Many of us in the West do not realize that the 100 years from 311 A.D. to 410 A.D. were formative to who we are.
“Ancient Forces Shaped Our Lives,” reported Michael Farrell in National Catholic Reporter about a conference at tiny Carroll College in Helena, Montana way back in 2000. According to philosophy professor Barry Ferst, “the fourth century, more than any other, made us who we are today.”
Crucial as were the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, they were not acknowledged as holy days in the early years of Christianity, according to Gordon G. Brittan, Jr. of Montana State University: “There is no mention of their celebration in the New Testament, and Paul makes clear that, Christ’s second coming being imminent, there is little point in remembering dates and anniversaries.”
Early Christians and Jews went underground in 70 A.D., when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, wiped out most traces of Judaism and Christianity in Palestine and built Roman temples to gods in their place. Much Judeo-Christian history had to be reconstructed later, once religious liberties were restored in the fourth century and turned into cultural mythology.
Ancient concepts of time were quite fluid. No one knew precisely when and where Jesus was born or crucified, so the dates of Easter and Christmas had to be decided by the institutional church in the fourth century.
“A bishop called Little Dennis (better known as the more exotic Dionysius Exiguus) gets credit for the astronomy, mathematics and other considerations, and the Council of Nicea gets credit for signing off on the formula (the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox), but the controversy drifted across Christendom for centuries…
“Fourth-century Romans, in making the church the establishment, conferred on it the mixed blessing of giving it what it wanted, a piece of the secular action, with some desirable perks but also some thoroughly undesirable consequences,” Farrell observed.
The early church was quite intolerant of polytheistic religion, pagan worship and cults of personality around Roman emperors. This threatened the established order. Christians made good scapegoats and were targets of persecution by Roman tyrants. “Diocletian, in 302, launched the longest and most brutal assault on the church. Many Christians caved in rather than get killed, but it was too late to stop the movement. Already there were more Christians than could possibly be subdued.”
In time, though, as Christianity grew and as the institutional church became more centralized and better disciplined, emperors began to see it as a useful political tool, to unify and stabilize the fractious empire.
In 311, Emperor Galerius “out of the blue issued an edict to discontinue the persecution of Christians.” He was followed by emperor Constantine, who dreamed of a cross in the sky, and the inscription “In This Sign You Will Conquer.” Shortly thereafter, in 312, he won the Battle of Malvian Bridge over the river Tiber. (The bridge still exists in Rome!)
Constantine, publicly at least, attributed his victory to the Christian god, and in 313, in the Edict of Milan, declared complete religious freedom in the empire. Constantine did not become a Christian, but saw a political advantage in devoting government resources to promoting the religion and incorporating Christian images into the military. He turned the pacifist Jesus into a warrior, and corrupted Jesus’ anti-materialistic followers with material riches, symbols of opulence, and offers of political power.
He sent his mother Helena, nearly 80 years old, to Palestine as ambassador. She organized archaeologists to dig up important Christian remnants and determine where Jesus was crucified.
“What the diggers found in the tomb, the story goes, were three crosses, but it was impossible to say which had belonged to Jesus,” Farrell wrote. “So the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarious, had a sick woman handy. He placed her in turn on each of the crosses. The first two did nothing for her, but the third cured her. “Eureka!” Helena probably said.
“What is important is the immense impression these supposed finds made on the public of the empire,” according to Elizabeth McNamer of Rocky Mountain College. “Pilgrims flooded in to offer thanks and to walk where Jesus walked.” Among the spin-offs was a copious literature “mixing together legend and facts.” In this way, though, a Christian future was being forged, a future that, with the passing of time, became our history.
“The God [Constantine] believed in was a God of power, who had given him victory, and he would have had little sympathy with the idea that Christianity meant love or charity or humility, of which his ‘middle-brow’ view of religion would not have the slightest comprehension,” wrote Michael Grant in Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times.
Constantine, Farrell reported, “had seen how the pagans loved spectacle and grandeur, so he set about providing the same for Christians. The latter had, for many good reasons, been keeping a low profile for three centuries and had tended to mock the spectacular temples of the pagans. But a little encouragement from on high can make even a Christian triumphalist and prone to pomp. Soon the church was building great basilicas and getting wealthy, and its bishops taking part in the secular running of the Empire.”
Political power struggles within the church got so bad that by 366, bribery was rampant among the bishops and in an episcopal election, more than 100 people were killed.
“Alas, Constantine,” Dante summed up the legacy, fairly or not: “What evil you brought into the world.”