Genesis Of A Church

October 15, 2020 Category: History, Religion


During the 13 years between 312 and the Council of Nicaea, Constantine had to contend with serious threats to his reign.  He was thus forced to take drastic measures in order to maintain power.

Only after Constantine seized complete power can the institution now known as “The Vatican” (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) be said to have come into existence–replete with an official doctrine and approved canon of texts.  That is to say, Roman Catholicism was spawned during a time of aggressive power grabs and political maneuvering; and so was a byproduct thereof.  So it is worth reviewing this tumultuous transitional period (roughly: 304 to 312).

Pursuant to the deaths of Diocletian (in 305, who had ruled in the east) and Constantius (in 306, who had ruled in the west), things became quite complicated.  The dynamic of ad hoc “tetrarchy” ensued.  This ad hoc arrangement was inherently problematic, as it precipitated a perpetual spree of power-grabs by aspiring rulers, each of whom was–predictably–vying for supremacy.  Tetrarchy amounted to little other than a pageant of faux alliances followed by opportunistic back-stabbing–as avarice, not collaboration, defined the partitioned empire.  Consequently, starting in 306, Constantine was in competition for absolute power with no less than SIX imperial figures:

  • Severus (for 8 months, until March of 307), Maximian (until 310), and Maximian’s son, Maxentius (until 312) in the west
  • Galerius (until early 311) and Maximinus II (until 313) primarily in the east

Meanwhile, Licinius co-ruled in the east and west until 312 (that is: until he was cajoled by Constantine into endorsing the Edict of Milan, which legalized the formerly derided Christian Faith).  Shortly after Constantine seized total power in the west, Licinius was forced to rule in a subordinate capacity exclusively in the east (until his defeat by Constantine in 324 at Chrysopolis).  In any case, by 312, Constantine had become the primary Augustus of the Empire.  Thus, pursuant to Licinius’ ousting, Constantine had sole power over the entire Empire (from 324-337).

Following the aforementioned 7+ year interregnum in Rome’s episcopate, the socio-political environment had undergone considerable changes.  As we’ve seen, between Marcellinus’ death in 304 and Melchiades becoming presbyter in 311, significant imperial shuffling had transpired (in what was effectively an ecclesiastical vacuum).  As power was constantly “up for grabs”, political maneuvering was the name of the game for all contenders.

Thereafter, political sovereignty was determined almost entirely by an on-going charade of underhanded machinations and mendacious PR stunts.  In a way, the timing of Melchiades’ episcopate was fortuitous; as he happened to preside during a time that the Roman Emperor opted to give sanction to the Christian movement (with the Edict of Milan).  It did so for the same reason is gave sanction to any other cult: pandering.

So what can we make of Constantine’s religious beliefs over the course of this pivotal juncture–that is: during this propitious time of upheaval and transition?  Archeology offers myriad clues.  In his early reign, Constantine’s coinage advertised Mars as his patron.  Then…

  • In 307, after he married Maximian’s daughter, Fausta, he was inspired to adopt Hercules as his protector god.
  • In 309, he became smitten with Sol Invictus: the godhead popularized by Emperor Aurelian forty years earlier.
  • In 310, he claimed that Apollo had appeared to him in a vision, thus inspiring him to adopt Apollo.  Tellingly, Constantine would employ the exact same shtick when (allegedly) seeing an apparition prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312…which, as the story goes, prompted him to “convert” and fight under the chi-rho insignia.

Such theological promiscuity is telling.

Note that the Berber cleric, Melchiades was bishop of Rome from July 311 to January of 314.  It was during his tenure that Constantine issued the Edict of Milan (February 313) that effectively legalized–though did not mandate–Christianity.  (Roman Catholicism would become an officially-recognized religion in 325, when Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea.)  With Licinius–the last remaining challenger–finally out of the way, it was time for Constantine–now the undisputed emperor of the entire empire–to consolidate power and create the conditions that would ensure his continued reign.

In sum: Constantine’s rise to power was a meandering process, comprised of fits and starts, that occurred during a period of socio-political upheaval, when there was no bishop of Rome.  Only around the time he had seized control over the entire empire did the Roman bishopric resume (with Melchiades).  Within a year and a half of Melchiades’ inauguration, and within a year of Constantine becoming undisputed ruler, Christianity was suddenly made permissible by the Roman Imperium.

Constantine’s consolidation of power would culminate during the tenure of the NEXT Roman presbyter, Sylvester (who served from January 314 to the last day of 335).  It was during Sylvester’s bishopric that the famed council at Nicaea was convened.  And it was then that Constantine had the facility on Vatican Hill (i.e. the “Vatican”) built.  Why there?  Well, we are told, it was the burial site of Simon-Peter.  But–as we’ve seen–that is pure myth.  In reality, the site had boasted a pagan temple celebrating a dying-then-resurrecting god-man (often identified as “Mithras”).  It was a small step to simply re-identify said god-man as “Jesus”: the Messianic figure discussed in the letters composed by Saul of Tarsus. {1}

It is worth reviewing why Constantine convened the landmark ecumenical council in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) in 325.  It was, in short, a cynical–though strategic–political move.  The point was to homogenize the thinking of the citizenry, and thereby deter unrest (read: maintain order).  Put another way: It was an efficient way to keep the rabble “in line” while keeping them placated.

(It is also likely Constantine’s mother, Helena, with whom he was very close, bent his ear regarding her own Christian sympathies.)

No judgement of the council was made without regard to the interests of the Emperor.  (We might say that Seneca hit the nail on the head when he noted: “Religion is regarded by the rabble as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”)  The contrast between the Roman Imperium of the post-Nicene era and that of the pre-Nicene era is largely one of augmented authoritarianism and ever-bloated bureaucracy–a bureaucracy, it might be added, that was disinclined to concern itself with anything that JoN actually taught.

The campaign was Machiavellian through and through–right down to the selection of texts to be considered “canonical”.  Any text pertaining to JoN that was NOT conducive to top-down authority, or which did not propound dogmas that were incompatible with the desired political order, was summarily eliminated.  Ergo the rejection of the Gospels of, say, Judas, Mary, and Thomas–which were not conducive to institutionalized dogmatism; and were not amenable to a centralized ecclesiastical authority.

Prior to Constantine’s embrace of the Faith, the degree to which any given story resonated with the audience largely determined who would join which sect…and who wouldn’t.  The more compelling the narrative was, the more apt people would be to lend it credence…and pass it along to their neighbors.

That was before the Council of Nicaea codified the new creed, and established an official canon based on decidedly different criteria.  Thereafter, the theology was tailored to suit the interests of those in power.  Over the course of the next century, subsequent ecumenical councils would be convened in order to ensure the official creed comported with the incumbent power structures.  The decisions made by those in power had nothing whatsoever to do with anything JoN actually said.  Nor, for that matter, was there any concern for evidence of what actually happened during JoN’s ministry.

In due course, folklore was concocted to explain why Constantine (allegedly) converted to the new Faith; as the ACTUAL reasons did not accord with savvy PR.  A palatable explanation needed to be confabulated.  Hence the apocryphal tale of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge: the pivotal confrontation between Constantine and Maxentius in October of 312…the outcome of which determined who ruled the empire.

According to the tale, just prior to the clash, Constantine had a vision of the aforementioned chi-rho insignia.  The “catch” is that it could be re-interpreted as the first two letters of “Kristos”.  Thereafter, the monogram would be dubbed the “chrismon”.  The iconography of a crucifix had yet to be adopted, as the creed was still working from its pagan roots.

As the story goes, the mysterious vision was accompanied by the message: “By this, conquer.”  It was at that moment, we’re told, that the (pagan) emperor decided to embrace Christ.  In other words, Constantine’s conversion was due to the Abrahamic deity ensuring victory over his political opponent.  This enticing bit of apocrypha was propagated primarily by the Palestinian bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea Maritima.  As a superstitious populace was eager to believe in omens, the tall-tale sounded remotely plausible.

The next year (313), Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity throughout the empire.  The reason for this transition is obvious: the alignment of the gestating Magisterium and the Roman imperium.

But this “just so story” is artificially-flavored hogwash. {10}  Constantine CONTINUED to worship Sol Invictus after the propitious victory.  Coins depicting him as the companion of Sol Invictus (with the caption, “Invictus Constantinus”) were minted as late as 313 (the year following the battle).  Such coins continued to circulate until the year after the Council of Nicaea was convened (in 326)…long after his alleged “conversion” to Christianity.  Even when he dedicated the new capital of Constantinople, he did so wearing the Apollonian sun-rayed Diadem.  No Christian iconography was involved in the dedication.

When the triumphal arch next to Palatine Hill was modified in 315 to commemorate this storied battle, depictions of Sol Invictus were included.  Instead, the arch was decorated with images of the goddess Victoria.  Conspicuously absent from the arch were any use of Christian iconography.  The renovated structure was christened with sacrifices made to Apollo, Diana, and Hercules.

What does all this (apparent) equivocation, prevarication, and vacillation mean?  Was Constantine just dogmatically indecisive?  Spiritually confused?  No.  The explanation is much more straight-forward.  Constantine realized that wielding power was all about the manipulation of iconography.  What we see here is simply the choreography of agit-prop.  He came to appreciate the strategic use of idioms and symbols in getting one’s agenda to resonate with the masses.

In “The Closing Of The Western Mind”, Charles Freeman explains: “Whatever his religious concerns, Constantine’s major preoccupations remained military ones.  Between 313 and 315 he campaigned with further success along the northern borders of the empire, but he was also set on further expansion of his power within” (p. 162-163).  Needless to say, Constantine’s life was hardly one defined by the teachings of JoN.

So we might ask: After 315, was Constantine being disingenuous in his claims about fealty to the Christians’ deity?  Of course, he was.  Did he convert to Christianity?  Officially: yes.  Technically: not so much.

Bear in mind that the resurrected savior-god, Mithra[s] was an integral part of the Sol Invictus cult, so the trope of salvation through a deified figure was already well-established.  In a sense, the antecedent cult was primed for a revamped savior-god motif.  And so it went.  (For more on the similarities of Mithra-ism to Christianity, see my essays on “Mythemes”.)

How else can we surmise that Constantine was “playing” the Empire’s Christian population?  Even in the Edict of Milan itself, the Christian movement is referred to as a “cultum”–while accurate, not a moniker one would use when referring to one’s own Faith.  And by 321, Constantine was still insisting that Christians should observe the venerable “Day of the Sun” (again, referencing the worship of Sol-Invictus).

Constantine’s abiding fealty to the solar-cult that Emperor Aurelian had established–even as he sought to placate the Christians–is indicative of a man playing both sides of the field.   As Charles Freeman put it in his “Closing Of The Western Mind”: “Constantine was a shrewd political operator.  It was a mark of [his] political genius and flexibility that he realized it was better to utilize a religion that already had a well-established structure of authority as a prop to the imperial regime rather than exclude it as a hindrance.”  Thus “he used the victory at the Milvian Bridge as a platform from which to launch his new policy” (ibid.; p. 158).

This “just so story” worked like a charm, and ingratiated the Emperor with a restive polis. This is yet another instance of the Establishment providing the rabble with “necessary illusions”, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it.  Noam Chomsky called this “manufacturing consent”.  This is a Machiavellian version of “realpolitik” whereby dissimulation is employed to manipulate people to go along with the proposed program. (This is the sort of approach later propounded by the likes of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss.)

An illustration of Constantine’s political savvy was his use of the Circus Maximus to keep the rabble placated (read: distracted).  We might care to note that ensuring the rabble remain amused (by being served a regular dose of vacuous yet titillating spectacle) has proven to be an effective means of crowd control to this very day.  If Constantine had tabloids and celebrity gossip rags and Reality TV and social-media at his disposal, there can be little doubt that he would have made use of them as well.

Freeman summarizes thus: “Those impressed by Constantine’s adoption of a Christian God might have hoped that he would have adopted Christian ethics.  However, he appears to have shown no interest in the message of the Gospels.  Rather, he attempts to use Christianity as a means of bringing order to society.  In a letter issued to the peoples of the eastern empire in 324, Christianity is described as “the Law”, the basis of a regulated way of life under the auspices of a single god” (ibid.; p. 171).  In other words, the imperium’s sanction of the burgeoning “Catholic” church had nothing to do with sincere religiosity per se, and everything to do with politics.  To fail to understand this elementary point is to fail to understand the origins of Catholicism.

After Emperor Constantine adopted the Pauline narrative (thereafter deemed the “Nicene” version of Christianity), the “up for grabs” nature of the canon ceased.  That is to say: once the Council of Nicaea was convened in 325, the authorities had selected the “winning” narrative (again, barring “The Book Of Revelation”, which was still seen as trash pulp).

It was only after the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the bishop of Rome was deemed more than, well, just the bishop of Rome–that is: more than just the head of an episcopate.  

A shrewd military strategist, Constantine essentially co-opted the nascent “Christian” church for political reasons, thus conferring mutual benefit upon himself and the Roman bishopric.  It was then that the episcopate of Rome–under Sylvester–truly became the Vicar Of Christ.  

Suffice to say, Sylvester’s tenure occurred at a very opportune time; as his was the first Roman episcopate to claim unity with the empire’s political machine.  By the same token, the Roman Emperor’s appropriation of the prevailing populist religion enabled him to harness all the social cache germane to cult-leadership. {10}  Considering the circumstances, the quid pro quo was plain to see.

Indeed, the collusion between the imperium and the magisterium was as clear as day for those who cared to look.  Records show that Sylvester received many gifts from his close friend, the Roman Emperor; and that this latest occupant of the throne of Saint Peter was more than happy to oblige when it came to serving the throne of Caesar Augustus.

With the possible exception of his predecessor, Melchiades, it is disingenuous to say that any bishop of Rome prior to Sylvester was a “pope”.  Doing so requires an act of retroactive taxonomy.  It should be noted that the honorific was not even used formally by the Vatican until the 11th century.  Today, in an effort to legitimate itself, the Vatican opts to engage in spurious historiographic shenanigans; thereby linking the current pope to Clement…and thereby to Cephas (Simon-Peter)…and thereby to JoN…and thereby to the Creator of the Universe.

“Apostolic succession” was (is) just as much a farce as was the divine succession of Roman Emperors.  Both successions were propounded for the exact same reasons: to provide a veneer of legitimacy to an authoritarian regime.  It was a guileful way to rationalize the established order…which was to not EVER be questioned by the masses.

Until a few heterodox Renaissance thinkers upset the applecart, this perfidious scheme worked like a charm.

Considering all this, it should be plain to see: For the Vatican’s curia to now claim that each pontificate is continuing what Clement (let alone Simon-Peter) was doing is patently absurd.  Vatican Hill as the throne of Cephas?  Don’t be ridiculous.  The Vatican is the product of human contrivance, not the enshrinement of some divine plan.  Indeed, since Sylvester, the institution has undergone a significant metamorphosis–becoming ever more political, bureaucratic, and hierarchical.  Eventually, the Vatican came to be more a vehicle for political power than a vehicle for carrying out the moral messages of JoN (see the Theophylacti, the Crescentii, the Tusculan popes, the Borgias, the Medici, et. al.)

Now we may behold the palaces, the golden chalices, the gem-encrusted vestments, the simony and nepotism, and the systemic corruption that characterize the Vatican.  We might then realize that none of it has anything whatsoever to do with the movement led by JoN: “The Way”.

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