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Constantine and the Foundations of Anti-Semitism

“He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind.”  (1 Samuel 15:29)

A man named Constantine (AD 272–337) is often called a hero of the Christian faith because as the emperor of the Roman Empire, he legally banned the persecution of Christians.

But he didn’t stop there.

He also legalized a growing division between Jews and Christians that laid the foundation for nearly two millennia of anti-Semitism.

Gentile and Jew have a conversation at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

The Beginning of the End

It was not Yeshua (the Jewish Jesus) or the first Jewish apostles who started a new religion called Christianity.

Yeshua came, died, and rose from the grave in fulfillment of Jewish laws and Jewish prophets.

It was early Greek and Roman leaders who created a growing chasm between Judaism and a new sect called Christianity.

The faith of the Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua was originally called “The Way.”  And for the first 300 years of “Christianity” the Gentile followers of Yeshua kept the Passover (there was no celebration of Easter or Christmas).

Yeshua Commissions the Seventy Disciples, by James Tissot (Mark 6:7–13)

Some historians list “The Way” with the four other main Jewish sects of the time:  the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots.

The Romans who saw the members of The Way enter the Temple also considered them to be Jewish, and that gave them certain protections to practice their Jewish faith as a legally recognized religion (as opposed to a cult or superstition that was not recognized by the government).

However, not long after the last apostle (John) died, around 99 AD, “Ignatius of Antioch (c.40–117 AD) told his followers, “It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus [Messiah Yeshua] and to Judaize [practice Jewish laws and customs]”  (“To the Magnesians,” VIII, 10).

One wonders how Yeshua who practiced the laws and customs in the Torah, was even allowed into this new religion called “Christianity.”

By the time the apologist and theologian Justin Martyr (c.100–165) arrived on the scene, the Greek and Roman Christians accused the Jewish people of Deicide — the killing of a Divine being, Yeshua.

Justin wrote:  The “tribulations were justly imposed upon you, for you have murdered the Just One”  (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho).

However, Yeshua said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”  (John 10:18)

The Crucifixion (1565), by Tintoretto

Justin was supposedly the first person to apply the term, “true Israel,” to the Church.  (Claudia Setzer, in “Jewish Responses to Early Christians”).

Many Greek-minded Gentile leaders emerged, such as Augustine and Chrysostom, who taught against keeping the Lord’s Biblical holy days described in Leviticus 23.

They disinherited the Jewish people from the Land of Israel by saying God has now given it to Christians;  and they continued to speak derogatorily about Yeshua’s brethren, the Jewish People.

Then Constantine stepped in and codified these sentiments into the laws of the land.

In 312, Constantine planned to attack a rival for the throne of the Roman Empire.

One famous story has it that the night before the attack, he saw a cross in the sky.  Above that cross were the words, “In this sign, conquer.”

Coin c. AD 315.  (Left) Emperor Constantine I and (right) Sol Invictus (the Sun god) holding a globe in left hand with the words SOLI INVICTO COMITI (to the Unconquered Sun),

Constantine, who had been a sun-worshiping pagan and not a Christian, interpreted the vision as a sign that the Christian God would bring him victory in his fight for control of the western part of the empire.

The next day his troops won the battle and Constantine ordered his men to continue to fight under the sign of the cross.

Whether this story is factual or not, the new emperor genuinely wanted to end Roman persecution of Christians.

In the year 313, Constantine and Licinius Augustus (the two men who ruled the empire jointly) proclaimed a new law, the Edict of Milan:

“It has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever . . .  concerning the Christians, and now any one of these who wishes to observe the Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without any disturbance or molestation.”  (Edict of Milan)

While Christians were now protected, in 315, Constantine issued a law intended to stop those in the “dangerous sect” of Judaism (the Jews) from persecuting relatives or friends who converted to Christianity.  It was also intended to discourage Christians from converting to the “abominable sect,” meaning the Jewish religion(Laws of Constantine the Great, October 18, 315: Concerning Jews, Heaven-Worshippers, and Samaritans)

Religious inequality was now law of the land and words like “dangerous” and “abominable” set a course for increasing hostility toward and repressive laws against the Jewish People.

Yeshua leads His final Passover dinner with His disciples (painting titled The Last Supper by Jacopo Bassario)

Replacing the Lord’s Holy Days

When theological differences began dividing Constantine’s Christian empire, he called together the Council of Nicaea in 325.

The council of some 300 bishops adopted a creed which most churches embrace — up to this very day.

The Nicene Creed expresses a belief in God, in Yeshua the Christ (Messiah) as the Son of God and of the “same substance” as the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

Although nothing in the Nicene Creed is anti-Jewish, at this and later councils, the bishops moved to officially distinguish the new practices of Christianity from Judaism.

The first act in this effort was to set a date for a brand new holy day of Easter as the resurrection of Yeshua.  This day would be distinct from the Biblical dates of Passover and First Fruits, which were the dates when Yeshua actually died and rose from the grave.

empty tomb

It is widely understood that Yeshua rose from the grave on the Festival of Firstfruits (Nisan 16 of the Hebrew calendar) becoming the Firstfruits (Bikkurim) of those who will also be raised up into new life  (1 Corinthians 15:20–23). 

At the Council of Nicaea, Constantine read out the letter that he would subsequently send to churches everywhere:

“When the question arose concerning the most holy day of Easter it was decreed by common consent to be expedient, that this festival should be celebrated on the same day by all, in every place…

“And truly, in the first place, it seemed to every one a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity, who, polluted wretches, having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds…

“It is fit, therefore, that rejecting the practice of this people, we should perpetuate to all future ages the celebration of this rite, in a more legitimate order…

“Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews.”  (In “How the Church Lost the Way,” by Steve Maltz, Saffron Planet, 2009).

“Let us then have nothing in common with …  the Jews” sums up one of the key ideas behind much subsequent legislation against them and the sad state of anti-Semitism we see today.

The modern-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built upon the place identified by Constantine’s mother Helena as the burial cave and execution site of Yeshua.

Constantine also began claiming land in Israel for the Christian Church through his mother, Helena.  During her visit in 326 to 327, Helena identified where key events may have taken place in Yeshua’s life, and Constantine built churches at those locations.

At the Council of Antioch in 345 AD, Christians were banned from celebrating the Passover Seder (ritual meal) with Jewish friends or neighbors.

Then at the Council of Laodicea in 363–364 AD, the Biblical Sabbath day was outlawed:

“Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians.  But if any shall be found to be Judaizers, let them be cursed from Christ.”  (Canon 29)

By this time, all things Jewish were understood to be totally incompatible with Christianity.

The Messianic Jewish faith of “The Way” that the Jewish Messiah and His Jewish followers started was officially buried over these 300 years, and the new religion called Christianity arose.

Because of early Christian theology separating itself from anything “Jewish,” Crusaders marched on Israel to claim it for Christianity under the banner of the cross.  Images like these cause Jewish People to associate the cross with murder of Jewish lives and destruction of Jewish property.

Replacing and Denigrating the Jewish People

Christianity became officially recognized as the religion of the Roman Empire, by Emperor Theodosius (379–395), who was easily persuaded into allowing anti-Semitic acts of violence by church leaders.

In 388 AD, Bishop Ambrose of Milan instigated the burning of a local synagogue.

When Theodosius declared that the synagogue should be rebuilt by the bishop, Bishop Ambrose sent an appeal to the emperor and won.

A burning synagogue in Bamberg, Germany during Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) a pogrom against the Jews and their property throughout Germany, November 9–10, 1938.

In the letter, he called the synagogue, “a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned.”  (The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume 34)

Under Emperor Justinian I (483–565) many of the remaining laws protecting Jewish religious and civil rights were abolished and more restrictions were imposed on the Jewish People.

The idea that the Christian Church is now the “True Israel” as Justin Martyr wrote naturally evolved into the idea that somehow God is just as anti-Semitic as the early church leaders.

These leaders believed that God had forever divorced Himself from His Chosen People.  As a result, they believed God took away His blessings from them.  This included the Land of Israel, which He had now supposedly given to the Christian Church.

Although it sounds harmless enough, this “Replacement Theology” as it is known is actually quite dangerous and heretical.  And it still exists today.

Replacement Theology is dangerous because the Jewish People have suffered extreme social, economic, political, and physical persecution for nearly 2,000 years at the hands of religious leaders who believe God hates them as much as these Christian leaders do.

This persecution, which culminated in the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust, is the most significant reason that Jewish People do not want to hear about the love of Yeshua — they have rarely ever experienced it in His followers.

Orsenigo-Nazi-World War II

Cesare Vincenzo Orsenigo met with HItler several times as the Vatican’s direct diplomatic link to Germany and the Nazi regime from 1930–1945. He was known for his support of fascism as well as compromise and conciliation with Hitler.

Replacement Theology is heretical because if we take it to its logical conclusion, we end up with a God who does not keep His covenant promises.  We have a God who bases His performance upon our performance.

On the contrary, God was clear about His promise when He told Abraham,

“The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”  (Genesis 17:7–8)

What hope is there for each of us, if the Abrahamic Covenant that God “guaranteed with an oath” is null and void?  (Hebrews 6:17–18)

We thank God that He is the covenant-keeping God of Israel who does not give up on any of us, and certainly not on His ancient covenant people (the Jews):

“This is what the Lord says, He who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the Lord Almighty is His name:  ‘Only if these decrees vanish from My sight,’ declares the Lord, ‘will Israel ever cease being a nation before Me.’”  (Jeremiah 31:35–36)

It’s time for the Jewish People to experience the love of God poured out on them by the Gentile followers of Yeshua.

And it’s time for us to return to our God-given heritage and the real faith of ‘The Way.”

Please take a stand today for Israel and the Jewish people, and say no to anti-Semitism.

Help us stand with Israel and the Jewish People.

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