The early Christian movement was a political pariah to some degree and faced waves of persecution. Brutal labor, torture, and imprisonment were constant danger for anyone bold enough to be a leader of the faith. Special dispensation in the form of monetary assistance, buildings, and land were given to pagan shrines and religious practices, not to mention social capital. The arrival of Constantine singlehandedly changed the fates of the Christian world.
For the first time, Constantine brought tremendous wealth and privilege to Christians. Within 50 years, Christianity went from having its Popes die in forced labor camps that make the Gulag look like a retirement home to receiving huge land tracts by the state and building massive basilicas at Emperor Constantine’s expense. The fate of the Church and its decisions and its actions became, at this point in history, intertwined with the geopolitical realities of the Italian peninsula and the surrounding nations, and that has not truly changed since. The Holy See as an entity would briefly sojourn in Avignon, eventually become the Papal States, then form modern Vatican City after the Lateran Treaty. Papal credibility in international political issues has its advantages; the Holy See was bred from its inception in administration and statecraft, which is why even today it has very sophisticated administrative elements, including a highly professional diplomatic corps. It no longer has an army or a king at its disposal, but it still wields considerable clout given its nominal membership numbers.
Constantine’s identification with Christ (at least his notion of Christ) was set in concrete at the Chi Rho sign that preceded his victory at the Milvian Bridge. He thought of conquest and dominion as an act that was co-extensive with his identification to and worship of the divine, as many kings throughout history have believed. Some have argued he was an opportunist, more interested in siding with the winning team at the Council of Nicea than participating in theological pontification or deep reflection, and there is credence to this view, although it is entirely possible he simply wavered in his view on the matter of Arianism. Constantine threw his weight behind the anti-Arians at the Council of Nicea, but did sometimes show favor to Arian bishops, although this can be explained by the constraints of rulership and the need for unity. Constantine was a warrior king who looked every bit the part with, as was depicted in the many statues and depictions of him, a square-faced, powerful-looking figure of a man with most of the class and education you would expect of a king. He was fluent in many languages and was basically a warrior from his formative years on.
Constantine’s rise marked a pivot in the standing and fate of Christianity, illustrated expertly by the events within the church at the time of Constantine’s famous victory at the Milvian Bridge and the Edict of Milan, which ushered in a fully legal status for Christianity. At the time of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the successor to Peter was a humble pope of Berber heritage known as Miltiades had only known a persecuted church, meeting in private buildings and seeing the world through largely apocalyptic eyes and facing mortal threats for merely practicing the faith, not to mention attempting to be a leader of it. Every high ranking Christian leader was a ripe target for authorities and anyone else who would bring them to the attention of the authorities. The circumstances and societal disposition to Christianity was a background of illegality of the faith, although authorities usually did not seek out Christians to persecute them – they included it in punishment of other offenses or based on accusations of non-Christian citizens in good standing.
If not day and night, the different was still certainly stark under Constantine. Miltiades dies within two years and is succeeded by Silvester, who is probably the first Pope to preside over a Christianity that had woven itself inextricably into political and military functions which were now utilized in its propagation and it benefited greatly thereby. Instead of facing suffering and death the way Christ did, the church hierarchy begins to be an entity that exerts its political will in the world and some have argued that Theosodius I’s zeal in enforcing Christianity by the sword and by law were a contributing factor to why the city and the nation deteriorated.
Constantine moves to unite the Roman empire in his conflicts with Licinius and becomes the sole emperor of the Roman Empire and the first Christian emperor. He establishes a new headquarters of the empire at Constantinople and sets precedents for the regulatory authority of emperors with regard to doctrine and religious matters. He sets up a patriarch at Constantinople and sees church leaders and himself as two parts of an organism, and that distinction of power (even if hand in glove at times) is a pattern that was retained in both east and west.
Pre-Davidic Context: Saul
Many things had to happen before David’s throne was established. Saul’s failed kingdom of the tribe of Benjamin had to be raised up. It delivered Israel in part from the Philistines and changed their stature among the surrounding nations. When Saul was first anointed, the Philistines did not allow Israel access to blacksmiths, so only Saul and Jonathan had “sword or spear” – the rest used agricultural tools. Saul’s kingdom fell because of Saul’s wavering, insecurity, and unwillingness to act out the standard of perfection given to him by Samuel in the face of resistance of the people. The kingdom was therefore rent from him and given “to his neighbor, who is better,” referring to David. Saul represents Israel’s transformation from a submissive posture to the Philistines and other nations to going on the offensive to combat them directly and win, despite Saul’s tragic loss to them which led to his death at the end.
David respected Saul’s legitimate role while he lived and refused to kill him on his own, even when Saul persecuted him and chased him into the wilderness on multiple occasions. Saul’s family and the tribe of Benjamin in general was a persistent critic of David, supporting Absalom’s rebellion and in one instance openly rebelling in the incident of Sheba son of Bichri (2 Sam 20:6).
Saul’s kingship was characterized by yielding to external forces into compromise, such as public opinion or overwhelming emotion, and did not have the force of will to override it when necessary. He never has a center of direction or purpose, and often lashes toward goals with emotion and relents a short time after. Saul had three specific failures in this capacity.
One, Saul is given a set of instructions (1 Sam 10) that involves going to Gilgal and waiting for seven days for Samuel to arrive and perform certain offerings. Saul waits almost the entire duration but fears the assembling Philistine armies and the Israelites who had begun to scatter from him, and offers the sacrifices himself. Samuel upbraids him and tells him that because of that act, his kingdom would not be established firmly.
Two, Saul makes his army vow that they will not eat any food until the evening and they have beaten their enemies. Jonathan his son was not present at the time Saul gave this command, so he eats honey. Saul’s vow appears to have been a bad idea, as 1 Sam 14:31 indicates the people were very faint, and as a result of being famished, they hurriedly killed the animals which were the spoils of victory and ate them without removing all the blood. Saul corrects this, but it appears that his vow contributed to it happening. 1 Sam 14:30 records Jonathan indicating that the people were weakened by this vow and could have more effective in battle if they hadn’t vowed. Saul says Jonathan must die because he violated the vow (despite not being present to hear it), even though the original statement of the vow was only “cursed be the one who eats.” He relents at the insistence of the army. Saul’s perception as a competent king was certainly diminished by this interaction; he made a detrimental vow, enforced it without considering the facts, and wouldn’t keep to the consequences of violating it that he had proclaimed.
Three, Saul is instructed to fully wipe out Amalek and kill their king, Agag, because of how they attempted to kill Israel when they had just left Egypt. Saul allows his men to keep the best of the cattle and spares king Agag and declares to Saul that he had fulfilled the word of the Lord. Samuel corrects him, and Saul apparently realizes his error, saying, “I have sinned…because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Sam 15:24). Samuel tells Saul the kingdom has been rent from him and given to his neighbor. Saul does not contest the point, but instead requests of Samuel, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.”
Saul wavers between permissive and tyrannical throughout his career. He fails to enforce the word of the Lord against the Amalekites yet made certain his men stopped eating meat with blood still in it. He makes an extreme vow, doubles down on it in declaring that Jonathan must die even though Jonathan was not present when the vow was taken, then relents and doesn’t enforce the vow at all. His son had no misgivings maligning his decisions to the army or going rogue and attacking Philistine garrisons without telling him. He bans by religious law those practicing the occult, but at the end Saul procures their services (1 Sam 28:7-12) and offers them amnesty. Saul spends tremendous resources and time pursuing David multiple times but is swayed each time when a bigger problem presents itself or David performs a miraculous charity of not killing Saul when the opportunity was given to him. He was given great spiritual gifts, but ended up having to seek out someone who had an evil “familiar spirit.” He refuses to eat when he is told he will die the next day at the hands of the Philistines, but is cajoled into eating. He bears the hallmarks of an insecure man unable to handle the grave responsibilities and power he was given, to carefully choose his words and his goals, and to stand by them.
Saul possesses a limited spiritual understanding and experience. He is given tremendous opportunities, in that God gave him “another heart” and presses upon him an ability to prophesy with the prophets at times. Although he uses many phrases that sound indicative of a genuine understanding of God: “The Lord be with you,” “O Lord God of Israel,” “Blessed be you to the Lord,” he also sometimes slips into a more distant role, as if he is deferring responsibility, as he says to Samuel when he failed to enforce the word against Amalek: “The Lord your God.”
Saul was head and shoulders above the rest of Israel. He was a man with all the physical characteristics of those who are placed into positions of rulership who became an accomplished warrior and, for a time, offered Israel some safety and reprieve against the hegemony of the Philistines with whom they had been striving for some time. His downfall was his disdain and lack of interest in the details of following the words of God, displayed in his preserving the life of Agag the Amalekite and the cattle of the Amalekites. Saul had genuine and powerful religious experiences, even having prophesied with the prophets and having become “a new man” after his anointing with the box of oil by Samuel. He foolishly sought information from a woman of the occult who performed some sort of spiritual ceremony that either mimicked Samuel’s form or was Samuel’s departed spirit, and that apparition correctly told Saul that he would die the following day at the hand of the Philistines.
Saul represents a pivot at which Israel’s status shifts from a struggling confederacy of scattered tribes occasionally uniting around various regional leaders, to a unified nation on the verge of subduing the whole land that lay before them. Israel would become a highly trained, well-equipped and wealthy Kingdom in a relatively short time.
Saul did good things for Israel and it is to David’s credit that he deeply honored Saul, and recognized him as legitimate King of Israel while he lived, tearing his clothes and mourning after learning of his death. David would not raise his sword against Saul even in self-defense, even at the urging of his warriors. David had a man executed who claimed to have killed Saul on David’s behalf to gain favor, and David endured long periods of persecution at Saul’s direction. David respected Saul as a legitimate King and the Lord’s anointed, and mourned greatly at the death of Saul and the death of his best friend, Jonathan, Saul’s son. He mourned the assassination by one of his men of Abner, the honorable and respected warrior of the tribe of Benjamin even when Benjamin still ruled Israel and would not unite around David’s leadership.