Monday, September 14, 2009

Deus Sol Invictus or Constantine the Henotheist?

Matthew 17:1-2 (NIV)
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.

John 8:12 (NIV)

12When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."


Constantine The Great changed the course of history during his battle at the Milvian Bridge. He had a vision which not only put Christianity on the global map, but elevated it from a persecuted minority to the dominate majority, forever changing the West.

[Representation of Christ as the sun-god Helios or Sol Invictus riding in his chariot. Mausoleum M, from the Tomb of Pope Julius I in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St Peter's Basilica.]


As we move through the early centuries of the early church in my History of Christianity class I was intrigued by a singular comment on Henotheism (and within Christian Legend, Monotheism) within the Roman world before Constantine's conversion in 312 A.D. I'm not talking about the rising popularity of Christianity before the Edict of Milan in 313. A.D. but the isolated movements towards a form of single god worship during this period in a polytheistic world.
"...the cult of the sun god became a major and, at times, dominant force in Roman religion. The cult of the Syrian sun god from Emesa, installed at Rome under the emperor Elagabalus (218–222), was short-lived, but in 274 the emperor Aurelian began a vigorous campaign of propaganda celebrating the sun god as the exclusive protector of Rome's imperial might. Under the epithets oriens ("the rising one"), invictus ("the invincible one"), and comes Augusti ("comrade of Augustus"), Sol was hailed as "the rising sun who dispels the forces of evil," as "invincible conqueror of Rome's enemies," and as the "companion and guardian deity of the emperor." (Sol Invictus from Encyclopedia of Religion.)
I have yet to study the influences that Greek and Roman society, thought, and beliefs may have had on Christianity (another topic we touched on last week), but if there were state sponsored campaigns which placed a single deity above all the others predating Constantine then, in my humble opinion, this would have been a factor in creating an environment more welcoming to the Christian faith. (I'm curious now to know what caused Diocletian to persecute Christians so heavily. Were Christians undermining the empire or even supporting one of his rivals? I'll have to grok this some more...) Without going into the laundry list of similarities between Jesus and Christianity and the various Mediterranean and eastern gods and their religions, I find the concept of a growing trend of Monotheism (or more probable, Henotheism) in the Roman world predating Constantine very intriguing if it actually happened (I'm a Religion nerd, I admit it). The legend that Constantius I, Constantine's father, was also Christian is quaint but still a Christian legend (The Life of Constantine, Eusebius, Ch. 13-21). Even in Eusebius' account of Constantine's conversion the emperor seeks out the help of the Divine for political and military purposes (Eusebius, Ch. 27-28). He wanted to win so he asked God's help (the Christian God), and he won. So did Constantine notice a growing trend towards Monotheism and jump on the popularity train? I don't know, But it seems more likely that he included Christianity as part of his popularity propaganda instead of an actual conversion since the Arch of Constantine (triumphal arch over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge) and coins (until 324) contained pagan imagery. Even though Constantine supported the church it seems that, to retain his popularity base, he still recognized other gods along with the Christian God as a henotheist for political purposes.

How did the Senate react to the growing trend towards a monotheistic religious system? How did the commoners react? How did this affect the economy? Decrease in sacrifices to gods must have put a few butchers out of business. Religion was and still is a business. Before 70 A.D., the ancient Jewish sacrificial system must have profited from sacrifice at the Temple, the Quraysh, the guardians of the Ka'aba, held a booming economic market until the radical turn towards monotheism led by Muhammad in the 7th century A.D., and even churches today collect offerings from it's members. How did this affect social life in the Empire? More importantly how did this affect the theology, faith, and traditions of Christianity itself? Many people have pointed out (Google "Jesus Pagan gods" to see for yourself) that Christianity was seriously influenced by pagan religions. I'm no historian and I do see similarities but this is of little relevance to the modern Christian. Why? Because Christianity as we know it today would not be recognizable to the Christians during the first few centuries. The Christianity of today is not the Christianity of yesterday.

Even if Christ was equated with or even represented as Sol Invictus in the 3rd and 4th centuries he is not today by Traditional Christianity. It is important to keep in mind how history has viewed Jesus, but as time progresses so does all aspects of human life. Jesus Christ and Christianity 2000 years from now can (and probably will) be just as alien to us as our Christianity would be to the early church. We must remember that the believers of the first few centuries were limited by their world view and may have seen Jesus Christ differently than we do, be it Sol Invictus, Jewish prophet, or even non-trinitarian. There is no way for us to turn back the clock to a "golden age" of the Christian faith, nor should we. Faith should always progress forward even if it means challenging our present views, beliefs and the memories of our past.

7 comments:

Don said...

I would agree heartily with your statement: "it seems more likely that he included Christianity as part of his popularity propaganda instead of an actual conversion...."
I really like how you are "refreshing my page" on these elements of early and pre Roman Christianity.

Eruesso said...

This was one of the topics we talked about in class, although it was a tiny blurb it got the gears in my mind turning away. In the next week or so (in my free time) I've considered going to our 4-story library on campus and locating all the available accounts and descriptions of Constantine's conversion at the Milvian Bridge. It was a major turning in Christianity but I wonder if Constantine's imperial historians made as big of a deal of the event as the Church? And, if not, what did they say about the event? Taking in multiple views of an event in history has always fascinated me. Damn, I should of been a History Major.

Don said...

Well you should have! 34 years of teaching it wasn't as revelatory as five years of a spiritual journey. A review by myself is well in order.

Viridis Lumen said...

On the issue of the Roman view of monotheist belief, it is a commonly misunderstood feature of paganism that the Roman pantheon denied a singular deity. Few Romans held to the Hellenic gods as being twelve indidivuals, but rather twelve aspects of the Divine. Take the meaning of some of their names - Apollo in classical Greek means "not many" and Jupiter, king of the gods, is a derivation of Zeus Pater (Zeu-pater) which simply means "God the Father". The Romans held that there was one Divinity but with many paths leading to it; their issue with the Christians was that they denied all but their own path and as part of this refused to undertake the traditional oath of loyalty to the Empire (as this involved sacrificing to the traditional pantheon). Diocletian may have reacted particularly to this on account of his having just pulled the Empire out of decades of civil war - though there is some doubt just how "great" the Great Persecution was. Nothing excuses the carnage or repression, but the total deaths of Christians at the hands of the State over three centuries has been reckoned in four figures, no higher. By contrast, by 381, barely two generations from Constantine, all pagan temples were closed and Christians finally had their way in closing down all paths to God but their own. See "The Closing of the Western Mind" by Charles Freeman for more: if you haven't read it, you will find it most illuminating both on the nature of classical paganism and on the impact of early Christianity on freedom of thought and inquiry.

Eruesso said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Christianity's exclusivity (and monopoly) on the path to the divine has always been a thorny issue with me. And as for the Roman view of the Divine, this sounds similar to Hinduism and their deities representing different characteristics and qualities of the Divine. Thanks again for the comment and the book suggestion!

Xavier said...

"...as time progresses so does all aspects of human life. Jesus Christ and Christianity 2000 years from now can (and probably will) be just as alien to us as our Christianity would be to the early church. We must remember that the believers of the first few centuries were limited by their world view and may have seen Jesus Christ differently than we do..."

So scripture should be modified and changed by our ever-evolving "worldview" and not the other way around?

Eruesso said...

It's our interpretation of scripture that has changed over the course of history. Scripture does not have to be modified at all (although some would argue that it does), yet our interpretation and application of scripture to our 21st century lives has changed. Abortion, Women's Rights, drug trafficking, and inter-faith fellowship are just a few of the issues which are more relevant to us now than those who lived during the wain of Roman Power.

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