May 202020

On this date in 325 the First Council of Nicaea (Νίκαια), the first of many ecumenical (lit. “the whole world”) councils of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey) The council was called by Constantine I, the first nominally Christian Roman emperor, to establish doctrinal unity in the empire. Its main accomplishments were (temporary) settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first version of the Nicene Creed, establishing uniform observance of the date of Easter, and promulgation of early canon law.

This is the kind of theological history I have been teaching for years, and was part of my recent foray into early church history at a theological college in Phnom Penh.  Therefore, I could go on and on and on about the Council.  But I will spare you.  The Byzantine recipe for a fluffy omelet is much more interesting.  The thing is that I hate doctrine with a passion.  I was bored with it when I studied theology at Oxford in the 1970s and I am still bored with it.  It is meaningless – except to sticklers who insist on making logical sense out of pronouncements in the Greek Bible that are contradictory and simply cannot be reconciled logically.  The Christological problem is a great example.

Because John’s gospel starts by saying that Jesus of Galilee was the eternal creative word of God (the Logos) made flesh, subsequent scholars tried to make sense out of who this Jesus really was.  Mark’s gospel is a lot simpler.  He casts Jesus as the Jewish messiah, a “king” come to save the people of Judah from oppression.  The fact that he was a spiritual rather than earthly king took a little explaining, but he did not make the claim that Jesus was God – simply using the cryptic Son of Man (from the book of Daniel) as his title.  John’s claim is much more all-encompassing, and very difficult to integrate with the facts on the ground.  How can Jesus be the eternal God and a man at the same time?  This is the Christological Problem.

At the time there were two conflicting viewpoints: (1) Jesus was fully God and fully human, and was co-eternal from all time with God the Father, and (2) Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, but was created by God the Father.  The latter opinion was promulgated by Arius (Ἄρειος) a Libyan presbyter and ascetic, and priest in Baucalis in Alexandria in Egypt. His point of view – known as Arianism – was widespread in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  The Council of Nicaea spent the bulk of its time debating positions #1 and #2.  Arius was present and defended his position vigorously. At one point (so it is said), St Nicholas of Myra ( ) – yup, Santa Claus – got so enraged with Arius’s rhetoric that he got up and slapped him in the face.

The Nicene Creed that developed during the deliberations of the Council accepted position #1 and rejected Arianism.  So if you are Christian and sing carols at Christmas you will recall from O Come All Ye Faithful, the line “begotten not created” (if you pay any attention to words).  That is, Jesus (the Word), was not created: he is co-eternal with the Father.  If this kind of theology floats your boat I pity you.  I did have to assent to it at my ordination, but I do not find it significant in my Christian life.

The Council also fixed on a date for Easter to be observed through all Christendom – and, most especially, wanted to distinguish it from Passover, even though the two are indelibly related.  This they (sort of) achieved, setting up calendric problems that lasted for over 15 centuries – requiring eventually a move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Nicaea, and later İznik, was, and is, famous for a kind of fluffy omelet called sphongia. Here is a recipe in Byzantine Latin:

ova quattuor, lactis heminam, olei unciam in se dissolvis, ita ut unum corpus facias. in patellam subtilem adicies olei modicum, facies ut bulliat, et adicies impensam quam parasti. una parte cum fuerit coctum, in disco vertes, melle perfundis, piper adspargis et inferes.

 The Latin is a little obscure but my (very) rough translation is as follows:

Four eggs, one cup (half a pint) of milk and an ounce of oil well beaten, to make a mixture. In a pan put a little oil, heat, and add the egg mixture. When it is cooked on one side, place on a dish, pour over honey, add pepper, and serve.

The addition of honey and pepper makes for an interesting dish.  Here is a modern interpretation: