The St Nicholas Of History (Sort Of)

After the recent Heidelcast episode on Christmas and Santa Claus, Brad Isbell reported that his better half asked something to the effect of, “but what about the real St Nicholas?” This is a great question and one that I have intended to investigate. Denizens of Twitter and other BigSocialMedia platforms may read about St Nicholas, at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) punching the heretic Arius in the face. Memes of this abound but what is the history and what is the hagiography? What do we really know about Nicholas, Bishop (Επισοκος) of Myra? The primary source of our knowledge about Nicholas is a hagiography (a life of a saint) by Michael the Archimandrite (a supervisor of monks) dictated to scribes c. AD 710 (see resources). This presents significant problems since, according to modern studies, Nicholas lived c. AD 260–c. 335. This puts considerable historical distance between Nicholas and his hagiographer. We have one source a little closer to the life of Nicholas, a work of praise (Encomium) of Nicholas from c. AD 440 but it is quite brief (see resources) and another work, author unknown, from c. AD 400, Stratelatis (The Soldiers). The first half reminds one of the more straightforward parts of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. AD 150) and the latter half reminds one of the later, hagiographic additions to the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In the Modern period Gerardo Cioffari, a Dominican monk, has devoted his life to the study of Nicholas of Myra.

According to Adam English’s 2018 survey, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra, Nicholas was born in Lycia, in what is now Southern Turkey, on the Mediterranean. There are many legends about him. He came to be regarded as a θαυματουργος (i.e., a wonder worker) and later came to be associated with the distribution of gifts to children. Hence would arise the myth of Santa. He is said to have been imprisoned during the Diocletianic persecution (c. AD 303–11). When Nicholas was born there were perhaps 2 million adherents to Christianity and by the time he died there were about 34 million. Of course, the influx of people into the church, at least in part because Christianity was now in favor with the Emperor, brought with it a new set of problems but that is the stuff of another essay.

According to English, until the work of Cioffari, whether he was even present at Nicea was in considerable doubt since his name appeared only in some of the lists of Bishops. Traditionally it has been said that there were 318 bishops present at Nicea but, in fact, the different lists give different numbers. It is likely that there were about 300 present.

We do know that his remains were discovered, in 1953, in Bari, where his remains had been taken in 1087. His face and head were digitally reconstructed. Apparently he had a broken nose, which makes it tantalizing to imagine him boxing with Arius but imagination is not history. For what it is worth, he was about 5 foot, 4 inches tall.

According to Michael the Archimandrite, Nicholas was an exceptionally pious boy and well educated (in Greek). At around age 18 his parents died, perhaps of a plague that swept through Asia Minor about that time. His inheritance made him wealthy. According to Michael, Nicholas used his new wealth to help the poor, e.g., by providing for a family so that a father would not be tempted to sell (into slavery or prostitution) his daughters in order to pay his debts. He is said to have put some gold coins in a bag and to have tossed it through the window in the dead of night. In the morning, the father awoke delighted to find the crisis averted by an unknown benefactor. Then, according to Michael, Nicholas did the same again to provide a dowry for the girls. We know the story, because, Michael reports, the third time he Nicholas attempted to provide for the girls, he was caught by an anxious father. Again, hagiography is a mixture of legend and fact and we are left to sort out what is what as best we can.

The Bishop of Myra died in AD 295. English observes that Nicholas was most probably 30 (contrary to the medieval myths of the boy-bishop) when he was elected. He would have been rather young to be what was still, for the most part, more like a senior pastor than a regional administrator, which is what we think when we hear the word bishop. The office was becoming such (e.g., Cyprian in Carthage) and Stephen I c. AD 250. Candidates for office frequently demurred. It happened so often that it became commonplace for those elected to write or something to the effect that they had been compelled to take the position.

He was arrested during the persecution ordered by Diocletian (and the instigation of co-regent, Galerius) in AD 303. Diocletian’s order was intended to remove Christians from military service and from Roman life. He was going to restore Rome to her former glory. In these persecutions Roman authorities demanded that suspected Christians would confirm their Christian faith (Christianus es?): “Are you are Christian?” The interrogator would ask the question three times. Should the suspect answer in the affirmative the interrogator demanded the Christian to renounce Christ, to swear by the genius and Caesar and to pour out a drink offering to the Roman gods. Of course Nicholas refused. According to English, he was tortured. Methodius, the Bishop of Patara, was martyred. According to a fourteenth-century Byzantine account, several of the bishops at Nicea (Nicholas included) had physical scars from the Diocletian persecution.

English notes that, with the accession of Constantine, in 311, and his profession of Christian faith,  the Eastern Emperor became even more suspicious of Christians. Even though Constantine had declared Christianity a legal religion (in half the empire), Licinius ejected Christians from government service and banned them from gathering on the basis of health concerns (ahem). He restricted Bishops to their homes. In AD 324 Constantine defeated Licinius and extended protection to the Christians throughout the Empire. Property and position were restored to Christians. Those who had been enslaved for Christ’s sake were liberated. Remarkably, Bishops were even given authority to make civil judgments. By the end of AD 325, the same officials who had harassed him were asking him what he needed to build his new church.

As English observes, it is unlikely that Arius, a presbyter not a bishop, was at the Council of Nicea. Michael tells us that Nicholas was firmly with the orthodox against the Arians. Though physical violence has broken out at church councils there is no evidence that any such thing happened at Nicea or that Nicholas slapped or punched Arius at Nicea or any other time. The Encomium does praise Nicholas for doing battle with the cult of Artemis/Diana of the Ephesians. He is said to have preached not only in church but also in the market. For centuries Christianity would co-exist with paganism across the Empire.

It is difficult to distinguish the Nicholas of history from the Nicholas of hagiography and myth. Were we to boil down what we actually know to be solid, historical fact it is not much. Is there probably some truth to the stories that grew up to make Michael’s hagiography? Probably. Mainly we should be thankful for faithful pastors like Nicholas and others like him who accepted the office with its burdens and risks. We should give thanks that the Lord delivered his people from a terrible persecution and ask for courage and grace for those who are facing persecutions now. May the Lord equip us with the courage of men like Nicholas and Athanasius as the West makes its journey into post-Christian neo-paganism.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. So he didn’t get boiled to death because the Three Little Pigs thought it was the big bad wolf coming down the chimney?

    • Dunno. Methinks the poor man with the daughters who needed to be kept from being sold and then who needed dowries might’ve been suspected of stealing from his neighbors when a bag of gold mysteriously lands in his house. He probably stood watch and caught Nick providing the dowries because he wanted to exonerate himself and prove he was no thief. Perhaps that piece of hagiography had a ring of historical truth? Who knows?

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