Archive for February, 2011

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—From Jesus to Constantine

The Christian story is fundamentally about the God of the Jews manifesting as a human being named Jesus, a Son of Man and the Son of God, and the teachings and miracles of Jesus and then his death and resurrection and ascension into heaven, with a promise to return at the end of time itself. This story took place in a peripheral province of the Roman Empire. At that time the Emperor’s authority to rule was supported by the notion of the Emperor as a god or that he was chosen or at least favored by the Latin gods, from whom the Emperor drew his moral authority. The Christians would not acknowledge the reality, much less authority of these Latin gods. Christianity spread rapidly through the Roman Empire and became a challenge to the Emperor’s authority, so Christians were intermittently and often viciously persecuted. Nonetheless, the Christian numbers continued to grow rapidly through conversion, even at the highest levels of Roman society itself.

It is perhaps ironic, though certainly logical, that the early Christian Church organized itself along the familiar, hierarchical lines of Rome’s political structure and its most successful institution, the army. The Bishop of Rome (later called the Pope) has moral authority as the Vicar of Christ on earth, the latest in a continuous line of Apostolic Succession going back to Jesus and his appointment of Peter as the Rock upon which the Church would be built. Peter was the first Bishop of Rome. Bishops draw their authority from their ordination by the Pope, and priests from their ordination by the Bishops, each priest representing Christ’s presence in the local community of Christians.

In 313, the Emperor Constantine, the son of a Christian woman, issued the Edict of Milan announcing toleration of Christianity in the empire. More important, Constantine himself became a Christian (at least in name), making it suddenly fashionable for upwardly mobile Romans to become Christian as well. While Constantine recognized the separate authority of the Bishop of Rome and supported the Church’s independent hierarchical structure, he effectively established Christianity as the state religion. The fateful implications soon became clear. In 316, Constantine himself acted as judge in the Church’s dispute with Donatist heretics in North Africa and then led an army against the heretics, the first instance of Christian against Christian persecution. The Church had temporal as well as spiritual power, drawing its moral authority through the Apostolic Succession from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea (in what is now Turkey) in 325. This was hardly the only but perhaps the most successful attempt to standardize Christian belief (the Nicaean Creed continues to be the foundational statement of belief for most Christians). A crazy quilt of variation in Christian belief had developed over the previous three centuries in the far corners and shadows of the empire, but as long as Christianity was more or less underground, the priority of the Church Fathers was survival of the faith rather than the finer points of theology and belief. Once legitimized throughout the empire and enjoying benefits of the Mediterranean-wide Roman communication network, the Church leaders, including Constantine, turned their attention to forging “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Naturally, they sought the same level of uniformity and discipline that the political empire aspired to achieve – standardization and regimentation were hallmarks of the Roman formula for successful institution-building. The task at Nicaea was to decide what was acceptable variation of belief and what was dangerously misleading to uninformed minds, and therefore beyond the pale.

This was the era in which the canon of scriptures – the Christian Bible – was determined. There were many “gospels” and “books” with checkered authenticity circulating as accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus Christ and the Apostles and others who had direct knowledge of the Son of God. Some were deemed more authentic than others, having been based on eyewitness accounts only one or two generations removed. The ones written later tended also to be more fanciful or mystical. The Church Fathers had the task of sorting out what was useful to propagation of the faith and what was harmful to harmony and discipline among an empire-full of diverse Christians. In particular, a controversy arose between the mainstream of leaders and the Gnostics, the Knowing Ones, who claimed elite access to secret knowledge passed down by Jesus to a select few – the rest of the followers presumed to be unable or unworthy to comprehend such esoteric teachings. Elaine Pagels, in The Gnostic Gospels, has done more than anyone to reintroduce to the modern reading public the Gnostic scriptures unearthed in Egypt in the early 1950s. She astutely observed that the elitist message of the Gnostic Gospels was antithetical to the forging of an institutional Church that could appeal to, guide and serve the needs of the general Christian community. This, she hypothesized, is why these “apocryphal” texts were excluded from the Christian Canon and later banned from circulation and destroyed (except for some copies buried in earthen ware by Gnostics in Egypt).

Following his establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire, Constantine moved his residence and retinue to Byzantium, a Greek city on the shore of the Bosporus. Thereafter, Byzantium became the imperial capital, later renamed Constantinople until 1453 when it finally fell to the Turks and became Istanbul. As Thomas Cahill puts it in his Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the Emperor left the old capital to the Pope and his brother bishops, taking a good portion of the army with him. This left a power vacuum in Rome and the Italian peninsula that the Pope was more or less forced to fill.

The Romans had conquered and absorbed into Roman culture and administration huge numbers of “barbarians,” most notably the Gauls and Britons, in what is now France, Spain and England. The empire also dominated other “civilizations” around the Mediterranean Sea, including the Greeks, who continued confident of their cultural superiority to the pretentious Romans and their barbarian allies to the north and west. With the Emperor’s residence in Constantinople and the Pope enthroned in Rome, there emerged two empires, Western and Eastern. Both were Christian, but one was predominantly Latin in culture and the historic locus of religious or spiritual authority, the other was distinctly Greek and the center of political power. Thus was created a geographical and cultural distance between the seat of political power and the seat of religious authority. The implications of this divide would be profound.

Next installment of An Idiot’s History of Western Europe: From Rome’s Fall to Charlemagne.  Look for it around March 1st.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


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