Four myths about Christian origins

The Da Vinci Code, a bestselling novel published in 2003, popularized the following four myths about Christian origins:


1. Until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Jesus’ followers viewed him as a “mortal” and “not the Son of God.”


Jesus is referred to as the "Son of God" hundreds of times in the literature predating Nicaea, including the earliest extant Christian document (1 Thessalonians), written around 49 CE. Note also that the pagan critic Celsus, who wrote around 178 CE, argued that the Christians were not true monotheists because they “worshiped” Jesus “to an extravagant degree” (Origen, Against Celsus 8.12).


2. The notion that Jesus was the “Son of God” was “officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.”


Everyone at Nicaea believed Jesus was the Son of God. Ironically, it was this very language which prompted the dispute! The New Testament describes Jesus as God's "only begotten Son" (John 3:16). Thus some Christians concluded that Jesus must have been "begotten" (i.e. created by God) at some point prior to the creation of the cosmos. Arius, the leader of the loosing side, explained his position as follows:


But as for us, what do we say, and believe, and what have we taught, and what do we teach? That the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten, nor from some lower essence; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time, and before ages as God full of grace and truth, only-begotten, unchangeable. And that he was not, before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say, "The Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning." (Letter of Arius to Eusebius)


While Arius and his followers believed that the Father created the Son, the winning side insisted that the Son had no beginning. Both sides, however, agreed that Jesus was no mere mortal, but had instead existed "before time and before ages as God full of grace and truth."


3. Constantine “embellished” the New Testament gospels to make Jesus appear divine.


We know this did not happen because we have copies of the gospels that predate Constantine. Consider John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These words are preserved in P75, a papyrus dating from 175 to 225 CE. Constantine was born around 272 CE.


4. Constantine outlawed “earlier” gospels, but some of these survived among the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi papyri.


There are no gospels among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The earliest gospel attested at Nag Hammadi (the Gospel of Thomas) was composed around 120 to 150 CE. The canonical gospels were all composed prior to 100 CE, and most scholars believe that Mark, the earliest gospel, was composed around 70 CE (only 40 years after Jesus died). The canonical gospels are the earliest extant gospels.


Notes:

  • The translations of Celsus and Arius are from from J. Sevenson, A New Eusebius, [SPCK, 1987], 132, 325.

  • For the dates of Celsus and Constantine, see Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and Oxford Classical Dictionary.

  • For the date of P75, see Robert F. Hull, The Story of the New Testament Text (SBL, 2010), 117.

  • For the dates of the NT books and the Gospel of Thomas, see Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press, 1997), 40, 257, 300.



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