The Origins of Christianity and the Universe: Constantine and the Cosmic Microwave Background

Planck telescope map

Superficially the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Planck Observatory, which just released the oldest pictures of the Universe when it was a mere 380,000 years old, have little in common.

But they do, and they are both amazing in their own right.  History Future Now explains why.

On the 14th May 2009, an Arianne 5 European Space Agency rocket lifted up one of the wonders of modern science, the Planck Observatory, and placed it into orbit.  A series of complex manoeuvres put the octagonal satellite into a strange Lissajous orbit, 1.5 million km away from Earth, past the moon, “downwind” from the sun.  The main purpose of the Planck Observatory is to measure the temperature of the Universe and to do that it contains instruments that are cooled to 0.5 degrees above absolute zero, or -270 degrees Celsius.  Absolute zero is the temperature at which electrons stop moving.  Is is very cold. This allows the Planck Observatory to measure the Cosmic Microwave Background, which is the residue from the Big Bang, which then went on to form all of the stars and planets in the Universe.

On the 21st March 2013, the latest set of images from the Planck Observatory were revealed to the public.  The images showed what the Universe looked like 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was created, and updated the estimate of the age of the Universe to 13.84 billion years  old.  Because space and time are part of the same thing, looking into space is the equivalent of looking back in time.  The further away objects are in space the further back in time they are as well.  By looking at the night sky all of us can be time travellers.

So while mankind can now see what the Universe looked like 380,000 years after the Big Bang, there still remain a number of questions about what happened during time from the origin of the Universe to 380,000 years later. There are a number of theories and the Planck Observatory is providing empirical data which will help to modify those theories. But what caused the Big Bang in the first place is still a mystery.  Some scientist think that there might have been multiple, parallel universes that clashed together, some two universes, some fully admit they have no clue.  Maybe it was God?


Constantine and the rise of Christianity

Which brings us to the Emperor Constantine and the rise of Christianity.

Constantine was the Roman Emperor from 306 – 337AD. The city of Constantinople is named after him and he is widely regarded as the first Roman emperor to have converted to Christianity (albeit on his death bed).  The city that he created to the east of Rome became the New Rome and was at the heart of a Greco-Roman empire that would outlast the actual Roman empire and would eventually be known to history by its pre Constantine name, Byzantium.  This city finally was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453AD.

The history of Christianity after Constantine is very well known. There is little ambiguity as to what happened next and the rise of Christianity after Constantine proceeds in a well documented and logical fashion.  Christianity switches from being a fringe religion on the outskirts of Roman thought to being at the heart of imperial policy.

Constantine himself is a fascinating character, worthy of a movie or TV series.  It is worth highlighting that the previous generation of Roman emperors, under the Emperor Diocletian, had divided up the Roman empire into four parts: two senior emperors who were in charge of half the empire each, called Augustus, and two junior emperors, called Caesar, that reported to the senior Augustus emperor (Dioclesian). This division of labour, known as the tetrarchy, under Dioclesian, was designed to reduce the amount of strife at the top of Roman politics so that four great men could all share power and thus reduce the likelihood for civil wars – which had plagued the Roman empire – as one man tried to have absolute power.

Dioclesian’s thought process, though well intentioned, was ultimately a disaster as Constantine triggered a civil war to bring the deliberately fragmented  empire back under his sole control.  Which he successfully did.  By this stage the number of Christians within the empire had grown so that they were an increasingly powerful political force, despite the fact that they were victims of rabid attacks by Roman leaders who were fearful of Christianity’s monotheistic dogmatism which left no room for traditional Roman polytheism.

Constantine held onto the office of Pontifex Maxiumus, the most senior pagan religion position in the empire, all the way to his death in 337.  But at some point in his career he became increasingly Christian as well.  At first, the traditional Roman religions (which were becoming increasingly monotheistic anyway) were co-opted with Christianity, but over time Constantine switched from being merely tolerant of Christianity to being a grand advocate of the religion itself.

Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity is shrouded in mystery and the famous 312 AD Battle of Milvian Bridge has been portrayed by Christian historians as the key point where a miracle occurred and God came to support Constantine.  According to the bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine looked up at the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light saying “by this I win” and then promptly told all of his troops to paint their shields with the Christian Chi-Rho symbol. He then went on to win the battle. Roman sources show nothing of this miracle, and the story is likely to have been enhanced by the imagination of later Christian writers.

But there is no doubt that Constantine did bring together all of the Christian leaders in Milan, from which the Edict of Milan was declared, which made the empire officially neutral towards Christianity.  This was a big step up from the hostility shown previously. The First Council of Nicaea was the most important Christian meeting, however, and this was also sponsored by Constantine.

During the First Council of Niceae, in 325AD, a number of key “facts” about the relationship between Jesus, God and the holy spirit became doctrine.  At the time there was a huge debate within the Christian church about the relationship between the three.  Some believed that Jesus was not the son of God, others that he was.  There were lots of differences about the nature of the Holy Spirit.

What did come about from this first Council was the Nicene Creed and this creed became the basis of what Catholics and Protestants recite aloud in church today.  It goes along the lines of:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not make, being of one substance with the Father.
By whom all things were made
Who for us men, and four our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; 
He suffered, and on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost. 


Now observant Christian readers will note that this sounds familiar but is not quite right.  There is no mention of the Virgin Mary or Pontius Pilate, for example.  Where is the reference to the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church”?   The Nicene Creed was updated in the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD and this later version became the more familiar version that Christians recite weekly.

The Nicene Creed was hugely controversial and many Christians were furious.  But this version became “orthodox” and all other versions became “heresy” and all Christians who saw Christ and God differently became heretics.  Over time they would be hunted down and destroyed leaving only one form of Christianity (actually there were still a few, but that is another story).

It is likely that Constantine could not care less about the minutiae of the Creed.  Christianity had become both a monotheistic religion (one God) and a polytheistic religion (God, Jesus and Holy Spirit) at the same time.  Some commentators have said there was no issue here at all: in the same way water can be ice, liquid water and steam, God can be God, Jesus and Holy Spirit at the same time, in different manifestations.

What Constantine wanted, however, was unity: one god, one emperor (himself) and one empire.  Christian squabbles undermined this effort.

But what in heaven’s name does this have to do with the Planck Observatory and the origin of the Universe?

Constantine’s relationship with Christianity marks a turning point in our understanding of the early Christian church.  After him, we have a lot of facts and we have a very good understanding. Christianity as we know it looks formed and reasonably complete.

It is the same with the the Planck Observatory.  This has enabled us to see  back to 380,000 years after the creation of the Universe.  A small miracle when you think about it. After this, what we can observe in the night sky and the theories that we have established about the origin of the Universe are reasonably compatible and understood (though don’t talk about Dark Energy and Dark Matter with a scientist).

What happens before then is far more complex and harder to understand.  What caused the Big Bang? What happened before the Big Bang?  Likewise, there still remains a mystery as to how Christianity became so popular and eventually the main religion of the Roman Empire. There are a lot of good theories from academics and from theologians.  But like the Universe before the Big Bang, none of these theories are that satisfying and are high on speculation and low on facts.

History Future Now has read a great deal about the early Church and the Roman Empire.  None of the explanations about the rise of Christianity have proved convincing.  Given the importance of Christianity for Europeans (and their colonial descendants all over the world) directly and the rest of the world indirectly, the lack of a convincing explanation for its rise has proved frustrating.

So this next part, Part 2, is History Future Now’s attempt to provide a unified theory on the origin of Christianity.

To explain the rise of Christianity we cannot start with Constantine in 337AD.  We can’t even start with Jesus between 2BC and 30AD.  We have to go further back in time, to 323 BC and the death of Alexander III of Macedon:  Alexander the Great.

More, in Part 2:The Origins of Christianity and the Universe, Pt 2: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar


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