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 (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

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3 Responses to “An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—From Jesus to Constantine”


  1. 1 Jeremy March 21, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Hi Mr. Dunford,

    I’m compiling and editing years of scattered notes and essays into a blog I’m putting together. I ran across your site recently while researching a write-up I’m working on. I haven’t yet read everything you’ve written, but have been extremely impressed with what I have read so far. Impressed by your attention to detail, your eloquence, and your general approach. I plan on covering Darwin in the near future and have bookmarked your site as a treasure trove of research material.

    My blog is very much in the same spirit as this one. I’ve obsessed for as long as I can remember with finding a reconciliation between science and religion. I’ve always believed God is the ultimate truth, and that science has come a long way towards showing us how He did everything He did. And I’m really beginning to think I’m onto something big.

    It’s a slow-going process, but I find that the more I write, the more this intangible idea bouncing around in my head finds form. Maybe I’m delusional, but I’m finding that the more I dig, the more things seem to not only back up my theory, but that my theory actually seems to clarify a lot of things that have been long standing mysteries in both history as well as the bible itself.

    Basically, not only do I believe that evolution happened, but I believe that Genesis actually confirms it. The idea of humans existing before Adam actually makes some of the more cryptic passages take on a whole new meaning, and makes the bible as a whole much more clear and infinitely more fascinating. Not to mention how it redefines everything from known Sumerian and Egyptian history to what inspired the gods of Sumerian/Greek/Roman mythology to how civilization came about in the first place.

    Anyway, the reason I’m writing is to first make contact with someone who seems to be a kind of kindred spirit, and second is to request a read-over of my material thus far. The whole reason I’m posting these ideas in a public forum is to submit these ideas to scrutiny. I cannot see flaws myself, but I know that does not mean my logic is flawless. Being someone as passionately interested in the topic, and as well-versed in both theology and science as you seem to be, I feel that you could offer valuable critiques.

    I included my email and blog URL above. I know you’re busy and consumed with a passion project of your own, so please know I won’t be offended if I don’t hear back.

    Thank you for your time,
    Jeremy

  2. 2 Robb February 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    A couple of points–minor but important perhaps:

    You say:

    “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.”

    Actually, and this matters far more than you might imagine, many theologians would say that Jesus “second coming” is not at the end of time itself (the end of history) but rather in time and space to a world God created as good.

    Further on you say:

    “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.”

    The earliest church was not organized along these lines at all and Peter was only considered to have this “apostolic” appointment after the institutional (Roman) church was well established. Though Peter was the rock, Jesus appointed 12 (and made room for Judas’ succession) apostles. Thus, the earliest church did not have a Roman military hierarchy. This matters a great deal for those of us from a “reformed” tradition.

    • 3 chrisdunford February 12, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      Robb,

      Thanks for these important corrections! I was committing an “anachronism” by starting the hierarchical structure of the Church in pre-Constantinian times. No doubt this structure was an imposition on the Christian community by Emperor Constantine himself or his minions–the price of imperial endorsement?

      Chris


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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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