Using Richard E. Rubenstein’s book, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, we have introduced the 4th century theological dispute in Alexandria, Egypt, featuring Arius vs. Athanasius, a controversy that would develop and continue for centuries—driven on by emperors and Church Councils. Let us now flash back to the beginning of emperor involvement in establishing Christianity as a state-supported religion, back to the opening of the 4th century of the Christian/Common Era (CE).
From Antioch – Emperor Diocletian
AT THE TEMPLE of the pagan god Apollo in Antioch (Syria) in 299 ce., the pagan Roman emperor Diocletian, returning from his victory over the Persians—but only for the moment since the Persians would before long gain the upper hand (See Sûrat Al-Rûm, 30:2-3)—was attending the sacrificial ceremonies in celebration. Internal organs of bullocks and sheep, one animal after another, were consulted for “signs,” or “omens,” of the emperor’s future fortunes. Without exception the hearts and livers were abnormal. Was disaster imminent for Rome? Or…? Some of the emperor’s household servants were said to have been spotted making an occult sign in the air just when each animal had been dispatched—the mysterious “Sign of the Cross”! Was this to be taken as a sign of good—or of ill?
Diocletian was not taking any chances. There must be no Christian sectarians to upset his balance of power. Any members of his household and any members of the army were to be let go if they refused to sacrifice to the immortal gods. Thereby Christians would be weeded out if they were not willing to show loyalty to Rome and to its civilization. The Great Persecution (303-313 ce) under the reign of Diocletian intended to eliminate any Christian non-compliance with the State that could compromise the emperor’s success. Christians were not asked to otherwise compromise their faith, and the ritual requirements of compliance were minimized for them. (Rubenstein, pp. 22-28)
What was offensive to the Roman ruler was the Christians’ exclusivity—their inability to respect other people’s gods. Furthermore, Christians had “deified” one whom a previous Roman ruler had considered a seditious Jew, long ago properly “executed” for disloyalty to Rome—since he supposedly had claimed to be a Jewish “king”—which didn’t help the reputation of Christian loyalty, either.
Many pagans had already come to believe in a supreme god, so why must the Christians demonize the pagans’ lesser gods? Why insist on a single deity that alone ruled the universe—and then inexplicably, and most confusing of all, say that this single, exclusive Deity acted with the partnership of His divine “Son”! And as if that wasn’t enough, then consider this: With their exclusivist aims, Christians might just aspire to making their religion the one and only in the empire—and this at a time when there were live threats of invasion from Germanic and North African tribes to the west—as well as counter-offensives from Persia to the east.
Threats Of Compromising The Favor Of The Pagan “Gods”
Diocletian’s army was riddled with barbarian troops adhering to various new religions. Some 20 or 30 years previously, the emperor had already dealt with a Mesopotamian dualistic religion, Manicheism. While the Manicheans worshipped the “good God,” they believed that an equally powerful evil force (“Satan”) was at work in the world countering the good efforts of humans and opposed to the good God. Thus, there was a duality of supreme power in the universe affecting human affairs and leading to their sin. The Manicheans’ “Spirit-led” prophet Mani had been martyred in the 270’s ce.
Not only was that religion seen as pro-Persian, since many Manichean converts had been gained in Persia—Rome’s adversary—but their Christ-linked missionaries had reached India and China, thus constituting a further threat from within to Diocletian’s Roman hegemony. In 302 ce, Diocletian had burnt a number of their priests and their books, but their martyrs simply became heroes for a continuing faith. (pp. 31-32)
In those days there were also the traditional Roman and Greek pagan oracular shrines in mountain groves throughout Roman-controlled territory. These served to answer visitors’ personal questions through the medium of a kind of fasting “prophet” (called an “oracle”), who uttered unintelligible words (those words also called an “oracle”) said to originate with the half-human god Apollo. The interpreter of the “prophet” would put the god’s “prophetic” message into poetic verse, often ambiguously worded and left for the inquirer to make sense of. Military people of the time seem often to have consulted an oracle in making strategic decisions.
Note, by the way, that several centuries later in Arabia, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would be accused of being a soothsayer, that is, an oracle, in keeping with the “enchanting” verses that came to him!
The same year as the Manichean witch hunt was taking place, an oracle near Miletus (on the southeast coast of Asia Minor) indicated to Diocletian that the god Apollo was being hindered in communicating his foretelling of future events due to those called “the righteous of the earth.” Accordingly, Diocletian ordered the pulling down of churches, the burning of their books and the banning of Christian worship. Access to law courts would be banned for those failing the loyalty test to the Roman State, that is, a simple sacrifice to the gods. (pp. 32-33)
The Surviving Church
In time, the persecuted Christian clergy (bishops, priests) became more “street smart” in avoiding the loyalty test of pagan sacrifice. Many opted to go into hiding in the desert rather than being unnecessarily martyred. As for those who got caught, imprisonment became their penalty more commonly than execution, especially if they were able to hand over their religious books. In this way, many irreplaceable Christian documents were lost to history as the cost for sparing Christian lives.
But such “traitorous” Christian priests in North Africa and Numidia (modern Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco)—who dodged “standing up for” their Christian faith through a glorious martyr’s death–were relieved of their sacred priestly powers. Also “lapsed laymen” similarly had to do extreme penance in order to be readmitted to the salvific membership of the Church. (Remember that “salvation” was only for those within the Church. Christians punished with “excommunication” were cast outside this safety net.)
The followers of the zealous 4th century Christian priest Donatus of North Africa were not willing to forgive those priests who, unlike themselves, had recanted under pressure. By contrast, the (Roman) Catholic Church ruled that it was the office of priesthood that merited the honor of spiritual priestly powers, and not the holiness or purity of the individual priest who held that office. Thus a lapsed Christian, even a priest, could return to the Roman Church. (pp. 37-41)
Compare the judgment of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, living in the tough seventh-century tribal, pagan Arabian society, who ruled that the saving of life is to take precedence over submitting to probable martyrdom for one’s faith in the One God—as long as one has not in fact given up his belief in the one God!
We can infer that a pressing need for political control in Church affairs came to take precedence over ideological purity: We can conclude that “truth” was—or would become—what it needed to be in order to make things work! The example of Jesus (A.S)—whether in ideological realms (i.e., monotheism) or in behavioral ones (i.e., a non-violent settling of intramural controversy, as in the Donatus affair)—took a back seat to the survival of the Christian institution now immersed in power politics. For the sake of its public credibility, the Church institution was under pressure to “regularize” its stated ideology or credal belief system.
By 310 ce, the terror campaign of Emperor Diocletian was generalized to include Christian laymen as well as clergy, even in the western empire (Britain, Spain, France, Germany), where an army officer from the eastern Danube/Dalmatia (Yugoslavia) area had become second-in-command.
Constantius (I) had no stomach for such persecution. It would be his son Constantine, brought up in Diocletian’s court and a companion on the Emperor’s military campaigns, who would be named, at 32 years of age, as western emperor when Diocletian abdicated for reasons of poor health. The emperor of the east soon fell deathly ill and called off the persecution of Christians, proclaiming it a failure, and asking the Christians to pray for his health and that of the State! (pp. 37-44)
Passing The Scepter
The competition between east and west for supreme Roman power was soon to be settled when the new western emperor Constantine marched on Rome against his rival Maxentius. Constantine, an enlightened pagan, believed in a “supreme god,” in particular the “Unconquered Sun”—Sol Invictus in the commonly spoken Roman language, Latin.
The Sun god was a popular Roman deity whose “biography” had numerous elements similar to today’s familiar Christian celebration surrounding Jesus’ supposed “birthday” on December 25th (i.e., Christmas) as well as to his “resurrection” from the dead (i.e., Easter) on “Sun”-day (now the Christian once-weekly day of worship).
Furthermore, Constantine had taken an interest in a second minority religion, as demonstrated by his having already acquired a personal Christian counselor (Bishop Hosius of Cordova, Spain). (p. 44)
The key players were now in place and some watershed events were about to happen: Constantine and his soldiers were en route to Rome when they reported witnessing in the sky a cloud pattern (or a solar halo?) in the shape of a Christian symbol—the chi rho, two Greek letters, one superimposed on the other—with the visual instructions: “By this [sign] [you will] conquer.”
Constantine took this event as indicating his sure route to victory; and its validity was said to have been confirmed shortly thereafter in a night dream—which Bishop Hosius validated for Constantine as genuine. He reported that in the dream Jesus Christ himself showed him the Christian emblem. Thereupon, Constantine ordered his army to replace their old pagan symbology with the new insignia: the first two letters spelling the name of “Christ”: chi rho.
Sure enough, divine Providence had arranged for the failure in strategy of Maxentius—Constantine’s unpopular rival—and for the victory of Constantine in the West (313 ce). He already had a strong ally in the East, Licinius—who, however, subsequently (316 ce) had to be fought in the first “holy war” to secure the survival and expansion of Christianity, with final defeat of Constantine’s opponent in Asia Minor (324 ce). (pp. 44-45)
Roman paganism was clearly decadent and Christianity now had the potential to be the unifying force and the new face of a revitalized Roman empire. But unification would be hard won. Already, the theological dissent of Arius, in the intellectually astute city of Alexandria, had been referred to an Egypt-wide Church Council, where Arius was ruled out-of-order and expelled from his local church.
With the support of Arius’ allies in Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, the Arian controversy went regional. Local attempts at force backfired, and it was clear to Constantine that he must take command in order to bring about the needed conflict resolution. Predictably, he sent his trusted adviser, Bishop Hosius of Cordova to investigate. (Rubenstein, pp. 46-47)
To be continued, Insha’Allah, in Part 11.