December 25, Year 0? Sometime in 12 AD, when the lad Jesus defied his parents and started lecturing in the Temple? Sometime in 30 AD, when then-grown Jesus was rude to his mother at a wedding in Cana? Three years later, when he was equally rude to a Roman governor and wound up being executed? A few years after that, when the residents of Antioch first began calling followers of the Jesus sect “Christians”?
It all depends on how you define the term “Christianity.” The way I define it – the undue influence of a gang of God experts over western civilization – has among its many advantages an indisputable birthday. In fact, Christianity was born exactly 1,700 years ago yesterday – April 30, 311 AD.
The problem with all the 1st century dates is that the preaching of Jesus had very little to do with the real-world institution of Christianity as it later emerged in the 4th century. As discussed a couple of months ago, Jesus was part of a purely Jewish reform campaign who had no intention of starting a new religion. He commanded his disciples not to bother with non-Jews, but to restrict themselves to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Moreover, the practices of his followers as related in the Acts of the Apostles, with regular Temple sacrifice and the renunciation of worldly goods, do not remotely resemble big-time Christianity today.
The sea change that produced today’s Christianity occurred much later. The Jesus following among the Jews survived but did not prosper; a bizarre offshoot that asserted divine status for Jesus (something he himself certainly never alleged) did a little better, but by the early 4th century AD still claimed the backing of only about 5% of the population of the Roman world.
Believers in Isis, shown with a symbol later co-opted by Christians, posed the same threat to Roman unity as the Christians did.
For the most part, the Roman authorities left the Jesus followers alone, just like they left the more numerous followers of the Egyptian Goddess Isis alone. The one thing that did irritate them, though, was the stubborn refusal of the Christians to participate in official ecumenical services where Romans would get together and worship a variety of Gods, sort of like today’s National Day of Prayer. The snooty Christians said the Roman Gods were devils, and wanted nothing to do with them.
Near the turn of the 4th century, the emperor Diocletian abandoned the Roman tradition of tolerance and began cracking down on the “holier than thou” sects, especially the Jesus and Isis followers, in an effort to promote more lockstep unity within the empire; at the same time, he emphasized devotion to the God Mithra, a particular favorite among the Roman legions. Tactically, this was a terrible move. As college students know, whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and disorganized persecution was the best thing that ever happened.
Constantine: the real founder of today's Christianity
Diocletian’s other bad idea was splitting the empire into four parts when he retired, each to be ruled by a sort of co-emperor. Naturally, item number one on the agenda of each of the four was to knock out the other three and become king of the hill. Contests like that are normally won by the meanest, bloodiest player – in this case, a military brat named Constantine, who achieved prominence by marrying a leading general’s daughter. He then began his push to the top by imprisoning his father-in-law, who had become one of the four co-emperors, and forcing him to commit suicide. After taking over that quarter of the empire, Constantine began to suspect that his brother-in-law was plotting against him, so he hired an assassin to deal with that.
During the intense politicking that surrounded the building of coalitions to support the contesting armies, the small but influential Christian community in Rome wound up on Constantine’s side, largely because one of his opponents had been a strong supporter of Diocletian’s crackdown. Though Constantine himself had fervently declared Mithra as his “Special Guardian,” on April 30, 311 he issued the “Edict of Milan,” along with his allied co-Emperor Licinius:
so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. … No one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, or that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence.
With help from a Christian fifth column, Constantine proceeded to win an important battle at the Milvian Bridge, leaving himself and Licinius on top of the heap. Then he killed Licinius, and won the game outright.
The plot thickened. Crispus, Constantine’s son by his first marriage, was becoming a military hero. He defeated the German barbarians on the land, then defeated a rebellious general on the sea. This success worried Constantine’s meal-ticket wife, Fausta, who wanted one of her own sons to inherit the throne in place of Crispus. She began manufacturing rumors that Crispus intended to march on Rome to displace Constantine as sole emperor. So Constantine, with an attitude of better safe than sorry, had his eldest son poisoned. Fausta may have gloated a bit too much, though; when Constantine discovered that he had been tricked, he – you guessed it – had her killed too. What you may not have guessed is that the method of execution was boiling to death in her own bath.
The Sun God Mithra, looking a lot like you-know-who
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Even Constantine, though, experienced a twinge of remorse over all this, and he sought comfort from the priests of his “Special Guardian” Mithra. But Mithra was a hard God – that’s why the soldiers liked him. Right is right and wrong is wrong in Mithra’s world, and there was no procedure for a Mithraic God expert to say some magic words or splash some water and make everything better again. At least that’s what Constantine’s longtime friend and advisor, the Pagan philosopher Sopater, told him. So Constantine had Sopater put to death.
Quick as a flash, the Christian bishops seized the moment. Our God, they explained to Constantine, gives us the power to forgive on his behalf anything you may have done wrong. That seemed like an excellent idea to Constantine. Just one thing, they added: “These taxes are killing us …” So Constantine exempted the whole Church from taxation, an exemption which made the Church rich and survives throughout the west today. He showered money and land on the Christian clergy, and even invented the idea of serfdom, which further enriched the Church for the next thousand years.
Constantine solved a political problem by moving powerful Mithraic bishops wholesale over to the Christian side, including many who had viciously persecuted Christians under Diocletian. When backers of an African bishop protested this injustice, he had them slaughtered by the thousands – the same treatment he accorded to followers of a theologian named Arius who suggested that Jesus was only a mini-God, not a full-blown God. He also presided over a massive overhaul of Christian worship, borrowing heavily from Mithraic practice – December 25, for example, was celebrated as the birth of Mithra long before it became Christmas Day.
A saint in the east, but not in the Rome he abandoned
Constantine did not make Christianity the sole legal religion of the Empire – his son did that. In part, this was because Constantine never really gave up on Mithra – he hedged his bets, worshiping both Jesus and Mithra, and refused to be baptized as a Christian until he was near death. His biggest crime in the eyes of the Roman church, though, was moving the capital of the empire away from them to a new city in the east that he immodestly named after himself. The Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople proclaimed Constantine as a saint; the Roman Catholic Church did not. There is little doubt, though, that Christianity today owes a great deal more to Constantine than to any 1st century rabbi.