The Pokey Finger of God

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Book Reviews

March 3rd, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history

First, two biographies on the emperor . Constantine the Great: The Man and his Times, by Michael Grant, and the ingeniously named Constantine the Great, by John Holland Smith. These are followed by a review of Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, by Rodney Stark

I was unfamiliar with Smith, who had apparently already written about the Great Schism, but I had read a couple of Grants dozens of titles, one on Etruscans, one on Herod. The Grant book is a fine overview, while it glosses over a number of existent historical controversies as already resolved. Smith was more likely go to into detail about historical rows, presenting several versions of a story. Smith also concentrated more on how Constantine shaped and guided nascent Roman Christianity through his political manipulations. Consequently, Smith’s book is thicker than Grant’s by 2/3rd’s at least.

No one really knows where Constantine comes from: we don’t really know when or even where he was born. We have some stories about how his parents met but really nothing about where the grandparents came from or who they were. Constantius (Chlorus) was a cog in the Roman military machine that rose to top nut. Helena was supposedly an innkeeper’s daughter. After Constantius moved on to an alliance with his boss’s daughter (Romans liked to keep business in the family), Constantine was held in the court of the senior Augustii, Diocletian, then Galerius. When time came for Constantius to be promoted to Augustus of the West, everyone expected that his son, Constantine, would be named Caesar of the West — but that’s not what Galerius did, instead naming the son of the retiring August to the post.

Constantine’s reaction was to bolt from the camp of Galerius in the East and escape to his father’s camp in the West. Both books explain this ably, but Smith lets us in on a detail that Constantine’s escape posse took or hobbled the horses at the relay station, thus garnering enough of a lead to avoid capture. Constantine joins up with his father and fights well at his side. At his father’s death, Constantine is proclaimed Augustus by his army and sends a message to Galerius that his father is dead, and he’s gladly taken the spot, thankyouverymuch. Both books clue us into Galerius’ reaction (rage) and subsequent concession, but I don’t think that either one made the point that, for the previous 200 years, the type of field promotion experienced by Constantine was normal, and the convoluted “Imperial Board of Directors” approach begun by Diocletian was very new and very weird.

I really enjoyed and appreciated Smith’s coverage of Constantine’s interactions with the (es). He makes no bones about the political factions involved and makes clear distinctions about when the big C swayed to or from Arianism. He doesn’t try to paint the General into a theologian, even showing the frequent limits of Constantine’s imagination at the confluence of the theological arguments. Both books cover the political twists and turns of the Tetrarchy well, and both made clear Constantine’s path to total domination. Smith, of course, had a few more details: especially about how Constantine used Christian symbols and language to inspire his (and his enemies’) troops’ loyalty.

Grant went into a bit more lurid detail on the mental disintegration period, when Constantine killed his wife and first child. Smith gave more detail about the founding of Constantinople: such as how it was constructed at such a scale and so quickly that unskilled workers and substandard materials were frequently used, such that restoration efforts had to be started within a few years of the founding ceremonies. Grant talks about Constantine’s troubles with founding the Roman Church, Smith goes into excruciating detail regarding every heretic or argument we have on record.

It really isn’t fair to compare these books, as Smith completely overshadows the more modern and conversational Grant. Grant’s focus was primarily on political and dynastic movements, Smith focus was clearly on the development of the Church. Both are good, but I think I enjoyed the Smith book better.

Cities of God
Rodney Stark has made something of a cash cow out of the origins of Christianity. He has written several books about how Christianity began, but also about why it was inevitable that Christianity would prevail. The purpose of this book was to use mathematical regression techniques to analyze various hypotheses about the origin and development of Christianity. He selected the top 31 cities of the and collected data points on each about how early each had a church, or whether they had Isis temples or later had heretical schools.

Stark shows mathematically what Franz Cumont described about how Cybele and Isis worship literally paved the way for Christianity. He demonstrates handily that, as an evangelical cult, the development of Christianity was only limited by city size: earlier cults were limited to transient workers and slaves, with nominal local interaction. With active missionary activity, the only limitation to conversion was on the size of the pool of potential recruits.

Stark shows with a simple exponential growth curve how conversion rates to build the size of the population to actually become the majority in 300 years is not miraculous, but expected. He also does some interesting work with the ‘Gnostic’ sects, showing how they differed not only theologically, but also in distribution. The parts of the book where he uses numbers — even when they are just estimated values — are really intriguing and show a powerful way to work through many controversial topics in a way that is difficult to deny.

But where he spends a chapter here or there going over one element of history or another, he often floats blindly in the worlds of dogma and fantasy. More than once, I found myself wishing the author had applied his mathematical technique on this or that assertion. I should be grateful, I suppose, for the honest exposure he did provide.

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