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Two Versions of Constantine’s Vision

In this thread I am discussing the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Chrsitianity.  I have already given the political and military background to his conversion, and said something about his religious affiliations prior to converting.  Now I can begin to address what we know about the conversion itself.

We have three principal sources of information for the vision(s) of Constantine that led to the conversion.  The first comes to us in a flattering speech – known as a panegyric – delivered by an anonymous orator in 310 CE, before Constantine had initiated his final actions against Maxentius.  The speech was occasioned by a military victory in a skirmish with Maxentius’s father, brought out of retirement, Maximian.  As was always the case with panegyrics, the speaker had himself written his address and made it entirely sycophantic.   Such speeches were designed to praise the recipient as one of the greatest human beings the universe has ever seen, as revealed by the subject’s activities and experiences.  It is in the context of celebrating Constantine’s marvelous character that the panegyrist of 310 CE describes a vision that he had recently had of the god Apollo, who is often associated in ancient thought with the sun and considered, then, the Sun God.

In the speech we are told that…

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Constantine’s Vision according to Eusebius
Constantine Before His Conversion

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Comments

  1. marcrm68
    marcrm68  July 20, 2016

    I believe that Constantine’s vision was on the eve of the battle, because this was how battles were fought in those days… Emperors had divine visions, or saw good omens in sacrificed goat entrails, etc… This was to inspire the men that the gods were on their side. An emperor who had a vision, and was then defeated, was likely to be executed by his men! Constantine invoked Sol Invictus in his battle against Maximian, and basically fought to a draw… Sol was impotent !… He needed a new, stronger god… He was very lucky to have not been killed by his men. This is a testament to his strong leadership… He was apparently a great natural leader of men!

  2. Wilusa  July 20, 2016

    Hey, I’m learning something new every day! I was familiar with the Chi-Rho symbol, but I didn’t realize its origin went this far back. I’d always assumed the “sign” Constantine claimed to have seen was a cross.

    I’ve heard that some Christians – or at least some lay Catholics – mistakenly think the figures in the Chi-Rho symbol are an X and a P. Or as they read it, a P and an X…which they take to be a reference to the Latin word *pax*, meaning “peace.” I guess none of the people who think *that* realize it was the image Constantine had his troops carry into battle!

    • SidDhartha1953  August 4, 2016

      I’ve never heard that one (PX for pax) but I’m not surprised, given that my children’s religious ed. teacher told them that A.D. stands for “After [the] Death [of Jesus].” It never occurred to her, I guess, that that leaves 30 or so years unaccounted for. On a completely different wavelength, I laughed the first time I saw the letters IHS on the front of an altar and wondered if that was where J.D. Salinger got the expletive “Jesus H. Christ” in The Catcher in the Rye.

  3. marcrm68
    marcrm68  July 20, 2016

    Constantine had Sol Invictus on his coinage way before the battle of Milvian Bridge…

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2016

      Yes, starting in 310 CE, when he allegedly had his first vision.

  4. Jason  July 20, 2016

    What kinds of hallucinogens were available to writers of the first five centuries, and though we might like to (for our own comfort) attribute the “visions” of history to them, how likely is it that they truly played a part in episodes such as this or the writings of John of Patmos or Hermas?

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  July 20, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, in my work as a social scientist who dabbles in religion I’m often asked to define “religion”. I reply the short answer is that religion is institutionalized superstition. Now, of course, religious people are quick to take offense and/or be put off by this definition. I think it is an accurate definition. Here are three examples that illustrate what I mean by “institutionalized superstition”.

    The legendary story behind the founding document of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (one poss. trans. “The Book of the Way of Excellence”) is that the author, Lao Tzu, was some kind of courtier or bureaucrat who chose to leave the royal city and “live off the grid”, as people say today. But before he did Lao Tzu preserved all of his acquired philosophical wisdom in the Tao Te Ching for his disciples, so that future leaders could use it as a guide to right decisions and actions to secure a stable and prosperous future, for both the leader and his subjects. Fast forward a thousand years and ancient copies of that very same document, the Tao Te Ching, were being crumpled up and put into soup by Chinese peasants who believed it possessed magical properties. Institutionalized superstition example number one.

    In the spring of the year 30 CE, the Jewish apocalyptic prophet Jesus the Nazarene was arrested and crucified by the Judean authorities for leading an eschatological movement that — the authorities believed — fomented sedition and rebellion. The object on which he was arbitrarily executed, the cross, eventually became a symbol for the future Christian religion. Today, this instrument of execution, the crucifix, can regularly be seen worn around the necks of billions of people on the planet, like a talisman, amulet, fetish or charm. (Sociologists call such an object, which is meant to represent a greater sacred object, a simulacrum.) Institutionalized superstition example number two.

    Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge Constantine was purported to have had a vision in which he saw the Chi-Rho symbol, hearing a voice say “under this sign you will be victorious”. He ordered his men to paint the Chi-Rho on their shields. Whether or not Constantine actually saw or heard any of this, he did have his soldiers paint the Chi-Rho on their shields, and he was, indeed, victorious. Constantine and his men could connect the dots. Christ –> victory. Institutionalized superstition example number three.

  6. TWood
    TWood  July 21, 2016

    Lactantius’ Schadenfreude… maybe 2 Thess was his favorite book! My question is a bit off topic (I’m waiting to read the next post before I bug you over this exact topic)… Lactantius’ worldview (literally) included mocking the idea of antipodes… I know Augustine was later ambivalent about it… but considering Constantine had Lactantius tutor his son, I imagine the emperor thought highly of this Christian thinker… do you know if Constantine believed antipodes existed?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2016

      I don’t think we know!

    • Wilusa  July 23, 2016

      I had to look up the meaning of “antipodes” (“any place on Earth is the point on the Earth’s surface which is diametrically opposite to it”). I suppose that might be connected with understanding that Earth is a sphere, but what – if anything – does it have to do with the origin of Christianity?

  7. Scott  July 21, 2016

    Is there any way that a different, more appropriately pagan, symbol was painted on the shields before the battle and that Lactantius chose to interpret as a Christian symbol? Could there be other ancient symbols that resemble the Chi-Rho enough to be seen by the author and assumed to be the sign of the Christian god in light of the army’s success – which, of course, must have been a sign of the good will of Lactantius’ god toward his benefactor?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2016

      Yes, it is thought that it was a solar symbol that Lactantius (or Constantine himself) re-interpreted.

  8. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  July 23, 2016

    There are paintings of Apollo playing music for Dionysus.. Both sons of Zeus. Do you think this really happened ? Apollo played music for Dionysus ? And mythology means what to you Bart ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2016

      I think mythology gives great stories about the gods that illustrate well the ancient imagination.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  July 24, 2016

        That is not what mythology means to me. I don’t think it was imagination.

  9. Hormiga  July 23, 2016

    It’s perhaps worth remembering that the sky does produce amazing signs and symbols, some fairly cross-shaped.

    See the various entries at

    http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/common.htm ;
    http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/unusual.htm ; http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/marc.htm ; http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/44pars.htm

  10. Jana  August 4, 2016

    Was there then too a growing religious shift among the common people towards Christianity? It doesn’t seem logical regardless of vision interpretations that Constantine would have acknowledge a Christian vision unless the common movement was all ready proceeding in this direction. Given how astute he was, doesn’t this make logical sense? It seems extraordinary that even persecutors of Christians could even have been held accountable.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2016

      Yes, Christinaity was steadily growing. That’s why it became an option for Constnantine.

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