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.