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.