Like a thief in the night: Constantine and the sudden death of paganism

A Christian fluke

I’m currently watching a Great Courses lecture series entitled The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity with professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University. Dr. Harl spends much of the course tracing the development of Christianity from a marginal and marginalized Jewish apocalyptic kerygma under the first Christians to a powerful theo-political philosophy under emperor Constantine and beyond. As Dr. Harl demonstrates, it was Christian eagerness to compete with the great minds of classical Paganism that often played a key role in this transition. Christians desired to establish themselves as true heirs of Plato and in so doing transformed their faith.

What has interested me most so far, however, is Dr. Harl’s insistence that Christianity remained relatively small and inconspicuous prior to the conversion of emperor. Pagans did not convert to faith in Christ en masse as some earlier scholars believed; nor were they particularly discontented by their ancestral rites, as if ripe for conversion to Christianity. In fact, according to newer scholarly thinking, Christianity remained largely Jewish in the third and perhaps into the fourth centuries. Many Christians throughout the empire were either Jewish-Christians or God-fearing gentiles who had heard the message about Christ preached at synagogue. Christianity was thus a rather slow-growing and socially-restricted movement; it by no means overtook the pagan hegemony on the basis of numbers. While Christian thinkers like Justin and Origen worked hard to make Christianity accessible and appealing to Stoics, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, and Manichaeans, the pagan world remained mostly unmoved by their apologiae.

Instead, as Dr. Harl argues, the theo-political transformation of the Greco-Roman world depended largely upon systems of patronage, not upon popular persuasion. Concrete socio-religious changes were wrought from the top down in a hierarchical manner. At the top of these pyramids was the emperor, the princeps civitatis, the dominus and pater of the world. It was ultimately his imprimatur alone that could bring about the end of paganism and the birth of Christendom.

With these details in mind, emperor Constantine’s conversion was a radical departure from the status quo and not an accommodation to already shifting religious pressures. By sealing Christianity with imperial approval, Constantine was reshaping every social, political, and economic structure into Christ’s image. Constantine’s military victory under the Chi-Rho at the Milvian Bridge was then, in the end, of supreme historical, political, and religious importance. It was there on the battlefield—that particular battlefield—and not in the marketplace or in the streets, that the war between Christianity and idolatry was won.

When the father gave up his idols and adopted Christianity, his children followed suit (cf. Acts 16:31). Like a thief in the night, Constantine robbed the temples of their raison d’être.


Constantine and the Bible

Besides the historical value intrinsic in studying the trajectory of ancient Christianity, I believe there is also Biblical value to be unearthed here. The historical metamorphosis by which the churches came to inherit authority over the nations of the Roman empire seems to me an essential part of the story the Bible tells: it represents the long-awaited establishment of God’s kingdom over the rebellious pagan world (cf. Psalm 2). Through Constantine Christ judged—in concrete and mundane fashion—the nations of their lawlessness and idolatry. In so doing the one true God suddenly redirected the whole of history.

11 thoughts on “Like a thief in the night: Constantine and the sudden death of paganism

  1. I’d be interested to hear the scholarship behind this view (maybe I should just take the class).

    I don’t think Constantine’s conversion was a caving in to popular sentiment. At the same time, it’s hard for me to see how Christianity remained a small and mostly Jewish faith into the third and fourth centuries.

    Our “early church fathers” are Greco-Roman dominant and at least a few of them are openly about the task of separating Judaism from Christianity. Josephus’ mention of Christians, even if a later interpolation, has “many of the Jews and many of the Greeks” converting. Even if Eusebius totally fabricated that bit, that would be late 3rd early 4th century. Both Tacitus and Pliny the Younger imply that there are large numbers that Christianity has spread to, including throughout Rome (granted, those could all be Jews – they don’t say). By the time Tertullian converted, the church at Carthage was so large as to be a political force in North Africa with roughly 70 bishops in the two Roman provinces in Africa. That would have been early 3rd century.

    Anyway, all that to say that I don’t think there was this enormous groundswell of popular support for Christianity and Constantine was just riding that wave to harness the political power it would give him, but it’s also hard for me to envision Christianity prior to that point as basically a minority Jewish religion that had very little interest for anyone else until Constantine took power. Again, though, I’m wholly ignorant on the evidence for that thesis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points. I watched the lecture I was referring to again and Harl still seems adamant that Christianity was small, urban, and consigned to isolated communities in the 3rd century: “We have no evidence of large scale movement from traditional cults to either mystery cults or Christianity.” “No rapid Christianization took place…” He says this thesis had been mostly built upon the incorrect assumption that the pagans of the period were disillusioned by their traditional cults and were ready for something new. Harl says the opposite is really the case; the 3rd century saw a return to traditional worship. He claims this is born out by visual evidence: imperial sources, coins, medallions, archaeology, temples, etc.

      Then he discusses one of the (only) two Christian inscriptions from the century, the Christian funerary monuments at Phrygia. It is from these inscriptions that Harl argues Christians of the 3rd century were much like their Christian ancestors in the 1st century. The inscriptions suggest the Christian community of Asia Minor was Jewish and/or interested in Judaism: they have Hebrew names and relatives, they keep kosher, they are devoted to the Old Testament. Harl concludes these represent Jewish-Christians/Jewish converts to Christianity and God-fearing Greeks who were interested in the synagogue.

      Unfortunately Harl doesn’t mention Christian literary sources or any of the evidence you bring up regarding demographics so he might be going too far.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Huh. Well, maybe he does correct the idea that people turned to Christianity en masse because they were tired of the existing cults, but maybe he overreaches in picturing early Christianity as primarily practiced by small, isolated Jewish communities into the fourth century.

        If all I had to go off of were those inscriptions, that would make sense. It’s just hard for me to reconcile that picture with what we see in writing. Either way, we’re speculating of course. I guess if I were Harl, I’d be inclined to present that view as a valid proposal but held with some tentativity.


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