This Too, Will Pass ~ CHRISTIANITY'S
not be the same without the Emperor Constantine. JOHN
MACGREGOR, of Melbourne, tells the story of the takeover
that changed the course of Christianity. (Reprinted
from a newspaper article of 1988).
"In AD 312, not long before what we
now celebrate as Christmas, history's largest corporate
takeover was set in train. The effects of this takeover
were profound. It fatally damaged the movement founded
some 250 years earlier by the apostles of Jesus of
Nazareth. In the longer term, it all but dictated
the history of the Western world for the next 1,600
"The strategist behind the successful
bid was the Emperor Constantine. The takeover vehicle
was his family company, the Roman Empire (West). The
directors Constantine convinced to capitulate, with
the standard mixture of naked threats and promised
rewards, were the bishops of the target company—
the fledgling Christian Church.
"Constantine used the new corporation
as an expansion-vehicle— so successfully, in
fact, that the one-time fringe-group became the ideological
force behind the world's major economic power.
"The historic merger between the Catholic
Church and the Roman Empire had its origins in a simple
dream. On the night of 27th October AD 312—
the night before he was to lay siege to Rome in the
hope of consolidating the Empire under himself—
Constantine dreamed of the Greek Letters Chi-Rho,
then the symbol of the persecuted minority-group,
the Christians. He woke with the words: "By this
sign you shall conquer!" ringing in his ears.
By dawn, every soldier's shield had been painted with
the monogram. Despite the defenders' superior numbers,
Constantine, by the end of that day, had captured
the city and claimed the mantle of Caesar.
"In gratitude to the Christian God,
Constantine began worshipping it (alongside others
he favored), and took the young Church under his wing.
So began the rapid process by which a pacifist sect
was transformed into a creed for a series of bloody
conquerors. History tells us the Church converted
Constantine. The reality is that he converted it!
"Constantine was a lackluster Christian,
even after AD 312. He had his own son killed—
and his wife boiled alive in her bath! But it was
this theological illiterate who summoned the various
Christian leaders— from as far afield as India
in the east, and Britain in the west— to the
historic council of Nicaea in the summer of AD 325.
[Nicaea is in the north-west of modern Turkey]. The
reason for this first 'World Council' was to put an
end to the squabbling among Jesus Christ's heirs—
factions of whom were describing each other, in their
righteous fury, as "maniacs", "atheists",
"cuttlefish", and "eels".
"The big source of contention was Christ's
divinity. Was he a human-being who had been given
life to serve God's will in a special, divine way—
or had he been inseparable from God since the beginning
"The delegates rolled in from every
corner of the Empire. 'Saint' Nicholas (the original
Santa Claus) arrived from Asia Minor. The renunciate
Jacob of Nisibis appeared in goatskins, pursued by
a cloud of gnats. Most delegates were bishops, and
a bit more on the gaudy side. Nothing, however, to
compare with Constantine himself, who appeared dripping
jewelry and gold. It was this quite-worldly potentate,
uneducated in theological matters, a mass-murderer
(even since his 'conversion')— whose favorite
god was probably Sol Invictus, the Syrian sun-god—
who then made a decision that altered the nature of
the Christian religion as no other decision has.
"Constantine sided against the Antiochene
party— who believed Christ to be human—
in favor of the Alexandrians, who had pronounced him
indistinguishable from the Father himself. The delegates
were 'invited' to sign a document Constantine had
drawn up to formalize this decision. Those who signed
were to stay on in Nicaea as Constantine's guests
at his 20th anniversary celebrations. Those who refused
were to be banished immediately.
"All but two signed. However, on returning
home, several signatories realized they had betrayed
their consciences, and wrote to the Emperor accordingly.
Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote: "We committed
an impious act, oh Prince, by subscribing to a blasphemy
from fear of you".
"It was too late. The ink had dried.
Jesus, against the evidence of the Gospels themselves,
had become "Very God" for all time. Mary,
a mother of several children who had never drawn much
theological attention, soon became "Ever Virgin"
and "Mother of God." (Difficult though it
may have seemed after such a good start, she improved
her position through the centuries: in 1854 she was
pronounced incapable of sin from the moment of her
conception, and in this century, Pope Pius XII threw
in the title, "Queen of Heaven").
"After the takeover, a major problem
for Constantine and the bishops was the dissident
members in the original movement. Many of these were
Gnostic Christians. These adherents to Christ's original,
inward-looking teaching were finding themselves about
as relevant as a Menshevik after the Russian revolution.
"In answer to these internal critics,
Christianity quickly learned a trick that would stand
it, and other great political powers, in good stead
thereafter. It pronounced them the transgressors of
the creed. Just as Stalin branded many of his former
colleagues traitors, the bishops branded the Gnostic
Christians heretics. Their scriptures were banned
and burned, and they themselves were, with the help
of the Roman Empire's soldiery, hunted down and killed.
"So who were these people? Gnosis is
a Greek word meaning intuitive spiritual knowledge.
Gnostics set this experience, which affected them
profoundly, above all dogma and ritual. They said
"gnosis" was, first and foremost, what Christ
had come to teach.
"Gnostics worshipped a supreme being
who was both male and female: the Matropater, or Mother/Father
God. This recognition extended to Earth, too: women
in Gnostic communities had equality with men. Those
in today's Church who refuse to countenance female-ordination
look a bit silly when we consider that the very earliest
Church, the one closest to the time of the Apostles,
had female priests and female bishops.
"It is important to examine the Gnostics'
credentials as Christians. After all, if they were
just an eccentric minority, modern Christians can
rest easy that their tenets are not part of the true
"In 1945, a significant scriptural
discovery took place: the Nag Hammadi find in Egypt.
In an earthenware jar a meter high, buried in the
side of a hill, an Egyptian peasant discovered 13
ancient leather-bound codexes (books). The 52 scriptures
contained in them still represent almost the sum-total
of our knowledge of Gnostic Christianity (Constantine's
bonfires had been effective).
"Whereas the four 'New Testament' gospels
were written between AD 60 and AD 110, one of the
most-significant Gnostic texts, the 'Gospel of Thomas',
contains material that is dated by Harvard's Professor
Helmut Koester to AD 50-100, that is, possibly even
earlier than the 'New Testament' gospels.
"Some Gnostic texts are sourced near
the same period, but others were written at various
times throughout the first three centuries AD. The
identities of their authors are no more or less distinguished
than those of the 'New Testament'. That is, like 'New
Testament' texts, they often take the name of an Apostle,
or other divine figure, who would not actually have
penned them. Thus we have the 'Gospel of Philip',
the 'Apocalypse of Peter', the 'Book of Thomas the
Contender', and the 'Gospel of Mary'.
"[It should be pointed out that few
scholars today believe the 'New Testament' gospels
were actually written by the Apostles Matthew or Mark,
or their followers, Luke or John].
"Perhaps a second question, where the
Gnostics' credentials are concerned, should be as
to the number of early Christians who regarded themselves
as Gnostic. According to Elaine Pagels, Professor
of Religion at Princeton University, Gnostic and 'Orthodox'
populations may have been in the same ballpark—
at least until the purges began.
"The Gnostics' celebration of the feminine
was not the only reason they were purged by the emerging
patriarchy. Christianity was, in the first three centuries
AD, quickly becoming a quite external religion; that
is, it increasingly tended to deal in behavioral codes
rather than religious experience. The Gnostics protested
vigorously about this trend. They saw the orthodox
clergy as 'waterless canals.' Their own clergy were
often chosen on an ad-hoc basis, by the drawing of
lots. This casual approach to holy-office enraged
""Let no-one do anything pertaining
to the Church without the bishop … To join with
the bishop is to join with the Church; to separate
oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not
only from the Church, but from God."
"This was written by the orthodox writer
Ignatius, who was, needless to say, a bishop.
"The Gnostics wanted to stick to the
historical facts of Christ's life where possible,
and above all to retain his emphasis on the inner
spiritual life. Thus, they treated the resurrection
as a symbol of spiritual rebirth rather than as a
historical event. Today, interestingly, we have good
(non-Christian) evidence for the crucifixion—
but little for the resurrection.
"The virgin-birth, too, they regarded
as a latter-day invention. And the Gnostics had further
'undesirable tendencies.' They questioned the value
of suffering and martyrdom. They worshipped a succession
of masters, who came in the centuries after Jesus.
And they did meditation. Here is "Peter"
describing his initiation by Christ:
"'The Savior said to me … 'Put
your hands upon your eyes … And say what you
see' … And there came unto me fear with joy,
for I saw a new light, greater than the light of day.'
"Last, many Gnostics had a more relaxed
view of sex than, say, St. Paul. The would-be censors
of Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ"
would probably be interested in the following, from
the 'Gospel of Philip':
"'The companion of the Savior is Mary
Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples,
and used to kiss her often on her mouth.'
"The Gnostics' emphasis on Christ's
'kingdom of heaven within' deeply embarrassed a Church
dedicated, increasingly, to establishing its power-base
in the outer world. The Gnostics had to go. But the
3rd century 'Apocalypse of Peter' gets in a parting
shot. Here is Christ's chilling prophesy to Peter
on Christianity's future:
"'And they praise the men of propagation
of falsehood, those who will come after you. And they
will cleave to the name of a dead man, thinking that
they will become pure. But they will … fall
into the hand of an evil, cunning man, and they will
be ruled heretically.'
"The purge by the "men of the
propagation of falsehood" was so effective that,
until the Nag Hammadi find, we knew more about the
Gnostics from Church denunciations than from their
"The Gnostic movement recurred from
time to time— most notably in 13th century France.
Here the Cathars, of the Languedoc region, also had
masters (of both sexes) who revealed gnosis. Cathars
believed in reincarnation, recognized the feminine
principle in spirituality, meditated, were mainly
vegetarian— and were essentially non-violent.
Coveting their fertile lands, but ostensibly because
of their 'heretical' views, in 1209 the Pope sent
an army of 30,000 into the Languedoc.
"Every Cathar man, woman and child
was put to the sword. Every town and crop was razed,
and virtually every relic of their civilization annihilated.
"Examples from Francis of Assisi and
St. Joan right down to Mother Theresa and Martin Luther
King show us that Christianity has thrown up some
powerful forces for good. Yet one wonders why the
establishment itself has so often been on the side
of the oppressors. Do, as Plato told us, great ideas
always degenerate within social institutions? With
the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights
so recently behind us, that may be something to ponder
N.B. The conclusions
expressed in this article are his own, but the author
wishes to acknowledge the research-help he has periodically
received from Princeton University's Professor Elaine