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Constantine and the Christian Faith: My Fourth Smithsonian Lecture

I have found over the years that lots of people have mistaken ideas about Constantine the Great, the early fourth century Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity.  I used to have mistaken ideas myself, until I started reading the sources and examining the scholarship.   For example, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, right?  (Wrong.)  Constantine is the reason Christianity took over the empire, right?  (Wrong again).  Constantine didn’t really convert to Christianity: it was a political move by a savvy politician who remained, at heart, a pagan, right?  (Well, uh, sorry…)

It is true, though that the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 CE is one of Christianity’s pivotal events, and that by the end of the 4th century, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion throughout Rome, leading to the suppression of other religious traditions.

Here is a lecture I gave on Constantine and Christianity at the Smithsonian on Feb. 10, 2018.  It is the last of the series of four that I have given here on the blog, based on my book The Triumph of Christianity.


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Why Did Ancient Christian Forgers Commit Forgery?
Why Did Christianity Take Over the World? Smithsonian Lecture 3.



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 2, 2019

    Apart from the passage in Isaiah 7:14, are you aware of any tradition that says the Messiah was to be born of a virgin?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      No, there was no such tradition.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  May 3, 2019

        I’d add that Isaiah 7 isn’t even talking about the messiah, but about a child that would be a sign to King Ahaz regarding a feared invasion from the North. This is quite clear if read in context, which Christians rarely do. The prediction was actually fulfilled hundreds of years before Jesus. Matthew was playing fast and lose with prophecy, as was his wont.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  May 2, 2019

    Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion, as you point out, but do you think Constantine marks the start of the symbiotic relationship between church and government from that point on? A relationship which has been bad for both, I think. Does Constantine’s use of the church for political purposes remind you of any modern politicians?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      Yes he did. And yes he does! (He was one self-centered and ruthless fellow…) (BUT, remarkably competent…) (Which is to be read anyway you want!)

  3. Avatar
    Sooty  May 2, 2019

    Great lecture! Loved Triumph of Christianity–the statistical analysis of Christian growth was the clearest I’ve ever seen, and very convincing.

  4. Avatar
    julianwb  May 2, 2019

    Hi, Bart, I know this is quite off topic, but is there some resource I can use as a layman (I’m a neuroscience student who is interested in learning biblical scholarship) that can help me see what parts of Luke and Matthew are from Q and what parts are from Mark?
    I realize that there are probably parts that are highly debated as to whether they are from Q etc. Much like how there is a debate in parts of the construction of Pentateuch. But, even a resource that points to the parts that aren’t so contested would be brilliant.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      Best thing is to get a “Gospel Parallels” (sometimes called a “Synopsis of the Gospels”) and look at it passage by passage you’ll see. It may take a couple of tries to get used to, but hey, it’s not neuroscience!

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  May 2, 2019

    This is an invitation to speculate. Let’s say Julian had lived another twenty years. Knowing what you know from the sources and what they imply about the exponential growth of Christianity, could his “counter-revolution” have really succeeded? Wouldn’t you have just wound up with a pagan governing elite tenuously holding onto power over a burgeoning Christian majority? Could he have done much more than delay the inevitable? What do you think?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      I think it *could* have succeeded, but it would have taken some massively brutal procedures, and I’m not sure he would have survived it all himself.

  6. Avatar
    Euler  May 2, 2019

    I know this off topic, but would you recommend your favorite books on both the historical Jesus and the Gospel of Mark? I already own your text.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      In my textbook at the end of each chapter, there is a list of suggested readings. I’d start with those. (I assume you mean my textbook on the NT?) (If not, I’d start there!)

      • Avatar
        Euler  May 3, 2019

        I have your ‘popular’ work on the historical Jesus, but will buy the NT textbook.

    • Avatar
      lasloo  May 12, 2019

      I would put forth Joel Marcus’s two book commentary on Mark as part of the Anchor Yale Bible series

  7. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 3, 2019

    off topic

    Dr Ehrman in Mattew 14 27 “But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” It is used the phrase “ego eimi” isn´t that a use of the divine name “I am” like in John when he says “before abraham I am”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2019

      It *can* be the divine name. But it’s not normally. When the Jewish leaders ask the man born blind if he was the one healed by Jesus in John 9 he says “ego eimi” — i.e. I am!

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  May 3, 2019

        good response,. How can anyone differentiate. Just looking at the context? Is there anyother criteria or it is ambiguous in most cases?

  8. Avatar
    larry1  May 25, 2019

    Did Jesus have a last name ? If so , what is it ?

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