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Constantine's Church

Modern Istanbul - Sultan Ahmet mosque is in the foreground and the Sancta Sophia behind.

Due to the threats faced to Rome, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire to a tiny city on the Bosphorus, then only with 50 000 residents and renamed it after himself: Constantinople. He set about reuniting an empire fragmented into different races, political groups and religions, threatened by civil war and ravaged by attack from outside.

The populace was divided among different competing religious groups. Many clung to traditional Greek and Roman mythology with gods like Zeus and his son Dionysus. Others, including the emperor himself followed Mithras. These gods are quite fascinating in their similarity to Christianity and both had mystery cults with special initiation.

If you consider that Constantine was a kind, mild Christian man you are far from the mark, he was a brutal, autocratic ruler. He had his son killed and his wife smothered in a bathhouse for reasons that remain unclear, it is likely that they were plotting against him, and there are suggestions of a sexual relationship between them.

As to his founding of the church, whilst it's head, he was also the chief priest of Mithraism a fascinating religion that predated Christianity but has clear parallels in it's philosophy. Mithras or Mithra was the eastern name for Sol Invictus, (the invincible sun god), the Latin name for the same deity. Constantine also bore the title of Pontiflex Maximus as he served as high priest of Zeus/Apollo and the gods of the Greco Roman Parthenon. This indicates he was, to say the least, hedging his bets. Why ? To protect his immortal soul, or to please the supporters of other religions ?

The original Sancta Sophia was probably on the site of this later church.

Perhaps the most important step for the church was the Council of Nicaea, there in 325 in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Constantine mandated the leaders of the church to decide on one doctrine and they produced a 'first draft' so to speak of the Nicene creed, which was later to be expanded to what we have today. He even presided over the council himself. The bishops also condemned the Arian Doctrine, which suggested that Jesus was not wholly God and set the date for Easter.

The gospels we use today were also being selected at this time: others were dismissed and destroyed. Why these Gospels were selected is a matter of debate, Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, in his 'History of the Church' goes to some length in justifying their selection, thought perhaps we should treat him with some caution, as he was a close friend and supporter of Constantine.

According to Eusebius in his Life of Constantine, around 323 he presented the emperor with 50 beautifully scribed copies of his approved Gospels. It is said that Constantine and is mother favoured the Arian doctrine, though for the sake of unity accepted the Nicene approved creed.

Of around 1800 bishops, only 300 attended and two were excommunicated for failing to accept its rulings. The bishop of Rome did not attend as Constantine refused to ceremonially prostrate himself before the bishop during his coronation. How democratic was such a Council ?

In 1945 the Nag Hammadi gospels were discovered in Egypt and represent some of the texts expunged so effectively by Constantine. Gospels appertaining to have been written by for example, Thomas the brother of Jesus, were revealed for the first time in 1600 years and give a different perspective on the early church. It is not the purpose of the author to labour points about these documents, as there are ample books and web sites on the topic already.

Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, yet Constantine persisted to have coins minted bearing the inscription Sol Deus Invictus - the invincible sun god.

Tomb showing the bull of Mithras and lions

Tomb showing head of Bacchus and angels

Christian tomb


Constantine's column

When he dedicated the city on 11 May 330 C.E., years after Christianity had become official religion, the ceremony was only half-Christian. The chariot of the sun god (Sol Invictus) was set up in the main square with the cross of Jesus. He erected a column, which still stands, despite earthquakes and fires. On top was a statue of him portrayed as Zeus/Apollo (the sun god), holding a sceptre in his right hand, a globe in is left and a crown of suns rays on his head.

In the same way as western Christians incorporated Paganism into their new religion, so did Constantine. When westerners cerebrate Christmas with their holly and Yule log they are in reality celebrating the Viking winter festival Yule, (in Danish and Norwegian 'Jul') even the name is still retained. At the time of Constantine religions strove to meet the public needs. In an agricultural society, spring and winter festivals are necessary - birth with the start of the New Year and resurrection at Easter in spring.

Mithras had a miraculous birth, died and was resurrected; there was heaven and hell, immortal souls and a last judgement. Sunday was held as their holy day, Sunday being dedicated to the sun god, (the Jews hold Saturday). Mithras was born on the 25 of December, celebrated a spring festival, like Easter and his followers used bells, holy water and candles in their ceremonies. All very familiar, but Mithras was born 100 years or so before Jesus, so which is original ? Which is nearer to Christianity: Judaism or Mithraism ? Which was Christianity derived from ?

In the west Easter still bears the name of the pre-Christian festival of Eostre - a Celtic goddess, All Saints Day (Hallowe'en) was also an important pre-Christian festival, and St John The Baptist's birthday was placed at Midsummer, balancing the Winter Solstice for Jesus' birthday.

Head of Bacchus c. 550 CE

Note the similarity to Celtic 'Greenmen'

We can extend the comparison to Dionysus (or Bacchus in Latin). He may in fact have evolved from much earlier pagan Greek nature gods, similar to the Celtic Greenman, but we also find yet more parallels to Jesus. It simply grows boring relating them.

In reality many of the ancient gods were identical deities, simply worshipped under different names. As far back as the 5th century BCE Herodotus noted in his 'Histories' that the Greek and Egyptian religions were parallel, Osiris was Dionysus for example. Diana could also be compared to Isis. The Greeks regarded them as one in the same and may simply have held Jesus in the same light too, just one more god.


Isis with child

A black Madonna with child

Mary is not an important figure in the New Testament, but the virgin goddess Artemis was very important to the Greeks and Diana to the Romans. Her most important temple was that at Ephesus. Strangely, there is what is claimed to be the site of Mary's house in Ephesus. What mention of Mary in made in Paul or Jesus' teaching ? Why is she revered by some churches ? Has she simply replaced goddess worship ? To add to the confusion is the existence of black madonnas in Roman Catholic churches, Mary was a Semite, not black. However, the confusion clears when you understand that the Osiris/Isis cults had a black goddess called Isis with her son Horus.

Osiris too was killed, but after three days ascended to heaven to judge the dead. We can also make parallels between Jesus and Horus, the child of Isis.

Consider a modern Italian home with a shelf for statues of saints. Compare this to ancient Roman houses, they had statues of the household gods on a shelf, only the names have changed, the same customs persist.

What we see in many churches is a religion reflecting absorption of the former religions practised in that area, not a catholic religion at all, but one with local differences incorporated into it which even after hundreds of years has never been homogenised. The religions of Jesus' day borrowed from each other and many people may have held a universal view that they all amounted to worshipping the same gods in slightly different way. The Eastern Church borrowed more from Mithras, while the church in Rome seems to have taken more from the Isis cult from Egypt.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, build on the site of the Temple of Venus (Eusebius)

If the reader is interested in historic churches, he or she may be aware of the many beautiful examples in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Many of these sites were found by Constantine or his mother Queen Helena. Their archaeological findings included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, housing the alleged tomb of Jesus and Golgotha, where it is said was found the true cross. Further south in Bethlehem she uncovered the birthplace of Jesus and founded the church of the Nativity. This certainly is one of more interesting churches. A further find was the Cave of the Innocents, where the bodies of children massacred by Herod, who was seeking to kill the child Jesus, were claimed to have been found.

Queen Helena may have been an amazing archaeologist and discovered authentic sites until then unknown. Perhaps the sites were already places of pilgrimage and she simply popularised them. Maybe she was simply tricked into believing these sites were true, or possibly she went to find concrete evidence to support a religion that she wished to promote, a religion that lacked anything really concrete substantiate to it. I leave the reader to form his or her own conclusions.


Istanbul gate Iznik (Nicaea)

Interior of the Sancta Sophia, the bird like shapes in the upper corners are said to represent the Holy Spirit or Cherubim

One more enigma relates to the Gnostics who were purged by Constantine. They appear to have held in a rather more spiritual and philosophical belief rather than the somewhat more physical worldly religion that Constantine required. They held that secret knowledge was important.

Some of the oldest and most important Greek churches (in Istanbul, Nicaea etc) were dedicated to Holy Wisdom - Sancta Sophia. I have been advised that this refers to the Holy Spirit, which appears to be prominently portrayed within the Sancta Sophia in Istanbul. However, perhaps it may have implied some other alleged secret knowledge, paralleling the eastern mystery religions like Mithraism.


Even Paul alludes to secret wisdom, paralleling the Gnostics, for example, in I Corinthians 6-7 he says: We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden, and that God destined for our glory before time began. And later II Corinthians 12:3 I know a man in Christ who 14 year ago was caught up to the third heaven. Where in the bible are there references to levels of heaven ? The concept of 7 heavens was taken from the Gnostics and refers to levels of progression or enlightenment. Was Paul really a Gnostic heretic ?


How much were Constantine's aims religious and how much were they simply political ? It is my view that they were the result of political convenience rather than any religious conviction. It was simply politically expedient to have one religion for the empire. The problem is what compromises did that one religion face to be able to be adopted by Constantine ?

Constantine may have simply amalgamated the popular aspects of contemporary religions into Christianity so it could be accepted by all his subjects. To do this he excluded documents which did not suit his aims but may well represent the original religion proposed by Jesus and continued by his brother James. The pro Greco Roman books of Paul were included en mass whilst the more Semitic documents found at Nag Hammadi were excluded. The teachings of Paul to his Greek and Roman audiences were much more appealing than the Jewish theology of Jesus and his brothers.

As Christianity rose, the other religions disappeared from contemporary records. They were not, with the exception of the Gnostic and Arian Christians expelled, their worship was perhaps simply incorporated into the Churches liturgy.




History and the First Church

The Bible and the Early Church


About the Author

Selected Bibliography

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