Christianity is an accident.
A left turn instead of right and, presto, no Christianity. Sometimes, history rests on the toss of a coin. Couple billion Christians today wouldn’t be Christian if one coin had not come up heads (father, son, holy ghost: three heads in one).
Bingo! Jesus wins! Get out the door Asclepius, Isis, Apollonios. Mithras, December 25 is no longer your birthday. Hit the road Moses, Osiris, and Platonism. Syrian Goddess, that’s it. No more self-castrating priests and giant stone phalli for you. No more decorate pine trees in December in your honor. The Christians will be decorating pine trees now.
If not for the decisions of a meglomaniac who killed his mother and son about 1700 years ago, the United States would not be a Christian country now. Christianity as we know it would barely exist.
There are great trends in history, the sweep of great forces, and particular moments and accidents that change everything. The fall of the Roman empire in the west in 410 or 476 wasn’t something that just happened for almost no reason: that was the product of massive forces over a long period of time. The English didn’t accidently trip and fall and wind up ruling India. Major processes involving millions of people over hundreds of years drive a lot of history.
Christianity is not like the fall of Rome or the rise of England. It’s a coin toss event. No single event in the history of the world is as clearly a pivotal moment than the rise of Constantine. No Constantine, not Christianity.
Christianity did not beat Paganism (and to a lesser extent Judaism) through persuasion or by being more satisfying emotionally or spiritually. Christianity certainly does not reflect any real truth, as in something real about the world itself. Christianity won by accident and coercion.
The peasants in England in 1534 were happy being Catholic. The Roman populace was fine with Paganism in 312 AD. But then the man said jump, the people said how high and ditched their religion. The people have been doing that regularly since about day one: fecklessness is not new.
Archaeology suggests someone was still worshipping Osiris in Egypt even when the Arabs got there, some three hundred years after Christianity was the official religion. Osiris was the first and last Pagan god worshipped, as far as we know, far longer than Jesus even now. But most people meekly converted to Christianity, more or less the same people who were cheering when the Christians were ripped apart by lions only a few years before. That’s humanity for you.
Props to my Osiris worshippers hiding out in Egypt and waiting for this Christian fad to fade. Maybe they’re still waiting for this Islam thing to pass too. You know, styles come and go every few thousand years and you have to wait them out until something more classy comes along.
Constantine is not holy or saintly in any way. He might be a murderous maniac, if an effective murderous maniac. Yet no one, not Jesus, not Paul, not Augustine, is more important in the history of the religion than Constantine. Constantine is the main guy in the entire history of Protestant, Catholic, Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
If Constantine had not chosen to favor Christianity or if he had lost the battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312 AD, then Christianity would not have become the dominant religion of Western Europe. There were four potential emperors contesting power in the 312. If any of the other three had one, it is unlikely that the empire would have been unified east and west and that Christianity would being to have a privileged position in the western part of the empire.
There were only about 75 more effective years of imperial control in the west after Constantine took power. If a pro-Christian emperor had come to power in the west in 350 or 370, there would not have been enough time to extinguish paganism. If Constantine didn’t set the process of Christianization in motion in 312, at least in the west, then Europe would not have become solidly Christian and there would be no “orthodox” religion at all.
The Roman empire had more time in the east than the west. We can’t say what would have happened in the east. But in the west, without a strong Christian state from about 312 to about the time of the sack of Rome in 410 AD, paganism would have survived in tact, at least until the arrival of the Arabs through Spain in 712 AD. By 410, it was too late to establish Christianity in the west.
The idea that you could make Christianity the official religion of a state comes from Armenia. A few years before Constantine, an Armenian Christian king came to the throne. How much of this history made its way to Constantine, we can’t know. The administrative prowess of the early Church was impressive and making Christianity the official religion was pretty smart of Constantine. Still, no one else was in a position to both unify east and west and get the church’s foot in the imperial door. If he had not had the idea, it wouldn’t have happened.
As of 312 AD about 5 to 15% of the urban population of the Roman empire was Christian. About the same number were Christian in the neighboring pre-Islamic Persian empire. As Persia never had a Christian government, the numbers never went higher than 10% or 15% when the Arabs showed up in the 7th century. It’s a natural experiment: in empire A (Rome) the government favored and later insisted on a state religion; in empire B (Persia) the government didn’t get involved in residents’ choice of religion in any significant way. In A, 100% of the Pagans and 90% of the Jews converted to the actively supported state religion, Christianity. In area B, the state religion (Zoroastrianism) was not actively promoted and the people remained Pagan, Jewish and Christian.
The same dynamic would have happened in Europe. Christianity would have been one of many religions, as in pre-Islamic Persia. Look at India for a model: we now label a religion Hinduism but that is really a complex of related religions that vary by caste, region, education level and sect. You can be an atheist upanishad-influenced philosopher and still be a “Hindu” as you could be a Greco-Roman stoic and still be a “Pagan.” The philosophers of Alexandria were some of the last holdouts against Christianity. These highly educated Pagans might not have had much in common with peasants in Illyria but they were all “Pagan” as all people influenced by traditional religion mores in India are “Hindus.”
Also, Pagans don’t fight religious wars. There were no religious wars — that is fought primarily over a religious issue — in the classical Greco-Roman world or before until the Christians showed up and none in India until the Muslims showed up. The Greeks conquered Egypt and never attempted or even could imagine wanting to change the religious practices of the local Egyptians. Why? Instead, the Greeks Hellenized the Egyptian gods.
In Europe and India had met up as Pagan cultures, a mix of religions in both places, neither would have thought of the other as a distinct religion and “Hinduism” and “Greco-Roman” paganism would have melted together almost effortlessly. Instead, Islam and Christianity dominated the world at the time of colonization, so religion became an increasingly polarizing force in the world.
Would Europe have become Muslim like Persia if it had not become Christian starting in 312 AD? Maybe. Arab armies in the seventh and eighth centuries conquered massive amounts of territory, but only in areas that had desserts. The Arabs lost battles to the Greeks and Persians. They lost frequently in the years of their expansion but they could always retreat to the dessert to regroup. No other army could survive, let alone recoup, in the desert. Where there were no desserts in the area, the Arabs did not conquer the local population.
Likely, the Franks would probably have stopped the Arabs at the Pyrenees even if they were Pagan at the Battle of Tours in October 732. But Islam still might have spread into Europe through trade. Areas outside the region of initial conquest, such as Indonesia, Senegal, etc., became Muslim without conquest. And later Muslim armies, such as the Moghuls in India, expanded the area of Islamic rule through conquest without the dessert advantage. The Turks or other Muslim army might have imposed Islam on a Pagan Europe, but I doubt it.
Maybe Islam never would have arisen without Christianity becoming dominant in Europe. Without Christianity, there would be no Islam. But the Christians who lived in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century had no real connection to Western Europe. They would have practiced a form of Christianity very different from anything that exists today. Same with the Jews of the Arabian peninsula at the same time. Mohamed knew about Christianity and Judaism and would have been influenced regardless of who ruled in Europe. Mohammed would have met the same Christian and Jews regardless of whether or not there was a Pope, since those Christians were outside the reach of Catholicism anyway.
If Western Europe had not become Islamic through trade or conquest without Christianity, then Christianity would still have existed in the West. But it would have been one of many religions. And there would have been many strange kinds of Christianity.
So if not for the battle of the Milvan Bridge, we would not be in a Christian society. However, we would still have Christians around. But they would be very different from the Christians we actually have today.
You know the Nicene creed? In a version as approved more or less in 325, with Constantine in attendance, we read, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” Well, that means that there were Christians walking around who did not believe in one God, otherwise you wouldn’t need to put it in the text.
Then we read, “Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father.” Okay, so that means a lot of people did not believe Jesus was the son of God in the “begotten” sense. Or “was incarnate and was made man;” so many people didn’t think he was a man. If the text says, he “suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again” that means a whole lot of people didn’t think he suffered, didn’t believe he was buried, and don’t think he rose again.
This gives us just a hint of who radically different the Christianity of the period was. Without the state imposing one vision, without force and intimidation, there would still be Christians who assume, as per the Gospel of Matthew, that you have to be circumcised and Jewish to be Christian. There would be Christians who think that, as per the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus was a man, not the begotten son of God, into whom the spirit of the other god from the other world entered when he was baptized by John the Baptist then the spirit left him and went back to the other world when Jesus died (forsaking him).
Even in the New Testament, you see how diverse early Christianity was. Paul and the author of the Gospel of Mathew agree on almost nothing.
There would have been almost as many Jews as Christians. Within the Christian community, there would have been no church to insist on orthodoxy and many strange forms (to us) would exist. As diverse as Christians are now, the religion is more uniform than it was in 312 AD. Certainly some part of the population would have converted to Islam after 712 AD.
From 1500 to 1900, the Christian west colonized every part of the world except Ethiopia, Japan, Afghanistan and Thailand. This expansion explains why Christianity is the world’s largest religion.
It’s harder to say what would have happened in Eastern Europe, as the Roman Empire in the east was destined to last much longer than in the west regardless of who was emperor or what happened in any given battle.
Next article will be about reading between the lines of the Old Testament, like we did here with the Nicene Creed, to see that most ancient Judeans were Pagan in the Biblican period. Yes, they worshipped Mr. Yahweh. But they mostly worshipped Mrs.Yahweh. The scribes and priest who wrote the Old Testament tried to cover that up.