The fourth century is considered to be a turning point for Christianity in the Holy Land. Evidence for this shift is contained both in historical documents and in the form of archaeological finds. The Roman Empire, which had been largelypagan under various rulers, began to change its course from the persecution of Christians to toleration, and eventually to conversion. Pagan practices were banned and their temples made into churches. Pilgrimage and immigration to the land of the Bible from other parts of the Empire caused significant changes to the landscape. Within Palestine, the resulting pressure forced the Jewish population away from Jerusalem, towards the borders.
Christianity did not seem, by some accounts, to form a significant part of the Palestiniansocioculturemilieu until the fifth century. One report states that there were only 9 Christian communities at the time of the apostles, 10 in the second century, 8 in the third century, 18 in the fourth century, but 58 in the fifth.1 Eusebius is more conservative in theOnomasticon, reporting “only three Christian villages in the whole country,” with “no trace” of Christians in Jewish cities such as Sepphoris and Tiberius before Constantine.2
The total population of Palestine at the time of Diocletian and Constantine is estimated at about “half a million”, wherein “the Jews were the largest... group, followed by the pagans. The number of Samaritans (was) ...smaller, and the Christians came last.”3
The first significant piece of legislation to grant a measure of liberty to Christians in the Empire was issued by Galerius in 311. The Edict of Toleration stated:
"Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes."4
This was followed by the Edict of Milan, issued in 313 by Constantine andLicinius, which secured religious freedom for all. Property which had formerly been confiscated from Christians was to be returned to them, “without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception...”.5
The defeat of Licinius atAdrianopleand then atChrysopolis(in 324) established Constantine as the sole ruler of the Empire. Constantine had adopted Christianity as the religion of his Imperial cult in 312 following a vision in which he claimed to have seen a cross in the sky, formed by the Greek lettersChiandRho.6 The Council of Nicaea, sponsored in 325 by Constantine, brought a measure of unity to the various forms of Christianity found in the Empire, thereby increasing its accessibility and appeal for the popular segment of society.
Constantinian policy was transitional, perhaps necessarily so, for much of the Roman elite were still pagan. In order to keep a balance between the old ways of the political power base and the burgeoning grassroots revolution of the Christians, theEmperorwore two hats. He took for himself the title ofPontifex Maximus, or high pagan priest, while also considering himself to be the universal bishop of the church.7
Among the more significant reforms granted under Constantine's rule, Christians were granted exemption from pagan sacrifices, and bishops were given the power to hold court in certain matters of law.8 In addition:
“Christian Bishops under Constantine functioned in an official capacity as Imperialadvisors.Tax exemptions were granted to Christian priests and money was granted from the Imperial treasury to provide for new and rebuilt churches.”9
This legitimization of a formerly odious cult helped pave the way for the eventual marriage of Christianity to the state, something desired and foreseen by Origen.10
A climax in the legislative defeats of Christendom over paganism (among other competing religions) came about in 392. Theodosius I declared pagan practices illegal and made (Catholic) Christianity the official religion of the state.11 With Gratian, the Emperor in the West, he refused to take the title of Pontifex,as Constantine had done, and it was conferred on the Catholic Pope of Rome instead. Punishments against paganism and Arianism secured for the Empire a single, unified official church.12
The Constantinian shift of the fourth century laid the necessary political groundwork for the expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, figured prominently in Constantine's plans.13 Theodosius I gave paganism its death blow decades afterwards.
Evidence for Expansion
Besides the records of favorable Imperial legislation, some of the most convincing testimony for the spread of Christianity in Palestine during the fourth century comes from archaeology (and from written accounts). Specifically, the program of church building undertaken by Constantine and others lent sanction for the expansion of Christian congregations throughout the Holy Land. Though house churches were probably common enough in earlier times, the enfranchisement of the state favored the conversion of pagans. It was not uncommon for entire temples to be replaced by church buildings to accommodate the growing numbers.14
In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “...replaced the pagancentre...with a Christian one.”15 The site of the martyrium, previously occupied by a statue of either Aphrodite16 or Jupiter,17 became symbolic for the renewal of the whole city. Other Constantinian church buildings of note included the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Eleona church on the Mount of Olives.18
Various dignitaries participated in the program to venerate the Holy Land in the eyes of the Empire. Constantine's mother, Helena, traveled there to secure various relics, including parts of the true cross. Poimenia, a wealthy Romanpatroness, built the Church of the Ascension, while Theodosius I built the church at Gethsemane.19 These holy sites must have had a marked effect on the landscape of the country. Local Gentile populations, so accustomed to serving that which can be seen with the eyes (idols), were probably profoundly influenced by the beautifully-adorned buildings. An economic boom accompanied the expansive construction projects as well, vitalizing the nation through foreign investment: “...we must assume a significant stimulation of the Palestinian economy.”20
Thus the fourth century saw the construction of a host of church buildings in various parts of Palestine, which “...give evidence for the spread of Christian communities.”21 One might further speculate that Christian congregations existed at the seats of the bishops represented at Nicaea, although archaeological evidence for distinct church buildings is still wanting.22
The visit of the Queen Mother, Helena, made pilgrimages to the Holy Land fashionable in the Empire. This had some pivotal effects. First, tourism became an important contributing factor to the wealth of the nation. Second, many of the pilgrims settled down in the land, increasing the Christian presence to a relevant degree.
The fascination of pilgrims with holy relicswas associated with an enthusiasm forgrave sites. Figures from both the Old and New Testaments were linked with various special locations throughout Palestine. This phenomenon may have been integral to the creation of a hagiography deemed so necessary to fill the void left by the abandonment of the Roman pantheon. Theitinerariesof pilgrims such as the Anonymous of Bordeaux,Egeria, and Paula andEustochiumserved both as testaments and templates to the avid fourth-century tourist of the Holy Land.23
With so many and varied peoples entering the country, overcrowding forced many peoples away from the popularcentres, resulting in the founding of new cities. Nabateanslived along the trade route which supplied perfumes to Arab importers, and their towns prospered so much that even churches were built there, in the middle of the desert.24
On the negative side, many of the tourists brought with them all manner of vices, causing Jerome to lament of Jerusalem: “The city is full of people of every kind”... “whores, actors, clowns and everything that tends to occur in cities.”25
One consequence of the constant influx of pilgrims was the creation of monasteries and nunneries in Palestine. Many wealthy visitors, drawn by the ascetic ideal, left their fortunes behind, or, often donated them to the church, becoming, in the process, monks or nuns in various parts of the land. Areas of settlement included: “the Judeandesert, the area surrounding Jerusalem, the neighbourhood of Jericho, and also the Sinai desert.”26
Monks themselves became the object of pilgrims' curiosity, with many visitors wanting to seek advice and sagely counsel. But a more profound impact on the Christianization of Palestine was to be achieved through their aggressive program ofevangelization. Monks were free from “civic duties, from taxes and from military service,”27 thus rendering them of service to the church to an eminent degree. So integral were these full-time missionaries to the success of the program of Christianization that it was even given them by John Chrysostom to be responsible for the closure of pagan temples.28
The evangelization carried out by the monks was focused largely on the Bedouin tribes with whom they cohabited the desert areas. For example, a monk namedEuthymius, with his friendTheoktistus, converted an entire Arab tribe which had migrated to the region of the Dead Sea, in 406 A.D.29 Jerome, in his Life of St. Hilarion, speaks of the effectiveness of that monk in performing miracles, the fruit of which was that large numbers of people came to him for deliverance,30 including the Bedouins.31
Another point of contact for many with the formal discipline of Christianity came about through the charitable works of the monasteries. Beggars filed in with pilgrims to receive a helping hand, and no doubt many remained in those places, swelling the ranks of professional Christians even further. Some estimates place their numbers in the thousands. On the Mount of Olives alone, it is reported that, in 400 A.D., there were twenty monasteries, with approximately eight hundred monks.32
Events elsewhere in the Empire, namely the Barbarian invasions at the end of the fourth century, and the beginning of the fifth century, motivated many wealthy Christians to migrate as refugees to the Holy Land. These furthered the work of the church through financial support, helping to found and fund more monasteries. Thus the movement enjoyed a period of marked growth and helped to shape the landscape anew.
Effects on the Jewish Population
The Bar Kokhba revolt had already had the effect of causing the expulsion of all circumcised persons fromAelia Capitolina.33 Council canons prior to Constantine had set out rules for the separation of Jews from Christians, resulting in their isolation to regions such as the Galilee and the desert region in the south. The Jews retained a measure of freedom and autonomy and did not suffer the same manner of persecutions under Pagan rulers as did Christians. Cities with large Jewish populations (if not majorities) included Tiberius, Diocaesarea, Nazareth, Capernaum and Sepphoris.34
Constantinian policy towards the Jews both reflected previous legislation and provided innovation in certain matters. Proselytizing by Jews continued to be forbidden, while a new law protecting converts from Judaism to Christianity was introduced. The law requiring service of Jews as boulaiwas expanded to include the Diaspora, though exemption was later granted to those who served in the synagogue.
Concerning Jerusalem, Constantine relaxed the prohibition of Jews by allowing them to mourn there on the 9thof Ab, the anniversary of the destruction of the temple (perhaps as a symbol of the failure of their faith for the Christians), and further allowed them to inhabit the region surrounding the city, which the olderHadrianiclaw had forbidden.35
The conversion of Jews to Christianity never seemed to achieve the same levels of success as the conversion of Gentiles did. Furthermore, conversion efforts within Palestine were more vigorously resisted than missionary activity among the Jews of the Diaspora, where: “Sozomenreports that in Constantinople... countless Jews... converted to Christianity.”36 Origen counted approximately 30,000 Minimper generation during the second and third centuries in Palestine, a number which is supposed to have dwindled even further in the fourth century.37
The church viewed Judeo-Christians with some distaste, considering many of their practices to be heretical. Prohibitions against circumcision and ritual laws were aimed precisely against the influence of various Christian communities with a Jewish background. Yet these communities were far from homogeneity in doctrinal matters. Ebionites“considered Jesus as theDavidicMessiah, but not as God,” while “'Judaeo-Christians' proper” followed all the commandments of Torah while prescribing the same for others. Nazarenes, meanwhile, bound themselves to the observance of Torah without requiring the same of non-Jews. The first two groups cut themselves off from the Christian mainstream, while the last was absorbed into it because of its moderate views.38
Failure to compromise is considered a main factor in the diminishment and eventual disappearance of many Jewish Christian groups. Within Palestine, however, the ties of theMinimto the original faith of Jesus fostered their continued existence in “Sepphoris,Kefar Sikhnin..., KefarNeburayaand...Kefar Naham” (according to Talmudic sources), as well as inCochabaand the surrounding vicinity, according to Christian sources.39
One case study that comes to our attention is that of a certain Count Joseph, a convert who attempted to penetrate the highly resistant Jewish centres with the Gospel. It is told that he serendipitously found copies of the Gospels in a secret treasure house, and, being convinced, began efforts to proselytize among the Jews. After the Jews punished him in their synagogue, he received baptism. This man later became a friend of Emperor Constantine, and succeeded in obtaining permission from the regent to build churches inTiberias, in Diocaesarea and in other Jewish towns. The townspeople were resilient and managed to thwart Joseph's efforts for some time, but he finally managed to build the churches.40
Though Christianity was a fledgling religion in the Holy Land for three hundred years following the death and resurrection of Y'Shua Ha Maschiach, several events factored in its prosperity during the fourth century and afterwards. Foremost was the adoption of the religion by Constantine, who relaxed the anti-Christian legislation of previous pagan Emperors. His program of church building, carried out with the aid of his mother Helena, modified the landscape to such an extent that scores of pagans converted, often turning their temples into churches as well.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land brought both Christians and money to the country. Many remained as monks and nuns, or simply as benefactors of the church. A strong evangelistic thrust operating through monks (usually those who came from abroad) succeeded in seeing the conversion of many Bedouin tribes. Refugees from the Barbarian invasions also reached the shores of the land of the Bible at the beginning of the fifth century, bringing a further infusion of Christians and wealth to the church.
The effects of this growth on the Jewish population were to push them further into a defensive mode, though converts from their midst often made significant contributions in history, notably Count Joseph. Remnants of ritual observances caused many Judaeo-Christian communities to vanish.
Overall, the fourth century was indeed a pivotal time for the religion of Christianity to become a remarkable force to be reckoned with in future ages. While Christians had previously been subject to persecutions at the hands of pagans, their marriage to the power of the Empire shifted them into the role of persecutor.
Some have interpreted the combined force of “the emperors, the church and the Christian rich” as being bent on the conquest of Canaan. Their conclusion on Christianity nuanced it as a kind of illicit relationship:
“The new faith took from Judaism one element, monotheism, and another- internationalism- from the pagan world. As a result there arose a new kind of religion, which attempted to dominate all nations because of its universal aspect, and at the same time denied the validity of any other faith, because its God was 'a jealous God' who admitted no other.”41
Avi-Yonah, M. The Jews of Palestine: A Political History from the BarKokhbaWar to the Arab Conquest, Oxford, 1976.
Bahat, D. Lecture Notes for the Holy Land in the Fourth Century. St. Michael's College, Toronto, 2005.
Eusebius, The Life of Constantine III.26. Available online at: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-01/Npnf2-01-29.htm#P7646_3165242. Accessed 20 November 2005.
Jerome, Letters 58.3. Available online at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.v.LVIII.html. Accessed 20 November 2005.
Jerome, The Life of St.Hilarion. Available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3003.htm. Accessed 27 November 2005.
Stemberger, G. Jews and Christians in the Holy Land, Palestine in the Fourth Century, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 2000.
UNRV, “Christianity: The Official Religion of the Roman Empire.” Available online at: http://www.unrv.com/culture/christianity.php. Accessed November 27 2005.
Wikipedia, “Constantinian Shift”. Available online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinian_shift. Accessed November 20 2005.
Wikipedia, “Edict of Milan”. Available online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edict_of_Milan. Accessed November 20 2005.
1 M. Avi-Yonah, The Jews of Palestine: A Political History from the Bar Kokhba War to the Arab Conquest, Oxford 1976, p. 220.
2 Ibid, p. 139.
3 G. Stemberger, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land, Palestine in the Fourth Century,T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 2000, pp. 20-21.
4 Wikipedia, “Edict of Milan”. Available online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edict_of_Milan. Accessed November 20 2005.
6 Wikipedia, “Constantinian Shift”. Available online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinian_shift. Accessed November 20 2005.
7 Avi-Yonah, p. 162.
9 UNRV, “Christianity: The Official Religion of the Roman Empire.” Available online at: http://www.unrv.com/culture/christianity.php. Accessed November 27 2005.
10 Avi-Yonah, p. 151.
11 Wikipedia, “Constantinian Shift”.
12 UNRV, ibid.
13 Stemberger, p. 55.
14 Ibid, p. 67.
15 Ibid, p. 63.
16 Eusebius, The Life of ConstantineIII.26. Available online at: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-01/Npnf2-01-29.htm#P7646_3165242. Accessed 20 November 2005.
17 Jerome, Letters58.3. Available online at:http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.v.LVIII.html. Accessed 20 November 2005.
18 Stemberger, p. 64.
19 Ibid, p. 68.
20 Ibid, pp. 84-85.
21 Ibid, p. 69.
22 Ibid, pp. 49-50.
23 Ibid, pp. 88-105.
24 D. Bahat, Lecture Notes for the Holy Land in the Fourth Century. St. Michael's College, Toronto, 2005.
25 Stemberger , p. 120.
26 Ibid, p. 115.
27 Avi-Yonah, pp. 210-211.
28 Ibid, p. 220.
29 Stemberger, p. 116.
30 Jerome, The Life of St. Hilarion. Available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3003.htm. Accessed 27 November 2005.
31 Stemberger, p. 117.
32 Ibid, p. 118.
33 Avi-Yonah, p. 143.
34 Stemberger, p.75.
35 Avi-Yonah, pp. 162-164.
36 Stemberger, p. 81.
37 Avi-Yonah, p. 139.
38 Ibid, p. 140.
40 Stemberger, pp. 71-73.
41 Avi-Yonah, p. 159.