Tract 22b
The Story of Constantine - The Man who Changed the Christian Church
- Supplement to Lesson 22

As far as the history of Christianity is concerned, Constantine was one of the most influential men that ever lived. From the time that the Bible ended (about the year A.D. 96), until Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in 1517,--there was no single person that so changed the course of church history as did Constantine. Indeed, his influence was so vast that it continues to tower over Christendom in this our own time. Both in church customs and in church government we owe a lot to Constantine's intervention.

It is for that reason that this biography has been prepared. Here is the man who changed history. If you are a Christian, you will want to read this brief story, for it will explain many things to you. Without a clear understanding of what took place during the life of Constantine, it is difficult to understand the simple, pure life, doctrines, and church government that the people of God had before he came on the scene of action.

After the crucifixion, the followers of Christ carried the good news of salvation to lands near and afar off. But that message was carried in spite of the rulers of Rome who worshiped heathen deities and frowned on the new religion. In the 240 years between A.D. 64 and 304, there were several major persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperors. Fortunately, each period of persecution was short-lived or the faithful followers of Christ would have been blotted from the earth.

Yet, as it always does, persecution had a purifying effect on the Christians, whether they were located in the wicked cities or out in the farm lands. In the providence of God, problems and trials were needed, for many of the Christians were gradually uniting with the world in the observance of heathen belief and practices.

A surprisingly large number of the pagan concepts that entered the Christian Church in the first three centuries of the Christian Era originated in Alexandria (in Egypt) or in the city of Rome. For some reason, those two local Christian churches were more modernizing than the other congregations.

At that time, Alexandria was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. A worldly Christian seminary was located there, and its faculty occupied itself with an ongoing new-modeling of the Christian faith. Heathen ideas from pagan religions in Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Asia Minor were explored, adapted, and taught to the ministerial students at the seminary.

From there the ideas had a way of going to Rome, where the leaders of the local church there divided their time between copying worldly customs and trying to urge their adoption by all the other Christian congregations of the Roman Empire.

In brief, Alexandria was surprisingly innovative in transforming Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, and Greek paganism into Christianity, and Rome was amazingly bold in seeking to require acceptance of those new ideas by the other Christian churches.

What were some of those beliefs that began infiltrating into the Christian religion between A.D. 96 and 304? Let us consider a few:

Because pagan priests cut a circular bald spot on top of their heads in honor of the solar disc (the sun god). Christian leaders, first at Alexandria and Rome, copied this hair style, called the tonsure (Lev. 21:5; Deut. 14:1). It is still used today by certain monastic orders.

At about the same time, so-called "holy water" began to be used for baptism, which itself soon degenerated into a mere sprinkling instead of immersion (Acts 8:35-38; Rom. 6:3-5).

A large part of what would later become basic Roman Catholic liturgy came into the church at that time, as the Alexandrian church copied the Egyptian worship of Isis, the Egyptian Queen of Heaven (Jer. 7:18; 44:17-19, 25). Here is how the Egyptian Mother Goddess and her Child were worshiped by the pagans in Egypt:

"The daily ritual of Isis, which seems to have been as regular and complicated as that of the Catholic Church, produced an immense effect on the Roman mind. Every day there were two solemn offices [services], at which white-robed, tonsured priests, with acolytes and assistants of every degree, officiated. The morning litany and sacrifice was an impressive service. The crowd of worshipers thronged the space before the chapel at the early dawn. The priest ascending by a hidden stairs, drew apart the veil of the sanctuary, and offered the holy image to their adoration. He then made the round of the altars, reciting the litany [mystic words in an unknown tongue], and sprinkling the holy water from the secret spring." -Samuel Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, page 577-578. [2 Tim 2:15-16; Lk 20:3-5].

The "Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God" concept came directly into the Christian church from the Mother and Child cult in Egypt--the worship of Isis and Horus. When this concept entered the church, it was accompanied by the idea that Mary was to be worshiped as the "mother of God." This caused a split in the church and the banishment of Nestorius, a Christian who opposed the new teaching. Images (statues) of Isis holding Horus had already been accepted for worship by pagans all over the Roman Empire, for they were patron gods of Roman sailors.

But then in the fifth century a very significant thing happened. The names "Isis and Horus" totally disappeared, and in their place appeared Mariolotry--the worship of the Virgin Mary holding her Child (Mark 3:31-35; Luke 11:27-28; Matt 10:37).

It is interesting to note that the very same thing happened to Mithra. Just as soon as the essential aspects of Mithraism had been officially brought into the Christian church,--Mithra disappeared within a century! Mithra was no longer needed, for his worship was now within the Christian church.

Who was Mithra? In the Roman Empire, he was the most important pagan god of the first three centuries after the time of Christ.

In order to better understand Mithraism, we need to go back in history. The various days of the week were in ancient times called "the first day, the second day," etc. Those were their Bible names. But just before the birth of Christ they were given new names: "the day of the Sun," "the day of the moon," etc., in honor of different heavenly bodies. This was known as the "planetary week."

Each day was ruled over by a different god, but the most important of them was the sun god that ruled over the first day of the week. It was his day, the day of the sun, and all the worship of the week had its focus on the worship of the sun on the first day.

Now, although these names for the week were relatively new, the worship of the sun god was not. It was one of the most ancient forms of worship and is represented by solar-disc worship found on nearly every continent in the world.

Fausset tells us that "sun worship was the earliest idolatry." (Fausset's Bible Dictionary, page 666.) The Arabians appear to have worshiped it directly without using any statue or symbol (Job 31:26-27). Abraham was called out of all this when he went to the promised land. Ra was the sun god in Egypt, and On (Heliopolis) was the central city of sun worship in ancient Egypt.

Entering Canaan under Joshua, the Hebrews again met sun worship. Baal of the Phoenicians, Molech or Milcom of the Ammonites, and Ha-dad of the Syrians were sun gods. Later came the Persian sun god, Mithra (also known as Mithras). Shemish was an especially important sun god in the middle east. Later, in Egypt, the god of the sun disc was known as Aton. The temple at Baalbek was dedicated to sun worship.

By associating with sun worshipers, the Israelites frequently practiced it themselves (Lev. 26:30; Isa. 17:8). King Manasseh practiced direct sun worship (2 Kg 21:3, 5). Josiah destroyed the chariots that were dedicated to the sun, and also removed the horses consecrated to the sun worship processions (2 Kg 23:5, 11, 12). Sun altars and incense were burned on the housetops for the sun deity (Zeph. 1:5), and Ezekiel beheld the "greatest abomination" of them all: direct sun worship at the entryway to the temple of the true God. This was done by facing eastward to the rising sun (Ezek. 8:16-17).

All during that time, there was no particular day that was set aside for this heathen worship. But within a few years, prior to the birth of Christ, the various days of the week were dedicated to specific pagan gods: "dies Solis" the day of the sun; "dies Lunae"--the day of the Moon, and so on.

All through Bible times, and for several centuries thereafter, the sacred day of the people of God was the Seventh day, the Bible Sabbath. It was the memorial of Creation and the only weekly Sabbath given in the Bible.

The sacred day of paganism was the memorial of the sun-god, the first day of the week. His day was called "the venerable day of the sun."

Now, this is where Mithra comes in, for just as the planetary week (each day named for a different planet in the sky) played a very important part in the worship of the sun, so Mithra became important as the leading sun god after the time of Christ.

By the beginning of the first century, Mithraism had become the largest sun-worship cult of the Western World. Within the next two hundred years, it had become the largest pagan religion in the Roman Empire,--surpassing all others.

The Romans called him by a new name: Sol Invictus, "the Invincible Sun."

It is impossible to properly explain the dramatic changes that took place in Christianity without mentioning Mithraism, for, during the first three centuries after the death of Christ, it became the greatest pagan rival of Christianity.

And Mithraism was an outstanding counterfeit. It had such features as a dying, rising saviour-god, special religious suppers, a special holy day in the weekly cycle that was different than that of the Christians--the Sun Day, an introductory baptism of its converts (in the blood of a slain bull), as well as several other similarities. It counterfeited the religion of the true God more cleverly than did any other religion up to that time in history.

Mithra was especially worshiped by the Roman soldiers, and wherever they went throughout the empire, they spread the worship of Mithraism. When Augustus Caesar became emperor (several decades before the birth of Christ), Mithraism was already spreading westward from Asia into Europe, and throughout the Roman Empire. Since it was the Roman generals that frequently took command on the death of an emperor, this hastened the spread of Mithraism.

As might be expected, with the passing of time the more worldly Christians of the Roman Empire began keeping the first day as well as the seventh day.

By the middle of the second century, Mithric sun worship was very popular among the influential Romans. Antoninus Pius (emperor from A.D. 138 to 161) erected a temple to Mithra at Ostai, a seaport town a few miles from the city of Rome. The emperor Aurelian (270-275), whose mother was a priestess of the Sun, made this solar cult the official religion of the empire. His biographer, Flavius Vopiscus, tells us that the priests of the Temple of the Sun were called "Pontiffs". They were priests of their dying-rising saviour, Mithra, and reigned as his vicegerents.

Under Emperor Antoninus Pius, Mithra was by official decree entitled Sol Dominus Imperil Romani ("The Sun, the Lord of the Roman Empire"), and his holy day was declared to be "the Day of the Lord". This name, and his other name, Sol Invicto ('Invincible Sun") appeared together on his coinage.

Sun worship continued to be the official religion of the empire until the time of Constantine.

Cumont, Olcott and other scholars clearly show that December 25 was the yearly date of the annual birth of Mithra. On that date, his followers held a special celebration of the fact that the sun was beginning to rise again higher in the sky. (It was lowest at the winter solstice, December 21, and not until the 25th could its rising be clearly seen.) This birthday of the sun-god was made an official holiday in the Roman Empire by Aurelian about the year 273. Here is what Williston Walker, a well-known church historian, has to say about this:

"December 25 was a great pagan festival, that of Sol Invictus, which celebrated the victory of light over darkness, and the lengthening of the sun's rays at the winter solstice. This assimilation of Christ to the sun god, as Sun of Righteousness, was widespread in the fourth century and was furthered by Constantine's legislation on Sunday, which is not unrelated to the fact that the sun god was the titular divinity of his [Constantine's] family."--Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, third edition, page 155.

The Christians living in the larger cities of the empire were gradually leaning toward pagan practices, while their rural brethren more carefully maintained the true faith. The people of God were gradually nearing a crisis, and only the intermittent persecutions kept them relatively pure. But then Constantine entered the picture--and the Christian Church has never been the same since. Here is how it came about:

The Decian persecution of Christians began in A.D. 250 and was ended by an edict of Gallienus in 260. Again, there was peace for Christians for a few years, until Diocletian's heavy-handed persecution of 304-305. He became emperor in 284, and the next year he appointed three men to help him manage the government: Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius Chlorus. In February, 303, he began an intense persecution of Christians. Four edicts followed one another in quick succession, each more severe than the one preceding it. The fourth, in 304, ordered all Christians to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods or be slain. Constantius Chlorus was the only one of Diocletian's commanders that did little to persecute Christians in his territory of Gaul (modem France) and Britain.

In 305, Diocletian retired due to poor health, and Maximian abdicated from his position. This left Constantius Chlorus, Galerius, and two new co-rulers (Maxentius, and Licinius) as the leaders of the empire. Constantius Chlorus died in 306, and his son, Constantine took his place. A bitter fight between rival claimants for the throne began. Its outcome would determine the new master of the Roman Empire.

In April, 311, an edict of toleration was extended to the Christians by Galerius and Constantine. Galerius died the next month. Fighting for the throne continued. The crucial military engagement took place on October 28, 312, in what is generally considered to be, one of the decisive battles of history: the Battle of Mulvian Bridge.

A rapid march southward, and several successful battles in northern Italy, brought Constantine to Saxa Rubra a small town north of Rome. Just south of him, on the north side of the Tiber River, was the encampment of Maxentius. Near it was the Mulvian bridge that spanned the large river. In the battle which followed, Maxentius was slain.

Was Constantine a Christian at that time? There is no doubt that he was tolerant to Christians, but heathen emblems continued to be used on his armor and coins, and he retained the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus.

Early in 313, Constantine and Licinius met at Milan and agreed to permit, not merely toleration, but full freedom to the Christians. Their decision is known as the "Edict of Milan." Christianity was now legally equal to that of any religion of the empire. All confiscated church property was ordered to be restored. (Licinius, co-ruler of the empire, later began persecuting Christians in the eastern third of the empire, but he was defeated by Constantine in 323.)

The mother of Constantine, Helena, had turned to Christianity when her husband, Constantius (Constantine's father) had divorced her. But Constantine never clearly became a Christian until, perhaps, as he neared his own death. In all of his contacts with Christianity, Constantine used it as a political springboard. In his court, he consulted with pagan philosophers and scholars, as well as Christian ones. Regarding Christian doctrine, he chose always to favor that which certain church leaders wanted in order to insure unity; beyond that, he had no personal interest in the beliefs of the Church.

Yet, through it all and afterward, Constantine continued to be a pagan.

"He continued to use vague monotheistic language that any pagan could accept. During the earlier years of his supremacy he carried out patiently the ceremonial required of him as Pontifex maximus of the traditional [heathen] cult; he restored pagan temples, and ordered the taking of the auspices [by examining livers of freshly-killed animals]. He used pagan as well as Christian rites in dedicating Constantinople. He used pagan magic formulas to protect crops and heal disease."--Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, page 656.

Yet, in spite of this mixing of Christianity and paganism in the mind of Constantine,--he became the most influential determinant of Christianity for more than a thousand years! For it was through his political support that the apostate local Christian church at Rome, together with several other major city churches, grasped control of Christendom--and imposed their worldly ways upon Christians scattered in cities and villages all over the vast Roman Empire. And the changes that took place then, have continued on down to our own time. How very important it is that we understand what those changes were.

On March 7, 321 A.D., the first National Sunday Law in history was issued. This was the first "blue law" to be issued by a civil government. Here is the text of this, Constantine's first Sunday law decree:

"Let all judges and townspeople and occupations of all trades rest on the venerable day of the Sun [Sunday]; nevertheless, let those who are situated in the rural districts freely and with full liberty attend to the cultivation of the fields, because it so frequently happens that no other day may be so fitting for ploughing grains or trenching vineyards, lest at the time the advantage of the moment granted by the provision of heaven may be lost. Given on the Nones [seventh] of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls, each of them, for the second time."--The Code of Justinian, Book 3, title 12, law 3.

Five additional Sunday laws were to be issued by Constantine within a very few years to strengthen this, his first Sunday edict.

When Constantine was issuing his Sunday laws, was he a consistent Christian? Hardly. At that very time he was embellishing the Temple of the Sun in Rome. In the same year that he proclaimed his first Sunday law, he made several decrees maintaining pagan practices, such as consulting with heathen priests for guidance, who would then watch the flight of birds, or cut open animals, in order to know the advice to give. All this Constantine legalized.

The very next day after giving his famous Sunday Law of March 7, 321, quoted above, Constantine made another law for pagan soothsayers. When lightning should strike a public building, the heathen prophets were to be consulted as to its meaning.

Constantine's Sunday law was made to favor both the Christians and the Mithrites. In that law, Christianity is not mentioned. The day is called "the venerable day of the Sun" (venerabili die solis). That was the mystical name for the worship day of Mithra, the sun god. Both the heathen and the Christians knew this.

The objective of Constantine and high Christian Church officials was to bring peace through mutual compromise. It was on the doctrine of Sunday that the religions of the empire could best unite. Sunday sacredness was common both to the Sun-worshipers and to compromising Christians. Making that day the sacred day of Christendom could bring the heathen into the Church. And so it happened.

It is a historical fact that when Constantine issued this first imperial Sunday edict of A.D. 351, enforcing the observance of Sunday by the people of the Roman Empire,--he himself was still a worshiper of Sol Invictus, "the Invincible Sun" (Mithra), as well as being the Pontifex Maximus (supreme pagan pontiff or priest) of Roman heathen worship as the state religion. Both he and the Christian leaders at Rome were half-converted Christians and together they worked to unite all under one church roof.

In another of his six Sunday laws, he gave the order that the soldiers be marched out into the field every Sunday morning for a sunrise service, there to recite a prayer as, with closed eyes, they faced toward the rising sun. Pagan ritual had required that they face the sun in a sunrise service as they gave their prayers to the sun god, so this feature was required in this Sunday edict.

Victor Duruy, a French historian, tells us more about this:

"He [Constantine] sent to the legions, to be recited upon that day [Sunday] a form of prayer which could have been employed by a worshiper of Mithra, of Serapis, or of Apollo, quite as well as by a Christian believer. This was the official sanction of the old custom of addressing a prayer to the rising sun."--Victor Duruy, History of Rome, Vol. 7, page 489.

Franz Cumont (in Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, page 55) explains that Sol Invictus (Mithra) was the family god of both Constantine's father as well as himself.

Careful historians have concluded that Constantine passed his Sunday laws at the instigation of Christian leaders. Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (270-338), was one of Constantine's closest religious advisors. He later wrote this:

"All things whatsoever it was duty to do on the [Seventh-day] Sabbath, these WE [the church leaders] have transferred to the Lord's day."--Commentary on the Psalms, in Migne, patrologia graeca, Vol. 23, col. 1171.

Commenting on this heaven-daring change, one historical writer wrote this: 

"Not a single testimony of the Scriptures was produced in proof of the new doctrine. Eusebius himself unwittingly acknowledges its falsity, and points to the real authors of the change. 'All things' he says, 'whatever that it was duty [commanded by God] to do on the Sabbath, these we have transferred to the Lord's day.' But the Sunday argument, groundless as it was, served to embolden men in trampling upon the Sabbath of the Lord. All who desired to be honored by the world accepted the popular festival."--E.G. White, The Great Controversy, page 574.

This was the beginning of something new and ominous for the Church. Sylvester (314-337) was the pope during the reign of Constantine. His attitude toward the Bible Sabbath, which God gave to mankind at the Creation of this world is shown in the following quotation:

"If every Sunday is to be observed joyfully by the Christians on account of the resurrection, then every Sabbath on account of the burial is to be regarded in execration [loathing or cursing] of the Jews." --quoted by S.R.E. Humbert, Adversus Graecorum calumnias 6, in Patrologie Cursus Completus, Series Latina, ed. J.P. Migne, page 143.

By the year 325, Constantine had come to fullest power, and a large council was called to which leaders of the Christian Church, from all over the Empire, were commanded to come. This was the Council of Nicaea, during which the church leaders decreed that Easter must be kept only on a certain Sunday of each year, instead of the Biblical manner in which it had been observed by Christians up to that time. Immediately afterward, Constantine issued a decree that everyone must obey the rulings of this council, on pain of imprisonment or death.

As soon as Church and State unite, the result is always persecution of religious dissenters. Trouble was ahead for the people of God.

Shortly after this, the first recorded church legislation commanding Sunday was enacted at the Council of Laodicea, which convened a year or two before Constantine's death in A.D. 336.

In order to avoid the gradually-intensifying persecution by church and government authorities, many humble Christians tried to keep both days. They knew that the Seventh-day Sabbath was the only weekly holy day anywhere in Scripture, but at the same time they sought to avoid trouble with the authorities. For this reason, Sozomen, a church historian of that time, tells us that many "were assembling together on the Sabbath as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria."--Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book 7, chapter 19.

Sozomen lived a hundred years after the time of Constantine. Even at that late date, many local churches were still trying to keep the Bible Sabbath. Notice that Rome and Alexandria were the exceptions; they totally ignored the Bible Sabbath.

Here is what the church historian, Socrates, who died in A.D. 440, wrote nearly a hundred years after Constantine's Sunday Law Decree was issued:

"Although almost all churches through the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the Sabbath week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this."--Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, Books, chapter 22.

People cannot "cease" to do what they have never done, and so we can know that even at Rome and Alexandria the Bible Sabbath was once kept in earlier centuries.

But, at the same time, we see that 400 years after the death of Christ, and 100 years after Constantine's linking of Church and State by his Sunday law edict,--Rome and Alexandria were the only places in the world where many of the Christians kept only Sunday, and not the Bible Sabbath.

This is truly remarkable. In spite of decrees and punishments, church leader threats and governmental decrees,--the true Sabbath of the Bible was still being widely kept a hundred years after the church-state religious cartel began enforcing Sunday observance.

We can understand why Rome and Alexandria should not bother to keep it, for they had not done so for 200 years. Throughout the entire history of the changeover from Sabbath to Sunday, Rome and Alexandria had worked together: Alexandria providing philosophical reasons for the changes; Rome providing the decrees and anathemas.

Constantine's help was given only to the worldly church leaders at Rome; those Christians that resisted the errors that were being introduced into the church met with his opposition. "Unite with the bishop of Rome or be destroyed," was Constantine's position.

"Great as were the favors which Constantine showed to the church, they were only for that strong, close-knit, hierarchically organized portion that called itself 'Catholic.' The various [so-called] 'heretical' sects could look for no bounty from his hands."--Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, page 105.

It was May of A.D. 337--the thirtieth year of his reign,--and the emperor felt that the end was near, so he called for his close friend, bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia to baptize him. He had for decades decided that he would not be baptized until just before his death.

Only eleven years earlier, he had his favorite son, Crispus--who had helped him so much in the campaigns against Licinus,--put to death. Shortly thereafter his second wife, Fausta, was slain at his command. His had been a long life, and now it was over.

But the effects of that life reach down to our own time. The errors that he helped establish within the Church are with us to this day. Without his help it is questionable whether the Roman Catholic church-state control of Europe could have begun, been as strong, or lasted for so long a period of time. He laid a foundation upon which church leaders have built for centuries.

"Wiser than Diocletian, he gave new life to an aging Empire by associating it with a young religion, a vigorous organization, a fresh morality. By his aid Christianity became a state as well as a church, and the mold, for fourteen centuries, of European life and thought. Perhaps, if we except Augustus, the grateful Church was right in naming him the greatest of the emperors." -- Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, page 664.

The shift from the Bible Sabbath to Sunday was completed by the seventh century, as the popes, consolidating their enormous power, persecuted all who resisted their innovations.

The only solution for those who would today seek the true Bible faith is to read and obey the holy Scriptures. There you will find the pure faith and the only correct teachings, uncorrupted by the errors that Constantine and others brought into the Christian Church more than a thousand years ago.

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