Let’s get one thing straight: Constantine was never a Christian, or at least never a good one. Until his death, he held the position of “Pontifex Maximus“, or head of the pagan Roman “church”, and made sacrifices to the Gods and paid for new temples.
In Christian myth, Constantine was victorious at the battle of Milvian Bridge (thus becoming undisputed Emperor) because he had his soldiers carry the Cross on their shields. He’d had a vision from the heavens saying “in hoc signo vinces” – “with this symbol, you shall conquer”. But the truth will out: Constantine put up a victory arch in Rome to commemorate the battle. It’s still there, and it actually shows the soldiers with the symbol on their shields. Only it’s not the Cross. It’s the Sun symbol of the cult of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun.
The earlier Emperor Aurelian invented Sol Invictus, what theologists call a “syncretic” God, assembled from multilple sources. About two hundred years later, Constantine began to promote Sol worship as a single unifying religion of the Empire. He made Sunday a day of rest, and 25th December was celebrated as the Sun’s birthday.
Constantine was mad keen on unity, probably as a result of becoming Emperor through vicious civil war. But his plan didn’t really work. Sol Invictus continued to be worshipped until the fifth century, but it wasn’t the mass movement that Constantine hoped. He tried again. His mum was a Christian, the new religion having become quite widespread even after sporadic persecution, so Constantine probably knew something about it.
Plan B, then: Christianity promoted from pariah to State Religion. It didn’t happen all at once, being a gradual process from toleration to official support. Pagan Roman religion continued to flourish alongside Christianity anyway, with Constantine’s full involvement. He himself was never baptised, until he was dead, or near dead; but he was vigorous in promoting Christianity and, especially, keeping it unified by codifying an official set of beliefs and clamping down on dissent. Heretics. Constantine organised the first persecution of Christians by Christians by leading an army against the Donatists of North Africa.
He ordered the destruction of dissident literature and any written source other than the acccepted Christian canon if it mentioned Jesus. Thus, it’s thanks to Constantine that we don’t have very much information about Jesus other than in the Christian religious books. But there is a little.
Fortunately for posterity, Constantine’s zealots missed one set of documents. The arcane disputes of Rabbis of Israel were written down and preserved. The earliest dates from about a generation after the time of Jesus, but they remembered him. (Remember that the one episode from his youth in the Bible is that he went and argued with the Rabbis in the synagogue himself.) In these documents, Jesus is sometimes called by his correct family name as the son of Joseph, in others, he is “Son of Mary” in Hebrew, which is an insult, calling him a bastard. But in several, his name is Yeshua ben Pantera, Jesus son of Pantera, and there’s a little more information. Pantera was a Palestinian, from the city of Sidon, and an archer in the Roman auxiliary forces. The later Greek pagan Celsus is a (possibly) independent source for the same information.
These documents preserve what the contemporaries of Jesus thought about his parentage. He was illegitimate. His father was a non-Jewish soldier. That’s not proof, of course. Maybe it was just gossip. Maybe Joseph was the father, even though the pregnancy came before marriage. St Paul says that Jesus was “born of a descendant of David according to the flesh”, and elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus’ descent from David is traced, as though Joseph was his biological father. That would be a flat contradiction of the “virginity” idea, a little inconsistency left for future theologians to deal with.
But what has always fascinated me though was that perhaps Pantera left another trace. A Roman tombstone was found at Bingerbrück in Germany in 1859, dedicated to Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera. The regiment, the First Cohort of Archers, is right, it served in Judea until 9 AD before being posted to Germany, and the “Tiberius Julius” would have been taken on earning Roman citizenship after 25 years army service and would have had to have been before Emperor Tiberius died in 37 AD. The stone also says that he was from Sidon, and served 40 years. That would make his death some time around 40 AD.
So that’s my Christmas story. Mary and Joseph brought up the boy, and he may have never met his real father. He had to put up with taunts about it though.