By David Potter
Christians today owe a tremendous debt to the Roman emperor Constantine. He changed the place of the Church in the Roman World, moving it through his own conversion from the persecuted fringe of the empire’s religious landscape to the center of the empire’s system of belief. He also tackled huge problems with the way Christians understood their community. The three most important things the church owed to Constantine were a roadmap for reuniting communities split by persecution, a universal definition of the Church’s teaching, and a fixed date for the celebration of Easter. His solutions to the second and third issues remain in place to this day.
Constantine dealt with all three of the Church’s major issues at the conference he summoned at the ancient city of Nicaea (modern Iznik in Turkey) in June of 325 AD. The issue of persecution stemmed from a period of bitter conflict with the imperial government that had ended just over ten years before the council convened, while the debate over the Church’s teaching had exploded a few years before Nicaea (the issue was Jesus’ humanity). The Easter question had been festering for centuries, and the problems were inextricably tied up with the fact that no one recorded the actual day of the Crucifixion.
All that people could know on the basis of Christian Scripture was that the crucifixion was linked to the celebration of Passover, which meant that it should come at some point in the spring. But when? Since the date of Passover, then as now, is celebrated in accordance with the Jewish calendar, the correlation with the Julian calendar used by Christians and most other inhabitants of the Roman Empire was always inexact. Some Christians believed that the best way to solve the problem was to celebrate Easter on the first day of Passover according to the Jewish calendar, another group held that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the opening of Passover, while yet another group felt that the timing of the Christian festival should not be determined by the timing of Passover and should instead be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox.
The Easter story was extremely important to Constantine. Conscious as he was that he had been raised as a pagan, and that he had done things in his earlier life of which he was not proud (he never tells us what those things were), he felt that he had experienced a sort of moral resurrection when he became a Christian. He credited his extraordinary military career to God’s willingness to forgive his past sins and he wanted to make sure that he ruled in a way that would repay the benefits he believed his God had given him. In a sense there was nothing more obvious to Constantine than that Easter shouldn’t be connected with the festival of another faith. It should stand on its own in connection with the natural world. Hence he ordained that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first New Moon of Spring.
The solution to the Easter issue had the added advantage of allowing him to make an important concession to the group whose definition of the Faith he was rejecting outright at Nicaea, the so-called Arian faction, named for the Egyptian priest who had aggressively preached a doctrine asserting the human aspect of Christ. Constantine liked his God, like his empire, to be completely united, which is what we see today in the Nicene Creed in the phrase “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” That desire for unity also enabled him to arrive at an acceptable solution to the divisions that had arisen out of the period of persecution as he essentially argued that the two sides should bury the hatchet and recognize each other as Christians first. That approach has not had nearly so much influence as his approach to Easter or to the Trinity.
Constantine was a complex and at times difficult man, a passionate one with a ferocious temper. But he was also a man who was able to recognize his own weaknesses. It may have been that self-knowledge which enabled him to come to the new faith he hoped would make him a better ruler, and gave him the ability to find and forge compromises to build a better and more unified society.
David Potter is Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan. His books include Constantine the Emperor, The Victor’s Crown, Emperors of Rome, and Ancient Rome: A New History.