Sam Harrelson: What If Constantine Had Converted to Judaism Instead?

The following is a short piece I wrote tonight for a Jewish-Christian Relations seminar in response to Prof Marc Saperstein‘s question of what would have happened had Constantine converted to Judaism rather than Christianity in the 4th Century CE:

Prof Marc Saperstein’s question of how history might have been different had Constantine converted to Judaism rather than Christianity is freighted with an incalculable number of strands that if tugged at any one location might disassemble into a morass of muddy conjectures. However, what Saperstein taps into with this question is important to consider for properly understanding the history of Jewish-Christian relations as well as the present and future tenses of that relationship primarily because Saperstein advocates for an understanding of faith that allows for, and encourages, self-criticism on all fronts.

Saperstein’s conjecture has merit in terms of helping the contemporary audience seeking to better understand and reckon with Jewish-Christian relationship(s) for three major reasons that will be discussed below. First, as Christopher Leighton and Daniel Lehmann point out, “the coupling of religious conviction with political power has repeatedly generated noxious consequences, and no religious community can place itself beyond the temptations of zealotry.” Second, the interplay of competing religious traditions and convictions within a relatively close (or competing) community engenders the evolution of responses and internal narratives in order to both compete and exist. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the question put forth by Prof Saperstein frames the meta-narrative of Jewish-Christian relations within the lens of a needed recognition of the importance of culpability and dialogic conversation on the questions of theology, practice and history.

Leighton and Lehmann’s point that the connection of political power with religious zealotry has repeatedly given rise to less-than-desirable consequences is absolutely apt when considering what would have happened had Constantine converted to Judaism rather than Christianity. Given the current model of understanding the history of first century Judaism, the religion was undergoing a period of growth and consolidation that would cement core beliefs in such tenets as the primacy of the Torah, the importance of table fellowship and the establishment of the Rabbinical order. A similar trajectory would occur in Christianity, but it would take the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in order for the final cementing of Christian doctrine to occur at the Council of Nicea. Had Constantine chosen to adopt Judaism over Christianity, a similar formative event such as Nicea would have probably occurred within the Jewish community, giving rise to a set and organized number of orthodox principles ruling out alternative readings of the Torah, Midrash, Targum and tradition, including Christianity. Of course, this would have led to empire-sanctioned crack-downs and/or persecutions on competing religious practices invoking both the Israelite God (in the case of the Christian movement) as well as other “pagan” religions. Given that Judaism had a recognized place in the Roman Empire before the “parting of the ways” with the Jesus movement, it would not be a far reach to imagine that the Christian movement would have been quickly relegated to a cult status and perhaps gone the way of such movements as Mithraism.

The key question here is whether or not the Jesus movement, and eventually the Christian movement, had enough staying power and claim to a line of tradition in order to perservere in light of a systematic adaptation of Judaism, or whether Christianity would have been able to reconcile itself as a facet and subset of a wider Judaic movement within the Roman empire. This question is best answered when the topic of adaptation in light of either reform or adaptation of a movement due to outside influences. Leighton and Lehmann remark on the development of Jewish responses to the dominant Christian culture, and there is little doubt that the Christian movement would have had to undergo similar changes or either collapse under its own weight due in part to the revered antiquity of Judaism and the lack of the Christian movement’s antiquity within the religious world of the Roman Empire. So, unless the Christian movement would have been able to secure a line of tradition or line of theology that convincingly tied it to the antiquity of the Israelite religion, it would have been a very precocious situation for the Christian movement in a Jewish Roman Empire. This would be especially true given the writings of the Patristics such as Justin, Melito, Iranaeus or Epictetus. In other words, the friction which led to the creation of Christianity might have been its undoing had Constantine adopted Judaism rather than Christianity.

Lastly, Saperstein’s question invokes the need for both Christianity and Judaism to not only put away the violent and unproductive practice of ignoring each other in terms of respective practice and theology (respectively), and instead frames the essential need for both Judaism and Christianity, in their varied modern forms, to recognize and attempt to better understand the historicity of their symbiotic relationship. Had Constantine adopted Judaism rather than Christianity, this key point would not be any different, hence the point should be given utmost primacy when considering the current (and historical) state of Jewish-Christian relations. Had Constantine adopted Judaism, there still would have been a fledgling Christian, or Jesus, Movement that would have sought to bring about the reforms within Judaism which Jesus of Nazareth preached and taught. That movement would have certainly have had to react in accordance with empire adoption of Judaism. Similarly, practices such as keeping Kosher, circumcision and table fellowship so important to the Jewish faith (and hypothetically which would still be important and central even if Judaism had been adopted by Constantine) would have been reacted to and perhaps adopted by early Christians.

The final conclusion is that the historical speculation engendered by Saperstein’s question of Constantine’s adoption of Judaism should not be seen as so wildly hypothetical as to be discredited in light of the historical and present-day consequences. Instead, Saperstein’s point in raising the question should be acknowledged and discussed within the wider context of Jewish-Christian relations since the point of studying history is not to necessarily commune with the dead, but to understand from their example and commune better with the living.


Christopher Leighton and Daniel Lehmann, “Jewish-Christian Relations in Historical Perspective” in Irreconcilable Differences?, eds. David F. Sandmel, Rosann M. Catalano, Christopher M. Leighton (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001) 25.