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Constantine on the “Rise” of Adam

Timothy Heckenlively

The anthropology of Constantine’s Oration to the Saints reflects neither Christian nor Neoplatonic tradition. Rather, it draws upon conventional Hellenic themes of human progress and anthropos as logikon zoon, motifs well-suited to address key political and religious tensions of the age.

In section 5 of the oratio, Constantine espouses a most irregular reading of Genesis 1-3 in which God, having first placed Adam and Eve in an extra-earthly paradise, transferred them to earth, taught them good and evil for human betterment, and sent them forth to advance civilization in the world. The nearly Nicene Trinitarian and incarnational language of or. s.c. 3 and 11, together with the use of Old Testament imagery at 16-17, only highlight the problem. One cannot dismiss the passage lightly as mere lapse or theological ignorance.

Antecedents and analogues do exist for some elements of Constantine’s anthropology. Origen likely believed that the original paradise was not of earth (Bammel, 73) and the theme is patent in Eusebius (Chesnut, 65 ff). Similarly, knowledge per se is typically seen as a good, provided it is received in obedience. Nascent in Ignatius of Antioch (Magn. 5) and already articulated by the end of the 2nd century (cf. Iren. haer. 4.38; Thphl. Ant. Autol. 25), the idea became a staple of Alexandrian and Cappadocian thought. The similarity ends here.

Key ante-Nicene voices reject an unearthly paradise (cf. Thphl. Ant. Autol. 2.17 ff, 2.24; Iren. haer. 1.5, 1.30.9; Tert. Adv. Val. 20, De res. 7). Irenaeus (haer. 1.30.7-9) and Hippolytus (haer. 5.21) both condemn gnostic sects for preaching that God taught us both good and evil. Indeed, identification of such knowledge with the deceit of the serpent is a Christian topos of the first rank (thus Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, and Cyprian of Carthage, et al.). Most important, in none of these sources – orthodox or otherwise – does humanity rise without Christ. Even when salvation is construed in more philosophic terms, it is still falling from a higher ideal (cf. Tat. orat. 7, 21). This is natural. Without some concept of a “fall”, preaching of a soter is rendered senseless.

Curiously, existing studies of the oratio typically overlook this rather striking point of dissonance with the traditional Christian message of fall and redemption. Other legitimate concerns such as authenticity, date and provenance, Trinitarian language, affinity with Lactantius, and reception of Vergil and the Sibylline Oracles dominate the existing literature.

Given the influence of Neoplatonism on the theology of this period, it might be tempting to look here for antecedents. But body-soul dualism is fundamental to these thinkers (cf. Remes, 103-11). The idea that our descent into the bodily, earthly realm of likeness could somehow constitute a “rise” would completely untenable.

More reasonable alternatives lie ready at hand. Progressivism is well attested in certain periods of Hellenic thought, especially with regard to technology (cf. Dodds, 8-12; Cole, 1, 98-99). More important, Constantine explictly connects both our “rise” to the present earthly realm and the application of knowledge to human progress with the definition of anthropos as logikon zoon, a definition fundamental to all periods of Greek philosophy (cf. Renehan; Cole, 77-78, 81, 88, 90).

The presence of these motifs is not surprising. The late 3rd century had seen a revival of Hellenism and this is the period in which Greek philosophy reached its maximum diffusion (Brown, 70 ff). Kingship theories, both Hellenistic and Roman, were deeply bound to this anthropology. Had Constantine adopted a more traditional Christian anthropology implying a deformation of human logismos, he would have undercut the foundations of his own legitimacy (Edwards 1999, 274-5). Similarly, the myth of progress complements his need to portray himself as a restorer of the Republic. The theme of progress complements the exuberant optimism of many Christians under Constantine. Finally, the emphasis on rationality aligns with polemic interest in casting Christianity as true rationality.

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Innovative Encounters between Ancient Religious Traditions

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