*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 28th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The Roman Empire in which the early church developed was rarely stable. But being a persecuted religious minority the fortunes of the Empire did not affect the church. Of course, it was the reign of Diocletian in the late 200s where we see increased persecution for the Christians. But Diocletian did something else important. He divided the Roman Empire into 2 halves (west and east) and appointed a co-emperor as well as a “Jr.” Emperor for each half. This Tetrarchy as it was called did initially calm the constant civil wars, but it too was tenuous. And as the emperors or their juniors died new intrigue led to new wars. When Constantius died in 306 he declared his son, Constantine emperor. Not everyone agreed. Armies gathered around their favored emperor and the early 300s saw a number of battles, ultimately culminating in the famed Battle of Milvian Bridge. And it just so happens that the battle took place on this, the 28th of October in 312.
To oversimplify, this was going to be the battle for the Empire. And, as you might know, it was Constantine whose army thrashed that of Maxentius’ in Rome.
Constantine had been interested in Christianity and was baptized before he died, but we don’t know much about what is often referred to as his conversion. There are at least two stories surrounding Constantine receiving a dream or vision that Jesus was backing his boys. Big C told his soldiers to draw a Chi-Rho (the first two letters of Christ in Greek) on their shields. Or maybe all the soldiers saw the Chi-Rho in the sky before the battle with the words “in this sign conquer”. The problem is these stories were never told by Constantine or by his soldiers. It was later historians, especially Eusebius of Caesarea (who knew Constantine and thought he was equivalent to a 13th Apostle), who began telling this story once it was seen that the fate of Christianity in the empire was set by Constantine.
Let’s break down why this matters- First, many historians have questioned the story. And with good reason. It doesn't mean that it didn’t happen but the evidence is lacking. Many historians and theologians have wondered why the meek, mild, suffering savior would urge any army to take up arms in His name. The Person of Constantine and his beliefs are interesting but I’d like to zoom out a little more.
In a previous show, I suggested that Constantine’s victory to become sole emperor was perhaps the most consequential event in the church’s history (post 1st century). May I suggest the top 5 things (or 5 of the top things) that changed when Christianity went from persecuted to most-favored status?
5. The Chi Rho would replace the ICTHUS as the shorthand for Jesus. The Ichthus was agreed for fish and an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. The Chi Rho would become the symbol of imperial Christianity.
4. Liturgy. Before Constantine what we know of Christian worship is spotty, but what we do see is very diverse. With the growth of bureaucratic ecclesiastical class liturgy was streamlined and universalized (more on this tomorrow)
3. Buildings. Constantine didn’t have a connection to Rome. Besides, there were too many temples dedicated to Roman gods where sacrifices were held. Constantine would find his own capital (Constantinople) and begin building projects around the empire. The connection of church and impressive buildings was born.
2. What happened to the Martyrs? Faithful martyrs were the literal lifeblood of the early church. But now… well, can you be a martyr in an empire where you have most favored Religious status? Many Christians sought other ways to “suffer for Jesus”- the monastic and ascetic movements will catch fire.
And finally 1. The role of Bishops. Pre-Constantine a bishop was a local pastor with oversight over a few other local churches. Under Constantine, they became sought after religious and political positions. They became judges, priests, and statesmen. The Cathedral, where the bishop sat became elaborately decorated with grand pomp and circumstance. The battle over Bishoprics would foster more than a thousand years of intrigue.
This isn’t all that happened, of course- just a few of the top 5. Constantine is a complicated figure that needs a closer look- but the battle of Milvian Bridge that set off his career as Emperor, the legendary stories surrounding it, and the transformation of Christianity began on the 28th of October 312.
The reading comes from Matthew 4:
Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and he healed them. 25 Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 28th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Constantine’s include “the Great” That Keanu Reeves movie, and that guy from American Idol a long time ago. He I Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Keanu Reeves #1 fan. San Dimas Football High School Rules! I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.