The time is 283 CE and Roman Emperor Carus, having defeated the Germanic tribes in Gaul (France & Germany) and the Sarmatians (southern Russia & Ukraine) turns his legions eastward to meet the constant and growing threat of the Persian Empire. Emperor Carus’ predecessors had seen Rome’s borders crumbling under constant invasion from barbarian forces, while Rome’s corrupt politicians ate away at the empire’s civil infrastructure. Upon his departure Marcus Numerius Carus left his eldest son Carinus in Rome to manage the western part of the empire, while taking his next son Numerian with him to the east. A few months later Emperor Carus dies, marking the end of a barely whole and united Rome for more than half a century. From a social and political standpoint, Rome needed an enormous MIRACLE to have any hope of returning to her former power and glory. Enter Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus.
Emperor Constantine I
Since 286 CE there were no less than nine power-hungry men vying for the Roman throne, including Constantine. The empire was already split in half and always on the brink of further fragmentation. Assassinations of emperor’s were practically a yearly event or threat. In the West, Constantine commanded the largest Roman army successfully keeping the barbarian hordes in check. His next adversary was his old nemesis in the eastern empire, Galerius. The doubts and questions of Constantine’s noble legitimacy to rule haunted him all of his military-political career, fueled by Galerius and other ambitious royalty. As a result, Constantine had to repeatedly ride the coat-tails of his father to secure his climb towards Caesar Augustus, the official title of Emperor. Once his father was deceased, Constantine’s future was anything but certain…unless he captured the hearts of the masses.
Taking a brief step back in time to early 2nd century CE and the Roman province of Bithynia in modern-day Turkey, how did a small floundering Jewish reform movement turn into one of the world’s largest religions today? The simple answer: Four historical events and Constantine’s recognition of the greatest political opportunity.
The first event is Pliny the Younger being appointed new governor of Bithynia by Emperor Trajan. While they are cleaning up the mismanagement of funds, Pliny is presented with a nagging yet intriguing civil problem. His guards bring to him a ragged non-violent group of Jesus-followers who irritate their neighbors. Their complaint to Pliny is that the Roman temples are empty because these Christians refuse to pay homage to the gods or to the emperor. By law this belligerence makes it a criminal matter. Pliny is in an unheard of quandary so he writes about it to Emperor Trajan in Rome. In his letter he writes that after his interrogation, “I discovered nothing more than an innocuous superstition. They take an oath, but not an oath to do anything bad, rather an oath only to be good. Not to defraud people. Not to do anything evil.” For Pliny’s complete letter to Trajan about this matter, click here.
How Emperor Trajan and Pliny handle this civil problem is critical because it will set a precedent in the future for the rest of the empire. Trajan recognizes this and so commands Pliny, “Sounds suitable to me, but don’t go out looking for these Christians, and if you get some anonymous charges against people don’t take that too seriously. We don’t want to set any bad precedents here.” At this period in the Roman empire “Christian” problems are isolated and insignificant. The provincial governors treat them as the typical squabbling among Jews about their one God; imperial law does not restrict or condemn the plethora of religions and their sub-sets within her vast borders. However, for the sake of civil peace, governors must punish them as criminals, some to be executed as examples, when the belligerence reaches large numbers. What is critical to recognize here is what Pliny stated indirectly to Trajan: these “Christians” serve a sort of social welfare system for their own that the Roman treasury and soldiers would otherwise have to resolve.
The second historical event is the increasing number of martyrs from the new reformed Jewish faith turned Greek by public orators such as Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul, and their Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) followers. For centuries Judaism is itself a sectarian religion of many off-shoots. Saul’s version follows this historical tradition. Constantine, finding himself very much the new reformer, needs only to look back about 60 years to Emperor Decius’ failed solution and those emperors who followed him to realize that persecuting and making martyrs of popular religious and civil groups backfires. History has shown time and time again that when you have a crumbling and corrupt system of rule, those citizens without basic needs and rights WILL rise up and revolt against those rulers and aristocracy with power and wealth! The Principate Era of the Roman Empire (44 BCE – 305 CE) was no different.
There are too many martyrs around the world in history to name them all. Yet a perfect example of this is our own Martin Luther King, Jr., during our 1960’s civil-rights movement. Ironically, what has now happened to the name and image of Reverend King since his death? Martyrdom is one of the surest ways to inject anti-establishment courage into the masses. The important point to remember here is that leading up to Constantine’s rise to power, there had been no sure method to lower the civil unrest, the constant battering on all frontiers by invading armies, spiraling inflation, and internal governmental instability from Rome down to all the distant provinces…except perhaps one.
The third event becomes Constantine’s imperial endorsement of the new faith as Rome’s official religion. What the average proclaimed Christian today does not know about their own faith is the widely variant stories and teachings of their own martyr Jesus of Nazareth. Surprisingly or not, during the lives of the first twelve followers to the next generations, the meanings and purpose of Jesus’ teachings were hotly debated! Twenty or thirty years after Paul’s death, pockets of early Christians — primarily throughout North Africa and southern Palestine — had a vastly different version of Jesus-reforms than what Christians to the north in modern-day Turkey taught about their Saviour’s message. By the time Constantine is near a position to seize complete control of both the Western Empire and Eastern Empire, Christians are fighting other Christians over doctrine. There existed no less than forty-five gospels of Jesus circulating throughout the empire. Biblical historians categorize them as the Synoptic Gospels, the Apocryphal Gospels, the Non-canonical Gospels, the Jewish Gospels, and the Gnostic Gospels.
There is little difference in these heated debates in 3rd and 4th century Roman politics, than there are now in American social-political ideological debates. It is important to note here that within the context of Rome’s 4th century rebirth hanging in the balance, Constantine has a vision but does not know how to interpret it. He consults a nearby bishop who from his own subjective experience tells him that based on the testaments and interpretations of Jesus’ meaning and purpose he adheres, Constantine’s vision is “remarkably identical” to King David’s rise to power and rule of Israel. This bishop convinces Constantine that he alone is like Christianity’s and Rome’s redemptive savior. This persona fits very nicely into Rome’s long history of divine Emperors. A new righteous Holy Roman Empire lies waiting to start and with imperial/federal funding, bishops also seize the opportunity to wipeout their own religious adversaries in the empire’s southern provinces, (modern-day Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) as well as those ‘ungodly followers‘ of Jesus’ blood-brother James in and around Jerusalem; i.e. Jewish Palestinian Christians.
Here begins the empire-wide Christianization, or more accurately Constanti-nization of Roman culture that eventually fathers if you will, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to these uniquely connected events, what was once simply a small Jewish reform movement begun by a prolific teacher (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Buddha, Mohammed, et al) would have likely faded into obscurity. But such was the power, wealth, symbol and influence of the Roman Empire likened to such empires as Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. The endorsement of such empires to a religious or social reform movement essentially guarantees its life forever…or until at least the next reform. One lesson here remains true: History (or perhaps truth?) is always written by the victors.
The fourth and last event that shot Christianity to a global religion was the wide appeal of a new socialism under centuries of Roman oppression. As a strict hierarchical and patriarchal system with the emperor at the very top of the pyramid…for the impoverished, low-class citizens, blessings and the good-life never made it all the way down to them. In these early Christian communities, we see a social class that invites you into equality. We see the lowliest lifted to status and dignity, the hungry know where to be fed, the sick know where to have hands layed on them to be healed, and the widowed know where to go to be cared for without having to go into prostitution. What has developed within the empire is a welfare institution on the local and providential levels. It is impossible to attribute the success of Christianity solely to its spiritual message; it is undeniably a well-planned community welfare system. In no other time in Rome’s long history has its common population been offered a profound sense of belonging.
With Constantine’s imperial backing of the new Greek-Jesus movement, with the extermination of the Roman Church’s biggest threats to solidarity (the Gnostic Christians), another ingredient put Christianity firmly on the road to total dominance. Roman aristocracy was slowly disappearing and the social landscape among the major Roman cities saw massive influxes of immigrants. On top of this, plagues and famine were rampant throughout 2nd and 3rd century Roman life. Modern demographers report that if there is a survival rate of only one tenth among one segment of the population than another segment when a massive die off occurs, then in a very short time a group that was once a minority can ‘miraculously’ become the majority. Here is a big part of what had happened with Christian Roman populations, particularly in the major cities.
Finally, without the growing translations of the Jewish Bible into the Greek language, without the Jewish Diaspora synagogues sprinkled all over the Mediterranean coastline, Christianity would NOT have spread so vastly. Christianity and the idea of Jewish Israel is inseparable. It is by the lifelines of these Diaspora synagogues that Christianity flourishes. Most of Christianity’s concepts of one God as Creator, the Kingdom of God, righteousness and blessings from God are given through Israel and her social system, all come from a long-established Judaic Diaspora all over the Roman world. Socially and theologically Christianity does not distinguish itself from Judaism. In fact, it never can because it must lay claim to Judaism’s even longer established Messianic traditions and Jesus’ legitimacy to the House of King David — exactly like Roman emperors have always had to do. These events are not ‘miraculous‘, they are not a one-in-a-million chance, they are simply historical sociopolitical traditions of Rome and Judaism later hyper-illustrated by opportunistic leaders manipulating stories and systems to sustain their own social status and lifestyle in the face of civil and imperial collapse. This is not an imaginative attack. It is simply well-documented academic Roman and Judaic history.
The Original Jesus Message and Purpose Lost?
The might and extent of Roman social and political influence on western civilization cannot be over emphasized. When that influence is accurately understood, then it is not much of a stretch to conclude that the centuries of Rome’s ruling philosophy shaped Christianity’s last religious doctrines and more importantly, its theology.
Today, two forms of Roman imperial governing are commonly unknown by conservative Christian fundamentalist; this certainly includes Tea Party members and advocates. They are this: 1) Homeland municipal and provincial governing methods and principles — i.e. the Italian peninsula and bordering provinces, and 2) Foreign municipal and provincial government methods and principles. To assume that these two different Roman civil policies were identical or similar, is a practice in ignorance. To assume those Roman policies did not play a significant role in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea and formulation of a unified single-minded Christian Church headquartered in Rome, is a practice in denial. One need only ask, where is one of the world’s largest Christian denominations located, and how did it reach so vast a population? The answer is NOT a purely “divine” one in today’s definition. The answer is found in the context of 4th century Roman civil policy and reform by Constantine and his Holy Roman court of bishops.
Roman homeland civil policy essentially is intolerable of foreign social policies. It segregated, centralized, and excluded contrary to the original rising Jesus-reform movement. If those foreign policies do indeed have elements beneficial to the Empire and its interests, then they were modified and incorporated, BUT with traditional Greco-Roman flavors; more to the point, inserting the typical traditional man-to-god mythology. This Roman hijacking resembles foundationally little of the original Jewish Messianic traditions of which Jesus of Nazareth is inexplicably teaching from, and gives his life to reform! However, to Constantine and his holy bishops, this removal and transformation of Jewish Messianic tradition has no relevance to their Greco-Roman agenda. They must save the crumbling empire!
This Greco-Roman agenda I feel needs more explanation, however, due to the length of this post I may write another separate post covering the Roman hijacking of a Jewish-reform movement.
[Posted May 11, 2011: The Suffering Messiah That Wasn’t Jesus…is further elaboration on Jesus’ lost Jewish Messianic roots]
One cannot help but seriously wonder, that if the prolific reformer Jesus of Nazareth returned to this earth to check his movement’s accomplishments, his first shocking question would be “What has happened to the Jewish welfare and social reforms I taught and died for?” One honest answer would be that it got lost, transformed, modified into a Greek-Roman facsimile, that followed a long-established civil and imperial method of Roman centralized control and management necessary to protect and sustain the Empire’s interests. Today, all Christian denominations and off-shoots were fathered by the Vatican…and in turn fathered by Constantine. The whereabouts of the original martyr Jesus of Nazareth and his true message got buried under the Roman machine not only in 66-70 and again in 132-135 CE, but almost forever at the Council of Nicaea….ALMOST.
If you would like to read further on this period of early Christianity and Rome’s major influence to its success, I recommend this website with its acclaimed scholars and supporting bibliographies:
From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians by PBS television’s Frontline
For an excellent additional expansion on the post-325 CE Christian church (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) and how institutionalized religion becomes fear-based totalitarianism, I highly recommend Carol Leigh Rice’s article Origins of Totalitarianism – The Cathars and the Catholic Church. Her article modernizes what Constantine began.
Addendum March 3, 2015 — Unfortunately Carol Leigh Rice’s superb article is temporarily down as she is moving to a new host-domain. She promises me that when it is all back up, I’ll be one of the first to know and of course I’ll pass it on here. Apologies.
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