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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.  Eusebius does not indicate that it was immediately before the battle at the Milvian Bridge, but it was some time before that.

After Constantine decided that he need to revere just one God rather than the multiple gods of the pagans, he prayed to this God (not knowing who he was, and he was rewarded with a vision.  And not just he alone…

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Constantine’s Vision(s): What Did He Really See and When?
Metzger and the Squirrel Part 2: Another Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. stokerslodge  July 24, 2016

    Bart, do historians have any clues as to where this vision occurred ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      If it is the same as the one mentioned by the panegyrist of 310 CE, then it was somewhere near Grand, Vosges, in Gaul (= France); if not, then we don’t know for sure — either in Gaul somewhere or en route to the attack on Maxentius in Italy.

  2. RonaldTaska  July 24, 2016

    I look forward to your assessment of the three accounts.

  3. John4
    John4  July 24, 2016

    Perhaps, Bart, Constantine and his army saw something like this:

    https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Halo_phantom-sun.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

    Many thanks! 🙂

  4. DominickC  July 24, 2016

    Interesting that his “religion experts” were right there with the answers that he needed!

  5. Wilusa  July 24, 2016

    Fascinating! I’m eager to learn what you’ll conclude is probably the closest to what really happened.

    Obvious questions that come to my mind…

    Is Eusebius considered trustworthy, given his works as a whole? Does he seem to be at least *trying* to stick to the truth?

    And…while I’m aware there can be mass hallucinations (however one explains them) in which people see literally impossible things in the sky…*could* there have been something that looked like a brilliant cross? A distant supernova, perhaps? (Of course, if there was something like that, there wouldn’t really have been a text accompanying it!)

    And about Constantine’s replica…was the cloth suspended from the crossbeam meant to symbolize resurrection? Its having been the loincloth of a person whose body was no longer there?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      It couldn’t have been a supernova: it appeared one afternoon and then disappeared. Eusebius: yes, he claims to be explaining what Constantine swore was absolutely true.

  6. Wilusa  July 24, 2016

    Another question re the “supernova” possibility: Did observers in other parts of the world report seeing anything strange at about that time?

    I’m aware there have been ridiculous attempts to “explain” the “Star of Bethlehem.” But a *brilliant cross in the sky* seems more believable – with a natural explanation – than a star that stops over a house!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      No, that’s another reason for being sure it wasn’t a supernova. Plus, he says it was the sun. No supernova would appear like the sun to someone on earth!!

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  July 24, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, Eusebius is notorious for his biased inaccuracies. On a scale of one to ten, how reliable would you rate his story of Constantine’s conversion?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      I don’t think we can rank it that way. For one thing, it was a vision, so it’s not clear what we would be ranking: there is no way to know, historically, if Constantine saw *anything*, so there is not way to gauge Eusebius’s acccuracy. What I would say is that Eusebius claims forcefully to be describing what he heard Constantine himself swear was true, and I think he probably really was describing it as he heard it.

  8. marcrm68
    marcrm68  July 24, 2016

    Keeping it very short, the point I have been interested in is were these visions of Sol, and later of Christ at Milvian bridge military theater, meant to inspire his men in battle?… I don’t doubt that Constantine did convert ( although not in the sense we think of today ), but it is worth noting that he wasn’t baptized until shortly before his death…

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      Lots of Christians — especially powerful elite rulers — waited till their death bed for baptism. That part was pretty normal. It’s not clear to me that claiming to have seen a widely rejected and marginalized divine being would have been much of an inspiration to the troops!

  9. Todd  July 24, 2016

    It would be interesting to me to have some clue what Christian texts he studied after his vision to gain greater knowledge.

  10. Stephen  July 24, 2016

    It’s easy enough to look back through the centuries at these events and be cynical I suppose but isn’t it interesting that in all that advising and exploring “the divinely inspired writings” nobody seems to have noticed the stuff about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and living and dying by the sword?

    Who used who here? Did the priests use Constantine to further their political interests or did Constantine use the priests to further his? Both, and?

    “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war; with the Cross of Jesus going on before!”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      It’s not clear to me that a purely cynical reading is needed. Constantine may have been a true believer, even if his belief did end up serving his military and political aims.

  11. rivercrowman  July 24, 2016

    Bart, this is off topic right now, but is this news to you? … It’s listed as news. http://www.ancient-origine.com/ethiopian-bible-oldest-complete-bible-earth/

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      Very odd. I’m not sure what they mean that this is the oldest complete Bible….

  12. Jason  July 24, 2016

    What do you make (personally, I suppose) of this? Would a man of Constantine’s stature and education really be influenced in such a way, or was he pulling a George W. Bush to sell primitives on war or steer his empire with a new current?

  13. Scott  July 25, 2016

    How much do you see the success of Christianity in the fourth century as the effect of the actions of various Roman emperors, etc and how much as the continuation of existing forces?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      I’d say *MAINLY* a continuation of existing forces. But not completely that.

  14. thelad2  July 25, 2016

    Hello Bart. I hope you will bear with me as I ask a rather lengthy question for your next readers mailbag. I am currently reading Father John Meier’s newest work, “A Marginal Jew,” Volume V (with more volumes on the way). The book covers the parables of Jesus. But what I want to ask about concerns a claim made in this volume and throughout the entire series: the belief that Jesus was celibate. Webster’s defines celibacy as: “The state of being unmarried; single life, esp. that of a bachelor, or of one bound by vows not to marry.” In an earlier volume, Meier notes that the “New Testament is simply silent on the question” of Jesus’ marital/celibate status, yet he spends many pages throughout this series constructing a hypothetical case for why Jesus must have been celibate. I have no issue if, by celibate, he means that Jesus was unmarried during his ministry. That seems to line up with the few facts we have. One would assume that since the Gospel writers discuss other disciple’s wives, they would certainly mention a Mrs. Jesus if there was one. However I believe Meier is on far shakier historical ground if he means (and I think this is exactly what he means) that Jesus was never married because he took a “vow” to abstain from marriage. The closest he comes to NT confirmation for his belief of Jesus as a sworn celibate is his reading of the strange and singly attested eunuch story found in Matthew. Far more prevalent in the NT, I believe, are stories hinting at a Jesus who was very pro-marriage and would have had a negative opinion of celibacy. My reasons are: 1) Jesus came from a large family. He saw his mother pregnant often and, in the cramped household living of 1st Century Palestine, may have seen a whole lot more. Sex and its results must have been well known to Jesus. If it bothered him, it was never recorded; 2) Jesus is very clear that marriage is sacred and divorce is out of the question. A curious take, one might note, coming from a man sworn to celibacy; 3) It is multiply attested that groups of women, apparently without their husbands, follow and support Jesus. An odd addition to a group whose leader has sworn off relations with women; and 4) While schooling the Corinthians on marital sexual relations, Paul had a perfect opportunity to promote his celibate beliefs by quoting the teachings of a celibate Jesus, but does not. In fact, he goes so far as to say his theories on celibacy come from him and NOT the Lord. Why? Please note that this is not some Da Vinci Code conspiracy. I am not saying that any of the four points I make are proof of a married or sexually active Jesus. I merely wish to point out that the NT is friendlier to the idea of a non-celibate or perhaps previously married Jesus than Father Meier would concede. After that long buildup, I would very much appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      Thanks for this. I’d be happy to address the issue in teh Readers’ Mailbag, but I can’t print your entire comment/question — there’d be no room for a repsonse! Can you come up with a pithy one (or if need be) two-sentence form of the question for me to address?

      • thelad2  July 26, 2016

        Hello and apologies for the overly long question. I get carried away sometimes. Anyway, how’s this for an abbreviated, pithy version…

        Why do so many NT scholars (most recently John Meier) state as fact that Jesus took a lifelong vow of celibacy? Wouldn’t it be more historically accurate simply to say that the NT is silent on the topic?

        Thanks for the great Blog,

  15. toejam  July 26, 2016

    Random question: If my understanding is correct, there are (generally speaking) two versions of the Book of Jeremiah – 1) a shorter Hebrew version found among the Dead Sea Scrolls which lines up well with other early Greek versions, and 2) a longer Masoretic Hebrew version that Bibles since the time of Jerome have drawn from. Is there any consensus among modern scholars over which is more likely representative of the earliest attainable form? I.e. Is the additional material typically seen as having been added or deleted?

  16. KathleenM  July 26, 2016

    RE THE CROSS: Freund in his book “Digging Through the Bible” has a photo of a cross on a pottery sherd from Bethsaida (same area as the “Key of Peter” was found) from the 1st CE. It looks something like the so called pagan ancient “crosses” BCE – a sun in the center with 4 arms reaching out (ie cross beams) in the 4 directions: NESW — directions which were so important to the ancients. (We’ve lost that sense now with all our buildings and of course all the trees here in NC – you can hardly see the horizon anywhere, plus we have compasses and GPS machines, we don’t have to sight the sun or moon and the stars.) Freund points out that the early signs of Christianity were the anchor and the fish–important to Galileans I’m sure – 1st CE. The anchor though does resemble a cross with the additional bottom bar – a rounded area as we see in symbols today! The anchor symbolized the Apostles and their work possibly – fishers of men. (In Aramaic “fishers of men” was an idiom which commonly meant “round up the people”, even applied as to the capture criminals, such as our posses used to do out in the old West. I think Yeshua and cousin John loved these common sayings of the people, Galilean Aramaic, which were then written down in Greek of course later. But no always translated into Greek or understood today as they were meant. The cross appears around the 4th CE as a symbol of Christ as I remember.

    The symbol X: Wasn’t there also in the catacombs — an X symbol for Yeshua? I think that is where we get “X-rated” for movies – it was a symbol of Christ’s hidden worship (unknown to the Emperor’s crews in Rome) and where Peter preached below ground amongst the remains of the Christian sect where their beloved’s bones were to be found. Also is from where we get “Xmas” for Christmas. Lots of stories in the East have Jesus “strung up” on a tree too – one story I read recently had the 3 sentenced together on one beam – with the poles being on either end, and Jesus “hung” by his wrists in the center – that would mean no nail in his ankles. I have a Byzantine gold cross I love to wear with 4 gems on each of the 4 ends of the cross points, which are bulbous and rounded as we see on some of the flags during the holy wars.

    This thread is a great story, thanks for the information.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2016

      I don’t know about an X symbol in the catacombs. And I doubt if it has anything to do with X rated movies! Maybe someone else on the blog can illuminate us!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 26, 2016

      The letter ratings stand for words. For example, G means General audience. PG means Parental Guidance suggested. R means Restricted without parent or guardian. And X means Explicit or Excluded under 18.

  17. Jana  August 4, 2016

    Digressing again Dr. Ehrman and thank you for your patience … regarding my other natural history studies about “swarm intelligence” … I continue to reflect whether the same natural phenomena then occurs among people such as collective visions … (Personal note: I’ve recently grown wary of described contemporary group visions as well as followings.)

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