This volume completes the first great era of Christianity. The three together–whose time frame runs from Pentecost to the Constantine era, a span of about three hundred years–tell how the Christians rose from their beginnings as a despised Jewish sect to become the dominant religious force in the Roman world.
Though the Christian triumph followed Constantine’s military victory, it was in no sense a military achievement. Constantine did not bring the Christians to power. Much more truthfully, they brought him to power, for they were able to provide what Rome had lost, a sense of unity and purpose. However fitfully and imperfectly it was employed, that component was furnished by Jesus Christ, and Constantine’s great city of Constantinople remained a Christian bastion for the next eleven hundred years.
Rather than a triumphal march, the rise of Christianity was a path of bitter pain and suffering, a prolonged ordeal that reached its apogee during the time span of this volume. Under Decius and Valerian, then some fifty years later under Diocletian, Galerius and Daia, the empire’s officialdom launched vicious campaigns of torture, slavery and execution to stamp this movement out. Because of the staggering loyalty to their Lord of so many Christians, all these efforts failed. Then came Constantine, who in effect decided: If you can’t beat them, join them–which he did.
How sincerely he joined them has been debated by Christians ever since. To many in the West, he was a mere opportunist who poisoned Christianity by making it an avenue to wealth and power. To eastern Christians, however, he is a revered saint. We have done our best in this volume to reflect the facts as they are known. Most will conclude, we think, that it is not at all an easy question. He was a man of striking contradictions.
But they will understand also why Christians of the age preferred Constantine’s privileges to Diocletian’s executioners. Our era has come to believe in a neutral middle position called “pluralism,” in which the practice of all law-abiding religions is permitted. But that concept is scarcely a hundred years old, and already we see state authority increasingly invoked to inhibit Christian activity and the expression of Christian thought. Perhaps, therefore, a coming generation will discover that there is no middle position, that the painful choice must always lie between a Constantine and a Diocletian. Time will tell.
To read any of the stories contained in Volume Three of The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years click on its title on the menu to the right. If you prefer to experience the stories beautifully laid out in print with hundreds of magnificent illustrations of the period then we encourage you to support this project by ordering the book from The Christians website.