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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 Constantine was simply a visionary and that he had lots of visions and dreams and sometimes muddled them all up. It is striking that Eusebius himself, in a speech praising Constantine near the end of his life, indicates that Constantine was a famous visionary, that he had “thousands” of visions along with “thousands” of dreams in which Christ appeared to him.   There is obviously a range of reconciliatory options.

The accounts do share some striking features, however.  For one thing…

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[Private]For one thing, in each case the vision involves a solitary God whom Constantine decided is the only one to be worshiped: he chose no longer to engage in polytheistic practices.  Moreover, the account from the panegyrist in 310 and, more striking still, the account of Eusebius many years later, both agree that Constantine did not become a Christian immediately after the dream.  The panegyrist says nothing about him becoming a Christian at all – which may suggests the conversion had not happened yet, or that Constantine had not yet made it public, or that the pagan orator decided not to delve into that little detail.  Eusebius admits that the emperor needed to do considerable consultation, reading, and reflecting before working out the implications of what he saw.  Who knows how long that would have taken.

One reason we have difficulty working out what the vision/dream was and when exactly it occurred is that modern research on conversion has demonstrated that long after such an experience occurs, a convert tends to confuse what actually happened in light of everything that occurred in its aftermath.   That is to say, years later, people tell (to themselves and to others) accounts that have been slanted by all they have learned, thought, and experienced in the interim.  Surely that was true of Constantine as well.

No one will ever solve this problem to the satisfaction of all interested parties.  But here is one plausible reconstruction.

The first thing to reflect on is that Eusebius clearly states that the vision of the cross in the sky was observed not only by Constantine but by the soldiers with him.  How does that work, exactly?  There have been numerous suggestions over the years, but none as tantalizing or widely discussed as one made by a German scholar named Peter Weiss, who argued that what Constantine may have seen was a “solar halo.”   Solar halos are an unusual but completely normal optic phenomenon in which the light of the sun is refracted by millions of ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere.  The sun is surrounded by a bright halo – you can see many instances online – and sometimes appears to have rays shooting out in a few, or in many, directions.  You can imagine seeing the phenomenon and thinking that the sun looks like a “wreath” – or even a cross.  Sometimes the phenomenon lasts as long as two hours, appearing suddenly and disappearing as quickly.

Did Constantine (and the soldiers with him) have such a vision?  It is at least possible.  Whether actual or imagined, the sight contributed to Constantine’s religious meditations as he was reflecting on the problem of the gods and how to find much needed divine support for his assault on Maxentius.  He became convinced that this was a sign from the one true and ultimate god, and he decided to worship him.

My best guess is that the vision occurred just before it was first reported, in 310 CE, and at that point Constantine became a henotheist, one who revered the sun God, Sol Invictus, above and in lieu of all others.   It would be two years before he launched his assault on Maxentius, and in that time he had plenty of occasion to reflect on his new religious commitments.  Among other things, he because increasingly aware of the growing Christian movement (in chapter 6 we will be discussing just how rapidly it was growing at the time).   Soon before the battle for Rome, he had another vision, or a dream, or both, and came to a decision.  This decision was not that he would switch loyalties from Sol Invictus to the God of the Christians.   Instead, he decided that Sol Invictus was the God of the Christians.

Constantine became a Christian convert.  Possibly the most important point to make about the conversion is that Constantine – as is true of all converts – did not and could not understand everything there was to know about the Christian faith at the time.  His faith, and his knowledge, may have been very rudimentary indeed.  He may not have known that he needed to be baptized at some point.  He may not have known that Christians not only refused to worship other gods but believed the pagan gods were demons and not gods at all.  He may not have known that there were ethical requirements that went along with being Christian.  He may not have known that there were refined theological views and serious debates among the Christians about the nature of God, the identity of Christ, the relationship of Christ and God.  He may not have known … lots and lots of things.

What he apparently did know was that he wanted to worship the Christian God and that God only.  He went into battle with that conviction.  And he emerged victorious.[/private]



Who Wrote the Book of Revelation and the Fourth Gospel?
Constantine’s Vision according to Eusebius



  1. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  July 26, 2016

    Professor, can you comment on the idea that what also may have motivated Constantine’s “conversion” was the need to get a handle on all of the different varieties of “Christianity” that already were circulating in his own time? That the divisiveness among all those different so-called “Christians” was starting to be a real problem? That he, being the consummate politician, realized that harmonizing Christian orthodoxy would be a unifying factor in his expansive empire, helping to hold it together long after he was gone? So he eases his way into an expressed commitment to the Christian faith (at least to the extent generally understood and appreciated by the common person) to work as much influence over those diverse beliefs as was possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2016

      No, I don’t think Constantine was even *aware* of the diversity within the Christian movement when he converted. He more or less admits himself that he was clueless about even the very basics of the faith at the time. It was only later that he learned something about the divergent views within the religion.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 1, 2016

        But since his true conversion came much later in life, he may well have wanted a more unified Christian church, because that was a powerful psychological tendency of his–the desire to rationalize, to unify, to avoid the chaos of multiple authorities created by Diocletian. So those elements of Christendom that would have wanted to suppress what they were increasingly inclined to view as heresies–gnosticism, Pelagianism (I know, that came later)–they would have found great support from Constantine and his successors. They would have been given the inside track. This is where the Church began to pattern its authority structures after those of the Roman state.

  2. Avatar
    steppencat  July 26, 2016

    I’ve heard (via a course from the esteemed numismatic scholar Kenneth Harl) that Constantine’s coins don’t depict Christian imagery until around 330. I wonder if it’s more likely that this was because he was still “chewing” on the idea of being a Christian, or because he was concerned about the still overwhelmingly pagan Roman Empire’s collective response to going “full Christian”. Or that he wanted to ensure that he had a good hold on the Empire, especially after defeating Licinius in 324? Or maybe a combination of all 3?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2016

      My view is that he came to think that Sol Invictus was in fact the Christian God, so that the coins portraying Sol for him *were* coins with the Christian God on them.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 26, 2016

    Oh yes, this seems very believable!

    Do you think the symbol he had his troops carry into battle was more likely a simple cross than the Chi-Rho symbol?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2016

      Yes, it that description is historical, I thin kit would have been a cross.

  4. Avatar
    plparker  July 26, 2016

    Constantine and his men might also have seen a fairly well known illusion known as sundogs — appearing to show two twin suns, one on either side of the sun. Sometimes it includes some faint connective material that could be a cross or wreath around the sun.

    Here’s a link to several images of this phenomenon


  5. talmoore
    talmoore  July 26, 2016

    From what I know about generals and soldiers in general, they often don’t care which god they have to please as long as doing so will assure victory. That’s why military men throughout history were so fickle, and that’s probably why Constantine comes across so fickle. An illustrative example of the fickleness of military men is Abu Sufyan, who was Muhammad’s greatest adversary when the Muslims first came into military conflict with the pagan Arabs of Mecca. Abu Sufyan was commander of the pagan Meccan forces in such pivotal battles as Bedr, Ohod and The Trench. However, once Muhammad started to rack up the victories, finally taking Mecca itself, Abu Sufyan saw the writing on the wall and joined the Muslims. Abu Sufyan eventually became one of Islam’s greatest early generals as the faith expanded into an empire. As I said, military men can be quite fickle.

  6. Avatar
    dragonfly  July 26, 2016

    This has been a fascinating thread. I think Lactantius and Eusebias accounts sound like different retellings of the same story. Possibly Constantine’s memory of the event changed between telling these two, or the they heard the same story but remembered it differently when recounting it. The other story seems quite different although there are some similarities. The bottom line is Constantine didn’t convert because he agreed with the theology or the moral values of the religion, he converted because he thought this god would be more powerful and help him kill his enemies more than any other god. Not sure you would find that message in Christian churches these days.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  July 27, 2016

      “The bottom line is Constantine didn’t convert because he agreed with the theology or the moral values of the religion, he converted because he thought this god would be more powerful and help him kill his enemies more than any other god. Not sure you would find that message in Christian churches these days.”

      A great way to sum it up!

      • Avatar
        Jack  April 9, 2017

        Actually, I think that message already IS found in churches today — and throughout Abrahamic religions historically. Individual interpretations of God are quite artfully sculpted for the greatest support to our conscience and cause. Twas ever thus.

  7. Avatar
    marcrm68  July 26, 2016

    Constantine put Sol’s solar crown on Jesus! Yes, that is what I believe… An interesting mailbag might be what remnants of the Sol Invictus cult remained in Christianity! Certainly Sol has come down to us even in modern times…The Statue of Liberty for example.

    On an unrelated note, I saw today that you will be debating Dr. Robert Price in Oct…. It should be epic!!!!!

    Thanks for the great thread on Constantine!

    • Avatar
      JakSiemasz  July 28, 2016

      I’d ask Dr Ehrman to reconsider the debate with Dr Price in view of Price’s recent performance on the Dogma Debate podcast. It was quite cringe-worthy.

      • Bart
        Bart  July 30, 2016

        What was wrong with it? (I haven’t seen it)

        • Avatar
          JakSiemasz  July 30, 2016

          Despite anyone’s political leanings, I’m sorry to say I think he acted like a raving lunatic, but please listen for yourself. I thought it to be a shameful performance by Dr. Price. His veracity on any subject is now suspect to me. This all IMHO.

  8. Avatar
    chupacabra  July 27, 2016

    Hey, where is chapter 6? Just joking…

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 27, 2016

    One has to at least wonder where Christianity might be today if Constantine had not won battles after his “conversion” and the painting of the signs on his shields. Would he have switched to some other god who better helped him win battles? And then what would have happened to the “triumph” of Christianity? It sounds like superstition played a big role in the “triumph”….

    • Avatar
      marcrm68  July 28, 2016

      I wonder this all the time! What would western civilization be like if Christianity died out early on… Certainly it would have been very very different! For better or worse? …. I like to think for better, but it would be a great subject for scholarly speculation…

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  July 28, 2016

        Islam probably wouldn’t exist either (or be hugely different). Maybe we would all be pagans? Or Jewish? Or Buddhist? Or Hindu? No Mormons though. Glad we’re not all scientologists! One thing’s for sure, we wouldn’t all be atheists.

  10. Rick
    Rick  July 27, 2016

    So, if I have this right, Christianity became the largest religion in the world (in terms of adherents) and had enormous influence on history because of …………………….. The weather?

    • Rick
      Rick  July 27, 2016

      I think I’ll go read up on Chaos theory and the butterfly effect now…

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2016

      Ah, I see you need to read my book!

      • Rick
        Rick  July 29, 2016

        You are certainly going to be an easier read than Dr. Lorenz….

    • Avatar
      Jack  April 9, 2017

      I like your witty line, Rick, but the logic escapes me. So you believe religions shape the times and the world, rather than the other way around? What then can we say about geography, and geopolitical systems? If by chance you’re a godly member of the lucky womb club, congratulations!

    • Avatar
      Jack  April 9, 2017

      I like your wit, Rick, So would this mean you think religions shape the times and the world, rather than the other way around? What then can we say about geography, and geopolitical systems, etc? If by chance you’re a member of the lucky womb club, congratulations!

  11. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  July 31, 2016

    I saw a sun dog, a little over a year ago, winter of 2015. They are truly spectacular. You feel like you are witnessing something supernatural. I got pictures of it on my phone. I feel privileged to have witnessed one. A celestial phenomena I hope you all some day get a chance to see.

  12. Avatar
    mkahn1977  August 1, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Is it fair to say that Constantine created a syncretic religion by reconciling Sol Invictus with the Christian religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      I don’t think Constantine had much of a role in creating Christainity. He was adopting the religion found among many of the church leaders at the time.

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  August 2, 2016

        Maybe I should rephrase my question- did Costantine combine Roman religious/pagan practices with existing Christian ones?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 3, 2016

          Not that we know of.

          • Avatar
            GregAnderson  August 4, 2016

            mkahn1977 wrote:

            Maybe I should rephrase my question- did Constantine combine Roman religious/pagan practices with existing Christian ones?

            Bart replied: Not that we know of.

            And I say, huh? 😉 I don’t know that Constantine had anything to do with it, but from my perspective, both ancient Christianity, and modern Catholicism, were and are firmly rooted in Roman pagan religious practices. Whatever the original meeting and worship practices of the first Christians were, by the time they were adopted in Rome, they very much followed the practice of Roman paganism. I.e., early Roman churches are patterned (and are to this day patterned) after pagan temples and public basilica. The Roman Catholic liturgy follows ancient pagan practices, in that the services require the celebrants to perform certain ritual actions and speeches in exact ways — to the point of specifying exact wording and the exact movements of bodies and hands. Exactly as pagan Gods were worshipped in ancient Rome.

            The ritual sacrifice was replaced by the eucharist (a “sacrament”). When we view a Catholic service today, I would wager that we are also witnessing MANY glimpses of ancient Roman practice.

            This is shown on many existing Roman coins, displaying the worship of pagan Gods.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 5, 2016

            I thought the question was specifically about whether Constantine himself had altered Christianity more in line with pagan views and practices. I don’t think he did.

  13. Avatar
    Rogers  August 16, 2016

    Which one was the Christian convert first? Constantine or his mother? Did the one have any bearing on the other in respect to converting?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      It’s debated. My sense is that Constantine was first, and that he converted his mother.

  14. Avatar
    rap2016  September 29, 2016

    Constantine called the council of Nicea in order to unit the Monophysites, one nature, Aranism , from Alexandria and Dyophysites, two natures. There was a dispute about the nature of Serapis. Some scholars have taken the position that Serapis was the fore runner to Christ. Dr Walter Williams.
    Constantine was a politician and wanted to keep the Empire together. However, he did not succeed and the dispute continued.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2016

      Monophysites were a later development. Nicea was about the Arian controversy, the question of whether the Son was co-eternal and equal with the Father.

  15. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 9, 2017

    Was Constantine a true Christian or was he a deceitful politician who is partly responsible for deceiving most later generations of professed Christians?

    Some say Roman Emperor Constantine gave false Christians authority and they repackaged pagan doctrines and holidays and renamed it as Christianity, even though it really isn t “Christianity” to deceive later generations of professed Christians.

    Some say he was partly responsible for putting a counterfeit form of Christianity into power that eventually became the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of the Papacy and also later deceived generations retranslated and reinterpreted certain scriptures to make it appear that the Bible teaches these false doctrines and customs resulting in a “counterfeit form of Christianity” and they persecuted the true Christians by falsely labelling them as “heretics”

    Some would say study the customs, doctrines, myths, and worship of the ancient Babylonian Mystery belief systems and other ancient belief systems and compare it with the striking similarities of what most people call “Christianity” and you will find so many similarities it is unbelievable and unmistakably that the belief system most people call “Christianity” ripped off its customs and dogmas from ancient Mystery belief systems and ancient secret societies.

    Emperor Constantine was the first Roman Emperor who claimed to convert to “Christianity.” Did he really see a vision or was that too a lie?

    After his so-called conversion around the year 313 A.D. he intervened in a dispute among the Christians.

    One group of professed Christians claimed that Jesus was equal to God the Father. The other group of professing Christians believed as Jehovah s Witnesses believe today namely that the pre-human Jesus was created by YHWH God the Father before the rest of creation and that the pre-human Jesus was God’s agent through whom the rest of creation was created after the pre-human Jesus became a created being.

    So Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D to resolve this matter that resulted in the Nicene Creed that is recited down to this day in the Roman Catholic Church.

    So who was really right among the two divided factions represented at the Council of Nicaea?

    Are Jehovah s Witnesses a historical restoration of the long lost truth that was founded upon Jesus Christ? Some say yes, others would say no some say because of the influence of dissenters and misinformed people who have been misled into perceiving that the Witnesses are wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      This is the topic of the very first chapter of my next book, due out September 5, The Triumph of Christianity.

  16. Avatar
    searchingfortruthineverything  May 18, 2017

    Isn’t it true that some would say that the different accounts of Constantine’s vision are actually inconsistencies in the different accounts and wouldnt mean that there was no vision but instead some fabricated account?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      I devote the first chapter of my forthcoming book to this problem. But yes, there are some who would say that.

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