The Search for Confessors at the Council of Nicaea
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The Search for Confessors at the Council of Nicaea

Were confessors prominent and influential participants in the Council of Nicaea? Modern scholars have often thought so, but this article will explore the weak evidentiary basis for this claim. For the purpose of this inquiry, "confessors" (Lat.: confessores) are believers who suffered and were maimed in times of persecution, but not killed. This article examines the evidence for the presence and role of confessors at the Council of Nicaea. The term "confessor," however, did not have a fixed definition in the early church. In the broadest sense, a confessor acknowledged that he or she was Christian and was prepared to suffer in a time of persecution. Some confessors died for faith convictions, becoming martyrs, while others survived various sufferings, including torture and bodily mutilation.1

The question to be answered is whether the divergent claims of several ancient sources can support the view that confessor bishops exercised greater authority at the Council of Nicaea because of the persecutions they had borne. This article's "search for confessors," therefore, is to determine both the presence and the authority of confessors at the Council by examining the citations offered to support the view that their influence was substantial in the formulation and acceptance of the creed. It will be argued that, although there is no reason to question that some confessors were present at this Council, the harmonizing approach of Timothy Barnes, among other scholars, to the ancient witnesses spawns both historical and literary misinterpretations.

The main late ancient Christian author to be examined is Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 387-c. 457), who, roughly a century after this Council, claims that an "assembly of martyrs" was gathered at Nicaea (H. e. 1.7.6). The specific issues [End Page 589] of this Council (most notably, the Son as being from the "ousia" of the Father, or homoousios with the Father) do not directly bear upon the present inquiry. What is of interest is Theodoret's depiction of bishops who had suffered under the relatively recent persecutions in such a contentious gathering to define the Son's ontological relationship to the Father.2

Accepting Theodoret's depiction as a reliable account of confessors at this Council, Timothy Barnes writes about the confessors there: "Prestige did not depend mainly on a bishop's see nor on his subtlety in debate. Confessors, especially those whose missing eyes and maimed ankles manifested proof of their steadfastness during persecution, enjoyed enormous authority."3 In a footnote, Barnes indicates that he bases this inference on the following five ancient witnesses, which this article examines: Rufinus, H. e. 10.4, 12; Socrates, H. e. 1.11.1ff.; Sozomen, H. e. 1.10, 23; Theodoret, H. e. 1.7.6, 2.26.6; and Gelasius of Cyzicus, H. e. 2.9.4 Other scholars who come to a similar conclusion about the prominence of maimed confessors at Nicaea include Ramsay MacMullen as well as Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall.5 Several other influential accounts of Nicaea and of early Christian confessors do not address the issue.6 [End Page 590]

A germ of this idea could perhaps be traced to Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont (d. 1698), who, over three centuries ago, claimed that a Christian named Marianus "had the office of imperial notary (or secretary of state, which was very considerable at the time)," and that Marianus had "been a Confessor for Jesus Christ during the persecution."7 Tillemont's assertion stems from a conflation of Sozomen and Eusebius: Sozomen describes Marianus as "imperial notary" at the Council, and Eusebius of Caesarea is said to mention Marianus as a confessor.8 Significantly, neither Sozomen nor Eusebius is said to highlight Marianus's importance as a confessor and that Marianus was present at the Council of Nicaea; nor does Tillemont himself make this claim. Tillemont also voices some hesitation about identifying Marianus as a confessor—albeit for a dogmatic, rather than any plausible historiographic, reason.9 In any case, the Marianus whom Tillemont mentions is to be distinguished from Paul of Neocaesarea and Paphnutius of Egypt, confessors mentioned in other witnesses that this article...