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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Triumph of Christianity

If the Pliny-Trajan correspondence of the early second century suggests Rome's growing understanding of Christianity as distinct from Judaism, the literature of the church fathers indicates that as late as the close of the fourth century, many Christians, most of them new Christians, blurred the boundaries between the two religious communities, despite efforts by church leadership to prevent such misunderstandings. The Roman government, generally tolerant of religious diversity in the empire, for the most part ignored Christians and growing Christianity. Episodically, however, the government unleashed severe anti-Christian persecutions, finding in the Christians a convenient scapegoat for the empire's ills, and seemingly hoping to restore prosperity by attacking those perceived as threatening the gods, and thus the very foundations of the Roman state.

The final persecution began during the reign of Diocletian (284–305 CE) and extended even to Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity. Thus the fourth-century Palestinian church father Eusebius could describe the interrogation of his mentor, the Christian scholar Pamphilus, by a Roman magistrate at the provincial seat of Caesarea. When asked to identify his city, Pamphilus responded, “Jerusalem.” Eusebius assumed that Pamphilus was referring to the heavenly Jerusalem. But the official appeared to be familiar with neither the earthly nor the heavenly Jerusalem and was concerned that the Christians had established a city “hostile to the Romans.” Pamphilus was subsequently executed in 310. This episode is a reminder not only that Christians were persecuted well into the fourth century but also that roughly three centuries after the birth of Christianity, and despite its substantial growth throughout the empire, a Roman official in Palestine could claim never to have heard of Jerusalem. (Undoubtedly, he would have recognized “Aelia,” the very earthly city built on the ruins of Jerusalem by Hadrian and given his family name.)

Less than seventy-five years after the martyrdom of Pamphilus, Egeria, a Christian pilgrim from the west who spent the years 381–84 in Palestine and Egypt, could marvel at the jewels, gold, and silk of the decorations of the “Great Church on Golgotha” and the “holy church of the Anastasis” in Jerusalem. She wrote of the magnificence and solemnity of the liturgy in Jerusalem, with its interweaving of prayer, place, and sacred event, especially powerful during the Easter celebrations and the eight-day festival of Encaenia, which commemorated the consecration of the church on Golgotha and the Anastasis, built on the very sites where, it was believed, Jesus had been crucified and resurrected. These edifices, and the wave of fourth-century pilgrims who visited them so that they might see and touch the very places in which the saving events of biblical history had taken place, bore witness not only to a transformed Jerusalem but also to the transformed status of Christianity. Having entered the century as a persecuted and illegal faith, by the close of the century Christianity was the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The persecuted had become the powerful, and the persecutor, the Roman state, had become the promulgator of Christianity. One of the watershed events for this transformation was the conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine, the sole emperor in the west from 312 and in both east and west from 324 to 337.

In the aftermath of Diocletian's abdication in 305, the tetrarchic system of rule that he had established failed to ensure a stable succession. Rival claimants to the throne battled for almost twenty years. In 312 Constantine and his troops found themselves at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome, facing the numerically superior forces of his adversary Maxentius. According to the Christian author Lactantius, writing a few years after this decisive event, during the night before the battle Constantine was commanded in a dream to place on the shields of his soldiers “the heavenly sign of God.” Later, in his “Life of Constantine,” written shortly after the emperor's death in 337, Eusebius claimed that sometime before the battle Constantine had seen a cross in the heavens and the inscription “In this sign, you will conquer.” Although the factual basis of these legends is uncertain, it is clear that Constantine and others attributed his victory to the Christian deity. In good Roman fashion, a god had communicated to the emperor in a dream or a vision, had promised victory, and had delivered. Twelve years after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine defeated the last of his rivals, Licinius, at Adrianople in Thrace and again at Chrysopolis in Asia Minor. Whereas Licinius had placed his hope for victory in the old gods of the Roman state, Constantine's forces had gone into battle bearing the Christian standard, called the labarum, with its chi-rho monogram, the first two letters of “Christ” in the Greek alphabet.

Although, as was common in the fourth century, Constantine was not baptized until he was near death, throughout his years of rule he acted as a patron of the church. One of his earliest and most significant acts on its behalf was the promulgation in 313 of the Edict of Milan, with his then ally, the coemperor Licinius. The edict, which, to be sure, followed the Edict of Toleration issued by Emperor Galerius in 311, promised freedom of religion to Christians and, indeed, to all, whatever their religion. It also promised to restore Christian property seized during the persecutions or, barring that, to provide compensation for lost property.

In edicts and letters, in the financial largesse showered on the church, and in Constantine's interest and intervention in church affairs, such as his leadership at the Council of Nicea in 325, the emperor made clear his role as patron of the church. Whether as part of or in addition to his concerns about Christian unity, Constantine also expressed an interest in Jerusalem. This would have an immediate and dramatic impact on the city. Constantine permitted Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem to destroy the temple of Aphrodite, built over the presumed tomb site of Jesus, expecting that the tomb itself would be unearthed. According to Eusebius, Constantine commanded that the place be purified and that the soil, to some depth, be taken far away inasmuch as it had been “polluted” by “demon worship.” The excavations met the expectations of the emperor and the bishop. Not only did they yield the tomb of Jesus; they also yielded Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion. Constantine commissioned the building of the Anastasis rotunda, dedicated in 335, over the tomb site, and the nearby basilical prayer hall. The Byzantine Holy Sepulcher complex, with its rotunda, Holy Garden (including the hill of Golgotha), basilica, and atrium, lay on the Cardo, the main street of Roman Aelia. As in Jerusalem's earlier history, religion, politics, and monumental architecture were inextricably intertwined. By acts of destruction and rebuilding, Christianity, with imperial patronage, had taken a giant step in marking its ascendancy in the heart of Jerusalem. And as for Jews and Judaism, the Temple Mount remained in ruins, a visible proof, from the perspective of the church, of the “New Israel's” victory over the “Old.”

Roughly contemporary with the Christian “conquest” of the Holy City was a change in the value accorded to the earthly Jerusalem. Before the fourth century, Christian theologians had paid little heed to the earthly city, preferring to focus on its heavenly counterpart. But from the time of Constantine, pilgrimage to Jerusalem would be valued as part of a spiritual quest for perfection and as a means of confirming and validating one's faith. Early pilgrims included Helena, Constantine's mother, who, according to legend, uncovered the true cross while in Jerusalem. Indeed, pilgrimage would flourish throughout the years of Christian rule, bringing not only visitors but also increased prosperity to the city, and to all of Palestine, as the region developed the infrastructure needed to support this holy tourism. For most pilgrims, the high point of their sacred journey was a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the holy city of Jerusalem, despite the admonitions of some fourth-century fathers of the church. After visiting Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa observed in his “Letter on Pilgrimages” that the sinfulness of the people of Jerusalem must be proof that God's grace could not be more abundant there than elsewhere. Likewise, Jerome, although he settled near the city as part of his quest for perfection, wrote in a letter that the people of Jerusalem, like those of other crowded cities, included actors, prostitutes, and clowns. These sentiments do not seem to have deterred pilgrims, but they testify to the ancient and ongoing tension between Jerusalem the ideal and Jerusalem the real, a city of religious visions and visionaries, and a city of the everyday, filled with people struggling to meet the demands of daily life in a city haunted by its history.

Although his building projects in Jerusalem were only one of numerous activities that he undertook on behalf of the church, Constantine remained, despite his growing identity as a Christian, a transitional figure in the empire's slow and gradual process of Christianization. Throughout his reign, not only were the old Roman rites left intact and functioning, but Constantine himself retained the traditional title, honors, and responsibilities of the pontifex maximus. During his early years of rule, his older allegiance to the sun-god seems to have coexisted, or perhaps became fused, with his new allegiance to the son of God. This is reflected in some of his early coinage.

Unlike Constantine, all but one of his successors acted decisively not only to enhance the status of Christianity in the empire but also to delegitimate pagan worship. Moreover, while maintaining Judaism's status as a legal religion, they significantly altered the status of Jews and Judaism, destroying the “entente” that had functioned so effectively since the close of the war of Bar Kokhba in 135 CE.

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