus) and The Apocalypse of Peter (listed in the Muratorian Fragment), therefore we can exclude the possibility that Constantine somehow convinced the early Church leaders at the Council of Nicaea to throw out any significant works.
The message of the New Testament is too contradictory to Constantine’s goal of recreating Roman pride for him to have tailored it himself. But even if he saw some sort of advantage in handcrafting such a counterintuitive religion himself, then he would have had to persuade, bribe, or coerce all of the ~300 Christian leaders present at the council to get them on board with his agenda in one of the greatest conspiracies of all time. But the actual documents which tell us everything that happened from Nicaea say nothing about the men altering the canon or the message of the New Testament. But even granting the possibility that this truly was one of the most elaborate conspiracies ever, we know Constantine could not have altered the actual content of the books of the New Testament because the texts as we have them now show no change compared to the quotations of those same books long before Constantine. This leaves open the possibility that the men at Nicaea created their own canon by deciding what books would be considered sacred and which books wouldn’t, but even this theory falls flat in light of the fact that the canon of the New Testament was widely established before Constantine and there is no evidence that there were significant New Testament documents that were part of the established canons before Constantine that were not accepted after.
Given this evidence, there is absolutely no reasonable argument that Constantine corrupted the New Testament texts in any way shape or form, and any attempt to hatch a conspiracy theory that can survive in spite of the evidence is deserving of a tin foil hat award.
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