In the town of Nicaea, on the shores of what is now lake Iznik in the north-west of Turkey, a council was held in AD 325 that decided the path for Christianity. It was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine to settle a question that was threatening to split the Christian world at the time: what was the relationship of Jesus to God?
The row had been brewing for seven years, since a priest in Alexandria named Arius had promoted a doctrine whereby Jesus was stated to be non-eternal and generated by God.
This challenged the beliefs of the local bishop, Alexander, who vaguely saw Jesus as being derived from eternity and of a similar nature to God. Two rival theological camps emerged and the dispute seemed intractable.
None of this was music to the ears of Constantine, who was sympathetic to Christianity but not yet a member of the faith (he was only baptised on his deathbed). The emperor’s chief wish was for the large number of Christians living within his realm to coexist peacefully and not spend their time squabbling over what he called “small and very insignificant questions”.
At the council of some 200 bishops, Alexander’s faction skilfully handled proceedings and emerged victorious over Arius’s supporters. In fact, the final resolution went even further than Alexander had before, declaring Jesus to be consubstantial with the father – equal and equally eternal to God.
Desirous to see the matter ended, Constantine used his not insignificant authority to ensure the vast majority of those assembled endorsed the new creed. For biblical historian Geza Vermes, this was a decisive moment in the development of the faith, a fundamental break with the origins of the Jesus movement.
A prophet or a god?
Vermes’s exploration of these events begins three centuries earlier with the flesh-and-blood Jesus. Did such a man really exist?
“I would say it is much more likely that he did than he didn’t,” says Vermes. “To believe that he had been imagined or invented is a much harder task than to rely on the available evidence, which is obviously not as clear-cut as one would like, but is sufficiently good to say that somebody by the name of Jesus existed around the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea in the first century AD.”
Through his reading of the gospels, with the added context of contemporary Jewish writings, Vermes paints a picture of Jesus as “a charismatic prophet”, preaching in Galilee about the imminent arrival of ‘the kingdom of God’. At this time Jesus’s message was transmitted solely to Palestinian Jews, and not yet to the world at large.
Jesus was killed before he could introduce his followers to this kingdom of God, but the impact he had made on those around him ensured that his message was kept alive by a small group of supporters. “It was a little Jewish subset,” Vermes explains, “which had the special peculiarity that they believed Jesus of Nazareth was the crucified, risen and glorified messiah whose return would come very soon.”
The group continued to act as Jews, evidenced by the fact that they visited the Jewish temple, which only those of the Jewish faith were permitted to enter.
Outside the Holy Land, however, non-Jews began to be drawn to the fledgling movement, largely through the efforts of St Paul, who spread the word in places such as Turkey and Asia Minor. In AD 49, at a meeting in Jerusalem, the apostles decreed that non-Jews could join the faith without having to take on all the laws of Moses.
This angered traditionalists, but made conversion to the new religion simpler for those in the wider Greco-Roman world. Soon a divide grew between Jewish and non-Jewish members. A major bone of contention was the figure of Jesus.
The divine Jesus
For the early Jewish Christians, Jesus was a messenger, but it was God the father who remained the central figure of the faith. However, when Paul proselytised among pagan audiences outside Palestine, he placed a greater emphasis on Jesus himself, until gradually the messenger began to be seen as divine – and Jewish Christians became marginalised.
“Church fathers considered the Jewish Christians to be heretics because they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus,” says Vermes. “They continued to exist in little pockets for the following two or three centuries, but gradually petered out, either joining the church or reverting to Judaism. As St Jerome later said, by wanting to be both Jews and Christians, they failed to be either.”
While Jewish membership of the Jesus movement declined, the early church moved further away from its origins and a rift developed between the two faiths. Some Christians began to denounce the Jewish religion.
One of the most extreme was the writer Barnabas, who declared in the early second century that Jews had never been the chosen people. Instead, he claimed, only Christians were.
Now separate from Judaism, the Christians continued to evolve their ideas of Jesus – a process that lasted until the Council of Nicaea. Jesus’s relationship to God the father was, Vermes believes, “the main problem of early Christianity”.
The debate was infused with Greek philosophical ideas that led Jesus to be viewed as a kind of divine message. “But,” says Vermes, “up until 325 there was not a single teacher in the church who dared assert that Jesus was equal to the father. He was the inferior god, not quite the same, not quite as powerful, not quite as eternal as God the father.” It required a major dispute and the Council of Nicaea for that leap to be made.
The Council of Nicaea consolidated and furthered changes that had taken place within Christianity during its first 300 years. Vermes argues that “a faith based on the preaching and message of a charismatic prophet, became a dogmatic religion of the formalised church, under the supervision and rule of the Roman emperor.”
Vermes accepts that many of his views are likely to be controversial, but he hopes that his book will be taken in the spirit that it is written. “I am not one of those who sets out to shock or scandalise,” he says. “I am just trying to get across how I see things and how the evidence is read by me.”
Geza Vermes is a Hungarian-born biblical historian whose career has spanned more than 60 years. He is best known for his work on early Christianity, Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls. His latest book is Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 (Allen Lane, 2012)
This article appears in the October 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine. It is available in all good newsagents, as well as on the Kindle and iPad.