I hear from so many people and have seen so many YouTube videos claiming that Constantine changed everything in the fourth century. With his legalization of Christianity he somehow co-opted the religion and mixed it with pagan elements as a means of controlling his vast empire. The Council of Nicaea decided to get rid of all the biblical stuff and put a Christian face on Easter and Christmas, which were formerly pagan holidays. This resulted in the Roman Catholic Church and centuries of apostasy and we are just now started to recover from it. So goes the argument…or assertion, rather.
Constantine has often been characterized as the man of lawlessness or the anti-Christ or just another corrupting influence on the church by Hebrew Roots or radical Protestants. I’ve sat through many a Bible study, usually around Christmas or Easter, that devolves into conspiracy theories of Constantine’s corrupting influence on the church. In fact, I used to believe this. Then I got myself in trouble by trying to write a paper for a history class on the council of Nicaea to prove once and for all to myself that what I had been taught was right. The problem is, there’s not much to go on. There is a lot of popular level garbage out there that repeats the same things, but never go back to the source. In the discipline of history, one must support their arguments on primary sources. A primary source is a document written at or about the time of the event and preferably by an eye witness. The Gospels would count as primary sources for the life of Jesus, but the Gospel of Mary or something late like it from the third or fourth century cannot count as a primary source for the historical Jesus, it’s simply too late. So I started digging into the documents produced by the council and the topics to be discussed and what actual scholars have to say about it. Also, I’ve been reading a lot about the time period and how the church fared before and after its legalization by Constantine.
What I have found is that the church did not radically change in structure or practice. In fact, the council was called to address the problems of theology that were being taught by Arius. Arius taught that Jesus, the Word, was a created being and was not co-eternal with the Father. So Arius was non-trinitarian. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that the whole doctrine of the Trinity had to be spelled out, again as a response to heretical teaching.
What then was Constantine’s role? Not much. He “presided” over the council, but as far as making any kind of decisions for how the church functions there is no evidence that he did so. The claim is often stated that”Constantine convened the council of Nicaea introducing pagan elements into Christianity like Christmas and Easter and made it the Roman Catholic Church.” There are so many problems with this.
First of all, as was just said, Constantine had no power over the bishops. Until the legalization of Christianity, it was basically a death sentence to be ordained bishop. Most of the bishops of the early church were martyred by pagans. Why then would these bishops that were appointed before this legalization then bow to paganism? Not only that, but the bishops ruled in favor of what is now called Nicene or orthodox Christianity, that is, belief in the equality of the Father and Son. However, in 331 Constantine began to favor Arian Christianity and even exiled many bishops. Read the works of Athanasius of Alexandria. He was present at the council, he is one of the most influential theologians defining the Trinity and he spent most of his time in office in the desert or monasteries hiding from imperial forces trying to arrest him. So why would the church continue with practices established by an emperor who was persecuting them? The simple answer is that they did not.
Christianity was legalized by Constantine, but he did not make it the official religion of the empire. That came in the late fourth century after the Arian controversy was coming to an end. Orthodox Christianity finally found imperial favor and Arianism ceased to exist over time. But the thing is, the trinitarian, nicene church did not change during this time. Nothing was added, only the further definition of doctrines that were already held. Read the canons from the council yourself and see that there is no evidence of change in church theology or structure. The church wasn’t this wonderful Hebrew Roots institution until 325 then it went into apostasy as so many of my friends have claimed. There were already offices of bishop in the late first century and the role of priests, liturgy etc. In fact, a good study of the councils will show that they were convened because of a new problem where a further definition of regular practice or belief had to be made plain. At the end of the fourth century we see this happening with the council of Constantinople that affirmed the Nicene creed and expanded the passage concerning the Holy Spirit as that was the problem of the day. At no point were the bishops trying to make up new doctrines, but to further define those already held.
Christmas and Easter
Christmas was known to be celebrated as early as the second century, hundreds of years before Constantine! He did not change the date or even begin the celebration of Invictus Sol. In fact, Thomas Talley argues in Origins of the Liturgical Year that Invictus Sol was celebrated on December 25th to compete with the Christian holiday, not the other way around. Throughout the fourth century we still see Christians writing against pagan practices and we do not see them adopting any. Paganism was the great syncretic religion that brought in other elements. Therefore, we know for sure that Constantine did not “start Christmas.” Here’s a more in depth look at Christmas. Christmas as a Jewish Concept
Easter is an English word. The name is obscured by history, but many think it does come from a pagan deity. However, that has no bearing whatsoever on the historical holiday that is called by that name only in the English language. One only has to visit a Greek church or really any church for that matter to see what they call the feast of the resurrection. It is called Pascha in every language that I’m aware of and certainly of the languages of the historical church (Latin, Greek). Pascha is the Aramaic word for Passover and it is what is used in the Greek New Testament for the feast where Jesus was crucified, the authors simply transliterated it. It is stilled called this in most churches, so the name “Easter” as proof of Constantinian perversion is ridiculous.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people states that the feast falls in the month of Easter. Just like the days of the week in English, the months also had (have) pagan names. But does a little known language calling a feast Easter on the fringes of Europe make the ancient celebration pagan? No. Constantine did not even speak English (if it even existed at the time). How then, and why, would all of Christianity suddenly start celebrating a pagan holiday of a Germanic goddess? It seems to me that this argument is predicated on a complete ignorance of language and history and frankly, clear reasoning.
A word about folkways. A folkway is a local custom that is found in a certain area, or is done by the common people. Many point to Easter eggs or bunnies as proof the entire holiday is pagan, but these are simply folkways. There is nothing in the teaching magisterium of the historical church that institutes these practices. They are simply local customs that were made popular in America and elsewhere, like groundhogs day. Am I saying they’re OK? No. Are they pagan? Maybe. The problem is that we can’t be certain. But the question I guess we should be asking is how does this line up with Scripture and is it honoring God? But the existence of a folkway does not mean the church has endorsed or encouraged it.
As far as the holiday of Easter itself, it is based on Passover and was reconciled to the Julian and later Gregorian calendars to always fall on a Sunday. Even though Passover can fall on any day of the week, the feast of first fruits, the day Jesus was resurrected, always falls on the day after the Sabbath. So instead of following the rabbinic calendar, Christians calculated their own observance based on the Old Testament calendar and reconciled it to the Julian calendar. In this way they solidified Pascha/Easter to always fall on the same day of the week. It should also be noted that the Essenes had a similar calendar that where Passover always fell on the same day and Sukkot and the Day of Atonement did the same. So the argument that the rabbinic calendar is “the true” biblical calendar is far from certain (this deserves a blog post all by itself!).
Was Constantine a pagan? Who knows. Frankly, it doesn’t matter when it comes to the argument that is so often brought against historical Christianity. As I have demonstrated, we have no reason to think that he had influence over doctrine at Nicaea, he persecuted Nicene Christianity as did the next several emperors, Christmas and Pascha (Easter) were celebrated from ancient times, and the church structure and leadership remained in place. So the argument that Constantine changed everything and invented the Roman Catholic Church is without merit. In fact, the bishop of Rome wasn’t even present at the council of Nicaea, but only sent an envoy. It saddens me greatly to see so many people led astray by the Constantine conspiracy. The problem, much like the assertion that Christmas is pagan, is that people keep repeating it and no one checks the original sources. So if you believe that Constantine changed everything, look into the history of the church. Look into the theology both pre and post Nicaea. You’ll see a continuity there. If I’m wrong on this, then give me some legitimate sources (not youtube videos with stock photos and spooky music). Look at the evidence yourself and come to your own conclusions. If the president came to your church meeting, then told you to celebrate a pagan holiday, and then starting persecuting you regardless of your observance, why would you still do it? That is the situation of Athanasius and the other bishops of Nicaea.
Read the original materials from the councils, and the ante-Nicene Fathers and the Nicene Fathers and you’ll see a continuity of theology and structure. Read some good secondary sources as well. Some places to start are Thomas A. Talley: Origin of the Liturgical Calendar, Lois Farag: The Coptic Christian Heritage, Kallistos Ware: The Orthodox Church. Also the podcast by Father Thomas Hopko on Bishops starts in the first century and goes to the present. This has great evidence and explanations of what was happening at each period and why.
So the question remains, if Constantine didn’t bring the church into apostasy, and we see the same structure and practice throughout the early centuries, what are we to do? I pray you find the truth as I pray that I do as well.