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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.

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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 remembered, or at least said.  There may have been numerous conversations, debates with others, and reflections within himself.  But he dated the event to October 28, 312.  At that point he began to consider himself a Christian.

The results were tremendous, but not for the reasons often claimed.  It is not that Constantine eventually made Christianity the state religion.  Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until nearly eight decades later under the reign of emperor Theodosius I.  And it is not that Constantine’s conversion was the single decisive turning point in the spread and success of the Christian religion, the one moment that changed all history and made the Christian conquest a success.  At the rate it was growing at the time, Christianity may well have succeeded otherwise.  If Constantine had not converted, possibly a later emperor would have done so, say, one of his sons.   Instead, what made Constantine’s conversion revolutionary was that the imperial apparatus that before then had been officially opposed to Christianity and worked hard, in some regions of the empire, to extirpate it completely, suddenly came to support it, promoting Christianity instead of persecuting it.  Constantine did not make Christianity the one official and viable religion.  He made it a licit religion, and one that enjoyed particular, even unique, imperial privileges and funding.  This support did indeed advance the Christian cause.  The recognition that this faith was now favored from on high appears to have contributed to the already impressive numbers adding to the Christian growth, including the conversion of increasing numbers of imperial and local elites, whose resources had until then funded (and thus made possible) the religious practices of their pagan world.

As important as Constantine’s conversion was to the welfare of the Christian movement, it is surprisingly difficult to describe what he converted from.  Modern historians of religion who speak of conversion can mean a variety of things by it.  Possibly it is simplest to keep the meaning broad and use the term to refer to a decided shift away from one set of religious practices and beliefs to another.   That certainly happened with Constantine.  At a moment that seemed, at least later in hindsight, to be clear and well-defined, he stopped being a pagan and became a Christian.

Conversion was not a widely known phenomenon in antiquity.  Pagan religions had almost nothing like it.  They were polytheistic, and anyone who decided, as a pagan, to worship a new or different god was never required to relinquish any former gods or their previous patterns of worship.  Pagan religions were additive, not restrictive.

Christians, on the other hand, did require a choice.  Converts were expected to forego the worship of all the other gods and revere the Christian God alone.   Only Judaism had similar expectations and demands.  Among pagans – that is among the 93% or so of the world that by custom, habit, and inclination worshiped multiple gods – worshiping a range of divine beings was not a religion that anyone chose.  It was simply what people did.  Being a pagan meant participating in the various religious activities associated with the official state gods, local municipal gods, personal family gods, and any other gods that were known to be involved with human experience.  For everyone except Jews, and then Christians, this was more a way of life than a conscious decision.  It  was a matter of doing what everyone had always done, very much like participating in the life of the local community, with the exception that most people were involved with only one community but could be engaged in the worship of a virtually incalculable number of gods.

For that reason, paganism should not be thought of as a solitary “thing” but as hundreds – thousands – of things.  Those who practiced traditional religions – in other words, just about everyone – would never have recognized themselves as participating in something called “paganism” or, indeed, any kind of “ism.”   There was not a thing there, nothing that could be named so as to sum up the totality of all the non-Jewish religious observances or beliefs or cultic practices of prayer and sacrifice ubiquitous in the culture.  No pagan would have understood what it would mean to call themselves pagan.  They were simply acting in time-honored ways of worshiping the gods.

Constantine, like everyone else who was not raised Jewish or Christian, participated in this worship.  But he gave it up to follow the one God of the Christians.  The narrative of how Constantine became a Christian is both intriguing and complex.  It involves issues that we today would consider strictly social and political and other issues that we would consider strictly religious.  But in the early fourth century – as in all the centuries of human history before that time – these two realms, the socio-political and the religious, were not seen as distinct.  They were tightly and inextricably interwoven.  On just the linguistic level, there were no Greek or Latin terms that neatly differentiated between what we today mean by “politics” and “religion.”   On the practical level, the gods were understood to be closely connected with every aspect of the social and political life of a community, from the election of officials, to the setting of the annual calendar, to the laws and practices that governed social relations, such as marriage and divorce, to the administration of civil justice, to the decisions and actions of war, to all the other major decisions of state.    The gods were active in every part of social and political life, and the decisions made and actions taken were done in relation to them.

On the imperial level this meant that it was widely known (and genuinely believed, by most) that it was the gods who had made the empire great.  The empire responded by sponsoring and encouraging the worship of the gods.  Doing so would promote the commonweal.  There was no sense that there was, should be, or could be a separation of church and state.

Starting in the mid-third century, the emperors themselves sensed this full well and acted accordingly.  That is why, some years before Constantine converted, the Christian religion had been persecuted by order of the state.  The Christians refused to worship or even acknowledge the gods of empire, claiming in fact that these were evil demonic beings, not beneficent deities that promoted the just cause of the greatest empire the world had ever known.  The refusal to worship was seen by others to be dangerous to the well-being of empire and thus to the security of state.  And so the decision to persecute – which seems to us, perhaps, to be a strictly religious affair – was at the time inherently socio-political as well.  The Christians were to be removed like a cancer from the body of state.  No emperor came to believe this more firmly – in no small part because of the alarming growth of this cancer – than Constantine’s predecessor on the throne, Diocletian, who instigated the most vicious empire-wide persecution ever seen.  Constantine himself was later to rescind the demands of this persecution.  But while it was still in process, he converted.

This conversion proved to be a lynchpin of imperial history, not just for the fate of the Christian religion but also for the workings of the Roman state.  We will look at the persecution of Diocletian in a later chapter, and at the broader biography of Constantine in another.  For now we are interested specifically in his conversion and how it radically changed the balance of power, both for the persecuted Christians and for the running of the Roman government.  To make sense of the conversion we need to understand some of the political and religious backdrop to the story.

If you belonged to the blog, you could get posts like this five or six times a *week*.   For less than fifty cents.   Every one of those cents goes to charity.  Remarkable deal.  Remarkable value.  Remarkable cause.  Don’t be unremarkable.  JOIN!  

 


Being Blindstruck by Triumph
Beginning the Triumph of Christianity

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Comments

  1. pueblo2  February 12, 2018

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,

    Your point that religion and politics were not really distinct concepts like they are today is important. And for that matter, atheism wasn’t appreciated in a positive way, but it wasn’t denigrated in the same way as it is today. Galen and Lucian’s comments about Christians are often wrongly cited by ignorant Christian apologists as independent proof of the existence of Jesus, but Galen’s and Lucian’s remarks about Christians do indicate that in the 2nd century CE Christianity was considered to be perhaps a new school of philosophy. Ironically for the Christian apologists who cite them in misunderstanding, Galen and Lucian treated Christianity as a serious intellectual phenomenon, but they mocked the supernatural elements and the primitive reward-punishment system they perceived in its teachings. Both Galen and Lucian wondered why the followers of Christianity accepted the miracle making and afterlife claims without what they considered any kind of real proof. This is actually also found in the New Testament (Acts 17:18) a century earlier when Paul is confronted by Epicureans and Stoics who want to understand what this new “babbling” that this seed-picker Paul is spouting (they weren’t buying the resurrection story).




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  2. Lev
    Lev  February 12, 2018

    “On the practical level, the gods were understood to be closely connected with every aspect of the social and political life of a community, from the election of officials, to the setting of the annual calendar, to the laws and practices that governed social relations, such as marriage and divorce, to the administration of civil justice, to the decisions and actions of war, to all the other major decisions of state. The gods were active in every part of social and political life, and the decisions made and actions taken were done in relation to them.”

    This is absolutely fascinating! I had not appreciated this before. So would this mean that if a Gentile Roman pagan were to convert to Christianity they would be, in effect, opposing the Roman Empire?

    Before Constantine, is there any record of any Roman senators or other political leaders who had converted? Did they do so publicly? Was there any ban or penalty placed upon civil or political leaders who converted?




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  3. AnotherBart  February 12, 2018

    So readable and engaging! I like it!




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  4. Seeker1952  February 12, 2018

    My understanding is that one big reason (not the only reason or necessarily the main reason) that Constantine promoted Christianity was to help unify the empire. If that’s true why would he choose a religion that was such a small minority in the empire? Is one reason that he thought belief in a single God would help unify the empire more than polytheistic practices? Especially if Christianity forced people to make a choice?

    No doubt you address this in your book and I can wait for my copy. But I can’t help but wonder if Constantine knew about the Trinity. Wouldn’t the Trinity have tended to be at cross-purposes with Constantine’s desire for unity? Especially with all the controversy about things like Jesus’s equality with the Father?

    One of the things I’m getting at is that maybe Judaism, with its more robust monotheism, would have been a better choice than Christianity for unifying the empire. But I suppose Judaism was discredited by their disastrous rebellions and had in any event been long regarded as a real oddity (for lack of a better word) and thus a non-starter.

    Finally, based on your response to a recent question of mine, I did a little online research into the role of Christianity in the origins of Islam. I was surprised to find that, both at time of its origin and later during the Middle Ages, many Christians thought Islam was a Christian heresy–rather like Arianism. Islam may be even more strongly monotheistic than Judaism. Of course Islam wasn’t an option for Constantine. But, insofar as Arianism is like Islam, might not Arian Christianity have been a better choice for unifying the empire? But maybe by Constantine’s time Arianism was a distinct minority within Christianity.

    I suppose part of the answer is that Constantine didn’t favor Christianity purely or maybe even primarily for political purposes.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      Yes, that’s what I thought too going into the research for the book. But I came out thinking that it’s not why Constantine converted. There was another more compelling reason for him.




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  5. RonaldTaska  February 12, 2018

    You started a thread recently about which book is your most important mentioning the best selling “Misquoting Jesus” as being the most sold of your books and then mentioning your New Testament textbook as being your best textbook and then mentioning your best book for scholars. You never mentioned which trade book you considered to be your best one. I assume that you would probably consider “The Triumph of Christianity” to be your best trade book. Congratulations!




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      Yeah, I need to get back to that one too. Before I find out about the afterlife first hand!




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      • Judith  February 13, 2018

        Funny!




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      • AnotherBart  February 13, 2018

        I pray that you do not find out about the afterlife any time soon!




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      • ermanercin  February 14, 2018

        i just purchased Misquoting Jesus and it is an excellent book. Purchased different three more of your books so thanks for the great books.




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  6. fishician  February 12, 2018

    Funny how scholars question whether Constantine’s conversion was genuine, and today many people question whether Trump’s conversion was genuine. Evangelicals may not, but everyone else does! Ah, politics and religion, an age-old story. Looking forward to your book!




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  7. Gary  February 12, 2018

    Very interesting post, but I have an off-topic question:

    What percentage of today’s critical NT scholars would YOU say believe in the historicity of an Empty Tomb of Jesus, and then more specifically, what percentage of today’s critical NT scholars would you say believe in the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb as the empty tomb of Jesus?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      I don’t know the percentage, but I would say the great majority.




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      • JohnMuellerJD  February 13, 2018

        Would you also say the great majority of NT scholars are Christian?




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      • Gary  February 14, 2018

        Wow. For both? Amazing.




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 15, 2018

          Most NT scholars are devout Christians.




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          • Gary  February 16, 2018

            True, but you can be a devout Christian and believe that not everything in the Gospel Passion Narratives is historical fact. Raymond Brown was a devout Christian and a believer in the bodily resurrection of Jesus but he states in “The Death of the Messiah” that the evangelists invented some of their material. I haven’t read Volume II yet to see what he says about the historicity of Arimathea’s tomb. Do you know?




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          • Bart
            Bart  February 18, 2018

            I don’t recall offhand, I’m afraid.




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      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  February 14, 2018

        Please forgive my ignorance. When you say the majority believe in the historicity of an Empty Tomb, does that mean the majority also believe in the historicity of the Resurrection? I don’t mean to split hairs; I’m just trying to understand if the expressions, Empty Tomb and Resurrection are equivalents.




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 15, 2018

          Yes. But of course the great majority are committed Christians.




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          • NulliusInVerba
            NulliusInVerba  February 15, 2018

            Thank you. I have always taken YOUR comments about the the original ending of Mark to mean that the author was, at best, ambivalent about the Resurrection. And that’s why his story is left at the Empty Tomb.




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          • Bart
            Bart  February 16, 2018

            My view is not exactly that. He is quite clear that Jesus was raised. What he wants to say, apparently, is that the disciples never *do* “get it”




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    • Wilusa  February 13, 2018

      Interesting that you’re making a distinction between a basic “empty tomb” story and one that specifically names “Joseph of Arimathea”!




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  8. godspell  February 12, 2018

    Bart, you mention Christians in this era believing pagan gods were demons, posing as deities.

    I was of the impression that the prevailing (not unanimous) opinion among Christians was that the pagan deities were purely imaginary beings. No question many early Christian writers professed this view, but had popular views shifted by the time of Constantine?

    Constantine could not have professed such a view–that the gods many of his subjects worshipped were evil spirits, deceiving mankind. In fact, how did he address this conflict–that by embracing Christianity, he was rejecting the very existence of the pagan gods that had formerly been used to unite the Empire?




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      Some Christians thought the gods just didn’t exist; others thought they were demons. But more appear to have thought the latter.




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      • godspell  February 13, 2018

        The more superstitious, one suspects–the ones who were still partly under the spell of pagan beliefs, which still surrounded them from childhood, even if they were raised as Christians.

        Not that Christian beliefs themselves don’t often qualify as superstition, but of a different type. Pagans imagined themselves surrounded by unseen earthly powers, for good and evil. They were, as you mention, so afraid of gods they might accidentally offend, they erected an altar to an unknown god–just in case!

        As Christianity took hold, and the altars fell, these beliefs translated themselves into beliefs in imps and demons, as well as prayers to saints and the Holy Virgin. Underground paganism, even though never acknowledged as such. The same types of beliefs existed in Judaism, to some extent (why else is the Old Testament full of stories about Israelites paying homage to pagan gods?), but were probably mostly gone by the time of Jesus.

        Islam also has many such folk beliefs, various types of djinn, in spite of its exceptionally rigid take on monotheism.

        Paganism may not have triumphed, but it also never truly died out.




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  9. jhague  February 12, 2018

    The Christians refused to worship or even acknowledge the gods of empire, claiming in fact that these were evil demonic beings, not beneficent deities that promoted the just cause of the greatest empire the world had ever known. The refusal to worship was seen by others to be dangerous to the well-being of empire and thus to the security of state. And so the decision to persecute…

    Could this have been part of the reason for persecuting the Jesus movement Jews in the Diaspora in the first century. The Gentiles meeting in the synagogue were being told that they could no longer worship the pagan gods if they became Christians. This would be looked at as causing issues within the empire due to angering the gods.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      Yes, whether they were ethnically Jewish or Gentile, Christians who refused to worship the gods were thought to be a “danger.” But my sense is that if Gentiles were worshipping in synagogues, they had already given up the worship of their (old) pagan gods.




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      • jhague  February 13, 2018

        I thought the Gentiles were just adding one more god (the Jewish god) to the many gods that they worshiped. It seems the Gentiles/pagans were not told to give up their pagan gods until they expressed interest in being Jesus movement Jews, right?




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        • Bart
          Bart  February 15, 2018

          We don’t know for certain, but usually it is thought that if they decided to worship the God of Israel, thye were becoming henotheists and not worshiping other gods.




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  10. Pattylt  February 12, 2018

    Is it true that Constantine wasn’t baptized until on his deathbed?
    Is it known if Constantine’s mother was Christian?
    Were there multiple stories surrounding his conversion including the story of seeing the Chi Ro in the sky?
    If you address these in your book, I’ll read it tomorrow! Can’t wait!




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2018

      Yes, he was baptized on his deathbed. Helena did become a Christian, but we don’t know when. And yes, there are three accounts of his vision. I deal with all these topics in the book!




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      • Pattylt  February 13, 2018

        Thanks! I’m downloading to my Kindle right now and am truly looking forward to a good read! Congrats on the birth of this baby.




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  11. gmmarcum  February 12, 2018

    Thank you for posting this first chapter. It will be delivered to my door tomorrow and I am excited too and for you. I finally got around to being “open” to read one of your books. In 2003, I bought “The Lost Christianities” and never read it till May, 2017 (long story, short: I read a Christopher Hitchens book and it’s story about you reminded me of your name and I recalled I actually owned your book, which had gathered quite a bit of dust in the garage). It goes without saying, I have a very similar story to your first 25 years, but it took me a while (actually, almost 2 additional decades) to warm up to the idea of intentionally (biblically) embracing some uncertainty. I guess those pesky “suspicions” in the back of my mind were searching for a way to safely surface. So, since May, I’ve also read: Jesus, Interrupted, Jesus Before the Gospels, How Jesus Became God, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, Forged, then God’s Problem (twice) and then Misquoting Jesus. The strange order is another story, but I’ll say this: So it began, and oh, how my thinking and view point has expanded, including my approach to learning what the Bible says and doesn’t say. The last 10 months reading your books couldn’t have been better spent. I happily confess, to quote Hitchens, you “rearranged the furniture in my mind”. Anyway, I am extremely grateful for the experience, which I attribute directly to the thoughtful care in how you’ve presented your research and writings.
    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman
    Regards, Mitch Marcum
    P.S. Getting ahead of myself, but already looking forward to “Afterlife”.




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    • Jim Cherry  February 15, 2018

      Or as Issac Asimov said in his book, Nightfall, “So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrage the universe.”




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  12. plparker  February 13, 2018

    Good luck on the book launch! I pre-ordered my copy and am waiting for it to arrive on my Kindle. Good intro. Nice way to pull in your readers’ interest, to hook your audience!




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  13. RonaldTaska  February 13, 2018

    What affected my religious quest more than any other thing was actually reading the whole Bible several times. I found some parts to be beautiful (parts of the Gospels and the 13th chapter of First Corinthians ), but, by and large, found the Bible to be way too long, way too boring, way too hard to gasp, and in need of a lot of editing to connect the disconnected parts. For decades, I did not find any support for this impression as even those who disputed the Bible’s historical accuracy admired it as a literary masterpiece teaching great ethical principles in story form. Recently, I came across an article on Valarie Tarico’s blog entitled “Why is the Bible so badly written?” She has, predictably, received a lot of criticism and has responded with a clarifying blog. Both of her blogs are reasonably short. It would be interesting to see what Bible scholars, like you, and literary scholars, like your wife, might think of Tarico’s criticism of the Bible as literature. Tarico’s thesis somewhat confirms what I experienced, but I am not a literary nor a Biblical scholar.




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  14. john76  February 13, 2018

    – “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. — Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Ch. II.”

    I think it has to be considered what the rulers thought of religion and its purpose at the time. For example, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), was cleverly instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was strategically introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.

    My guess is that the Roman ruling class decided to make the switch to Christianity based on how kind and loving faith in Christ made the Christians (even in the face of persecution), and phased it in between the time of Constantine and Theodosius I.




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  15. anthonygale  February 14, 2018

    Do you have an opinion on whether Constantines conversion was genuine? I also wonder how many converts in the ancient world stopped believing in their previous gods as opposed to exclusively worshiping the Christian God and believing in Jesus. Analagous to early Judaism appearing to acknowledge other gods.




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    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      Yes, I deal with the issue at some length in the book and discuss evidence on both sides, before arguing that it was indeed genuine.




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  16. Apocryphile  February 14, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman – I’m hoping that one of your sources for the book was Charles Freeman? (A New History of Early Christianity ; The Closing of the Western Mind) They’re written for an (intellectually inclined) 😉 lay audience, but the latter (though chronologically earlier) book covers both Constantine and the Arian controversy in detail.

    I would argue that any concept of a Trinity (Arian or not) is flat out polytheistic cosmogony, however this square peg is pounded into a monotheistic round hole. In fact, I would argue that there is and never has been a strictly monotheistic religion.




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  17. SidDhartha1953  February 15, 2018

    Re: the dating of Acts (Triumph p. 42) if Acts was written in the mid 120s, does that mean no common authorship with Luke, or that Luke is not 1st century?




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