You will not have far or long in Israel before you begin to hear of the exploits of the Byzantines. The time period of their rule in Israel is usually dated from 324-638 CE although the founding of the City of Byzatium on the straits between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea dates back to 658. A Greek colony under a leader named Byzas, Byzantium maintained its good commercial position and managed its own affairs under a series of ancient rulers. It was besieged and destroyed by Emperor Severus about 196 CE.
The power and glory of the Roman Empire had peaked and was rapidly declining when Diocletian became emperor in 285 CE. By 311, there were at least four rulers claiming the title. Constantius Chlorus was the emperor in charge of Gaul, Spain and Britain. About 270, he married a humble servant girl from Bithynia named Helena. In 274, she gave birth to a son named Constantine. When her husband was appointed Caesar he was encouraged to divorce Helena, which he did in 292 (her humble status did not male her a political asset). He then married Theodora, the daughter of one of the other Caesars. When Constantius was sent north to rule in Britain Constantine was left with Diocletian, something of a hostage to guarantee his father’s loyalty.
In 295, Constantine accompanied Diocletian to Palestine where he met the Christian leader Eusebius, who was to become his friend and future biographer. Constantine became a Caesar when his father died in 306. He defeated two of the other rulers in 312 at the famous battle of Milvian Bridge near Rome. Constantine and his father had been influenced and impressed by Christians and had opposed Diocletian’s persecution of the Church. Prior to the battle, Constantine is said to have seen a cross in the sky and have heard the words, “In this sign conquer”. What ever his personal beliefs may have been, he became a champion of the Christian cause. He soon defeated the other contenders for the throne and set up his capital in Byzantium, changing its name to Constantinople. He immediately made Christianity a legal religion and later made it official religion of the State. This sudden shift from a position of a persecuted minority to a place of political power greatly affected the history of the Church. The effect was not altogether positive.
At this point in history, we see a major move away from Christianity’s Jewish roots. The Gospel had come to Greeks but Greek though had also seeped into the Church. The calendar was arranged to avoid connecting Easter with Passover and many restriction were placed on the Jewish community. The Church took more steps down the misguided path of trying to honor Jesus by harassing the Jews.
Constantine became a leading force in Christian circles although he did not receive baptism until nearly the end of his life (this may have been due to a current idea that baptism forgave all sins committed up to the point of baptism, therefore encouraging people to postpone it as long as possible).
Constantine seems to have had a real affection and respect for his mother, Helena. He had coins made in her honor, re-named the city of her birth Helenopolis and in 324 sent her on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Exactly what she did on this trip is unclear. Facts and legends have mixed over the years. She was nearly eighty at this time and is credited with locating sites of significance in New Testament history as well as giving alms to the poor and needy. She identified the cave in Bethlehem where Jesus was born and the place on the Mount of Olives where He ascended into heaven. Churches were soon built on these sites.
The stories about the Holy Sepulchre are less certain. During the years of Roman occupation Hadrian had built a temple to Venus on a site outside the city wall. He had barred Jews from the city and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. Constantine wanted to identify and build a church on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was though that this site was under Hadrian’s temple to Venus. Constantine wrote to Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, ordering a church built “worthy of the most marvellous place in the world”. Legend has it that Helena herself found three crosses in a cistern just east of Calvary and miraculous occurrences indicated which one was the “true cross”. Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the major biographers of the ea, does not mention Helena being personally involved with the locating of the Holy Sepulchre but Saint Ambrose and Rufinus, who wrote sometime later do mention the story.
Whatever her contribution may have been to early archaeology, it seems that Helena was truly a pious Christian lady who prayed regularly, helped the needy and sincerely wanted to honor the Lord by identifying the Holy places. Unfortunately her efforts started a trend that would make future generations wonder if Jesus had said, “Go into all the land and build churches” instead of “Go into all the world and preach the gospel”.
In 325, Constantine played a leading role in the Council of Nicaea which was called to arbitrate the Arian controversy that had divided Christians in Egypt and North Africa. The dispute involved questions about the nature of Christ and the persons of the Trinity. The differences between the parties seem to include personality conflicts as well as theological differences. One wonders, in retrospect, if it would have been better had the Church emphasized the things the Bible made clear and resisted the temptation to define things the Bible left vague.
We can appreciate the Byzantines for their support of Christianity while questioning the direction that support tool. Most modern Israelis are charitable in their assessment of Constantine and Helena, pointing out the advantage for us of having the biblical sites marked in some way. And yet, as we enter the many dark structures filled with icons we can imagine the confusion of Jewish Israelis who know the clear Bible commands against idols and graven images. Many think that Christians are polytheists who obviously worship various idols.
We cannot change the negative aspects of Byzantine influence but we can be aware of the problems added to Jewish-Christian relations by this era of history. As we grow in understanding, we can pray that God will use us as agents of healing in our time.
The Byzantine Empire
It was one of the greatest of European civilizations. The Byzantine civilization, if not the Empire, really began in the year 324 CE. This is the year Constantine became Emperor. Constantine ruled over a united Empire but moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium. He spent a great deal of time and money preparing the city to be the future capital. The city was renamed Constantinople but is also often called “New Rome”.
Like most political entities the history of the Byzantine Empire can be categorized into three parts, a beginning, middle and end or an ascension period, a golden period and a period of decline and fall. There are subcategories but we will not get into that here.
The early period is marked by a separation of identity of the Empire. This period is usually marked from 395 CE when the Eastern Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire formally separated with the death of Emperor Theodosius I. Theodosius’s son, Arcadius, aged 17, rules the eastern Empire from the city of Milan. At the time everyone thought that this was going to be a temporary setup but it turned out to be permanent.
Notable events in the early period are the building of walls around Constantinople, rising threat from Barbarians in the west, the eruption of religious debate and conflict after Christianity became a dominant force in the Empire, and the birth of Islam.
The Golden period of the Byzantine Empire is considered to have begun in 641 CE. The golden period was marked by massive border changes, constant warfare with the Arabs and to a lesser extent Bulgars, a final split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches and a renaissance in the arts.
The final period began 1025 CE and ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. This period was marked by the loss and reconquest and then another loss of Constantinople, constant civil war and the splintering and fall of the Empire.
The Church, as an institution, continued to grow. At the time of Constantine there were five leading cities which were the headquarters of church leaders called metropolitans or archbishops. These cities were Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. Eventually the Church became a religious monarchy with the Bishop of Rome recognized as the pope or the “Father of the Church”. From the early years, there had been disagreements between the Eastern and the Western Church, and in 1054, the final split or schism divided the Latin and the Greek branches of Christianity. The Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other and the division has persisted ever since.
You will find churches of both eastern and western traditions represented in Israel. These ancient Christian groups may seem quite foreign, extremely formal and spiritually cold in the eyes of many Americans – both Catholics and Protestants. The religious and political power-playing down through the centuries seems a far cry from Jesus’ call to simple discipleship.
Before we judge too quickly or harshly, however, we should remember that the churches of the Protestant Reformation have also learned to play power politics. In only four- or five-hundred years, Protestants have also learned the fine art of empire-building. A close and honest look will show areas needing repentance and renewal in everyone’s tradition.
Author: JoAnn Magnusum, author Israel Study Manual