Constantine and Christianity

Constantine and ChristianityConstantine and Christianity.

For some time, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that it was Constantine, Emperor of Rome (306 CE-337), who transformed Christianity from a persecuted religious sect into a world religion.  Some say he supported Christianity as part of a cynical strategy to promote his rule.  Others say he had a genuine religious conversion.  It seems it was a bit of both, and more besides.

I approach Constantine by way of The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart Ehrman, whose study of the history of religion led him to lose his faith.  He cites the fact that of over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, no two are alike.  This realization led Ehrman to become an agnostic.  If God inspired the scriptures, which one?  Fifteen years later his personal struggles with the existence of evil and suffering led Ehrman to become an atheist.  He remains fascinated with Christianity, and often appreciative.

To serve the poor, the sick, and the other

Ehrman argues that the very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctively Christian concern.  I wonder if the way he puts it is right.

Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institutionalized welfare for the poor or organized health care for the sick. Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy, values that most of us in the West have simply assumed are “human” values. (p 6)

Is it so simple?  Consider Marxism.  Some have argued that Marxism is but a this-worldly version of Christianity, heaven brought down to earth.  But one could make this claim about any teaching that cared about the poor.  What Ehrman means is that in making Christianity a matter of state, Constantine made its concerns a matter of state.  Perhaps, but it is interesting to consider that today the happiest states, according to their own citizens, are among the least Christian: Denmark and the Nordic States.  Finland is number one, Norway is number two.*

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The Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon.

One of the most well-known passages in the New Testament, The Sermon on the Mount, is not a sermon.  Jesus speaks to four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, while a crowd of people seem to be listening in (Matthew 5:1).  The painting accompanying this post is a little misleading in this regard. In any case, both the content of the sermon and especially the ending reveal that it is intended for all who hear (Matthew 7:28-29).  Jesus often pretends that his teachings are restricted to disciples, which makes little sense, especially since they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer (Mark 4:10-12).

It would be a good idea to read Matthew’s version, chapters 5-7.  Luke has a condensed version, sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49).  I’m going to stick to Matthew.  Remember that the Sermon contains both the beatitudes (blessings) as well as the Lord’s Prayer.  Some people think it is the clearest and most concise statement of Christianity, so much so that it could stand alone.

It’s important to remember that Jesus is not a Christian talking to other Christians.  He is a Jew talking to other Jews.  Christianity wouldn’t be around for another thirty years.  One thing this means is that the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus talking.  It’s Matthew, writing about 50 years after the death of Jesus.  And Matthew has an agenda: to show that Jesus comes to fulfill Torah, not to sweep it away.  Or at least this is the diplomatic message of Matthew.  What he actually says is different.

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