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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 can not vouch for this summary of what he says in it.  So I will not be addressing the question of whether *he* is right (since I’m not sure exactly what he said) but whether this summary is right.  In my view it is wrong.

I *suspect* (but do not know) that Prof. Daileader (assuming he did make this argument) means that pagan religion was outlawed already during the reign of Constantine.  I think that is almost certainly incorrect.  Here is what I say about the matter in my book The Triumph of Christianity.

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In contrast to those scholars who have argued that if Constantine were a “real” Christian, he would have been even more avid, some modern experts have argued that Constantine was so thoroughly committed to the Christian cause that his ultimate goal was to convert the entire Empire. That is almost certainly not the case, however.  Even if he himself was firmly committed to the Christian God, Constantine had imperial reasons for not forcing the issue or compelling his subjects.  He had seen well enough what would come of coercion.  He had lived through the Great Persecution, observing it up close as a member of the courts of both Diocletian and Galerius.  It did not work.   Constantine obviously was heavy-handed when he felt a need to be, as with the bishops at Nicaea.  He was not, however, inclined to compel the religious preferences, or even practices, of his predominantly pagan empire.

In the next chapter we will see that some of Constantine’s successors did not share his commitment to tolerance:  by the end of the fourth century serious legislation issued from the imperial throne banning pagan practices altogether on pain of severe judicial penalty.  One particularly thorny historical question involves Constantine’s tolerance of traditional cultic practices, or his lack of it.   Did he try to shut down pagan religious activities by criminalizing animal sacrifice? There is no doubt about his personal views.  He despised animal sacrifice: the blood, the gore, the stench, and, in fact, the entire practice.  He repeatedly said so.  The historical issue is whether this is one instance in which he forced his views on all others by disallowing sacrifice throughout his empire.

Some prominent experts have claimed …

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The Beginning of the End of Paganism
Why Should Faith and the Afterlife Matter? Readers’ Mailbag April 15, 2018

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Comments

  1. epicurus
    epicurus  April 29, 2018

    I own that course by professor Daileader and while it’s been a few years since I listened to it or read the guide book, I don’t recall him saying that. It would be helpful if the person making the claim could provide the lecture number and time mark in the lecture where this occurs.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  April 29, 2018

    This seems comparable with the attitude taken by Elizabeth I of England, who as a devout Protestant, was subject to constant threat of assassination by Catholic extremists, and the threat of holy war from Catholic monarchs–Catholics being a very large percentage of her subjects, though not in the majority by the time of her death. She certainly was in a better position to try and stamp out Catholicism than Constantine was to try and stamp out paganism.

    Her response was not to ban their practices, or to order persecution, but to urge mutual toleration. Her own religious beliefs were, to some extent, midway between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism (one reason why modern Anglican/Episcopalian practices so resemble those of Catholics, in spite of large doctrinal differences).

    She famously said she did not want to make a window into men’s souls. While this was probably a sincere feeling on her part, it was also highly pragmatic, from the standpoint of encouraging unity and prosperity in her realm. Most people of any religion didn’t want civil war, and she had no intention of encouraging that. She was accused by some of being an atheist because she refused to compel others to accept her beliefs. (I dunno, I’ve encountered some atheists who’d love to do just that, but never mind, the word didn’t mean quite the same thing back then).

    It was not a tolerant country by our standards–certainly not for Jews, who had mainly been expelled in the thirteenth century. But the ideal of tolerance–of people minding their own business and converting by example, rather than by persecution and compulsion–did start to take hold there.

  3. Avatar
    Tony  April 29, 2018

    In support of this Post is the Teaching Company course, “the fall of the pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D. I recommend it.

    Eusebius was Constantine’s appointed historian of Christianity. It is from Eusebius that we get the Milvian bridge battle report with sky signs, etc. Eusebius was also a self proclaimed liar, and he may well have been the originator of the Testimonium Flavianum insertion in Josephus’ Antiquities.

    Constantine tolerated and supported Christianity but appeared to have had a foot in both Pagan and Christian camps. Constantine’s later images always showed Pagan symbols. Constantine’s Christian sympathies may have originated with his mother Helena who was a follower of Christianity. She later went on a trip to Judea and returned with Christian relics, including pieces of he original cross…

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2018

      Yes, I disagree with Harl on a number of points. Constantine certainly didn’t appoint Eusebius to be the historian of Christianity. The pagan symbols you’re referring to are the images of Sol Invictus on his coins; but he thought *Christ* was Sol Invictus. There is no good evidence that Helena was a Christian before Constantine was. And the legend of her discovering pieces of the cross was later invented by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (it’s not in Eusebius or other contemporary sources).

  4. Avatar
    crucker  April 29, 2018

    I once read that when Constantine established Sunday as a day of rest, it was rooted in observance of Sol Invictus (since Sunday was the day of the sun), and that when he converted to Christianity he didn’t fully relinquish all of his pagan beliefs. Is there any truth to this? Or was this an act of pure Christian motivation?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2018

      Yes, I deal with this in my book. Before Constantine was a Christian he had become a henotheist, worshiping only Sol Invictus. Becoming a Christian for him meant realizing the *Christ* was Sol Invictus. He definitely renounced paganism in order to follow Christ. The evidence for this is compelling, including letters and sermons that he himself preached that still survive. Among other things, he despised pagan sacrifices and mocked/attacked the idea that there was more than One God.

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    SidDhartha1953  May 8, 2018

    I have tried to avoid discussions of why no NT author condemned slavery, as it generally leads to an unfair judgment against people for not being able to imagine a world no one has yet imagined, or an unpleasant experience of being called an apologist for slavery. But a question on an atheist discussion group, “Why did Paul send Onesimus back?” got me thinking.
    From your writing about Greco Roman notions of dominance as status, it seems that the simple manumission of a slave was not a de facto improvement in status, because a man with no wealth, power, or influence was about as low on the ladder as one can be, save for a similarly situated woman. A trusted slave of a wealthy, powerful individual would have more status than a “free” Onesimus.
    Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Paul was hoping for an improved station in life for Onesimus as the favored slave of Philemon, who was probably not enormously wealthy and powerful by Roman standards, but pretty high up in the Collossian Christian community? He may have really hit the jackpot and become Philemon’s adopted son, which would be far better than a simple manumitted slave.
    This also puts a different spin on the implications of Paul’s self-identity as a slave of Jesus Christ. “Your master is a centurion or a senator? My master is the King of the Universe and sits at the right hand of God Almighty!” Am I reading it right?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      I’ll probably post on this. The most important thing to note is that Paul says nothing about manumitting Onesimus. He is sending him back to Philemon precisely as a slave.

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