What Are the Sources for the First Council of Nicaea?

Updated on April 10, 2018
Peopleofthebook profile image

B. A. Johnson is an avid student of history. He endeavors to provide detailed and carefully documented histories of the Christian church.


When the name “Nicaea” is heard, an array of diverse, conflicting, even contradicting notions come to mind. In recent years the Fist Council of Nicaea has become the subject of intense interest, particularly thanks to the efforts of pop-entertainment and ill-informed apologists. It is not difficult to find a number of articles confidently asserting what did and did not take place at that council, but ultimately, the best way to determine what is true and what is false – or what can be known and what is pure fiction – is to consult the historical sources.

What are the Sources for the First Council of Nicaea

When studying events in history, it is necessary to rely on at least two kinds of sources – primary and secondary. A primary source is a document written or dictated by an individual who was directly involved or witness to the events in question. Naturally, although the natural bias of the source(s) must be taken into account, primary sources are of prime importance when determining what took place. Secondary sources are those sources which gathered their information from primary sources, but had no direct involvement in the events relayed. Often times, it is only through secondary sources that we are able to have access to primary sources which may be quoted or excerpted in these secondary texts.

Broadly speaking, there are three primary sources for the First Council of Nicaea and as many as six secondary, although two of these later sources might rather be considered tertiary. Other sources, including such vital ones as a letter from Nicaea itself are known, but they offer few if any details as to what took place.

The primary sources are the accounts of Athanasius, Eusebius, and Eustathius (though this final source only comes to us via Theodoret’s ecclesiastical history). The secondary sources are the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomenus (Sozomen), Theodoret, and Rufinius, as well as excerpts and references to Sabinus’ “Acts of the Synods,” and an “Epitome” (summary) of an ecclesiastical history by Philostorgius.

Eusebius Pamphilus
Eusebius Pamphilus

Primary Sources

Eusebius Pamphilus

Of the three primary sources for the First Council of Nicaea, Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea is perhaps the best known. Eusebius was the Bishop of Caesarea and was a prominent figure at the Council of Nicaea itself. He further earns distinction as an excellent source for the fact that he was neither an advocate of the Arian cause nor of what would become known as “Nicene Orthodoxy.” Indeed, Eusebius remained somewhat of a moderate voice, even long after he willingly signed his name to the Orthodox Creed at Nicaea – so much so that many still question whether he ought to be considered Arian or Orthodox.

Eusebius is considered the “Father of Church History” for his ecclesiastical history which was completed in 324 A.D. – a year before Nicaea. But this was not his only work and obviously cannot be a source for the council in question. Eusebius later composed “The Life of Constantine1,” which was somewhat of a continuation of his previous work and which holds a detailed description of the Council of Nicaea. Additionally, we possess copies of a letter Eusebius composed to his church in Caesaria2, which is the only document containing details of the First Nicaean Council written the same year as the council itself.

Athanasius of Antioch

Although Athanasius’ name would later become synonymous with Nicaean Orthodoxy, at the time of the Council of Nicaea he was only a deacon and unable to speak at the council. But according to Rufinius, Athanasius was indeed present, assisting his aging Bishop Alexander as the proceedings unfolded3. As such, Athanasius represents another witness to the council.

Athanasius was a simple man and never undertook such a grand history as that put forward by Eusebius of Caesarea, but he was a passionate defender of orthodoxy and wrote a number of letters and treatises among which are a “Defense of the Nicene Definition4” and a Letter to the Bishops of Africa5. In these letters, Athanasius recalls the events at Nicaea to defend the orthodox faith both as an encouragement to those standing in the face of a then powerful Arian Imperial Church and to urge those swayed toward the Arian cause to return to orthodoxy.


Eustathius was the Bishop of Antioch at the time of the Council of Nicaea and may have given an address to his fellow bishops there. Although his account of the council does not come to us directly in an independent work, an excerpt still exists in Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History6.


Secondary Sources

The most important of the secondary sources are the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates Scholasticus7, Theodoret8, Rufinius9, and Sozomen10, all of which contain a detailed account of the council of Nicaea. Although each of these rely heavily on Eusebius and Athanasius, they include details and accounts from other sources which might not otherwise have been available.

Beside these, two other sources deserve some mention, though their value is limited to presenting some reference to the Council of Nicaea from voices which oppose Nicaean Orthodoxy. These works are the “Acts of the Synods” by Sabinus, and the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius which remains only in a condensed summary by Photius the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Unfortunately, Sabinus’ work only comes to us by citations from other writers, in particular Socrates Scholasticus. Sabinus was a follower of the Macedonian sect (adherents to the teachings of Macedonius), and had no love for the Nicene Creed nor those who espoused it. It is notable that his primary citer – Socrates – much like Eusebius before him has been questioned in regards to where he fell on the issue of Orthodoxy. Socrates presents a very balanced view, though never affirming the Arian position, even so, he cautioned that not too much confidence should be put in Sabinus’ assertions11. Sabinus’ account (at least as cited) does not conflict with the fundamental facts of the Council at Nicaea presented by the other writers, although he does accuse the majority of bishops at Nicaea as being ignoramuses and simpletons11!

Photius’ summary of the ecclesiastical history by Philostorgius also agrees with other accounts in its sparse details of the Council of Nicaea itself12, although the circumstances surrounding and following the council certainly reflect Philostorgius’ Arian theology. As Photius’ summary of each chapter is brief and his own orthodox views are made clear, this work is never the less valuable as a somewhat more cohesive overview of an Arian history of the First Council of Nicaea.

A List of Sources on the Council of Nicaea


- Life of Constantine

- Epistle of Eusebius (Socrates, Book 1, chapter 8. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition)


- Defense of the Nicene Definition

- Synodal Letter to the Bishops in Africa


- Excerpt in Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 7

Socrates Scholasticus

- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 8


- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 6-11


- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 1-6


- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1 chapters 17-25


- Photius’ Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, book 1 chapters 9-10


1. Eusebius, Life of Constantine

2. Eusebius, Epistle of Eusebius (Socrates, Book 1, chapter 8. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition)

3. Rufinius, Book 10, chapter 5

4. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition

5. Athanasius, Synodal Letter to the Bishops in Africa

6. Theodoret, Book 1 chapter 7

7. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 8

8. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 6-11

9.Rufinius of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 1-6

10. Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1 chapters 17-25

11. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 8

12. Photius, Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, book 1 chapters 9-10


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Hey friend keep your studies coming through in your articles. You be the primary and I will be the secondary ;-)

    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      5 months ago

      Eric, always a pleasure to hear from you! I agree, I am very much looking forward to diving in to the post-Nicene era; it illuminates a great deal of the world as we know it today.

      And thank you so much for drawing my attention to my typo! Yes, 24 A.D. might be a tad bit early! ;)

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Great stuff. Gives me much to look up and learn. I will bet you that 97% of Bible readers and Christians in general have no idea about Nicea and that is sad.

      I believe you meant 324 AD instead of 24 AD on Eusebius Pamphilus. 24 would be quite a trick.

      The history after is quite illuminating on the Issue of "Eastern" Orthodox and Roman Catholic.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)