Friday, October 27, 2017

Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory


Constantine's great victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, AD 312. The day before — October 27 — is the date traditionally given for the miraculous vision and dream which Constantine experienced prior to the battle. This vision has been the subject of debate in both scholarly and popular imagination for hundreds of years. But what really happened on that day 1,705 years ago that changed forever the course of human history?

As a prelude to the famous accounts of this vision, it should be noted that Constantine also seems to have had pagan theophany in the early years of his reign. Writing sometime between AD 307 and AD 310, an anonymous Gallic panegyricist describes Constantine’s presence on the frontier as almost miraculous in restoring order after a barbarian incursion. He explains the reason why as follows:
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"Fortune herself so ordered this matter that the happy outcome of your affairs prompted you to convey to the immortal gods what you had vowed at the very spot where you had turned aside toward the most beautiful temple in the whole world, or rather, to the deity made manifest, as you saw. For you saw, I believe, O Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel wreaths, each one of which carries a portent of thirty years. For this is the number of human ages which are owed to you without fail—beyond the old age of Nestor." [In Praise of the Later Roman Emperors, page 248-50] 
This reputed vision of Apollo took place at least two years prior to Constantine’s more famous vision of a cross in the sky. Interestingly, this vision fits in well with the Christian accounts of later events.

In his treatise entitled Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died (written before AD 320), Lactantius offers the earliest account of Constantine's Christian theophany. Incidentally, this passage also provides the date for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge:
"A civil war broke out between Constantine and Maxentius. Although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because the soothsayers had foretold that if he went out of it he should perish, yet he conducted the military operations by able generals....At length Constantine, with steady courage and a mind prepared for every event, led his whole forces to the neighborhood of Rome, and encamped them opposite to the Milvian bridge. The anniversary of the reign of Maxentius approached, that is, the sixth of the kalends of November [i.e. the 27th of October], and the fifth year of his reign was drawing to an end.
"Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ (XP). Having this sign , his troops stood to arms.” [Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter 44] 
Writing perhaps 20 years later, Eusebius Pamphilus offers a more detailed account in his Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine—and what’s more, claims that he heard it directly from Constantine’s own lips, confirmed with an oath. When reading the following, note especially Constantine’s confusion and doubts about the source of the vision and the identity of the God he saw:
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"Being convinced, however, that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he sought Divine assistance, deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but believing the co-operating power of Deity invincible and not to be shaken. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance….
"Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of aftertime has established its truth?

"He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
"He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness...and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies….
"Being struck with amazement at the extraordinary vision, and resolving to worship no other God save Him who had appeared to him, he sent for those who were acquainted with the mysteries of His doctrines, and enquired who that God was, and what was intended by the sign of the vision he had seen." [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapter 29-32]
It should be noted that Christians at this time, Constantine included, didn’t think that the pagan gods were non-existent. On the contrary, they believed that they were demonic spirits who could and did appear to men. Furthermore, Constantine himself provides evidence that he believed that pagan prophecy was, in fact, true and pointed directly, if inadvertently, toward the salvation of the world under the auspices of Jesus Christ. In his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, Constantine puts forward his belief that the Erythræan Sibyl, writing in Asia Minor hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, predicted both His coming and His judgment upon mankind.

Furthermore, in the same speech, Constantine calls out Virgil’s 4th Eclogue as a further prophetic writing to support the premise that the coming of Christ was predicted not only by the Hebrew prophets, but by pagan ones as well.

Many, no doubt, look for political reasons behind Constantine’s shift from pagan piety to Christian devotion. But frankly, the political explanations make very little sense. Why would an emperor motivated purely by power, abandon the religious practices favored by an estimated 80-90% of Roman citizens in AD 312 to take up the banner of a small and despised sect which, as recently as six years before was subject to the harshest penalties of Roman law?

It seems clear that Constantine was willing, no matter what the consequences, to follow what he perceived as the divine will. An edict of Constantine, written later in his reign and recorded in Eusebius's Life, gives a glimpse into his mindset, now clearly Christian and devoid of any trace of doubt or pagan syncretism which may have existed earlier:
"To all who entertain just and wise sentiments respecting the character of the Supreme Being, it has long been most clearly evident, and beyond the possibility of doubt, how vast a difference there has ever been between those who maintain a careful observance of the hallowed duties of the Christian religion, and those who treat this religion with hostility or contempt. But at this present time, we may see by still more manifest proofs, and still more decisive instances, but how unreasonable it were to question this truth, and how mighty is the power of the Supreme God: since it appears that they who faithfully observe His commandments, are rewarded with abundant blessings, and are endued with well-grounded hope as well as ample power for the accomplishment of their undertakings. On the other hand, they who have cherished impious sentiments have experienced results corresponding to their evil choice….

"For whoever have addressed themselves with integrity for purpose to any course of action, keeping the fear of God continually before their thougths…such persons, though for a season they may have experienced painful trials, have borne their afflictions lightly, being supported by the belief of greater rewards in store for them. And their character has acquired a brighter lustre in proportion to the severity of their past sufferings….

"I would desire never to be forgetful of the gratitude due to His grace….I am most certainly persuaded that I myself owe my life, my every breath, in short, my very inmost and secret thoughts, entirely to the favor of the Supreme God.” [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book II, Chapters 26-29]
For more on the life of this amazing historical personage and his family members, see the following:

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