Christianity and the Roman Empire in the Age of Constantine

In the age of Constantine important Judaic documents undertook to deal with agenda defined, for both Judaism and Christianity, by the political triumph of Christianity. Christian thinkers, represented here by Eusebius and Chrysostom on the Roman side, and Aphrahat on the Iranian,1 reflected on issues presented by the fourth-century revolution in the political status of Christianity. Issues of the interpretation of history, the restatement of the challenge and claim of Christ as Messiah against the continuing expectation of Israel that the Messiah is yet to come, and the definition of who is Israel made their appearance in Christian writings of the day as well as in documents of Judaism brought to closure at the end of the century. We should not exaggerate the centrality of these issues. The Judaic writings dealt with a broader program, and the Christians too had a great deal on their minds, much of which had no bearing at all on theories of history, Messiah, and Israel. The quest for a unifying creed, for example, absorbed the best efforts of generations of Christian theologians2 (Frend 1984, 473-650). To take another example, the development of Christian monasticism in the fourth century has no counterpart in Judaism (Brown, 1971,96-112). Nevertheless, questions of history, Messiah, and Israel did demand attention and did receive it. Moreover, when Judaic sages and Christian theologians did address these questions, they defined the issues in much the same terms. This point is critical to my argument, and I

1. For Aphrahat the political problem of course was the reverse. With Christianity seen by the Iranian government as the religion of the Roman Empire, the situation of Christians became difficult, so Aphrahat had to sort out the issues of the persecution of Christians and the political prosperity of the Jews.

2. My analysis of Judaic systems in modern and contemporary times underlines the distinctive character of the crisis of the fourth century: essentially intellectual, not political, let alone economic. The response to the crisis, then, proves congruent with its character. I develop this point in my Death and Birth of Judaism (1987).

shall address the definition of the common issue in the opening sections of chapters 2, 3, and 4.

We shall find in the Judaism of the sages who redacted the principal documents both a doctrine and an apologetic remarkably relevant to the issues presented to Christianity and Judaism by the crisis of Christianity's worldly triumph. A shared program brought the two religions into protracted confrontation on an intersecting set of questions, a struggle that has continued until our own time. This confrontation originated in the fact that, to begin with, both religions agreed on almost everything that mattered; they differed on little, so made much of that little. Scripture taught them both that vast changes in the affairs of empires came about because of God's will. History proved principles of theology. In that same Torah prophets promised the coming of the Messiah, who would bring salvation. Who was, and is, that Messiah, and how shall we know? And that same Torah addressed a particular people, Israel, promising that people the expression of God's favor and love. But who is Israel, and who is not Israel? In this way Scripture defined the categories shared in common, enabling Judaism and Christianity to engage, if not in dialogue, then in two monologues on the same topics. The terms of this confrontation continued for centuries because the conditions that precipitated it—the rise to political dominance of Christianity and the subordination of Judaism—remained constant for fifteen hundred years.

Let us turn to the events of the age itself. Rosemary Radford Ruether, when announcing her thesis, affirmed that both Judaism and Christianity took shape in the fourth, not the first, century: "The classical form of both Judaism and Christianity was shaped by sages and theologians whose systems of thought found their fullest ripening in the fourth century after Christ" (Ruether 1972, 1). What, exactly, happened in that century, and why did it matter to the two great religious traditions of the West? Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire—and, in due course, therefore, of the West. But this did not happen all of a sudden (Ruether 1972, 86-87). The process was slow and extended, moving in fits and starts through the fourth century, and that is why the period presents many points of interest. After a spell of ferocious persecution of Christians under Diocletian, the succeeding emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity. What that meant, to begin with, was that Christianity attained the status of a licit religion. Constantine did not convert the army, let alone the Empire (MacMullen, 1984, 456). During the following century, however, from 312 onward, the Roman empire, its government and institutions, came under Christian domination. Writing nearly a century later, for example, Jerome captures the astonishment that Christians felt:

. . . every island, prison, and salt-mine was crowded with Christian captives in chains . . . with the present era when (such are the seemingly impossible transformations worked by God in his goodness) the selfsame imperial government which used to make a bonfire of Christian sacred books had them adorned sumptuously with gold, purple, and precious stones, and, instead of razing church buildings to the ground, pays for the construction of magnificent basilicas with gilded ceilings and marble-encrusted walls, (in Kelly 1975, 295)

Kelly states the simple fact: "At the beginning of the century [the Church] had been reeling under a violent persecution. . . . Now it found itself showered with benefactions and privileges, invited to undertake responsibilities, and progressively given a directive role in society" (1975, 1-2). So the age of Constantine presented even to contemporaries an era of dramatic change.

We should not exaggerate the importance of the period from Constantine's conversion in 312 to the end of the Jewish patriarchate in the Lane of Israel in 429 (to take as termini two vastly disproportionate events!). The process of Christianization of the empire, the tempo of change—these are obscure matters. About a tenth of the population of the Empire was Christian as the start of the period (Goodenough 1970, 41). As Hussey writes, "In many respects the Empire in the fourth century shows no abrupt break with the earlier period; it might just as well be called late Roman as early Byzantine. It showed its close cultural affinities with the Hellenistic world, and the adoption of Christianity did not mean the rejection of pagan civilization: the learning, art, philosophy of Greece remained the prize possessions of a Christian Byzantium. Its government was in essence that of the Graeco-Roman empire. It continued to be ruled by a single absolute monarch, whose authority was enhanced by his special position as the chosen representative of the Christian God. Its administration and civil service were the fruit of long experience ..." (1961, 12). These continuities notwithstanding, the contrast between the world at the start and at the end of the age makes the point. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and, but for a brief spell under Julian a generation later, Diocletian was the last pagan one. The West, from then to early modern times, was governed by Christians. The fourth century assuredly marks the transition from the pagan and classical age to the Christian and medieval one, hence from the ancient and the Near Eastern to the medieval and the European epoch in the formative history of the West.

Nor should the Christian commitment of Constantine come under doubt: he cared about the controversies of the Church, Donatist and Arian alike, and finally called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to solve the problem of Arianism. Whether for reasons of state or out of sincere concern for doctrine, Constantine ruled as the first Christian emperor. He did all that he could to hold the Church together. He accorded privileges to the clergy (which the Jews' clergy enjoyed as well) and made the priests state officials. He recognized the bishops' courts (and the courts of the Jews, too). The state now enforced Church discipline, treated heresy as a political crime, enforced decrees of Church councils through the state courts and administration. His sons and successors continued after him to favor the establishment of Christianity and, within a century, had firmly and finally rooted Christianity in the empire in Europe, the

Middle East, and North Africa. True, it was only later in the fourth century, after the near-catastrophe of Julian's reversion to paganism, that the Christian emperors systematically legislated against paganism so as to destroy it. Further, antipagan legislation did not necessarily cohere or follow a single line of development. But Christianity as the religion of the state did take root in this period and Christians surely formed a majority of the population of the Roman Empire by the end of the period. Only Islam, three centuries later, would uproot the faith in the Middle East and North Africa, and then, initially, by force of arms. But by then the Church had inherited the state in regions where it had collapsed, so that, as Goodenough says, "at the complete collapse of the state [the Church] would begin to dream of being itself the ideal rulership for the world, though such a thought was utterly foreign to the Church of the first three centuries" (1970, 41).

Constantine's sons took an active interest in the Church (Aland 1985, 79). The Christian empire undertook a long war against its pagan enemy, tearing down temples and ultimately curtailing pagans' rights of worship (Burckhardt 1958,293 [for Constantine]). Constantine's sons and successors closed temples and destroyed idols, making ever more severe laws (Labriolle 1953, 224-27). Of greater consequence, the Christian emperors also assumed responsibility for the governance of the Church of Christ triumphant. At Nicaea in 325 Constantine called a council to settle the issues of Arianism that had vexed the Church (Frend 1984, 498-501). At issue was the nature of Christ in relationship to God. The upshot: "Christ cannot have the identical nature of God; he is God, but he is distinct from God and can be described only in a distinctive way" (Aland 1985, 192). But the matter remained subject to dispute for another century or more. The importance from our perspective is simple. The state now vigorously entered the life of the Church, and none could doubt that the empire had turned Christian. Not only that, but the head of state, from Constantine onward, besides favoring Christianity, despised Judaism. Constantine, for example, saw the Jews as "a hostile people, a nation of parricides, who slew their Lord" (Frend 1984, 499).

With the emperor Julian, Christianity faced a serious reverse, for Julian intended a revolution from above to lead the state to paganism, as he reopened pagan temples and fostered pagan culture. But his brief reign, 361-63, brought in its wake a ferocious counterrevolution, with the Christian state now suppressing the institutions of paganism, and Christian men in the streets of the towns and villages acting on their own against those institutions. Julian's successors also persecuted pagan philosophy. Valentinian I (364-75) and Valens (364-78) took an active role in the campaign against Neoplatonism. In 380 the emperor Theodosius (379-95) decreed the end of paganism: "It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation should continue in the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter (Aland 1985, 82). Paganism found itself subjected to penalties. The state church—a principal indicator of the

Christian civilization that the West was to know—now came into being. In 381 Theodosius forbade sacrifices and closed most temples. In 391-92 a new set of penalties imposed sanctions on paganism.

We know the fourth century as the decisive age in the beginning of the West as Christian. But to people of the time, the outcome was uncertain. The vigorous repression of paganism after Julian's apostasy expressed the quite natural fear of Christians that such a thing might happen again. Bickerman states matters in a powerful way:

Julian was yesterday, the persecutors the day before yesterday. Ambrose knew some magistrates who could boast of having spared Christians. At Antioch the Catholics had just endured the persecution of Valens . . . and unbelievers of every sort dominated the capital of Syria. The army, composed of peasants and barbarians, could acclaim tomorrow another Julian, another Valens, even another Diocletian. One could not yet, as Chrysostom says somewhere, force [people] to accept the Christian truth; one had to convince them of it. (In Wilken 1984, 32-33)

Although matters remained in doubt, the main fact is unmistakable: In the beginning of the fourth century Rome was pagan; by the end of the century, it was Christian. In the beginning Jews in the Land of Israel administered their own affairs. In the end, their institution of self-administration lost the recognition it had formerly enjoyed. In the beginning Judaism enjoyed entirely licit status, and the Jews had the protection of the state. In the end Judaism suffered abridgement of its former liberties, and the Jews of theirs. In the beginning, the Jews lived in the Land of Israel, and in some numbers. In the end they lived in Palestine, as a minority. Constantine and his mother built churches and shrines all over the empire (Aland 1985, 18Iff.), but especially in Jerusalem, so the Land of Israel received yet another name, for another important group, now becoming the Holy Land. To turn to the broader perspective, from the beginning of the fourth century we look backward over an uninterrupted procession of philosophers and emperors, Aristotle and Plato and Socrates and Alexander and Caesar upon Caesar. From the end of the fourth century we look forward to Constantinople, Kiev and Moscow, to Christian Rome, Paris and London, to cathedrals and saints, to an empire called Holy and Roman and a public life infused with Christian piety and Christian sanctity, to pope after pope after pope. Before Constantine's conversion in 312 Christianity scarcely imagined a politics; its collective life was lived mostly in private. Afterward Christianity undertook to govern, shaped the public and political institutions of empires, and through popes and emperors alike defined the political history of the world for long centuries to come.

From the viewpoint of the Jews, the shift signified by the conversion of Constantine marked a caesura in history. For Christians, the meaning of history, commencing at Creation, pointed toward Christ's triumph through the person of the emperor and the institution of the Christian state. To Israel, the Jewish people, what can these same events have meant? The received Scriptures of ancient and recent Israel—both Judaic and Christian Scriptures—

now awaited that same sort of sifting and selection that had followed earlier turnings of a notable order, in 586 b.c. and after 70, for example: which Scriptures had now been proved right, which irrelevant? So Christians asked themselves, as they framed the canon of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Then to Israel, the Jewish people, what was the role and what was the place for the received Torah of Sinai, in its diversity of scrolls? The dogged faith that Jesus really was Christ, Messiah and King of the world, now found vindication in the events of the hour. What hope endured for the salvation of Israel in the future? In the hour of vindication the new Israel confronted the old, the one after the spirit calling into question the legitimacy of the one after the flesh: What now do you say of Christ? For Israel, the Jewish people, what was there to say in reply, not to Christ but to Christians? These three issues frame our principal concerns: the meaning of history, the realization of salvation, the definition of one's own group in the encounter with the other.

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