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Constantine and Nicaea

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 [...]

When Christianity Became the “Official” Religion of Rome

I have been discussing when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.  It was not under Constantine, or even one of his sons who succeeded him on the throne.  It was only at the end of the fourth century, during the reign of Theodosius.  Here is what I say in my book about that new situation some seven decades after the conversion of Constantine. *************************************************************** When Julian was killed in a poorly-conceived and even more poorly-executed battle with the Persians on June 26, 361, he was succeeded by Jovian, one of his military commanders.  Jovian, and every Roman emperor who followed him, were Christian.  Many of these successors were quite vehement in the public affirmation of their Christian commitments and their resistance to traditional pagan religions.   Arguably the most forceful in his views was Theodosius I, also known as “the Great,” who ruled from 379-95 CE, and who was responsible for making Christianity, for all intents and purposes, the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Theodosius was ... The rest of this [...]

Making Rome Pagan Again

After Constantine converted to Christianity, every Roman emperor, for all time, was Christian – with one brief exception: his nephew Julian, most frequently referred to as Julian the Apostate, who ruled for nineteen months in 361-63 CE.   This short reign was highly significant: Julian tried to turn the empire back to the ways and worship of paganism.  He is called “the Apostate” because he started out as Christian but then opted to worship the traditional gods of Rome.  And he tried to enforce this view on his Empire.  Here is how I describe how he did that (or tried to do it) in my book on the Triumph of Christianity.   The Last Pagan Emperor Julian spent his first six months as emperor in Constantinople, and then nine unhappy and turbulent months in Antioch, before marching against the Persians.  He was killed early in the conflict, having ruled the empire for a mere nineteen months.  It was, however, an eventful year and a half, especially for pagan-Christian relations.  Upon ascending to the throne, Julian declared [...]

The Beginning of the End of Paganism

I have decided to pursue further the question of how, in the fourth century, Christianity took over the Roman imperial government (at the highest levels) leading to the proscription of pagan practices.   For that I will rely on a couple of extracts from my book,  The Triumph of Christianity, over a few posts.   Here is the continuation of the story after the death of Constantine. ***************************************************************** Constantine’s father Constantius became Caesar of the West in 293 CE and then senior Augustus in the imperial college with the abdication of Maximian in 305 CE.   His dynasty was to last seventy years, until the death of Constantine’s nephew Julian in 363 CE. It was not a peaceful and closely knit family, as seen nowhere more clearly than in the vicious bloodbath that occurred after Constantine’s death on May 22, 337, with the event known as “the massacre of the princes.”    Constantine’s three remaining sons – Constantius II, Constans, and Constantine II (the eldest Crispus having earlier been executed) – were to divide his empire among themselves, but [...]

Did Constantine Outlaw the Pagan Religions?

In today’s mailbag I deal with an interesting question about when, exactly, Christianity became the state religion of Rome and the traditional pagan religions were outlawed.   Was it during the reign of Constantine (as is popularly imagined?)?  Later?   At the end of the fourth century?   Here’s the question.   QUESTION: I was listening to The Great Courses lectures on Early Middle Ages by professor Philip Daileader and he mentions that Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire and that pagan rituals and practices HAD been made illegal BEFORE the reign of Julian the Apostate and that Theodosius only made it illegal AGAIN to practice paganism in 391-392 !?! I always thought (and taught...) that Christianity became the state religion and that paganism was outlawed in 392 for the first time. Since you have been working on this period recently, I would love to know your stand on that matter   RESPONSE: I need to say at the outset that I have not listened to this course by Prof. Daileader and so [...]

The Conversion of Constantine

My book comes out tomorrow and I’m very excited!  Here is a foretaste of what is in it.   This is how I begin Chapter 1, which focuses on the conversion of Constantine. ***************************************************** Few events in the history of civilization have proved more transformative than the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in the year 312 CE.  Later historians would sometimes question whether the conversion was genuine.  But to Constantine himself and to spiritual advisors close to him, there appears to have been no doubt.  He had shifted from one set of religious beliefs and practices to another.  At one point in his life he was a polytheist who worshiped a variety of pagan gods -- gods of his hometown Naissus in the Balkans, gods of his family, gods connected with the armies he served, and the gods of Rome itself.  At another point he was a monotheist, worshiping the Christian God alone.  His change may not have been sudden and immediate.  It may have involved a longer set of transitions than he later [...]

Did the Council of Nicaea Take Away Reincarnation and Give us the Bible?

In this Readers’ Mailbag I’ll deal with two questions that involve modern myths about the Council of Nicaea in the year 325.  Is it true that this is when the church fathers decided which books would be in the New Testament?  And that these authorities also removed all references to reincarnation from the Bible?   If you have a question you would like me to address in a future Mailbag, go ahead and ask!   QUESTION:  I've noticed many people have the misconception that the NT canon was decided at the Council of Nicaea. Where are people getting this misconception, and can it be quashed? QUESTION:  I have often heard that original scrolls make reference to reincarnation but that such references were removed at the Council of Nicaea to strengthen the Church's position that the imperative for living a Godly life this time around necessitated immediate adherence. Is there any truth to this claim?   RESPONSES: First, on the canon of the New Testament, let me say categorically that the Council of Nicaea did not debate [...]

Where Did the Trinity Come From? Video Lecture.

Here is the third of my three talks that I gave last year at Coral Gables Congregational Church in (suprise) Coral Gables, Florida, on my book, "How Jesus Became God."   This lecture deals with one of the most important questions in Christian thinking:  where did the idea and doctrine of the Trinity come from?  Good question!  I try to answer it in this video.  Enjoy! Please adjust gear icon for 1080p High-Definition. How Jesus Became God -UCC Part 3 of 3: If you don't belong to the blog yet, JOIN!!  You get good stuff like this ALL THE TIME, for very little cost.  And all proceeds go to fight hunger and homelessness.  So join!

Constantine’s Vision(s): What Did He Really See and When?

OK, I am ready now to finish up my thread on the conversion of Constantine, based on the vision or visions that he had.  So far I have narrated the three relevant accounts.  If you haven’t read those posts, you should do so to make the very best sense of this one. The differences among the three accounts, and one can readily see why various scholars have suggested different ways of reconciling them.  Some think he had just one vision, two years before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge (just before the panegyric of 310 CE), which at the time he took to be of Sol Invictus but later came to interpret as being instead a vision of Christ.  In this view, at a still later date Constantine came to think that he had always understood it to be Christ and that, since the vision was so closely connected with his ultimate victory, he came to “remember” that it occurred the night before the battle.   At the other extreme of interpretation, others have argued that [...]

2020-04-03T03:28:48-04:00July 26th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

Constantine’s Vision according to Eusebius

In my previous posts I began to talk about the vision(s) that Constantine had that led him to convert.  So far I have talked about two accounts, one in the panegyric of 310 CE and the other in the writing, not long after the conversion itself (in 312 CE), of the Christian author Lactantius.  The most famous account is found in the only biography of Constantine from the ancient world, the Life of Constantine by Eusebius, the fourth century “Father of Church History” (called this because his other book, Ecclesiastical History, was the first attempt to write a history of Christianity from the time of Jesus down to his own day). The Life of Constantine was published after Constantine’s death in 337 CE, and so it is narrating events that happened earlier – in the case of the conversion, some 25 years earlier.  But Eusebius claims that he hear the account from Constantine himself, and that Constantine swore up and down that it was what really happened. This all took place during a military campaign.  [...]

2020-04-03T03:28:56-04:00July 24th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

Two Versions of Constantine’s Vision

In this thread I am discussing the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Chrsitianity.  I have already given the political and military background to his conversion, and said something about his religious affiliations prior to converting.  Now I can begin to address what we know about the conversion itself. We have three principal sources of information for the vision(s) of Constantine that led to the conversion.  The first comes to us in a flattering speech – known as a panegyric – delivered by an anonymous orator in 310 CE, before Constantine had initiated his final actions against Maxentius.  The speech was occasioned by a military victory in a skirmish with Maxentius’s father, brought out of retirement, Maximian.  As was always the case with panegyrics, the speaker had himself written his address and made it entirely sycophantic.   Such speeches were designed to praise the recipient as one of the greatest human beings the universe has ever seen, as revealed by the subject’s activities and experiences.  It is in the context of celebrating Constantine’s marvelous character that [...]

2020-04-03T03:29:23-04:00July 20th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity|

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... THE [...]

2020-04-04T15:24:45-04:00July 19th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

Constantine and the Battle at the Milvian Bridge

As I indicated in my previous post, when Constantine had been acclaimed emperor by his troops in Britain (at the city of York) in 306 CE (upon the death of his father Constantius), it was taken as a license for Maxentius to assume power in Rome.   The reason is this.  Diocletian, as we have seen, had tried to move the empire to a new system of governance, the Tetrarchy, in which four leaders, all chosen for their experience and skills, would rule.  When a senior member in the East or West retired or died, the junior Caesar serving under him would be elevated and the senior A Augustus would choose, then, the new junior replacement. But Constantine was acclaimed – or so it was thought or claimed – not because he had been appointed but because he was the son of the outgoing Augustus.  In other words, his accession came not because of a decision of the Augustus but because of birth.  It was succession by the dynasty principle, precisely what Diocletian had tried to [...]

2020-04-03T03:29:51-04:00July 18th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

How Constantine Became Emperor

As background to the conversion of the emperor Constantine I have been explaining how Diocletian had set up the Tetrarchy with a sensible order of succession, so that the Roman emperors would be chosen on a rational basis rather than simply because of accidents of birth or the whims of the army.   His plan ended up not working. Because of health issues, after a long and successful reign of over two decades, Diocletian decided to retire from office on May 1, 305.   For the sake of a smooth succession, he compelled his rather unwilling co-Augustus, Maximian, to do so as well, to make way for the two Caesars, Galerius and Constantius, to rise to the senior offices.  For their replacements, according to the principles that Diocletian had devised, two Caesars were chosen as junior emperors:   Maximin Daia (not to be confused with the out-going Augustus Maximian) to serve with Galerius in the East, and Severus to serve with Constantius in the West.   There was now a “Second Tetrarchy.” At the time it may have seemed [...]

2020-04-03T03:29:59-04:00July 15th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

Preface to Constantine: The Rule of the Four

In this post I want to explain how Constantine came to power.  It is an unusually complicated story, with all kinds of names and dates that only inveterate historians could love.   I’ll give a simple version of it here, more suitable for those of us who are mere mortals. The reason it matters is that Constantine’s predecessor’s Diocletian vision of a Tetrarchy (= Rule of Four), in which the empire would be ruled by two senior emperor (each called an Augustus) and two junior emperors (each called a Caesar), with one pair (senior – junior) in the East and one in the West, didn’t last past a year after Diocletian’s abdication.   There were usurpations, infightings, civil wars, and a whole mess of things for years until Constantine emerged as the sole ruler of the Empire.  He was in power (first as a ruling partner, then as the one guy at the top) for over thirty years, longer than any ruler of the empire apart from the one who started it all, Caesar Augustus, three centuries [...]

2020-04-03T03:30:11-04:00July 13th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

The Emperor Constantine: Some Background

Time for something new, about as different from the Pentateuch as you can get while still staying in the ancient world. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the Emperor Constantine over the past ten months and have decided to devote a thread to him on the blog.   His conversion to Christianity is usually considered a major turning point in the history of the Christian religion. Before he became Christian all the Roman emperors were, of course, pagan, and some of them, including his immediate predecessors on the throne, were virulently opposed to the Christian movement.  He himself converted near the end of what is called the “Great Persecution,” a ten-year period in which, at least in parts of the empire, the imperial forces were trying to wipe out the religion.  After he converted, Christianity went from being persecuted, to being tolerated, to being religion-most-favored . It is a mistake to say – as so many people do say! – that Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman empire.  He absolutely [...]

2020-04-03T03:30:21-04:00July 12th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

The Controversies about Christ: Arius and Alexander

As I mentioned in the last post, in my debate this past Friday at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I was trying to sketch out how it was that the early Christians came to think that Christ was God.   I decided in the debate *not* to start at the beginning, for example, with the teachings of Jesus, his understandings of himself, the views of his disciples and so on.  Instead, in order to set up a key contrast, I started at the end (well, one of the ends) of the Christological conflicts and discussions of Christianity’s first three hundred years, the conflict specifically between the famous Christian teacher of Alexandria Egypt, Arius, and his bishop, Alexander. It was this controversy that led to the famous Council of Nicaea, called by the emperor Constantine (who had converted to Christianity just thirteen years earlier) in the year 325 CE.   The controversy is widely misunderstood by people today, who frequently hear completely erroneous things about it – for example, that Arius thought that Christ was human, not [...]

The Son of God, the Council of Nicea, and the Da Vinci Code

In my main lecture during the debate this past weekend, I decided to develop in short order the case that I make in my book How Jesus Became God for how, well, Jesus became God.  (!)   But I chose to do it differently from how I do it in the book, at least in terms of rhetorical strategy.  I chose to start at the *end* of the development (it’s actually nowhere near the end – since Christological arguments continued on for centuries – but it was one sensible ending points), with the controversies over Christ’s divinity in the early fourth century, controversies between Arius and his detractors. I’m afraid many people today (most?) get their knowledge of Arius, the Arian Controversy, and the Council of Nicea from that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, who wrote about it at length in that great work of historical realism, The Da Vinci Code.   I tell my students at Chapel Hill that if they want to learn about the history of the Middle Ages, the way to do that is [...]

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 [...]

Widespread Misconceptions about the Council of Nicea

One of the reasons I’m excited about doing my new course for the Teaching Company (a.k.a. The Great Courses) is that I’ll be able to devote three lectures to the Arian Controversy, the Conversion of the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea (in 325 CE). It seems to me that a lot more people know about the Council of Nicea today than 20 years ago – i.e., they know that there *was* such a thing – and at the same time they know so little about it. Or rather, what they think they know about it is WRONG. I suppose we have no one more to blame for this than Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, where, among other things, we are told that Constantine called the Council in order to “decide” on whether Jesus was divine or not, and that they took a vote on whether he was human or “the Son of God.” And, according to Dan Brown’s lead character (his expert on all things Christian), Lee Teabing, “it was a [...]

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