The Roman emperor Constantine the Great plays a significant role in The Da Vinci Code's version of history, in which "the Vatican" and Constantine conspire together to suppress the sacred feminine and the human Jesus in order to preserve their own power.
Overview of Facts and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
- Claim: The New Testament was collated by Constantine the Great. (Ch. 55)
Reality: False. The New Testament was formed over several centuries, and the process was not even finished during Constantine's lifetime. He had nothing to do with the process. This error may be rooted in the fact that Constantine commissioned several new copies of the existing Bible for churches in Constantinople.
- Claim: Constantine was a lifelong pagan who was only baptized on his deathbed because he was too weak to protest. (Ch. 55)
Reality: Highly unlikely. Some respected scholars have held this view, but in light of further evidence nearly all scholars believe he converted to Christianity for personal reasons. However, political motivations were probably involved as well, and his Christianity may have been quite basic and certainly contained pagan elements for some time. He was baptized on his deathbed, but this was a common practice. Ancient accounts indicate he had hoped to be baptized in the Jordan River shortly before death, but he was too sick to make it.
- Claim: Although a pagan, Constantine "backed the winning horse" and supported Christianity for political purposes. (Ch. 55)
Reality: Debatable. The majority of scholars do not think that Christianity was "the winning horse" at that point, and again, evidence points to a sincere conversion.
- Claim: The idea that Jesus was divine was invented by Constantine at the Council of Nicea. (Ch. 55)
Reality: False. Jesus was commonly regarded as divine since the first century. The Council of Nicea met to decide in what way Jesus was divine - was he fully God or a lesser divine being created by God? Constantine did not invent the idea.
Documents and Historical Evidence on Constantine's Religion
The main source for the life of Constantine is the Life of Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop, church historian, and contemporary of Constantine who attended the Council of Nicea and met the emperor on a few other occasions.
His account of the emperor is heavily biased in its view of Constantine as a great saint appointed by God to help the church, but is otherwise our best source for Constantine's life. It is especially valuable in its inclusion of numerous letters from Constantine. The full text of the Life of Constantine is online here.
Eusebius says the emperor personally told him his conversion story many years after it happened, and he faithfully recorded it. Eusebius writes that on the eve of an important battle in 312 AD, which would make Constantine the emperor of the West, Constantine considered which god to call on for help. He recalled that many polytheists had been defeated, whereas his monotheist father had a long and successful reign. So he decided to call on his father's God to help him defeat his opponent (1.27). This was probably the Unconquered Sun, a popular pagan form of monotheism. It was then that Constantine had the famous vision:
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 after-time 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. (1.28)
Constantine consulted with Christians in his camp, then did as commanded. He won the battle, and thereafter considered himself a Christian. Other sources also document this vision, with some variations. One is much earlier than Eusebius' account - written within just four years of the event by Lactantius, the tutor of Constantine’s son. It is much shorter than the later story, yet consistent in the main points:
Constantine was advised in a dream [more literally, "in silence"] to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers and then engage in battle. He did as he was commanded and he marked Christ on their shields. Armed with this sign, the army took up its weapons. (Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 44.5-6. The phrase concerning the sign’s shape may be a later addition.)
Another reason scholars think Constantine's conversion was more than a political move is his religious policy after the vision. When he entered Rome after his victory, he did not perform the customary sacrifice to Jupiter. (Assumed based on its notable absence from Panegyric 12 delivered in 313.) While he previously acknowledged such gods as Hercules, Mars and Apollo, specific names of gods disappear immediately from his public inscriptions, panegyric orations, and coins.
Prior to that time, Constantine had tolerated Christians and sought to restore their property lost under the persecutions. But after the events of 312, he provided generous endowments to the churches from the imperial treasury, instructing bishops to ask his officials for more money if what he had given was not enough. As his reign went on, Constantine went on to become actively involved in Christian controversies, to call bishops his "brothers," build his own magnificent churches, and emphasize his personal devotion to the God of the Christians in his letters and speeches (most of which are quoted within Eusebius' Life of Constantine).
One of the most striking evidences of Constantine's sincere religious faith is the Oration to the Saints, which Eusebius attached to his Life. Although initially suspect because of its rather sophisticated theology (for an emperor), it is now almost unanimously believed to be composed and delivered by Constantine himself. The full online text is here.
Of course, Constantine was an emperor first and his personal life was inseparable from his political life. There is little doubt that he chose Christianity because he believed the Christian God would be the one to best help him defeat his enemies, succeed as an emperor, and unify his empire. And there is no doubt that he retained some pagan elements until long after his conversion. But we must not project modern worldviews on a man from the ancient world: it is nearly impossible that he could have remained a committed pagan while neglecting the proper worship of the gods to support "the winning horse."
Documents and Historical Evidence on Constantine's Baptism
Eusebius' Life of Constantine includes an account of Constantine's words and actions as he neared death:
At first he experienced some slight bodily indisposition, which was soon followed by positive disease. In consequence of this he visited the hot baths of his own city; and thence proceeded to that which bore the name of his mother. Here he passed some time in the church of the martyrs, and offered up supplications and prayers to God. Being at length convinced that his life was drawing to a close, he felt the time was come at which he should seek purification from sins of his past career, firmly believing that whatever errors he had committed as a mortal man, his soul would be purified from them through the efficacy of the mystical words and the salutary waters of baptism. Impressed with these thoughts, he poured forth his supplications and confessions to God, kneeling on the pavement in the church itself, in which he also now for the first time received the imposition of hands with prayer. After this he proceeded as far as the suburbs of Nicomedia, and there, having summoned the bishops to meet him, addressed them in the following words. "The time is arrived which I have long hoped for, with an earnest desire and prayer that I might obtain the salvation of God. The hour is come in which I too may have the blessing of that seal which confers immortality; the hour in which I may receive the seal of salvation. I had thought to do this in the waters of the river Jordan, wherein our Saviour, for our example, is recorded to have been baptized: but God, who knows what is expedient for us, is pleased that I should receive this blessing here. Be it so, then, without delay: for should it be his will who is Lord of life and death, that my existence here should be prolonged, and should I be destined henceforth to associate with the people of God, and unite with them in prayer as a member of his Church, I will prescribe to myself from this time such a course of life as befits his service." After he had thus spoken, the prelates performed the sacred ceremonies in the usual manner, and, having given him the necessary instructions, made him a partaker of the mystic ordinance. Thus was Constantine the first of all sovereigns who was regenerated and perfected in a church dedicated to the martyrs of Christ; thus gifted with the Divine seal of baptism, he rejoiced in spirit, was renewed, and filled with heavenly light: his soul was gladdened by reason of the fervency of his faith, and astonished at the manifestation of the power of God. At the conclusion of the ceremony he arrayed himself in shining imperial vestments, brilliant as the light, and reclined on a couch of the purest white, refusing to clothe himself with the purple any more. (Life of Constantine, 4.61-2) Delaying baptism until just before death was a common practice in Constantine's time. This was based on the common view that after baptism, major sins cannot be forgiven and minor sins require penance for forgiveness. Better, then, to delay baptism that washes away all sins as long as possible. Some bishops frowned upon it and preached against it (which is how we know it was common practice) because of the obvious result: if people knew they could wipe away all their sins on their deathbed, why bother trying not to sin until then? As emperor and soldier who had to do many "non-Christian" things, Constantine would have felt that being baptized right after his conversion would certainly cost him salvation - for any sins (like killing) committed after baptism would be unforgivable.
What Experts Say about Constantine
Following are some relevant excerpts from the Introduction to the English translation and commentary on Eusebius' Life of Constantine by Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall:
Doubts have been expressed about the genuineness of Constantine's Christianity. (Notably in the past Jakob Burckhardt and Eduard Schwartz.) Once the letters are accepted as authentic, Constantine's conviction of divine calling and service must be accepted. But was he at heart a Christian, and if so, of what kind? Opinions differ as to the degree of his theological awareness, and as to his ultimate motives. Some hold him to have been a syncretist; others that he had little belief in the saving work of the cross of Christ as generally understood by Christians. He was in practice willing to tolerate polytheism, even if he could be at the same time personally hostile and verbally abusive [to polytheism].... He continued to honour the Unconquered sun, and this deity figures on his coins to the exclusion (with rare exceptions) of Christian symbols. When he appoints the Day of the Sun for rest, he does not refer to its Christian significance, and even Eusebius' account of his vision in 312 is loaded with solar symbolism. The best explanation however is not that Constantine was a half-informed syncretist, os much as that the Sun could be a potent symbol of the one God worshipped by Christians.... God is often seen by Constantine as Saviour, an idea which undoubtedly includes the giving of victory in war, and is not related particularly to spiritual reconciliation with God by the saving death of Jesus. Rather, the cross is a "saving trophy" precisely because it brings victory in battle over the powers of tyranny. It is best therefore to accept Constantine's attachment to the Christian God and to Christ as the response of one deeply committed to his imperial calling, who adopts and patronizes Christ precisely because he seems to bring "salvation" - victory, that is, prosperity and peace. It is a doctrine which many of the best Christian intellectuals of the day (including both Eusebius and Lactantius) were not ashamed to approve and encourage. (pp. 45-46)
Timothy D. Barnes asserts the minority view that Christians were powerful and numerous - in other words, the "winning horse" that Teabing describes - by the time of Constantine's conversion. However, he still does not attribute Constantine's conversion to political reasons nor doubt his sincerity. See his Constantine and Eusebius for more information.