In 312, just before his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge earned him the undisputed leadership of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great had a heavenly vision of Christian symbols. This prejudice led him a year later to end all legal sanctions against the public profession of Christianity.
So it has a religious tradition.
But there is a rather banal explanation for Konstantin's decision: he was a politician who had wisely chosen to join the winning side. At the beginning of the 4th century, Christians probably numbered between a quarter and a half of the population of the Roman Empire, and their exponential growth seemed likely to continue.
How did that happen? How did a motley gang of nobodies from the furthest corners of the Mediterranean world become such a dominant force in just two and a half centuries? The historical sociology of this extraordinary phenomenon has been studied by Rodney Stark of Baylor University, who argues that Christianity models a nobler lifestyle than what was offered elsewhere in the rather brutal society of the time. In Christianity women were respected because they were not in classical culture and played a crucial role in bringing men to faith and attracting converts. In a time of plagues, the willingness of Christians to care for all the sick was not just their own, but also the impressive testimony of the faith of countless martyrs. Christianity also grew from within because Christians had larger families, a byproduct of their belief, prohibition of contraception, abortion and child murder.
For theologians who like to think that arguments win the day for the Christian faith, this kind of historical reconstruction is not particularly satisfying, but it does make a lot of human sense. However, Prof. Stark's analysis still leaves us with one question: how did the modeling of a compelling alternative lifestyle come about? And that, in turn, brings us back to this group of Nobodies in the first century of the first century and what happened to them.
What happened to them was the Easter effect.
There is no account of the rise of Christianity without weighing the revolutionary effect on those Nobodites they call "resurrection": their encounter with the one whom they embraced the risen Lord whom they first called the Jewish Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth knew and died on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem a painful and shameful death. As N.T. Wright, one of the most prominent Anglo-pagan Bible scholars, makes it clear that the first generation responded to the question of why they were Christians with one simple answer: because Jesus was raised from the dead.
Now, as some angry listeners once complain about Jesus' proclamation, "is a hard word." Two millennia ago, it was no less challenging than it is today. And one of the most striking things about the New Testament accounts of Easter, and what followed in the days immediately following Easter, is that the authors and editors of the Gospels carefully remember the perplexity, skepticism, and even the first Christians' fear of what In the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene and other women in Jesus' company find his grave empty and a young man sits nearby telling them that "Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified … rose; he is not here. "But they had no idea what it was about" and went out and fled the grave … [and] said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. "
Two disciples followed Emmaus Jerusalem on Easter afternoon has no idea who is talking to them on the way, interpreting the scriptures and explaining Jesus' suffering as part of his messianic mission. They do not even realize who it is that dines with them until he breaks the bread and asks for a blessing, "… and their eyes were opened and they recognized him." They drag it back to Jerusalem to tell the other Jesus' friends who say that Peter had a similarly strange experience, but when "Jesus Himself stood among them … they were terrified and frightened and assumed that they were saw a ghost. "
Some time later, Peter, John and others in Jesus' core group are fishermen on the Tiberias Sea. "Jesus was standing on the beach," we are told, "but the disciples did not know it was Jesus." At the end of these post-Easter reports, those we could expect to be the first to understand were walking was still skeptical. When this core group of Jesus' followers returns to Galilee, they see him, "but some doubted him."
This remarkable and deliberate record of the first Christians' misunderstanding of what they claimed was the irreducible baseline of their beliefs to us two things. First, it tells us that the early Christians were self-conscious enough of what they called the resurrection, who (to borrow from Professor Wright) were ready to say, "I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is , what's happened." The second thing it says is that the first Christians needed time to find out what the events of Easter meant ̵
The way they thought about time and history changed. During Jesus' ministry, many of his followers shared the Jewish messianic expectations of the time: God would soon create something great for his people in Israel by freeing them from their oppressors and ushering in a new era in which Isaiah prophesied) Nations would flock to the mountain of the Lord and history would end. The early Christians realized that the cataclysmic, world-saving act that God promised had occurred at Easter. God's kingdom had come not at the end of time but in time – and that had changed the texture of time and history. The story went on, but those shaped by the Easter effect became the people who knew how the story would evolve. That's why they could live differently. The Easter effect forced them to bring a new standard of equality into the world and, if necessary, to welcome death as a martyr – because they knew that death did not have the last word in human history.
The way they thought about "resurrection" changed. Pious Jews who were taught by the Reforming Pharisees at Jesus' time believed in the resurrection of the dead. Easter taught the early Christians, who were all devout Jews, that this resurrection was not the revival of a corpse, nor did it involve the decomposition of a corpse. Jesus' grave was empty, but the resurrected Lord appeared to his disciples in a transformed body. Those who had experienced the Easter effect first would not have put it that way, but understanding what had happened to Jesus and Himself, they understood that (as Benedict XVI put it in "Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week") it had given an "evolutionary leap" in the human condition. In the manifestly human, but completely different, life of the one whom they encountered as risen, a new kind of being had been encountered. This insight radically changed all who adopted it.
What leads us to the next manifestation of the Easter effect among the early Christians: The way they thought about their responsibilities changed. What had happened to Jesus, they began to understand slowly, it was not just about their former teacher and friend; It was about everyone. His fate was her destiny. So they could not only face resistance, contempt, and even death with confidence; They could offer others the truth and the community that was given to them. In fact, they had to do this to be faithful to what they had learned. Christian mission is unthinkable without Easter. And finally, this mission was to convince these sons and daughters of Abraham that the promise made by God to the people of Israel had been transferred to those who were not the sons and daughters of Abraham. Because of Easter, non-Jews could also be included in a relationship – a covenant – with the one God who was embodied in righteous life.
The way they thought about worship and its temporal rhythms changed. For the Jews, who were the first members of the Jesus Movement, nothing was more sacrosanct than the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest and worship. The Sabbath was rooted in creation, for God himself had rested on the seventh day. The importance of the Sabbath as a key feature of the behavior of the people of God was confirmed in the Ten Commandments. But these first Christians, all Jews, quickly corrected Sunday as the "Day of the Lord" because Easter had been a Sunday. Benedict XVI.
"Only an event that indelibly shaped souls could effect such a profound reorientation of the religious culture of the week – more theological speculation could not have achieved that … [The] The celebration The Day of the Lord, which was characteristic of the Christian community from the beginning, is one of the most convincing evidences that something extraordinary happened [at Easter] – the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounter with the risen Lord. "
Without the Easter effect, there is really no explanation that there was a profit side – the Christian side – for Constantine the Great. This effect, as Professor Wright puts it, begins with the conviction of the early Christians and it is incomprehensible that "Jesus of Nazareth was physically raised to a new kind of life three days after his execution." Of course, convince everyone. It does not end with the Paschal Mystery. The early Christians, like Christians today, can not fully grasp the resurrected life: the life in the gospels of a transphysical body that can eat, drink and be touched, but also appear and disappear without obstacles like doors and distance.
Also, Easter does not mean that everything will always turn out well, because there is still much to do in history. Like Benedict XVI. In his 2010 Easter Message, "Easter does not work magically, just as the Israelites were expecting the desert on the other side of the Red Sea, after the Resurrection the Church always finds a story full of joy and hope, grief and fear History changes … it is really open to the future. "
Perhaps giving a final glimpse into the question we have started with: how did the Jesus movement begin, which began on the fringes of civilization and of people was led? seeming inconsistency, in the end what Constantine considered the winning side? However important sociological factors were to explain why Christianity carried the day, the strange and inexplicable joy that characterized early Christians was when they were marched to execution. Was this joy just delusion? Denial?
Perhaps it was the Easter effect: the joy of people who had convinced themselves that they were witnesses of something inexplicable, but nonetheless true. Something that gave life an abundance of meaning and that extinguished the fear of death. Something that had to be shared. Something to change the world with.
Mr. Weigel is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he has the
William E. Simon
Chair of Catholic Studies.