Ancient Roads from Christ to Constantine

fromchristtoconstantine2Suggested by Brad Nelson • Jonathan Phillips attempts to find the answer to the question: How did Christianity grow and develop from just a small, Jewish sect to the largest, and majority, dominant religion of the West?
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23 Responses to Ancient Roads from Christ to Constantine

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Currently they are (at least on my local PBS station) re-running this series, one episode each night, at midnight. I still haven’t seen the very first episode but marathon-watched the later five this past Sunday. It’s worth a watch so you might check your local listings. And it’s good enough to buy on Amazon.

    I wouldn’t call this a theologically-rich series, but it is an entertaining and informative one. It’s a visual feast as well. The camera takes you on a non-stop caravan of historic sites. And you’ll definitely get a feel for a broad history of how Christianity grew.

    The one I watched (again) last night was the second in the series, “The Great Missionary.” This is probably not the best of the series (although it is still good), but it’s the one I started on and the one that caught my eye. They actually get better from here.

    Some notable things about Paul’s missionary life that struck me from watching this:

    1) He traveled quite widely
    2) I was surprised how hated he was by the mainstream Jews in Jerusalem
    3) He was fearless (but still as wise as a snake and gentle as a dove)
    4) He was highly intelligent, charismatic, congenial, and wise

    I frankly have no idea how he was able to lay down such strong and growing roots for Christianity. We live in an age (probably not all that much different from many of the big cities then) of being bombarded by so many ideas and causes. As persuasive as Paul was, how did he gain converts with such an extraordinary story? And how did people maintain enthusiasm when he had moved on?

    Obviously he had some help (Peter, Lydia, and others). Many would say divine help, which certainly would jibe with his moment on the road to Damascus. It still strikes me that he is an improbable man with an improbable cause in a hostile land.

    One of the things this series steeps you in, without being unnecessarily gruesome or graphic (the truth is truly horrible), is how dangerous it was to be a Christian. It’s difficult to reconcile people of that day refusing, at the cost of their lives, to denounce their faith (or even to just give a perfunctory sacrifice to the pagan gods) with today’s Christians who won’t face down figurative feather-dusters of controversy and so easily cave to PC culture.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I get the impression that Paul’s epistles were to cities he had visited himself. A book I have by Michael Hart called The 100, discussing the 100 most influential people in history, lists Mohammed as #1, even above Jesus, because he played the double roles of Jesus and Paul (who are listed just below him). He was as much the creator of Christianity as the Messiah himself — and thus naturally was hated by the Sanhedrin (especially given his prior

      One of the best arguments for the truth of Christianity is the suffering those who started it underwent rather than abjure it. If we could reliably establish this from non-Christian sources, it would come close to absolute proof.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        One of the best arguments for the truth of Christianity is the suffering those who started it underwent rather than abjure it.

        I understand your point, Timothy. And I’m not picking nits, I hope, when I point out that there have been many religious zealots, particularly in Islam, who have suffered or given up their lives for what they think is a “truth,” although in the case of Islam, quite possible a truth inherited from a dark angel.

        In an era of “fake news” (predominantly meaning “liberal news”), it’s difficult to evaluate the extraordinary claims of Christianity from afar. Here’s what I will say from seeing this series and from what little I know already of Paul:

        Paul is difficult to dismiss out-of-hand because he does not appear to be a zealot nor a “true believer” of the kind who build crystal palaces or are otherwise worthy of eye-rolls and face-palms. He is hard-working, enduring, clever when he has to be, persuasive often, and seemingly mild-mannered always. This appears to be a man with a deep belief that stems not from some psychological pretzeling or an unconscious attempt to heel his own internal dramas — or just plain zealotry. Nor does he seem the least bit unhinged although he is softly strident.

        Nor especially is he addicted to his emotions or the need to “feel” superior or exalted. I don’t remember chapter and verse, but the program stated that Paul cautioned people that there is more to the faith then rolling around on the floor and speaking in tongues. And, to be blunt, I find those things to be highly troubling in regards to something being real, of something being real outside of one’s own emotional addiction, if you will. A carnival show of it does not persuade me.

        I do believe that Saul was going about his own business, so to speak, and had some kind of palpable, tangible, meaningful mystical insight or revealed message. There seemed to be a light that burned from within deeply and didn’t flicker because of the flames of human passion, conceit, or ego. He, I think more than anyone else but Jesus, makes the case by his very demeanor that this is something quite possibly real and not just another spate of emotional extravagance in the never-ceasing human torrent of boutique, artificially uplifting, or crowd-pleasing ideas.

        And to top it all off — again, I don’t remember chapter and verse — he exhorted people to make love central to their lives and said, in so many words, that faith, acts, and ritual without love were hollow. In effect, this is not a man driven to appeal to people’s worst natures or to a kind of shallow, chummy, self-satisfying clique state of mind. That is in itself rather unique. He apparently was not a demagogue. You can all update me with better info and fill in the blanks or correct me if I’m wrong. But that’s how I see it at the moment.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Your first paragraph illustrates why I only judge the truth of Christianity by the apostles whO chose martyrdom over abjuring their faith. They knew the truth, one way or another; everyone else was persuaded, as is the jihadist today.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Yes, there is a big difference between being willing to die like a lamb for one’s faith or being happy to kill for one’s faith. One position certainly requires greater belief and morals.

            there have been many religious zealots, particularly in Islam, who have suffered or given up their lives for what they think is a “truth,”

            I have never heard of the famous Islamic martyrs who peacefully marched out to die for Allah.

            It is also interesting to note the fact that a number of early Christians were executed for not renouncing their beliefs and making a yearly sacrifice to the emperor of their day. While it is a tenet of Islam that one may lie about one’s belief in Islam if one’s life is at stake.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              I have never heard of the famous Islamic martyrs who peacefully marched out to die for Allah.

              If the standard of the truth of a religion is who is willing to suffer and die, that is not unique to Christianity.

              A separate question is the methods used to spread a religion and what that says about the core beliefs of the religion itself and the nature of God. If God is loving, just, and wise as is the Christian conception, then St. Francis is one of the best exemplars of this.

              However, if God is more like Genghis Khan, then Muslims, and their regular use of violence, is evidence for this kind of Creator. Osama Bin Laden and ISIS would therefore be the most authentic expressions of this God.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                If the standard of the truth of a religion is who is willing to suffer and die, that is not unique to Christianity.

                I do not think dying is the standard of truth for a religion, but I do think the willingness to die without hurting others says something about the religion.

                While the behavior of the Christian martyrs may not be unique, it is certainly rare.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Well, you’ve rephrased what I said. If God is really like Genghis Khan, instead of Jesus, then Islam (and violent means of spreading a religion) would seem orthodox. By their fruits you know them, etc. But if God is not a murderous psychopath, then Paul (or St. Francis) and peaceful, wise, and loving means of engaging the world give evidence of this type of God.

                Ironically, at least according to this series, a whole lot of people back in the Roman world gave Christianity some credibility — they took notice — because of the willingness of its adherents to die for their beliefs. This may not be the true standard of truth for a religion, but it was (even if ghastly) a wondrous means of public relations. And certainly it must have been on the minds of not a few martyrs that their deaths would give evidence of God and be their own final testimony.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                a whole lot of people back in the Roman world gave Christianity some credibility — they took notice — because of the willingness of its adherents to die for their beliefs.

                Not only the willingness to die for their beliefs, but Christians’ moral behavior, i.e. the willingness to live their beliefs, was one of the strongest draws for non-believers.

                I know this to be the case in Asia.

                Of course, few see such convictions on living display by today’s Christians. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for the shrinking Christian population is the lack of conviction displayed by many who call themselves Christians.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                My point was that the apostles who died horribly rather than abjure their faith knew (because of their involvement with Jesus) whether or not their faith was justified. If it were false, they would never have chosen martyrdom. No one else had to make that choice in the same degree.

                Hugh Thomas in The Spanish Civil War reports a priest tortured and murdered by anarchists in a fashion similar to the Passion (he had told them he wanted to suffer for Christ) asked to be executed from the front so he could die blessing them. I could never do something like that, but I can appreciate it and imagine its effect on the militiamen (who would have to be the source for the story).

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          And to top it all off — again, I don’t remember chapter and verse — he exhorted people to make love central to their lives and said, in so many words, that faith, acts, and ritual without love were hollow

          1st Corinthians 13, the most beautiful chapter of the New Testament.

          13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

          4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

          8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

          13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

          The King James version is even more beautiful, but for love it uses the word charity.

          As I mention in my “Quotes from the Koran”, the word “love” come up certainly less than ten times in the Koran. I think it is used about 5-7 times and several of those times it is used in a negative sense like, “Allah does not love sinners.” But the Christian God truly is a God of love and Paul understands the importance of this.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Thanks for finding that chapter-and-verse, Mr. Kung. It is indeed extraordinary.

            While writing my character analysis of Paul, it kept occurring to me how un-Trump-like he was. Paul was not apparently a boaster, a liar, a vulgarian, a bully, or bound to his ego. Instead, his leadership may have been divinely inspired.

            And I qualify it as “may” as a careful use of an idea. The world is full of people who hear God telling them to buy a Ford instead of a Buick, or go to this college instead of that, or take this job instead of that one, etc. I do not therefore dishonor Paul with the use of “may” for the “may” means I do not dismiss his Damascus tale out of hand. I do not think he was rationalizing or (as has become a habit these days) taking the Lord’s name in vain by ascribing his own desires to the direction of God.

            That is, I think it possible that Paul was indeed directed by God. But of such things, at least in this life, we cannot be certain. We can perhaps only say that if there is a God who decided the time was right for a more direct intercession in human history, and that this God was not of the Genghis Khan type, Paul seems the genuine fulfillment of something that is not — and I can think of no better words — stupid.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              Paul was not apparently a boaster, a liar, a vulgarian, a bully, or bound to his ego. Instead, his leadership may have been divinely inspired.

              No, he was a very well educated man who clearly had a bright future ahead of him in working with the Pharisees.

              Instead, he chose to spread the “Good News” to the Gentiles and suffered for it.

              He earned his bread as a simple tent maker i.e. he made abodes for people. I guess one could say he and Trump have that in common.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Yes, the program mentioned that he made tents. He did have to support himself. Or , perhaps, one could say, given his persuasive abilities (he had no problem soliciting and obtaining large funds), he chose to support himself instead of just being a professional “community organizer.” In short, I’m impressed by Paul because he doesn’t appear to be a kook or a zealot. He doesn’t appear to be a demagogue or a charlatan. Now, one can argue whether Jesus is the Messiah, etc., but the man would appear to be sincere and unguided by a tight net of useful delusions. And, to top it off, he did not spread his faith by driving large trucks into markets full of shoppers as adherents of “the religion of peace” regularly do.

              • Gibblet says:

                I appreciate Paul’s apparent dry humor when, during his imprisonment in Caesar’s palace, he closes his letter to the Philippians like this:
                “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”
                -Philippians 4:22 (ESV)

          • Gibblet says:

            Beautiful! When we enter into eternity our faith will be sight, our hopes will be realized, and everlasting Love will prevail.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    My point was that the apostles who died horribly rather than abjure their faith knew (because of their involvement with Jesus) whether or not their faith was justified. If it were false, they would never have chosen martyrdom. No one else had to make that choice in the same degree.

    Timothy, I doubt that few would face death and torture on a lark. Suffice it to say, I believe that the Christian martyrs believed in their faith.

    But so likely do the Muslim martyrs. Death does not prove a faith, although it can be persuasive (either in the bullying way of Islam or the intriguing way many early Christian martyrs went peacefully to their deaths…this astonished people and got them wondering about the possible validity of the Christian faith).

    I don’t think there’s ever been a shortage of violent people and psychopaths. It just goes to show regarding Christianity and Islam that the former does not rely on such things (nor teach such things) as a way of believing the faith or spreading the faith while such dark methods are intrinsic to Islam. If God is a nice guy, Christianity is much more likely to be a religion based on revelation. If God is a Nazi then Islam is much more likely to be the religion that springs forth through the sick and demented mind of this creator.

    Let’s hope Christianity is true and that more people follow Paul’s example, not that of ISIS.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      My point is that the first apostles KNEW. They didn’t have to take it on faith, as everyone after them did. The Muslim jihadist has faith, but not direct knowledge. It’s that direct knowledge that is crucial.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Luckily you and I know each other that we can speak frankly and know there is no ill will.

        If the original apostles witnessed what they witnessed, then they indeed knew and didn’t have to take it on faith. Many of the rest of us remain doubting Thomases. And doubt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can become corrosive when it is used as a universal acid. But consider the awfulness of fundamentalism (of any religion or cause) when “true believers” become incensed to the point of violence by those who simply express the quite logical doubt regarding supernatural assertions (or social dogma).

        May it be as they say, that the Creator became incarnate in order to procure for man the chance of a do-over. Doubters may ask why a do-over is necessary in a system built by the omniscient and benevolent Creator. The faithfuls’ answer is that it is we who effed it up. Whatever the case may be, it would be a very nice thing if God had our backs and was there in some fashion (if only through prayer) to guide our lives and heal our aching hearts.

        A sound faith is the antidote for the universal acid of cynicism, grievance, and doubt. It can be a difficult cocktail of ingredients to hold in suspension at one time. One needs some faith that is tempered by a healthy doubt.

        But if the apostles actually new…well, that’s quite remarkable indeed. Lucky them. 🙂

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Not only the willingness to die for their beliefs, but Christians’ moral behavior, i.e. the willingness to live their beliefs, was one of the strongest draws for non-believers.

    I know this to be the case in Asia.

    Of course, few see such convictions on living display by today’s Christians. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for the shrinking Christian population is the lack of conviction displayed by many who call themselves Christians.

    Possibly the greatest benefit of watching this series, Mr. Kung, is the intrusion of reality — the real story. The producers of this series do a fairly good job, in the overall, of giving you an idea of the situation of early Christians. Such an overall can’t help but work like a glass of ice-cold water being thrown in one’s face. (Most of us are wimpy snowflakes. They were brave men and women.)

    And it does appear that, over time, many in the Roman society who scorned the Christians gained a grudging, or at least subtle, admiration for them. Not only were the Christians willing to be martyrs but they took care of the sick and needy…regardless of the religion of these sick and needy.

    Obviously the dynamics changed in a big way when Constantine legitimized Christianity in the sense of no longer making it an outcast, let alone something to be persecuted. It suddenly, to some extent, became the “in thing” and gained converts-of-opportunity or those who simply wanted to fit in socially.

    And according to this program, Constantine worked hard to also not offend the pagans. The program noted that many religious symbols (on coins, temples, and such) were ambiguous as to what faith they represented. And his famous arch apparently contains no Christian crosses and such. He seemed to be a complicated man. A…errrr…politician. 😀

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I admit to all the faults of perfectionism, of expecting too much, and certainly of using the “perfect” as a means to avoid the “good enough.”

    That said, it occurs to me after watching this program that there was a different dynamic at work with Paul. He was teaching, instructing, inspiring, and — yes, certainly — organizing. But it wasn’t yet a “religion.”

    What Deana has often said is that Christianity is not a religion. And by that she means that it’s true, not just a club that someone invented to satisfy existential yearnings. What she probably ought to say is that Christianity ought not to be a religion. But from watching this program, it’s a sure bet that Constantine not only legitimized Christianity, but helped to turn it rapidly from a person-to-person faith-based personal idea to a “religion” of bureaucracy, dogma, heresy, and top-downism.

    Today, from what I can see (and I certainly do not see it all), Christianity, when it is not merely a “social service,” has been reduced to a thing to be marketed like hot dogs or laundry detergent. The “realness” has been bled out of it. Certainly this can’t be helped to a large extent because Paul, for instance, was teaching in the era when the disciples (assuming their story is true) had direct contact with Jesus, the resurrection, etc. But I don’t think that can be the excuse for what is going on these days.

    • Gibblet says:

      “Today, from what I can see (and I certainly do not see it all), Christianity, when it is not merely a “social service,” has been reduced to a thing to be marketed like hot dogs or laundry detergent. The “realness” has been bled out of it. Certainly this can’t be helped to a large extent because Paul, for instance, was teaching in the era when the disciples (assuming their story is true) had direct contact with Jesus, the resurrection, etc. But I don’t think that can be the excuse for what is going on these days.”

      My favorite “Far Side” cartoon is the one where two deer are standing in the woods, talking. One has a big target on his chest, and the other one says, “Bummer of a birthmark Hal”. Christianity, much like the marked deer, is a bold target. It is prey to antagonists, detractors, and moochers. Those who follow Christianity seem to be fair game as well.

      Even in Paul’s time there were false teachers, and those who preached for personal gain, and people who hung around just for the free food and healing. And there was, as we know, the persecution and murder of Christians.

      Paul himself, prior to his conversion, witnessed and approved the stoning of Stephen. And still today, we see the number of Christian martyrs increase every day. In Revelation, their souls cry out from under the alter, “…how long?” (Rev. 6 : 9 – 11). Christianity is certainly real for the thousands who have faced torture and cruel death rather than renounce Christ.

      The “realness” of Christianity, indeed, becomes apparent when a person has “direct contact with Jesus, the resurrection, etc”. Today, we can have direct contact with Jesus through His Spirit. Ever since Jesus returned to Heaven, His Spirit has borne witness to His Truth. One can even see Jesus reflected in His people, in whom His Spirit dwells.

      At conversion, we receive the Holy Spirit by which we are sealed for eternity. Yet, that is just the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Jesus that grows as time goes by. Due to this process of sanctification, it is erroneous to expect all Christians to be equally Christlike. Though the Heavenly destination is confirmed, the journey with Jesus continues throughout our lives. This explains why His Spirit shines bright in some Christians, and may be barely discernible in others. Still, all in whom the Spirit dwells are Christians. It is these saved souls whom Christ calls His Church.

      Christianity is real in His Church and alive in His people – today, and forever.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Good point about the real martyrs of today. Good point about (if the stories are true) the immediacy of Christ to anyone, anywhere.

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