Fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine continues to suffer accusations, such as canonizing the four biblical gospels while suppressing all others, and creating the doctrine that Jesus was divine. But this is all DaVinci-Code-fake-history, and easily debunked by the historical record. However, there are two enormously significant historical developments for which Constantine really is largely responsible; developments which set church history on a destructive course. The first development is the marrying of state and church. The second is the fixing of the date on which the church would celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. This post will focus on the second development – the date of Easter – and why it matters.
Throughout Roman Catholic Church history there have been 21 ecumenical councils, during which core Church teaching is defined. The first of these was in Nicea under Constantine in 325. In the Synodal Letter from the Council of Nicea, we find this announcement:
“We further proclaim to you the good news of the agreement concerning the holy Easter, that this particular also has through your prayers been rightly settled; so that all our brethren in the East who formerly followed the custom of the Jews are henceforth to celebrate the said most sacred feast of Easter at the same time with the Romans and yourselves and all those who have observed Easter from the beginning. “
It is generally understood that Constantine was interested in unifying the church and rooting out heresy. It can be argued that fixing the date of the celebration of the resurrection for all churches in the empire was part of this push to unify the church. However, it seems there was an additional motive in moving the date of Easter. A letter from Constantine has survived in which he explains his reasoning for moving the date of the resurrection celebration off of Passover week. Following are excerpts:
“It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom [the calculation] of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded…We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course…and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast…” – From the Letter of the Emperor to all those not present at the Council. (Found in Eusebius, Vita Const., Lib. iii., 18-20.)
This marks a radical departure from the teaching of scripture. If this letter is a true reflection of Constantine’s motives, it appears that his justification for moving the date of Easter off of Passover had to do with arrogant posturing and a desire to separate Christianity from Judaism. To the disinterested reader, this may seem to be a random historical development in history. But those of us who hold the Bible to be the supreme authority see a flagrant contradiction and a bad precedent. In order to see this contradiction, one must compare what Constantine did to what the Judeo-Christian scriptures say.
In order to keep a complex topic reasonably brief, allow me to collapse my understanding of the sweep of Biblical history into a few bullet points. References are included so that you can verify that I’m not fantasizing or committing heresy:
We are all part of a larger story. It is our Creator’s story of love, light, and redemption. Since the beginning of creation, when the human race fell into rebellion, spiritual darkness, and death, our relational Creator has been unfolding His astounding plan to restore us to life:
- With Abraham, God established a covenant people who would be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen 12:1-3.)
- With Moses, God brought His covenant people out of physical slavery and into a land of their own. He gave them His Torah (instruction/law) which would serve as a custodian until such time as His Messiah would appear (Gal 3:23-4:7.)
- Now that the Messiah has come, the scriptures teach that we are no longer under custodial care, but have been brought into direct relationship as sons and daughters under a new and better covenant of life (2 Cor 3:5-18; Gal 4:21-27; Heb 8:6-13.)
- The Torah of Moses and the Hebrew prophets bore witness to the new and better realities of which we can now be partakers (Ro 3:21.) YHWH’s Messiah explained things which had remained hidden for ages, but which have now come to light (Matt 13:35; Ro 16:25-27; Eph 3:4-12.)
In keeping with this unity and continuity of the Old and New testaments, the most climactic and significant events in the life of Jesus all occurred on Old Covenant Jewish holidays. For example, He was killed on the Feast of Passover, and resurrected on the Feast of Early First Fruits. Each holiday had Old Covenant meaning at the time it was given, yet simultaneously foreshadowed and explained Messianic acts that were hidden for centuries until after the resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. Nothing else compares to this – the linear, unfolding, progressive revelation of the Bible.
It seems presumptuous, then, that under Constantine, some 300 years after the resurrection of Jesus, the Roman Church would deliberately move the celebration of the resurrection off of the Jewish holiday on which the resurrection occurred. Hmmm. By whose authority was this done? And for what reason? This is like taking the batteries out of a flashlight, and then using the flashlight as a hammer.
The march of history continued in this vein with the emperors following Constantine. Throughout ensuing centuries, Christian emperors and kings continued to pass laws designed to separate “the Christian religion” from Judaism, and “Christians” from Jews. It appears that early gentile (non-Jewish) Christians recognized the roots of their faith in Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures as there was apparently a lot of fraternizing between gentile Christians and Jews. We can assume this because so many laws were passed restricting such fraternization. For example, later church councils forbade Christians from celebrating Passover with Jews, observing the Jewish Sabbath, accepting gifts from Jews, or marrying Jews. Many church writings and sermons are designed to separate the two religions. Most famously, church father and bishop, John Chrysostem, delivered 8 sermons in Antioch in 387 AD that typically included exhortations such as these:
“There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now (homily 1)… Meanwhile, I ask you to rescue your brothers, to set them free from their error… I want them to learn these facts from you and to free themselves from their wicked association with the Jews. I want them then to show themselves sincere and genuine Christians. I want them to shun the evil gatherings of the Jews and their synagogues, both in the city and in the suburbs, because these are robbers’ dens and dwellings of demons…” (homily 5.)
Eventually, after centuries of unbiblical, anti-Jewish civil legislation and church teaching, it appears that the general population was persuaded to despise Jewry. Christian anti-Semitism reached its height during the crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Along their way to defend the Holy Land from Muslim aggressors, some Crusaders slaughtered Jews as well. The church invented the Jewish ghetto, and also the idea of forcing Jews to wear distinctive identifying patches on their clothing. (One can see examples of this in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, circa 1600.) If these things sound familiar, perhaps it’s because much later, in the 20th century, a now famous anti-Semite with a dorky little mustache employed many of the same tactics in his own campaign against Jews. Of course, Hitler took things much further than the church had, but he defended his actions by appealing to church history and church writings, leaving the church with a compromised response to Nazism.
The horrific evil of Nazism aside, let’s compare the gentile church’s enduring campaign against Judaism to the words and actions of the Jewish Messiah and His Jewish apostles, i.e. the Bible:
- Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24, 10:6.) Wait…what? Did “our personal Lord and Savior” just say that He was sent only to Jewish people?!
- Jesus said, “…And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them in also, and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16.) Ah!…Here He tells His Jewish audience that there are other sheep He wants to bring in. This is one of several premonitions of the eventual inclusion of the gentiles into the kingdom of God.
- The Jewish apostle Paul wrote of a great mystery that has now been revealed. “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ…This mystery is that the gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise of Jesus Christ through the gospel” (Eph 4.) In calling this a mystery, he is referring to the fact that this development was not explained in the Torah and the prophets. (For example, it says the coming New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah will be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”)
- In the book of Acts we see Jewish followers of Jesus spreading the news that the Messiah, the kingdom, and the New Covenant have come – all Jewish concepts rooted in the Torah and the prophets. But then, God rocks their world, revealing that His desire is to include the gentiles, as gentiles, in His New Covenant. In other words, the clear teaching of the apostles from Acts ch 15 forward is that it is not necessary for gentile believers to become Jewish in order to enter into the New Covenant of grace (See Galatians, Romans, Colossians.) Amazingly, the Jewish apostolic church leadership goes with this and welcomes the gentiles into their company, revolutionizing millennia of Jewish practice and fulfilling God’s ancient promise to Abraham (Gen 12:3.)
- After this Paul writes: “For He [Jesus] is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both [Jew and gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end”…(Eph 2:11-22.)
- Also, to the gentiles he writes: “…But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you…So do not become proud but stand in awe…” (Ro 11:17-24.)
This was God’s vision – one new man in place of the two. One tree. One flock. One shepherd. But this vision existed as a reality only for a very brief time in history during the time of the apostles, and perhaps briefly thereafter. As most Jews refused to embrace Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah, and as more and more gentiles came into the church, eventually Jewish believers in Yeshua were far outnumbered. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325, even though Constantine invited some 1,800 bishops to attend from across the empire, there is no record of even a solitary Jewish bishop in attendance at the council. And then the Roman church set about deliberately re-erecting a dividing wall, this time from the gentile side, in order to intentionally separate Christianity from Judaism, in direct opposition to scripture. In my opinion, it’s one of the most unknown, and one of the saddest stories in history.
Today the wall still stands. We’ve all gotten used to it. From the gentile side it looks pretty legit. It’s been painted over and decorated with great religious art, stained glass, and crosses. Gentile believers living today are mostly unaware of the centuries of church oppression against Jews, as well as the theological anti-Semitism that fostered it. We’re all about loving God and loving people now, and rightly so. There’s just this wall that has “always” been there.
From the Jewish side the wall looks a little different. The crosses that the Christians wear around their necks and use for decoration look just like the crosses under which Jewish ancestors were persecuted. Jewish people living today have not forgotten the nasty history of Christian-Jewish relations. They’re probably fine with a wall that keeps the two separate. Perhaps they’re relieved that at last the specter of theological anti-Semitism is mostly gone from the church. As for Jewish belief today, there is great latitude on the Jewish side of the wall. One can even be an atheist and still identify as Jewish. The one thing that one cannot be as a Jew, ironically, is a follower of the Jewish “Messiah.” The wall has done its work.
So what are we to do with this information? I can only speak to gentile followers of Jesus. I think we must pay attention. We must use the light of scripture to begin sorting out what we should hold onto and what we should let go of. We must sort out what originates from the heart of God versus what are mere human innovations and traditions of men. We need to humble ourselves and agree that it’s not we who support the root, but the root that supports us (Ro 11.) Paul says it is Jesus Himself who originally broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and gentile (Eph 2:14.) Yet we know it is the gentile church that erected the present dividing wall. Is there any reason that the gentile church shouldn’t begin dismantling it now? I believe we can reasonably hope that God will help us do so. We live in a remarkable and unique period. For the first time in over a millennium and a half, now that the error of replacement theology and the smoke of the holocaust has cleared, Christians and Jews can finally dialogue without fear. I say, as far as it depends on you, in whatever corner of the world you are in, let the work of reconciliation and restitution begin.
The above symbol is based on markings found on artifacts reportedly dating from the 1st century in Jerusalem. The symbol has come to be known as the Messianic Seal of Jerusalem.