History Crash Course #41: From Paul to Constantine

Early Christianity attracted those unwilling to take on all of Judaism’s precepts.

The Jesus sect in Jerusalem remained small and was simply not spreading among the Jews. Indeed, it had become offensive in Jewish eyes and the Jesus followers were considered heretics[1]The negative attitude of the rabbis toward these splinter sects (including Judeo-Christianity) is reflected in a section of the Talmud that discusses the additional blessing added into the eighteen … Continue reading) .

The attitude of the rabbis was that these people, Jews though they may be, are pursuing an ideology that is off the Jewish path and their skewed beliefs are going to pollute the Jewish people. This is a splinter sect that has no place in Judaism, therefore, we’ve got to drive them out.

One of those who took the driving-out part seriously was a Jew named Saul, originating from Tarsus (a city in Asia Minor, today’s Turkey).

But, as he later wrote in his “epistles” or “letters,” after participating in persecutions of the Jesus sect, Saul had a sudden change of heart. He wrote that Jesus appeared to him in a vision and dissuaded him from persecuting his followers.

Following this mystical encounter, Saul disappeared from the scene to re-emerge some 13 years later (circa 47-60 CE) as Paul, a missionary to the gentiles.

When he re-emerged on the world scene, Paul introduced some revolutionary ideas, which at first caused some furor among the more seasoned Jesus followers. During a dramatic meeting with the Jesus sect in Jerusalem, his viewpoint won: the new religion would separate from Judaism.

Paul went off on a series of missionizing journeys in which he was highly successful in attracting converts to the new religion ― Christianity.

Paul preached monotheism to be sure, but with one radical innovation. The way of salvation for Gentiles was now much simpler: belief in Jesus replaced observance of the commandments.

Through Paul’s efforts, and the zeal of his early disciples, Christianity experienced a meteoric rise in popularity. Its initial successes were all in places where the non-Jewish inhabitants had had significant exposure to Jewish ideas.

Roman Attraction to Judaism

We had previously talked about the tension in the Greco-Roman world that pitted Hellenism against Judaism. But we neglected to mention that there were Romans who were very much attracted to Judaism.

This was especially true in the 1st century CE when, under Nero, the decay of Rome began and thoughtful, intelligent people saw the empire turning into a cesspool of decadence, violence, and overall immorality. Such people were looking for stability, for a universal moral view of the world, and they were casting their eye on some more exotic forms of worship than the official state religion.

Their search brought to Rome many alien religious cults ― in particular the worship of Mithra, the Persian god of light and wisdom, who became identified with Helios, the Greek sun god, as well as Sol, the Roman sun god. This cult came to be so popular that the Romans named a day of the week ― “Sunday” ― in honor of Mithra, and celebrated the sun god’s birthday in late December in conjunction with the Winter Solstice.

Loyalty to the state gods was further weakened by the Roman policy of stealing the gods of conquered peoples. The “captured gods” were then “owned” by Rome and incorporated into the official pantheon. As the empire grew, the number of gods multiplied wildly. According to the Roman writer Varro, at one point, Rome had in excess of 30,000 gods and 157 holidays a year[2]Montanelli, Indro, Romans Without Laurels, New York: Pantheon Books, 1959, p.128. . Who could keep them straight, or, for that matter, take them seriously?

Another important factor was the constant threat of internal rebellion and external invasion with which they lived. The feeling that merciless fate and a cruel death lurked around the corner made one anxious and fearful. (Perhaps all those hours of watching minor criminals butchered at the Coliseum created a subconscious of “there but for the grace of one of the 30,000 gods go I.”)

The atmosphere of impending doom was only heightened by all of the murderous intrigue in politics, by the general corruption, and by the apparent state of moral decline. People gorged themselves on delicacies, then vomited so they could consume even more food. Meanwhile, at the public baths, endless sex orgies with slaves and prostitutes were the way to spend the night.

Historian Michael Grant, in The World of Rome (p. 129), sums it up as follows:

The Roman age was a time of not only uncontrolled blood lust but pessimism and nerve-failure regarding the powers of man to work his own future. The existence and propaganda of the imperial government claiming support of the old gods did not remove the deep-seated feeling that every man was adrift, and everything hazardous. So the presiding deity of nerve-failure was Fortune. ‘Throughout the whole world,’ says Pliny the Elder, ‘at every place and hour, by every voice, Fortune alone is invoked and her name spoken… We are so much at the mercy of chance that chance is our god.’

In such an atmosphere, the Jewish view that one is not lost at sea in a random and hostile universe, but is looked after by a one, omnipotent and loving God, who orders and runs the world, was likely to get a receptive hearing.

The Jewish people were also a unique and sizeable minority dispersed throughout the major cities of the empire. Not only was their idea of one God unique, they also possessed a unique sense of community, had a highly developed social welfare infrastructure, as well as a uniquely high level of literacy. In the words of historian Michael Grant:

Numerically… they [the Jews] were fewer in those days than they are now-perhaps eight million… But no less then seven million of these eight million were in the Roman empire, where they constituted between six and nine percent of the population – in the eastern provinces, the percentage was perhaps as high as twenty. Comprising, as they did, such a high proportion of the total number of inhabitants, they could scarcely fail to exercise an influence upon events; given their highly distinctive beliefs and customs, so divergent from the Greco-Roman way of life which surrounded them, it was predictable that their relationship with their neighbors would become both dramatic and explosive. [3]Grant, Michael, The Jews in the Roman World, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973, p. xi.

However, conversion to Judaism has always been a major undertaking, one which has historically required the prospective convert to demonstrate his or her sincere desire to follow the Torah’s teachings.

Nevertheless, Roman historical records show us that Judaism did catch on, especially in major cultural centers such as Rome and Alexandria. The best-known exporter of hybrid Jewish ideology was Philo Judeas, who lived and taught between 20 BCE to 50 CE. Strongly influenced by Hellenism, he sought to fuse Greek philosophy with Judaism and to export this mixture to the world. Philo was a prolific writer with a considerable following.

Among those who converted at this time was Onkelos, a nephew of one of the Roman emperors, possibly Nero, who subsequently translated the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. Josephus[4]Josephus, Antiquities 20, 195. describes Nero’s wife, Poppea, as being very supportive and interested in Judaism and there is much speculation amongst historians as to other important Romans who were sympathetic to Judaism and may even have converted.

It cannot be denied that the message and lifestyle of Judaism was very attractive to many Romans. Historian Howard Sachar, in his History of Israel, p. 111, suggests an explanation for why this was so:

The conditions were highly favorable. The old paganism… was decaying, and sensitive minds were repelled by it. The clear-cut monotheism and the rational practices of the Hebrews, expounded with charm by the Hellenized Jewish writers, made a deep impression. There were great numbers of converts, if not officially to Judaism, at least to Jewish practices and ideals.

So great was the impact of Judaism on the empire that the Roman writer Seneca complained: “This abominable nation has succeeded in spreading its customs throughout all lands: the conquered have given their laws to the conquerors.”

This is not to imply that, just because some citizens of the empire converted and many more openly sympathized with the Jews, that the religion of Moses was taking Rome by storm. The reason why was not simple: Jewish laws, restrictions and rituals seemed difficult to follow. While certain commandments such as Sabbath rest and dietary laws were very popular and relatively easy to observe, other rituals of Judaism were seen as too extreme and too difficult ― for example circumcision and sexual abstinence during a part of each month.

Additionally, many saw Judaism as a national religion of a specific people ― that is, being Jewish meant not only ascribing to a religious faith, but also adopting a different national identity. Naturally, if you were born in Rome, you surely did not want to appear to be giving up your Roman citizenship. It didn’t help matters that Judea was one of the most rebellious and troublesome provinces in the empire, and Jews in general were often viewed with suspicion and hostility. This no doubt caused many Romans to think twice about joining Jewish ranks.

This is where Paul stepped in.

Paul’s Revolution

Paul’s shrewdness was to retain the parts of Judaism that appealed to the Roman World and the close connection to the Bible, while dropping the “objectionable” components.

Paul preached that belief in Jesus replaced the laws of the Torah ― that is, all the commandments that the Romans who were attracted to Judaism found so cumbersome. By converting to Christianity, a Roman was able to subscribe to the Jewish view of one loving God, as well as to the Torah’s moral vision of peace, justice, and love of one’s neighbor. A Roman could subscribe to these ideas without having to become “different” in the way Jews were “different.”

Thus Paul removed the barriers and opened the floodgates.

Writes John G. Gager in Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (p. 140):

Christianity preserved all the advantages of its Jewish heritage but without the only two factors that might otherwise have inhibited its growth: the obligation of the ritual law and the close connection between religion and national identity. By proclaiming that the Christ was ‘the end of the law’ and by presenting itself to the world as ‘the new spiritual Israel,’ Hellenistic Christianity was able to reap the political and social fruits that had been sown by three centuries of Hellenistic Judaism.

Needless to say, observant Jews objected to Paul, a Jew whom they saw as the worst kind of heretic. Indeed, because of Jewish complaints against him, Paul was arrested by the Roman authorities, held for a time under house arrest, and finally executed in or around 67 CE (the year of the start of the Great Revolt against Rome in Israel.)

Christian tradition has it that Paul and the chief apostle of Jesus, Peter, were buried on Vatican Hill, the current seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

After the death of Paul, Christianity continued to evolve and grow. Many controversies arose as the new religion struggled to develop its core theology.

As this is a book about Jewish History and not a treatise on Christianity, we are not going to get involved in the discussing the development of the Christian dogmas of the Trinity, virgin birth, resurrection, etc., nor of the various “heresies” which flourished in early Christian Church. For those interested in the subject, the premier work is by Christian historian Paul Johnson, titledHistory of Christianity.

Suffice it to say that it took some 300 years for the early Christian Church to get down its core dogma, which turned out to be a synthesis of Jewish ideas, Greek ideas and other pagan ideas. With the growth of Christianity came stiff resistance from official Rome ― the new religion was catching on too well and threatening the state religion and therefore stability of the state. Christianity was outlawed in Rome and those who were caught practicing it were regularly crucified or fed to the lions in the Coliseum.

These persecutions which came in waves (depending on the tolerance level of the Roman Emperor in power) actually served to make Christianity stronger. In this regard, the Christians were following the precedent-setting behavior of the Jews in the days of the Greek Empire. (Back then, no one died for their religion ― no one, except the Jews. )

And then, suddenly, in 312 CE, a remarkable thing happened which dramatically changed Christian fortune and led, within a dozen years, to the elevation of Christianity to the state religion of the Roman Empire. The remarkable thing was the conversion of Constantine, who would become the Emperor of Rome.


On the eve of a battle with his rival for the throne of Rome, Constantine reported that he had a dream of Jesus followed by a vision of a cross superimposed on the sun.

Constantine was prone to visions, having a couple years earlier claimed seeing the sun god Sol in a grove of Apollo in Gaul. The juxtaposition of the two ― cross and sun ― was an omen for victory and, when Constantine won the battle, he gave the credit to his new-found god and converted to Christianity.

Oxford scholar David L. Edwards, Provost of London’s Southwark Cathedral and author ofChristianity: The First Two Thousand Years, openly doubts the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion as do other Christian scholars.

But such are the quirks of history. Soon Constantine was emperor and he chose to establish his capital in the east, in Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople.

Eventually, the empire would split into two ― the Western empire would collapse in the 5th century, but the Eastern empire would survive another thousand years.) Thus, Christianity became the official state religion of the new order ― the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine had initiated a unique way of seeing Christianity ― by a merging of pagan and Christian symbols (sun and cross). Over the next few hundred years much more such synthesis followed.

Though Christians like to see Christianity as “the religion of love” and Judaism as “the religion of law,” looking at Constantine’s record, a Jew might well ask: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Writes Johnson in History of Christianity (p. 68:

He [Constantine] had no respect for human life, and as emperor he executed his eldest son, his own second wife, his favorite sister’s husband and ‘many others’ on doubtful charges … He was much criticized for condemning prisoners of war to mortal combat with wild beasts at Trier and Comar and for wholesale massacres in north Africa.

It didn’t help that there was soon unleashed a bitter struggle for wealth and power that was bound to come with being the only act in town.

With the aim of eradicating paganism, Christian mobs scoured the land of the empire smashing idols and burning temples. Writes Johnson (p. 76):

[The Church] transformed itself from a suffering and victimized body, begging toleration, into a coercive one, demanding monopoly…

Cynics have charged that once it became a state power, the Christian Church turned the cross into a sword, and its ability to convert the Western world had less to do with its message than its methods. By the late 4th century CE the official government efforts at intimidation through laws and decrees ― aided by mob terrorism ― succeeded in imposing Christianity on the majority of the empire.

With the disappearance of paganism, Judaism began to stick out like a sore thumb. As always, it was strange and separate, and it wouldn’t compromise. The stubborn Jews, as they had done with every other religion that had assaulted their belief system previously, were obstinately refusing to bow to the new order.

This presented a special problem, as William Nicholls explains in Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (p. 90):

…the very presence of the Jewish people in the world, continuing to believe in the faithfulness of God to the original covenant… puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility.

Within a short time, Jews living in the Empire had lost most of their civil rights. (For example, for a Jew to marry a Christian was an offense punishable by death.) The Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, was forbidden to meet, and sermons against the Jews, often inciting violence, were routinely preached. The idea of presenting Jews as the killers of Jesus originated at this time, though it was not popularized until several hundred years later.

By the early 7th century when the Byzantine might began to wobble ― facing attacks from the Persians who swallowed up chunks of the territory and even took Jerusalem ― the Jews living in the empire were in a very precarious position. Anti-Jewish legislation, heavy taxes and outbreaks of violence and forced conversions, all had taken their toll on the population. Hoping to find a respite from the Christians, some fled back home to safety. But when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius reclaimed Jerusalem in 629 CE, the poor Jews who found themselves there were brutally massacred.

Praying for relief, these Jews no doubt could never have dreamed that relief would come in the form of a “mixed blessing” from a most unexpected place ― from Saudi Arabia. There in Mecca ― a place that had long been the center of pagan worship at the famed Black Stone of Kaaba ― an unusual man named Mohammed was preaching an unusual message.


1 The negative attitude of the rabbis toward these splinter sects (including Judeo-Christianity) is reflected in a section of the Talmud that discusses the additional blessing added into the eighteen blessings of the Amidah ― the silent prayers recited three times daily by observant Jews: These eighteen [benedictions] are [really] nineteen. Rabbi Levi said: the blessing against the heretics (minim) was innovated at Yavne… “Our Rabbis taught: Shimon HaPakoli arranged the Eighteen Benedictions in order before Rabban Gamliel at Yavneh (ca. 80 C.E.). Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: “Is there nobody who knows how to create a blessing against the heretics?” Shmuel HaKatan arose and created it.” (Talmud – Brachot 28b
2 Montanelli, Indro, Romans Without Laurels, New York: Pantheon Books, 1959, p.128.
3 Grant, Michael, The Jews in the Roman World, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973, p. xi.
4 Josephus, Antiquities 20, 195.
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