Ehrman on Constantine

‘There is in fact overwhelming and public evidence that Constantine was a very real Christian during his reign, even if he only gradually came to understand fully what that meant. Some of the most striking policies he enacted after his victory at the Milvian Bridge involved favors poured out on the Christian churches. Within months of assuming control of Rome he came to an agreement with his co-emperor Licinius, now ruling the East with the passing in 311 of Galerius, that brought a complete cessation of the persecution begun ten years earlier under Diocletian. This so-called Edict of Milan (which was not an edict and was not from Milan) gave complete freedom of religious expression to all inhabitants of the empire, ending once and for all the prosecution of Christians. Christianity, however, was not only decriminalized; it went from being a persecuted faith to being the religion of most-favored status. Constantine commissioned and financed the building of numerous Christian churches both in Rome and abroad, most notably the Lateran Basilica, which was to play such an instrumental role in the history of Christianity as the official cathedral of the Roman bishop (i.e., the pope). He showered beneficences on Christian clergy. He instructed the leading administrator of Africa to restore all the property that had been confiscated from the Christian churches during the persecutions. One might argue that Constantine was simply siding with the church for reasons of his own without being personally committed to Christian truth claims. In theory that could be so, but it is completely discredited by two other kinds of evidence: the first is Constantine’s almost immediate involvement with Christian practical and theological disputes, and the second are words that issued from his own pen in which he spelled out with clarity his religious views. (…) Above all we have words that Constantine wrote and publicly spoke, which show beyond any doubt his deep Christian sensibilities. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in his address widely known as the Oration to the Saints. In written form the speech spans twenty-six chapters. It would have taken two hours to deliver orally. We know it was given around the time of Easter, but we don’t know which year, with scholars proposing dates ranging from 315 to (somewhat more plausibly) 325 CE. The speech is principally a defense of the Christian belief over the views of paganism. It expresses Constantine’s philosophical and theological views, even though no theologian then or now would consider it overwhelmingly deep or perspicacious. Constantine was highly educated, but he was no professional thinker. Still, the speech gives us his religious perspectives and shows clearly how deeply he felt committed to them—and how closely they aligned with his political objectives. It is always important to remember the point made at the beginning of this chapter. Ancient people, whether pagans, Jews, or Christians, did not neatly differentiate between the religious and the political. They would have had a hard time understanding the difference. There certainly is not a clear difference in this speech. Early on, Constantine makes an impassioned plea that there is and must be only one ultimate divine ruler, one god over all. If there were many divinities, then people would commit a sacrilege anytime they chose to worship any one of them. But, even more significant, if there were many divine rulers, there would be divisiveness rather than unity. What the world needs is unity. Constantine is quite openly not thinking only of the unity of heaven. He is equally, if not more, concerned about life on earth. The divine situation, then, reflects the human. Numerous divinities all vying for attention would create division, envy, and jealousy. This, in his words, “would mar the harmonious concord of the whole, as many disposed in different ways of the shares allotted to each, and took no thought to maintain the whole world in the same state and according to the same principles.” Such a state of affairs would lead to the “confusing of all things.” And by “all” Constantine really means all. “The constellations would be in disarray, the seasons could not change in consistent patterns, the fruits of the earth could not grow, day and night would be confused.” There has to be one ruler over all. The implication, should anyone miss it, is that there needs to be one emperor over all as well. That does not mean that Constantine’s speech is simply a power grab. It means that his religious commitment to worship the one God of heaven affected his sense that he himself was to be the one ruler on earth. As such he was completely committed to the Lord of all. His allegiance was completely Christian, as he himself declares in the oration: “My proper task is to hymn Christ through my way of life and the thanksgiving due to him from us in return for many great benefits” (Oration, 5). Constantine was decidedly in favor of the “many great benefits” that were his through the worship of the Christian god. That may not sound like a disinterested view of theology or worship. But in an ancient context it is the least extraordinary thing about his deeply held commitment.’
Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (pp. 35-38). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

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