Christianity had a major advance numerically with the help of Constantine (Birth: c 272 CE – Death 337 CE). Christians nowadays believe that he had a ‘Damascus’ like revelation whilst out walking his troops one day and from then on was the Christian person to be admired. So much so that all and sundry converted to the ‘one true faith’ by example.
This is all very wrong of course, as those who have actually studied history will verify.
The story of seeing the ‘cross’ in the sky was reported personally by Constantine to *Eusebius of Caesarea well after the event; so Eusebius tells? This fanciful story only appeared after the death of Constantine in Eusebius’ book, ‘Life of Constantine’ and not in any of the many others by this author before that time. Eusebius belonged to the heretical Arian sect and at times took on both sides of the story depending on the advantages or disadvantages of doing so.
Eusebius also was the first person to ‘notice’ the interpolation, regarding the ‘messiah’, in the Jewish Josephus’s ‘Antiquity of the Jews’. Josephus remained in the Jewish ‘faith’ and seems to have disregarded his own alleged words of there being a ‘messiah’. Other historians of the times and after were not aware of the famous passage. Photios, Ioannis Chrysostomos and leaders of the Church in Constantinople were amongst them. The famous, Origen also made no mention.
Anyway, back to Constantine. It is reported in a treatise by Lactantius, ‘On the Deaths of the Persecutors’, that Constantine, the night before the battle of the Milvian Bridge was instructed in a dream, to place the “heavenly sign of God” on the shields of his soldiers. The sign so placed was not that reputedly seen in the sky by Constantine. Rather it was a mixture of his invention and a common sign in Christian usage.
Signs and portends promising victory with the aid of the gods, by way of dreams, was not uncommon amongst rulers going into battle. This had the effect of some seemingly working and others not.
On being victorious at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the blood thirsty Constantine continued pandering to Christianity, in parallel with accepting the ‘pagan’ gods, for the remainder of his life. This is well documented.
Constantine was not adverse to the idea of murdering opponents, something he accomplished with relentless monotony. Late in life he murdered his wife and his son in one of his fits of rage. Hardly a Christian thing to do, you would have to agree. (Well I hope you agree)
Constantine’s real motives in stopping Christian persecution were that he saw in this deity a god of Earthly power. He noted various battle victories of Christian adherents and misfortunes that happened to persecutors. Constantine wanted power on Earth and he thought it foolish to take any risks endangering his ambitions. All that this demonstrates is that he was highly superstitious with an ego to match.
In his dealings with the Bishops of the day, he made the spiritual rules, and as I have pointed out, even some heretical Arians succumbed. Knowing he was nearing death and having a good knowledge of Christian theology, he recognised his guilt in having killed his wife and his son unjustly. With the thought that he was going to hell for sinning mortally, he was baptised into the Christian ‘faith’ only days before he died.
This story points out that the popular image of Constantine being Christianity’s saviour through a miracle is patently false.
As an adjunct, many scholars, religious ones included, have suggested that the cross that Constantine had ‘allegedly’ seen in the Sun, which he much later ‘allegedly’ reported to Eusebius (Known in some sceptical circles as Eusebius the forger/liar), was in all likelihood, a natural phenomenon that happens when ice crystals form in the upper atmosphere. If indeed this event happened at all.
In any case, desperate for power, Constantine, being the product of a superstitious age, gave reason away for fantasy, brought about by coincidence.
We will never know the full facts, as history is unreliable but accepted as truly reliable to those with a superstitious mind.
The one thing that Constantine can take credit for though, is supplying one of the earliest Christian justifications for the persecution of the Jews: From his own words: “It seems unworthy to calculate this most holy feast according the customs of the Jews, who, having stained their hands with lawless crime, are naturally, in their foulness, blind in soul.” And: “What right opinions can they have, who, after the murder of the Lord, went out of their minds and are led, not by reason, but by uncontrolled passion.”
That Christianity benefited by Constantine’s rule, there can be no doubt. There can be supreme doubt though, that this was achieved by divine interference.
Condensed in part from: ‘Constantine and the Conversion of Europe’. By Professor A.H.M. Jones, F.B.A., formerly Fellow of All Souls College, held the chair of Ancient History at London University.
*Eusebius – Bishop of Caesarea, following the Arian view that Jesus was not of the godhead but created by god as were Eve and Adam. Constantine had all those with this view expelled from the Second Council of Nicaea 325 CE before voting commenced.
By David Nicholls