Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Giordano Bruno - Gaspar Schoppe's Account of his Condemnation

'The Burning of Giordano Bruno' by Leonora Carrington, 1964

In my previous post, "The Great Myths 3: Giordano Bruno was a Martyr for Science", I noted the excellent work of Alberto A. Martinez in his recent article "Giordano Bruno and the heresy of many worlds (Annals of Science, Volume 73, 2016, Issue 4, pp. 345-374).  Martinez makes a solid case against the general scholarly consensus that Bruno's multiple worlds cosmology was not one of the reasons he was condemned for heresy, and goes so far as to argue it was actually the primary reason for his execution.  As I note in my post, this does nothing to support the idea that he was a "scientist" or that he was executed for any "scientific ideas", since he was a mystic who rejected the scientific approaches of his day and the multiple worlds idea he adopted into his mystical cosmology was a metaphysical speculation that had no scientific basis at all in 1600.

But I was intrigued by the emphasis that Martinez placed on the testimony of the young former Lutheran Gaspar Schoppe, who wrote an account of the condemnation of Bruno in a letter dated February 17 1600 - the very day of Bruno's execution.  More importantly, at the time Schoppe was living at the palace of Cardinal Ludovico Madruzzo, who was one of the senior presiding inquisitorial judges in Bruno's trial.  It was in Cardinal Madruzzo's palace that the condemnation of Bruno was read and his sentence handed down, so Schoppe's account gives us a unique insight into the vexed and confused historical issue of the precise charges against him.

The problem here is that the sentence that survives assumes all involved already knew the charges and so does not bother to list them, saying only:

"Because you, Fra Giordano, son of the late Giovanni Bruno of Nola in the Kingdom of Naples, professed priest of the order of Saint Dominic, at the age of circa fifty-two years, were denounced to the Holy Office in Venice eight years ago: 
That you said that it was a great blasphemy to say that bread transubstantiates into flesh, etc. et infra. 
These propositions were presented to you on the eighteenth of January 1599 in the congregation of the lord prelates held in the Holy Office ..."

The propositions mentioned here but not listed are now lost and a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to work out exactly what they were.  The Wikipedia entry on Bruno gives eight charges listed by Luigi Firpo, stating they were "made against Bruno by the Roman Inquisition", including a charge regarding "claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity", but fails to mention this list is simply educated speculation by Firpo in his book Il processo di Giordano Bruno (Salerno, 1993). Firpo based his guesses on what we know Bruno had been questioned about by the Inquisition in Venice before he was extradited to Rome, but this cannot be regarded as a list of the Roman Inquisition's charges in 1599.

As a result of this uncertainty, Martinez turns to other evidence, particularly to the account by Schoppe.  He notes that Schoppe lists 12 accusations made against Bruno, which he describes as "horrendous and utter absurdities".  But Martinez notes that:

"The very first one on the list is 'That Worlds are Innumerable'.  Schoppe echoed the precise wording in which it was known as a heresy in Latin: 'Mundos esse innumerabiles'". (Martinez, p. 366)

Personally, I am convinced by the evidence Martinez presents and so have changed from my previous acceptance of the arguments by other scholars, such as Frances Yates, Steven J. Dick and Michael J. Crowe, that the multiplicity of worlds was not part of the charges against Bruno.  But I was intrigued by the idea that Schoppe lists charges against Bruno given that the eight claims he was asked to reject in 1599 is now lost.  So I went looking for a translation of Schoppe's account.  I found that no such translation of the full document exists, but tracking down a scan of an early printed edition of it, (Macchiavellizatio, Qua Unitorum Animos Dissociare Nitentibus Respondetur, 1621) I had a translation made.

So below is the full text of Schoppe's account in English translation for what is, I believe, the first time.

Portrait of Gaspar Schoppe by Rubens, 1606

"A Letter of Gaspar Scioppius, Concerning the Death of Giordano Bruno.

I have no doubt that the letter I wrote in reply to your recent expostulatory epistle was successfully delivered to you. I’m confident that through it I have adequately justified to you my published response . However this very day I am incited to write this, for Giordano Bruno was publicly burned alive in Campo de’ Fiori before the Theatre of Pompey on the charge of heresy. And I consider that this pertains to the last part of my printed Epistle, in which I treat of the punishment of heretics. 

If you were in Rome now, you would hear most of the Italians say that a Lutheran was burned, which would reinforce to a great extent the opinion you entertain of our severity.

But you have to know for once, my R.,1 that our Italians are unable to see the white line2 among the heretics, and never learned to differentiate them: whatever is heretic, they think it must also be Lutheran. I pray to God to keep them in that simplicity, so they may never know in what ways one given heresy can vary from another! For I truly fear that this knowledge of discerning may cost them dearly. Furthermore, so you can hear from me the very Truth, I shall faithfully acquaint you with this matter.

Absolutely no Lutheran or Calvinist, unless he reoffended or publicly induced to sin, was in any way judged in Rome, and by no means sentenced to death.   This is the judgement of our Holiest Lord, that every Lutheran may always pass freely and move at will in Rome, and that they may experience all the gentleness and benevolence from the Cardinals and Prelates of our Curia. And yet I wish you were here, R.! I know thus you would discredit all the dishonest rumours that are currently spreading. Last month there was a noble Saxon among us who had dwelled this very year in Beza’s house. He became known to several Catholics and even to the Cardinal Baronio3, Pontiff's Confessor, who most gently received him, and didn’t discuss with him anything about religion, except for those incidental occasions in which he would encourage his guest in the inquiry of truth. The Cardinal told him to be unworried, for his faith won’t suppose any danger for him, unless he publicly induces to sin through it.  And he was going to stay with us for a long time, but was terrified on account of a rumour about some Englishmen being taken to the Inquisitorial Palace. However, those Englishmen were not what Italians would commonly call Lutherans: they were Puritans suspected of impiously scourging the sacrament as it is accustomed by Englishmen. Perhaps in a similar way I would have believed myself this common rumour that this  Bruno was burned on account of being Lutheran if I hadn’t attended the Office of the Holy Inquisition when the sentence was pronounced; and this is exactly how I know that he was indeed professing heresy.

That Bruno’s homeland was Nola, in the Kingdom of Naples, where he was professed as a Dominican.  He already started doubting the Transubstantiation eighteen years ago (what goes beyond the Reason is, as your Chrysostom  affirms, repugnant), and had even denied it. Then he began casting doubts on the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (whom Chrysostom himself calls purer than all the Cherubim and Seraphim) and moved to Geneva, where he stayed for two years. But he didn’t completely approve of Calvinism and was therefore forced to leave and go to Lyon and then to Toulouse, before finally settling in Paris. There he performed as a supplementary professor, for he saw that regular professors were compelled to attend Holy Mass.  After that, he went to London and published a small book about "the Triumphant Beast"4, that is to say the Pope, for your people accustom to call him "beast" on account of his honour. Then he repaired to Wittenberg and lectured publicly for two years there, if I’m not mistaken. 

Once again forced to leave Wittenberg, he published a small book entitled De inmenso et infinito itemque de innumerabilibus (if I correctly remember the titles, because I had those books with me in Prague), and then another one entitled De umbris et Idaeis5, and in both of them he teaches the most horrible and absurd things; for example: that there’s a countless amount of Worlds; that a soul can indeed migrate from a body to another body and also to another World; that a single soul can form two bodies, that magic is a good thing and it is allowed to practice it; that the Holy Ghost is none other than the soul of the World and this is what Moses meant when he wrote that it hovered over the waters; that the World exists from everlasting; that Moses performed the miracles through magic, in which he had greater skill than the rest of the Egyptians; that Moses fabricated the Laws himself; that the Holy Scriptures are a fable; that the Devil will be saved; that only the Hebrew descend from Adam and Eve and that the rest of the Nations descend from two people that God made the day before; that Christ was not God, but a distinguished magician that mocked people and because of that he wasn’t crucified but rightly hanged; that the Prophets and Apostles were vile magicians and most of them were hanged. Lastly, it would be an endless task to enumerate the entirety of his absurdities, the ones he asserted in his books but also by word of mouth. In summary, he defended everything that has been said by the pagan philosophers or by any ancient or recent heretic. 

He moved from Prague to Braunschweig, and then to Helmstedt, where it is said that he professed for some time. Then, he went to Frankfurt in order to publish a book, and finally ended up in Venice, where he fell into the Inquisition’s hands. Some time afterwards he was sent to Rome, where he was repeatedly examined by the Holy Office and convicted by several eminent theologians. He was allowed forty days to deliberate, after which he promised to retract. Then he maintained his trumpery and another forty days were granted to him, but at the end he had no intent but to mock the Pope and the Inquisition. 

About two years after being imprisoned he was taken to the Supreme Inquisitorial Palace on February 9 before the Most Illustrious Cardinals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition  (who exceed all the others in age, legal practice, and knowledge of law and theology), and before the Theological Counsellors, the Secular Magistrate and the City Governor. And being upon his knees, he heard the sentence against him. It occurred thus: first they related his life, his studies and his doctrine; and mentioned the fraternal care with which the Inquisition had endeavoured to reclaim him. Then they described his stubbornness and impiety. Afterwards he was degraded, excommunicated and delivered to the Secular Power; it should be noted that the Magistrates wished him to be treated with all possible clemency and without spilling blood.  

After the ceremony, he didn’t reply anymore, but said with a menacing gaze: "Perchance you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it". And so he was taken to prison by the Governor’s guard and kept under vigilance in order to see if he would still retract. But it was in vain: today he was led to the stake. As he was already dying, a crucifix was presented to him and he turned his face away to reject it. Thus he miserably burned, and now probably dwells those other Worlds he invented, announcing the manner in which blasphemes and impious are treated by Rome. This is indeed the manner, my R., in which we proceed against these men, or rather against these monsters. I would really like to know whether you approve of this method, or on the contrary you want to permit every person to believe and proclaim anything. For my part I consider that it’s impossible for you not to approve it. You will probably judge that the following should be taken into account: Lutherans neither teach nor believe such things and hence shouldn’t be treated this way. We agree and consequently burn absolutely no Lutheran, but we should perhaps refer to your Luther in different terms. What will you truly say if I claimed and was able to prove that Luther asserted judgements, dogmas and prophecies not like Bruno’s, but even more absurd and horrendous? And I don’t mean them as mere table talk but as the very books he published during his life. 

If you are not sufficiently acquainted with the man who brought to light the Truth that lay buried for so many ages, I will direct you to those places where you may find the substance of his fifth Gospel, though you may discover it in “The Anatomy of Luther”, written by Pistorius6.

Now if Luther is just like Bruno, what do you judge should be done with him? He should certainly burn on sterile wood for the limping god7. But what shall be done then to those who regard him as an Evangelist, as a Prophet or even as the third Elijah? This I leave for you to ponder. Just trust me that roman people don’t judge the heretics with the severity they are believed to; and perhaps they should sternly condemn those that only knowingly and willingly  perish.

Rome, February 17, 1600"


1. The "R." to whom this letter was addressed was Schoppe’s friend Konrad Rittershausen, a German jurist and university lecturer and himself a Lutheran.
2.  The expression "unable to see the white line" is a scholastic one referring to a clear distinction between categories.
3.  "Cardinal Baronio" is Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607).
4.  This is a reference to Bruno's book Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584).  The "beast" of the title is actually not a reference to the Pope but to the corruptions and vices that plague society.
5.  The actual titles are De umbris idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas, 1582); and De innumerabilibus, immenso, et infigurabili (Of Innumerable Things, Vastness and the Unrepresentable, 1591).
6.  "Pistorius" is the German historian Johann Pistorius (1546–1608).
7.  The "limping god" is Vulcan and the "sterile wood" reference is to the ancient practice of burning evil or profane things on wood from trees that are barren of fruit.


Martinez notes that it is the "innumerable worlds" claim that begins the list of 12 beliefs which Scoppe lists as Bruno's heresies.  This is true, but there are the earlier references to denying Transubstantiation and the doctrine of the Virgin Mary which precedes the longer list of charges and it should be noted that the Sentence document of February 1600 also begins with a reference to the former heresy and this is the only one of Bruno's claims that the sentence bothers to specify - " it was a great blasphemy to say that bread transubstantiates into flesh".  Martinez dismisses the earlier references to Transubstantiation and the Virginity of Mary as " Schoppe’s narrative account of Bruno’s early transgressions" and regards it as distinct from "the subsequent and separate list of Bruno’s 'doctrines'" (Martinez, p. 336, n. 132).  He goes on to note "that Schoppe specified that Lutherans were not executed for their teachings (such as about transubstantiation) so it is unjustified to construe Bruno’s transgressions, in Schoppe’s narrative, as the doctrines for which he was found to be an impenitent and obstinate heretic, and for which he was executed. Bruno was neither obstinate nor impenitent about transubstantiation, [or] Mary’s virginity".

My comment here would be that Schoppe is working very hard to put as much distance as possible between Lutheran doctrines and those of Bruno and to reassure his friend Rittershausen that it is only "monsters" like Bruno who are in danger from the Roman Inquisition, not Lutherans, who he depicts as being treated with tolerance.  The fact that the Sentence explicitly mentions denial of Transubstantiation, however, undercuts Martinez's assurance that "Bruno was [not] obstinate nor impenitent about transubstantiation.  It certainly does seem to be the most prominent of the charges against Bruno, no doubt along with some or all of the other claims that Schoppe lists.

What is clear, however, is that heliocentrism is not mentioned, despite the New Atheist pseudo historical insistence that this was the key issue for the Inquisition.  And while the multiplicity of worlds and the eternity of the universe are mentioned, these were metaphysical ideas arrived at by mystical insight.  To characterise them as "scientific" ideas is a gross anachronism and a total distortion of history.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Great Myths 4: Constantine, Nicaea and the Bible

It seems the "Philosophical Atheism" group on Facebook is going to be the New Atheist bad history gift that just keeps on giving.  No anti-Christian snippet or meme seems to be able to get by this group without it being posted as factual, without any hint of checking its claims.  So the gloriously stupid (and grammatically bizarre) pastiche of nonsense above was posted to "Philosophical Atheism" yesterday, with the group's followers reverently genuflecting to its mighty historical truth and insight.  The irony of this meme urging readers "Don't just believe me.  Go look it up." is particularly amusing.  But okay, let's "look it up".

The Myth of the Biblical Canon at Nicaea

This utterly confused meme is referring to the hoary myth that the canon of the Bible was voted on at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and even helpfully includes an image of an icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and key figures from that Council holding a copy of the Nicene Creed formulated by the assembled bishops at Nicaea.  This is the basis of the claim that "Constantine and his bishops voted a bunch of works as the Word of God (325 AD)".  Of course, there certainly was a council held by the emperor Constantine at his palace in Nicaea between May 20 and around June 19 in 325 AD and at it bishops from across the Roman Empire gathered to vote on several things, including the date of Easter, the role of church law and a number of administrative issues.  The key purpose of the Council, however, was the resolution of the Arian Controversy over the status of Jesus as "God the Son" in relation to "God the Father" in the doctrine of the Trinity. The statement of the Council on this matter formed the Nicene Creed which became the basis of future Christological formulations (and the subject of later disputes on the matter).  

What the Council did NOT vote on or even discuss was the Biblical canon - i.e. which Christian books and texts could be considered divinely inspired and therefore "Scripture", which were useful but not scriptural and which were actually "heretical".  Despite this, the idea that the "Bible was created by a vote at the Council of Nicaea" is a pseudo historical myth that has been kicking around for centuries and forms part of several key pieces of pseudo scholarship and pop culture, which reveals the apparently "shocking" but actually rather obvious idea that the Bible was put together by a consensus of human beings.  It certainly formed a key plot element in the schlock pseudo historical thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003) and in its film adaptation in 2006.  Perhaps whoever is responsible for posting this meme to the "Philosophical Atheism" group was living under a rock at the time, but it was one of the claims peddled by Dan Brown as historical that attracted criticism not just from Christians but also from scholars generally.  Agnostic atheist scholar Bart Ehrman was typically emphatic on the subject:

"The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude and he did not order the destruction of the gospels that were left out of the canon. .... The formation of the New Testament canon was a long and drawn out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead." (Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine)

Even if the "Philosophical Atheism" person was living in a cave in the early 2000s and so missed the memo that this stuff is garbage, even the most cursory fact checking would have at least raised doubts in someone who was a genuine rationalist.  After all, the meme's bizarre grammar and reference to "Black Ankhwakening" - a crackpot Afrocentrist/Black Revisionist group - should have been a signal that this needed to be checked carefully.  And a quick Google of "Constantine + Bible" turns up a plethora of detailed links debunking the whole idea.  But it seems fact checking is not high on the priority list of the so-called rationalists over at "Philosophical Atheism".

How the Biblical Canon Actually Developed

As Ehrman notes above, far from being determined by one council and an emperor in 325 AD, the formation of the Christian canon was one of slow development over several centuries.  The whole idea of a "canon" of accepted and authoritative works pre-dates Christianity and began with the development of schools of Greek philosophy.  As works by key philosophers circulated in the decades after their deaths, other works wrongly or falsely attributed to them also found their way into circulation.  So later followers of some philosophical traditions developed rules by which they decided which works were genuine and which were pseudepigraphical forgeries - the word "canon" comes from the Greek κανών meaning "rule", or literally "measuring stick".

By the early second century Christianity had a similar problem, with a wide range of texts, letters and gospels in circulation all claiming to be authentic works of the first generation of Christians.  Any given isolated Christian community may well have known of some of them but not others. They may also have had copies of a few of them, but have only heard of others (since copies of any books were expensive and precious). And they may also have used a variety of other writings, many of which did not find their way into the Bible. There was no single, central "Church" which dictated these things at this early stage - each community operated in either relative isolation or intermittent communication with other communities and there were no standardised texts or a set list of which texts were authoritative and which were not at this very early stage of the Christian faith.

Christianity's parent faith, Judaism, had a similar plethora of religious texts from which it chose a few and considered these to be "Scripture" and especially authoritative as the word of God.  There is evidence that this idea was beginning to be applied to some of the early Christian writings as well, with references to four definitive gospels being made by Irenaeus in the mid second century and a reference to interpretation of the letters of Paul alongside "the rest of the Scriptures" being made as early as c. 120 AD (see 2Peter 3:16).

But it seems that the "heresy" of Marcion was what gave second century Christianity the impetus to begin to define which of these various texts had the status of "Scripture" and which did not.  Marcion was born around 100 AD in the city of Sinope on the southern coast of the Black Sea. After a falling out with his father, the local bishop, he travelled to Rome in around 139 AD. There he began to develop his own Christian theology; one which was quite different to that of his father and of the Christian community in Rome. Marcion was struck by the strong distinction made by Paul between the Law of the Jews and the gospel of Christ. For Marcion, this distinction was absolute: the coming of Jesus made the whole of the Jewish Law and Jewish Scriptures redundant and the 'God' of the Jews was actually quite different to the God preached by Jesus. For Marcion, the Jewish God was evil, vengeful, violent and judgemental, while the God of Jesus was quite the opposite. Marcion decided that there were actually two Gods - the evil one who had misled the Jews and the good one revealed by Jesus.

This understanding led Marcion to put together a canon of Christian Scripture - the first of its kind - which excluded all of the Jewish Scriptures that make up the Old Testament and which included ten of the Epistles of Paul and only one of the gospels: the Gospel of Luke.

Marcion tried to get his radical reassessment of Christianity and his canon accepted by calling a council of the Christian community in Rome. Far from accepting his teachings, the council excommunicated him and he left Rome in disgust, returning to Asia Minor. There he met with far more success, and Marcionite churches sprang up which embraced his idea of two Gods and used his canon of eleven scriptural works. Alarmed at his success, other Christian leaders began to preach and write vigorously against Marcion's ideas and it seems that his canon of eleven works inspired anti-Marcionite Christians to begin to define which texts were and were not Scriptural.

As mentioned above, it was Irenaeus who made the first know defence of the four canonical gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - as the oldest and only scriptural ones, and he did so at least partially on the grounds that these four had always been regarded as the earliest and most authoritative.   Interestingly, after two centuries of sceptical analysis, the overwhelming majority of historians, scholars and textual experts (Christian or otherwise) actually agree with Irenaeus and the consensus is that these four gospels definitely are the earliest of the accounts of Jesus' life.

Not long after Irenaeus' defence of the four canonical gospels we get our first evidence of a defined list of which texts are scriptural. A manuscript called the Muratorian Canon dates to sometime in the late second century AD and was discovered in a library in Milan in the eighteenth century. It details that the canonical four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - along with most of the other books found in the modern New Testament, as well as a couple which are not (the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter) are 'scriptural' and authoritative. It also gives some approval to other, more recent works like The Shepherd of Hermas, but says they should not be read in church as Scripture.

The Muratorian Canon document accepts twenty-three of the twenty-seven works which now make up the New Testament in the Bible. It also explicitly rejects several books on the grounds that they are recent and written by fringe, "heretical" groups and it specifically singles out works by the Gnostic leader Valentius and by Marcion and his followers.

It seems that the challenge posed by Marcion and other dissident groups caused the early Christians to determine which books were scriptural and which were not. And it also seems that recent works, whether they were "heretical" (like the Gnostic gospels) or not (like The Shepherd of Hermas), did not have the status of works from the earliest years of Christianity. It was only these earliest works which were considered authoritative.

So it's clear that the process of deciding which texts were canonical and which were not was already well under way over a century before the Emperor Constantine was even born. It also continued for a long time after he died. Constantine's contemporary, the Christian historian Eusebius, set out to "summarise the writings of the New Testament" in his Church History; a work written towards the end of Constantine's reign. He lists the works which are generally "acknowledged" (Church History, 3.25.1), including the four canonical gospels, Acts, the Epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter and the Apocalypse of John/"Revelation" (though he says this is still disputed by some). He gives other texts which he says are "still disputed"; including James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. He gives other books which are probably "spurious" and then lists others which are definitely considered heretical, including the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Matthias and the Acts of Andrew and John.
So not only did the process of deciding the canon begin long before Constantine, there was still debate within the Church about the canon in his time.

And it continued. In 367 Athanasius wrote his 39th Festal Letter in which he laid out the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament - the first time this canon had been definitively stated by any churchman. A synod convened in Rome by Pope Damasus in 382 AD also considered the question of the canon and, with the help of the great multi-lingual scholar Jerome, settled on the same twenty-seven books set out by Athanasius. At this stage there was still no central authority which could compel church communities in any way but local councils and synods in Hippo and Carthage in north Africa and later ones in Gaul also settled on the same canon.

These local definitions mean that there was actually no definitive statement by the Catholic Church as to the make-up of the New Testament until the Council of Trent in 1546: a full 1209 years after Constantine died. The full development of the canon took several centuries, though the basics of which gospels were to be included was settled by 200 AD at least.

François-Marie Arouet aka "Voltaire"

The Origin of the Myth

So the central historical claim in the meme is total and complete garbage, but if that's so, where did the myth come from?  It seems that it can be traced to a quip made by Voltaire in reference to a miracle story of no historical value.  François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom-de-plume "Voltaire", is still justly famous for his wit, his erudition and for his attacks on the established position of the Catholic Church in the France of his day and his advocacy of freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State.  He made several mentions of the idea that the Biblical canon was decided at the Council of Nicaea in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), noting with amusement the rather silly way the Council supposedly chose the relevant books:

"Il est rapporté dans le supplément du concile de Nicée que les Pères étaient fort embarrassés pour savoir quels étaient les livres cryphes ou apocryphes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament, les mirent tous pêle-mêle sur un autel; et les livres à rejeter tombèrent par terre. C’est dommage que cette belle recette soit perdue de nos jours.

(It is reported in the Supplement of the Council of Nicaea that the Fathers were very embarrassed to learn that there were secret or apocryphal books of the Old and New Testament, [so] putting them on an altar ... the books to be rejected threw themselves to the ground.  It is a pity this beautiful technique is lost to us today.)"

None of the accounts of the Council from the time give so much as a hint about any such event, so Voltaire was clearly working from much later sources.  Some online detective work by Roger Pearse and others has untangled the story of this anecdote, and it appears Voltaire was working from an appendix to the Jesuit scholar Philippe Labbé's Sanctissima concilia (1671), which is the "supplement" mentioned in the quote above.  But the ultimate source seems to be an anonymous medieval Byzantine work, the Vetus Synodikon , which gave an account of the major synods and councils of the Church up to around 887 AD.  This work became available in western Europe in the early seventeenth century and so seems to be where whole story came from.  And the Synodikon account of Nicaea concludes:

"The canonical and apocryphal books it distinguished in the following manner: in the house of God the books were placed down by the holy altar; then the Council asked the Lord in prayer that the inspired works be found on top and - as in fact happened - the spurious on the bottom."

This ninth century miracle story is only found in this one work and is not referenced in any earlier material on the Council of Nicaea.  So it appears to have found its way via its publication by the Lutheran theologian Johannes Pappus (1549-1610) to Philippe Labbé's appendix and thus to Voltaire.  And, thanks to the popularity of Voltaire's work across Europe, his quip about this miraculous selection of books at Nicaea has given rise to the whole myth.

Bronze head of Constantine

Constantine's Bible

Despite the fact that the process of establishing the canon of the Bible began long before Constantine was born and continued after he died and despite him playing no part in it at the Council of Nicaea or anywhere else, the myth continues.  The idea that the Bible was selected by a wicked politician for various nefarious purposes is just too appealing to many people.  And those alleged nefarious purposes include everything from suddenly imposing a divine Jesus on Christianity (according to Dan Brown and his kooky source Holy Blood Holy Grail) to covering up Jesus' New Age beliefs in reincarnation and Indian mysticism (according to that great scholar, Shirley MacLaine).  But it seems the baseless origins and the crackpot supporters of this silly idea don't matter to the guys at "Philosophical Atheism".  Not that any of them checked on this whole thing anyway.

A few of those who are devoted to the whole "Constantine created the Bible" myth have been forced to admit that there is no direct evidence linking the Council of Nicaea to the formation of the canon, so they cling to two pieces of evidence to try to salvage the idea.  The first is a fifth century reference by Jerome in his Prologue to Judith where he notes the Old Testament book of Judith  was "found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures", which they try to argue means the Council did have some kind of discussion on the make up of the canon.  Unfortunately Jerome is simply noting that Judith was considered scriptural in that it was referred to in the deliberations of the Council.

Alternatively, they point to an account by  Eusebius of Caesarea in his Life of Constantine detailing how the emperor commissioned him to oversee the copying and production of 50 copies of "the sacred Scriptures".  Exactly which "sacred Scriptures" is not specified, so it's unknown if this refers to the Old Testament, some canon of the New Testament or both.  But this request (and another one made to Athanasius of Alexandria around the same time) simply reflects the fact that such an enterprise was so massively expensive that it took Imperial sponsorship to fund it and it seems to be one of many acts of patronage of Christianity by Constantine, not some attempt at establishing a canon of his own.  As has already been shown above, the canon was well on the way to being established well before this anyway.

Fact Checking Memes?

So the silly meme posted without the faintest whiff of scepticism or critical analysis by the so-called rationalists of "Philosophical Atheism" is a crackpot myth peddled by New Agers based on an eighteenth century joke and ninth century folk tale.  It's presented by a Black Revisionist kook, along with other pseudo historical conspiracist nonsense and some appalling grammar and syntax.  The obvious question to ask, therefore, is why the hell "Philosophical Atheism" posted this laughable junk?  Simple - because it's anti-Christian.  The New Atheist ideologues at "Philosophical Atheism" don't care about facts, reason, logic or scepticism.  They are just fanatics who post whatever tickles their emotional and irrational prejudices.  Much like many religious believers, ironically enough.

Edit 23.05.17:  After making detailed critical comments on this and other pseudo historical memes on the so-called "Philosophical Atheism" Facebook group I have now been banned from the group, blocked from commenting and all my many detailed comments have been erased.  Thus another great victory has been won for "rationalism" and "free thought".