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.


What did Constantine actually do?

Statue of Constantine in front of York Minster

Today, for the second and final time this season, I volunteered at Edinburgh’s Christian Heritage Centre. I was talking with a lovely and interested couple from New Orleans about the religious history of Scotland, including lovely things like the pulpit at St Columba’s, and less lovely things, like killing of Covenanters.

I knew the woman was not necessarily in step with my vision of Christian history when she remarked, upon seeing that Columba (saint of the week here) had been given the isle of Iona, that that was where Mary Magdalene and her children fled when people were trying to kill them, ‘according to the legends.’ I said that such would have been news to Columba, who was the first Christian on the island in recorded history when it was given to him as a mission base by King Bridei of the Picts upon Bridei’s conversion.

Later, after they had viewed the entire display, we chatted in the sanctuary of S Columba’s. In the midst of a very interesting conversation, this lovely woman unloaded the shattering idea that Constantine (saint of the week here) ruined everything. He wanted the union of Church and State, and he said Jesus was God, and he set the canon of the New Testament, burning the other texts.

I said, ‘Constantine didn’t set the canon of Scripture.’

She gave me that knowing look people who don’t know Church History give me, saying, ‘Yes, he did.’

‘Well, it’s not in Eusebius.’

‘Who’s Eusebius?’

‘He’s –‘

‘What about all those other things, like the Dead Sea Scrolls?’

‘The Dead Sea Scrolls are Hebrew; they’re Jewish texts, not Christian. The Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi are all in Coptic and very late. The canon of Scripture was already basically determined by Constantine’s day. The disputes at Nicaea were not between Gnostics and the Orthodox; they were disputes within the community of the ‘proto-orthodox’.’

That last bit probably didn’t help. What I meant was….

Well, we need the swirl of disinformation sorted out first. From what this lady was saying, I think the swirl is as follows. Jesus and Mary M were married and got it on big time. The so-called ‘Gnostics’ knew this, but the ‘proto-orthodox’ suppressed it to give more power to celibate bishops. The Gnostics represent the true stream of Christianity, and they did not believe that Jesus was truly ‘God’ the way we think of God, the Creator. This idea was something thought up by Constantine when he united Church and State, and called the council of Nicaea to make it official. At Nicaea he burnt the Gnostic scriptures.

I think this is part of what is going on. I think this mostly originates from Dan Brown and books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Whenever you challenge people on this, they tell you that you believe the official version and have had the wool pulled over your eyes.

But here we go, anyway. Disbelieve me if you wish.

First: The Canon of Scripture. This was established slowly over a long period of time. By Irenaeus’ day, we have the fourfold Gospel. Since most of the documents people such as the Jesus Seminars and Elaine Pagels are trying to foist upon us qualify at some level as ‘Gospels’, by the mid- to late second century, the Gnostic Gospels have been excluded by certain groups, such as those represented by Irenaeus, already. This trend seems to continue throughout the third century, visible in the earliest papyri and New Testament quotations in pre-Constantinian Fathers. Nowhere in any of the sparse documents relating to Nicaea do they establish the canon of Scripture.

This is because the people there all agreed on that. This was the problem. The people at Nicaea are the descendants of the people in the Gnostic debates we would think of as ‘proto-orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ — the theological descendants of Irenaeus, Justin, Clement, Origen. They just happen to disagree on a particular point; it is an in-house debate. The Gnostics and their writings do not figure into the Nicene debate at all. Arius and those who agreed with him were interpreting the same set of documents as Athanasius and those who agreed with him.

Constantine made everyone agree to the creed of Nicaea, but may not have even agreed with it himself. His deathbed baptism was at the hands of an ‘Arian’, Eusebius of Nicomedia. And his biography is given us by someone else who sympathises with the ‘Arian’ party in many ways, Eusebius of Caesarea. The Nicene victory does not actually come until 381, under Theodosius I with the theologising of the Cappadocians. Given the failure of other imperial attempts to establish their orthodoxy in the events beginning with Nestorius in 428 and leading to Chalcedon, the Henotikon, the Acacian Schism, Constantinople II, monothelitism, Constantinople III, and an enormous schism in eastern Christianity — I would wager that people actually agreed with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (my translation here).

This leaves Jesus as God. The idea is certainly not Constantine’s, and certainly pre-dates him. It is visible in varying forms and levels of intensity as early as the Gospel of John, and in Irenaeus and Melito of Sardis and Clement of Alexandria and Origen Tertullian and probably others I’ve not read, as well as Alexander of Alexandria, whose shock at Arius’ response was the trigger to it all. It is not an idea nobody believed, and, as noted above, was not exactly foisted upon everyone else. Indeed, Athanasius’ intensity for his belief in his version of ‘Jesus is God’ got him in trouble during Constantine’s reign.

This leaves Constantine’s alleged union of Church and State. The shortest response is, Why would an Emperor want to unite the Roman state with a persecuted minority? Yes, Constantine — for whatever reasons — converted. It seems to have worked well for him. But converting back to paganism would later work for Emperor Julian. The church was neither wealthy nor powerful. Furthermore, outside of getting people to sign on to Nicaea, its workings seem to have been left alone by Constantine. Any of his interventions, such as between ‘Catholics’ and Donatists in the West, were done at the invitation of the Church, and done as a last ditch attempt to make things work. Furthermore, in the 200s, at least one Christian community appealed to a pagan emperor against their bishop.

Furthermore, all of the state ceremonial and cult persisted during Constantine’s reign. And paganism was not outlawed for decades, and even then seems to have continued well into the reign of Justinian two hundred years later.

Whatever Constantine may have screwed up, he did not ‘decide’ Jesus was God, he did not unite Church and state, and he did not touch the Gnostic gospels at all. If we wish to vilify the man, find the right reasons — murdering his son and wife, for example.