Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What changed with Theodosius?

1. You often hear that Constantine made Christianity the only allowable religion in the Roman Empire, that he squashed Gnosticism as a Christian possibility. This is false. Constantine made Christianity legal (it had been the target of persecution previously) in AD313. He did not make it the official religion of the Roman Empire. He even patronized some other gods.

Another thing I hear often is that the New Testament canon--the list of authoritative books in the Bible--was determined at the Council of Nicaea in 325, called by Constantine. This is also false. The contents of the NT had mostly been agreed on for years by then, but the final agreement on the edges (e.g., 2 Peter, 3 John) would not really come into play until decades after Constantine's death. There was no universal council. It just more or less happened. In 398, a Western council did affirm these books.

It was a later emperor, Theodosius who in 380, declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion of the empire. A "heterodox" bishop in Constantinople was removed. Then in 381, the Council of Constantinople finalized the Nicene Creed. Only Nicene Christianity, at that point, could be considered catholic Christianity.

2. So the main thing that changed was the end of support for polytheism and the worship of other gods. I believe my colleague David Riggs would tell you that much of polytheistic worship continued nonetheless and went underground. I remember dabbling in an anti-catholic book as a teen that suggested that the cult of the saints was largely the polytheistic religion of the majority gone underground. (no idea whether there is any truth there at all)

3. Did the moral climate of Rome change?  I'm not sure how much evidence there is for this. Anything associated with the Roman gods or other gods was outlawed. Magic was outlawed. The Olympic games were outlawed. In 529 Plato's Academy was closed.

In keeping with the Mediterranean worldview, the main thing that changed was religious practice. Rituals and ceremonies associated with Jupiter or Mars were outlawed. The Vestal Virgins were disbanded. The temples associated with these gods would now either fall into disrepair or be re-purposed. Instead of Saturnalia, we would now have Christmas.

Now basilicas of worship would be built. The biblical text would become more or less standardized (thus the Greek behind the King James Version). Doctrine was standardized (Nicene)--Manichaeans for example would be persecuted.

4. So there were changes in religious worship and changes in religious belief. But the Roman empire was not Pietist. The empire did not necessarily become more loving or more biblical in the most meaningful sense of that word. I believe Constantine did make some changes that curbed the practice of infanticide. I would be interested in knowing other changes that took place.

I would argue that the number of "real" Christians probably stayed about the same, just like today, a minority. See Ed Stetzer's claims in more than one place that Christianity today is not in decline in America. It's only that nominal Christians, who arguably weren't really Christians anyway, are no longer identifying themselves as Christian.

5. So when did Europe become "Christian" in anything other than matters of external form and cognitive assent? The next candidate in Western storytelling, I suppose, is the Protestant Reformation.


RDavid said...

But Dan Brown said.....

Oh wait, you are reflecting on actual history. The more that is done, but more people will start listening to urban myths.

Nathaniel said...

"(no idea whether there is any truth there at all)"

There isn't.

The cult of the saints grew in parallel with martyrdom. This was started, perhaps implicitly, by Paul's emphasis on his own sufferings. By the middle of the second century, there is an established cultus around martyrs like Polycarp. By the middle of the third century, this cultus is already a major emphasis of both Montanism and Novatianism (which, in my reconstruction, are substantially the same thing in North Africa).

If the legalization of Christianity had any effect on the cult of the saints it was to constrain it. For instance, during the Donatist controversy conflict arose over what precisely "counts" as a martyr. The bishops began to limit the criteria for martyrdom to curb some of the abuses. This is the beginning of the formal canonization process which is instituted to limit the cult of the saints, not propel it to greater heights.

So no, there is no truth the claim that the cult of the saints was the result of imperial suppression of polytheism. If anything, imperial support for Christianity enabled the bishops to constrain abuses on this topic.

For those that are curious, here is the earliest known Marian hymn, which dates back at least to the middle of the third century (well before imperial support):

Nathaniel said...

"I would be interested in knowing other changes that took place."

Try McGuckin's book:

It is unfortunately a bit uneven, but is probably still the best direct work on the topic. My biggest complaints are:

1. He needs way more footnotes to substantiate some of his claims.

2. The biggest flaw is that when he discusses Constantine's establishment of parallel church courts, he completely neglects the most obvious reason for doing so: Christian's can't sue each other in civil court (1 Cor 6).

However, that said, there is a lot to commend to the book. In particular, he accomplishes his aim which is to demonstrate that the Christianization of the empire brought about some truly important changes in the justice system.