December 17, 2007
FROM JESUS TO CONSTANTINE
Caption: It's a long way from Jesus to Constantine. Image courtesy of wikipedia.
While lots of people are gearing up for the traditional holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, El Cabrero has been musing about the birth of Christianity, a topic I find endlessly interesting.
Historians often distinguish between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus. According to the earliest sources, the religion of Jesus consisted of his proclaiming and to a degree enacting enacting the Kingdom of God. The religion about Jesus arose in the time immediately after his crucifixion in Jerusalem around the year 30. I'm not saying the two were incompatible or inconsistent with each other, just different.
Whatever really happened, it is historically indisputable that some of his early followers claimed to experience him as a living reality after the death on the cross. Initially, the community of believers was tiny, although it grew steadily throughout the Mediterranean world despite sporadic persecutions.
Historian Bart Ehrman, who produced From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity for The Teaching Company, estimates that the number of believers grew from 20-100 people in the year 30 to 5-7 percent of the total population of the Roman Empire--around 3 to 4 million out of a total of 56 million--by the time of Constantine (circa 272-337).
Massive conversions are not necessary to account for this growth. The increase described above could have happened if Christians increased their membership by 40 percent per decade or 4 percent a year, about the rate that the Mormon church has grown. This could have simply involved the slow conversion of friends, family members, and social networks.
Major conversions did not occur until the Emperor Constantine's conversion around the year 312 (although he did not undergo baptism until he was on his deathbed). Around 313, he and co-emperor Licinius agreed to a policy of toleration for all religions, including Christianity. Once the religion gained imperial favor, many more conversions followed. By the end of the fourth century, around half of the empire's residents were Christians.
Under Emperor Theodosius I, orthodox or catholic Christianity became the state religion and pagan practices were banned.
It seems to me that the alliance of church with empire was a major and unfortunate turning point. When religion and state merge, the result usually isn't better government--it's worse religion.
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