Santa vs. Arius, round 2

Now that I’m actually looking for it, I see that this stuff is very popular on Catholic websites and blogs. Here it is – the same version I mentioned last time in comic form.

Excellent epistemologist and apologist Tim McGrew responded on Facebook to my previous post:

Of the 318 bishops that Athanasius (and Eusebius in his Chronicon) say were present, I can find names of only 68, counting Nicholas among them. I do think this calls for a revision of your claim that “[i]f he had been there, likely his name would be on the lists.” The lists are, judging by other information we have, exceedingly incomplete. [emphasis added]

Tim, I can’t find that – can you give a citation and/or link? Book II of the Chronicon  is only preserved by Jerome, isn’t that right? But I don’t find what you say here. I can’t find any mention of Nicholas of Myra by searching Athanasius’s works  (electronically and by indexes of what I have in print). I’m willing to withdraw my argument, but I need to see the primary source(s).

I do find, in addition to the source I cited before, this book. I don’t know how reliable this guy is. But he puts the earliest mention at 510, probably well after St. Nick legends had started to grow.

And The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed., 2003) says, boldly,

No historically trustworthy evidence of [Nicholas's] ancestry or the events of his life exists, except for the fact of his episcopate.

After mentioning his alleged presence at Nicea and some other claims about him (but not the assault on Arius),

More than 2,000 churches are dedicated to him in France and Germany, and about 400 in England. Russia, Sicily, Lorraine, and Greece honor him as patron. The principal miracle-legends deal with his liberation of three unjustly imprisoned officers; his secret provision of dowries for three poor girls; and his deliverance of three innocent youths condemned to death. The oldest documentary evidence of the Nicholas legends is an eleventh-century manuscript in Karlsruhe Library. (“Nicholas of Myra, St., vol. 10, pp. 377, 378, emphasis added)

This reputable writer puts him at Nicea (p. 58), but doesn’t cite any primary source. He says that and the second council of Nicea, in 787, Nick came up:

On October 1, the bishops discussed a series of biblical texts pertaining to images and a long series of citations from patristic writings. …St. Nicholas of Myra and Plato were said to have been recognized in visions because they both looked like their images. (p. 308)

Again, no primary source. :-( The only lesson I take from this is that he was a popular saint at that point.

Here is a somewhat more helpful secondary source, by Dr. Adam C. English. Click to look inside, then scroll down half way, to “Council of Nicea.” Essentially, some lists have Nick at Nicea and others don’t. But the earliest don’t. Hence, the denial cited in my previous post. And some historians, looking at all the evidence, deny he was there. But this author says that on the whole, it is more likely that he was there. I don’t understand the basis of this judgement, just from looking at that excerpt. Is it just that, given the good evidence of his existence as a bishop at the time, he probably would’ve been invited and gone?

In any case , one could grant for the sake of argument that Nicholas was at Nicea. Then, my argument of the last post re: absence of evidence has to be surrendered.

But I would still argue that without a reasonably early source for this tale, we should not believe it. It would have been, had it occurred, a memorable part of the proceedings, and so it is likely that it would’ve been soon recorded. It would be too good, too juicy to leave out. Thus, if it wasn’t…

Is the earliest version of the punching / slapping story in the source named above from the 11th c.?

Update: No answer to this last question yet, but in Facebook discussion Tim says essentially that one should suspend belief on whether or not this happened.

I say, if it were just the different attendance rolls that were relevant, I’d be on the side of suspending belief too. But given the nature of the story, I think denial is more reasonable. This is a… colorful story about a man who for whatever reason became (after his demise) a legend-magnet (and we’re not really sure how early this occurred). And again, had it happened, it likely would’ve been reported at the time.

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

4 Responses to Santa vs. Arius, round 2

  1. Jon Valentine says:

    I don’t have the ability right now, to check around to see if any early sources corroborate this, but the reason accepted in Eastern Orthodox circles for why St. Nicholas is not listed in the earliest lists of bishops attending Nicea is that his slapping/punching of Arius lead to his defrocking. He acted dishonorably by putting the smack down on the heretic, and so he was removed from his episcopal office and stricken from the official list of attendees. Later, he was restored to his office following visions that his fellow bishops had of the Lord Jesus and the Virgin Mary lobbying for his restoration.

  2. Dale says:

    Hi Jon!

    Yeah, I’ve seen the version where the other bishops have a vision which vindicates him. But more often, it just physically happens – Jesus and Mary show up, award him with a copy of the Bible (what a great relic that would be!) and a bishop’s garment, delivered to him in his prison cell. I suspect this is all late legend.

    It also bugs me that in these stories Jesus asks why he’s there in prison, and he says something like, “For love of you, Lord.” But no, he’s there for an assault!

  3. JT says:

    Didn’t Athanasius play a rather minor role at Nicea anyway? I mean, despite how he tells the story himself years later, wasn’t he only a young whipper snapper at the time of Nicea (in which case his job must have been to fetch a latte for Alexander)?

    “Nicholas is so tough there isn’t a chin under his beard. There is only another fist.”

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