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The conversion of the Roman Empire

The conversion of the Roman Empire
Christianity encountered great difficulties during its early years. Depending on the ruler of the pagan Roman Empire of the time, the members of the new religion were either persecuted by the Romans or were tolerated by them. It was under indifferent Emperors that Christianity gradually expanded. This instability came to an end with the rise of Emperor Constantine the Great in 306 CE. Constantine, whose mother Helena was Christian, was tolerant towards Christianity, eventually signing the Edict of Milan in 313, a decree that declared tolerance towards Christianity in the Roman Empire. Over the following decades Christianity continued to expand and in 380 it was declared the official religion of the Empire by Emperor Theodosius. This crucial decision changed the course of history.
Jews under the new Christian order of the Empire began to encounter intolerance and restrictions, and the accusation that Jews were not only guilty of not accepting the message of Jesus, the Son of God, but were also directly and collectively responsible for deicide, the killing of God, started to take hold. Christianity undergoes a quite unexpected transformation thanks to Constantine in the year 312, and at that point people speak of the conversion of Constantine but really it’s the conversion of Christianity, which moves from a kind of countercultural movement into being an arm of Imperial Roman culture.
At that point, all of the traditions in the New Testament Gospels, where the Jews are in the deep background, kind of manipulating Pilate in order to have Jesus end up dead on a cross, which is specifically a Roman and only a Roman form of execution in that particular place and period. Once the Empire itself is Christian, Romans absolutely cannot be the bad guys at all. And given that texts are infinitely interpretable, you have a kind of increased dramatic emphasis, a new loudness in the “Passion” narratives - how the “Passion” narratives are interpreted - so that Jews in particular are the ones who are executing Jesus. The Romans fade into deep background.
There is this beautiful mosaic of the victorious Christ in a building in Ravenna. It’s a beardless beautiful young man. He’s dressed in a Roman military officer’s uniform. He might even be an emperor. He’s stepping - one foot is on a snake, the other is on a lion, which is a reference to a psalm in the Old Testament, which means that this figure is described in the Old Testament - that’s how these Christians are reading Jewish scriptures as their own.
And this young man is holding up a sign in Latin that says: “I am the way the truth and the life.” It’s the Christ of the Gospel of John. And over his shoulder he’s carrying a staff that has a teeny little crossbar on it. That’s how subtle the Roman crucifixion of Jesus has become, once Christianity is part of the government.

Prof. Paula Fredriksen

In the year 380CE, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire by emperor Theodosius.

How were Jews treated and perceived under this newly Christian regime and how did the conversion of the Roman empire affect the historical development of antisemitism?


  • Dohrmann, Natalie B. and Annette Yoshiko Reed, eds., Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire: The Poetics of Power in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2013).

  • Fredriksen, Paula and Oded Irshai, “Christian anti-Judaism: Polemics and policies,” in Steven T. Katz, ed., The Cambridge History of Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 977 – 1034.

  • Irshai, Oded, “Confronting a Christian Empire: Jewish Life and Culture in the World of Early Byzantium,” in Robert Bonfil, Oded Irshai, Guy G. Stroumsa, Rina Talgam, eds., Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 15 – 64.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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