In the past week, scientists announced the discovery of ancient Roman ruins underneath the surface of the lake in Iznik, Turkey. But this was not just any archaeological discovery. They have may have chanced upon the ancient Basilica of the city of Nicaea (now Iznik), one of Christianity's most historic sites and the place where the Church made its first official statement about the relationship between Jesus and God.
Historians and archaeologists had been looking for the ruins of the church for over a century. Mustafa Şahin, the current head of archaeology at Bursa Uludağ University, had been searching the shores for years before he was shown some government survey pictures. These aerial photographs clearly revealed the outline of a large church beneath the water. Dr. Şahin said, “I’d been doing field surveys in Iznik since 2006 and hadn’t yet discovered a magnificent structure like that.”
In the ancient world, Nicaea was a locus for commerce and politics. It was part of the Roman province of Bithnyia and Pontus and competed with rival city Nicomedia for the seat of the Roman governor (a kind of ancient capital city). Though it was sacked in the third century, by the fourth century it had again risen to prominence as a military and administrative center for the eastern part of the Roman empire.
In 325 A.D,, following decades of tense and heated theological debate, the emperor Constantine convened a meeting of bishops in Nicaea to decide upon the central religious debates of the day. Constantine, like other Roman emperors and administrators, was a strong believer in the principles of unity and uniformity. Theological disagreements about the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father had already bubbled into public controversy in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and Constantine wanted to put an end to the discord, which he saw as fractious and divisive.
There had been Church councils before Nicaea, but this was the first that endeavored to reach a consensus by involving global representatives. According to the Christian historian Sozomen, Constantine had Hosius of Cordoba (in Spain) invite the “most eminent men of the churches in every country.”
After originally being scheduled to meet in Ancyra (also in Turkey), the council was moved to Nicaea, where 318 bishops met in June 325 A.D. The most pressing dispute concerned the teachings of a well-known priest named Arius, who was embroiled in a conflict with his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Contrary to many descriptions of this on the internet, both Alexander and Arius agreed that Jesus was the Son of God and God. And they agreed, on the basis of the opening to the Gospel of John, that Jesus was present for the creation of the universe. What they disagreed about was the sense in which Jesus was a God and whether or not he was equal to God the Father. Arius argued that “there was a time when [Jesus] was not.” It was a very brief moment, at the very beginning, when Jesus did not exist. This meant that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father. Alexander, for his part, maintained that Jesus and God the Father had always coexisted and were equal to one another.
At stake in this debate were some fundamental philosophical principles that Christianity had inherited from Greek philosophers like Plato. Each group advocated for a different word to describe the relationship between Father and Son. Arius and his supporters wanted to say that Jesus was homoiousios (of a slightly different substance than the Father) and Alexander and his supporters wanted to say that he is homoousios (of the same substance as the Father). Yes, the entire debate was over a single letter—an iota or “I”—from which we get the modern expressions “an iota of difference” and “a jot of difference.”
The debate at the council was highly contentious. According to a 14th century legend, St. Nicholas (of Santa Claus fame) actually punched Arius at one point in the proceedings. The council eventually sided with Alexander and signed a theological statement known as the Nicene Creed. The vote on the creed was not close: only 20 bishops did not vote for it and only three (Arius and his closest supporters) refused to sign it. That said, the 17 who hadn’t voted for the creed initially were eventually coerced into supporting it by the emperor. Constantine didn’t vote but oversaw the proceedings, dressed in purple.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this moment. The Nicene Creed forms the basis for the modern creed used in churches all over the world today. You know the part that includes, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being (homoousios) with the Father. Through him all things were made...”
As for Arius, he and his closest supporters were exiled from Egypt and labeled as heretics (a label that has stuck to this day). This didn’t put an end to his punishment. After his death, orthodox Christians developed harrowing stories about the gruesome nature of Arius’ death. According to his opponents, Arius died in a public toilet from a kind of explosive diarrhea that caused his intestines to exit his rectum. As Ellen Muehlberger, a professor at the University of Michigan, has shown in an article for Past and Present, this legend is about smearing the teachings of Arius with the filth of excrement. But the legend bolstered the piety of the Council of Nicaea.
It seems likely that the remains of the church at Nicaea now lie three meters under the water in a lake. Even before the site has been excavated, local authorities have developed ambitious plans to make it accessible to tourists by constructing a submarine archaeological museum. The metropolitan mayor, Alinur Aktas, stated that professional diving classes will be available for visitors. Now, those torn between an active beach vacation with lots of scuba diving and a religious pilgrimage no longer have to choose.