The Roman Empire Adopts Christianity

When Constantine, the emperor of Rome, became a Christian it meant that the empire became Christian, with momentous consequences for the Jewish and pagan worlds.

As Jews began to establish an autonomous way of life and put down deep roots in Babylon — a place at the far end of the Roman Empire and insulated from a Rome in steep decline — a Roman general by the name of Constantine rose in the ranks. His conversion to Christianity would literally shake up the entire world.

His mother, Helena, secretly converted to Christianity in about 310 CE. Had she done so publicly she would have been executed. She also kept her Christianity hidden because she had her son’s career in mind. If it was discovered that his mother was an avowed Christian, he would lose his rank if not his head.

Constantine, who was a great warrior and man of considerable talents, rose to the top of the political ladder until he was able, through a bloodless coup, to usurp power and become the emperor of Rome. Then, his mother was able to convince him to mount what really was the first crusade against the infidels in Palestine… even though Constantine was not yet a Christian! However, his mother had been drumming it into him for so many years that he was already filled with great zeal.

When he finally became emperor, he took a large Roman army east with the intention of settling the score once and for with all the guerilla bands that were picking Rome apart. On the eve of one of the great battles, in 330 CE, Constantine saw a vision in which his mother stood on the right hand of Jesus. He promised him, “If you will give me victory in this battle, then I will officially become a Christian.” Constantine won the battle and fulfilled his promise.

When the emperor became a Christian it meant that the empire became Christian.

Suddenly, the persecuted became the establishment. Constantine cleansed the Roman bureaucracy of pagans and replaced them with Christians. As happens many times with converts, he became more fanatical than those who had long been believers before him. In short, he was determined to make the entire empire Christian.

And he probably would have done it if not for making the mistake… of dying.

Christian Persecution of Jews in Israel

Before he died, he came to Israel and built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He also came to Jerusalem and built a church on Mount Moriah. He tried as well to establish Christianity throughout the rest of the country.

He naturally did not find a favorable response from the Jewish community. This intensified the anti-Jewish feeling of Christians. Indeed, the beginnings of official Christian persecution of Jews can be traced to this time.

Those Jewish individuals and small communities that remained in the Land of Israel had to go underground. Although there has never been a time without some Jewish presence in the Land of Israel — even when the numbers of Jews was very few and life there very tenuous — Constantine’s conversion marked a very significant, long-term weakening of the Jewish presence in Israel. With the weakening of the Jewish presence also came the weakening of the Sanhedrin, as well as the weakening of the Prince of the Sanhedrin, with momentous consequences, as we will explain just ahead.

Constantinus – More Bad News for the Jews

When Constantine died, his son – Constantinus, also called by historians Constantine II – took over. He, too, was a strong Christian. In modesty, he renamed Byzantium “Constantinople.” Now the early Church fathers really began to gain control of the Roman Empire.

As with all revolutionaries, when the Christians gained power they were more brutal than those they replaced. They, who had for years pleaded for religious tolerance, now said no other religion was acceptable except Christianity. Instead of throwing Christians to the lions they threw non-Christians to the lions. The religion of love, peace and brotherhood looked very much like the religion of Rome. The same people that ran the prisons and public executions for the Romans ran them for the Christians.

This put the Jews under tremendous pressure – so much so that a relatively large amount (perhaps a few thousand) converted to Christianity. Some of them rose to high office in the Church, a situation that will be repeated many times in history. These apostate Jews became the worst enemies of the Jewish people. They understood Jewish life and understood best how to completely destroy it.

Therefore, we have for the first time in recorded history – in 350 CE — the phenomenon of synagogues being burned under official Church sanction. They also officially closed all schools of Jewish learning, banned circumcision, kosher food, the observance of the Jewish Sabbath and other practices.

A Brief Relief

In 360 CE, after three consecutive Christian emperors, a pagan by the name of Julian the Greek took the throne. He tried to undo what his predecessors had done. Because of his enmity toward Christianity, he was probably the most favorable emperor the Jews ever had.

He espoused Jewish causes, and even promised to destroy the Church on the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple there. To prove that he was serious, he set aside a large amount of money and sent Roman contractors who indeed tore down the Church there and started building the Temple.

It was a wild, incredible moment in Jewish history.

Meanwhile, he took his army east to fight the Persians and Parthians — but unfortunately made a few very bad tactical errors. The first was to take a pagan army into Christian territory to fight the Persians. What happened is that while he was fighting the Persians the Christians were decimating his army behind him.

For three years, no one in Rome knew what happened to his army, until they confirmed that it had been destroyed and he had been killed. With his death, the project of rebuilding the Temple unceremoniously also died.

Establishment of the Permanent Jewish Calendar

The next emperor, Theodosius, was again a virulent anti-pagan Christian. He not only set about to undo what Julian had done but to Christianizing the empire more than ever.

He passed a series of decrees that affected the Jewish people. One was that he forbade the meeting of the Sanhedrin. Among the consequences of that was the effective abolition of a Jewish calendar, because, as we have discussed before (see the article on The Men of the Great Assembly), it was dependent upon declaration of the dates by members of the Sanhedrin. Without knowing the dates of the Jewish holidays there is no way for Jews to survive as Jews.

When the Communists came to power in Russia in 1917 they banned the Jewish calendar even before they banned the prayer-book. They realized that without knowing the precise dates of the Jewish holy days no Jew could possibly maintain his religion. If one Jew thought Yom Kippur was Wednesday and one thought it was Thursday and another thought Friday the structure of Jewish life would collapse. Therefore, they banned the calendar first.

More than any other decree, this decree of Theodosius impelled the establishment of the permanent Jewish calendar, as we know it today. Starting in 380 CE there was serious discussion to officially adopt it. By 415 CE, it was officially adopted by the Jewish people.

The permanent Jewish calendar, based on mathematical calculations,[1] had always been known to and used by the Jew leaders. The Sanhedrin met because, within certain parameters, they had the power to adjust the calendar. For instance, the Sanhedrin had the power to lengthen a year by a month if the farmers needed it or if the date of Passover would not fall in the spring or other possible considerations. This flexibility was its genius. It allowed human beings to tweak it as needed. Nevertheless, the Sanhedrin always had mathematical calculations to guide them – and it was those calculations that were used in the permanent Jewish calendar.

The permanent calendar operates on a nineteen-year cycle. Every nineteen years there are seven leap years (years with an additional month). It is so accurate that even now, after 1500 years, the Jewish calendar is only off by a couple of minutes. Compare that to the Julian calendar, used by the Western world, which already centuries ago had to be corrected by more than 11 days.

The permanent calendar was made official by the Prince of the people of the time, a man named Hillel, who is not to be confused with the more famous Hillel who lived four centuries earlier. In fact, this Hillel would be the next to last Prince of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. He saw that Christian persecution was ruining Jewish life, including making it impossible for the Sanhedrin to meet and set the dates of the Jewish calendar. It was he who proposed, at a clandestine meeting of the Sanhedrin, that a permanent calendar be instituted.

After successfully doing that, he was then able to get the permanent calendar instituted in all Jewish communities throughout the world no matter how remote. From then on, there were always Jews who could figure out the calendar no matter the situation.

There are stories of Jews who were shipwrecked on islands (for example, after they were expelled from Spain in 1492) or imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps who were able to use the principles of the Jewish calendar to recreate it accurately for themselves. Some of these calendars are on display in the Israel Museum. There is one Jewish family that was shipwrecked on an island for 11 years! Can you imagine? There was this Jewish family alone on a desolate island celebrating Passover and Yom Kipper, etc. at the correct times.

As would be true throughout history, this is a prime example of how the attempt of the Christian world to break the Jewish people and religion only strengthened it.

The Witness People

After 50 years of intense Christian persecution against Jews, the Church leaders came to the conclusion that the Jews were not going to be easy to get rid. The raging problem that exists in the writings of the early Church fathers is how to explain the Jewish people’s existence after the coming of their founder.

On one hand, the Jews are portrayed as the vilest and evil people, the people who are guilty of deicide, who have no reason to survive and are damned to eternal fire and brimstone. On the other hand, they are here; they exist.

As a result, the Church fathers came up with the theory of the “Witness People.” This postulated that since the Jewish people were present when Jesus came in the world, and since he himself was Jewish, then the Jews, who rejected him, are condemned to live throughout history so that in End of Days they will bear witness to his Second Coming – whereby they will become Christians.

It’s a very important theory to understand that explains a great deal of Christian attitudes toward Jews. For instance, the Pope always has outside of Vatican City a number of Jews who live under papal protection. They are called, “The Pope’s Jews.” The Pope has to keep them alive because he needs them for witnesses. The only protest that Pope Pius XII, the pope at the time of the Holocaust, made against the deportation of Jews to concentration camps was when the Gestapo, in 1944, took the Pope’s Jews out of Rome.

Today, the doctrine of Witness People may no longer hold the importance for many people that it once had, but it colored all Christian-Jewish relationships until our time. That is a very important point to remember going forward.

The history of Jews and Christians took an irrevocable turn for the worse when Constantine converted himself and then the Roman Empire to Christianity. It was not just a one-time event with short-term repercussions. The pattern of Christian persecution against Jews was institutionalized through beliefs and doctrines that grew directly out of the Church leaders during those formative years. Their canonization of certain prejudices ensured that the next 15 or more centuries would be fraught with theological landmines that would make of relations between Christians and Jews difficult, painful and often deadly.


[1] The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 25a) says that, based on calculations and a tradition going back to Sinai, Jewish months are calculated at 29.53059 days. Only first with the advent of modern technology — solar satellites, hairline telescopes, laser beams and super-computers — were NASA scientists able to determine the length of the “synodic month,” i.e. the time between one new moon and the next. And that figure is 29.530588 days. (Blessing of the Sun by Rabbi J. David Bleich, ArtScroll-Mesorah Publications, pp. 47-48.)

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

12 Responses to “The Roman Empire Adopts Christianity”

  1. harvey cooper says:

    Is constantine the one who began christmas

  2. Berel Wein says:

    I am not certain when Devember 25 became a Christian holiday. The early Christians in the second and third centuries did not celebrate such a day. Apparently there was a pagan holiday occuring at the end of December that became Christianized and by the end of the fourth century it was in vogue. The tree, Santa Claus, etc. are all much later additions from eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  3. batya harris says:

    do you have further articles? i’ve finished them all and am teaching a course!!

    thanks so much and happy chanukah, batya harris

  4. Fareeha says:

    makes me sick how can a true christian do that

    how can christians do that with jews.When half of their Bible is jewish

  5. Joe Sara says:

    Please give further reference (names)of the church leaders who formulated the idea of the Witness People. I have never heard this term and would like to look into it.

  6. Destiny says:

    Rabbi
    Thank you for making this course I am doing self study. Do you have your video clips in one whole piece after I finish I want to watch it all again all together. I especially like the way you express very complex ideas in a simple clear way it is the best I have found. I also find it very special that my parents named me Destiny… Imagine my surprise When I saw it was called the Destiny foundation.
    I felt G-d guided me to find you! 🙂

  7. Berel Wein says:

    Just Google The Witness People.

  8. Ray Armstrong says:

    Berel, your information on so called “Christian” holy days is correct. The Roman Catholic Church adopts a system of “senecretism” i.e. adopting and “christianizing” local heathen practices in their area of mission. Africa and South America are examples of where this is most prevalent.

  9. JOhnnyTMartin says:

    When did Constantine establish Christianity as the offical religion of Rome?

  10. Berel Wein says:

    323 CE

  11. Abraham says:

    D roman catholic church did what u said. The roman catholic church even persecuted more christains than they did d jews. Read history well. Don’t imput d sin and evil of d roman catholic or christains. Catholic is paganism not christainity

  12. Akashdeep Sandhu says:

    Constantine did not establish, Christianity as the OFFICAL RELIGON, he only made it a TOLERATED RELlGION, it did not become the offical religion till Thessodius I in 380 CE.