Constantine and the ‘Jesus of faith’

Some day, I think I’ll write a book about the Emperor Constantine I (‘the Great’, r. 306ish-337) for the popular audience. It seems to me that quality research about the man has been conducted within scholarly circles in recent decades, yet popular audiences continue to believe not only old stories but new ones made up since the old stories were overturned in a scholarly discourse no one but other specialists reads.

And I don’t begrudge scholars the specialist literature. I am going to contribute to it the moment my first publication hits the presses. Nonetheless, sometimes this knowledge needs to step beyond the Ivory Tower to the mean streets of the ‘real world’.

I am at present thinking along these lines because of the following from Michael Wood in the October issue of BBC History magazine, who writes:

Christians have got used to the huge fissure between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Not that the Jesus of history isn’t a compelling figure: a Jewish exorcist, faith healer and teacher swimming in the soup of Hellenistic mystery religions and millennial cults of first-century Palestine, an altogether more believable and human character. It was the pivotal role of Paul in the construction of the narrative, and the appropriation of that narrative by the Roman empire under Constantine in the 330s, that turned him into the Jesus of faith. (27)

The educated reader doesn’t go to Dan Brown for history because she is too busy reading the quite good BBC History magazine to fill her hours. And here we have Michael Wood basically giving us Dan Brown, at least as far as Constantine (Constantine!) is concerned. Wood may be a good scholar of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but he needs to put better investment in the history of Christianity.

I won’t deal with the enormously debatable things he says about Jesus, Paul, and how Paul apparently constructed the narrative of the Jesus of faith, although I understand that Pauline studies has got beyond that sort of thinking these days, and large books by clever people point to a collective belief in the Jesus of faith on the part of all the apostles, not just Paul. Whatever. People who do Biblical Studies can do that.

Let’s look briefly at Constantine, because not even PhDs seem to have a clue what influence he had.

Now, maybe my problem stems from the fact that Wood does not even tell us what the Jesus of faith looks like. It’s the sort of trigger phrase that I’d think Wikipedia would flag. It means too many things. And within the things it means, Wood’s description of the Jesus of history is included, simply amplified.

This leaves me no alternative but to imagine that Wood means, by the Jesus of faith, the Jesus who redeems the world and the Jesus who is God.

What does Constantine have to do with either of those?

The former — pretty much nothing. The idea of Jesus’ death and life as redeeming and atoning for sin and bringing humanity to God, besides being in the New Testament, is at the forefront of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, most especially St Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180s) but, if I could remember names, all over the place elsewhere.

The latter — well. That’s a funny story. You see, the Dan Brown version goes that there were these really happy, liberal, feminist Gnostics whom the angry, conservative, patriarchal orthodox destroyed at the Council of Nicaea under big, evil Constantine who wielded imperial power for the Church. I’ve shaken my head at this before.

Only the Gnostics have nothing to do with anything in the major events of church history starting in the 300s, a fact I’ve wondered at on this blog. Nicaea was a debate between ‘Arians’ and … um … ‘Nicenes’ … about the divinity of Jesus. And the remarkable thing is, the ‘Arians’ would have been willing to say that Jesus was/is God. Well, some of them. Not a homogeneous group (neither are the ‘Nicenes’). They just would have rejected the idea that Jesus is of the same substance (homoousios/consubstantialis) as the Father. I mean, at bottom-line Arianism.

The theology that was being argued at Nicaea was two sides of the theology borne not only from the New Testament Scriptures but the logos theology of St Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Origen of Alexandria (184-253) that takes John 1 with the utmost seriousness and tries to see how it works that Jesus, who is the logos, is also theos.

And, outside of the high-flying theology, we have Melito of Sardis, c. 170, proclaiming Christ as God in unequivocal terms. So also does Polycarp in his martyrdom and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in like manner. Christians believed that Jesus was God.

So what did Constantine do??

What Nicaea did was help settle an unsettling conflict about how the faith in Jesus as God was articulated and what it means for Christians to believe it. It wasn’t actually settled until 381 within the empire, and persisted amongst the ‘barbarians’ for centuries.

This is to say: the Jesus of faith existed long before Constantine, and someone like him would even have been believed in by today’s media-darling Gnostics.

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3 thoughts on “Constantine and the ‘Jesus of faith’

  1. I, for one, would welcome your take on Constantine without the editorializing blinders. Christianity was certainly redirected from that point on, and we can argue pro and con on the consequences. My heart and not a few of my ancestors, though, align with the underground church that was all too often its victim.
    So here we have the Quakers coming along in the mid 1600s, railing against the “dark night of apostasy” that had set upon Christianity, presumably about the time of the Nicene Council. My take is that they had recovered “primitive Christianity” (or in their terms, “revived”) based on their experience of a logos comprehension they didn’t dare articulate fully. What they did leave in writing I find remarkable and compelling.
    Crucially, our understanding or interpretation of what happened in the first centuries of the faith just might have a huge role in our own practice and those for generations to come, especially in the face of an increasingly secular and skeptical populace.
    Tell us more.

    • Jnana,

      This is a worthy question, and one that requires a new post. I’m thinking on how best to organise my answer to the question of how post-Constantinian church history was changed by imperial favour. Not all effects were salutary!

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