Christianity – the beginning
Christianity began as a movement within Judaism at a period when the Hebrews had long been under foreign influence and rule, and had found in their religion the linchpin of their community, (rather than in their politics or cultural achievements). From the prophet Amos (800 B.C.) onward, the religion of Israel was marked by tension between the concept of monotheism, with its universal ideal of salvation (for all nations), and the exclusivity of the notion of God’s special choice of Israel, coupled with those who accepted neither concept.
In the age after Alexander the Greats conquest, (the Hellenistic (Greek) period, 300 B.C. to 300 A.D.), the dispersion of the Hebrews throughout the Hellenistic kingdoms and later, the Roman Empire, gave some impetus to the universalistic tendency. But the attempts of foreign rulers, especially the Greek King of Syria – Antiochus Epiphanes (168–165 B.C.), to impose Greek culture and religious syncretism in Palestine, provoked zealous resistance on the part of many Hebrews. In Judea, the predominant call was for separation and exclusiveness. Hebrew missionaries to other areas were strictly expected to impose the Hebrew customs of circumcision, kasher (fit) food, Sabbaths and other festivals.
The Hebrew Scriptures viewed history as the stage of a providential drama, which would eventually end in a triumph of God, over all present sources of frustration (foreign domination, the sins of man, etc.). They believed that God’s rule would be established by an anointed prince, (a Messiah), of the line of David – (former king of Israel in the 10th century B.C.). However, the proper course of action leading to the consummation of this drama was the subject of some disagreement.
Among the diverse Hebrew groups, were the aristocratic and conservative Sadducees, who accepted only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch), then there were the more popular and strict Pharisees. The Pharisees not only accepted biblical books outside the Pentateuch but also embraced doctrines – such as those on resurrection and the existence of angels – which was of recent acceptance in Judaism – many of which were derived from apocalyptic expectations that the consummation of history would be heralded by God’s intervention in the affairs of men in dramatic, cataclysmic terms.
The Sanhedrin (supreme Hebrew legislative and judicial court) at Jerusalem was made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees. The Zealots were aggressive revolutionaries seeking independence from Rome. Other groups were the Herodians, supporters of the client kingdom of the Herods (a dynasty that supported Rome) and abhorrent to the Zealots, and the Essenes – a quasi-monastic dissident group, probably including the sect that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. This latter sect did not participate in the Temple worship at Jerusalem, and observed another religious calendar; from their desert retreat they awaited divine intervention and searched prophetic writings for signs indicating the consummation.
What relationship the followers of Jesus had to some of these groups is not clear. In the canonical Gospels (those accepted as authentic by the Catholic church) the main targets of criticism are the scribes and Pharisees, whose attachment to the tradition of Judaism is presented as legalistic and disreputable. The Sadducees and Herodians, likewise receive an unfriendly portrait, the Essenes are never mentioned. Jesus himself may have been a Zealot, as well as Simon, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
Under the military and political conditions of the time, there could be no future for either the Sadducees or the Zealots – whose attempts to make apocalyptic predictions come true, led to the destruction of Judea after two major Hebrew revolts of 66–70 A.D, and 132–135 A.D, against the Romans.
Thus the choice for many Hebrews lay between the Pharisees and Christianity, the former dedicated to the meticulous preservation of the Mosaic Law, and Christianity – as later defined by Europeans – the universal propagation of the Christian version of the Hebrew faith, as a religion for all mankind, (Catholic means universalistic).
Pharisaism as enshrined in the Mishna (the Oral Law), and the Talmud (commentary on, and addition to the Oral Law), became normal Judaism. By looking to the Gentile (non-Hebrew) world and carefully disassociating itself from the Zealot revolutionaries, Christianity (as construed by Europeans who had converted), made possible the ideal of a world religion, at the price of sacrificing Hebrew particularity and exclusiveness. The fact that Christianity has never succeeded in gaining the open allegiance of more than a minority of Hebrews is more a mystery to theologians than to historians.
There are indications that Christianity was intended initially, as exclusively a religion for Hebrews – Jesus himself was against the empirical power of the European conquers. It appears that it was Paul – a self appointed apostle “after” Jesus death – who forced acceptance of gentile converts. How or why the gentile converts were granted acceptance in the Jerusalem church under Jesus’ brother James is not known.
Saint Paul, the Apostle
born AD 10?, Tarsus in Cilicia [Turkey] – died 67?, Rome
Original name Saul of Tarsus, 1st-century Hebrew who, after first being a bitter enemy of Christianity, later became an important figure in its history.
Converted only a few years after the death of Jesus, he became the leading Apostle (missionary) of the new movement and played a decisive part in extending it beyond the limits of Judaism to become a worldwide religion. His surviving letters are the earliest extant Christian writings.
Paul himself claimed the title of Apostle, apparently on the ground that he had seen the Lord and received a commission directly from him. This appears to be in agreement with the condition in Acts that a newly appointed Apostle should be capable of giving eyewitness testimony to the Lord’s Resurrection. According to some early Christian writers however, some were called apostles after the period covered by the New Testament.
In the first Christian generation, authority in the church lay either in the kinsmen of Jesus or in those whom he had commissioned as Apostles and missionaries. The Jerusalem church under James, the brother of Jesus, was the mother church. Paul admitted that if they had refused to grant recognition to his Gentile converts; he would have labored in vain. If there was an attempt to establish a hereditary family overlordship in the church (by James’ descendants), it did not succeed, although among the Gentile congregations, the Apostles sent by Jesus enjoyed supreme authority. As long as the Apostles lived, there existed a living authoritative voice to which appeal could be made. But once they all had died, there was an acute question: who is in charge? The earliest documents of the 3rd. and 4th. Christian generations are mainly concerned with this issue: what is the authority of the ministerial hierarchy?
The Apostolic (European) congregations, had normally been served by elders called (presbyteroi,“priests”) or overseers (episkopoi, bishops”), assisted by attendants (diakonoi, deacons”). The clergy were responsible for preaching, administering baptism and Eucharist, and for distributing aid to the poor. In each city the president or senior member of the college (assembly) of presbyters naturally had some special authority; he corresponded with other churches and, when they were ordaining a new president, would go as the representative of his own community and as a symbol of the catholicity – the universality and unity – of the church of Christ.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch early in the 2nd century, wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom at Rome, that indicate how critical the centrifugal forces in the church had made the problem of authority. The bishop, he insisted, is the unique focus of unity without whose authority there is no sacrament and no church. A few years earlier, the letter of Bishop Clement of Rome (95 A.D.) to the church at Corinth based the hierarchy’s authority on the concept of a historical succession of duly authorized teachers. Clement understood the clergy and laity to be essentially distinct orders within the one community, just as in the Old Testament there were high priests, priests, Levites (Temple functionaries), and laymen. The principles of Clement and Ignatius became important when the church was faced by people claiming recognition for their special charismatic (spiritual) gifts and especially by Gnostic heretics claiming to possess secret oral traditions whispered by Jesus to his disciples and not contained in publicly accessible records such as the Gospels.
Early Christianity was predominantly urban; peasants on farms were deeply attached to old ways and followed the paganism favored by most aristocratic landowners. By 400 A.D. some landowners had converted and built churches on their property, providing a “benefice” for the priest, who might often be one of the magnate’s servants. In the East and in North Africa (now under Roman control), each township normally had its own bishop. In the Western provinces bishops were fewer and were responsible for larger areas, which from the 4th century onward, were called by the secular term dioceses (administrative districts). In the 4th century pressure to bring Western custom into line with Eastern, and to add more bishops was resisted on the ground that it would diminish the bishops’ social status.
By the end of the 3rd century the bishop of the provincial capital was acquiring authority over his colleagues: the metropolitan (from the 4th century on, often entitled archbishop) was chief consecrator of his Episcopal (means-constituting government by bishops) colleagues. The bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in the 3rd century were accorded some authority beyond their own provinces. Along with Jerusalem and Constantinople (founded in 330 A.D.), these three “sees” (means-seats of Episcopal authority) became, for the Greeks, the five patriarchates. The title Papa (“father”) was for 600 years, an affectionate term applied to any bishop to whom one’s relationship was intimate; it began to be specially used for bishops of Rome, from the 6th. century, and by the 9th. century was almost exclusively applied to them.
From the beginning, the Christians in Rome assumed responsibilities for leading the church, (no doubt as a consequence of Roman military power), how this was viewed by James’ Church in Jerusalem, is not known. About 165 A.D, memorials were erected in Rome to the Apostles Peter and Paul – to Peter in a necropolis on the Vatican Hill, and to Paul on the road to Ostia. The construction of these memorials reflect a sense of being guardians of an apostolic tradition, a self-consciousness later expressed in another form, when about 190 A.D, Bishop Victor of Rome, threatened with excommunication, Christians in Asia Minor (Turkey) who, following the old custom, observed Easter on the day of the Hebrew Passover rather than (as at Rome), on the Sunday after the first full moon, and after the spring equinox. Stephen of Rome (256 A.D.) is the first known Pope, to base his claim to authority, on Jesus’ commission to Peter (Matthew 16:18–19).
Bishops were originally elected by their congregations i.e., by the clergy and laity assembled together. But the consent of the laity decreased in importance, as recognition by other churches increased. The metropolitan and other provincial bishops soon became just as important as the congregation as a whole; and though they could never successfully impose the appointment of a man on a solidly hostile community, they could often prevent the appointment falling under the control of powerful lay families or factions. From the 4th century on, the emperors occasionally intervened to fill important sees, but such occurrences were not a regular phenomenon, (until the 6th century in Merovingian Gaul).
After the initial problems regarding the continuity and authority of the Christian hierarchy, the greatest guarantee of true continuity and authenticity was found in the Scriptures. European Christians inherited (without debate at first) the Hebrew Scriptures as the Word of God to the people of God, but at a now superseded stage of their pilgrimage through history.
If St. Paul’s Gentile mission was valid (the inclusion of Europeans), then the Old Testament Law was viewed as no longer God’s final word to his people. Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures began to be called the old covenant. The new covenant, accepted by most, but not all, Gentile Christian communities was the Septuagintal canon. Though this Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) included books (such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and others) that were not accepted in the Hebrew canon.
The 3rd century Greek theologian Origen and especially the Roman biblical scholar Jerome (4th–5th century) believed it imprudent to base theological affirmations on books enjoying less than universal recognition. The fact that in many English Bibles the parts of the Old Testament accepted in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew canon are often printed separately under the title Apocrypha (of dubious authenticity – not canonical) is a tribute to these ancient hesitations.
Traditional Roman religion was a public cult, not private mysticism, and was practiced because it was the perceived way of keeping heaven friendly. To refuse participation was viewed as disloyal. However, Hebrews could be excused for their refusal, by virtue of the undoubted fact that their monotheism was an ancient national tradition. Christians however, did everything in their power to dissuade people from following the customs of their fathers, whether they be Gentiles or Hebrews, and they seemed to threaten the cohesion of society, and the principle that each racial or ethnic group, was entitled to follow its national customs in religion.
Christians were not respectful toward ancestral pagan customs, their preaching of a new king sounded like revolution. The opposition of the Hebrews to Christians, often led to breaches of the peace, thus the Christians could very well be unpopular, and they often were. Paul’s success at Ephesus (a Greek city in Turkey), provoked a riot to defend the cult of the goddess Artemis. In 64 A.D, a fire destroyed much of Rome; the emperor Nero killed a great many Christians as scapegoats.
Now for the first time, Rome was conscious that Christians were religiously distinct from Hebrews. But there probably was no formal senatorial enactment against Christianity at this time. Nero’s persecution was local and short. Soon thereafter however, the profession of Christianity was defined as a capital crime, though of a special kind, because one gained pardon by apostasy, (rejection of a faith once confessed), which was demonstrated by offering sacrifice to the pagan gods or the emperor.
Popular gossip soon accused the Christians of secret vices, such as eating murdered infants (due to the secrecy surrounding the Lord’s Supper and the use of the words body and blood), and also sexual promiscuity (due to the practice of Christians calling each other “brother” or “sister” while living as husband and wife). The governor of Bithynia (the younger Pliny 111 A.D.), told the emperor Trajan that to his surprise, he discovered the Christians to be guilty of no vice, only of obstinacy and superstition. Nevertheless, he executed without a qualm, those who refused to apostatize.
Early persecutions were sporadic, caused by local conditions and depending on the attitude of the governor. The fundamental cause of persecution was that the Christians conscientiously rejected the gods whose favor was believed to have brought success to the Roman Empire. But distrust was increased by Christian detachment and reluctance to serve in the imperial service and in the army. At any time in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, Christians could find themselves the object of unpleasant attention. A pogrom could be precipitated by a bad harvest, a barbarian attack, or a public festival of the emperor cult. Still, long periods of peace occurred.
In 248–250 A.D, when Germanic tribes threatened the Empire, popular hostility culminated in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius (reigned 249–251): by his edict all citizens were required to offer sacrifice, and to obtain from commissioners a certificate witnessing to the act, many of these certificates have survived. This requirement created an issue of conscience, especially because certificates could be bought by bribes. Under this renewed attack, the great bishop-theologian Cyprian of Carthage was martyred (257–259 A.D.). The persecuting emperor Valerian, however became a Persian prisoner of war, and his son Gallienus, issued an edict of toleration, restoring confiscated churches and cemeteries.
The church prospered from 261 to 303 A.D, but the empire suffered external attack, internal sedition, and rampant inflation. In February 303 A.D, the worst of all persecutions erupted under the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. The persecutions ended and peace was reached with the ascension of Emperor Constantine.
Constantine’s Rise to Power
The future emperor Constantine, was born at Naissus in the province of Moesia Superior, the modern Nish in Serbia, on 27 February of 271, 272, or 273. His father was a military officer named Constantius (later Constantius Chlorus or Constantius I), his mother a woman of humble background named Helena (later St. Helena). There is good reason to think that Constantius and Helena lived in concubinage rather than in legally recognized marriage. Having previously attained the rank of tribune, provincial governor, and probably praetorian prefect, Constantius was raised, on 1 March 293, to the rank of Caesar in the First Tetrarchy organized by Diocletian. On this occasion he was required to put aside his wife Helena and to marry Theodora, the daughter of Maximian (The emperor). Upon the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian, on 1 May 305 Constantius succeeded to the rank of Augustus.
His son Constantine, in the meanwhile, had served with distinction under both Diocletian and Galerius in the East. He was kept initially at the court of Galerius, as a pledge of good conduct on his father’s part, but he was later allowed to join his father in Britain and assisted him in a campaign against the Picts. When Constantius died, on 25 July 306 at Eburacum (York), Constantine was at his side. The soldiers at once proclaimed Constantine Augustus; Constantine henceforth observed this day as his dies imperii.
Constantine thus became one of the four emperors of the empire, after the retirement of Diocletian, there were only three generals vying for control: Constantine in Gaul, the least populated portion of the empire, while Rome was under the control of Maxentius, and the East was under the control of Licinius.
Having settled affairs in Britain swiftly, Constantine returned to the Continent, where the city of Augusta Treverorum (Trier) served as his principal residence for the next six years. There too, in 307 he married Maximian’s daughter Fausta, putting aside his mistress Minervina, who had borne him his first son, Crispus.
At the same time, the Senate and the Praetorian Guard in Rome had allied themselves with Maxentius, the son of Maximian. On 28 October 306 they proclaimed him emperor, in the lower rank of Princeps initially, although he later claimed the rank of Augustus. Constantine and Maxentius, although they were brothers-in-law, did not trust each other. Their relationship was further complicated by each ones wish for more power, consequently in 310 A.D, upon the death of Maximian, open hostilities between the two rivals broke out. In 312 A.D, Constantine threw caution to the wind and marched on Maxentius’s forces, even though he was vastly outnumbered. The most important battle occurred at Milvian Bridge; he both won the battle and killed his rival, making him emperor of Rome and Gaul and soon emperor of the east as well.
Lactantius, whom Constantine had appointed tutor of his son Crispus, and who therefore must have been close to the imperial family. Reports that during the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers.
Twenty-five years later, Eusebius gives us a far different, more elaborate, and less convincing account in his “Life of Constantine”. According to him: When Constantine and his army were on their march toward Rome – neither the time nor the location is specified – they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words “by this sign you will be victor” (hoc signo victor eris). During the next night, so Eusebius’ account continues, Christ appeared to Constantine and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army. The new battle standard became known as the labarum.
Whichever vision Constantine may have experienced, he attributed his victory to the power of “the God of the Christians” and committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on, although his understanding of the Christian faith at this time was quite superficial.
It has often been supposed that Constantine’s profession of Christianity was a matter of political expediency more than of religious conviction; Constantine did not receive baptism until shortly before his death. It might be a mistake however to interpret this as a lack of sincerity or commitment; in the fourth and fifth centuries Christians often delayed their baptisms until late in life.
After Diocletian and Maximian had announced their retirement in 305 A.D, the problem posed by the Christians was still unresolved and the persecution was in progress. Upon coming to power, Constantine had unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution. His personal devotions however, he offered first to the god Mars and then increasingly to the god Apollo, reverenced as Sol Invictus.
Constantine had several problems with his new faith, in particular foundational Christianity was manifestly anti-political. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, consistently condemned worldly authority and insisted that the Christian life is a non-worldly, individualistic, non-political life. As a result, the foundational Christian texts are not only anti-Roman (for Judea was part of the Roman Empire during the life of Jesus of Nazareth), but also consistently dismissive of human worldly authority. If Christianity was going to work as a religion in a state ruled by a monarch who considered himself divine, and demanded worship and absolute authority, it would have to be changed.
The early Christians had tolerated the emperors and regarded them as a kind of necessary evil. Constantine, as a Christian emperor, though demanded their obedience both temporally and in terms of faith. To this end, he merged the office of Emperor with the Christian faith and assumed authority over religious matters. Added to this equation was the divinity or partial divinity normally bestowed on the Emperor. Constantine’s Christian conversion did not stop him from presenting himself as divine both in the theater of imperial power and on coinages. There’s no reason to believe that Constantine did not in fact believe that he was divine, even in spite of his Christianity.
This was a new and unsolvable problem in Christianity. As long as the Emperor was a pagan, there was no question of the relationship between the church and the state. The church did its thing and the state did its sinful thing. The presence of Christian imperial authority, however, led to severe conflicts and disruption. The question of the relationship between the church and a Christian government has yet to be resolved.
Constantine believed that the Church and the State should be as close as possible. From 312-320 A.D, Constantine was tolerant of paganism, keeping pagan gods on coins and retaining his pagan high priest title “Pontifex Maximus” (the Roman high priest whose main job was to maintain the – pax deorum, the ‘peace with the gods’) in order to maintain popularity with his subjects.
Possibly indicating that he never understood the theology of Christianity. From 320-330 A.D, he began to attack paganism through the government, but in many cases persuaded people to follow the laws by combining pagan worship with Christianity. He made December 25th – the birthday of the pagan “Unconquered Sun god” – the official holiday it is now – the birthday of Jesus. It is likely that he also instituted celebrating Easter and Lent based on pagan holidays.
The Edict of Milan
In February 313 A.D, Constantine and Licinius met at Milan. On this occasion Constantine’s half-sister Constantia was wed to Licinius. Also on this occasion, the two Emperors formulated a common religious policy. Several months later, Licinius issued an edict, which is commonly but erroneously known as the Edict of Milan. The Edit of Milan was a proclamation, initiated by Constantine in the West, but agreed to by Licinius in the East, by which Christianity was given legal status, equal to paganism if not a little superior to it. Persecution in any form from 313 A.D, was supposed to come to a stop.
Unlike Constantine however, Licinius did not commit himself personally to Christianity; even his commitment to toleration eventually gave way to renewed persecution. Meanwhile, Constantine’s profession of Christianity was not an unmixed blessing to the church. Constantine used the church as an instrument of imperial policy, imposed upon it his imperial ideology, and thus deprived it of much of the independence, which it had previously enjoyed.
The Arian Controversy, the Council of Nicaea, and its Aftermath
Constantine had other problems as well. In Constantine’s view, the Christian church could be a powerful tool for unifying the Empire socially and politically. If the church could become unified, that would provide a bulwark against the forces pulling the empire apart. The problem though, was there was no established or unifying doctrine. In fact, there were as many forms of Christianity as there were communities of Christians. The church was severely divided over fundamental questions; in particular, the speculations of the eastern churches on the nature of divinity were considered grossly heretical by the Latin (Roman) churches. What would finally call Constantine into action to unify the church was the schism between the Arians and the Athanasians.
The major schism between the churches in the Greek-speaking east and the churches in the West was founded on the eastern insistence in engaging in philosophical speculation on questions of doctrine; the western churches by contrast, largely focused on administrative rather than doctrinal problems. If the church was going to be unified however, these two separate approaches had to be unified. The flash point came with the dispute over Arianism (Bishop Arius), which the western churches regarded as outright heresy.
The Greek bishop Arius, like many of his eastern counterparts, was primarily interested in defining the nature of the Trinity — God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost — and insisted in his theology that there was an absolute division between God and Christ. God the Father, he argued, was hierarchically differentiable from God the Son. The opposite position, called Athanasianism, after the bishop Athanasius who advocated it, was that God the Father and God the Son were one and the same thing. Both the western church and the bishop of Constantinople came down on the side of Athanasianism—the Greek Church subsequently dug in its heels on the matter.
Arius teachings were condemned, and Arius excommunicated in 318 A.D, by a council convened by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria (Egypt). But that did not by any means close the matter. Ossius (or Hosius) of Cordova, Constantine’s trusted spiritual advisor, failed on his mission to bring about reconciliation.
Constantine then summoned what has become known as the First Ecumenical Council of the church. The opening session was held on 20 May 325 A.D, in the great hall of the palace at Nicaea, Constantine himself presiding and giving the opening speech. The council formulated a creed, which although it was revised at the Council of Constantinople in 381-82 A.D, has become known as the Nicene Creed. It affirms the homoousion, i.e. the doctrine of consubstantiality. A major role at this council was played by Athanasius, Bishop Alexander’s deacon, secretary, and ultimately his successor.
Constantine accomplished more however, for the Nicene council also ratified his own power, and Christianity would begin the long struggle, lasting to this day, between the anti-political ideas of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christianity that is compromised to allow for human authority and power.
If Constantine had hoped that the council would settle the issue forever, he must have been bitterly disappointed. The disputes continued, and Constantine himself vacillated. Eusebius of Nicomedia, a supporter of Arius, who was exiled in 325 A.D, was recalled in 327 A.D, and soon became the emperor’s chief spiritual advisor. In 335 A.D. Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria and unbending in his opposition to some of Constantine’s policies, was sent into exile at far-away Trier.
The Donatists and Catholics
Another important conflict of the fourth century was the doctrinal dispute between the Donatists and the Catholics; this created the most significant division in the western church until the sixteenth century and the advent of Protestantism.
Donatus was a bishop in North Africa during the persecutions of Diocletian; unlike the rest of the Empire, the persecutions in North Africa were relatively mild, as the governor only demanded that Christians hand over written copies of the Christian scriptures as a gesture of repudiating their faith. He did not really interfere with Christianity in other ways.
Many Christians complied with the law. However, after the persecutions ended, those Christians that had not given up their scriptures, called the others traitors, and would not allow them back into the church – among these “traitors” were some priests. Donatus argued that the sacraments were rendered invalid, if they were administered by these corrupt priests. The North African Donatists were fiercely opposed by the western church and energetically opposed by Augustine, who was bishop of Hippo in North Africa.
In April of 313 A.D, the Donatists presented to Constantine their grievance against Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage – held to have become implicated in apostasy by receiving consecration as bishop from Felix of Aptunga, an apostate. Constantine convened a synod of bishops to hear the complaint; the synod met in Rome’s Lateran Council, and is known as the Synod of Rome. When the synod ruled in favor of Caecilian, the Donatists appealed to Constantine again. In response to the appeal Constantine convened a larger council of thirty-three bishops, who met at Arles in southern Gaul on 1 August 314 A.D, This council too, ruled against the Donatists, and again they refused to submit. Constantine attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress them.
The Donatists however, hung on as a secret church until the Muslims invaded North Africa in the late 600’s A.D. The reason Donatism is important though, is that the movement was revived in the twelfth century in Europe, as the Catholic clergy had become desperately corrupt. A new, popular movement revived Donatism and not only criticized corrupt clergy but declared them unworthy to deliver valid sacraments. In this respect, sixteenth century Protestantism in its attacks on the corrupt clergy was the descendant of the Donatist movement.
The Conflict with Licinius
The ultimate goal pursued by both Constantine and Licinius was sole power. The agreement of 313 A.D, had been born out of necessity, not of mutual good will. Even Constantia’s apparent devotion to Licinius did little to ease the strained relationship between the two rivals. Hostilities erupted in 316 A.D, in the course of this first war between the two emperors, two battles were fought: the first at Cibalae in Pannonia, hence this war is called the bellum Cibalense, the second occurred on the campus of Ardiensis in Thrace. In the first battle Licinius’ army suffered heavy losses; in the second neither side won a clear victory.
A settlement left Licinius in his position as Augustus, but required him to cede to Constantine all of his European provinces other than Thrace. On 1 March 317 A.D, at Serdica (modern Sofia), Constantine announced the appointment of three Caesars: his own son Crispus, about twelve years old, his own son Constantine, less than seven months old, and Licinius’ son, also named Licinius, twenty months old. But the concordia Augustorum was fragile; tensions grew again, in part because the two Augusti pursued different policies in matters of religion, and in part because the old suspicions surfaced again.
War erupted again in 324 A.D, Constantine defeated Licinius twice, first at Adrianople in Thrace, and then at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. Initially, yielding to the pleas of his wife Constantia, Constantine spared the life of his brother-in-law, but some months later he ordered his execution, breaking his solemn oath. Before too long the younger Licinius, also fell victim to Constantine’s anger or suspicions. Constantine was now the sole and undisputed master of the Roman world.
Crisis in the Imperial Family
At some time in 326 A.D, Constantine ordered the execution of his oldest son Crispus, who had been appointed Caesar in 317 A.D, and had three times served as consul, also
Distinguishing himself in the recent campaign against Licinius. In the same year, soon after the death of Crispus, Constantine also ordered the death of Fausta, the mother of his other three sons. A connection between the two deaths is likely. Zosimus reports that Crispus had come under suspicion of “being involved” with his stepmother Fausta. The Epitome of Aurelius Victor reports that Constantine killed Fausta, when his mother Helena rebuked him for the death of Crispus. It is impossible now to separate fact from gossip and to know with certainty what offenses Crispus and Fausta had committed. Both of them suffered damnatio memoriae and were never rehabilitated. Some involvement of Helena in this family tragedy cannot be excluded, but there is no reason to shift the responsibility from Constantine to her.
Shortly after these sad events, probably in 326-28 A.D, Helena undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It has been suggested that this pilgrimage was an act of expiation, either for her own sins, or for those of her son. In the course of her journey Helena impressed Eusebius of Caesarea and others by her piety, humility, and charity. She played a role in the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Church of the Eleona on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives; but the Church of the Holy Sepulcher seems to have been an undertaking of Constantine alone. A tradition more cherished than trustworthy, credits Helena with the invention of the True Cross.
European conversion to Christianity brought about some curious, and to some, bizarre and galling interpretations and analogies. Apparently Europeans forgot that the one they were worshiping, was a Hebrew. See a summary of the book “The Biblical Justification of American Slavery” below.
Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery
The history of slavery in America may not be hidden, but widely unknown is the degree to which Christianity was used to defend not only slavery but also later segregation and discrimination. This secret alliance between religion and bigotry is a largely untold story which more people need to learn about in order to dispel the notion that religion generally or Christianity in particular is necessarily a force for good.
Title: Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery
Author: Stephen R. Haynes
Publisher: Oxford University Press
• Analysis of the ways in which the Bible and Christian doctrines have been used to defend slavery
• Explores the relationship between the Bible and Southern conception of honor
• Explains how white Christians found it easy to enslave black Africans
Stephen R. Haynes, in his book Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, takes apart the Christian defense of slavery in great detail in order to help others better understand the relationship between Christian beliefs and American slavery.
A professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and a Presbyterian minister, Haynes was inspired to explore this issue by the fact that Benjamin M. Palmer, the “father” of Rhodes College, himself used Christianity for extensive defenses of slavery and discrimination. How, he wondered, could an educator and a Christian advocate such evils?
The primary focus of those using Christianity to defend slavery and segregation is asserted right away in Haynes’ title: the story of Noah, and specifically the part where his son Ham is cursed to serve his brothers. This story has long functioned as a model for Christians to insist that God meant for Africans to be marked as the servants of others because they are descended from Ham. Somewhat secondarily they use the story of the Tower of Babel as a model for God’s desire to separate people generally rather than have them united in common cause and purpose.
Slavery of course didn’t exist because of how people read these stories; instead, the stories were read in a way to justify how people wanted to act anyway:
“In western Europe prior to the modern period, the curse was invoked to explain the origins of slavery, the provenance of black skin, and the exile of Hamites to the less wholesome regions of the Earth. But these aspects of malediction were not integrated in an explicit justification for racial slavery until the fifteenth century, when dark-skinned people were enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese, and the European slave stereotype was stabilized. Thus, only with the growth of the slave trade and the increasing reliance on sub-Saharan Africa as a source for slaves did the curse’s role as a justification for racial slavery eclipse its function as a scriptural explanation of either “blackness” in particular or servitude in general.” Also, Christian interpretations of Ham changed a great deal over time:
“Augustine figured him as “the symbol of the man in isolation, the clanless, lawless, hearthless man who, like heathen ethnics, did not know God.” The medieval portrait of Ham recalled earlier affirmations of his craftiness, prodigious sexuality, and affiliation with magic and the Devil.
Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery…For Luther, Ham’s laughter at his father’s nakedness is a serious offense indicating that Ham “regard[s] himself as more righteous, holier, and more pious than his father.”…Bible readers have blamed Ham and his progeny for everything from the existence of slavery and serfdom, to the perpetuation of sexual license and perversion, to the introduction of magical arts, astrology, idolatry, witchcraft, and heathen religion. They have associated Hamites with tyranny, theft, heresy, blasphemy, rebellion, war, and even deicide. Benjamin Braude’s observation that during the Middle Ages Ham was “an archetypical Other, the example of qualities not to be emulated,” could be fairly applied to the entire history of interpretation.”
Part of the problem for poor Ham is that the biblical text is rather silent on what exactly he did wrong. All it says is that he saw his father naked and told his brothers — hardly a good reason to curse all of his descendants. That, however, is what the Bible says the punishment was so it must be a fair and just punishment. Thus, readers have sought ever since to find a just explanation — and the supposed descendants of Ham have had to pay the price.
Interpretations of the sins of Ham were not the only factors involved in southern Christians‘ defense slavery and segregation on religious grounds. Just as important have been the concepts of honor and social order. Together they constituted important foundations of southern society — honor on the personal level and social order on the larger social level.
Honor meant protecting one’s personal image. It didn’t matter, for example, if one was honest or dishonest, but it did matter that no one said that you were dishonest. Black Africans, as the descendants of Ham, were perceived as lacking any honor and therefore deserving of slavery:
“White Bible readers understood the transgression as a violation of familial loyalty that marked Ham and his African descendants as utterly devoid of honor and thus fit for slavery.“
Social order was significant in that the differential stations of the races were perceived as being fundamental to the divinely mandated order for society — God separated the races and made one subservient to the other, so any attempts to change that were also attempts to defy God:
“In [Virginian George] Fitzhugh’s view [Fitzhugh being the most respected slavery apologist of the decades prior to the Civil War], abolitionists sought nothing less than the reorganization of American society. They wished “to abolish…or greatly modify, the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, the institution of private property of all kinds, but especially separate ownership of lands, and the institution of Christian churches as now existing in America.” If they are successful, Fitzhugh warned, government, law, religion, and marriage would be among the casualties. Just as abolitionists could not recognize the South apart from its support for human servitude, Fitzhugh perceived Northern social ills as by-products of a free society, whose principles were at war with “all government, all subordination, all order.” If slavery is wrong, he reasoned, then all human government is wrong.”
Well, that’s an awful lot of damage that abolition would cause, isn’t it? Nearly the same complaints were raised by opponents of civil rights. If all that sounds contrary to basic American principles of liberty and democracy, you’d be right. Southern defenders of slavery, secession, and segregation may have at times used the rhetoric of states’ rights, but they invariably promoted social and political ideals contrary to those expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Southern slave owners had little interest in general liberty or maintaining a democratic republic. Their ideals were founded upon patriarchy, timocracy, and authoritarianism — not liberty, democracy, or other values people tend to take for granted today. In effect, Christianity constituted an important basis for anti-democratic movements in the South designed to deny liberty to large numbers of people, primarily (though not solely) slaves.
Haynes‘ book is a fantastic examination of the various ways in which biblical texts were interpreted and re-interpreted in order to defend the cultural and social values of the South both before and after the Civil War. Christianity didn’t cause slavery, but it unquestionably played an important role in justifying and rationalizing it, thus allowing it to continue longer than it might otherwise have done. Haynes’ interdisciplinary approach incorporates history, anthropology, psychology, and biblical analysis to create a fascinating portrait of a religion and culture, which have not entirely died out, even today.