Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 4: The Triumph of Christianity

Copyright ©2010 by T. Pavlidis

Evolution of Christianity

While Christianity was spreading, it was itself being transformed. The first issue was the observance of Jewish rituals. Jewish converts who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah continued to observe the Mosaic law and the first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews [EG, Chapter XV, vol. 1, p. 438]. Since the church of Jerusalem was founded only forty days after the death of Jesus, it would have been natural to have it as a standard of orthodoxy. But two events worked against that happening. One was the spread of Christianity amongst the Gentiles of the major cities of the Roman Empire, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome. The Christian communities of such cities did not wish to be guided by the church of a "provincial" city.

The second event was the destruction of Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt of 70CE. The members of the church of Jerusalem moved to the small town of Pella, east of the Jordan river. They could still visit the Holy City, but after the Bar-Kochba's revolt the emperor Hadrian obliterated Jerusalem and built in its place a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. Jews were banned from the new city and many Jewish Christians abandoned the observance of the Jewish rituals so that they could gain access to the new city [ibid, pp. 438-439]. By the time Jerusalem was restored, Christianity had moved very far from its Jewish roots and the remaining Jewish Christians were branded as heretics and were called Ebionites. This name comes from the Hebrew word for poor and the name reflected not only the material poverty of the Jewish Christians, but also their spiritual poverty according to the new leaders of the church. Ebionites were numerous in Syria in the area near the modern city Aleppo.

The Christian apologist Justin the Martyr (103-165CE), who was born in what is today Nablus (West Bank), wrote about the Jewish Christians. He said that he tolerated those who kept Jewish customs for themselves but did not insist that other do so, but he considered heretics those who insisted that observing the Mosaic law was necessary for salvation. He also wrote that not all Christians shared his toleration of the first group [ibid, pp. 440-441]. Not surprisingly, it was difficult to keep such major differences within one creed and by the fifth century CE the Ebionites had disappeared [W].

At the other end of the spectrum from the Ebionites were the Gnostics who completely rejected Jewish believes and practices. The Gnostics had their own gospels and flourished during the third century CE and were numerous in Egypt, the Asian part of the Roman Empire and even Rome itself [ibid, pp. 441-445]. Although they created a great stir amongst Christians at the time, the Gnostics do not seem to have had a lasting influence.

The Christian church had also been accumulating significant wealth. During the time of emperor Decius (250CE) it was noted that that "many among their proselytes had sold their land and houses to increase the public riches of the sect, at the expense ... of their unfortunate children, who found themselves beggars because their parents had been saints" {ibid, p. 478]. Wealth also brought corruption. According to Cyprian (died in 258CE), bishop of Carthage, many among the other African bishops "violated every precept, not only of evangelical perfection, but even of moral virtue" [ibid, p. 479].

Christianity had also made inroads amongst the rich and powerful. Gibbon states that Diocletian's wife Prisca and daughter Valeria were sympathetic to Christianity and that four of his principal eunuch chamberlains were Christian [EG, Chapter XVI, vol. 2, p. 47]. It is difficult to reconcile such advances with the persecution of Christians by Diocletian. Burckhardt dismissed the usual explanation, namely the influence of Galerius. Instead, he proposes that Diocletian thought that the Christians were preparing a coup d'etat, rem publican evertebant [JB83, pp. 250-251]. Burchardt finds evidence in favor of this explanation by the occurrence of two insurrections, in Cappadocia and in Syria [ibid, pp. 252-253]. It may be that Constantine's favor towards the Christians was of the kind "if you cannot beat them, join them."

Timeline of Christianity versus Developments in the Roman Empire

Imperial Christianity

It would seem that after Constantine rose as the sole Roman emperor in 324CE, all the problems of the Christians would have been solved, but this was not the case. Christianity had been continuously torn ascender by theological disputes. While the disputes with the Ebionites and the Gnostics had abated, new splits had arisen. There were several different interpretations of the Trinity and arguments about the nature of Jesus. Without going into the specifics of the theological arguments we point out that each interpretation had its strong adherents and clergy following one view did not even recognize as legitimate clergy who followed another interpretation. Each group had its own leader and one might argue that charismatic bishops wanted to create their own following and the differences in theological interpretations were secondary. If two prelates vied for an important bishopric the losers may opt to get the prize under a different banner. The most important "heresis" was Arianism, so called from the name of its founder Arius (250-336CE). The theological difference from orthodox Christianity seems minute. Arius claimed that Jesus (the Son in the Trinity) was of similar (but not the same) substance as God (the Father) while the orthodox view is that the Son is of the same substance. The difference appears even more minute in the original Greek: ομοιουσιον (of similar substance) versus ομοουσιον (of the same substance). Those interested in digging into the details can start with Chapter XXI of Gibbon [EG, vol. 2, pp. 260-324]. The Wikipedia article on Arianism also provides a good account of the controversy.

Such divisions did not go well with having Christianity as the cohesive force for keeping the Roman Empire. Constantine took the initiative not only to convene a conference of all Christian bishops (a synod) but also to preside in the proceedings. The synod took place in 325CE in the city of Nicaea, about 80 miles from Constantinople. (The modern name of the city is Iznik.)

The final product of the synod was the Nicene Creed that is a statement of faith for each Christian. To one ignorant of the theological disputes it sounds awfully legalistic, but it had to cover the "correct" interpretation for each of the disputed issues. For more on the subject see the Wikipedia article. The creed was written in Greek because this was the language of the Christian church in Eastern Mediterranean.

The most remarkable aspect of this affair is the rise of Christianity from a persecuted religion that had its roots in a Jewish sect to a religion that is not only favored by the Roman Emperor but also deserves his immediate involvement in its internal disputes. A striking way to see the change is from the icon shown on the right, depicting Constantine (in the center with the crown) with the text of the Nicene creed. Constantine published an edict banning some pagan practices but he did not ban the pagan religions altogether [EG, Chapter XXI, vol. 2, pp. 319-321]. That had to wait for his successors.

The Nicean Creed. (Source: Wikipedia)

Constantine's Successors

Constantine had several relatives and he did not seem to have treated them with Christian charity. He had three sons with his second wife Fausta and one, Crispus, from his first wife Minervina. Crispus had been elevated to Caesar in 317CE while Constantine was still fighting for the sole possession of the imperial throne. Crispus proved quite capable but that may have raised the jealousy of his father who in 326CE had him tried and executed in Istria. (In modern day Croatia near the border with Italy and the Italian city Trieste.) Soon afterwards Constantine had his wife Fausta killed. Historians have speculated that Fausta may had falsely accused Crispus of trying to rape her and when Constantine found that he had Crispus killed because of false accusations, he took his revenge on Fausta [EG, Chapter XVIII, vol. 2, pp. 138-143]. Another speculation is that Crispus and Fausta may had indeed had an affair and the killing of Fausta was delayed because she was pregnant. Regardless of what was the real story, the death of Crispus left open the road for the sons of Fausta to succeed their father. Arranging for the killing of his son and his wife did not stop Constantine from becoming a saint of the Christian church. His feast is celebrated on the same day together with that of his mother Helena, on May 21.

Constantine was not baptized a Christian until just before his death so his son Constantius II is considered to be the first Christian Roman emperor (337-361). Upon Constantius ascension to the throne there was a purge of possible claimants, in particular the nephews of his father. Dalmatius and Hannibalianus were killed in 337. Two other nephews, Gallus and Julian, escaped because of their youth (they were 12 and 6 years old respectively). They were kept imprisoned in Cappadocia where they were allowed to pursue their education.

Constantius reigned with his brothers Constantine II and Constans as co-emperors. Constans went into war against Constantine II and defeated him in 340. Constantine II died in the battle. Constans himself was killed by the usurper Magnentius in 350. Then Constantius II elevated his cousin Gallus to the position of Caesar and put him in charge of the eastern part of the empire. Gallus made Antioch his capital while Constantius II ruled the western part of the empire from Milan. A Jewish revolt broke out in 351, mainly in protest of Christian persecution of the Jews. The revolt was suppressed brutally by Gallus troops. Gallus proved to be a weak and cruel administrator. In 354 he was recalled to Constantius II court in Milan, where he was stripped of the ensigns of Caesar and put in the same jail as Crispus had been nearly 30 years earlier. He was sentenced to death and beheaded. [EG, Chapter XIX, vol. 2, pp. 179-185].

That led to the elevation of Gallus younger half-brother, Julian, to the rank of Caesar in 355 at age 25. However, Constantius felt uneasy about him so, in 357 he sent Julian to fight the German tribes with inadequate troops, hoping that the Germans would defeat and kill him [EG, Chapter XIX, vol. 2, p. 207]. But Julian proved a capable general and he defeated the Germans earning the admiration and loyalty of his troops. In 360 they raised him to the rank of Augustus and he set to meet Constantius II army, when the latter died, so Julian became undisputed emperor. His reign was brief, only three years, because he died in 363 while fighting the Persians.

In spite of his brief reign there is a lot to write about Julian. Gibbon [EG] devotes three chapters (XXII to XXIV) to his three years of reign out of the seventy-one chapters that cover a period of nearly 1300 years. One reason for the attention to Julian is that he tried the reverse the favorable status of the Christian church and he has been called by Christians Julian the Apostate. (There is a speculation that he was killed by the Persians because crypto-Christians in his entourage had weakened his armor.)

But there is a lot more to Julian that his effort to restore Paganism. He was not only a gifted military leader, he was also an intellectual, a philosopher who left several writings. He brought a breadth of fresh air when "the Romans languished under the ignominious tyranny of eunuchs and bishops" [EG, Chapter XXII, vol. 2, p. 324].

The following story provides a sketch of his character. While Roman emperors were clean shaved, Julian sported the philosopher's beard. He had to shave his beard when he was made Caesar [ibid, p. 187] but he let it grow later. In 362 he went to Antioch in preparation for his campaign against the Persians. He did not received a good reception by the prominent citizens of Antioch, so he wrote a treatise in Greek with a critique of their attitudes and policies. Its title is Misopogon (the Beard-Hater) that runs to over 40 pages of a 5"X8" book. You can find it online in the Greek original with an English Translation1. He makes fun of himself and his habits (unheard for a Roman emperor) and includes the following phrase:

Statue of Julian (Source: Wikipedia)

"Now as for praising myself, though I should be very glad to do so, I have no reason for that; but for criticising myself I have countless reasons, and first I will begin with my face ... (to which) I have added this long beard of mine ... . For the same reason I put up with the lice that scamper about it as though it were a thicket for wild beasts (Ανεχομαι των φθειρων ωσπερ εν λοχμη των θηριων)."

I have inserted the Greek original for last sentence. Note that it is only eight words long versus the 19 of the original. Some of the impact of the terse ancient Greek is lost in the English translation.

Julian tried to reverse the decline of paganism by restoring some of the temples that had been taken over by Christians, most notably a Temple to Apollo near Antioch. He also introduced a system of bishops to oversee groups of pagan temples. He also encouraged the Jews to build the Third Temple in the place of that destroyed by the Romans and while construction started it did not go very far. There were stories of fires and an earthquake and, anyway, Julian died soon afterwards.

If you do not wish to plod through historical texts about Julian, you may prefer to read Gore Vidal's historical novel Julian: A Novel.

The Final Triumph (or the End?) of Christianity

Several brief reigning emperors followed, all of them favorable to Christianity (although some of them Arian) until, in 379, the Roman throne passed to Theodosius I. He is the last emperor to have reigned over a unified Roman Empire (since 392). In 380 Theodosius was baptized a Christian and immediately issue a decree making "Catholic Christianity" (based on the Nicean creed) the only legitimate imperial religion. Gibbon [EG, Chapter XXVII, vol. 3, pp. 74-75] provides the full text of the decree and it is reproduced here. Emphasis has been added.

"It is our pleasure that all the nations which are governed by our clemency and moderation should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which faithful tradition has preserved, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus, and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the discipline of the apostles, and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe the sole deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost under an equal majesty and a pious Trinity. We authorize the followers of this doctrine to assume the title of Catholic Christians; and we judge that all others are extravagant madmen, we brand them with the infamous name of Heretics, and declare that their conventicles shall no longer usurp the respectable appellation of churches. Besides the Condemnation of Divine justice, they must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them." 2

The decree not only made Christianity the sole religion of those living in the Roman Empire, but it also specified a particular version of Christianity to be that religion. This was a new development. In the pagan world there had always been one or more gods associated with the state but this did not exclude the worship of other gods. The only precedent existed in the organization of the Zoroastrian religion under the Sassanids (see Chapter 1) who came into power about a century before Constantine's time. Therefore it is quite possible that the Zoroastrian organization served as a model for Constantine's actions as well as those of the emperors that succeeded him.

While the decree seems to focus on the elimination of Christian heretics, it did cover all other religions and certainly the pagan cults. The Olympic games, a focus of Greek pagans, were abolished in 395 after a run of over one thousand years.

It is customary in our times to talk about separation of church and state, but this is a recent concept, dating only from the American revolution. Historically there have been always a state religion and other religions or creeds could be tolerated up to a certain degree. Tolerance was very high in pagan states but more limited in states where the official religion was monotheistic. But there have also been states where religions and creeds other than the official one are not tolerated at all. This was the case, for example, with Catholic Spain from the 15th century until late in the 20th century. Thus Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine I and it became the sole religion of the Roman Empire, less than 60 years later.

One might argue that Christianity directed by the emperors was not Christianity any longer and Constantine and Theodosius had, in effect, usurped the religion. Jesus is quoted in the Gospels as saying that "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s" (Matthew, 22:21). Also "“My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Such objections were taken seriously by the Protestant reformation 1200 years after the establishment of Imperial Christianity.

Some Observations

The favor expressed by Constantine and most of his successors to Christianity meant that all other religions as well as "sects" of the state religion were in trouble. This, of course, included Judaism but the Jews were not singled out. Thus the focus on the relationship between the Jews and Constantine that is the subject of Constantine's Sword by James Caroll is somewhat misplaced. We may note that Judaism survived while the pagan religions were completely obliterated. Major Christian sects, such as the Arians, did not survive either. So the question to be asked is not why the Jews were persecuted, but why did Judaism survive while no other religion in the Roman Empire did.

It seems that the main weapon of the new religion against the old pagan deities was the taking over of their temples. For example, the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena, was made a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A tourist in Rome can visit several churches that used to be pagan temples. Because the pagan worship was usually tied to a particular location, when a temple was converted into a church it was a decisive blow against the old religion. It seems that a compromise was reached so that one of the new Christian saints was identified with one of the old deities, so the pagan worshippers could continued praying to their old god under a new name. Notable examples is the identification of Athena and the Virgin Mary (both protectors of families) and of Poseidon/Neptune with St. Nicholas (both protectors of sailors).

Another striking example is the identification of the sun god Apollo with Prophet Elijah. If you visit Greece you will find that churches dedicated to Prophet Elijah are always built near mountaintops, the same location that in ancient times was used for temples of Apollo. Why the connection between the two? The story of the chariot of fire that took Elijah to Heaven may provide a link, because Apollo had also a chariot. A stronger links is the similarity of the Greek transliteration of Elijah, ΗΛΙΑΣ, and the Greek word for sun, ΗΛΙΟΣ.

The decree of Theodosius did not eliminate all Christian sects overnight. Some of them went underground and tried to survive and did so for centuries. In addition, several new ones appeared and tried to assert themselves against imperial control. Several of these sects were in the North African provinces of the Roman Empire and that played a big role 250 years later when the population did not resist the Arab conquest.

A Question

Why did the Eastern Mediterranean region remained stuck in the Middle Ages while Western Europe moved through the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution? Fareed Zakaria [FZ03] suggests that the main reason was the strong imperial control in the East and the diffuse authority in the West. He assigns great importance to the fact that when Constantine moved the capital away from Rome, he left the bishop of Rome in his place [ibid, p.30], so that the bishop of Rome was left outside state control. This emphasis is misplaced. Imperial control over the church remained very strong as the decree of Theodosius makes clear. What happened is that the Western part of the Roman Empire was overrun by "barbarians" and slipped out of the imperial control. In the absence of central authority Western Europe was able to, eventually, flourish.


  1. The following are some web sources about Julian: There is a brief discussion of Misopogon in that includes a link to a scanned copy of the book: The Works of Emperor Julian in three volumes with an English translation by Wilmer Cave Wright (1913),. Misopogon is in vol. 2 (pp. 420-511, for both the Greek original and the English translation). Main web page for the book:
  2. The decree mentions the bishops of Rome (Damasus) and Alexandria (Peter) but not the bishop of the imperial capital, Constantinople. That city was a hotbed of Arianism and other sects, although not for very long. When Theodosius returned to his capital he replaced the Arian bishop Damophilus with the orthodox bishop Gregory Nazianzen.

First Posted: January 6, 2010. Latest Revision: October 2, 2011.

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