Over the years I have been asked rather frequently about Constantine. There is lots of misinformation and rumour that circulates about him. Popular books/movies such as the Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail portray him as the Roman Emperor who basically invented the Gospel for his own political ends. Is that true? Let us start with some easy-to-verify facts about him.
Constantine the Great: Facts on-hand
Constantine was Roman Emperor from 306-337 AD. Prior to his rule many of the Roman Emperors were openly hostile to the Gospel, killing and persecuting many of the followers of the gospel. The Emperor Nero started this trend in 64 AD, when he took first century followers of the gospel, bound and dipped them in oil, and burned them alive as human torches for lighting in his palace gardens! Successive Emperors Domitian, Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator movie fame), Diocletian and others continued this kind of treatment. But Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, granting religious tolerance to all views. Constantine became sole emperor of Rome by being victorious in a series of military campaigns against other rivals. During these campaigns he converted to Christianity (from paganism). There is much debate today whether his ‘conversion’ was sincere, or whether he did so for political gain.
The Council of Nicaea
In 325 AD Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the first empire-wide meeting of church leaders to discuss various controversies. People often wonder if the gospels were changed or corrupted, or even selected (in some back-room conspiracy) for inclusion in the Bible at this time. In fact, the main point of discussion was the theological understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God. One camp (led by Arius) held that they were of different essences, and the other camp (led by Athanasius) held that they were of the same essences. Therefore we know that theological understandings were staked out and the summary Nicene Creed was authored from this council convened by Constantine.
Corruption or Conspiracy?
But were the gospels changed and/or selected at this council? As we saw in Session 3 and the post on the manuscript timelines for the Bible, there are many manuscripts on-hand today that come from up to two hundred years before the time of Constantine (and the Council of Nicaea). If this council (or Constantine) changed the documents of the New Testament then we would see this change in the copies that pre-date the Council of Nicaea from those that come after. But the copies show no such change. We see this in the timeline in the figure below taken from that post where the manuscripts for Bibles today predate Constantine and the Council of Nicaea by up to two hundred years.
But were the ‘wrong’ gospels selected into the Bible at this point? We also know that this was not the case because both sides of the debate (Arius and Athanasius) used the same gospels and epistles (the ones that are in the Bible now) to argue their case. Arius and Athanasius did not disagree on what the scriptural documents stated, nor did they disagree on which documents should be ‘in’ the Bible. They disagreed, with heated debate, on the interpretation of these same scriptures. We know this because an account of the debates and intrigues of the Council of Nicaea and Constantine’s role in it is preserved for us in the reporting of Eusebius who was one of the delegates to this council. The writings of Athanasius are also preserved.
Constantine vs. the Good News
Constantine did have a huge impact on the development of Christianity. Christian celebrations like Christmas on December 25, how the date for the Easter celebration is calculated, and a reversal of the gospel from being counter-cultural and viewed with mistrust by the government, to becoming the cultural standard of Europe, in alliance with government, started with Constantine. But the Gospel is not about culture or government power. It is about a good news message from God freely received in the hearts and minds of people – and then changing their hearts. And just like barnacles collecting on the hull of a ship can distort the hydrodynamics of a streamlined keel – and must be removed for the ship to regain its ability to move gracefully in the water – so a lot of Christianity that has developed since Constantine might need to be scraped away so we can access the pure gospel. But it can be done. And the ‘scraper’ with which we can find the pure Good News is the Bible. Since the books in the Bible were not invented, modified or corrupted by Constantine we can use them to get a view of Jesus and his Gospel that has been around since his disciples went forth proclaiming his message.
But what about the theology and creeds that came from the Council of Nicaea? Are they corrupt? The really good news is that since the scriptures upon which these interpretations were debated are open and available to us today, we ourselves can consider the scriptures, understand its message, and assess those very same interpretations and creeds. Whatever we conclude about creeds and theology we can then ‘own it’ since we will have examined it for ourselves.
We may decide for a multitude of reasons not to believe or accept the Gospel. Or we may decide to embrace it. But let us avoid the really foolish notion of bringing Constantine into the mix. He would be a poor excuse whichever way we land.