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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.

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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 …

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Are Christians Intolerant?
Making Rome Pagan Again

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 2, 2018

    I’ve often thought it’s hard to reconcile what you say about the Roman Empire in situations like this – with its being well-nigh impossible to have laws enforced everywhere – with what you say about *crucifixion*. How can you be *sure* bodies were *always, everywhere*, left on crosses for days?

    I’m thinking, of course, that Pontius Pilate *might* have had so little interest in Jesus that he never bothered to make sure his body was being left on the cross – might have departed for Caesarea before Joseph of Arimathea gave a guard a small bribe. And *Joseph* may have cared about Jesus because he’d previously been a secret admirer of John the Baptist, and knew just enough about Jesus to understand that he had similar views.

    I’m not committed to that idea – I just think it’s *possible*. Maybe, a 50-50 chance.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2018

      I can’t be sure. But all the evidence points in one direction, and never in the other. I’m not saying, though, that this was a “law” that was enforced everywhere; I’m saying that it was the custom. Customs can be widespread even if laws are not.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 5, 2018

        A thought I’ve had: as I believe you’ve said, the “empty tomb” story was rarely if ever cited by early Christians as “proof” of a resurrection, because there were so many possible natural explanations. (The one I think most plausible is that Joseph had never intended to keep Jesus’s body in his family tomb permanently. He just had it put in a safe place till after the Sabbath, then moved it, possibly to a location suggested by his rabbi. If so, he would have been shocked when he realized others had seen the first interment and thought the body’s “disappearance” was miraculous. But he probably would have refused to discuss it – he’d never wanted to be publicly involved!)

        Other natural explanations I’ve heard: Jesus’s disciples moved the body, the Romans moved it, or the women who found the tomb empty had gone to the wrong tomb.

        It seems to me that there being so many possible natural explanations – rendering the story near-useless as “proof” of a resurrection – makes it less likely that someone would have gone to the bother of making it up.

        • Avatar
          Wilusa  May 5, 2018

          P.S. I just had another thought. The empty tomb story, in itself, might have convinced some people that Jesus had been taken up, bodily, directly into “Heaven.” It *wouldn’t* have given them any reason to believe he’d first been walking around, on Earth, in a body that had been restored to life.

          And that was important! His followers believed in a coming “general resurrection,” in which all the virtuous dead would be restored to life, on Earth. They would have wanted proof that *his* “resurrection” was the “first fruit” of that *general* “resurrection” – that what was expected to happen to others had already happened to him.

          Another argument against someone’s having gone to the bother of making up the story?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 6, 2018

          Interesting logic. But as we know, the possibility of natural explanations doesn’t keep anyone from believing the story, and if that’s the case they probably wouldn’t have kept anyone from making up the story either.

  2. Avatar
    mannix  May 2, 2018

    In light of Julian’s pagan inclinations and Jovian’s Christian leanings, one could wonder whether the blow that killed Julian came from behind rather than from the enemy.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      It appears taht it was a poorly planned and very poorly executed military engagement with the Persians.

  3. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 2, 2018

    Ha – all these proscribed practices neatly summarises many of the rituals that came to be integral to Christian worship (and remain so in the RC church): saints; candles; incense-burning; icons; and, of course, the Eucharist itself – the imbibing of wine and its whole sacrificial nature. How and when did this occur – the almost complete take-over of pagan religious practice by the Christian church?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      I wouldn’t say most pagan practices were taken over by the church; it’s more like there are certain ways to be religious (to be connected with the gods) and these ways are manifest differently in various religious practices in antiquity.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  May 2, 2018

    Jesus seemed to preach that the people should comply with the pagans (the Romans at that time) because the time was at hand when God Himself would defeat them and set things right. So, I don’t sense any political activism in Jesus. But by the end of the 4th Century had the Christians essentially given up on that concept? No more waiting for God to set things right – we’ll do it ourselves?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      Right — as the apocalyptic fervor faded, and then the world started becoming Christian — that seems to have changed everything, at least for most Christians.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 15, 2018

      Actually, that wasn’t what Jesus was thinking at all. He was profoundly worried that his people were going to erupt in rebellion, and he knew they would be slaughtered. He was preaching a form of non-violent resistance. Gandhi understood that about Jesus immediately, and he convinced his people accordingly. The so-called “Christians” invented a tale about resurrection, Jesus as divine and other fantasies that were just as successful as they were preposterous.

  5. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 2, 2018

    Dr Ehrman

    M Licona said that even Jesus talks about himself using the third person or second person plural ,he said this to make an argument for john being the “we” in “we know his testimony is true”
    How would you address this?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      When Jesus differentiates between hinmself and one or more others, he clearly isn’t talking about himself when he’s talking about the other(s). Why would the author of John affirm that *we* know that *his* testimony is true, if he just wants to say “trust me”?

  6. Avatar
    bigalster  May 2, 2018

    Bart,
    A little digression here,but i am troubled with Matthew’s genealogy as in MT.1:1. Matthew clearly says it is of Jesus,but you claim this is not so,but Joseph. So which is it? Where is your support for the thesis that the Matthew is speaking of Joseph’s genealogy and not that of Jesus? If the text, (MT.1:1 says it is of Jesus) don’t we go with this?
    As a corollary, when you also claim that Joseph is NOT Jesus’ father,does the legal genealogy have to go by the bloodline necessarily or can we from a legalistic genealogical standpoint,claim that Joseph was in fact Jesus’ father? Puzzled by these two.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      I don’t claim so — Matthew claims so! Look to see who it traces down to. It’s not Jesus, but Joseph.

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  May 2, 2018

    Sort of related. As Christianity grew to its official status from its humble origins, at what point did a professional clergy develop? When did it’s members develop a professional priesthood where they were a separate class from the laity, where being a priest was their paid occupation?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      Are you asking when Christians made a living out of being clergy? Good question. In some places it was a full time “job” already in by the end of the second century I suppose. Earlier? I’m not sure.

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  May 4, 2018

        Yes, that’s the question. When did the role of clergy become a profession? It would be interesting to see how the role developed in the early church.

  8. Avatar
    godspell  May 2, 2018

    I would argue that paganism basically infiltrated Christianity, and many of the old ways were preserved in the new established faith. Inevitable, when former pagans and their heirs were the overwhelming majority of Christians, and Rome simply made Christianity the state supported religion that paganism had once been (I know it’s not exactly the same thing, Bart, but there was a niche to fill, and Christianity filled it).

  9. Avatar
    Tony  May 2, 2018

    I was kind of curious about today’s value of the stipulated fines.

    The Roman pound was the Libra (our abbreviated lb) and its weight was about 329 grams. Today’s spot gold price was $42 USD per gram, or $13818 per Roman pound. That bring us to the relative purchasing power of gold in the 4th century. Difficult to determine, but interestingly they’re not orders of magnitude different from today’s values.
    http://commodityhq.com/education/a-brief-2000-year-history-of-gold-prices/

    So, 6, 15 and 30 Libra’s would have a a value today of about $83,000; $210,000 and $415,000 respectively.

  10. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  May 3, 2018

    Dr Bart, this is side question. In Paul’s teachings he commanded Christians to be submissive to the rulers and obey the laws of the land. Since religion and politics in the ancient Rome were interwoven, obeying the law of the land would mean observing and participating in some of the pagan rites. Do you think Paul’s preaching allegiance to a different God and asking them not to mingle with pagan is self contradictory …

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      Not so much contradictory. He made exceptions. (As most of us would do in comparable situations, e.g., “obey your parents”)

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 15, 2018

        This is difficult to reconcile. Paul wasn’t preaching against the Jews, he was preaching against the Romans.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2018

          I don’t think Paul was preaching against the Romans. See Romans 13. Or do you mean pagans? He certainly did not approve of *them*!

  11. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  May 3, 2018

    Listening to your podcast with Sam Harris right now. Really enjoying it so far. At the beginning of the podcast, you mentioned that your departure from fundamentalism began when you started reading the Bible in the original languages. I’ve heard you state this in other interviews as well. Question: Why was reading the texts in the original languages (as opposed to the English translations) so instrumental in changing your views?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2018

      You see things you simply don’t see in translation, in part because you’re going *very* slowly and thinking about every word.

  12. Avatar
    Eric  May 3, 2018

    Your last paragraph. Sounds like the evolution of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

  13. Avatar
    wrengles  May 4, 2018

    So glad you were on the Sam Harris podcast! You were great, as expected, and I’m a big fan of Sam’s as well (although I don’t always agree with him). He has a huge audience, so I hope you get some real benefit out of the appearance.

    I was disappointed, however, in one thing. I was really hoping you would discuss (or I should say, he would ask you about) the problem of suffering. Obviously you can’t cover everything, but it’s such a rich topic (and is what ultimately pushed you over the edge, as you mentioned, very briefly, in literally the last minute of the podcast, in response to a question). Maybe next time!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      We may have talked about it but it was cut; we actually talked for two and a half hours, but they couldn’t include everything on the podcast itself.

  14. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 6, 2018

    dr ehrman

    you said that you don’t believe the stuff the gospel writers attribute to jesus on the cross.

    can you tell me which arguments you have in mind?

    1.the gospels are clearly dependant on ot for the sayings attributed to jesus on the cross
    2. gospels are written too late
    3. jesus was an unknown, why would anyone care what he said on the cross just like why would anyone care what the crucified criminals next to him said?
    4.when we read the gospels ,we think that everyone had their camera on jesus in first century, but there is no evidence on this.

    have later gospel writers such as john anticipated the problems which i have listed and have people come close to the cross?

    if jesus really did say , “my god , my god, why have you forsaken me?”

    and some one said “he is calling out to elijah”

    could this be a markan invention considering that marks theme throughout the gospel was that no body understood jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      My basic view is that no one was standing by the foot of his cross and recording his words. The disciples had fled and if there were any observers, they were probably at a distance (especially if they were sympathizers). If a Gospel writer, say 50 years later, indicates Jesus said something — how would that author have any real idea?

  15. Avatar
    Eric Keiski  May 7, 2018

    For what it’s worth, I don’t understand the point of grading each blogpost on a five star scale. We are obviously all here together because we learn so much from Dr. Ehrman. Everything he does is going to be quality. I say nix the rating scale…it takes up room (eyesore), it’s not meaningful in any way and likely redundant. Sorry if this topic has been skewered to death, I’m pretty new.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      It helps me see what kind of post readers are particularly interested in.

  16. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 9, 2018

    Over the past year, I’ve written some things that have gotten me into trouble with a lot of religious people. One one level, I feel sorry that I have to offend so many people, especially people that I love and respect. On another level, I feel a sense of righteous indignation (at least I hope it’s righteous indignation and not something else) that what passes for Christianity today in the Western world is so far from what Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Church had in mind.

    The quotes below cover the period of the first two centuries of Christian history. As far as I know, no respected historian disputes what you are about to read. As you read these quotes, I’d like for you to ask yourself a question. Which is more likely? That the early Church closest in time to the lives of Jesus and the Apostles, started out in error but then gradually came to the truth around the time of Constantine–or the other way around?

    The Early Church and the World, Professor C. J. Cadoux writes: “Up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius at least [161-180 C.E.], no Christian would become a soldier after his baptism.”

    “Early Christianity was little understood and was regarded with little favor by those who ruled the pagan world. . . . Christians refused to share certain duties of Roman citizens. . . . They would not hold political office.” (On the Road to Civilization A World History, A. K. Heckel and J. G. Sigman, 1937, pp. 237-8)

    The Encyclopedia of Religion states: “The early church fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, affirmed that Christians were constrained from taking human life, a principle that prevented them from participating in the Roman army.”

    In his book, E.w. Barnes’ careful review of all the information available goes to show that, until the time of Marcus Aurelius [Roman emperor from 161 to 180 C.E.], no Christian became a soldier; and no soldier, after becoming a Christian, remained in military service.The Rise of Christianity (London, 1947), E. W. Barnes, p. 333.

    The book ‘The Early Christian Attitude to War’ says: “Inasmuch as they [Jesus teachings] ruled out as illicit all use of violence and injury against others, clearly implied [was] the illegitimacy of participation in war . . . The early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcation of gentleness and non-resistance in their literal sense. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved.”

    “They refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. . . . it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.” History of Christianity (New York, 1891), Edward Gibbon, pp. 162, 163.

    “The behavior of the [early] Christians was very different from that of the Romans. . . . Since Christ had preached peace, they refused to become soldiers,” Our World Through the Ages.

    And ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ by Edward Gibbon, states: “[Early Christians] refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defense of the empire. . . . It was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers.”

    The Catholic Herald of London stated: “The first Christians . . . took Jesus at His word and refused to be conscripted into the Roman army even if the penalty was death. Would the whole of history have been different if the Church had stuck to its original stand? . . . If the churches of today could come out with a joint condemnation of war . . . , which would mean that every member would be bound in conscience to be, like the Christians, a conscientious objector, peace might indeed be assured. But we know that this will never happen.”

    “Zealous Christians did not serve in the armed forces or accept political offices.”– World History, The Story of Mans Achievements (River Forest, Ill; 1962) Habberton, Roth and Spears, p. 117.

    “While among Romans it was considered the highest honor to possess the privileges of Roman citizenship, the Christians announced that they were citizens of heaven. They shrank from public office and military service.” Persecution of the Christians in Gaul, A.D. 177 by F.F.G. Guizot, former prime minister of France, Vol. III of The Great Events by Famous Historians (New York; 1905), Rossiter Johnson, ed, p. 246.

    “The Christians were strangers and pilgrims in the world around them; their citizenship was in heaven; the kingdom to which they looked was not of this world. The consequent want of interest in public affairs came thus from the outset to be a noticeable feature in Christianity. Christianity and the Roman Government.” (London; 1925), E. G. Hardy, Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, p. 39.

    “The emperors disliked Christianity because it seemed unpatriotic and un-Roman.” The Course of Civilization, Volume One, (New York; 1961), p. 144.

    God directed ancient Israel to use warfare to take possession of the land that he himself designated as their inheritance and to execute people whose depraved practices and defiance of the true God caused YHWH to view them as being no longer fit to live. (Deut. 7:1, 2, 5; 9:5; Lev. 18:24, 25) Nevertheless, mercy was shown to Rahab and to the Gibeonites because they demonstrated faith in YHWH. (Josh. 2:9-13; 9:24-27) In the Law covenant God laid down rules for warfare that he would approve, stipulating exemptions and the manner in which this warfare was to be carried out. Such were truly holy wars of YHWH. That is not true of the carnal warfare of any nation today.

    I believe in the bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am also no stranger to historical facts and I fully understand the rational for Aretha’s article. The bible acknowledges Satan as the ruler of this world and Jesus declares that we should render Caesar things to Caesar and God things to God. Furthermore Jesus stresses that his kingdom is no part of this world, and advises us to honour God our father and love our neighbours as our selves.
    Early Christians did not kill, nor partake in worldly pleasures. They obeyed and followed the principles of christianity as modelled by Jesus then his appostles, but they paid their taxes and were very valuable worker in their communities. Because of they being “no part of the world” they were severely persecuted especially by Emperor Diocletian. The Edict of Milan by Constantine gave freedom of worship to all religion hereby tolerance to christianity. This move by Constantine was mainly to stabilize the declining empire and to strengthen his political career. The Council of Nicea outlawed other forms of Christianity that were not supportive of Rome as heresy and made Nicene christianity as the true faith and Rome the center of worship, but Constantine call on all christians and non-christians to worship the sun and other false gods.
    Conserquently, the ways of the ungodly world crept into the bossom of Christianity and Romanized it. Today we still live in a Romanized world of Christianity that surely doesn’t have the ambiance of Christ coming Kingdom. Most of the attrocities of this world has been committed in the name of Christianity; the crusades, the enslavement of the Africans, colonization, You name them!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2018

      I would strongly suggest that as you shape your own ideas you focus on *modern* and *recent* scholarship, since so much that is older has been examined and interacted with — sometimes being confirmed with more evidence and more recent analyses, but veyr often overturned in very convincing fashion. Much of what these quotations say can be shown t o be simply wrong.

      • Avatar
        truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

        Is the part about Satan being the ruler of the world wrongly stated?

        Bible > John > Chapter 14 > Verse 30
        ◄ John 14:30 ►
        Verse (Click for Chapter)
        New International Version
        I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me,

        New Living Translation
        “I don’t have much more time to talk to you, because the ruler of this world approaches. He has no power over me,

        English Standard Version
        I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me,

        Berean Study Bible
        I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming, and he has no claim on Me.

        Berean Literal Bible
        No longer will I speak much with you; for the ruler of this world comes, and in Me he has nothing.

        New American Standard Bible
        “I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me;

        King James Bible
        Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.

        Christian Standard Bible
        I will not talk with you much longer, because the ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over me.

        Contemporary English Version
        I cannot speak with you much longer, because the ruler of this world is coming. But he has no power over me.

        How could Satan tempt Christ with all the Kingdoms of the world if they were not his to give?

        Are these governments influenced
        and/or controlled by Satan?

        If God or was ruler of the world then why is there so many problems.

        There are some sincere people in government but their ability to solve the world’s problems are limited.

        • Avatar
          truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

          But Christ on the other hand has limitless powers to solve the world’s problems.

          I’m going to research those quotes more carefully.

          Thanks

        • Bart
          Bart  June 11, 2018

          This verse indicates that Satan has no power over *Christ*, not that he is not the ruler of this *world.*

      • Avatar
        truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

        Are they overturned by the same apologists that defend the Trinity?

        Allegory is extended metaphor. (True allegory contains its interpretation, as “I am the true vine,” John 15:1–8, but this is ignored in the allegorical interpretation.) Allegorical interpretation sees the OT as allegorical. Origen, for instance, said that Abraham’s marriage to Keturah was not actual, but represents that there is no end to the getting of wisdom. I think that some allegorical interpreters did not deny historicity of narrative, but they did hold the historical to be a secondary sense.

        Type, by contrast, is an event, person, institution, etc. that was designed by God to foreshadow (typify) a spiritual reality (the antitype), as the Passover lamb that typified Christ, John 1:28. By the typological interpretation is probably meant the idea that the OT is typical of Christ, as Jonah’s being three days in the belly of the whale is said to typify Christ’s three days in the tomb. The typical interpretation does not deny historicity, but argues that it ultimately foreshadows Christ.

        In a nutshell, the difference is that allegoricalists affirm the allegorical meaning as primary, whereas typological allegorists hold the literal sense the primary one.

        Some hold the idea that the symbols in Revelation are parallels of the symbols in Daniel, Ezekiel, and other books of the Bible and the Bible is written in some places in such a manner, especially in the prophetic books.

        • Avatar
          truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

          Some say the symbols have parallel meanings in Revelation and aren’t meant to be interpreted literally.

          Origen was one whom over allegoricalized the interpretation of the Bible, as some others did in the ante-Nic me era but he did have the right idea but there was some error in his teachings because of the errors of his predecessors during the post-Apostolic age

  17. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

    What I’m trying to say is that, as according to the Bible, there was false teachings that spread like gangrene or a growing cancer that infected the churches or congregations after the end of the Apostolic age.

    That is what has been passed down from one generation to the next until our day in most churches with the assistance of “Nicene Christianity.”

    “The spirit of error”

    • Avatar
      truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

      Some of the error was already taught as truth during the days of the Apostles.

      But it worsened even more following the end of the Apostolic age

      The great apostasy until the “end times.”

      Daniel was a sealed book until the “time of the end.”

  18. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

    I accept the 2nd century “angel Christology” because it is closest to the Apostolic age during the time when the teachings were closest to the truth, a formulized theology, later more error crept in and it became worse and gradually even worser in later years and the errors were accepted as Orthodoxy at Nicaea and later more erroneous doctrines were brought into existence and passed down to later generations to most of the world today.

    That is Protestantism, Roman Catholic Church, and Eastern Orthodoxy

  19. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 10, 2018

    ccel.org

    John Calvin quote:

    He didn’t object that Michael the Archangel was another name for Christ before he took on human form and after he returned to heaven.

    Christ “the angel of God” that often appeared in [OT] ?

    “He adds next, Behold! Michael, one of the chief leaders or princes, came to strengthen me Some think the word Michael represents Christ, and I do not object to this opinion. Clearly enough, if all angels keep watch over the faithful and elect, still Christ holds the first rank among them, because he is their head, and uses their ministry and assistance to defend all his people. But as this is not generally admitted, I leave it in doubt for the present, and shall say more on the subject in the twelfth chapter. From this passage we may clearly deduce the following conclusion, — angels contend for the Church of God both generally and for single members, just as their help may be needed. This we know to be a part of the occupation of angels, who protect the faithful according to Psalm 34 (Psalm 34:8.) They fix their camp in a circuit round them.”

  20. Avatar
    prestonp  June 14, 2018

    “…arguing that the state should exercise its powers to force pagans to convert to Christianity.”

    How can the government force an individual to seek Christ with all that he is? How can anyone force another to love GOD with all her heart, soul, mind, strength.?

    • Avatar
      prestonp  June 15, 2018

      Maybe this is a good time for an important reminder. “Christian” and “Christianity” are terms that are often misused. There is something called the “church”, another widely misapplied and misunderstood term. Real Christians and real Christianity have nothing to do with the labels given to corrupt people who used “God” for their own selfish purposes that had nothing to do with God.
      The same is true for “the Church”. Just because a group of people give themselves a title that sounds like they represent an organized structure for God, means nothing, absolutely nothing. A nation is not and cannot be “Christian”. People who have given themselves to Christ completely live in various nations across the globe.
      Even more disheartening is for those folks who know better, to continue to use the terms without regard for the distinctions. These kinds of error blur reality enough that people often believe false allegations about Christians. They accept, for example, that across the board true Christians supported the Inquisition, were in favor of the holocaust, were responsible for the massacre of Indians, you name it.

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