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.*

Constantine’s conversion

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was in the midst of bloody battle for Rome.  He and his soldiers are said to have seen a cross over the sun, along with the Greek text “ἐν τούτῳ νίκα,” meaning “by this sign conquer.”  Shortly after, Christ appeared to Constantine in a dream, telling him to inscribe the cross on his soldiers’ shields.  This, coupled with stupid mistakes by his opponent, Maxentius, led Constantine to win the battle to become the Roman Empire’s sole Emperor.  The story of this vision lent Constantine a charismatic authority none of his successors, including two of his children, could match (Drake, Impact,  p 131).

It is by no means benign when church and state unite.  Christianity has frequently been perverted in the name of mass murder.  Hitler’s soldiers wore belt buckles inscribed with “Gott mit Uns” (God with Us).  How many hundreds of millions have been killed in the name of Christ?  Is not the death of each and every one a perversion of Christianity?

Reasons for Christianity’s success

At the beginning of the fourth century CE (300’s), Christians made up from seven to ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire (Harnack, p 248).  Constantine converted, and by the end of the fourth century roughly half the empire’s sixty million inhabitants claimed to be Christian.  How did this happen?  Not by force.  Ehrman (p 8) estimates Christianity would have grown almost as fast without Constantine.  Why?  How do we get from about twenty followers of Christ in 30 CE (Christ was crucified in about 33 CE) to thirty million by the end of the fourth century (399 CE), half of the Roman Empire?

What was the alternative?

Judaism wasn’t the alternative.  At its peak the Roman world was less than ten percent Jewish.  Paganism was the alternative, the worship of many gods, or idols.  E. R. Dodds argues that paganism did not satisfy. “One reason for the success of Christianity was simply the weakness and weariness of the opposition.” (p 132)  Paganism was generally undemanding: make your sacrifice at the god’s temple from time to time, and that’s about it.  But that was its problem.  People wanted community.  People wanted ethical demands and guidance.  People wanted the promise of immortality.  And people wanted the bad to be punished.

Christianity offered this, and it had the organization to back it up: a strict hierarchical structure by the middle of the fourth century, and zealous advocates.  Paganism wasn’t interested in converting anyone.  Christianity wanted to convert everyone.  Paganism was inclusive.  You could worship Venus, Vulcan, and dozens of other lesser gods.  Adding a god to your personal pantheon didn’t require removing another.  Christianity was exclusive.  One God and no more.  This turned out to be an advantage.  For the pagan, no more uncertainty about whether you were worshiping the right gods.  For Christians, one more convert meant one less pagan.  The pious would argue that Christianity won out by virtue of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps, but the Holy Spirit had a lot to work with on the ground.

Christians the only ones to evangelize

The evangelizing mission of the Christian church was unparalleled and unprecedented:  “Such a proselytizing mission was a shocking novelty in the ancient world.” (Ehrman, p 117, quoting Goodman)

Christians spread the word not like Billy Graham, or even like Paul.  It was person to person.  Social relationships and networks, plus the openness of Christianity to converts made the difference.  This was an up close and personal world.

A religion built on Hell?

The appeal of Christianity was not all about the good things that would come to Christians.  It was also based on the terror of Hell.

Thus the second-century critic Celsus pointed out that Christians succeeded in their proselytizing because they “invent a number of terrifying incentives. Above all, they have concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishments and rewards, exceeding anything the philosophers . . . could have imagined.” (Ehrman, p 155)

Or as Ramsay MacMullen put it,

What Christianity put forward was the fearful novelty of a God who would burn them alive in perpetuity for their very manner of life . . . . The flames of hell illuminated the lessons of Christianity as much as the light of Grace . . . . We see these horrors used as the chief, perhaps the only, argument for conversion. (pp 181, 185)

MacMullen exaggerates, but his point is taken.

Constantine’s tolerance

A bull-necked man who appeared to lack subtlety, a man who seems to have killed his eldest son and his own wife, Constantine’s approach to Christianity, and religion in general, was both subtle and generous.  The Edict of Milan (313) grants Romans the right to worship whatever deity a person chose, assured Christians of legal rights, and returned confiscated property to Christians.  Pagans faced no discrimination.  As usual, Jews were not immune from discrimination, but no systematic violence was directed against them.**  Unlike other statements of tolerance, which were short-lived, the Edict of Milan stuck.  About it, Harold Drake states it was “the first official government document in the Western world to recognize the principle of freedom of belief.” (p 194)

Some have speculated that Constantine never really converted, that he lacked the zeal of a convert.  Primarily a religion of the lower classes, Christianity proved the most useful in uniting the empire.  Constantine was not baptized until shortly before his death, but that was a common practice then.  Perhaps zealotry takes different forms, and is not incompatible with persuasion.  Constantine showered Christians with benefits, from building churches to subsidizing the clergy.  Is it possible that he really believed that forced conversion was not conversion at all?  Perhaps.  In any case, Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until nearly eight decades later, in 380, over forty years after Constantine’s death.

Ehrman reaches the wrong conclusion

Twenty years before the publication of Triumph of Christianity, Ehrman took a trip to Athens, the home of the greatest philosophers, dramatists, artists, architects, and political thinkers of antiquity.  Ehrman was impressed and overwhelmed by the remains of architectural wonders, such as the Parthenon.  Almost as an afterthought, he went to the Areopagus (Mars Hill), where Paul preached to some Athenian philosophers and others, most of whom were skeptical and unimpressed.  All that marked this spot was a tiny plaque.  Yet, in the end, Ehrman concludes, this lower-class artisan won out.  “Christianity eventually overtook Western Civilization.” (p 282)

Only it didn’t.  Athenian rationalism, particularly the work of Aristotle, was kept alive by Aquinas in the middle-ages, and reborn in the Enlightenment.  If our confidence in Enlightened reason is less than it once was, Enlightenment skepticism and criticism of convention and belief remains.  Does this mean that Athens won?  No, Western civilization is, at its best, a dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, cities of reason and faith.  The fact that Ehrman lost his faith after a long period of questioning Christian teaching is evidence that Athenian rationalism remains strong.

The danger posed to Athenian rationalism comes not from Christianity, but from forces of tyranny, irrationalism, and tribalism, the forms that insecurity and class conflict take all over the world.





E. R. Dodds, Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety. Norton, 1965.

Harold Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance.  Johns Hopkins, 2000.

H. A. Drake, The Impact of Constantine on Christianity, in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, ed. Noel Lenski. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World.  Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire.  Oxford, 1994

Adolf Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, vol. 2.  Putnam’s Sons, 1908.

Ramsay MacMullen, “Two Types of Conversion to Early Christianity.”  Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 37, 1983.

2 thoughts on “Constantine and Christianity”

  1. I was always puzzled by why Constantine thought God was on his side when the fighting was not worth God’s consideration.
    Still it worked.I am grateful the Nazis did not win.If I were God
    I’d be enraged by those belts.I think it shows they worshipped a Pagan god… embodied by Hitler.
    The 20th century was the most destructive with wars and more wars.I look at this country and wonder if the best men died before they had children during 1914 -1918.I can’t explain itid.But the politicians seem lacking in care and intelligence.If MPs must toe the partly line, how is that democracy?
    If people realised life is very short and should be lived as well as possible, would that make a difference? I suppose it’s only when we get old we realise life’s brevity and its suffering.Now some people say ,let the old die of Covid 19, save the young.
    I may go back to read about the Roman Empire at that time and get my own notions of why it happened like this
    Thanks for all your study of these books

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