The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Neo-Flavian Meditations

February 14th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history

I’ve studied Christian history for years now, and the emperor has occasionally graced my mental stage as I try to imagine how the Christianity that I know today developed from the pastiche of pagan practice common in the ancient world. Recently, Constantine himself has taken center stage as I have taken special pains to isolate his contribution to the development of Christianity.

In many ways, my focus on Flavius Valerius Constantinus at this point in my research is providential, as I have arrived at this point from two directions. My study of modern Christianity started with what I knew growing up in the church and slowly shifted focus backward until I hit about 230AD. The study of was enormously helpful in understanding the political undercurrents in the development of the Church, but “heresy” didn’t exist until Constantine determined that there would only be one form of Christianity — his!

From the other direction, I traced ancient history from its written beginnings and tried to grasp the cultures and faiths of the peoples of the past. I had been able to work along pretty steadily until I got to about 100BC, when everything seems to fall apart. The problem isn’t that I have no information, it’s that I have a great deal of information and most of it is either significantly distorted or it’s entirely fictitious, all without a great deal of context to let on either way.

If I am to understand how the Jesus myth claimed the Western world, I have to know what really happened between 100BC and 400AD, in an area encompassing Rome and Persia, Africa and the Balkans, generally focused on Syria. Frankly, I feel like this is the tightest target I’ve ever been able to draw on the origins of Christianity. If I ever figure all this out, I’ll have to study the history and development of Persian Ahura Mazda faiths just to find something equally obscure and just as overly complex.

The early 4th century was a crucial time for the development of Christianity, as this was when it coalesced into its Roman form. Whatever Constantine really believed and whatever he thought he was doing, it’s clear that there was certainly method in his madness. While he may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, he clearly suffered less from the irrational paranoia of lead poisoning than did many of his contemporaries. So, my question is whether he appropriated an existing system that closely matched his own beliefs, or whether, through his (often erratic) leadership, the Church was forced to change into an novel system.

So much of what was written about Constantine during his life is so thick with complementary hyperbole that it’s hard to know when the author is saying something literally true. Things written during the blossom of the were equally hagiographic. There are many points of fact about his life that even the early Church couldn’t wish away — such as how he executed family and enemies alike, and frequently enjoyed Roman levels of excessive violence. Whether he ever saw Christianity as anything other than another syncratic, Neo-Platonic sun cult, he never let on.

If I can get a handle on the general state of faith around 300AD, I feel that I’m well on my way to working back through 100BC and mapping out the whole deal. So for now, I study Constantine. I’ve read several mini-biographies and now I’m mid-way through my second of the book-form biographies on Constantine. Historians don’t seem to agree on much, and now I’m totally screwed up on which Roman emperor hated Christians the most.

There are many related questions regarding the nature of Christianity around 300AD. Who were the “Christians” then, and what did they believe? More specifically, who were the groups that centered their practice on Judeo-Syrian messiah mythos, and what were the other groups centered upon? For the “Jesus Movement”, what were their beliefs and practices? Did they keep to Jewish customs in any way, or maintain a unique pattern? For the other groups, what was their position in relation to the other temples and cults of the Roman world? How did the “Jesus People” feel about and react to the other “Christians”?

I recognize that part of my problem is going to be that after having dismissed the entire Christian canon as irrelevant mythology, I’m going to have to question every statement from and about people in this era. Which “Christ”? Who do they think “Jesus” was? What were their beliefs? How were they organized? Strangely, I think that the best information we have on this topic may actually be the record of Roman persecutions. I’ll probably have to study that next.

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