Thanks to a kind correspondent here, I have become aware that the letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia is preserved in two Latin versions. These are given in Hans-Georg Opitz, Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites (Documents on the history of the Arian dispute), in Athanasius Werke, III, pt. 1, 1934. He gives an edition of the letter as “Urk. 1” (Doc. 1). The text can be found at Archive.org here.
On the first page he lists the two Latin versions, rather gnomically as “Cand. Migne L. 8, 1035.” and “Col. Rev. Ben. 26, 93”. His needless brevity has cost me an hour of my life, and doubtless others the same, so I thought it worth indicating where these might be found.
“Cand.” is Candidus Arianus, whose letter to Marius Victorinus quotes the letter of Arius. “Migne L” means the Patrologia Latina, vol. 8, col. 1035, and it may be found online here.
The Candidus text in the PL is of course a pre-critical text. But there is no question as to what it says, on col. 1037: “ante tempora et aeones plenus deus, unigenitus, et immutabilis” – “before ages and ages fully God, only-begotten and immutable”.
The Cologne ms reads:
Here’s the edition of both in Optiz:
Both say plainly “plenus deus”, fully God.
Since the De Bruyne article is out of copyright but inaccessible, I’ve uploaded it here:
The Da Vinci Code has spawned a host of people who believe that the First Council of Nicaea voted on whether Jesus was God. I tend to correct such people by pointing out that Arius himself calls the Son, “fully God”, in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia (321 AD). I usually include a paragraph from the translation of Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 1947, p.55 (online here), as a particularly clear statement of this:
Eusebius, your brother, Bishop of Caesarea, Theodotus, Paulinus, Athanasius, Gregory, Aetius, and all the other bishops of the East, have been condemned for saying that God existed, without beginning, before the Son; except Philogonius, Hellanicus and Macarius, men who are heretics and unlearned in the faith; some of whom say that the Son is an effluence, others a projection, others that he is co-unbegotten.
To these impieties we cannot even listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But what we say and think we both have taught and continue to teach; that the Son is not unbegotten, nor part of the unbegotten in any way, nor is he derived from any substance; but that by his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable.
This evening I noticed that not every translation of this letter reads this way. So I wondered just what the Greek said.
The letter is transmitted to us by Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, book 1, chapter 5 (although in the NPNF version it is mysteriously chapter 4). The text is edited in the GCS series, and the key passage appears on p.26-27. In fact the key words are the very first two words on p.27. And there are no variants! Here’s the text:
And there it is: πλήρης θεός – pleres theos, fully God. Pleres indeed can mean complete as well as full, as we see in LSJ. But the idea is pretty clear.
I did wonder if there was a variant. After all, everybody knows that Arius did not think that the Son was God in the same way as the Father. I fully expected to see someone “correct” the text to fix what it said, to bring it into accordance with the known views of Arius. But the GCS does not list one.
But Theodoret is not our only source for the letter of Arius. It is also transmitted by Epiphanius in the Panarion, 69.6. This also was edited in the GCS series, by Holl. On p.157 (here) we find the text as follows:
Here Holl is proposing an emendation. But the text as transmitted is still πλήρης θεός – pleres theos, fully God.
There are also two ancient Latin versions of the letter of Arius. The first is by Candidus Arianus, which appears among the works of Marius Victorinus. The other is found in an 8th century manuscript from Cologne Cathedral. Both of these say “plenus deus”, “fully God”. (I have written a separate post on these here).
The letter was also edited by H.-G. Optiz in the Athanasius Werke III/1, as “Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites” (= “Documents for the history of the Arian dispute”) 1934, Urk. 1 (= Doc. 1) accessible online here. Optiz did something a little odd: he simply inserted Holl’s conjecture into the text:
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV)
But there seems no pressing reason to introduce this into the text as transmitted.
The NPNF translator rendered πλήρης θεός as “perfect God”, doubtless thinking of the Latin “perfectus”, completed.
However the translation at the excellent Fourth Century site here is different: it follows Optiz.
(4.) We are not able to listen to these kinds of impieties, even if the heretics threaten us with ten thousand deaths. But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach? — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, full <of grace and truth,> God, the only-begotten, unchangeable.
The translation is in fact that of R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 1988, as they make plain. Hanson page 6:
Which is what Optiz give us.
All the same, we have to work with what Theodoret and Epiphanius and the Latin witnesses record, and what Arius wrote. The old heretic definitely wrote “fully God”. What he actually meant by this, of course, was the subject of the Arian disputes. But he did not believe that the Son was not God.
Note: My sincere thanks to A. von Stockhausen for telling me about Epiphanius and the Optiz text in the comments below, with the very useful links. I have revised this post to include this very valuable information.
In many places online we can find the statement that St Nicholas of Myra – the basis for Santa Claus – was present at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where he punched Arius in the mouth. So … is it true?
Unfortunately we have almost no historical information at all about any St Nicholas of Myra – our information is entirely based on Saint’s Lives of him, of which the earliest are 9th century, and the latest are modern compilations based on medieval collections. All these Lives are really closer to folk-tales than to history, and they reflect the accumulations of popular legends. Some of them do have Nicholas attending the Council of Nicaea; but they do not contain the story of Nicholas punching Arius.
The main collection of source materials about Nicholas is by Gustav Anrich, and in this I found what I suspect is the answer.
Before I look at the data, let’s summarise what it says. Sometime in the middle ages, the story about his attendance at Nicaea was “improved” to show him slapping “an Arian”. Over time, this turned into a story about him slapping Arius himself. The story is now a standard item in Greek Orthodox tradition, and is embedded in their handbook of icon-painting.
On to the data.
In Anrich volume 1, p.459, in the section devoted to testimonia, there is an extract from a Latin text (!) by a certain Petrus de Natalibus, a Venetian. Petrus in 1370 was bishop of Equilio (Jesolo) near Venice, and died around 1400. The text of his work reads:
Fertur beatum Nicolaum jam senem Nicaeno concilio interfuisse et quemdam Arrianum zelo fidei in maxillam percussisse ob idque a concilio mitra et pallio privatum extitisse; propter quod ut plurimum sine mitra depingitur. Sed dum aliquando missam beatae virginis, cujus erat devotus, in pontificalibus celebraret et privationem mitrae et pallii defleret quasi zelo nimio fidei ablata: ecce, cunctis videntibus, duo angeli eidem astiterunt, quorum unus mitram, alius pallium sibi divinitus restituerunt. Et extunc insignia reassumpsit sibi caelitus restituta.
It happened that saint Nicholas, now an old man, was present at the Council of Nicaea, and out of jealousy of faith struck a certain Arian in the jaw, on account of which it is recorded that he was deprived of his mitre and pallium; on account of which he is often depicted without a mitre. …
This tells us that the story had arisen by whenever Petrus wrote these words – it is really difficult to find much about him! -, and was known in the West, or at least in Venice. So it probably had existed for some time at that point. But at this point it is not Arius himself – only “a certain Arian”.
The next piece of data is an extract from a biography by an obscure Damaskenos Monachus, written in the second half of the 16th century. Apparently he lived in the second half of the 16th century, and may (or may not) be identical with the man of that name who was Bishop of Liti and Rendini in 1564; and Metropolitan of Naupaktos and Arta in 1570. He composed a biography of St Nicholas of Myra, based on earlier accounts, which he included in his Thesaurus. The oldest edition of his work was printed in Venice in 1570. Anrich obtained this information from E. Legrand, Bibliographie hellenique II (1885), p.12 f., which contains little more than you have above.
Anrich states that the Vita of Damaskenos is a vulgarisation of the Vita by Simon Metaphrastes, who created the standard Greek hagiographical texts in the 11th century. I don’t know if any edition of Damaskinos can be found online?
Damascenos the Monk: Life of saint Nicholas the wonder-worker: Large collection of lives of saints, or “Great Book of Saints” by Const. Chr. Doukakis. Athens, 20 December, 1896, pages 171-190.
10. p.179-180. After the king seated himself on the throne, one hundred and fifty nine fathers seated themselves at either side of him, both they and Arius arguing with much unease. Saint Nicholas, noticing that Arius was about to quash all the archpriests and moved by divine zeal, rose up and gave him a slap that shook all his members. Complaining, Arius says to the king: “O most just king, is it fair, before your royal highness, for one to strike another? If he has something to say, let him speak as the other fathers do; if he is ignorant, let him remain silent as his like are. For what reason does he slap me in the presence of your highness?” Hearing this, the king was greatly disappointed and said to the archpriests: “Holy archpriests, it is the law, that whosoever raises his hand before the king to strike someone, that it should be cut off. I leave this to you, so that your holiness(es) might be the judge.” The archpriests replied, saying: “Your majesty, that the archpriest has acted wrongly all of us confess it; except that we beseech you, let us unstate him now and imprison him, and after the dissolution of the council, we shall then convict him.”
Having unstated and imprisoned him, that night Christ and the Holy Mother Theotokos appeared in prison and said: “Nicholas, why are you imprisoned?” And the saint replied: “For loving You”. Christ then said to him: “Take this,” and gave him the holy gospel; the Holy Mother Theotokos gave him the archpriestly omophorion (scapular). The next day some acquaintances of his brought him bread and they saw that he was freed of his fetters and on his shoulder he was wearing the omophorion, while reading the holy gospel he was holding in his hands. Having asked him where he found them, he told them the whole truth. Having learnt of this, the king took him out of the prison and asked for forgiveness, as did all the others. After the dissolution of the council, all the archpriests returned home, as did saint Nicholas, to his province.
This is the earliest text known to me, and evidently to Anrich, which records Nicholas punching Arius.
Die Darstellung der Nicaea-Episode stimmt mit den Angaben des Malbuches (unten S. 463,15 ff u. 33 ff); die nur in den Hauptzügen mit diesen beiden stimmende Dartellung von Petrus de Natalibus beweist, daß der Grundstock der Legende mindestens ins 14. Jh. zurückgeht.
The presentation of the Nicaea episode is consistent with the information provided by the Painting book (below, p 463, 15 et seq u 33 et seq.); since only the more significant features of these two versions agree with the story as given by Petrus de Natalibus, this shows that the foundation of the legend goes back at least to the 14th century.
The “Painting book” (I don’t know the English name of this work: in German it is the Malbuch) is the 18th century manual of iconography from Mount Athos, produced by Dionysius of Foura. This gives the legends to be attached to icons. The first reads as follows:
“The holy and ecumenical 1st Synod in Nicaea….
And Arius, standing, also in hieratic vestment, and standing before him, Saint Nicholas with arm outstretched to slap him.”
The second one says:
“The saint in prison, receiving the gospel from Christ and the omophorion from the Holy Mother. – Prison, and at the centre is the saint and Christ at his right holding a gospel; at his left the Theotokos holding an omphorion: they are giving these to him.”
The presence of the item in the Handbook shows that the topic is a standard one for icons. So we may presume that the story reaches us today from Greek Orthodox sources, for whom it is a traditional motif, depicted in their churches.
Here is an example of the scene in a fresco from the Soumela monastery (via Livius.org):
To summarise again: there is no ancient evidence whatever that St Nicholas punched or slapped Arius at the First Council of Nicaea. The story is not found in any text before the late 14th century, and even that one mentions only “a certain Arian”. In the next two centuries the legend mutates into Nicholas slapping Arius; and is then disseminated in works of popular fiction, and by the paintings of icons. It has no historical basis whatever.
UPDATE: I am advised that ράπισμα means slap, not punch. My correspondent adds: ” it was a slap intended to shock Arius back to his senses”.
G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos: Der Heilige Nikolaos in der Griechischen Kirche, 2 vols, 1913. Accessible to Americans at Hathi Trust.↩
Anrich gives a reference: Petrus de Natalibus, Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eorum ex diversis voluminibus collectus, Lugduni 1508, Fol. VII. The English title appears to be Legends of the Saints. Various editions are present on Google Books. In the 1543 edition, the text is on folio Vb, at the top of the right-hand column.↩