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Constantine and Christianity

One of the readers of this blog pointed out to me in a comment a *third* thing that is commonly said about the emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea that is also wrong (the first two being the ones I mentioned: that at the council they [or even he, Constantine!] decided which books would be in the canon of the New Testament and that it was at the council that a vote was taken on whether or not Jesus was to be considered the Son of God. Wrong, wrong, wrong – both of them). It is widely believed (for some inscrutable reason) that Constantine made Christianity the “state religion” of the Roman empire. This too is wrong.

So just a very brief bit of background, which will involve another (more or less unrelated) bit of misinformation that is commonly held having to do with the history of Christian persecution up to Constantine’s time.

Many people appear to think that Christianity from the very beginning was an illegal religion that was constantly persecuted by the Roman authorities, that the Christians had to avoid persecution by hiding out in the catacombs, and that they only way they could communicate with each other was through secret signs, such as drawing the “fish.”

It is true that the “fish” did become a symbol in early Christianity. That’s because if you spell out the words “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior” (in Greek it is Ιησους Χριστος Υιος Θεου Σωτηρ) and then take the first letter of each word and put them together, they spell ΙΧΘΟΥΣ (English = ICHTHOUS), which just happens to be the Greek word for “fish.”

 

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    James Chalmers  October 11, 2013

    OK. STRICTLY SPEAKING, Constantine didn’t make Christianity the state religion. But he did give it financial support, he did aid its recruitment of converts, he did elevate its status and signal if you wanted the favor of the state, being Christian might help. From our perspective today, that looks a lot like a state religion.

  2. Avatar
    Jerry  October 11, 2013

    Bart,
    I’m halfway through your new college textbook “The Bible”. It’s just great!!
    Thanks for writing it.

    Jerry

  3. Avatar
    Sblake1  October 12, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman – 2 questions. 1. Who was Hesesippus? Is he important? 2. Reza Aslan states on page 215: “Hence, in 398 CE, when, according to legend, another group of bishops gathered at a council in the City of Hippo Regius … to canonize what would become known as the New Testament, they chose to include…” and he goes on to list James, Peter I & 2 and the 3 letters from John, etc…” I based on what you have said here and in your lectures on the Great Courses and in your books – unless I have missed something – that there is no factual basis for this legend and it is not true. ???
    Thanks…
    SBD

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      Hegessipus was a Jewish Christian of the second century whose writings no longer survive, but who is quoted by Eusebius. And yes, there was a meeting at Hippo Regius that confirmed the canon endorsed by Athanasius; but it was not an “ecumenical council” and did not reflect the opinioin, or have the authority, of the church at large.

  4. Avatar
    TruthMan  October 12, 2013

    This is very helpful information. Very different than the popular ideas I’ve heard.

    Why do you think there were as few as only twenty Christians at the time of his crucifixion? BTW, I would definitely not refer to that time as the time of his resurrection, as I think resurrection is a myth. It seems to me that he must have had a much larger following. Are you making a distinction between his disciples and his followers?

    And what is the basis for the estimate of 5% of the Roman population being Christian at the time of Constantine?

    Thanks for this blog. I learn a lot from it, and always look forward to your postings.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      My 20 figure is just based on the NT: 11 disciples of Jesus and a handful of women. (I’m speaking of those who came to believe in his resurrection at first, not those whom he impressed while living). 5% — I’m basing this on what others have guestimated, for example Ramsey MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire.

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  October 16, 2013

        %5 Christian population by the time of The Edict of Milan? I was long under the impression that Christians where a large minority, especially in the military, and hence Constantine’s conversion was a tactical move to shore up his power base. So, if that was not the case, what was the motivation for his conversion? Was it a genuine conversion? I guess his mother was a Christian so it may have been legitimate, but I’ve always taken the more cynical view that his conversion was for political reasons.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2013

          Too long for an email! I thought I’d dealt with that on my post already; but I’ll look back to see.

  5. Avatar
    SJB  October 12, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    Do you think the persecution associated with Nero might have been the impetus for or at least is reflected in the production of the Gospel of Mark? I’ve heard this suggested.

    You once wrote I believe that Mark’s gospel is a strange work. I’ve been reading it and trying to imagine it in isolation from the other gospels as if that’s all I had and all I knew about Jesus and the early Church. You’re right! Any postings you might wish to make concerning any issues raised by this Gospel would be appreciated.

    For example we hear a lot about Luke and Matthew using Mark as a major source but what were Mark’s sources? And should we necessarily assume because Mark is the oldest gospel that its depiction of Jesus is closer to the actual historical Jesus than the other gospels?

    The questions keep piling up. Please add these to what must by now be an extremely long list.

    Thanks!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      Yup, good questions. I don’t see any real evidence that Nero was in mind when Mark was writing — but who knows! And as to Mark’s sources, it is usually thought that many (most? all?) of them were oral, though there may have been written predecessors!

  6. Avatar
    Lance Odus  October 12, 2013

    Professor Ehrman,

    With regards to Constantine and all the things he did for Christianity: How much of an influence do you think that his mother Helena had on him being that she was a devout Christian and obviously revered later as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church and other church denominations?

  7. Avatar
    hwl  October 12, 2013

    I agree with what you are saying about lack of systematic state persecution of Christians in the first few centuries. However, the other side of the coin is that the theme of persecution, if not from Rome (e.g. Book of Revelation) then from Jews (e.g. Gospel of John, Acts), features prominently in the NT. The 1st century centuries may not be systematically persecuted but there was a strong psychological persecution complex coming from the early Christian writers. This mindset continued with Justin, Polycarp, Ignatius. Perhaps looking at modern-day persecution of religious movements is instructive. The Mormons were not officially persecuted in America in the 19th century, but from the perspective of the early Mormons, they faced constant persecution. Christian communities in some parts of India (attacks by Hindu nationalists), China (e.g. the house churches), conservative Muslim countries in the Middle East, Pakistan (e.g. Christians charged with blasphemy in court) often portray themselves as under severe persecution, and cite actual instances of torture and harassment. Despite lack of official persecution of Christianity, from perspective of Christian communities, they did not feel religious freedom and genuinely believed they were systematically persecuted. In a religious community of 100, if 99 did not suffer persecution directly, but 1 did, and this one guy tells the story to everyone else, this creates a deep sense of fear among the whole community.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 12, 2013

    In one of Steven Saylor’s presumably well-researched novels about ancient Rome, Nero actually wasn’t guilty of burning the city. I think the cause of the fire was said to be accidental. When it was raging, people saw fire brigades they knew were the Emperor’s setting fire to structures…and jumped to the wrong conclusion. What those brigades were really trying to do was create firebreaks(?) – empty areas where structures had already been destroyed and cleared away – that would halt the spread of the advancing flames. (Of course, whether or not there’s any truth to that, it’s undisputed fact that the populace blamed Nero, and he then used the Christians as scapegoats.)

    About the historicity of Jesus…I know he did exist. But…would it be accurate to say that for all the connection Christianity has (and always has had) with the beliefs and expectations of the historical Jesus, he *might as well have been* mythical?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      Interesting. I wonder what historical bvasis Saylor has. (Nothing like that is in Tacitus, e.g.,)

      No, I wouldn’t say Jesus may as well have been mythical. There was a man back there, and some of his words and deeds are preserved for us….

  9. Avatar
    mjardeen  October 13, 2013

    Dr Ehrman, thanks for this post as your recent history myth post have really done a great job of putting the sequence of events in proper perspective. Is it possible at some point that you could post a simple chronology of the significant events from death to Theodosius that led to the Bible we have today. That would really be helpful. If you have not done that previously I would suggest it at some point. I find that putting it down like that is really helpful. Perhaps with multiple tracks marking significant events in Israel, Rome, Biblical Documents, Church events. As I write this I realize it’s no small task. It would be interesting though.

    I must admit to having fallen victim to these myths on various occasions.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      Sounds complicated! But I’ll think about it. I’m not sure I can do a timeline, since it isn’t really susceptible to that; but maybe I should do a series of posts on the formation of the canon.

  10. Avatar
    toejam  October 13, 2013

    What’s your source for the 5% of the empire by the time of Constantine? I have a Christian friend who is insisting that it’s more like 15%, and that it’s your deep-seeded anti-Christian bias that is driving you to favor a smaller figure LOL.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2013

      I’ve said this about 29 million times ( 🙂 ) but I *don’t* have an anti-Christian bias!!! I have an anti-fundamentalist bias. So if you’re friend is a fundamentalist, I do indeed have a bias against him. (!)

      But I don’t see how 15% is more biased or less than 5%. Both are just guestimates. I base mine on the work of social historians of ealry Christianity such as Ramsey MacMullen at Yale. What does he base his on?

      1
      • Avatar
        toejam  October 13, 2013

        Yes, he’s one annoying fundamentalist. This is the level of pendaticism he drills down to LOL. He quotes Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity”. Any thoughts on Stark?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 14, 2013

          Interesting book by a sociologist — but he doesn’t know the sources of early CHristianity as an expert would….

  11. Avatar
    dennis  October 13, 2013

    Once again , nothing very unique here . A very similar ( if faster ) pattern was seen with the explosion in Communist Party membership after the October Revolution and Nazi Party membership after Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 . Apparently any ideology has its appropriateness and validity hugely enhanced by becoming also a career builder . I wonder , though , just how effective were those late attempts by the Pagan Old Order to defend itself ? Were those three million the hardcore remnant of a much larger timorous number ?

  12. Avatar
    EricBrown  October 15, 2013

    Tacitus was a separated from Nero as the author of Luke was from the crucifixion (Tacitus was 8 years old at the time of the fire of Rome). I wonder if there is a classics professor somewhere who rails about the “myth” of Nero’s culpability as much as you do about NT inconsistencies 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 15, 2013

      I don’t know! The question would be what *reason* Tacitus would have for making up the story (with the NT authors, there are obvious reasons….)

  13. Avatar
    ramblinknight  October 14, 2014

    Great post. Just one minor point of contention: To grow from 3 million to 30 million would take 7 decades at 40% growth rate so did the rate really increase after Constantine?

    I believe you used Stark’s 40% as an example of how the number can go from 100 or so to 3 million in the first 3 centuries. It seems like the rate held steadily though not to say it wasn’t sustained by Constantine’s support.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2014

      Yes, the 40% per decade applied only to the first three centuries. Once Constantine converted the thing really took off.

  14. Avatar
    kendalynx  November 1, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve been searching for a thorough and comprehensive book on Constantine and his influence over Christianity. Do you have any recommendations? Or can you suggest an anthology of writings within a book about persons (outside of scripture) who had early influences on the organized church? Thanks….

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2014

      One interesting place to start is with James Carroll Constantine’s Sword. It’s dealing with a particular issue, but it’s one of the important ones, and is a fascinating read.

  15. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 2, 2016

    One of the best books I’ve ever read is “Constantine and the Conversion of Europe” by A. H. M. Jones. I recommend it to all.

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