Of all the Roman emperors, I would say that Constantine more than any other, was responsible indirectly for the two thousand years of Christian oppression of the Jews. If you are interested in the facts, I heartily recommend Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, by James Carrol. But I want to focus just on one serendipitous item.
Constantine was an able general who was in the city of York ( later the site of one of the worst massacres of Jews in Europe in 1190) in wet and dreary Britain when his troops declared him emperor. Rome in the fourth century was ruled by a Tetrarchy of joint emperors who spent much of their time fighting each other. Triumvirates and Tetrarchies were notorious for their instability. Constantine had to fight for supremacy against several rivals that narrowed down to joint emperors Maxentius and then Licinius. And at that stage, they were all officially Roman Pagans.
Constantine got rid of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. Myth has it that he saw a cross in the sky at the time and that was when he decided to become a Christian. He then ruled in the West while Licinius ruled in the East. Constantine had a mother who converted to Christianity and was a very strong influence on him and the empire. She pressed him to convert but the evidence for that is sketchy. Meanwhile, it was said that Licinius had a mother who was Jewish. Together in 313 Constantine and Licinius promulgated the Edict of Milan which ended religious persecution and made all religions in the Empire tolerated and equal.
But the boys quarreled. Constantine defeated Licinius in 324, and eventually had him and his family executed. So that a moderating influence was removed. Just before he died Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 and henceforth only Christianity would be the only State religion and it imposed huge penalties, restrictions, and limitations on Jews throughout the empire.
The Council of Nicaea was also empowered to use force to impose one official doctrine of Christianity on all the rival Christian sects which up until that time held very different views. How to define whether Jesus was a god, or man, who had authority, and what should be the approved religious ceremonies. For the first time, a list of Christian dogma (called the Credo) was drawn up and all Christians were expected to accept it on pain of death. If not, they would be declared heretics.
There were as there are today, all sorts of non-conformists, like the Arians, Monophysites, the Monothelites, and the Nestorians (and this was all before the Eastern churches split with the Western over dogma and the Protestants were still hundreds of years ahead). They hated each other so much that they ended up killing each other by the hundreds of thousands. Probably Christians killed more Christians than they ever did Jews. Constantine’s mother saw to it that after his death that their mission should be expanded.
Thus began the long, dark, night of Jewish life under the Christian Empires (with the brief interlude of Julian, called the Apostate by the Christians and to Jews was a hero).
Some experts claim that at this time Jews accounted for between 7 and 10 million out of the population of the Roman Empire of about 70 Million. Yes, 10%! Can you imagine where we would be today if so many of us had not been massacred or if we had not lost huge numbers to conversion or assimilation?
And then I look at ourselves, today, and I see what heresy hunters we have become.
Seventy years ago so-called civilized Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy hounded the brilliant scholar and rabbi Louis Jacobs from his pulpit and the United Synagogue thanks to fundamentalist pressure and continued to treat him inhumanly till the very end. This witch-hunting has continued into the present era in Anglo Jewry where The God Squad is ever alert to any whiff of an idea that they do not approve of. And in much of the Charedi of communities, men like Rabbi Nathan Slifkin (his blog is www.rationalistJudaism.com) are not only regarded as heretics and their books are banned too and violence is often used internally to suppress dissent.
As a people, we are more divided, split, and contentious than we have ever been. And it is made much worse by the current woke culture of everyone claiming the right to impose their mishigas (lunacy) on everyone else. In Israel, the secular world is at odds with the religious. The secular Israelis are divided between the left and the right. The religious split into endless rival factions. Zionists face off against Non-Zionists, On both sides, there are calls for civil disobedience. Refusals to serve in the country’s defense unless it is on their terms. The Knesset looks and behaves like a veritable bear pit. Both sides can marshal demonstrations of hundreds of thousands and abuse each other verbally as well as physically.
We have always been an argumentative bunch of people ever since the 40 years in the desert. But now we have just lost it. Violence is met with more violence as if that will solve anything. And now Israeli lunacy is invading American Jewry and American Jewry is trying to impose itself on Israeli Jewry. Everyone wants to impose their views on everyone else.
Sometimes I wonder if we really do deserve a state of our own. But then I look around me and I don’t see anyone any better. America? Britain? France? India? Russia? China? Venezuela? Cuba? Perhaps Tuvalu! I must be getting in the mood for the Ninth of Av.
Here comes the serendipity. What if Licinius had won the battle with Constantine? What if WE had been the main religion of the Roman Empire? What would we have been like? On the current showing, I fear we would have become a nation of Torquemadas!