Nicholas of Myra – Santa Claus – and the Council of Nicaea.

19 Dec

In case the world really does end Friday I wanted to throw a quick, slightly Christmas-themed post up about Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas later became Saint Nicholas and later morphed into Santa Claus. Along the way he pardoned condemned criminals(innocent condemned criminals BTW), chased screaming demons all over Anatolia while destroying pagan temples and threw a few bags of gold through a window at three young women so they wouldn’t become prostitutes. And at some point he moved North and domesticated a few reindeer. He also was a victim of the Diocletian persecutions and a Bishop at the Council of Nicaea, if you believe the summaries of his life you can find on the web.

So what’s really known about Saint Nicholas? Not much. He is supposed to have been born in the later 3rd century and died in the middle of the 4th. His vita was composed by Michael the Archimandrite in the early 8th century, about 350 years after his death. It’s almost certain that this was composed of oral traditions, particularly those which were associated with his cult, along with hagiographical conventions. You can find a partially translated version here.

I’m willing to accept that he lived, was likely Bishop of Myra (located in what is today southern Turkey), and was either a good guy or had folks who were willing to promote him as a good guy beginning shortly after his death (his cult appears to have developed fairly quickly). Beyond that we’re mostly in the dark. Various aspects of the Nicholas story would need to be explored to determine their likelihood and you’d be left with considering the probabilities.

4 T
Russian icon of Saint Nicholas from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

I’m going to pick at one single piece of Nicholas and look at it from the perspective of a recent reading of mine. The question is, Was Nicholas at Nicaea?

This is one of the better online biographies of Saint Nicholas. Near the end, this page discusses whether Nicholas was at Nicaea or not, as his name does not appear on most of the lists of bishops in attendance. Rather than trying to rephrase the argument, I’ll copy the section in full.

Perhaps there is some positive evidence for Nicholas’ presence in Nicaea. Although the original minutes of this council were destroyed, people have tried to reconstruct the list of bishops who agreed to the orthodox formula to describe the Trinity, a brief text that became famous as the Nicene Creed. This list is known from eleven medieval copies. Only three of them mention Nicholas, but one of these is considered to be among the best copies.

This means that at a comparatively early stage, the name of Nicholas was either added to or left out from the list.

In the first scenario, a copyist was surprised that the popular and famous bishop of Myra was not mentioned in the list, and corrected what he believed to be an error. (The popularity of the cult of Nicholas can be deduced from the rapidly increasing number of boys called Nicholas.)

Alternatively, someone thought that it was better to forget that Nicholas had been among the bishops.

There is a late source that appears to confirm the last-mentioned scenario. According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow for Arianism, and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop. Therefore, Nicholas is shown without mitre on Greek icons. In fact, this anecdote is embarrasing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented.

I recently posted a discussion I found in Sara Parvis’ Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345. In it she argues, persuasively in my opinion, that Arianism really didn’t exist until about 340, over 15 years following Nicaea, and was largely created by Athanasius and Marcellinus. Arius and Arianism are never mentioned at Nicaea. The story in most of the online bios I’ve seen is that Nicholas didn’t slap just any old Arian proponent, but Arius himself. But if bishops were the primary proponents, why get mad at a presbyter?

Even if he did, I have a hard time seeing how Nicholas would have lost his robe at Nicaea. The anti-Arian group won, at least on paper. Would they have removed a bishop’s name from the lists (and taken his robe) over slapping a presbyter from the opposing camp? This seems unlikely. What seems even less likely, bordering on the inconceivable, is that no record of it would have survived in any text for 350 years after Nicholas’ death.

Deposing a bishop back then was a big deal. Read about Athanasius if you want to get a sense of how big. The Eusebians, with the backing of a sympathetic Emperor, worked for years to depose Athanasius. And it took a lot of effort for Athanasius to return. The thought that this could have taken place at Nicaea, without any record being kept of it, is just about impossible for me to believe.

It’s possible Nicholas was at Nicaea, but that he was not yet a bishop. His death is placed anywhere from 343-356 so this is plausible. After all, it is generally agreed that Athanasius was there, but as a deacon and so his name doesn’t appear anywhere. But to me, the argument that Nicholas was present as a Bishop doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The other problem I have with the quoted argument is that I don’t believe that depicting someone as such an opponent of Arianism that he lost control on hearing blasphemy would be considered embarrassing, certainly not from the 8th century on, or even after 381 when Theodosius declared that the Nicene statement of faith was the only proper one. There would have been nothing to hide there, not in a setting where Ambrose was celebrated for organizing opposition to an Emperor over this same issue.

I will note that I’m unfamiliar with the arguments over which were the best lists of Bishops at Nicaea but still – deposing a bishop with nobody saying a word about it in any text for the next 350 years? I don’t buy it.

Parvis, Sara, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19928-0131.

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Posted by on December 19, 2012 in Hagiography, Religion


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