Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Emperor's New Clothes: Constantine and the DaVinci Code

In our series on the DaVinci Code, we have been talking about how this popular novel and soon-to-be movie has presented it’s action-packed thriller as if it were based on historical facts. And many of these so-called facts are accusations of all sorts of things against Jesus, the Bible and the church. Now, in our first discussion, we debunked the existence of the so-called Priory of Sion. It has been demonstrated in a French court of law to have been nothing more than a hoax started by a lonely prankster. Then in our second discussion, we examined the issue of the allegation that Jesus was married with children. We dismissed that notion altogether by examining biblical and historical evidence. Then last week, we discussed Mary Magdalene, what we know about her, and what we don’t. The DVC claims she was married to Jesus, but we demonstrated that there is not one strand of historical evidence to support that ridiculous claim. We acknowledged her as a follower of Jesus and a witness of His death, burial, and resurrection.

Now, the DVC dives into Church History to make accusations against Constantine, the fourth century emperor of Rome. Often, when someone undergoes a religious conversion, it is described as the putting on of a new garment. Therefore, I have borrowed the title of one of my favorite old stories for this study: The Emperor’s New Clothes.

But first, we interrupt this message to bring you an Olympic Update …

An Olympic Update? What am I crazy? The Olympics ended nearly two months ago. Yes, I just love the Olympics so much, especially the winter games, that I can’t help pointing this out. On p37 of the DVC, in a discussion of ancient goddess worship, specifically the goddess Venus, Robert Langdon, the leading man of DVC, tells the police captain how the pentacle, or pentagram, was a symbol of Venus, who Langdon said made a perfect pentacle across the sky every eight years. Even the Olympics pay tribute to Venus with their celebration of 8 year cycles, Brown writes. And then he says, “Even fewer people knew that the five-pointed star had almost become the official Olympic seal but was modified at the last moment—it’s five points exchanged for five intersecting rings.”

Yes, very few knew this, because it isn’t true. The truth is that the circle symbol we are familiar with was not even used by the Greeks in their games. It was created in 1913 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the I.O.C., but it was not used until 1920. The five rings, rather than reflecting the games’ spirit of inclusion and harmony as Brown suggests, were to represent five continents, with North and South America being considered one. Initially, however, the rings were to represent the previous five modern Olympics prior to 1920, and new rings were to be added at each Olympiad, but designers felt best to keep it as is, and use the rings to symbolize the continents. Every country in the world uses at least one of the colors in their flag.

By the way, Brown is also incorrect in that the initial Olympics were held every four years, not eight. And they were held in honor of Zeus, not Venus. Contrary to his insistence that the ancient world was more gender-neutral than today, women were not even allowed to compete or observe the original Olympic games. So much for their being a celebration of femininity. Today if you want to see a celebration of femininity in the winter Olympics, you can watch the men’s figure skating competition of the Winter Olympics. That’s a joke. Sort-of.

So with that update, we remind you that Truth so far has retained the Gold, and because of its numerous infractions, the Davinci Code has been disqualified from every heat it has run. Now back to your regular programming already in progress: Constantine starring in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Just to give you a brief snapshot of Constantine’s life, I will highlight some key dates and moments. Constantine lived during the approximate time period of 274-337 AD. In 305, he began to vie for the imperial throne, striving against Maxentius and Licinius. He claimed to convert to Christianity in 312 before securing the reign of the Empire at battle of Milvian bridge. In the following year, he declared total freedom for Christians throughout the Empire. Constantine overcame Licinius to govern Rome alone in 324. The following year, he summoned the Council of Nicea (325). While Emperor, he moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

One of the key moments in Constantine’s life is his claim to conversion which occurred in 312 before the Battle at Milvian Bridge just north of Rome. In this impending battle, Constantine was poised to dislodge his political rival Maxentius and capture Rome. In a dream he saw the image of a labarum, which is a cross of the letters chi and rho (an early symbol of Jesus). Eusebius, the early Church Historian and personal acquaintance of Constantine, writes, “He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and an inscription, CONQUER BY THIS, attached to it. … Then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which he had seen in the heavens and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.” (qtd in Mark Noll, Turning Points, 50). At the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine defeated his enemy, became Emperor, and claimed Christianity for himself. Immediately, he and fellow emperor Licinius issued a decree making Christianity legal, and ordering tolerance toward all peaceful religions in the Empire. Down through the centuries, many have thought that Constantine’s conversion was merely a political maneuver. But we will discuss that in a moment.

First, let’s look at the Constantine of the Code.

On p124 we read that Constantine “converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever.” This presupposes that there was a unified religious system prior to Constantine, a claim that is as ridiculous as it is false. Paganism has always held to dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of gods and goddesses. The idea that Brown thinks was the dominant form of ancient paganism is really the 1800s model of neopaganism which gave rise to New Age movements and Wicca. They concocted all these supposed ties to an ancient mystical feminist religion so they could tie in their emphasis on the mother earth.

On p234, we read that Constantine “commissioned and financed a new Bible which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike.” In fact, this is not true. Constantine never collated a Bible. The Canon of the Old Testament was established prior to the time of Christ. Most of the canon of the New Testament is well attested prior to the middle of the second century, about the time that the Gnostic gospels were surfacing. The gnostic writings were being rejected by the early church long before Constantine because they did not portray the Christ of history and Scripture, and they were of dubious origin. In fact, far from making Christ “more human” than the canonical gospels, they make Him more spiritual if anything. The Gnostics hated the material world, and one brand of them, the Docetics, accepted the full deity of Christ, but denied the incarnation because they refused to believe that holy God would become mortal flesh.

Constantine never financed a Bible. He did rquest that Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, make 50 copies of the Bible, allowing him to decide what books should be included based on the existing lists of of accepted, disputed, and rejected books.

On p232, we find that the Constantine of the Code was a “lifelong pagan” … “Rome’s official religion was sun worship—the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun—and Constantine was its head priest.”

Was Constantine a lifelong pagan? Well, we will look more at his the genuineness of his conversion momentarily, but suffice to say that the fact that he indeed did affirm Christianity rather than paganism is attested nearly unanimously by all historians. Even Elaine Pagels acknowledges this, and Brown gets a lot of his information from her. It is partially true that Constantine was the head priest of Sol Invictus. It was the state’s official religion, and the Roman Senate considered every emperor to be the religious head as well. This is the same as in England today, where the King or Queen is considered the head of the Anglican church, though they may not even be Christians. So, it was a title that he bore, regardless of his own participation in the sun cult.

On pp232-233, we find one of the most absurd claims in the entire Da Vinci Code. Here we are told that Constantine shifted Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday “to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun.” On what day did the early church meet for worship? You know this, the Bible tells you plainly: Now you might say Sunday, and point to Matthew 28:1, where it says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave and we are told that it is “after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week.” And we know that they found that Jesus is risen from the dead, and so they began to meet for worship on Sunday, right? Come on. You can do better than that. On what day did they meet for worship? Acts 2:46-47 – “And DAY BY DAY continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number DAY BY DAY those who were being saved.”

They met every day! Now, of course we are talking about a Jerusalem church, surrounded by the culture of Israel. Let’s say that they “changed the Sabbath” from Saturday to Sunday as some say. And let’s take one Christian in that early church, we’ll call him Chris. Chris owns a shop in downtown Jerusalem. He is a Christian now, so he isn’t going to observe the Sabbath anymore. He goes down to his shop on Saturday morning and opens it up. Who shops there? Nobody! They’re all on the Sabbath rest. Now, Chris is committed though, and so he closes his shop on Sunday. Well, too bad for him because the Sabbath is over and everyone is out shopping now. He’d be a foolish business man to do this in the name of observing a “Christian Sabbath.” The early church didn’t move the Sabbath. The Sabbath is Saturday, always has been, always will be. In fact, I encourage you, to practice a Sabbath in your life. Sunday is no Sabbath for me. But God knew when He issued the commandments that man needed a day of rest. Whether you rest on Saturday or Sunday, you need a Sabbath rest in your life. It’s not a day of recreation – it’s a day of rest. That has nothing to do with Constantine, just thought I’d throw it in.

But did Constantine make Sunday the official day of worship? No. Acts 20:7 shows the Christians meeting on “the first day of the week,” and Paul exhorts the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 16:2 to take their offerings on the first day of the week. John refers to “the Lord’s day,” which we know from Church History is Sunday, in Revelation 1:9-10.

In the reign of Trajan (98-117), Saturday worship was outlawed. So, Christians began to look more officially toward Sunday as a day of worship. Keep in mind, we’re still 200 years prior to Constantine. Constantine did say in 321 that people should rest on the day of the sun, but this was an effort to restrain public disturbances during Christian worship. No reference to a Christian Sabbath was ever made until about 1100 AD.

On pp234-235, the claims just grow from sublime to ridiculous. Dan Brown claims that Constantine tried to destroy some of the many gospels that existed in his day, but many of them “managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s … and of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi.”

Brown claims that there were more than 80 gospels considered for inclusion in the New Testament. And somehow a vote was taken, and the four gospels we currently recognize were elected to be official. In actuality, the acceptance of the four gospels we currently have in the NT was established by the end of the first century. Other gospels were rejected as soon as they surfaced. If eighty of these writings could be found, not very many of them at all would even portend to be gospels, a term used restrictively to refer to a treatment of the life of Christ. The shunning of these books took place long before Constantine. For that matter, the Dead Sea Scrolls were not found in the 1950’s, but in 1947. The scrolls were from a community of pious Jews known as Essenes. The scrolls are primarliy Old Testament writings, most written centuries before Christ. Not one of these writings have anything to do with Jesus or Christianity. While Brown says that the Nag Hammadi texts are the “earliest Christian records,” we have seen in our previous studies that they do not come about until the mid-late second century, nearly a hundred years after most of the NT was written. So, it is the writings we now have preserved in the New Testament, and not the later Gnostic writings, that are the earliest and most authentic Christian records.

On p232 we read, “In 325 AD, he decided to unify Rome under a single religion. Christianity.” The reference to 325 is the date of the Council of Nicea. We are going to discuss it in our next study, but for now, let it suffice to say that this was not the purpose of the council, and it would not have been able to have this effect. Probably what Brown has in mind here is what is commonly known as “the edict of Milan.” Historian Mark Noll points out that it wasn’t officially an edict, and it did not come from Milan, so it probably should have another name. Issued nearly immediately after his “conversion” experience at Milvian bridge, Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius, issued a decree legalizing Christianity, and requiring tolerance for all peaceful religions in the Empire. As you can see this is far from making Christianity the official religion, or even unifying the Empire under one religious umbrella. Christianity was eventually established as the only legal religion of the empire, but it was not until the reign of Theodosius, nearly half a century after Constantine’s reign.

Well, it is hard to recognize the Constantine of the DVC, since he is so patently different from the Constantine of history. And I should say that I am not the president of the Constantine Fan Club, so I am in no way out to defend him here.

Was Constantine really truly converted to Christianity? Was his conversion at Milvian Bridge genuine or was it just a political ploy? There are many good scholars on both sides of the argument. But let’s begin by stating the case against the genuineness of his conversion. And these arguments are made by secular historians as well as many Christians.

After his alleged conversion, Constantine continued to honor pagan gods and customs. He confirmed privileges to pagan priests even shortly before his death. He took a pluralistic approach to religion in the empire (a historical fact virtually ignored by the DVC). He weakened the church by opening it up to dependency on the state. He made Christianity a “socially acceptable” institution, meaning that it was no longer only for the devout believer who was willing to die for his faith. Before Constantine, a person had to be so convinced of the truth of the Christian faith that he or she was willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom for Christ. Now it was possible to be a casual, even carnal Christian. Constantine made it possible for someone to “dabble” in Christianity. Shelley says, “Masses … now streamed into the officially favored church. …many came who were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested, and still half-rooted in paganism.”

Constantine also weakened the church by demanding the unconditional allegiance and obedience of church leaders, and he enforced this with the authority of the state. This weakened the church’s prophetic voice in the culture, virtually censoring all speech that would come against him or the Empire. Also, Constantine refused to be baptized until just before his death. Dan Brown says that he was baptized then because he was too feeble to protest.

On top of all this, the reign of Constantine as emperor was marked by conspiracy, murder, and the continuation of Sol Invictus as the state religion, with himself remaining the official head, or Pontifex Maximus of the cult.

So, with all these facts on the table, can we really say he was a genuinely converted man and a sincere follower of Jesus Christ? Let’s consider the argument that his conversion was real. First, it is undeniable that Constantine favored Christianity openly over all other religions, though he ordered tolerance of all peaceable religions in the Empire. He also gave Christian ministers tax exemption equal to that afforded to pagan priests. As a demonstration of his renewed conscience, he abolished crucifixion and gladiators. He made Sunday a public holiday (but not a required day of worship) in the Empire. He financed many magnificent cathedrals and other Church buildings. Perhaps most telling is that he raised his children in Christian teaching, and lived in a generally moral way after his conversion.

Was Constantine really saved? There are good arguments on both sides. He had a noticeable change of life. But, he remained ignorant or at least indifferent to Scriptural principles (I am not sure which is worse, though I think it would be indifference). And contrary to what some would say, the internal health of the Christian church suffered after Constantine’s endorsement of it, though its popularity increased. Many of the handicaps which cripple the modern church have their roots in Constantine’s reign. We do know why he prolonged his baptism. He was baptized near the end of his life, but not because, as Brown says, he was too weak to protest. It was because the church in that day had drifted a bit from biblical teaching, and insisted that a person must never waver from their Christian walk after their baptism, lest they lose their security in Christ. This intimidated many and caused many to make baptism a “last rite” rather than a first step of obedience. We do know this about Constantine. After his baptism, he never again put on his royal purple garments. He spent the rest of his days in his clean white linen gown he wore when he was baptized. The Emperor really had new clothes.

You remember the old story you were told as a child– the emperor had that new suit of clothes made and he strut through the streets proudly, too proud to admit that he was naked. God offers us the free gift of justification by grace through faith in Christ. Justification means that our sins are removed from us, we are declared innocent before God, and we are clothed in the new clothes of Christ’s righteousness. But let’s beware, lest we become so proud, and so falsely assured that we would fail to recognize if we were really naked, disrobed of Christ’s righteousness, and still covered in the shame of our sins. Jesus warned the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:17-18 with these words: “You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

Were Constantine’s new clothes real? Did he really know Christ? I don’t know. We can’t know about him for certain. Constantine’s life should be a warning to us. We want to live the kind of lives where there will be no debate when we are dead and gone concerning whether our conversion was real or not. We don’t know that about Constantine, but we must know about ourselves. Was your “conversion experience” genuine, or motivated by some selfish gain? I don’t know about you, but knowing that the Lord could return any moment makes me want to be sure that he finds me dressed in Christ’s righteousness, not naked in my sins. I’d want to nail it down immediately if I was uncertain. In Revelation 16:15, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his garments, lest he walk about naked and men see his shame.”

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