The final conspiracy I’ll examine is a little different from the others, in that it directly involves the Roman government. Skeptics sometimes claim that Christianity was invented by Constantine, or at least shaped by him into the version we have today.
Constantine was a Roman emperor who lived about three centuries after Jesus, and who ruled from 306AD to 337AD. Fairly early in his reign he claimed to have received both a dream and a vision, one of which included Christ, telling him to use a certain sign on his military banners consisting of the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, and that by this sign he would conquer. He was the first emperor to embrace the Christian religion, and he gave the Church an official status it had never enjoyed before.
However, some have claimed that Constantine used the Christian religion for his own ends, perhaps to unify his empire. Maybe, therefore, some or even all of the Christian story, particularly the Resurrection Story, was made up him or by the Church he helped to establish. This will be the “Constantine Conspiracy” hypothesis.
In order to consider how plausible this is, let’s first explore what supposedly happened in the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. During this time, Christians had little or no political power. It could be dangerous to become a Christian, because Roman emperors often demanded a form of worship that Christians were unwilling to offer. Some of them wrote defenses of their beliefs that can still be read today, to various individuals and groups, including the emperor.
Other groups also sprang up either from within the Church, or were influenced by it, that often claimed to have special revelations or unique interpretations of the gospels, and many Christians wrote prolifically to defend their beliefs against these groups.
For example, Irenaeus of Lyons, born about a century after Christ’s ministry, wrote extensively against what he considered to be heresies – that is, beliefs that were strongly at variance with accepted beliefs. Of course, in order for there to be a “heresy” there has to be an accepted view or “orthodoxy” in the first place. In other words, those Christian writers weren’t inventing the accepted view, but defending it.
They also reported disputes over what was considered to be Christian scriptures. For example, Irenaeus said that the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were universally accepted by the Church. The thirteen letters that bear Paul’s name were also accepted. (The letter to the Hebrews, considered by some to have been written by Paul, is anonymous.)
However, some of the other letters, such as 2 Peter and Jude, were disputed. The book of Revelation was also disputed, along with its authorship. Irenaeus said it could be traced back to the apostle John. Others said it was a different John, because it employed a different style of writing, and John the apostle was careful not to name himself in his other works, while the author of Revelation had no hesitation in giving his name. However, even the disputed works were often widely read.
Some churches also valued other writings that, in the end, didn’t make it into the New Testament we have today. For example, a book called the Shepherd of Hermas was popular among early Christians and can still be read today, but wasn’t included in the New Testament canon. Some writings were rejected by most Christians as forgeries or the works of Gnostic sects or other groups. They didn’t need a church council to tell them this. The works usually spoke for themselves.
Christians most valued works that could be linked back to the apostles. Matthew and John were apostles, and early Christians accepted the gospels bearing their name. Mark wasn’t an apostle, but early Christian writers linked him directly to Peter. Neither was Luke an apostle, but he was considered to be an associate of the apostle Paul.
There were also many forged gospels or letters that sprang up, often using the name of an apostle because of the authority those names had in the Christian community. However, Christians usually rejected them as forgeries. Sometimes they were accepted by certain parts of the community for a while. An example would be the Apocalypse of Peter, which was read in some churches. However, it was later rejected.
In other words, early Christians didn’t have a book called “the New Testament.” Instead, they had a collection of works available to them, some of which were more valued than others, and some that were rejected as forgeries. But there was no formal “canon” of accepted works.
The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning reed or measurement. Christians had a fairly good concept of a canon well before Constantine’s time, because they had a good “measuring stick” for what orthodox belief was. The many Christian apologists who wrote extensively against heresies could only do so if they already had a strong sense of what was “orthodox.”
Incidentally, the book of Revelation provides us with a useful upper limit for when the resurrection of Jesus must have been widely accepted by Christians. Near the beginning of the book, the Son of God sends a message to seven churches in the district of Asia.
Now, even if we think these messages were just made up, which we have no choice but to think if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, the recipients would obviously have to believe he had been raised, in order to accept the message in the first place.
The dating of the book of Revelation isn’t clear, but most scholars fall into one of two camps. The first camp says it was written between around 96 and 98AD, during the reign of emperor Domitian. The author says he was in exile on the island of Patmos for bearing witness to Jesus. The majority of scholars think this fits best with Domitian’s rule.
The second camp says it was written sometime during the reign of Nero, perhaps in the mid to late 60’s of the first century, but before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70AD. Nero also exiled people. The book itself indicates significant events are “about to” take place.1 The Temple is measured, implying it is still standing.2 The wild beast described in the book, which most scholars believe is a reference to the Roman empire, has seven heads, of which “five have fallen, one is.”3 This could correspond to the five Caesars before Nero – Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius – which would make Nero the sixth head, the Caesar that “is” at the time John was writing.
Revelation’s most famous symbol is “the mark of the beast,” where no man can buy or sell without having the mark, the name of the beast or the number of its name, which is also a man’s number and is 666. Irenaeus suggested this may have been a cryptic reference to Caesar Nero, or to the Roman empire itself.
The number may also serve as a warning of what could happen if humans become too dependent on digits, both in terms of money and in terms of their own identity. They effectively become enslaved in a digital system.
Whatever the case, the author John wrote to seven churches in Asia, and included seven messages from Christ in his book, so it’s clear those churches must have believed Jesus was alive. This means Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus was already well established by the end of the first century at the latest, although it took a while for the wider Church to accept the book of Revelation as scripture.
By the time Constantine came to power, some 300 years from the time of Christ, the Christian faith was already widespread. Prior to this, Christians had been persecuted, but Constantine’s rise to power led to the Edict of Milan in 313AD, which legalized the Christian religion and granted them restoration of all property seized during emperor Diocletian’s persecution. According to the Church historian Eusebius who lived during this time, Constantine’s mother Helena became a Christian after her son became emperor.
Now, was Constantine really a Christian, or did he simply use the religion for his own ends as some people imply? The evidence we have in his letters and from his deeds seems to suggest he took the Christian religion seriously, while allowing other people to practice their own faith. Indeed, the Edict of Milan granted freedom of religion to all, not just Christians.
Constantine later granted his mother Helena unlimited access to the imperial treasury, in order to locate relics related to Christ. In around 326AD she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, among other things, is reported to have found the cross on which Jesus had died, and the site of Jesus’ tomb, which had been venerated by Christians nearer the time of Jesus, until emperor Hadrian built a temple over it dedicated to Venus.
Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be built on the site. According to Eusebius, Constantine wrote in a letter to Macarius of Jerusalem that the place was a sacred spot, because it had brought to light a clear assurance of their Savior’s manner of death.4
Even if Constantine’s motives were political, he took Jesus seriously enough to fund his mother’s pilgrimage, and then pay for the building of churches in the locations where Jesus was said to have been born, died, and raised to heaven. In this manner, the resting place of Jesus became glory, fulfilling a prophecy in Isaiah.5
Constantine delayed his baptism until near the time of his death, I think because, as emperor, he knew he might have to do things that would trouble his conscience as a baptized Christian. Emperors may need to go to war and put people to death on occasion, while Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek.
But whatever his reasons, the more important issue, for the purpose of our “Constantine Conspiracy” hypothesis, is whether he or the Church in his time could be the source of the Resurrection Story, or indeed any of the stories found in the gospels.
In 325AD, Constantine presided over the First Council of Nicaea, where the Church debated the nature and origin of the Son, also known as the Word of God. The council was an attempt to bring unity to the entire Church over what had become a divisive issue.
One side, led by Arius, argued that the Word was a created being. The other side, led by Athanasius, said that the Son had been “begotten” by the Father but not actually created. However, they weren’t disputing the existence of Christ, whether he was the Son of God, or whether he rose from the dead. To them, this would have been the equivalent of disputing whether night followed day.
If the established Church under Constantine had invented or substantially embellished the stories about Jesus, it would have made far more sense to just write the version of Jesus they wanted. At the very least, they could have Jesus spell out his nature in a parable added to the gospels, and have Peter or Paul write an explanation of what Jesus meant, in a fabricated letter that could then be backdated a few hundred years. But the Church couldn’t do this, because the gospels, letters, and even the Church itself, had been around a lot longer than any fourth century emperor or council.
In 330AD, Constantine dedicated Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman empire. In 331 he asked Eusebius to arrange for the production of 50 copies of the sacred Scriptures, so they could be used by churches in the new capital. Eusebius did so, in elaborately bound volumes.
Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure which works were included in those volumes. The New Testament we have today contains 27 works. However, Eusebius indicated in his own writings that 22 of those works were accepted by the Church, and the other five were disputed in some circles but still widely accepted.
Other Christian writers prior to Constantine already accepted most of the books in our New Testament. Whatever the case, there is no evidence Constantine himself determined what was “sacred Scriptures,” and neither did the Council of Nicaea.
Now, let’s recap the evidence we have available to us. Researchers agree that the so-called “authentic” letters of Paul, which treat Jesus’ resurrection as a fact, were written in the first century AD and almost certainly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD. The other letters in the New Testament, which skeptical scholars don’t necessarily consider to be authentic, are usually dated to the second century at the latest.
Scholars agree that the four gospels commonly accepted by Christians – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were written no later than the second century; and I have presented evidence indicating that both Luke’s gospel and his book of Acts were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.
The book of Revelation treats Jesus’ resurrection as a fact, and even has the raised Jesus giving counsel to seven churches in Asia. Most scholars date this book to the first century, either in the 60’s or 90’s AD. This means all of the material found in the New Testament was written one or two centuries before Constantine became emperor in 306AD.
Defenders of the Christian faith also sprang up from the second century onward, writing lengthy works concerning what they considered to be heresies. They wrote so much that a large part of the New Testament could be reconstructed just from their works! Furthermore, churches often preserved records regarding the succession of their leaders, and in some cases the list of leaders goes back to someone mentioned in the New Testament.
We have evidence that churches were already practicing Christian traditions prior to the time of Constantine. For example, apart from eating bread and drinking wine in memory of Jesus, there was also the issue of when his crucifixion and resurrection should be commemorated. A couple of different customs existed in different parts of the world. The Council of Nicaea also sought to unify all the churches on this matter, but with only limited success at the time.
We have evidence of Christian history from Eusebius, sometimes called the “Father of Church History,” who wrote an account of this history, along with a biographical work on Constantine.
We also have evidence preserved by secular historians; and although we don’t have precise figures, the overall record of history indicates that quite a large number of Christians lived across the Roman empire prior to Constantine, and it was not uncommon for some of them to be executed because of their belief that Jesus Christ was Lord and Savior.
Therefore, for Constantine or the established Church to be the source of the Jesus story, and particularly the story of his resurrection, it would need a conspiracy and forgery of monumental proportions. It would require vast reams of writings by earlier Christians to be forged. It would require hundreds of fragments of New Testament writings to be created and located in different places, and somehow for these forgeries to be dated as far back as just fifty or one hundred years after Christ.
It would require the invention of dozens of heresies to spring from this newly created orthodoxy, including false gospels, so as to appear to conflict with the true gospels, made to look like they were written by apostles who never actually existed; and for vast reams to be written against these heresies, to defend an orthodoxy that had also just been invented.
It would require hundreds of churches to spring into existence, each with their own hierarchy of leaders; and then for these leaders to convene, and decide upon the interpretation of a few words and scriptures, even though those same scriptures had just been made up. The whole history of the persecution of Christians would also need to be created, for how could earlier Christians have been persecuted if Christ was an invention of Constantine or the Church in power?
In other words, the idea that Constantine or the established Church was the source of the Resurrection Story, or indeed any part of the Jesus story, is practically impossible, and flies in the face of a mass of evidence showing that Christians believed just about all of what they did, well before Constantine came along or Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.
The Council of Nicaea in 325AD was simply arguing over the fine print, like lawyers arguing over how to interpret clauses in legal documents that had been written long before.
1 Revelation 1:1. 2 Revelation 11:1. 3 Revelation 17:10. 4 Eusebius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine. 5 Isaiah 11:10.