The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

The Pokey Finger of God header image 2

First Five Centuries: What do we know?

September 1st, 2014 · No Comments · christianity, history

I have two problems to resolve. My understanding of the origin of Christianity points to , while Joseph Atwill’s book “Caesars’ Messiah” points to the Flavians, two centuries prior to Constantine. One of my problems is to connect the development of Flavian Christianity to Constantinian Christianity. The other problem is to find anything at all that might bring to light a better understanding of the mechanics and theology of Flavian Christianity. (At this point, I have no disagreement with what Atwill has presented, and am looking to integrate his ideas into my understanding.)

What is known of the era of early Christian history is mostly mythology with few facts. The bounds of this period is roughly 100BCE to 400CE. Estimates given for the birth of Jesus Christ range from 100BCE to 25CE, with most guesses around 5-7BCE: so the most generous boundary is placed at the start. The end of this period is really some time after most of what we would consider to be “Christianity” had been established, and more importantly, the time after the last generations alive when Christianity was not the exclusive faith of the empire, had died. This is around 400CE.

We must assume that at some point after 100BCE, Christianity began in some form — perhaps one that was not immediately recognized as a new thing — and that this form developed over time to create the Roman Catholic Church by around 400CE. This simple sketch begs many questions, but the first that I see is: did Christianity start as an entirely new thing, or as a derivative of something else?

We actually have a good deal of information about pre-Christian Rome, in terms of what they did, said, believed, and reported. There were very many religions operating within the larger cities and towns across the Empire, and each had its own characteristic flavor and import. We also know mostly what Christianity looked like by about 400CE, and how it’s changed over the centuries to become what we know today. What we don’t have much good information about is how Christianity went from nothing to world power in a couple of centuries.

The Catholic Church provides us with a fascinating and exciting story that is great for Sunday School, but not so handy for connecting historical movements and actions to the provided narration. I dismiss it entirely out of hand, but will continue to reference it as a means to help others understand my position. In any case, starting from the beginning of that story is a shot in the dark. Much better it is to start and the end, where we have more evidence and documentation to guide our way.

At the end, then, of our period in question, the position of Christianity is without question: it is the official and exclusive faith of the , the Senate, and the People of Rome. After the fall of Rome, the Roman Church continued to exercise imperial authority over the states created in the wake. So we know the Church didn’t just have power because of Empire, it had power that superceeded Empire.

In the popular history Constantine is viewed as being the first Roman Emperor to support Christianity, although in more serious historical documents, it’s pretty clear that Constantine saw Christianity as something supporting him. In either case, there is little controversy regarding when Christianity was embraced by Empire. But what was it that Constantine embraced? Much of the core of the faith wasn’t established until Constantine demanded the first Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 325CE. By that time, Constantine had already fought most of his battles over control of Empire, yet Christianity had been the official faith of his followers since the day his late father’s troops declared him Caesar.

So what was it, exactly, that Constantine’s followers believed in? How did they demonstrate this belief? And more importantly, from whom did they learn about this belief?

Here’s something we do know: Diocletian had radically changed the official Roman faith decades before Constantine began seeking the throne. The official religion of the Empire prior to Diocletian is referred to as “sun worship”, and the faith Diocletian established was one based on the primitive faith of the Republican Romans, focusing on Jupiter and Heracles as patristic touchstones. It’s also pretty well established that this change infuriated the peoples of the Eastern half (the Greek half) of the Empire, who had much preferred “sun worship” as their guiding faith.

Much of Constantine’s strategy in overturning Diocletian’s regime was to embody the “traditions of Rome” that had been in place prior to Diocletian. Constantine was an astute historian who had carefully studied the successes and failures of all of the prior Caesars, and he frequently looked to examples from past Caesars to guide him in the face of future issues. The name he took when he became Caesar was “Flavian”, although he actually had no biological link to the Flavians. He was communicating to the citizens of Rome that he would rule like the Flavians did — and since they represented some of the best Emperors, this was a positive association for him.

Here’s where we turn to Atwill’s book for some more structure to our tale. If we take as read the notion that the Flavian Emperor Titus was instrumental in the creation of the Gospel stories and the early mythology of Jesus Christ, and that this faith remained potent, yet hidden, for another century as people pined for another stable series of emperors, then it would be an obvious target for Constantine’s grasp for authenticity and historical relevance. If he could be the returning Titus, that would be a real public relations coup.

Taking Atwill’s proposal that Josephus wrote both “History of the Jews” and the four Gospel tales as part of a singular work, combining these with books from the Hebrew Torah for legitimacy and context, then we answer the questions about when and why Christianity was created. What is left is to learn more about the Flavians, about how and where their signature faith developed, and what the relationship was between that faith and the one presented by Constantine.

Could it be possible that we already know of Flavian Christianity, only by another name? Perhaps we know it as “Arianism”, or perhaps it was “Mithraism”. Or perhaps it was something else that we have forgotten. At least now I feel like I know what I’m looking for.

Tags: ·····