from jesus to christ - the first christians

Legitimization Under Constantine

From persecuted minority to official imperial religion - what caused this extraordinary reversal for Christianity?


Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

The triumph of Christianity is actually a very remarkable historical phenomenon. ... We begin with a small group from the backwaters of the Roman Empire and after two, three centuries go by, lo and behold that same group and its descendants have somehow taken over the Roman Empire and have become the official religion, in fact the only tolerated religion, of the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th century. That is a truly remarkable development, and a monumental historical problem, trying to understand how this happened. Of course, pious Christians have no doubt about how or why it happened: "This is the hand of God working in history." And the Christians of antiquity already made this very point; the fact that Christianity triumphed is proof of its truth.

For historians, that answer, while maybe correct on one level, on another level it is not entirely satisfactory. We historians would like to find other explanations for the triumph of Christianity and indeed, ever since Gibbon wrote his famous history, historians have been trying to understand what it was exactly that pushed Christianity to the top. I can't fully answer that question myself, but we can clearly identify various stages on the path of Christianity to its ultimate victory. ...

In its first stage, Christianity begins not as a religion, it begins rather as the movement of people around a single charismatic teacher or preacher, it's hard to know what noun to use exactly. I would call him a holy man who attracted a crowd of disciples who followed him and his various wanderings as he did his healings, as he did his teachings. But this holy man winds up in Jerusalem and winds up executed by the authorities, probably as a trouble maker, somebody who's best off dead, rather than alive because alive who knows what may happen? He's a threat to the social order. He's best off executed.

This is how Christianity begins. It very rapidly turns into something different. What began as a kind of ratter-tag assembly of followers of a holy man turns into what we might call a Jewish sect, a group of Jews which now has interpreted the life, teachings and death of its holy man somehow as having cosmic significance, as having meaning for all time, not just for the specific moment, but somehow affecting God's relationship with the Jews and ultimately with the whole world. ... This then is a Jewish sect or a Jewish school, which you might say is the next stage in the development.

After that, the next stage may be represented by Paul, who then takes this Jewish school, this Jewish philosophy, this Jewish sect, and now says that the teachings of this sect are such that the entire map of the world needs to be redrawn, so that we now no longer have the simple dichotomy of Jews and gentiles and we no longer simply have a Jewish school arguing with other Jews about interpretations of law and theology. We now have, Paul says, a new map of the world. Our teachings have within them the secret to understanding the new cosmic order. So that the old distinctions between Jews and gentiles are now obliterated. They have been supplanted by a new and truer and more wonderful and more beautiful map in which we have a new Israel that will embrace both Jews and gentiles, all those who now accept the new covenant and the new faith. This is Paul, who in his teachings has the beginnings of what we might call the breaking out of Christianity [from] Jewish social setting. ...

This of course takes place gradually over the next several decades well into the 2nd century.... It doesn't happen everywhere all at once, in the same way. It's a complex, protracted process. And we must allow for variety; the place of Christianity, let's say in the year 100 CE, may not be the same in Egypt as it is in Judah. It may not be the same in Rome as it is in Asia Minor. We have to ask ourselves constantly - How did the Christians see themselves? How did the Jews see the Christians? How did the gentiles see the Christians? How did each of these groups understand the other and how they fit into the larger society? And the answers may not be the same. There's no guarantee that the Christians and the Jews necessarily looked at each other in the same way at any given moment. We have to allow for a wide variety of opinions. But the tendency, nonetheless, I think is very clear: Christianity is becoming less "Jewish" and is turning into something new and different. ...

For some Christians, this never happens. They can't bring themselves to say that God has thoroughly redrawn the map of the cosmos and has taken them out of the Jewish world and pushed them out into the stage of history. ... Other Christians, of course, disagree with Paul on exactly how to read this new map and exactly what it means, and most importantly, where do the Jews fit in now, those Jews who are "being left behind."... But, in any case, the Christian church itself was now emerging as a new, independent group by the middle of the 2nd century. ...

The second century of our era was the age of definition before Christianity. Now that it realized it no longer was Judaism, or no longer was a form of Judaism, it had to figure out, well then, what is it exactly? What is Christianity? What makes it not Judaism, what makes it not Jewish? How is it able to somehow at one and the same time hold on to the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and still not be Judaism, and still not be Jewish? This was one of the major questions confronting Christian thinkers, writers, church leaders in the second century. This was the great age of Christian diversity, sects, schools, heresies of all kinds, confronting Christian thinkers, and it was only in the second century that we begin to see the emergence of what we might call an orthodoxy, or something that might simply be called "Christianity" in a kind of uniform body of doctrines and text, that is to say, the New Testament. The New Testament as a collection of texts is a product of the second century, as the church figured out which books are sacred, which books are authoritative and which ones are not. ...

By the third century of our era, we have something called Christianity with its own sacred books, its own rituals, its own ideas, but this is the great age of confrontation with the Roman Empire. The third century, of course, the great age of persecutions, where the Roman Empire now wakes up and realizes that there is something new, and from their perspective, sinister, afoot in new groups that are threatening the social order and ultimately the political order of the Empire. And the Roman Empire was correct. The Romans correctly intuited that the victory of Christianity would mean the end of the Roman Empire, the end of the classical world. ... We often think of persecution, of course, in a Christian perspective. We see it as heroic martyrs confronting the might of Rome, which is true. And the martyrs are indeed a wonderful spectacle and do present a wonderful demonstration of Christian faith. That is certainly true. By the same token, we must realize that the Roman Empire was doing what all bureaucracies do. It was trying to protect itself, trying to perpetuate itself....

The Romans tried to beat down Christianity but failed. By the fourth century Christianity becomes the state religion and by the end of the fourth century it is illegal to do any form of public worship other than Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. There is a great mystery in how this happened -- how such an extraordinary reversal, that begins with Jesus who is executed by the Romans as a public criminal, as a threat to the social order, and somehow we wind up three centuries later with Jesus being hailed as a God, as part of the one, true God who is the God of the new Christian Roman Empire. There is a remarkable progress, a remarkable development in the course of three centuries. ... It's hard to understand exactly how it happened or why it happened, but it is important to realize that we have a progression and a set of developments, and that Christianity by the fourth century is not the same as the Christianity that we see in the first or even the second.


One of the most surprising Christian heroes in the entire tradition, I think, is Constantine. He is, first of all, a successful general. He is also the son of a successful general and at the head of the army at the West. And he's fighting another successful general, struggling for who is going to be at the top of the heap of the very higher echelons of Roman government. What happens is that Constantine has a vision. Luckily for the Church, there's a bishop nearby to interpret what the vision means. Constantine ends not converting, technically, to Christianity, but becoming a patron of one particular branch of the church. It happens to be the branch of the church that has the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. Which means that since this branch of Christianity includes the story about historical Israel as part of its own redemptive history, it has an entire language for articulating the relationship of government and piety. It has the model of King David. It has the model of the kings of Israel. And it's with this governmental model that the bishop explains the vision to Constantine.

In a sense Constantine becomes the embodiment of the righteous king. And once he consolidates his power by conquering, eventually, not only the West, but also the Greek East where there are many more Christians [who are] concentrated in the cities, which are the social power packets of this culture, [he] is in this amazing position of having a theology of government that he can use to consolidate his own secular power. And it works both ways. The bishops now have basically federal funding to have sponsored committee meetings so they can try to iron out creeds and get everybody to sign up.


One of the first things Constantine does, as emperor, is start persecuting other Christians. The Gnostic Christians are targeted...and other dualist Christians. Christians who don't have the Old Testament as part of their canon are targeted. The list of enemies goes on and on. There's a kind of internal purge of the church as one emperor ruling one empire tries to have this single church as part of the religious musculature of his vision of a renewed Rome. And it's with this theological vision in mind that Constantine not only helps the bishops to iron out a unitary policy of what a true Christian believes, but he also, interestingly, turns his attention to Jerusalem, and rebuilds Jerusalem just as a righteous king should do. But what Constantine does is take the city, which was something of a backwater, and he begins to build beautiful basilicas and architecturally ambitious projects in the city itself. The sacred space of the Temple Mount he abandons. It's not reclaimable. And what he does is [to] religiously relocate the center of gravity of the city around the places where Christ had suffered, where he had been buried, or where he [had] been raised. So that in the great basilicas that he built, Constantine has a new Jerusalem, that's splendid and beautiful and... his reputation as an imperial architect resonates with great figures in biblical history like David and Solomon. In a sense, Constantine is a non-apocalyptic Messiah for the church. ...

The bishops are terribly grateful for this kind of imperial attention. It's not the western Middle Ages. The lines of power are unambiguous. Constantine is absolutely the source of authority. And there's no question about that. But the bishops are able to take advantage of Constantine's mood and his curious intellectual interest in things like Christology and the Trinity and Church organization. They're able to have bibles copied at public expense. They are finally able to have public Christian architecture and big basilicas. So there's a comfortable symbiotic relationship between the empire and the church, one that, in a sense, is what defines the cultural powerhouse of Europe and the West.


There's this sentence in the gospel about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's. Jesus said that in the context of a pagan Caesar. Once Caesar is Christian, the things line up differently. While bishops are religious figures and you don't have a figure like a bishop king, the way you have in Plato, say a philosopher king or something like that, there's a kind of theologizing of secular power and a secularization of episcopal power. Somebody like Augustine functions as a Roman magistrate, as much as he is a premier theologian and religious figure. ...

[T]here's a beautiful mosaic in Ravenna, a city in northern Italy, which I routinely show my classes. It's of a beautiful, very handsome, well muscled, beardless man. He's dressed in a Roman officer's uniform. And he's stepping on the head of a lion, and he's holding a standard. And the standard says in Latin, "I am the way. The truth. And the life." And usually my students can't read Latin and I say, "Who's this a picture of?" And they guess, "The Roman Emperor." But it's not. It's a picture of Jesus.

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


Who is Eusebius?

Eusebius was the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine in the 4th century, and he played a very active role in church politics at the time. He was at the Council of Nicea, which was the first major ecumenical council. And he had contact with the Emperor Constantine. So he was a very prominent figure. He's most important to us, however, as the first church historian. He wrote several things during his long and active lifetime including a history of the martyrs of Palestine, a collection of prophetic texts. But the most important work is his ecclesiastical history, which describes the development of the church down through his own period, and then the persecutions which took place in the first decade of the fourth century. And finally the vindication of the church with the accession of Constantine and his rise to supreme power. ...

Eusebius is, first of all, valuable as an historian because he preserves a large number of sources that are not available in other forms. He clearly has an axe to grind and that axe has to do with the the status of Christians and their relationship with the imperial authorities.

Constantine, whom Eusebius describes later in "A Life of Constantine" and also in an oration on an important occasion later in his career, is a magnificent ruler endowed by God with wisdom, insight and a divine mission to vindicate the church and to bring the church and the state into unity. And so Constantine is viewed by Eusebius as a figure of God's will in human history.

And how does Eusebius portray Constantine? Constantine would have been conceived by Eusebius and portrayed by Eusebius in magnificent terms. And you have to understand that Constantine, when Eusebius portrays him, is someone who had just achieved total domination over the whole of the Roman Empire. And he was a figure of commanding stature, of commanding power and authority, a figure who by the year 324 had no rivals within the Roman world. And so clothed in imperial garments and radiating the splendor of the sun, he appears in the portraits of Eusebius in some ways as a quasi-divine figure. ...


What exactly was the Council of Nicea?

The Council of Nicea, which took place in 325, was a response to a crisis that developed in the church over the teachings of a presbyter, or priest, of the church in Alexandria. And his teachings suggested that Jesus was not fully divine, that Jesus was certainly a supernatural figure of some sort, but was not God in the fullest sense. His opponents included a fellow who came to be bishop of Alexandria, Anthanasius, and the folk on that side of the divide insisted that Jesus was fully divine. The Council of Nicea was called to try to mediate that dispute, and the Council did come down on the side of the full divinity of Jesus. It all boils down to one iota of difference. And the debates in the 4th century about the status of Jesus have to do with the Greek word that exemplifies the problem. One party said that Jesus was homo usias with the father, that is of the same being or substance as the father. The other party, the Arian party, argued that Jesus was homoi usias with the father, inserting a single letter "i" into that word. So the difference between being the same and being similar to was the heart of the debate over Arianism. And the Council of Nicea resolved that the proper teaching was that Jesus was of the same being as the father.

Who called the Council of Nicea?

The Emperor Constantine was the moving force in the Council and he, in effect, called it in order to solve this dispute. He did so because at that time he had just completed his consolidation of authority over the whole of the Roman Empire. Up until 324, he had ruled only half of the Roman Empire. And he wanted to have uniformity of belief, or at least not major disputes within the church under his rule. And so he was dismayed to hear of this controversy that had been raging in Alexandria for several years before his assumption of total imperial control. And in order to dampen that controversy he called the Council.

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


Did Constantine confer real benefits on the Christian church?

The benefits of imperial patronage were enormous. There are a lot of questions about the profundity of his conversion experience, since he still seems to carry on pretty much like a pagan, even after the vision on the Milvian Bridge. But I think all those matters are matters of the apologies that are written for Constantine afterwards. What's important is that he signals a kind of detente that's reached between the church as a force to be reckoned within imperial society and the Roman state. ... I think that these were two projects in which a lot of people were very, very heavily involved, and they are on a collision course with each other and some kind of resolution has to be accomplished by somebody, otherwise they're going to destroy each other or compromise each other's integrity. And so, Constantine is a historical point man with respect to the relation of the Roman state to the growing Christian movement as an institutional force in late antique society.

What benefits does he confer, practically?

There's an imperial underwriting of pilgrimage and pilgrimage sites, and so a lot of money goes to refurbishing those pilgrimage sites that exist and making them bigger and better and even greater and grander attractions, and creating pilgrimage sites where none existed previously. ...[This] sends a kind of cultural shockwave to the entire society. Now, pilgrimage is a very important activity among Roman elites and others who now identify themselves as Christians -- to go to the holy places and see the holy things. Christianity becomes another kind of institutional force after this detente, so to speak. ...

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, there was always the problem of negotiating the proper relation between the members of the movement, who owed their allegiance to a different Lord, and the powers of the state -- the state which, incidentally, killed Jesus. [There is] the story of the coin that's produced for Jesus and they say, "Shall we pay tribute to Caesar?" and Jesus says,"Well, show me a coin. Whose face is on it? Caesar's. We'll render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's." [This is] Jesus' famous non-answer to the question of that relation between the Jesus movement and the powers of the state. In early Byzantine political ideology, after the detente between Rome and Jerusalem, after the so-called conversion of Constantine, it's possible to have two thrones set side by side. In one, the emperor sits. tTe other is left empty because there, Christ, the ruler of the world, is presumed to be reigning and the emperor is seen as a vice-regent of Christ. This resolution, this answer to that nagging problem, is possible after Constantine's [conversion].

How complete and how sincere was Constantine's conversion?

[To answer that] is absolutely impossible. This is one of the worst abuses of arm chair psychology in the historiography of early Christianity. Constantine continued to behave like a pagan well after his so-called conversion. It didn't stop him from killing people. It didn't stop him from doing all of the kinds of unsavory things that Roman emperors were wont to do. But again, I think from an institutional perspective, the change that was inaugurated by, let's say, the re-orientation of his personal commitments... signaled the reconfiguration of relations between institutions in the late Roman Empire. When we go farther than that, we go to Eusebius and other apologists for Constantine and we know what they really want to do. They want to put his best face forward even if they've got to put a lot of makeup on it. ... We understand Eusebius' motivations, but I think the real important thing there is that conversion experience, how we understand that that particular individual signals something for the culture and the institutions of late antiquity and that's the most important aspect of that one single conversion experience for us. ...

Holland Lee Hendrix:

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


Constantine's conversion to Christianity, I think, has to be understood in a particular way. And that is, I don't think we can understand Constantine as converting to Christianity as an exclusive religion. Clearly he covered his bases. I think the way we put it in contemporary terms is "Pascal's Wager" -- it's another insurance policy one takes out. And Constantine was a consummate pragmatist and a consummate politician. And I think he gauged well the upsurge in interest and support Christianity was receiving, and so played up to that very nicely and exported it in his own rule. But it's clear that after he converted to Christianity he was still paying attention to other deities. We know this from his poems and we know it from other dedications as well. ... But what's important to understand and appreciate about Constantine is that Constantine was a remarkable supporter of Christianity. He legitimized it as a protected religion of the empire. He patronized it in lavish ways. ... And that really is the important point. With Constantine, in effect the kingdom has come. The rule of Caesar now has become legitimized and undergirded by the rule of God, and that is a momentous turning point in the history of Christianity. ...

To appreciate the remarkable dramatic evolution that had occurred in so short a period, one might counterpose the image of Pliny and his courtroom under the Emperor Trajan -- sending Christians off to their execution simply for being called Christians -- to the majesty of Constantine presiding over the great gathering of bishops that he had called to resolve particular questions. The Imperium on the one hand being used clearly to extinguish a religious movement. The Imperium on the other hand being used clearly to undergird and support a religious movement, the same religious movement in so short a period of time. ...

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


The transformation of Christianity over the first 300 years of its existence is really a profound one. What started out as a Messianic claimant or a political rebel, a victim of the Pax Romana, by the time of the conversion of Constantine becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire. And even then, that's not a simple transformation. It would take another hundred years before most of the Roman world really converted to Christianity. But still, with the conversion of Constantine, it's a very significant change and the change is one we can see in several stages. What is originally a movement oppressed by Caesar because it's a competitor, eventually becomes a cult of...the Lord Christ, by the time we get to the late first and early second century. With the conversion of Constantine, however, it becomes an imperial religion. Now, Jesus had been transformed into the Lord Christ of Heaven and Constantine, the emperor, ruled in his name. ...

The imperialization of Christianity can be seen in some of the monuments of Rome itself where imperial ideology and symbolism, the trappings of imperial grandeur, are brought into and overlaid onto the Christian tradition itself. This is probably seen as well as anywhere else in the apse mosaic in the Church of Santa Podenziana at Rome. Here, we have what looks at first to be a very traditional scene from the gospels: Jesus is seated in the middle of his apostles flanked along either side of him. It looks very much like a kind of Last Supper scene, and yet you notice that there are two women seated behind, and they look like very noble Roman women. It's probably the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, also flanking the apostles. But then you look closely and you realize that this Jesus looks differently from what we had seen previously in the iconographic tradition of, say, the catacombs. Jesus is in a very elaborate, expensive toga, seated enthroned in an imperial chair. ...This Jesus looks like the emperor himself, and here he sits enthroned in front of a very elaborate cityscape behind. And it's not the city of Rome, it's the new imperial city of Jerusalem. Behind him, we see Constantine's Church of the Holy Sepulchre that had only recently been completed in Jerusalem itself, and behind is the rest of the new city of Jerusalem, rebuilt for the first time, significantly, after it had been destroyed in the first revolt. So, Constantine's imperial patronage of the church is reflected in a variety of ways in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, in the establishment of Christian monument, in the place of Christianity in Rome, and one more way: in the presentation of Jesus in his disciples. Now they look like the Roman aristocracy; they are a part of the mainstream of Roman society. This is an imperial Jesus.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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