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.
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