In 324 AD (or CE if you wish), Constantine seized all power in the Roman empire (in a somewhat violent fashion), and in a rather Byzantine move, he moved the capital of the empire to Byzantine and renamed it Constantinople. Get it? (Yes, I know the comment was a bit of a Turkey.)
Wasting no time and succumbing to the influences of his mom (and a desire to hedge his bets with the afterlife) he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. One might say that Constantine’s mom was the first good Catholic mom – although that might be a bit of literary license on my part.
Anyway, getting to the point, Constantine was a tough SOB. The Christian movement was a mess of territorial little fiefdoms run by a bunch of cantankerous and not-too-cooperative “tribal” leaders…somewhat like Afghanistan is today. Christianity at the time was disorganized and lacked any real unity. It featured lots of in-fighting and disagreements on fundamental beliefs. Faith ranged from Gnostics (God is within you and that’s all you need to know) to far more structured and dogmatic, rule-laden belief systems that concentrated power among the faith leaders (the “We know what’s best for you” crowd). Despite the lack of unity in the “movement,” these Christian zealots were a pain in Constantine’s ass. And, let’s face it, ticket sales at the Coliseum were down…throwing Christians to lions really was more gruesome than exciting. More like mealtime at the zoo than entertainment. Nothing at all like a couple of first-class gladiators in a fight to the death. But, I digress…
Constantine, a brilliant, clever and somewhat Machiavellian type, decided to bring order to chaos. So, he convened the first Council of Nicaea and hammered out a negotiated settlement among (guess who?) the Christian leaders who were most into establishing a faith based on concentrated power and a faith that would be beholden to the Roman Empire. Along with this settlement came:
~ Censorship of what was in and, more importantly, what was NOT in the Bible (that Gnostic “nonsense” HAD to go!);
~ An amalgamation and standardization of “Holy-days” (a.k.a. holidays) – with an emphasis on making sure everybody, including the long-suffering Pagans, was happy. (Not so difficult since the celebrations of Christian faith generally coincided with the pagan “calendar” celebrations that have much of their basis in agriculture.)
~ The official stamp of approval from the Roman Empire on the about-to-emerge Catholic church.
~ And so much more.
Like many such grand bargains, there was something in it for (almost) everybody – except those pesky Gnostics.
Don’t let my flip narrative diminish the significance of this single event. Constantine, in one meeting, and without so much as a PowerPoint presentation, got rid of his Christian “problem” by absorbing it, and he cemented the bond between religion and government once more (in violation of our 1st Amendment, I might add) so that church leadership once again became a weapon in the arsenal of government power. Once- rebellious Christian leaders sold out and became toadies of the reigning government. Constantine knew he could, thereafter, count on the sell-outs to police their own and clean up loose ends – a bit like those Pharisees and Sadducees. This was a landmark event of landmark events in history. Constantine literally changed the political and religious world 324 years BEFORE THE BIRTH OF MUHAMMAD!!
The Roman Empire was always bent on world domination, and Constantine did more to advance that cause in one peaceful meeting than many Roman Emperors ever did in their entire reigns–and no bloody battles were needed.
Many of us have heard of the First Council of Nicaea. And like many of the top hits of history (Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark come to mind), the first Council was followed by many sequels, none of which matched the impact of the first. (Today, I believe the Catholics call them Ecumenical Councils, but without a Constantine.) The problem is that few of us really understand the true significance of this first “constitutional convention” of the Roman Empire and tribal Christian leaders. Few grasp how much it changed the world. For the better? Well that depends who you ask. My guess is that Constantine and the gang-of-faith entrenched in Rome liked it quite a bit. I can’t speak for the rest.
Our failure to pay enough attention to the First Council of Nicaea…to tear it apart and examine it closely and rigorously…is but one example of how superficially education touches on such landmark moments. But it’s also evidence of how the Catholic Church managed to successfully squelch information about the event that literally created the Church. The Church strictly censored access to this information in much the same way as it prohibited direct access to the Bible by the faithful (until those damned Protestants came along). The Church insidiously wrapped this political event in a shroud of secrecy that has shaped education and what laughingly passes for “history”, and it continues to do so to this day.
One somewhat obscure meeting 1689 years ago has more to do with what Christians believe than all the teachings of Jesus Christ combined…in large part, because we have yet to gain access to a reliable historical account of what Christ taught in his brief “public life” 1984 years ago. (Is it just me or do I hear echoes of George Orwell??)
But, every dog has his day, and then it passes. So, just as Constantine, ever the humble leader who, in a rather Byzantine maneuver, changed the name of the capital city from Byzantine to Constantinople, we see that nothing lasts forever.