Monday, December 27, 2010

Recreating Christ in the Image of Caesar, Part I

According to various church traditions, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus (aka Constantine "the Great" or even "Saint Constantine"), accepted Christianity as his religion after gaining victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge—where the would-be emperor allegedly had a vision of the Chi (X) Rho (P), the first two letters in the Greek word christos, meaning Christ. Eusebius, an early church historian, wrote one of the only description of this story. In his account, Constantine saw a vision in the heavens of the cross along with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces meaning "In this sign, you will conquer."

Constantine is claimed to be the first "Christian Emperor" due to his issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313—mandating religious tolerance—and effectively "legalizing" Christianity (along with all other religions). However, much of the evidence that Constantine was "Christian" is highly suspect, if not plainly inconclusive. For example, the closest historic link we have to Constantine, his triumphal arch in Rome, erected to commemorate his victory over Maxentius—the one he supposedly attributed to Christ's power—contains not one, single Christian symbol. Instead, the arch is adorned by several reliefs with depictions of Apollo, Hercules, Diana, Silvanus. In fact, the shields and standards of Constantine's soldiers do not even display the Chi (X) that Eusebius tells was commanded in a dream the night before. Constantine even continued to accept the title of Potifex Maximus, head of the Roman pagan priesthood, after his alleged conversion.

Prior to Constantine, from the time of Christ to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (160-181AD), there is no historical account of Christians serving in the Roman military. In contrast, the early church theologian Origen (185-251AD), in his six-part treatise Against Celsus, conceded the charge of Celsus, a pagan philosopher, that Christians do not "hold public office, fight in the army, or swear the oaths of allegiance to the state."

Nevertheless, by the fourth century, the Constantinian Shift was complete. The Constantinian Shift is the historical-theological transition from the nonviolent, Kingdom ethic of Jesus and his early followers to the violent, triumphalist ethic of "Christendom." This term was coined by renowned Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder.

The mosaic pictured above is one of the more blatant examples of this shift. Its is from the Byzantine period, and is featured in the Archepiscopal Palace in Ravenna—the then capital of Roman Empire. It was commissioned by Bishop Pietro II in 494-495. The mosaic depicts Christ as a Roman Legionary and wearing a purple tunic, the symbol of royalty. Unlike a Jewish Rabbi, Christ is pictured beardless like a Roman emperor. Far from the Hebrew peasant born under Roman occupation and crucified on a Roman cross, Christ is here recreated in the image of the emperor.

In part 2 of this post, I will show how the Reich Church of Nazi Germany recreated Christ in the image of the "Fuhrer."

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