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Constantine Before His Conversion

We have comparatively excellent sources for Constantine’s adult life, including his own writings, laws he enacted, a biography written about him by the fourth-century Christian bishop of Caesarea and “father of church history” Eusebius, and other contemporary reports.  But we are handicapped when it comes to his life prior to his accession to the throne, including his religious life.  For this we have very slim records.  We do know he was born in the northern Balkans, and so it can be assumed that he originally participated in local indigenous religions that would have included such deities as the Thracian rider-gods, divine beings astride horses.   As was true of all citizens in the empire, he would also have participated in civic religious festivals, including the cults worshiping the deceased Roman emperors. The Roman army too had its deities of choice, and as a soldier and then commander Constantine would have worshiped these as well.

What we don’t know is how well informed he was of Christianity in the years before his conversion.   His mother, Helena…

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Two Versions of Constantine’s Vision
Constantine and the Battle at the Milvian Bridge

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Comments

  1. marcrm68
    marcrm68  July 19, 2016

    Understanding that Eusebius’s writings are extremely biased toward the church, and that he only met Constantine a handful of times, I am suspicious of some things he said. Stephenson speculates that Helen was a Christian before Constantine was born, and that Constantius was influenced by his wife in not persecuting Christians. I wonder if Constantine wasn’t drawing from his own experience against Maxentius at Arles, where Sol Invictus didn’t exactly help him out… Or more to the point, he was concerned that his soldiers needed a new inspiration in battle! Stephenson didn’t say it, but I speculate that Constantine had his vision ( which was almost a mandatory thing before a battle ) out of military necessity! And perhaps later, after other victories, he came to Really believe that Christ was the one, because of his success militarily under his banner…

    • marcrm68
      marcrm68  July 19, 2016

      It was Maxentium at Arles…or was it Arles, anyway, you know what I mean…the father. These roman names are maddening… In any event, I wish Van Gogh would have been there to paint it… Blood stained sunflowers, so nice…

  2. Wilusa  July 19, 2016

    “when Diocletian declared an empire-wide persecution (see chapter 7)”

    Um, chapter 7 of *what*?

    “the God of the Sun, Sol Invictus (a name meaning “The Unconquered Son”)”

    You presumably have a typo here : “Sol” means “Sun,” not “Son”! But since it doesn’t mean “Son,” what’s the relevance for Christianity? If Sol Invictus was the *only* God someone worshipped, he might (or might not) be a monotheist; but there’s no reason to think he’d be attracted to Christianity.

    “ ‘Only his own father had taken the opposite course to theirs by condemning their error, while he himself had throughout his life honored the God who transcends the universe, and found him a Savior and guardian of his Empire and a provider of everything good’ (Life 1.27).

    “Either Constantine – or more likely, Eusebius himself – is now claiming that Constantius was not just a henotheist, but a worshiper of the Christian god.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but how does someone’s having believed in only one, all-powerful God prove that he believed specifically in the God *Christians* were promoting?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2016

      Sorry, ignore the cross reference. Yes, Sun, not Son. And no, it doesn’t prove it. But scholars have cited other reasons (that I don’t find convincing) that Constantius was a Christian.

  3. Petter Häggholm  July 19, 2016

    “In particular, he may have worshiped above all else the God of the Sun, Sol Invictus (a name meaning “The Unconquered Son”)”

    An unfortunate typo? I wouldn’t nitpick except that I think you wouldn’t want to lend even that sliver of quote-mined support to the likes of Zeitgeist/Acharya S. “Jesus = Son of God = Sun of God” nonsense. (It baffles me that anyone can buy it—surely no one is so daft as to fail to realise that they didn’t speak English by then?!—but, alas…)

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  July 19, 2016

    “Sol Invictus (a name meaning “The Unconquered Son”[sic])”
    Interesting typo, Dr. Ehrman. Are you unconsciously trying to give Richard Carrier and Robert Price ammunition?

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  July 19, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m curious if, in your new book, you are going to discuss the Godhead of the Neo-Platonic philosophers such as Plotinus, Porphyry, et al. These men were also, more or less, henotheists, but at the same time they were very vocal critics of the Christian conception of the Godhead. Did Eusebius consider Neo-Platonism as merely polytheism in a new guise?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2016

      I’ll be referring to Porphyry, but will not be discussing hinm at any length.

  6. godspell  July 19, 2016

    And having read your account, it occurs to me (as it hadn’t before) how much this pattern of thought was mirrored by Constantine’s own career path. He was supposed to be one Emperor among many–more than even Diocletian had anticipated–but that hadn’t worked. Rome, as he saw it (with some justification) needed one ruler. To any ruler with religious beliefs of any kind, an early king is, if not necessarily a god, certainly a living symbol of the godhead. Even the most devoutly montheistic modern era Christians who happened to be kings (back when being a king still meant something) saw themselves as having that special connection to the Almighty. Because only He is superior to them. I’m not agreeing, I’m just saying.

    So Constantine is making an analogy–Rome needs one Emperor, not many.

    So Rome needs one God, not many.

    So who are the most numerous and influential monotheists in the Empire?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2016

      The worship of Hypsaistos Theos, the Highest God, is documented throughout the eastern provinces, but by far the most numerous were the Jews, till Chrisianity came along.

      • godspell  July 20, 2016

        But Judaism was less user friendly, to employ a modern term. You had to be circumcised, you had to follow the dietary codes, and though there were periods where some proselytizing went on, it was never really an evangelical faith.

        Going by the gospel account, Jesus himself made Christianity evangelical, though it’s unclear how far he intended that to go. Paul assumed Jesus meant it to go as far as it possibly could, and therefore made Christianity user friendly, open to all who entered in the right spirit, no need for that somewhat daunting surgery, or restrictive diets.

        Constantine wanted a monotheistic faith, because he wanted a monolithic Roman authority (at least in the western Empire), all power coming from the top. The Roman analogy between Emperors and gods was exceptionally direct and perhaps over-literal at times. If there can be many gods at one time why not many Emperors? He wants to simplify, rationalize. But for this to work he needs an already-existing monotheistic faith that is not closed off to most Roman citizens, and it certainly doesn’t hurt if that faith needs a patron to avoid the horrors Diocletian had just recently inflicted upon it.

        In a less repressive atmosphere, the Christians might have been more wary of Constantine’s overtures (I’m sure there must have been at least some reservations expressed in certain quarters), but when you have a chance to go from the bottom of the social order to the top–that’s a difficult temptation to resist. Even though Jesus always aid the last would be first. Well, you could say Constantine was fulfilling that prophecy. And since he had been relatively permissive and tolerant towards Christians in his personal sphere of authority under Diocletian, they had every reason to think this would improve their lot, as it in fact did.

        They used each other. Not necessarily in a cynical way. But it’s certainly unlikely that they ever fully understood each other. Perhaps by the end of his life. I doubt it.

  7. Cristian  July 20, 2016

    This thread has been fascinating! Thanks! I wonder how all of this is related to the establishment of Sunday as the holy day for christians. Will you approach that topic?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2016

      Constantine was the first to inaugurate this as a special day.

      • marcrm68
        marcrm68  July 20, 2016

        Isn’t The Sabbath on Sunday a feature of Mithralism? And the bible never mentions Sunday, but only Saturday as the Sabbath …???

        • Bart
          Bart  July 23, 2016

          Possibly not just because of Mithras, but more generally because it was the day of the sun God.

          • SidDhartha1953  August 4, 2016

            Doesn’t the Acts of the Apostles mention Christians in Jerusalem gathering on the first day of the week? The explanation offered for that back when I was converting to Catholicism was that they attended Sabbath worship in the temple, then gathered in someone’s home for Eurcharist the following morning. The parts of the mass (liturgy of the word = sabbath worship; liturgy of the eucharist = first day house worship) are a conflation of those two ancient, separate observances. It there historiical evidence that this is what happened, or is that just a convenient tale for catechumens?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 5, 2016

            Sounds convenient. My sense is that as soon as gentiles started coming into the faith, the business of worshiping on Sabbath disappeared pretty quickly. Most churches weren’t doing it already by the middle of the first century.

  8. bbcamerican  July 20, 2016

    As a modern reader, I find it interesting how Eusebius, who is most likely editorializing to meet his own agenda, is championing Constantine’s turn to Christianity not as a conversion of faith for forgiveness of sins, but instead for the rather Machiavellian purpose of gaining divine strength to vanquish his enemies. Most folks today (although not all) would see that as a rather, well, un-Christian reason to become a Christian, if that makes any sense. Interesting.

    • SidDhartha1953  August 4, 2016

      I’ve always found it odd that Constantine is revered as a saint in the Orthodox churches, given that his conversion seemed like an act of political opportunism. Bart’s account, that he was seeking divine help in overthrowing a despot (albeit a rival emperor) makes his conversion seem a bit more honest, almost a step toward liberation theology, if Constantine saw himself as a protector of the weak.

  9. wisemenwatch  July 21, 2016

    Oh, Dr. Ehrman, this is so interesting, because though it may not be linguistically correct, there is a connection between the sun myths of Sol Invictus and the solar imagery contained in Christianity, isn’t there? I’m loving it!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2016

      Yup!

      • Jana  August 4, 2016

        How better to convert others … digressing and as an aside The Maya current name for the Catholic priest is “K’in” .. it is also a play on words translating as “Sun (God)” in Maya while “Son” within the Catholic tradition. Truly fascinating … next.

  10. SidDhartha1953  August 4, 2016

    Your discussion of Sol Invictus brought this to mind —
    I was reading Ps. 19 this morning, which includes this:
    [God] placed in [the heavens] a tent for the sun,
    who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber,
    like a hero, eager to run his course.
    His rising-place is at one end of heaven,
    and his circuit reaches the other;
    nothing escapes his heat. (vv. 5b-8) (JPS, 1985)

    Did some Hebrews of that period think the celestial bodies were sentient beings or gods, or is this more likely poetic anthropomorphism? Gen. 1:14-18 seems clearly to consider the heavenly bodies to be objects under the control of God, not sentient.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2016

      Yes, it was a common thought, with pagans, Jews, and Christians thinking so.

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