The Byzantine Empire

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. (Archaeology suggests that people lived at that location far earlier, but likely for most or all that time, they did not consider themselves “Romans.”) The last Roman king was deposed in 509 BC, creating the Republic of Rome, which expanded over the centuries to rule the Mediterranean basin. Under Octavian Caesar, called Augustus, the Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire in 27 BC. This Empire continued to be ruled from Rome until Emperor Constantine moved the government to Constantinople in 330 AD. Constantine thus began the Byzantine Empire, which was viewed as a continuation of Roman government and culture; this Empire survived until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

In other words, the duration of the Byzantine Empire from Constantine until the Ottoman success was more than eleven centuries, a few more years than those that encompass the entire traditional Roman history from the founding of the city to the moving of the government. Given continuity of Roman culture, the Roman civilization lasted more two thousand years. Even treating the Byzantine Empire as a separate entity from Rome, its existence for eleven centuries makes it far more durable than most other Empires and other centralized governments of human history.

When historians focus attention upon the immigration of Germanic groups into the western Empire and neglect the continuity of Roman civilization in the eastern Empire, they misinterpret history. The west blended Roman civilization, law, and traditions with their Germanic ways; the east became more Greek in its outlook, but remained as a major world power through dozens of emperors. The Byzantine Empire had challenges of its own from immigrants, including Goths and Bulgars and Slavs and Avars. Later, it protected Europe from the advance of Islamic civilization, although it lost north Africa and parts of western Asia in the process. Roman literature, science, architecture, and philosophy were preserved by the Byzantines, as was the Christian religion. All of these were them communicated with other civilizations. Missionaries from Constantinople brought Christianity north into eastern Europe, even inventing an alphabet so they could share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Russians. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire remained a key link in the Silk Roads which united the continents in an economic system of trade (along with transportation of technology and of ideas) over the centuries. The Byzantine Empire was essential for world civilizations and particularly for the continuing development of western civilization while it remained in power.

The Emperor Justinian, two centuries after Constantine, was one of the most important rulers of the Byzantine Empire. He recodified Roman Law, enabling it to survive into modern times and to shape the legal codes of many current governments. He strengthened Byzantine power in the Mediterranean Sea, even recapturing some of the lands that had been claimed by Germanic governments. He also shared political power with his wife, Theodora—much to the dismay of many men in the eastern government and Church. Justinian, like Roman emperors before him, supported the arts and was responsible for beautification of the capitol city—in his case, including the construction of the church building called Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

In the eleventh century, Muslim military forces in western Asia were strengthened by the influx of Turks from central Asia, who had been displaced by the growth of China. Needing reinforcements to keep his borders secure, the Byzantine Emperor called for help from European Christianity. Thus began the Crusades. The Emperor was not impressed with the quality of warrior arriving from the west, but he prepared to place them as shock troops in front of his better-trained soldiers. Instead, they headed south and captured Jerusalem, establishing five western-style kingdoms in the Holy Land, kingdoms that lasted more than a century. The eventual decline of those kingdoms led to further crusades, including the disastrous Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople and never made it to Jerusalem. This event, though eventually overturned by Byzantine fighters, was the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire, even though it held on for another two centuries after that catastrophe. Distrust between eastern Christianity and western Christianity had begun before the Crusades and only worsened during these times. The fall of Constantinople was not recognized in Europe for the turning point of history that it became, although not many more years would pass before Turkish warriors were at the gates of Vienna, threatening to overwhelm western civilization. But that story awaits another chapter. J.

Popes and monks and other stuff

Constantine’s confession and avowal of Christianity was a mixed blessing for the Church. On the one hand, they were free from persecution—free to build churches and invite people to join them for worship, free to share their faith with neighbors and family and friends, free from fear that they might be arrested, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, this freedom opened the doors for nominal Christians, for those who claimed a place in the Church without true faith in the Savior, for those who sought to use the Church for their own purposes rather than joining the Church from a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Moreover, Constantine’s embrace of Christianity brought worldliness into the Church. Now the Church could receive gifts of money and property and could maintain that property—for the service of the Lord, but also for worldly profit and gain. Now the Church could become involved in worldly politics—in the name of Jesus, but sometimes contradicting his will and his purposes for the Church. Becoming respectable in the world encouraged some Christian leaders to imitate the world and to judge their service to God by the world’s standards of success. These challenges remain for Christians to face in the twenty-first century Church.

Constantine and the eastern (Byzantine) emperors after him believed that they answered only to God. Church leaders answered to God and to the emperors. A structure of authority had developed within the Church, acknowledging various ministries in each congregation with a head pastor or bishop, along with regional leaders who could be considered archbishops. Five of those archbishops had pre-eminence in the Church because of the size and antiquity of their congregations—those in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The most important decisions about faith and practice were made in councils—the few great councils, and many smaller regional councils that handled lesser matters and affirmed the conclusions of the great councils. Much later, three of the pre-eminent congregations would be overwhelmed by the growth of Islam, leaving Rome and Constantinople to quarrel over leadership of Christianity on earth. By this time, the head pastor in Rome had already assumed political power, filling the vacuum left as Roman power retreated to the east. Power battles between Rome and Constantinople, and between the pope and secular leaders in western Europe, would fill the pages of history in later centuries.

Even before Constantine, the practice of monasticism had already begun in the Church. Some Christians sought closeness with God, closeness that could not reach its fullness in congregational life. They went into the wilderness to pray, to meditate, to escape worldly temptations, and to test themselves with ascetic practices. They survived with minimal food, minimal clothing, minimal shelter, and no social commitments. In some ways, these monastic practices were informed by the same Greek distrust of the physical world that had energized Gnostic beliefs. Yet these monks and hermits also offered a way for Christianity to survive and flourish in spite of the challenges of worldliness that the Church faced in those centuries.

One of the most famous Christians to practice monasticism was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. He had a reputation of holiness, of total commitment to Jesus Christ, and even of being capable of working miracles. To escape the world, he made his home in the desert. Because of his reputation, other Christians sought him in the desert and asked to join him. Anthony might have asked them, “What part of ‘alone’ do you not understand?” Instead, accepting the inevitable, Anthony made a set of rules about asceticism and self-denial. He did not require those rules of all Christians, but only of those who insisted on living near him.

Many other early Christians followed Anthony’s rules, or sets of rules that were similar. What worked in the Egyptian desert—especially regarding clothing and food—was not suited for life in Europe; Benedict of Nursia (480-550) developed the Benedictine Rule that some Christians still follow today. Common patterns in monastic life included poverty, chastity, and obedience. Bread, water, and some green vegetables were frequently the diet of monastic Christians—lettuce, but no dressing; bread, but no butter; no meat or dairy; no wine or other alcoholic beverages; no luxuries, and only the bare necessities. Jerome—a monk living in Bethlehem, famous for his Bible translation—disparaged Christians who paid too much attention to hygiene. Jerome claimed that you could distinguish the real monks from the imitators, because you could smell the real monks even before they entered the room.

Monastic communities developed forms of Christian worship that many congregations still use today. They preserved and copied Christian literature—not only the Bible, but also the writings of many Church Fathers. As non-Christian groups invaded Europe and devastated many centers of civilization, monastic Christianity preserved what was best from Roman times. Patrick, a Christian from Britain, was kidnapped as a boy, taken by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. After a few years, he escaped, and ended up living for a time in a monetary in France. Patrick remembered the pagans of Ireland and felt burdened to bring them the Gospel. When he became the great Saint Patrick, missionary to Ireland, he also imported monasticism from France. In later generations, when France had been overrun by Germanic groups, missionaries came from Ireland, bringing back the Gospel and the monastic life that Patrick had transplanted to their island. In this way, Christian faith and Roman traditions remained alive in western Europe during the region’s most troubled times.

For a time, then, early Christianity was the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean world. J.

The history of Rome–part three

After Julius Caesar died, five of his relatives followed him as leaders of Rome. Octavian was the first, who adopted the title of Emperor and brought an end to the Roman Republic. He was given the title Augustus. After Augustus came Tiberius, then Gaius (called Caligula for the little army boots he wore as a boy), then Claudius, and then Nero. None of them inherited their position from their father; the succession of the early emperors was far more complicated. But all of them gained power over the Roman Empire and ruled much of the known world from the city of Rome.

Augustus ruled as Emperor for more than forty years. His designated heir, Tiberius, ruled more than twenty years. Between them, they accustomed the Roman people to Imperial government, centered upon a single person. Gaius Caligula was far less competent. He saw that his predecessors, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, were being honored as Roman gods, and he demanded the honor and worship of a god while he was still alive. After four years of expensive and chaotic rule, he was assassinated. The Senate appeared ready to restore the Republic, but soldiers found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace and declared him Emperor. Claudius ruled the Empire about a dozen years, and his heir—Nero—was even worse than Caligula. Nero focused the power and wealth of the Empire upon himself. He accused wealthy people of treason so he could execute them and claim their families’ money for his expenses. He also sought honor as a god. Before he could be assassinated, though, he killed himself—the last Caesar to be related to Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.

By this time, the family name of Caesar had become a title, and it was sought by several generals of the Roman army. After a period of competing Caesars, accompanied by wars and assassinations, the general Vespasian was able to gain and keep power over the Empire as Caesar. After he died, his sons—first Titus, then Domitian—held power. After Domitian died, another period of chaos followed. In the next century, a line of several emperors managed to maintain a stable government. One feature of their rule was that each adopted a capable man to be son and heir, training him to follow them as Caesar. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius broke this pattern, making his own son Commodus his heir. Commodus was a disappointment, and once again the empire was thrown into turmoil, as various generals battled one another for power. Always, even from the time of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, control of the army was necessary for control of the Empire. Rome never had a Caesar who was not experienced in military matters and supported by the Roman army.

Three hundred years after Octavian Caesar Augustus became Emperor, a general named Diocletian gained power over the Empire. Diocletian could see that maintaining control of the entire empire was difficult because of its size and the many challenges it faced in different places. He began a system that had four leaders—two called Augustus and two called Caesar, one pair in the east and another in the west. This system held for a while. Then Constantine rose to power. Constantine did three things that changed the course of history. First, he called upon Jesus Christ to help him in battle, promising to become a Christian if he won. Constantine won, gained control of the Empire, and announced that he was a Christian. (He delayed baptism until he was on his deathbed, but this does not mean that he was lacking Christian faith. Many Christians delayed baptism as long as they could, fearing that baptism removed only previous sins and would not bring forgiveness for sins that were committed after one was baptized.) Constantine also built a new capital city for the Empire. Near a town called Byzantium, in the land that is now called Turkey, Constantine built a new city, naming it Constantinople. He moved his government to this new city, leaving the original city of Rome under a leader who answered to his authority as Emperor. (The third major accomplishment of Constantine was to assemble a church meeting to clarify the identity of Jesus Christ—something I will describe in more detail in another post.)

The eventual result of Constantine’s public avowal of Christian faith was to make Christianity legal and respectable in the Empire. Due to persecution, Christians had often hid from the government; now they could build large houses of worship and could reclaim sites where important events (like the birth and the resurrection of Jesus) had happened. The eventual result of Constantine’s new capital city was a new name for the Empire. Not immediately, but eventually, the land ruled from Constantinople would be called the Byzantine Empire. The early kingdom of Rome lasted a century or two. The Republic lasted almost five hundred years. From Caesar Augustus to Constantine was another three hundred and some years. From Constantine to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was another eleven centuries. The entire history of Roman power, then, lasted more than two thousand years, but more than half of it was ruled from outside of Rome, from Constantinople.

But the emergence and triumph of Christianity outweighs the accomplishments and consequences of all of the Caesars combined. J.

Athanasius and the hand of Arsenius

In the fourth century a man lived in Alexandria, in Egypt, whose name was Athanasius. He was a leader in the Church, eventually becoming bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius defended the Christian faith from heretics who wanted to change the Church’s teachings. However, his leadership was controversial, and four times he was expelled from Alexandria by decree of the Emperor.

Alexander was bishop in Alexandria before Athanasius. At that time, a presbyter in the same city, a man named Arius, reasoned his way to a new understanding of God. Arius concluded that only God the Father is eternal and almighty; he taught that the Father created God the Son and then created everything else that exists through the Son. “There was a time,” Arius taught, “when the Son did not exist.” This teaching was condemned by Alexander, but Arius persuaded many Christians to believe his teaching, which led to contention in the Christian Church.

When the Emperor Constantine heard of this trouble, he called for a meeting of Christian leaders to study the Bible and resolve the issue. More than 250 bishops attended (the traditional number is 318, but other numbers are also published), along with other church leaders. Athanasius was at the time the leading deacon from Alexandria, and he was one of the chief speakers at the meeting. After being exhorted by the Emperor to come to an agreement, and after praying and studying the Bible, the meeting produced a statement that described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” All but two bishops in attendance agreed with this statement, and many Christians still speak these words today when they gather to worship and to learn about God.

When Alexander died, Athanasius was named bishop in Alexandria. But Arius still had many supporters who hated Athanasius. They went to the Emperor, complaining that Athanasius had collected a high tax in Egypt and had given the money to a man plotting to overthrow and replace Constantine as Emperor. Constantine commanded Athanasius to appear before him and questioned him about the charge, but Athanasius was able to prove his innocence. This only angered his enemies further, and they accused Athanasius of other severe crimes. This time Constantine called for a church council; but Athanasius, hearing that the council would be held in Caesarea—where he had many enemies, including the bishop—refused to attend. His enemies used this to persuade Constantine that Athanasius must be guilty of some crime, and so the Emperor called for another council, this time in Tyre, and Athanasius was directly commanded to be present.

In Tyre the enemies of Athanasius presented a woman who claimed that Athanasius had lodged at her house and had raped her. When he arrived, Athanasius entered the meeting accompanied by a friend named Timotheus. When Athanasius was called upon to reply to the charge, he remained silent and Timotheus spoke. He said to the woman, “Have I, O woman, ever conversed with you, or have I entered your house?” She pointed her finger at Timotheus and screamed, “It was you who robbed me of my virginity; it was you who stripped me of my chastity.” Athanasius and Timotheus revealed their rule, and Athanasius was thus vindicated.

The two men wanted to question the woman further to learn who had paid or persuaded her to accuse Athanasius. Before they could do so, however, another charge was raised against Athanasius. His enemies said that he had murdered a bishop named Arsenius, removed his hand, and used it to work magic spells. These opponents had earlier persuaded Arsenius to go into hiding. They even had a box with a mummified hand which they claimed to have taken from Athanasius. Arsenius remained hidden for a while as the rumor was spread about his magical hand, so many people had heard this rumor before the hearing in Tyre. But by this time Arsenius had gotten bored with hiding, had left his hiding place, and had been found and recognized by friends of Athanasius. They therefore spoke up during the council, asking if anyone was present who would recognize Arsenius. Several people said they could, and Arsenius was produced. To add to the suspense, Arsenius was wearing a robe with long sleeves that concealed his hands. Athanasius asked him to show his hands, and Arsenius slowly showed the group first one hand and then the other. Athanasius then asked if Arsenius had a third hand which Athanasius could have stolen from him; the answer, of course, was no.

Even after all this, the enemies of Athanasius further accused him of threatening to cut off the grain shipment from Egypt to Rome. At this charge, Constantine ruled that Athanasius had to be exiled from Alexandria and take up residence in Treves, a city now called Trier, in Germany. This Athanasius did. After Constantine had died (about two years after the sentence exiling Athanasius), his son Constantinus recalled Athanasius, revealing that his father had exiled him, not as punishment, but as protection from his enemies. Athanasius returned to Alexandria, to the great joy of most of the Christians there. But on three more occasions he was exiled by decree of the Emperor. The final occasion, the order was not merely exile, but execution; this order was given by Julian the Apostate. Athanasius found a boat and began traveling by river away from the city. The officer appointed to execute the bishop followed in another boat. Somehow one of the friends of Athanasius got to him and warned him that he was being chased. Athanasius turned his boat around and began to head back toward the city. He approached the boat of the officer, who called to him, asking, “How far off is Athanasius?” “Not far,” the bishop answered. The officer continued the pursuit, and Athanasius returned to the city, where he hid safely until Julian died in battle against the Persians.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years, including the seventeen years that he was exiled from the city. He died peacefully in bed in his own home, roughly seventy-five years old. His feast day is observed May 2. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.