10. Travel Greece with a Bible in Your Suitcase | 3rd Period in Church History | 313 – 391 AD

Then suddenly we have the Constantinian decree, The Edict of Milan. After 250 years all persecution stopped.

We sat on the bus and listened as our history lesson continued. Kostas told us that he would like to say only two words about Constantine.

Constantine was a very, very clever politician. We know from Roman sources that at the year 280AD, although under the hard and severe persecutions of Emperor Diocletian, more than 60% of Asia Minor converted to Christianity. The dilemma of Constantine, since he became an emperor succeeding the tetrarchy of Diocletian, was to either embrace Christianity or abandon the eastern provinces of the empire. It was too much for him to kill 60% of the population. So, Constantine decided to embrace Christianity.

Christianity, actually, had knocked on the door of the royal family because Constantine’s mother was converted, his wife was converted, and his older son too. For that reason, before Constantine became an emperor, he had executed his wife and his older son, but not his mother. He sent Helen to exile in the Holy Land and later when he changed and became friends with the Christians Helen built churches, everywhere she went. At the end of his life Constantine didn’t accept that he was a Christian. He kept the title of Pontifex Maximus of the god Mithras, a Persian deity very popular with the Roman army of that time, although he had been involved a lot in Christian problems – organizing even the first ecumenical church council, the Synod of Nicaea, through which we have the famous Creed of Nicaea. Constantine was baptized a Christian by being sprinkled on his deathbed by an Arian, a heretic bishop, called Eusebius.

No one could assure the Christians, after the Constantinian Decree of 313, whether Constantine would change his mind later and again persecute the Christians – or if his successors would do that. But, definitely, a new period started for the Christians.

The third period of church history was a period of freedom and equality with the other subjects of the empire. People, who lived during half of the period of the persecutions and half of the period of freedom, saw Christianity becoming easier every day, sometimes too easy. Now anyone could say he was a Christian without a second thought. It seemed to some that the quality of the Christian faith was rapidly being broken down.

Among them was a churchman, a member of the Church of Alexandria, known as Antony the Great, or Saint Antony. He considered the church as becoming, every day, more and more secular and influenced by the sinful city, the world of Alexandria. In 350AD, Anthony decided to depart from the church, and the city, to try to find a new relation with God, one without traditions and emotions, in isolation, on an island in the River Nile. He went with his disciple Homeous, living under very limited conditions.

Soon after he departed a lot of other young men and women followed his example and he found himself surrounded by young people from the Church of Alexandria who decided to do the same with him. And so there, on that island, Anthony had to form, for the first in history, a monastic community.

In this mixed community, made of men and women, he established the first three monastic conditions, the first monastic orders.  First, they had to promise a total absence of any fleshly pleasure and they had to keep themselves into life virginity. Second, they had to promise total poverty and never to become owners of anything of this sinful world. Third, was the promise of absolute obedience to the Master.

After a while Anthony  discovered that these young men and women, living together, had big difficulty fulfilling these conditions, especially the first one. For that reason, Anthony divided that community into  two, one for men and one for women. And so, we have what we call today Monasteries and Nunneries.

After some years he saw that for these people, although they had departed long ago, the City of Alexandria was still alive in their hearts. They had brought Alexandria and the Alexandrian thinking to the island.

Anthony decided once more to depart and go, first, to the desert of Luxor, called at that time Thebes of Egypt, and later to the Sinai Desert, living there in caves with his disciple Homeous. From the Greek word  desert, which is éri̱mos (ἔρημος) the people of the desert were called hermits, and their dwellings, the caves, hermitages.

Anthony was the founder of the three different monastic styles.  We have today, only the two. First, we have the nunnery and monastery, and second the hermitage with the hermits.

Anthony’s movement rapidly was expanded to the Middle East and  6th century organized monasteries formed, even around the City of Constantinople. This is the time in history when a churchman from the West visited Constantinople, came in contact with the monastic lifestyle and was attracted by it. He brought monasticism to the West. This man is called Benedict and for that reason the older monastic order in the Catholic in the Western Church is that of the Benedictinians. This is how monasticism started as a reaction to the easy Christian life of the time after the Persecutions.

During this same period of church history other people decided to stay in the church and find a Christian polity of faith in the church. This group of people started collecting biographies of the martyrs from the persecution period of church history. They went to the cemeteries and collected the burial portraits of martyrs who were honored and had a grave (a lot of them didn’t have a grave because their bodies were either eaten by the beasts or consumed by the water or the fire.)  They collected the burial portraits, that according to the Greco Roman tradition were on the graves instead of the gravestones we have today and used them as teaching tools to the new generations of Christians. They promoted devotion and dedication of these people from the period of the persecutions.

This is the first actual artistic collection we have in the church community. The burial portraits, made mostly according to the classical and then the naturalistic style, depicted Christians martyred during the previous period, the period of the persecutions.

This period, after the Constantinian Decree of 313 AD until the year 391 AD, more or less, a period of 70-80 years is perhaps the Golden Age of Theology. It’s a time when the church was free to worship but it was not yet a state institution. It is also the time of the big church fathers/priests like John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and many others. Christian communities organized a charity program for the people living on the margins of society, the first nursing homes for abandoned elderly people as well as the first orphanages in history.

This period came to an end with Theodosius the First. This man, Theodosius an emperor who called himself a Christian, was the first emperor  in Roman history who claimed to be a Christian. A very peculiar and weird personality, he became an emperor, from the ranks of the gladiators, because of his personal relations with the emperor.

At that time of history homosexuality was accepted and very common among the adults, although as in many societies molesting minors or raping was punished by death. Societies of that time were divided societies. Within the dominion of men and men’s societies, pleasure was totally differentiated from the family, from having a legal wife who was responsible for giving to the men legal sons. Daughters at that time were the byproduct.

So, this man Theodosius, because of his personal relations with the emperor, became the next emperor. Suddenly he appeared to be the first Christian Roman emperor and this man made terrible, terrible changes in the whole empire and in the church. The destruction he brought to the church cannot be compared with all the persecution against the church all these 250 years. 

Theodosius decided to make the church a state institution and to start a persecution, a severe persecution, against the pagans. (Europeans took what happened that time against the Christians.) Theodosius gave the order and all pagan temples closed down. He plundered them personally.  He removed all the treasures the religious centers had collected for centuries and centuries. He showed no respect at all to famous architecture, recycling them. (He behaved like the Jihad and Taliban we have today in the Middle East.) Theodosius slaughtered the priesthoods and destroyed, completely, the pagan world.

Theodosius  brought to Christianity massive conversions by force of people entering Christianity, just to save their lives. In this period of church history, we have a lot of this new Christians.

These Christians of Theodosius found, as a substitute of their cult images, the portraits of the martyrs and started treating the portraits like real persons, addressing their prayers to the portraits, giving to the portraits the honors of a real person. And finally, they took material from the portrait to use as medicine in the case of their illness. This made the church divided.