Constantine the Great was the Son of Emperor Constantius and began his own reign in the year A.D. 306, his capital established in the city of York, North England and strategically positioned to maintain the border with the “pesky Scots”. At that time the Roman Empire was divided into 4 regions with different Caesars, two of whom were also nominated as emperors, to indicate their higher status. Th is was a new arrangement, proclaimed by the historic dictator Diocletian, who ruled with great authority and organisation but thought, rather ironically, that the Empire was now too much for one man to govern. Before standing down in AD 305, he divided the vast empire into four regions and Constantius was made Caesar and Emperor of the western quarter, which, on today’s map was basically Spain, England, France and Germany.

More great changes were coming. Within a year, Constantius died in York and his son, on hearing the news came to York with great haste from the province of Lycia (today, the Balkans) where he was a young and brilliant soldier in the legions of Caesar Licinius. He was a born leader, in mind and stature, and feared he might be killed if he lingered. Returning to his father’s legions he was immediately proclaimed Emperor by the voice of the soldiers; in fact they gave him only two options: reign or die!

The ‘Edictus Terminalis’

Emperor Diocletian was very troubled by the growth of Christianity in the Empire and, in the year 303, he issued a decree to destroy the name of Jesus Christ throughout the Empire, the Edictus Terminalis, accompanied by a new zeal for the pagan gods of Rome. This brought about the worst persecution that Christians had experienced since Nero in AD 68. However, Constantius had some local pressure against this legislation from his wife, Helena, a very strong personality, and a fervent convert to Christianity. Constantius had disregarded Diocletian’s decree for her sake and as a consequence there were large numbers of Christians in England, and many of them were in high positions in his army. Th is was the situation that Constantine inherited when he arrived in York. Although he himself was not a Christian, yet for his mother’s sake and for so many of his loyal soldiers, he decided that he was far enough away from Rome and the other Caesars to maintain the status quo.

A new palace in Trier

The religious historian, Eusebius, wrote of Constantine that “no one was comparable to him for grace and beauty of person, or height of stature and he so surpassed his compeers in personal strength as to be a terror to them”. With this mental and physical prowess went a massive ego and towering ambition.

All this led to him to moving into Europe to be closer to the action of the Empire, and so he established himself in Trier in the North West corner of Germany. Th ere he built a massive palace, entitled the “Aula Palatina” with a vast throne room and audience hall, fi t for a ruler of the Romans. He demonstrated that he was not content to be a regional head, for in 310 he fought Maximinian (his father in law) at Marseilles and destroyed his forces. His momentum was unstoppable. On his return to Trier he stopped at a heathen temple and the victorious general ‘received a vision’ in which he saw himself as the image of Apollo the sun god, and the one of whom the pagan poets declared “the ruler of the whole world should come”. Here we see the pride and ambition of Constantine, presenting himself, with the endorsement of the gods, as the rising Sun of the Empire. We also see the preparation of his mind for his next great battle in 312 against Maxentius, Emperor in Rome. Constantine was susceptible to delusions of grandeur.

The vision at Milvian Bridge

By the time his troops had marched from Trier to Italy, through the Alps and down to the Lombardy plains to Rome they were tired and downcast. Th ey were camped on the northern side of the River Tiber with only the Milvian Bridge between the camp and the City. In the evening before the battle, Constantine claimed that as he was upon his bed Christ appeared to him with an angel and with a brilliant golden cross in the sky, and was advised by Christ to “Conquer in this”. Elated by this supposed miracle, Constantine informed a meeting of his generals and instructed them to inscribe this cross upon all their banners and weapons, for Deity was with them in the contest ahead. Th ere were signifi cant numbers of Christians in this army and they were greatly inspired by the event; their battle was swift and victorious and Constantine now became Emperor over half of the Empire. He personally threw Maxentius (another father-in-law!) off the bridge into the turbulent waters of the river, where he drowned.

The sign of the cross

It is possible that this legend of the vision of the cross had more to do with the history of the Christian era than anything else, particularly rather than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. Consider the outcomes and the length of their infl uence. Constantine claimed later, in 324, that this vision of the cross converted him to Christianity. He went on to ‘convert’ all of the Roman Empire by sword and conquest, by evangelising with the full authority of the sole Emperor (even though he himself was not baptised until 3 days before his death in AD337). If the Empire was to be Christian then what brand of Christianity would it be? Th e answer is, whatever the Emperor determined! So the Church would gather its bishops to Nicaea in 325, following the anniversary of the fi nal battle, against Licinius, which made Constantine ruler of the ‘whole world’, fulfi lling the former vision. Now at Nicaea the Emperor sat before all the Christian prelates of the Empire. Th e issue was grave as their ranks were divided on the nature of Christ: was he man or was he God Himself? After days of deliberation the matter was still not resolved. Th e Emperor had said almost nothing but he was truly “the elephant in the room” and he knew that having hitched his fortunes to the rising star of Christianity and built his new, united empire upon the enthusiasm of many Christian soldiers he could not possibly turn back. Th e Church must be universal and united or his empire also would be divided. At the right moment he took hold of the phrase ‘homooussion’ meaning “one substance” and the council endorsed it with an overwhelming majority. Th us was borne the key element in the Doctrine of the Trinity, the foundation teaching of the Roman Church from 325 to now! It is the principal error of the Apostasy as the Apostle John foretold (1John 4:1–4).

The end of debate!

What happened to those who dared to vote against the Emperor’s proposal?

We read that any in the Church who disagreed with the Nicene Creed were excommunicated or sent into exile. Th is meant also that those like the Arians, Donatists and Docetists who had ‘unorthodox’ beliefs were seen as enemies of the Church and the State, being opposed to the religion of Constantine. Th e Church now became known as the Catholic Church, signifying it was the universal and only acceptable church. Th ere was no room for other views.

Within 12 months of ‘Milvian Bridge’ Constantine had control of all the Western empire. By 325 he was the predominate fi gure in the entire Roman Empire, having defeated Licinius in the previous year to make him sole ruler. He then to put his stamp on the Church doctrine in 325 with this large step toward a triune God. Th ese remarkable happenings were in perfect agreement with the words of Scripture (Dan 11:36–37; 2 Th ess 2:4; Rev 6:13–17; 12:9–12).

Where were the Jews in this revolution?

It was one thing to debate the nature of Christ as now taught by the Catholic Church, but what was the position of a people found throughout the Empire, who rejected the whole story of Jesus: his birth, death, resurrection and ascension to his Father? Th e vice of the Emperor’s religious persuasions was pressing hard on the freedom of the Jewish people. Th ey had enjoyed autonomy and their patriarchate had been recognised and respected for many years. Emperor Hadrian (135–138) had forbidden Jews residence in Israel or the restoration of their nation in the land of Israel. Yet many Jews had citizenship, like the Apostle Paul, and enjoyed the legal privileges of the Empire. Th ere was no legal discrimination against the Jew until the time of Constantine.

In the year 313, Constantine conspired with Licinius to proclaim the Edict of Toleration, which meant that Christianity, Judaism and Paganism would all live happily alongside each other with no more persecution of Christians. But many Christians now liked the monotheism of Judaism and numbers of them converted to the Jewish religion. Th is was against the Emperor’s plans to convert all to the Catholic faith. So he passed a law in AD315 forbidding Jewish proselytising: this was the fi rst anti-Jew law for 200 years.

Th e Nicene Creed (325) in which Jesus was proclaimed as “God of Very God” was absolutely obnoxious to Jews and struck right against their principal beliefs: “Hear O Israel, Th e LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut 6:4). So on this important matter, too, the Jews were contrary to the will of the Emperor.

Constantine and his cross

Immediately following the Nicene Council, the Emperor, still presiding and still unbaptised, elaborated upon the visions of the golden cross at Milvian Bridge! Th is time the cross had a sharp point and a crown resting on the cross bar. Th is vain-glorious emperor was dropping into the Council his own piece of theology and setting the cross in the centre of the Church’s history. Th e crucifi xion was not mentioned in the original version of the Nicene Creed but by 381 it was. In fact, this crafty politician focused importance on his own story of 13 years ago. Th at cross was now at the vanguard of all his legions. His sweeping success through Egypt and North Africa was attributed to the mystical powers of the cross of Christ. It implied that Constantine’s empire was approved and blessed by Christ, the crucifi ed one.

Yet, in fact, this ignorant but crafty leader was turning the true Gospel upside down. His “cross” was no such thing, for its sharp point meant it was more like a sword or spear than a cross. And the crown at the top suggested that this cross would grant sovereignty to him who fought under it. Jesus said, ”If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24), and “he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword” (Rev 13:10). Th ere was now no kingdom to wait for; Constantine had been granted the kingdom of God now! With the masterly grace of the magician he had inverted the Gospel and done so in the company of all the leading bishops of the Catholic Church! Th e Church was the State, the State was the Church. Th e infatuated acceptance of this story changed Christianity dramatically and elevated Emperor Constantine to a height never seen before in human government. As Daniel had stated, “the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself ” (Dan 11:36).

The isolation of the Jew

Th e accent upon the Cross brought the past sins of Israel before the notice of all the Roman world. Despite the fact that it was a Roman governor, Pilate, who gave authority for the crucifi xion of Christ, it was upon the Jews that incrimination now fell. Worse still, the proclaiming of Jesus as “God of God” in the previous Council meant that the Jews were now seen as “the killer of God”. Deicide became a new word in the language. A new genre of sermons appeared, led by Chrysostom, called “Adversus Judacos”. “Such words inevitably led to actions: assaults on synagogues, the exclusion of Jews from holding public offi ce, expulsions. Can it be a coincidence that attacks on Jews, rhetorical and physical, became a notable pattern of Christian behaviour only after the cult of the cross is established, not at Nicaea precisely, but in its aftermath” (Constantine’s Sword, page 191).

Theological anti-Semitism legalised

Th ree infl uential theologians in the post-Constantine era, Ambrose, Chrysostom and Augustine, advocated discrimination against Jews and persecution. Th e fi rst of these was Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, largest city of Italy. A synagogue in a small town, Callinicus, on the Euphrates, was destroyed by mob violence, so wild and lawless that Th eodosius the Emperor decreed that the Christian mob should restore the decimated building. On a Sunday morning following his decree when he was attending Mass in Milan, the Archbishop confronted the Emperor, stating that unless the Emperor reversed his decree concerning the destroyed synagogue, he would not proceed with the Mass, thus threatening him with excommunication! In a written challenge to Th eodosius the archbishop said that a “synagogue is a haunt of infi dels, a home of the impious, a hiding place of madmen under the damnation of God Himself.” He was personally ready to burn synagogues! So the rioters went free.

We can but imagine the fear instilled in the Jewish diaspora when this open door was granted to Jew-haters. Th eir very existence was imperilled, for if Christian Arians and Donatists were being executed for their beliefs then how should the Jews fare any better? Th eir legal standing in society had collapsed. Anti-Semitism was legal, promoted by the Church and supported by the State.

Augustine

Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, in the North of Africa is often cited by the Church, to the effect that his intervention moderated the policy of Ambrose and Chrysostom. It is true that he did not subscribe to the killing of Jews, but he didn’t mind their persecution. His argument was that the Bible spoke of the Jews being despised and hated by the Gentile world because of their rejection of Christ; if, therefore, you murdered them, you would remove evidence that the Bible was true! Th e witness would be dead! So don’t allow them to thrive but don’t take their lives!

Such was the counsel from the most revered of all Church theologians! What a contrast to the Apostle Paul, who though he suff ered so much from the Jews, could say, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Rom 10:1).

A 1500 year legacy

Th is, then, is the origin of anti-Semitism that has been a constant blight on the history of the Roman Church. Though it has flourished at times and waned at others, the basic estimation of the Jews as a second class citizen has been a constant in the history of Europe from the days of Constantine. He welded the Church to the State, even though Christ had declared “my kingdom is not of this world”. Th e Church was then bound to the religious interests of the Emperor, who introduced the doctrine of the Trinity. Independent biblical evidence was brutally resisted as in the case of any other ‘alternate’ beliefs. Th e Jews lost freedom and attracted persecution for their unbelief of the Messiahship of Jesus. Theologians justified anti-Semitism through the following 1600 years of European and world history. Jews were denied citizenship and their national patriarchate. Th ey were assailed as God-killers and child murderers and slandered. Ownership of land was forbidden and public offi ce denied. Th ey were forced to live in crowded ghettos. Th e Crusaders used them for ‘practice’ on their route to Palestine to make war against the unbelieving Muslims! Th e Inquisition focused upon them with its despicable cruelty and prejudice. Th e Russian pogroms destroyed their meagre existence, with the blessing of the Czars. Hitler’s Germany all but obliterated whatever was left, in the crematoria of the Holocaust.

Th is is the story of anti-Semitism, from beginning to end; there may have been individuals whose charity showed up through the gloom in “the times of the Gentiles”, but the general picture is that of prejudice, persecution and perversion.

Th is is the legacy of Constantine the Great!

Yet, thankfully, a Redeemer will soon come to Zion to turn away ungodliness from Jacob (Rom 11:26).