Not long after Nicaea, Constantine wrote a letter to his son Constantius, who was trying to gain support by violence for his Arian belief.
‘Son’, wrote Constantine, “… Cease, I implore you, from these proceedings. Remember that you are but mortal; and be fearful of the day of judgment and keep yourself pure with that day in view. Do not interfere in matters ecclesiastical, nor give us orders on such questions, but learn about them from us. For into your hands God has put the kingdom; the affairs of his Church he has committed to us.
If any man stole the Empire from you, he would be resisting the ordinance of God: in the same way you on your part should be afraid lest, in taking upon yourself the government of the Church, you incur the guilt of a grave offence. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ We are not permitted to exercise an earthly rule; and you, Sire, are not authorized to burn incense. I write thus to you out of concern for your salvation….” 1
In AD329, Bishop Alexander died. The following year, his archdeacon Athanasius succeeded to the episcopal seat. He was 30 years of age and seated in the archbishopric of Alexandria, a most powerful position. He now had the authority to push the Nicene position.
For the next five years after Nicaea, Constantine continued to oversee the work on his new capital. He had named it Constantinopolis, meaning the ‘city of Constantine’. In AD330 the city was completed and the Emperor took up residence in his palace. 2
“As the imperial authority disappeared from the West, (it) permitted the Roman bishops to assume the chief prerogatives of the departed Emperors, and growing streams of revenue flowed into the papal coffers from every part of the Western world. Exigencies (emergencies) of the turbulent medieval centuries forced many Western princes into vassalage to the Papacy and many lesser prelates of the Church into like political servitude to the princes. Both relations added fabulous land domains to the riches of the hierarchy.” 3
Six years after the Nicaea Council, Constantine commissioned the making of fifty Bibles for his churches in Constantinople. He wanted it to be for pagans, ‘country people’, as well as for Christians. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea was assigned to direct this task.
The Emperor wrote, “It happens, through the favoring providence of God our Saviour, that great numbers have united themselves to the most holy church in the city which is called by my name. It seems, therefore, highly requisite, since that city is rapidly advancing in prosperity in all other respects, that the number of churches should also be increased…
I have thought it expedient to instruct your Prudence to order fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures, the provision and use of which you know to be most needful for the instruction of the Church, to be written on prepared parchment in a legible manner, and in a convenient, portable form, by professional transcribers thoroughly practiced in their art…
You have authority also, in virtue of this letter, to use two of the public carriages for their conveyance, by which arrangement the copies when fairly written will most easily be forwarded for my personal inspection; and one of the deacons of your church may be intrusted with this service, who, on his arrival here, shall experience my liberality. God preserve you, beloved brother!'” 4
In his history Eusebius stated. “Such were the Emperor's commands, which were followed by the immediate execution of the work itself, which we sent him in magnificent and elaborately bound volumes of a threefold and fourfold form.” 5
Fifty magnificent copies of the Bible were delivered to the Emperor in the carriages provided.
Dr C.R. Gregory, a scholar of the late 19thcentury in the field of manuscripts believed Vaticanus was one of these Bibles. The codex Vaticanus is part of the Vatican Library, a library that has 75,000 codices from throughout history. 6
Dr Gregory further stated, “This Manuscript (Vaticanus) is supposed, as we have seen, to have come from the same place as the Sinaitic Manuscript… they would suit very well as a pair of the fifty manuscripts written at Caesarea (Palestine) for Constantine the Great.” 7
The Sinaiticus was found in a wastepaper basket at St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Helena’s Mount Sinai in 1844, but Dr Gregory believes it was originally one of the commissioned Bibles of Constantine.
Dr A.T. Robinson, agrees. “It is quite possible that Aleph [Sinai] and B [Vatican] are two of these fifty.” 8
Another writer stated about Vaticanus, “It was probably one of the earliest Bibles commissioned by the pagan Emperor Constantine. Personally I have problems with accepting its authenticity because of numerous errors in the text. For example: Matthew 10:8 it has Alexandrian reading νεκρους εγειρετε [raise the dead] omitted by the Byzantine text…
Furthermore, it has some additions and variants that do not exist in the Byzantine text before the sixteenth century. 9
He further wrote, “The other citation... is Codex Sinaiticus… It is …most likely one of the fifty original Bibles that the Emperor Constantine compiled to send to the Eastern Church to insure conformity within his corpus Christianorum [literally: ‘body of Christians’]…” 10
Others do not agree. “The Sinaiticus is unlikely to be one of the Bibles because of its Alexandrian type text.” 11
John W. Burgon, Anglican Dean of Chichester Cathedral in the late 1800s, and a great defender of the Scriptures wrote, “Constantine applied to Eusebius for fifty handsome copies, amongst which it is not impossible that the manuscripts B and Aleph were to be actually found.” 12
Constantine had built new churches in Constantinople and he wanted Bibles, but he also wanted relics of the saints. He requested his mother Helena travel to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to find sacred sites and relics, and if possible bring some relics back for the Emperor. She was willing to go at the request of her son.
Helena discovered many relics -- the stump of the tree that provided the wood for Jesus’ cross, as well as the wood of the cross itself! She also found the nails that were placed in Jesus’ hands and feet. She sent them to her son, who put one in his crown and made the others into bridal bits for his war-horse. 13
Helena followed the Via Dolorosa to the cross and found fourteen ‘stations of the cross’, places where Jesus had stopped or spoken on His way to Golgotha.
Constantine had asked his mother to locate a mountain he could call Mount Sinai. She chose one on a peninsula, now called the Sinai Peninsula, between the two arms of the Red Sea. However, this is not the true Mount Sinai, as the Bible tells us Sinai is in Arabia. 14 Galatians 4:25.
Helena also found the place where she believed Jesus was crucified and buried. On this site she had a magnificent church built called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the first of others called by that name. 15
Constantine waited until his 30th year before he had the church dedicated, but by then his mother was dead. She was 80 years of age at her death.
Constantine travelled to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many bishops attended from Bithynia, Thrace, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Macedonia, Pannonia, Moesia and Thebaid.
The mighty concourse was filled with vast numbers from every province, each attended by an Imperial escort. It was a high day in Jerusalem. After a holy dedication service, a festival of splendour took place at the Emperor’s expense. 16
In AD330, Constantine’s sister Constantia was dying. Her brother stood at the bedside while she pled with him to recall Arius from his banishment and restore him to his position in Alexandria. 17
After her death, the Emperor sent a message to Arius to return from his banishment. (The other Arians were also restored) Arius presented a Confession of Faith to Constantine, which proved satisfactory to the Emperor.
The Arian prelates exerted their influence to have the Emperor fulfil his promise to have Arius restored in Alexandria. Bishop Athanaseus was now the bishop of Alexandria and he was not in favour of restoring the ‘heretic’ to work under his authority. Friendly requests were sent. Athanaseus refused them. Threats were sent, but the bishop refused them all. 18
Frustrated, the Arians secured a command from the Emperor that Athanasius should receive Arius under threat of being deposed and exiled. The threat was not carried out. The Arians then invented charges against the bishop, for which he had to answer to the Emperor. He was fully acquitted.
After another accusation, a synod was called, consisting entirely of Arian bishops. Athanasius did not appear. At the command of the Emperor he appeared and succeeded in clearing himself, after which he returned to his bishopric.
When Arius arrived in Alexandria, it caused such tumult that the Emperor called him to Constantinople instead. Again he presented a Confession of Faith which also proved satisfactory.
Constantine then commanded Alexander the Patriarch of Constantinople to receive Arius into the fellowship of the church on the next day of public worship, which was the Sabbath. 19 (Not Bishop Alexander from Alexandria)
The patriarch absolutely refused.
Arius’ friends, under authority of the Emperor, told the bishop they would force their way into the church on the following day of worship, which was a Sunday.
Fearful of what might happen, the patriarch began to pray that the church might not be so disgraced, and that Arius might die.
That evening, in AD336, Arius died at the age of 80 years.
There is no doubt Patriarch Alexander would have believed God had answered his prayer. The next day, a solemn service of thanksgiving was conducted in the Constantinople church by the bishop. 20
It had been a long battle for Arius. He had conducted himself as a Christian, but now his life was over. The majority of his enemies had ridiculed and accused him throughout his ministry, but there were some who said he was always polite and gentle in his manner.
Athanasius compared his death to the fate of Judas, and ever afterward said, it was “a striking argument that in the death of the heretic, God had condemned the heresy.” 21
Some of the leading Arians were not of the same character as their leader and were determined to continue fighting Athanasius. New charges were laid against Athanasius at a council in Tyre in AD335. This resulted in his bishopric being taken from him. 22
The friends of Athanasius presented petition after petition to Constantine asking the Emperor to return him to his seat in Alexandria, but he continued to denounce the bishop. ‘He is proud, turbulent, and obstinate. No, I will not give him back the bishopric.’ And he refused all petitions
During the same year (AD336), Constantine made his third son Constans a colleague with him in the Empire.
On the political front, there were threats to Christianity from a number of areas. One was Persia. Constantine wrote a polite letter to Shapur II, the King of Persia, telling him to stop persecuting the Christians.
Constantine Augustus to Shapur, king of the Persians ---
By keeping the Divine faith, I am made a partaker of the light of truth: guided by the light of truth, I advance in the knowledge of the Divine faith. Hence it is that, as my actions themselves evince, I profess the most holy religion; and this worship I declare to be that which teaches me deeper acquaintance with the most holy God; aided by whose Divine power, beginning from the very borders of the ocean, I have aroused each nation of the world in succession to a well-grounded hope of security… (who) had well-nigh been utterly destroyed, have been restored through my agency to a far happier state…
Imagine, then, with what joy I heard tidings so accordant with my desire, that the fairest districts of Persia are filled with those men on whose behalf alone I am at present speaking, I mean the Christians. I pray, therefore, that both you and they may enjoy abundant prosperity, and that your blessings and theirs may be in equal measure; for thus you will experience the mercy and favor of that God who is the Lord and Father of all.
And now, because your power is great, I commend these persons to your protection; because your piety is eminent, I commit them to your care. Cherish them with your wonted humanity and kindness; for by this proof of faith you will secure an immeasurable benefit both to yourself and us.” 23
King Shapur agreed to show mercy towards the Christians within his borders, but this tolerance became increasingly difficult. He was worried that Christian Armenia would not again serve him as an ally of the Persian Empire, and he made a decision to invade Armenia.
Although the invasion failed and his soldiers withdrew, Shapur had conveyed a clear message to Constantine that he did not intend to relinquish the border areas to Rome, even if those border areas were Christian. Immediately Shapur cracked down on Christianity in his own Empire with a systematic persecution of Persian Christians.
Constantine began to plan a campaign against Persia. The invasion would be a crusade, “his justification that the Christians in Persia needed his help.” 24
In the Spring of AD337, Constantine fell ill.
At first he experienced a slight feeling of unease, but in a short while felt really sick. Attending the hot city baths did not help, and soon Constantine realised he was going to die.
Although 65 years old, the Emperor still possessed a sound and vigorous body, free from all blemish. He had a youthful vitality, able to join in martial exercises, to ride, endure the fatigues of travel and engage in battle. Now he must die. 25
Immediately Constantine requested baptism at the hand of Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. The ceremony was arranged with a number of other bishops in attendance.
At the beginning of the service, the Emperor said to all present, “The time has arrived which I have long hoped for, with an earnest desire and prayer that I might obtain the salvation of God. The hour has come in which I too may have the blessings of that seal which confers immortality; the hour in which I may receive the seal of salvation...” 26
After his baptism, “…he rejoiced in spirit, was renewed, and filled with heavenly light...” 27
At the conclusion of the ceremony Constantine put on shining white Imperial vestments, and lying on a white-covered couch “he lifted his voice and poured forth a strain of thanksgiving to God; after which he added the words -- Now I know that I am truly blessed: now I feel assured that I am accounted worthy of immortality, and am made a partaker of Divine light…” 28
He then proceeded to complete the needful arrangement of his affairs.
Some days later, at noon, the Emperor began to deteriorate.
He died that same day – May 22, AD337 -- in the Imperial villa at Ankyrona near Nicomedia. 29
Constantine’s body was laid in a golden coffin, covered in purple. It was carried in procession with the whole army, headed by his son Constans, to Constantinople. Here it was placed in an elevated position in the Imperial palace, surrounded by candles and guarded by soldiers.
When Constantine breathed his last, the “assembled spear-men and bodyguards rent their garments, and prostrated themselves on the ground, striking their heads, and uttering lamentations and cries of sorrow. The rest of the soldiery also came in respectful order to mourn as a flock the removal of their good shepherd.
The people meanwhile ran wildly throughout the city, some expressing the inward sorrow of their hearts by loud cries, others appearing confounded with grief; each mourning the event as a calamity which had befallen himself, and bewailing his death as though they felt themselves bereft of a blessing common alike to all.” 30
The baths and markets were closed, the public spectacles, and all other recreations were interrupted.
On hearing of his father's death, Constantius hastened to Constantinople.
The people of Rome and the Senate begged the three sons to bury their Emperor in the Imperial city of Rome, but it was not their father’s wish. He would be buried in his own city of Constantinople.
Constantius and his brothers interred the royal remains with the utmost magnificence, placing them in the tomb prepared in the Church of the Apostles .
Constantine was a man of diversity. His life appeared in many ways to be a testimony of faith in God, but there were contradictions.
Some writers are very open in their opinions. Speaking of “Constantine ‘the Great’, when tested by character, indeed, he stands among the lowest of all those to whom the epithet has in ancient or modern times been applied.” 31
Is it true?
Throughout his years, Constantine ascribed his own success to his conversion at Milvian Bridge, where he claimed Jesus told him to conquer in the power and name of the cross. Today, 1700 years later, many have their doubts.
Was Emperor Constantine a true Christian? We do not know. If he was not, the secrets of his life will one day be revealed, and then we will know. In the meantime, let us leave him to the Judge of the universe.