The Politics and Power of Fourth Century Christianity

By Dr. Mark Fulton | 2 March 2014

Fresco painting of the debate over what became the Nicene Creed. (Credit: Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

It was only from the fourth century on that there was an obviously dominant, unified, institutionalized form of Christianity – Catholicism. The Catholic Church insinuated itself into the political establishment and insisted on the strict obedience of church leaders. Scores of other Christian cults still existed, but became less important after the Catholics oppressed them.

So it was only nearly three centuries after Jesus’ death that the “facts” about his life and his teachings were decided. A set of four tales, the Gospels, were said to be the true accounts of his life, and it was then touted that these had been told right from the start. In 313 CE, the Emperor Constantine (reigned from 306–337 CE) reversed the government’s policy of hostility to Christianity in his “Edict of Milan.”

Constantine was a highly superstitious man. He probably respected all religious cults, and interestingly, saw no contradiction in championing both Mithraism and Christianity. He held the title “Pontifex Maximus,” high priest of the cult of the state, for himself. This title was to be later taken by the Popery.

His government embraced Christians as allies. In 320 CE he declared himself a Christian and fashioned himself as a priest-king who was the thirteenth apostle of Jesus. Christianity was given a colossal leg up by becoming the official religion of the empire. The new faith went to bed with the political masters of the Western world and the empire had a universal religion to unite most of its people. It was a marriage of convenience that suited both parties. It was due to this symbiotic connection that Christianity was established and given the means to flourish.

What made Constantine embrace Christianity? His mother was a Christian. The church was springing up strongly. It was wide reaching and well organized, as it had modeled its hierarchy on Roman (not Jewish!) principles. It had a clerical class, and a chain of command that was competent at controlling conflicts. The bishops had a level of legal autonomy allowing them to interpret law. The Christians accepted people from all parts of the empire and respected Roman rule.

All this was attractive to Constantine because he wanted stability. In the preceding decades civil wars and external enemies had challenged the Pax Romana. He was overseeing a massive, disparate empire, so the social cohesion made possible by a universal monotheism was appealing. He knew the people were easier to control if they all shared the same religion.

The Christian hierarchy received economic favors from the government. The money that had previously gone to pagan priests now went to Christian bishops. Later in the fourth century all other pagan cults were suppressed or destroyed, although many of their traditions were absorbed into Christianity. Those foolhardy enough to hold onto their old beliefs were persecuted.

Wealthy people commonly left one third of their property to the church and the Christian clergy were exempt from paying some taxes. To be a bishop became a ticket to affluence, and an appointment as such was highly sought after. Bribery and tax evasion was common. Inevitably, it was the rich and well connected who became bishops, and many were lured from the army or navy. The Catholic Church became very wealthy and powerful.

As a consequence of Paul’s amorphous Christ concept, there was much contention as to whether Christ was a God, a spirit, a mortal man, or all three. Arius, a presbyter from Libya, gained followers around the empire by insisting “there was a time when the Son was not,” in other words, the son was a creation of the father. Others said the son was of the same substance as the father. The argument spread, threatening to rip the church in two. Constantine disapproved of the conjecture and called the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to rectify the rift.

This was the first ecumenical council of the Catholic church, and Constantine commanded it, which confirms how close church and state had become. There was a belligerent atmosphere at the council. It resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine; that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit were all of the same substance, a belief that became known as the Nicene Creed. Those who voted against it were banished.

Prior to the Council of Nicaea, Jesus had most often been perceived as an intermediary between man and God; the council decided he actually was God. The core character of Christianity was created; Jesus the son of God. This Nicaean formula clearly wasn’t founded on an historical character. It was nothing more than a contorted creation invented to unify some of the opinions about Jesus.

There were not only Christian commanders at this council, but leaders from many other cults, sects and religions too, including those of Apollo, Demeter/Ceres, Dionysus, Janus, Jupiter, Zeus, Osiris and Isis. The council contrived to coalesce these competing cults under one “catholic” (i.e. “universal”) church to be controlled by the Constantine government. Their gods were subjugated under the name of the new god, Jesus Christ. If this is true, it would help explain how “Jesus” blended the religious formulas of China, India, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Palestine into a single sect suitable for all. Forget Christmas; the Council of Nicea marked the true birth of Jesus Christ.

Any texts that contradicted what the clergy had chosen as canonical were labeled as subversive. Old copies of the Gospels were recalled and scribes were co-opted to make revised copies suitable for consumption throughout Christendom.

In 335 CE, a mere ten years later, all of a sudden Jesus wasn’t of the same substance as God any more. A second Council, also convened by Constantine, that of Tyre, reversed the conclusion of the first, and Arianism, the belief that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, became the brand new dogma. This decision lasted until Constantine’s death in 337 CE, after which the empire was split into a Nicene West and an Arian East. There was no consensus about Jesus’ status for the next forty odd years.

In 381 CE, the emperor Theodosius convened an ecumenical council at Constantinople, resulting in the ratification of the first Nicene formula. The Roman world was at last given a definitive triune god—a gobbledygook spiel about three characters in one that is still promoted by churches today.

Catholic bishops met and decided what everyone should and shouldn’t believe. They adopted doctrines that condemned egalitarianism and the esoteric ideas of the Gnostics. These doctrines became known as creeds.

The uneducated citizens of the Empire, impressed with the promise of a heavenly paradise, and intimidated with violence if they weren’t, were easy pickings for the Catholic Church, although some of the braver rural people hung on to many of their pagan traditions.

The vastness of the Roman Empire allowed Christianity to spread throughout much of Europe. An infrastructure under the umbrella of one god and emperor was convenient.

Before the Roman Empire declined in Europe, Christianity was firmly established in many of the key regions that would shape the history of the western world.

It’s obvious that the burgeoning power of Christianity had nothing to do with the inherent truth of the dogma and everything to do with politics and power.

Dr. Mark Fulton is a practising physician living on the Sunshine Coast, Australia and the author of Get over Christianity by Understanding it. His website is at

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