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The Conversion of Constantine

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Following the resignation of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, there was chaos in the Roman government, with three competing emperors reigning at once in both the east and the west. Because he had been named by his father as the next emperor, Constantine was proclaimed emperor by soldiers based in York. He quickly became the most prominent of the three, finally defeating Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on 27th October 312. After his victory he became emperor of the west.

Before the battle, he was aware that Maxentius was relying on pagan magic, so felt the need of a more powerful force to counter him with. Constantine began to pray to the God of his father, Constantius. As he was praying, a vision of a cross appeared in the sky above the noon-day sun, with an inscription saying, ‘Conquer by this’. That night, he also had a dream, in which he was told to put the same sign on his standard and on the shields of his soldiers. This became known as the ‘labarum’, a cross with the chi-rho sign. Because he was victorious, he became convinced that Christianity was the true religion and the Christian God was the most powerful God. He refused to perform the regular sacrifices to pagan gods after the battle.

There continues to be great debate in the church over the genuineness of his conversion to Christianity, and even over the truth of his vision. It is not clear whether he had a personal faith in Christ, and it is almost certain that he did not have a true biblical understanding of the Christian Gospel. It is possible that, at least initially, he confused his previous pagan worship of the sun with the worship of the Christian God. For several years his coins continued to feature images of the Unconquered Sun. When he made the first day of the week a public holiday, he called it the day of the Sun, ‘Sunday’. He also retained the emperor’s pagan title, ‘Pontifex Maximus’, meaning ‘High Priest’.

However, after his conversion the attitude to the church from the Roman government was completely reversed, from persecution, first to a policy of religious tolerance, and later to the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. In 313, Constantine and Licinus, the Emperor of the East, together published what is known as the ‘Edict of Milan’, giving freedom of worship to all, both pagan and Christian. They also agreed that all confiscated Christian property should be restored to its owners, whether individuals or communities. However, there is no historical record of this edict.

It is certain that Constantine was a changed man following his conversion, particularly in his actions, becoming far more humane then previous emperors. This was particularly shown in his legislation. In this, he favoured the church and introduced many laws to protect slaves, children and animals.

In 323, Constantine defeated his co-emperor Licinius, and became the sole emperor of the whole Roman Empire. He moved his capital city to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. While there were two emperors, the religious policy gave equal treatment to both Christianity and paganism. However, after Constantine became sole emperor, he gave ever-increasing preference to the church. Constantine’s greatest anxiety was for peace and unity in the church. This was probably because he wanted to use the church as a social and moral force to hold his fragmenting empire together. It was with this motivation that he called the Council of Nicaea as an attempt to heal the division in the church caused by Arianism, even though he probably did not really understand the theological issues being debated.

Several laws were introduced to limit the influence of paganism, such as laws forbidding black magic and private soothsaying. Christians were no longer required to attend the pagan feast of Quinquennalia. Other laws were passed to give Christianity the same rights and privileges as paganism. The clergy were also given the same immunity from municipal duty as was already given to pagan priests. In 315 land owned by Christian clergy was made exempt from taxation. The church was also allowed to received legacies, in the same way as pagan temples. One of the most significant laws was passed in 321, when Sunday was ordered to be kept as a holiday and a day of rest. Later, laws were passed to abolish official sacrifices to pagan gods. This made it easier for Christians to take up positions as civil magistrates, without compromising their faith. Taxes on celibacy were also removed, which assisted the rise of monasticism.

Constantine’s social and moral legislation was strongly influenced by Christian principles, by being far more humane than legislation under previous emperors. A more merciful approach was adopted in the treatment of criminals. A law passed in 314, stated that capital punishment could only be used if the accusers gave a unanimous testimony against the criminal. In recognition of men being made in the image of God, the branding of criminals on the face was outlawed, and scourging of debtors was stopped.

Laws were also passed to insist on a more benevolent treatment of slaves. From 315, the crucifixion of slaves was forbidden. From 316, the conditions were relaxed for granting liberty to slaves, especially in the church. Also, the families of slaves were to be kept intact if they were sold, or if their owner died.

One of the horrors in the Roman Empire was the barbaric treatment of children. Under Constantine, measures were introduced to give children a degree of state protection. As an attempt to limit the practice of abandoning or selling unwanted children, the state took some responsibility to bear the expense of rearing them. In 322, heavy penalties were introduced against the kidnapping of children. Even the treatment of animals was improved. For example, the drivers in the postal service were commanded to be more merciful to their animals.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.