The decisive event in the history of western Christendom occurred in the fourth century. The Roman emperor, Constantine, accepted the faith.
The debate as to just when and how, and how deeply, Constantine was converted has been long and inconclusive. There is the familiar story that, having been prompted in a dream to do so, he ordered that the sign of the cross be put on the shields of his troops. This, it is said, happened before a crucial battle: he was about to fight his rival emperor Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge outside of Rome, in the year 312. Some historians attribute Constantine's conversion to his victory in that battle, and hold that he only refrained from publicly embracing Christianity because, as head of a predominantly pagan empire, it would have been impolitic to make the switch suddenly. After his conquest of Rome his troops did carry the labarum -- a pennant bearing the Greek letters chi and rho , the monogram of Christ. Constantine was not actually baptized until he was on his death bed.
Eusebius of Caesarea, the fourth-century bishop who wrote the first compendious history of the Christian churches, gave two versions of Constantine's famous vision of a cross in the sky. According to the bishop's Church History , the emperor saw the vision in Gaul on his way to Rome, long before the battle with Maxentius. In a later hagiographic memoir of the emperor by Eusebius, written after Constantine's death (On the Life of Constantine ), the miraculous appearance came later in the campaign, when the rival armies met at the Milvian Bridge.
In this later version, the emperor had been pondering the misfortunes befalling armies that invoked the help of many different gods, and decided to seek divine aid in the forthcoming battle from the One God. At noon Constantine saw a cross of light imposed over the sun. Attached to it was the saying "By this, conquer." Not only Constantine, but the whole army saw the miracle. (A modern historian, Ramsey MacMullen, comments: "If the sky writing was witnessed by 40,000 men, the true miracle lies in their unbroken silence about it.") That night Christ appeared to the emperor in a dream and told him to make a replica of the sign he had seen in the sky, which would be a sure defense in battle.
Eusebius wrote in the Life that Constantine himself had told him this story "and confirmed it with oaths," late in life "when I was deemed worthy of his acquaintance and company." "Indeed," says Eusebius, "had anyone else told this story, it would not have been easy to accept it."
In his Church History , Eusebius reports that after his victorious entry into Rome, Constantine had a statue of himself erected, "holding the sign of the Savior [the cross] in his right hand." There are no other reports of such a sculpture. Three years after his victory Constantine did have a triumphal arch put up in Rome; it still stands. Its inscription does not mention the dream or the labarum, but does say that the emperor had saved the republic INSTINCTU DIVINITATIS, MENTIS MAGNITUDE ("by greatness of mind and by instinct [or impulse] of divinity").
Perhaps the confusion of stories was a typical Eusebius muddle. He was an indefatigable compiler of lore concerning the first three centuries of Christendom. Although his Church History is a valuable store of early documents and traditions, he was often far from accurate and wrote in such a prolix, allusive, disorganized style that it is often difficult to make out what he means to say. We will soon encounter one of his most famous passages, concerning a correspondence ascribed to Jesus and Abgar.
Whatever the circumstances and depth of Constantine's conversion may have been, thereafter Christianity, persecuted from time to time until his reign, would now be officially supported. Soon after his victory at the Mulvian bridge the emperor issued edicts recognizing Christianity as an acceptable religion, restoring church properties that had previously been confiscated, and protecting Christians from persecution.
A monarchical state and a monarchical church, then still in the process of forming, would become uneasy allies, sometimes rivals for power but, by and large, symbiotically supporting each other. Constantine backed the leading churches as then known in the Mediterranean world, whose bishops were more and more asserting personal primacy, against rival "heretical" groups. At the Council of Nicaea he sponsored and negotiated a statement of orthodox belief, the Nicene Creed. It would by no means settle continuing quarrels about dogma, but would serve as a major step toward a degree of uniformity in creeds.
East of the Euphrates the repercussions to Constantine's conversion were immediate. Hitherto the Sassanid rulers of the Persian empire in Mesopotamia-Iran had usually tolerated Christians. Henceforth the followers of Christ would be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy. Persecutions began . Shapur II wrote to his generals:
You will arrest Simon, chief of the Christians. You will keep him till he signs this document and consents to collect for us a double tax and double tribute from the Christians . . . for we Gods have all the trials of war and they have nothing but repose and pleasure. They inhabit our territory and agree with Caesar, our enemy.
It was not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances. The Sassanids were again at war with Rome. Christians were suspected of cheering the Romans on. As one Zoroastrian magus pointed out, the Christians offended good Zoroastrians in many ways: they taught their people not to worship sun or fire, they defiled water with their washings, they refrained from marriage and procreation of children, they buried human corpses (instead of exposing them to the sun in towers).
Simon, however, objected that his flock was too poor to pay double the usual tax. Moreover, it was not the function of a bishop to collect taxes. He also refused to prostrate himself before the king or to worship the sun. Shapur had him executed on Good Friday, 339. He forced Simon to watch the killing of more than a hundred other Christian clerics before his own head was cut off. Massacres of Christians (especially of monks and nuns), destruction of churches, and confiscation of their treasure continued, with varying intensity, during the rest of Shapur's reign -- another forty years.
In 363, during a renewed Persian effort to drive the Romans out of northern Mesopotamia, the Sassanid monarch recaptured Nisibis, east of Edessa, between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The many Christians who fled from Nisibis included Ephraim , the preeminent Syriac-speaking theologian-poet of the fourth century. Born near Nisibis in 306, Ephraim spent the last ten years of his life (363-373) in Edessa, living as a hermit in a cell outside the city walls. He transplanted to that city his theological academy.
Ephraim adopted Bardaisan's use of metrical verse as a vehicle for reaching ordinary people. Known as the "Harp of the Holy Spirit" and "Lion of Syria," he assailed Marcion, Bardaisan, and Mani as dangerous heretics: "raving Marcion," "deceiver Bardaisan," "deranged Mani." "We have not come to stir up the mire of Bardaisan," he wrote, "for the foulness of Mani is quite sufficient."
He concluded his Refutations of heresies with these words: "[H]e who prays with the Manicheans prays with Satan, and he who prays with the Marcionites prays with Legion, and he who prays with the followers of Bardaisan prays with Beelzebub, and he who prays with the Jews prays with Barrabas the robber."
The failure of Ephraim and other church fathers to attack any group known as followers of Thomas indicates that there was, in the late fourth century , no sectarian group in eastern Syria bearing that name. Perhaps there never had been a group of churches or communities thus known. Those giving special veneration to Thomas may well have been Valentinians. We do know that among the Manicheans, who were clearly beyond the pale, the Acts of Judas Thomas and Gospel of Thomas were regarded with respect. Ephraim himself welcomed Thomas's bones to Edessa, as we shall see, and recognized him as the evangelizer of "India."
Ephraim continued to emphasize what was by now a distinctive aspect of east-of-the Euphrates Christianity -- sexual continence. Both he and the other leading fourth-century theologian in Mesopotamia, Aphrahat (a Persian), urged virginity for the unmarried and "consecration" or "holiness," meaning sexual abstinence, for the married. Aphrahat held that baptism of married people must be delayed until they had become abstainers.
An institution known as Sons and Daughters of the Covenant came into being. The adherents were not monastics, but lived at home or in small communities, and were sworn to renounce sexual activity. According to an anonymous biographer, Ephraim, accompanying himself on a harp, sang instructive hymns to the Daughters as they gathered, morning and evening, in the churches: "He was a fine sight as he stood among the sisters, singing a melody of praise."
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.