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Constantine: Founder of the Catholic Church?

By David Morrison

[Below, Mr. Morrison tackles the issue of the relationship between Constantine and the Catholic Church. Constantine is accused of "inventing" all sorts of Catholic and Orthodox doctrines and practices, including Sunday worship, the Mass, the Trinity, the cross, and so forth. For some reason, many Messianics, Sabbath observers, Jehovah's Witnesses, Fundamentalists, and so forth have turned Constantine into a whipping-boy, blaming him for all so-called "pagan innovations" in Christianity. The truth is that most of these "historians" who blame Constantine for all evils are misinformed, as the "innovations" they attribute to Constantine existed long before he was born. Please read this article with an open mind. D.B.]

The followers of Yeshua were all Jews who kept the Torah. It was the Catholic Church formed by Constantine who took away our Jewishness.

All that pagan stuff...the sign of the cross, veneration of saints, the Mass. It was the pagan Emperor Constantine who brought that stuff into the church at the instigation of corrupt Gentiles.

The Catholic Church began with the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD! Before that date the Church was pure!

OK. You get the idea. These are representative of some of the comments I've heard in Christian chatrooms, on TV from certain "evangelists," Jehovah's Witnesses, and from "Messianic" Jews. The Church was pure until Constantine, and then suddenly "corrupt" bishops founded the Catholic Church during a council in Nicaea. After that "real" Christians had to go underground. It's sad; many of the folks I hear that believe this stuff really are God-fearing folks, nice folks; it's just that they don't know the history of the Church and so can only parrot what "Brother So-n-So" or "Rabbi Something-stein" has told them. And it's sadder because what they've been told is sheer bunkum, malicious calumny spread by self-proclaimed "men of God" who should know better. Of course, most of the people who believe these untruths about the Church simply will NOT change their opinions even when shown the truth, but some might and for this reason, I'm compelled to correct (again) certain false ideas.

First of all, yes, the first Christians for the most part were Jews. That's obvious from reading the New Testament. However it is also obvious that Gentiles were almost from the beginning attracted to the Jesus Movement. Add Paul into the equation, working some 30 years after the Resurrection among the Hellenistic Jews living outside Palestine and their Gentile neighbors, and it didn't take many years before Gentiles FAR outnumbered those of Jewish extraction.

The point? Just this: if you read the 15th chapter of Acts you will read about a council in Jerusalem that convened to decide whether Gentile converts were bound to keep the Law of Moses. Remember the decision under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

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But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity (Acts of the Apostles 21:25, RSV).

That's it. No 600 + mitzvot to follow, no fussing over keeping kosher, no worrying about ritual pollution, just don't worship pagan idols, be chaste, and don't eat blood (a practice associated with pagan worship).

Icon of Constantine the Great and Helen

But Jews who believed in Jesus (many say Yeshua) DID still have to keep the Law! Well, some thought that way, yes, until Paul pointed out something VERY important: Christ is the end of the Law for BOTH Jews and Gentiles. Torah is done; Jesus fulfilled it and now the "handwriting that was against us" is wiped out. Rather than the written Law, we have a New Principle, the Holy Spirit, to "guide into all Truth." Besides, even IF (and I do not grant this "if") the Jews who believed in Christ were meant to keep Torah, the sheer numbers of Gentiles overwhelmed them; like it or not, within 100 years of the Resurrection of Jesus, the Church was Gentile. So, Constantine didn't take away anybody's Jewishness at all; if you want to "blame" someone, blame Paul of Tarsus.

I'd be careful though before I faulted an Apostle of Jesus...very careful.

As for all those "pagan practices" Constantine supposedly introduced...

The Sign of the Cross was found in the ruins of Pompeii in a house chapel. Pompeii was destroyed in AD 79, LONG time before Constantine, nearly 300 years in fact. Also: At the beginning of the 20th Century, a graveyard of Jewish-Christians was found on the Mount of Olives by archeologist P. Bagatti, dating from the first Century after Christ. FIRST Century, that would be from around AD 33 - AD 100, when the Apostles and those who knew Jesus were still alive. On the ossuaries of the departed were found typical Jewish names of the time and (ready for a shock?) many were marked with the Sign of the Cross, or the Chi Rho (monogram of Christ in Greek), and with the Greek monogram IXB (which means, "Jesus Christ Helper"). And here's the BIG shock: ossuaries were found in a First Century family crypt with the names "Maryam", "Martha," and "Eleazar" written on them and signed with the cross. Oh, by the way, those names translate to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

But folks not only used the Sign of the Cross marked on things (such as ossuaries and graves), they also made the Sign on their bodies. Tertullian, an early Christian theologian born around AD 160, tells us that, as Christians,

In all our travels and movements in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross (The Chaplet, III).

And he tells us it is a custom coming from the Apostles' own day (which, for him, was only 50 years before!). Gee, we're still about 200 years from Constantine. Hmmm, maybe Constantine isn't so bad...but let's look further...

Oh, well, what about all the Mary business? I mean everyone knows THAT was an invention of the Constantinian Church, right? Really? Funny that. The house of Our Lord's Mother, Mary (Maryam in Aramaic, if you like) has been definitely identified under the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. (That's how sites were preserved in ancient times, by the way. A site holy to the Faith would be turned into a house-church used by local believers, then eventually a church structure was built over it.) Some of the graffiti left there by ancient pilgrims of the 1st and early 2nd Centuries say things like, "I am prostrate under the holy site of Mary," "I have fulfilled my duties towards her," and one, in Greek, says simply, "Hail Mary!" (see christusrex.org/www1/ofm/san/TSnzz04.html). If those who went to this holy place to honor her memory were doing something so wrong, don't you think the Apostles or those who had known them would have stopped such a thing? Remember, this graffiti comes from the time when some of the Apostles would still have been alive.

There is also in the Nazareth area the grave-shrine of one Konon, a relative of Christ, who was martyred for the Faith in 249 AD. One, this shows there were still kinsmen of Jesus living in the area at the time. Two, it shows that martyrs were honored as saints before Constantine's era. In fact, it is an OLD custom. We have found graves going back to the 1st Century of martyrs showing the graffiti of Christian pilgrims. Among some of this graffiti are found such things as, "Martyr of Jesus, pray for us!" and "Remember us before the Lord!" Also, after St. Polycarp's death in AD 156, Christians collected and saved his bones as a way to remember his heroism, believing his bones to be more precious than jewels and gold (Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. 18).

Finally, I must say a word or two about the Eucharist (the Mass, the Holy Communion), knowing that poor Constantine has been accused of fabricating current doctrines about the Eucharist.

There was a lay theologian of the early Church, Justin by name, who tried to explain Christianity to his Jewish friend, Trypho, and also to the pagan Romans around him. His faith in Jesus cost him his earthly life in the year AD 165 (a time right after the Apostles when there were alive many who had known the Apostles themselves). But he left us wonderful written records of what Christians in his day believed, having been taught by the Lord's Disciples. Here is what he says about Holy Communion:

And this Food is called 'Eucharist' among us, and no one is allowed to partake of it except the one who believes in the truth of what we teach and who has been washed with the washing that is for remission of sins and a Second Birth and who is living as Christ has enjoined. For we do not receive these things as common bread and drink, but, just as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh by the Word of God and had both flesh and blood, so we have been taught that the food which is blessed by the Word of prayer transmitted from Him, by which our flesh and blood are nourished, is the very Flesh and Blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (Apology, LXVI).

Did you hear what Justin says? He says Christians of his day (right after the Apostles' time) believed in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. Keep in mind that Justin lived a very long time before Constantine. He also tells us (as do many of the early Christian writers) that Christians met for this Eucharist on...Sunday. Not the Sabbath, not the Seventh Day, but the First Day of the Week, the day when Jesus rose from the Tomb.

[Editor's Note: The Didache, an early Christian handbook dated to around AD 80-100, also mentions Christians gathering on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist (called a "sacrifice"):

But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure (Didache, 14).

The Epistle of Barnabas, dated to around AD 120, as well as the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written in AD 105, also testify to Sunday worship replacing Sabbath worship. Ignatius writes:

[We] have come to a possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day... (Letter to the Magnesians, IX).

In fact, a simple reading of the early Church Fathers shows that Christians universally worshipped on Sunday, not the Sabbath. The following Church Fathers and books clearly demonstrate that Christians worshipped on Sunday: Didache (AD 100), Epistle of Barnabas (AD 120), Ignatius (AD 105), The Epistle to Diognetus (AD 150), Justin Martyr (AD 150), Clement of Alexandria (AD 195), Origen (AD 248), Tertullian (AD 197), Victorinus (AD 280), Anatolius (AD 270), and Peter of Alexandria (AD 310). Thus Constantine could not have invented Sunday worship, as it had already been in practice since Apostolic Times, a fact well-attested in early Christian writings. D.B.]

You know, it surely appears as if the Church looked pretty "catholic" from the beginning and poor old Constantine has been blamed falsely. It also seems we who follow the catholic Faith have some pretty solid evidence to stand on. Do you? Maybe it's time to stop listening to "Preacher This" and "Rabbi That," and listen to those from the first century or two. After all, they were there.

Ancient and Future Catholics