The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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March 8th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history, media

I mentioned Dungan’s Constantine’s Bible the other day before I had finished reading it. I fear that I made it sound like a lame book, and I’m glad I didn’t let my waning enthusiasm sour me on it before I was done.

Dungan didn’t go on and on about Eusebius like I had expected. Instead, he clearly showed the process and method used by Eusebius to “measure” authenticity on a scale of suspicion. He showed how the Greek structure and form used by Eusebius had been used by contemporaries. And he indicated the Greek basis in Eusebius’ process of using apostolic authority, patterns of use and stylistic comparisons to determine which scriptures were “authentic”.

Dungan took some pains to point out that Eusebius did not use oracles or divination to determine which books were authentic, even though his contemporaries, such as , would not have hesitated to use such to answer spiritual questions. This highlighted Eusebius’ devotion to Greek philosophical traditions about logic and truth, which allowed for continuing discussions among believers about the relative strengths of various texts.

I did get to endure one more rendition of the Demise of the Tetrarchy: mercifully brief. This writer, more than others I’ve read so far, wrote a great deal of support for the early Christians into Constantine’s motivational framework. At the same time, Dungan held back no punches when time came to cast blame upon the fellow who recast the Holy Assembly of the Martyrs and Apostles into the Roman State Church.

And then, Dungan did something really amazing. He actually blamed Constantine for the creation of the canon. He credited the relatively dynamic period before Constantine, when Christianity was divided into a myriad of heresies, for forcing each “school” into defending their respective traditions in writing. This was the context in which Eusebius wrote his history of Christianity and detailed lists of “authoritative scriptures”.

After Constantine forced a specific set of scriptures to be included into a set canon, there were no longer any complicated and nuanced discussions about the relative authenticity of scripture, only rather binary arguments over whether some writing was ‘legal’ or not. The ending of the “authenticity” discussion effectively halted the development of Christian scripture and recast these cultural truths into Imperial mandates. Dungan pointed out that the set of Christian scriptures would probably have never been formed into a ‘canon’ had not the Church been made into a tool for the state. He even made an effective argument that, had the Christian scriptures been allowed to develop without the limitation of a ‘canon’, that we might have been left with, today, a far more fruitful and meaningful collection of work.

It is difficult to read this book and not come away with the idea that Dungan imagined a better, more perfect Christianity existed prior to Constantine. He grieved for the loss of traditions and morals endured as the brotherhood of Christ was replaced by the discipline of a unified culture. He all but cursed Constantine for his endless tinkering and machination within a body that he never really bothered to understand culturally or theologically. It’s all very different from the traditional sanctification thrown the way of the first Christian Emperor.

I agree that Constantine made a giant hash of both the Donatists and the Arians, and if he had lived longer was on track for starting the Inquisition a few centuries early. However, I have a hard time locating the “Orthodox” church that Dungan continued to speak of in my own research, much of which has thus far pointed away from a single source for Christianity. Short of this point (and especially given its topic), this book has been one of the most singularly dynamic works on Christian history I’ve read. The scale is epic. I am thoroughly chastened over the rather thin preview I gave of it before.

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