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The Conversion of Constantine and Beyond

I am now nearly finished discussing the Prospectus that I floated before several publishers this past summer for my new book The Triumph of Christianity.   My original idea, as you will see below, was to start with the earliest disciples of Jesus, right after his death, who came to think he had been raised from the dead – I’m happy to call them the “first Christians,” even though a lot of scholars object to calling anyone “Christian” until much later; I just don’t have those qualms – and to discuss the spread of Christianity up to the key moment in history, the conversion of the emperor Constantine nearly three hundred years later in the year 312 CE.  Constantine’s conversion, in this way of looking at things, was the turning point.  After that, the Empire was on the path to becoming Christian.

I have since changed my mind and decided to go past Constantine up to the end of the fourth century.  But before explaining that, here is how I end my original Prospectus.

*****************************************************************

The Conversion of Constantine and Its Aftermath (one chapter)

In this final section I will discuss the most cataclysmic event to happen in Christianity since the death of Jesus and the conversion of Paul.   In an empire that was still overwhelmingly pagan, the Roman emperor decided to embrace Christianity.  That changed everything for all time.

I will first lay out the historical backdrop to this historic event by explaining the history of the Roman persecutions of Christians, since Constantine’s change of heart came on the heels of the most deadly and widespread opposition to the faith in history.  I will then discuss what we know about Constantine’s conversion based on the reports of the church father Eusebius (who actually knew him).   I will explore the question of whether Constantine’s conversion was authentic or not.   And I will explain how the conversion affected the Christian mission.

There are numerous misunderstandings about Constantine’s role in Christianity.  He did not, for example, make Christianity the “official” religion of the empire.  Not at all.  But he did make it, first, a tolerated religion and, then, a favored one.   Constantine showered all sorts of benefactions on Christians, Christian leaders, and Christian churches.   He donated huge amounts of money and large pieces of property.  He built churches.   His active support of the church made it both a popular and smart thing to convert to the Christian faith.  And so people did.  In droves.  Throughout the fourth century.

By the end of the fourth century, fully half of the empire confessed faith in Christ.   In 380 CE the emperor Theodosius I made it illegal to perform pagan sacrifices or to convert to Judaism.   Christianity became the religion of Rome.  That led it to become the religion of West, where it is still the dominant religion, now 1500 years later.

I will wrap up this chapter, and the book, by summarizing how the Christian faith moved from being a Jewish sect held by a handful of illiterate peasants in Jerusalem to becoming the most important religious, social, cultural, political, and economic force the Western world has ever seen, one that continues to affect not only the two billion people who claim personal allegiance to Jesus, but everyone with any connection to the world and the culture of the West.

***************************************************************

As I will indicate in later posts, I have now decided (despite what I said in the Prospectus, cited above) not to focus just on Constantine in the final chapter of the book, but to have at least two chapters, possibly more, on what happened in the fourth century.   The conversion of Constantine will still be key.  But I want to develop at greater length what took place in the years that followed, focusing more than I had originally planned on several issues:  (a) the heightened emphasis on Christianity during the reigns of Constantine’s successors (his sons); (b) the official attempt to shift the religious loyalties of the Empire back to paganism during the reign of Julian (known as Julian the apostate; he was Constantine’s nephew) in the years 361-63; (c) the significance of the emperor Theodosius I who was the one who made Christianity the official religion of the empire, outlawing pagan religious practices; (d) the resultant violence against pagans, both legislative (laws disallowing their freedom of worship) and social (mob violence against pagans and their religious sites).  I will be interested, in this part of the book, in talking not only about what was gained with the so-called triumph of Christianity, but also what was lost (glorious temples, works of art, and lots of culture, e.g.).

I will talk more about all these issues – and in fact everything I’m thinking about with respect to the book – in later posts (some of the topics: the missionary work of Paul; the numerical spread of Christianity; unofficial opposition to the Christians; official persecution; the rise of Christian intellectual apologists; conversion of Constantine; and so on and on).  I’m planning on this being a  long thread, as I hope to use my posts to help me crystalize my ideas about these crucial developments, which had such an enormous influence not only on the nature of Christianity but on the history of Western culture.

This topic is a big ‘un, and it’s very complicated in all sorts of ways.   I hope you will find this thread useful for your own thoughts and reflections.

IF YOU DON’T YET BELONG TO THE BLOG, you can see just from this post what you will be missing out on.  Go ahead and JOIN!  It doesn’t cost much, you get lots for your money, and every penny goes to help those in need.

 


Life After Death in Rome, and other Questions. Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2016
Final Exam for New Testament Class (2016)

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    gsillars  May 4, 2016

    Be careful, Dr. Ehrman, this book looks like it could grow into several volumes.

  2. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  May 4, 2016

    So who destroyed the library of Alexandria?
    My understanding is that Christians destroyed lots of manuscripts that they deemed heretical/pagan but it was the Muslim invaders to entirely annihilate it.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      Scholars debate the question; we really don’t know!

    • Avatar
      Omar6741  May 7, 2016

      Why do you want to drag Muslims into this? Kneejerk Islamophobia?
      Nobody has ever given sound evidence that they destroyed anything of that library! It wasn’t in their interests, nor was it their modus operandi in conquered lands.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 9, 2016

        There were centuries-old rumors that hte library was destroyed during the early Muslim period; all that has since been debunked, even though it is still sometimes said.

    • Avatar
      John E  May 10, 2016

      Probably nobody destroyed it.

      Caesar may have accidentally destroyed the Serapeum by fire but Gibbon’s story of Christians destroying it is probably “Enlightenment” propaganda, and the “Muslim invaders” story is anti-Muslim propaganda from six centuries after the purported events!

      It is unlikely that the library had the number of books that is claimed for it and the books that did exist will just have rotted away and not been copied. So if you want to place the blame somewhere, blame time and weather (and mice)!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 20, 2016

        I find your comments flippant and unsupported historically. There was a great library at Alexandria that was part of the Musaeum and it was damaged and/or destroyed by fire, perhaps in 38 AD, perhaps in 66 (possibly during a pogrom against the Jews), and there have been other later dates proposed. No one has suggested the fire was merely myth and no-one has proposed less than 40,000 scrolls as the number stored and catalogued in the library; that itself would be an enormous number, let alone the hundreds of thousands claimed by others. Further, the discovery of scrolls from before the Common Era gives the lie to the premise that the scrolls simply rotted away. The Nile Delta was a more humid area than Qumran, but the desert was not far away.

  3. Avatar
    flcombs  May 4, 2016

    Probably will be in your book, but “How persecuted were the early Christians really?” One of the arguments often used to claim divine guidance for success is that Christianity was so persecuted that it had to take special help to succeed. But many of the sources we normally hear, even if being “honest” are from the Christian perspective. I remember reading letters to/from Pliny the Younger and a Caesar (I think) about the matter that seemed indifferent. It was along the lines of “don’t go looking for them and only if someone admits to it and won’t do x,y, z punish them…”. So how “official” was the persecution and how consistent through the period really? And if it’s like many other things, even today, just being “illegal” if so doesn’t mean the government is actively enforcing it, hunting people down, or allowing easy “outs” for violators. If it was just sporadic or more local and not empire wide, it isn’t really much of an argument.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      Yup, I’ll be dealing with all this. You may want to look at Candida Moss’s book, The Myth of Persecution.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 4, 2016

    I’m very glad you’ve decided to go on beyond the reign of Constantine! And very *eager* to read what you’ll share with us.

    Personally, I wish Christianity *hadn’t* “triumphed.” And I think that if it hadn’t, Western civilization would already have moved on, past any kind of theism.

    • Avatar
      clairemcdougall  May 6, 2016

      Yes, I think you’re right. The western world would be a very different place if Christianity had been pushed back and remained a sect of Judaism. What essentially came to be a religion of fear and shame undoubtedly kept us from developing out of organised religion and into a higher spirtuality, which, in my opinion, comes quite naturally to us.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 20, 2016

        What is this higher spirituality? Are you really certain that with all its faults, Christianity did not contribute to the development of civilization?

    • Avatar
      John E  May 10, 2016

      If you study the History of Science, you will see that modern Science was invented in the Middle Ages by Catholic priests! Try looking up Bishop Robert Grosseteste for starters. More recently, the “Big Bang” theory was invented by a Catholic priest although you’ll see Dawkins and his ilk trying to imply otherwise.
      Without the “triumph” of Christianity, we’d still be living in mud huts.

  5. Avatar
    Caiaphas  May 4, 2016

    I’m really looking forward to reading about that period between Constantine and Theodosius!

    How much did the conversion or non-conversion of various “barbarian” groups affect the decision-making of other pagans in the empire? Some pagan leaders forced their people to convert, and there are dramatic stories of them desecrating groves, etc.

    Does the historical record enable us to estimate how many converted voluntarily, and how many were converted forcibly, as a function of time?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to by forced conversions. Do you mean to Christianity? There were certainly attempts to force Christians to renounce their religion, and later attempts to force pagans to abandon theirs, if that’s what you mean.

      • Avatar
        Caiaphas  May 10, 2016

        Oh, I was inquiring about conversions TO Christianity.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 10, 2016

          Ah. I can’t think of any forced conversions to Christianity. What do you have in mind?

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 11, 2016

            Re what “Caiaphas” asked about forced conversions of “barbarians”to Christianity: could he have been thinking of a somewhat later time? I think I’ve always assumed that peoples in western Europe and the British Isles were “converted” more or less forcibly, when their *rulers* converted. Am I wrong about that?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 12, 2016

            I don’t know of any forced conversions. If anyone does, let us know!

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 11, 2016

            A P.S. to what I just posted: I’ve assumed my first “Christian” ancestors, and those of most present-day Christians, weren’t “converted” by their own choice. I haven’t thought there was necessarily any violence involved – just its being “understood” that they had to go along with whatever religion their ruler embraced. (And the ruler’s motives often having been more political than spiritual.) Right or wrong?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 12, 2016

            I don’t think there was one rule for how it worked. Presumably lots of htose who “converted” in this way said one thing with their words and actions and another thing in their minds.

          • Avatar
            Caiaphas  May 11, 2016

            I seem to have been thinking of the Christianization of the Germanic peoples during the Middle Ages.
            A little bit out of our time period!

          • Avatar
            SidneyFinehirsh  September 11, 2016

            The documented case of forced conversion in early Christianity is on the island of Minorca in 418 as described by the Bishop Severus in his “Letter on the Conversion of the Jews.” This history of the persecution is particularly interesting because the high level of integration of Jews in Minorcan society who had enjoyed leading positions in island society up until the forced conversion. The celebratory tone of the Bishop’s letters is also worthy of note.

            While as far as I know (not a scholar) this is the only documented case of forced conversion, obviously there could have been more of which we have have no record. However, this type of forced conversion does seem to have been rare and I believe was prohibited by the Justinian code (for whatever that was worth). And I seem to remember that Augustine was appalled.

            Forced conversion took place in all three monotheistic religions even if only occasionally: under the Jewish Hasmoneans (who perhaps invented the practice), under the Muslim Almoravids in Andalusia, and of course in the Spain of Isabella and Ferdinand (and soon thereafter Portugal).

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  May 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, while I think a lot of people are familiar with Constantine’s conversion, and his subsequent support for Christianity throughout the Empire, I’m sure the vast majority of people are totally unfamiliar with what I think is the moment that Christianity planted its flag on the moon, so-to-speak; namely, when Pope Leo I himself, with plenipotentiary power, met with and effectively stopped Attila the Hun’s advance into the Italian peninsula. For the first time a Christian cleric — not a politician, but a cleric! — wielded the power of war and peace. In my opinion, this moment would be a fantastic scene to end your book on, maybe in an epilogue, so that the reader can really see the level of power that the Church had reached during the last days of the Western Empire.

  7. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 4, 2016

    Excellent!

  8. Avatar
    flshrP  May 4, 2016

    So you’ll be following in the footsteps of Edward Gibbon and his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, 1776-89.

    I try to read that three-volume work every 4 or 5 years. It’s an example of great history while also being a jewel in the crown of English literature.

    I particularly enjoy Gibbon as he struggles to keep his cynicism under control. Although you have to read the footnotes carefully to get the complete effect, especially the ones in Latin.

    For example, consider the cynicism in my favorite Gibbon quote:

    “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

    I’m pretty sure he had Constantine I in mind here in particular, even though it’s clear that all the emperors since Caesar Augustus ruled via this maxim.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  May 4, 2016

    Paganism, of course, was never a religion–there was no religion called ‘paganism’ in Roman times. Nobody said “I’m a pagan!” until a handful of western dabblers decided to self-consciously revive paganism in the early 20th century. That’s a term used by Christians to describe non-Christians who are not Abrahaminic monotheists.

    There were many gods you could worship personally, but the ones who really mattered for something were basically the symbolic embodiment of the Roman state itself, and you were expected to acknowledge them in various ways, otherwise you were not acknowledging the state itself, and Rome took that kind of thing very seriously.

    Constantine did not, as you say, declare that Christianity was supplanting the old religious practices. That would have been very bad politics, not something Constantine gets accused of much. However, simply by embracing the new faith (no doubt for many reasons, not just one), he was sending a clear message–change was in the air. Christians were merely happy they no longer were under pressure to profess belief in gods whose existence they entirely discredited. That in itself was overturning the old Roman state religion–well, if that was gone, what was going to be put in its place? Obviously the mindsets of the two religions were not compatible at all.

    This was the source of the mutual incomprehension between monotheist Judaism and Christianity and polytheistic paganism–monotheists are not saying their god is better. They are saying their god IS God–there is no other and there never was and there never will be. The Christians made it even more confusing to Roman polytheists by talking about the Father and the Son and (eventually) The Holy Spirit. Honestly, I don’t see how anyone wouldn’t be confused by that.

    So this is an important point, but it doesn’t change the significance of Constantine’s conversion–he hedged his bets, clearly. If he’d lost a few more battles, maybe he’d have converted back again. But in fact, he revived the fortunes of the Empire, and that in itself seemed to prove that the new religion was the stronger one.

    But does this really mean polytheism is inherently more tolerant? I think it’s mainly tolerant of other polytheists–because the mindsets are compatible–you just keep adding gods. Monotheists are more tolerant of other monotheists than polytheists, but because they get hung up on their own personal vision of the one and only God, it’s harder to get along, even though they agree there’s only one.

    Muslims living in India today would probably say polytheism isn’t very tolerant of them–and after all, Muslims ruled large areas of the Indian subcontinent for generations, and did not stamp out Hinduism, even though it’s as polytheistic as any religion can possibly be. Fundamentalism was not such a factor then. Rulers swiftly learn that banning the faiths of large numbers of people is a good way to lose their grip on power.

    Today, nobody seems very tolerant of anyone in the old world, and I worry that attitude is starting to become prevalent again in the new world. ::sigh::

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 4, 2016

    Bart, I’m most happy to read you’ve decided to extend your book to 400 C.E.! … This will then include the Council of Hippo (393 C.E.) when the 27-book NT canon finally got its ‘stamp of approval.’ Athanasius failed to live to see that his selections (made in 367 C.E.) survived completely intact. … You’ll also cover the Arian controversy. Was Arius poisoned by fellow priests to shut him up, or was that just legend? … I’ve read the liberal Protestant denomination Unitarian-Universalists (that reject the Trinity) trace their deepest roots to Arius. They do not aggressively proselytize, so were considered a harmless (declining) cult by Walter Martin in his book “Kingdom of the Cults.” … You’ll also cover the Nicene Creed too. … Look forward to your book.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      Yes, it will be better to extend the book. But I won’t be talking in it about the history of Christianity in toto, only with respect to its spread (so I won’t be dealing with issues of canon or or Christological controversies, and so on)

      • Avatar
        rivercrowman  May 6, 2016

        That’s fine Bart. … I’m still standing ready to buy the book!

  11. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  May 4, 2016

    I know I have asked before.. But how do you cancel your account ? Would like to end my membership on the blog…with PayPal ? Or can you cancel for me.. Thank Bart !

  12. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  May 4, 2016

    What is your opinion on the so-called Lukan omission (Mk 6:47 to 8:27a having no parallel in Luke)? The explanation that the missing verses are about what one would expect on 4 sheets of the size used in the 2nd century and those 4 pages going missing seems plausible to me. It would be especially plausible if a folio was used, but I don’t know how codex pages were assembled back then. Larry Hurtado recently posted 2 videos on how codices were assembled by the way. I’ll have to go watch them again…..

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      I’ve always thought that Luke just decided not to include this section, but maybe there are better explanations.

  13. Avatar
    plparker  May 4, 2016

    Will be interested in hearing your views on Edward Gibbons as you go through these ideas.

  14. Avatar
    Dshane  May 4, 2016

    I just received a signed copy of Bruce Metzger’s “Manuscript of the Greek Bible”. I’m a big fan of his work and am uber jealous of Dr. Ehrman for having studied under him.

    Do you feel like Metzger’s work was one of a kind? Who has taken his spot in the field?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      Yes, he was unique. No one ever could replace him. I suppose in the English speaking world the closest parallel today would be David Parker.

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  May 4, 2016

    Sounds very interesting, Looking forward to it.

    Will you discuss the whole idea of “conversion” itself? Wouldn’t many pagans have found the idea of completely abandoning their own native religion in favor of another rather strange?

    thx

  16. Avatar
    prairieian  May 4, 2016

    It’s a pedantic point but I question the total of two billion Christians floating about the globe these days. I’d accept two billion believers and cultural Christians, but not two billion believers. The number presumably includes all Europeans, Canadians, Australians etc where Christianity is now an ever shrinking minority activity, with most of the population having either no connection with a church or a very tenuous one. The cultural side is unquestioned – it is the religious tradition of the West – but not so current belief.

    The US appears to be an exception with Christianity front and centre in the public sphere, particularly political (hullo Mr Cruz). Indeed, the role of Christianity in American politics is offputting and approaching bizarre to external observers. This may be incorrect and perhaps there is a larger and larger proportion of Americans adopting the outlook of Europeans or others who are only nominally attached to the religion (or any religion). This decline in belief is awkward because it makes relationships with more fervently religious societies fraught with incomprehension and, to an extent, contempt. That said, the search for origin, meaning and connection is seemingly universal, so I suspect the religious impulse will endure even if the vessel changes.

    • Avatar
      FocusMyView  May 23, 2016

      You seem Anglo obsessed! :D. The Central and South American countries are full of Catholics especially. Sub Saharan Africa is full of Christians. (170 million Nigerians with names like Praise and Worship)! Inroads are being made in India and China as well.
      And Russain rebels stream over the border to help their Orthodox brethren against the fascist Catholics found there! Polish and Austrian populations are afraid of losing their Christian heritage to Muslim mass migrations as they turn to right wing leaders.
      Christianity has not outlived its usefulness just yet.

  17. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  May 5, 2016

    1. How often do you teach Introduction to the Hebrew Bible?
    2. What textbook do you use for it?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      I haven’t taught it for several years not, and probably never will again. When I did teach it, I used Michael Coogan’s book.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 20, 2016

        How do you manage to teach Christianity without study of Hebrew xcripture?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2016

          Are you asking why I haven’t studied Hebrew Scripture? It was my second field in both my masters and PhD programs and I taught it to undergraduates for years, at both Rutgers and UNC.

  18. Avatar
    Tnewby4444  May 5, 2016

    I’ve always been puzzled why the church doesn’t celebrate Constantine more. You could argue that next to Paul, he is the most important figure in the history of the religion.

  19. Avatar
    billw977  May 5, 2016

    Looking forward to your new book from a scholars perspective. Speaking of scholars, what would be your guess as to the percentage of scholars who basically take the same stance as you do? I’ve read a couple of your books and watched several debates with you and Dan Wallace, White and others and I know that there are those on both sides of the fence. But in general academia, do most scholars hold the same skepticism as you do as far as the scriptures being “divinely inspired”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      It’s hard to say, since most scholars of the New Testament (the overwhelming majority) are committed Christians. But it really depends *which* stance of mine you’re referring to.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 5, 2016

    I am finding it useful, but complicated. Please keep going!

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