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 have you done, O Israel?’ – Melito of Sardis and the Jews

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

If you followed my advice yesterday and read Melito’s excellent sermon on Easter, you will have found yourself facing things that make today’s Christian uneasy. They make us uneasy living in a world after the Holocaust, after various attempts in different mediaeval nations to expel the Jewish people. They make us uneasy in a world where violent men grab, twist, misuse, and misread words to bring about violence, hatred, and destruction.

Melito says, ‘He is the one who was slain. And where was he slain? In the midst of Jerusaelm. By whom? By Israel.’ From here, he launches into a discussion of the culpability of Israel in the crucifixion of Christ. He launches into his high rhetoric, with various series of parallel clauses (with which the entire sermon is rife):

It was necessary that he suffer, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be treated with dishonour, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be judged, but not at your hands.
It was necessary that he be hanged, but not by you and your right hand.

Melito sees here the sorrowful reality that the people of Israel, whose Messiah Jesus is, are the very people who rejected him and dragged him before a Roman tribunal, crying for his blood. ‘And,’ Melito says to Israel, ‘you bound his beautiful hands which had fashioned you from the earth.’ He betrays here a high Christology (of note to me), but also brings home the willingness of the Jewish nation in the death of the Messiah.

He goes on to say what they should have been doing — that is, saving Jesus, since he is their King and Messiah. All of this will probably make a lot of people uneasy. So far, I’m not especially uneasy. It is true that the leaders of the Jewish people and a large mob thereof took Jesus before Pilate, and that Pilate at their insistence crucified him. The Romans are to blame as much as the Jewish people. But the people of Israel who participated in and condoned the crucifixion were as much in the wrong as the soldiers who hammered in the spikes.

Where it gets more uncomfortable, in fact, is here:

You have abandoned the Lord — You were not found by him.
You did not receive the Lord — You did not find mercy from him.
You dashed the Lord to the ground — You were dashed to the ground.

Melito in fact says more in the middle of his address to Israel, displaying the fact that they had killed their Lord, that ‘The King of Israel has been killed by Israel’s right hand.’

We must allow ourselves to find this passage contra Israel unsettling. But we cannot toss Melito aside. I tire of conversations where I mention John Chrysostom, and the other person inevitably mentions his sermons against the Jews and thereby condemns dear Goldenmouth. We need to look at these things and come to grips with them in their own context; we also need to see the beauty in Melito and Chrysostom that has nothing to do with the Jewish nation.

So, context.

First, let us recall the dates: c. 165/190. The Christian movement is still weak and relatively small. They are living through some of the earliest systematic persecutions of the Roman Empire. The Nazarenes (as the Jewish Eigtheen Benedictions refer to them) have been divided from the Jewish religion for maybe 100 years.

The Jewish nation has been scattered, first in AD 70, then in the 130s. They are everywhere the Christians are; but they are the older brother. They also have rights within the Roman world; although odd in Roman eyes, Judaism is at least an ancient, national religion. Unlike Christianity.

Christianity has no protections and in this period is often considered by the Romans as a dangerous group that meets illegally to commit incest and eat babies. In other words, at this second-century moment, Christians are the weaker group.

When Melito is preaching, he is using various rhetorical devices, including addressing persons not there. Israel is not in his local church. This address is sometimes used by patristic preachers to address characters in the biblical text. I do not know if, when he addresses Israel Melito means Israel 100-some years ago or Israel of his day, but the former is not an impossibility.

Furthermore, he is not preaching to incite hatred or violence. Nowhere in the text of On the Pasch does Melito encourage hatred of the people of Israel. It is, rather, a stratagem to stir up the wonder of the audience at what went on in the Passion. Yes, the immortal dies at the hands of mortals. But not only that — the King of Israel is slain by Israel! This is a shocking moment. Should we not be shocked by what goes on at Golgotha?

Perhaps today Melito’s sermon would be inappropriate. But he did not live now. Allow his words to shock you. Allow them to enable you to see the horror of what the entire human race did on Good Friday. And then move on beyond his address of the Jewish people, to the beauty of this:

So come, all you clans of humankind, mingled with sin, and receive forgiveness for your sinful deeds.
For I am your forgiveness.
I am the pasch of salvation.
I am the lamb who was slain for you.
I am your ransom.
I am your life.
I am your light.
I am your salvation.
I am your king.
I will raise you up with my right hand.
I am bringing you up to the heights of heaven.
There I will show you the eternal Father.

‘the gospel is the explanation of the law and its fulfilment’ – Melito of Sardis and typology

Melito of Sardis’ On the Pasch from as early as 165 and as late as 190 is one of the earliest surviving sermons, and the earliest surviving Easter sermon. It was famous enough that the Venerable Bede mentioned it in The Greater Chronicle of 725. It’s not a very long read; I recommend it.

For Melito, as the title of this post suggests, the law is typos of the Gospel story; or, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, it is a shadow. Christ is the real thing. Melito uses the image of sculpture to communicate the concept of the typos.

When someone is going to make a sculpture, you see, he/she makes a smaller model out a cheaper, more changeable substance than the final — clay, perhaps, or wax. Auguste Rodin, for example, preferred clay, and the claylike contours of his sculptures are visible in his bronzes. The sculptor takes the clay model and then proceeds to make a full-size sculpture from it. If the full sculpture is marble, various measuring devices and tools are used to produce a larger version of the preliminary representation. If it is to be cast as a bronze, a full-size clay sculpture is made, then a mould made of this sculpture, which is then used to cast the bronze.

In the case of Rodin, many of his fine clay models still exist and are on display in the Musée Rodin, Paris. But in the ancient world, once the reality has been made, in all its size, vigour, and glory, those models were no longer needed. They could be turned into new models for other sculptures. They have served their purpose — bringing abot the perfect production of the full-scale sculpture envisaged by the artist.

This, says Melito, is what the law is in relation to the Good News of Jesus Christ. He says, ‘But when the church arose and the gospel emerged, the representation handed over its power to the reality and became empty, and the law handed over its power to the gospel and was fulfilled.’ (42)

Melito goes on:

The death of the sheep was valuable, but is now without value because of the salvation of the Lord.
The blood of the sheep was valuable, but is now without value because of the Spirit of the Lord.
The silent lamb was valuable, but is now without value because of the Son without blemish.
The temple below was valuable, but is now without value because of the Jerusalem which is above.
The Jerusalem below was valuable, but is now without value because of the Jerusalem which is above.

Christ came to fulfil the law, something he did through his own free will by his death and resurrection. And by fulfulling the law, he has freed us from it. We are no longer bound to the Jewish feasts, sacrifices, and ceremonies because we can live in the reality they foreshadow.

Some take this fulfilment of the law to mean antinomianism. But when we look at what writings such as Melito’s On the Pasch or the Epistle to the Hebrews or St Paul’s typology, it is clear that the law from which we are freed is the ceremonial law of the Torah. We are still called, as in the epistles of St Paul and especially of St James, to live holy lives. But we no longer do so in the context of Mosaic ceremonial. We do so now as free sons and daughters of the Almighty.

This is something to be celebrated.