I’m really tired of this guy. He pops up everywhere trying to push all kinds of sensationalist conspiracy theory crap about the ancient world, from the bogus Jesus tomb, and the semi-bogus James Ossuary (the key portion of which most experts now agree was forged), and the stupid Jonah Ossuary claim, to discovering Atantis, proving the Exodus, and yes, even claiming archaeologists have found the actual crucifixion nails used on Jesus. All defended in his pretty, high production documentaries featuring “experts.” My opinion? He’s a total crank. I don’t think he himself has actually forged or planted anything (claims around which he successfully sued for defamation), though I do often doubt his honesty. Or his sanity. Take your pick. But either way, as soon as he shows up in any documentary you might happen to be watching, you can be fairly certain bullshit is soon to follow. The very mention of his name warrants rolled eyes.
A recent example of this prompts me to comment on some general critical thinking skills one should apply to viewing any documentaries about ancient history from now on. I’ll summarize those points. Then illustrate some of them with that recent example.
- First, one should always task Google to find any scholarly critiques of the documentary by actual experts. Alas, experts have better things to do usually, so a lot of crap goes unreviewed. But sometimes you’ll get lucky.
- Second, pay close attention to whether the documentary or the “experts” in it are conflating speculation with fact. If it sounds incredible, it probably is. And there is often not the kind of evidence necessary to prove the incredible. Especially for ancient history. Documentaries often make assertions as if they were proven or already accepted facts, when actually they are just purely speculative musings about what might be the case.
- Third, who is actually making which claims? Check the names and titles of the talking heads; and Google to see if they are legit or not. Then pay attention to what’s not being quoted from the legit ones. Documentaries will sometimes mix up interviews with cranks and real experts, stitching together a stream of points that sounds like the real experts who are presented are agreeing with the cranks, when in fact they aren’t, and probably were never even told of those claims when they were interviewed. I documented how FOX News did this with an aliens-built-the-pyramids documentary in an article for Skeptical Inquirer long ago, which I have now reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ. I highly recommend reading that article, for it will educate you on a number of tactics documentarians often employ to fool you. And remember, even experts can be advocating unproven fringe theories. And even those might be plausible, even if not known fact. Reality is complicated like that.
- Fourth, if you catch “experts” in it making claims you know or easily find to be false, you’ve just established the documentary might be crankery. Legit mistakes can exist in a documentary, even from experts. But there comes a point when that starts to be the least likely explanation for a documentary’s litany of errors.
- Finally, and I realize this is frustrating, but be ready to deal with the fact that a lot of what’s in even a crank documentary might still be true. And without an expert to sift true from false, you won’t be able to tell which is which. Once you’ve adduced enough evidence a documentary is crank, you can no longer trust anything it says and should never cite it or rely on it for anything. But don’t thereby assume everything it said is false. You may need to treat yourself for the viral infection of miseducation you just contracted from watching a crap documentary, by studying up on the subject in legit sources so you can get right in your head what’s true, what’s false, and what’s speculative; and even among the speculative, what’s plausible and what’s not.
- And yes, you can hire me to vet a documentary on ancient history. But I’m very expensive. So you probably can’t afford that option. Like most people now in a world awash with crappy documentaries, you are probably on your own.
Constantine the “Christian” Emperor?
The example that prompted these remarks is a documentary series developed by and featuring, of course, that eye-rolling crank, Simcha Jacobovici. Called the Secrets of Christianity, each episode advances some ridiculous claim or unprovable speculation. I got ahold of a transcript of Episode 5 (of 6), “Selling Christianity,” about how Constantine merged several deities into Jesus to try and revamp Christianity in his desired image. This is actually the least ridiculous of the six episodes. And yet even it suffers some basic telltale flaws that one should be critically aware of when assessing its claims.
Overall, I’d say if you take what that documentary says as plausible speculation, it’s almost entirely correct. They just overplay how much we can actually know the things they assert about Constantine’s plans and involvement in what they propose happened. Like giving Jesus the birthday of popular sungods of the time, December 25th. That unquestionably did happen in the 4th century (Jesus never had that birthday before; and it was in no way part of the formation of Christianity or the NT Gospels). But we don’t really know when, why, or at whose behest this happened. This documentary oversells Constantine as the culprit. Entirely possible. But what evidence of that there may have been has long since been lost. In reality, we just don’t know.
This documentary does, however, smartly avoid popular crank claims like that Constantine chose the canon of the NT. It makes much more plausible claims about his involvement in Christianizing the Roman Empire. But for those enamored of that other myth, I’m sorry to spoil your fun: no, the Council of Nicea did not even discuss the canon, much less select it; it had already been informally decided upon by the sects Constantine favored long before he was even born, and was only formally ratified long after his death. Nicea only decided the creed, inventing the familiar doctrine of “The Trinity,” a Frankenstein’s monster combining the creedal statements of several favored sects into one unintelligible shibboleth, an eternally ironic example of a piece of political garbage produced by committee. (Constantine probably didn’t give a shit what they came up with. He just insisted they decide on one so he could start telling loyalists from rebels. A good succinct account of how the Nicene creed was fabricated to accommodate numerous favored sects into one new state-sponsored sect is provided in the last chapters of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God.)
The overall thesis of the program is to argue that Christianity was merged with Mithraism (and some other religions) so Constantine could gain the benefits of support from the army, especially (they allege) an officer corps, that was largely divided between those two faiths (and others included). That’s entirely possible. But not enough evidence survives to prove it, or even ensure its probable. The documentary makes it seem as though this speculation is much more certainly a fact. Likewise, the documentary asserts other things that could be true, but that we don’t actually have any evidence for, such as that Constantine told Eusebius about his “vision” of a cross in the sky at a feast during the Council of Nicea. That’s plausible historical fiction at best. Always watch out for such conflation of fact and speculation in any documentary.
The documentary also says weirdly false things like, “Simcha has come to Turkey, to the city of Istanbul” because “back in the fourth century A.D., Constantine built his new capital here,” and called it “Constantinople.” Immediately, Simcha himself says on camera, that this is “the city that Constantine built.” Um. No. The city was already there. It was called Byzantium. It was built over a thousand years before. And it was restored to magnificence a century earlier by Septimius Severus. So when Constantine relocated the capital there, he was re-building an already magnificent city. He did build it up considerably more, of course; but he didn’t build the city. Moreover, he did not name the city after himself. Constantine renamed Byzantium Nova Roma, “New Rome.” It was only named Constantinople sometime after Constantine died.
Later the documentary says again that Constantine named the new capital after himself, and it even uses this to support an overall claim that Constantine was so self-absorbed that he was assimilating everything to himself (even Jesus). That thesis is plausible. But it can’t be supported by claims that aren’t true. And this one isn’t. Yet it would seem Jacobovici didn’t have any of this vetted by an actual expert. So we get things like this: we see Simcha himself saying this, that Constantine named the city after himself, immediately before the scene switches to an actual historian talking about Constantine’s relocating of the capital—but conspicuously not mentioning when it was named or by whom. This gives the appearance that Simcha’s claim is corroborated by real experts. When in fact, had that expert been allowed to review the narration, he might have pointed out the error. This tells you a great deal about how this documentary was put together. It’s a telltale sign of an unreliable process; and hence, an unreliable result. Keep your eye out for things like that, in any documentary.
It’s true there is no cross or Christian symbolism on the Arch of Constantine, on which the documentary focuses a great deal of attention. But a small mistake still crops up here. Though we hear one expert mentioning later in passing that much of the sculpture on the arch was actually stolen from centuries-old architecture, the implications of this aren’t mentioned: a major reason there is little Christian symbolism on Constantine’s Arch is that it was hastily built out of other arches and sculpted material made long before Constantine’s time. Likewise, the depiction of pagan gods on even some of the original sculpture, as assisting forces of nature, was commonplace symbolism, and did not entail belief in any particular theology (it would have been entirely compatible with Yahweh’s intervention through angels or other forms).
Even so, the documentary is correct to allege no explicit references to Christianity are on the Arch (just a generic nod to “divine inspiration” being key to his victory), but it doesn’t tell you the principle reason why: because Constantine wasn’t at that time a Christian. Contrary to the repeated gasps of “was he a real Christian?” cultivated throughout the documentary, it’s actually well known that Constantine remained a worshiper of the traditional imperial sun cult of Sol Invictus until near his death, and only then was baptized into the Christian faith. Nor was Constantine exclusively crediting Christianity with his victory. The documentary is correct that he had to rule an empire of many religions, and thus was smartly playing all sides.
What the documentary leaves out was how normal this was. To suggest that Sol Invictus and Jesus were just manifestations of the same true God would actually exemplify a routine element of elite pagan theology, commonplace for over a thousand years. Indeed, the theology of “all the gods of different cultures and religions are just manifestations of the same gods or even God” is already articulated as normal in Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. If Constantine was cultivating that idea as a means to integrate Christianity into the Roman religious system, that would make him a typical pagan sophisticate, not some innovating Machiavellian. You will not be well educated by documentaries like this that leave out crucial understanding like that.
Another way documentaries like this mislead is exemplified in how evidence is used. This documentary makes much of the fact that many Christian churches were built on top of Roman Mithraea, underground chapels to Mithras. The inference is made that there was a secret Mithraism within the Church. But in fact there is no evidence of contemporaneous use. Churches more likely buried and replaced such pagan chapels, as a means to purge what was deemed profane. We have plenty of evidence of that being the practice, for all sorts of pagan shrines and holy places. We’d have been better educated had we been told that.
Similarly, at one point the documentary shows an inscription in one of those Mithraea that reads, “and you have saved us through the shedding of eternal blood,” and tries to claim this is just like Christianity, because “the central blood letting is seen as an act of salvation.” They even go on to try and argue that Mithras died and was resurrected, because some trivial elements of Osiris iconography are found diffusing into depictions of Mithras. But both are irresponsible claims to make. There is no evidence Mithras ever dies in his mythology. His suffering is of a different kind, depicted as a great and laborious struggle with a magical bull. Simply because some of the aesthetics of Osiris cult were adapted into Mithras cult does not mean the dying-and-rising salvation narrative of Osiris was also imported onto Mithras. That’s actually highly unlikely, and nowhere attested. (Mithraists did believe in some form of their own resurrection, as a consequence of Mithras’s struggle, which this documentary mentions but doesn’t explore.)
Likewise, the shedding of blood Mithras saves us by is not his blood, but that of the slain bull, whose blood is depicted in iconography as causing the sprouting of life on earth. The similarities to Christianity are thus not quite what the documentary alleges. But they do correctly tell you these details, so here at least the documentary gives you the information you need to judge their inference invalid. In contrast, the documentary says that Mithraists also practiced a ritual communal meal similar to the Christian eucharist, which is true, but then they go beyond the evidence to assert that “the sacred meal that they would participate in” consisted of “taking the body or the blood of the sacrifice by sharing a meal of bread and wine,” when in fact we don’t actually know that. That may have been the meaning of the meal, but no extant evidence tells us what the meaning was—at all, much less that. At most the evidence makes probable that the meal did secure communion with their savior and thus played a part in securing eternal life, but the exact symbolism or mechanics are not known. So the similarity is there. It just is more abstract than this documentary will lead you to think.
There are other confusions. They say the December 25 date and the “twelve days of Christmas” come from the Roman Saturnalia, which is not entirely true. A lot of Christmas traditions do derive from the Saturnalia. But that was a holiday spanning the 17th to the 23rd; though its seven day celebration was moved to end on the 25th sometime in the late first or second centuries, possibly (?) to align it with the birthday of the sun-god Sol Invictus; and it still did not span “twelve days” as this documentary claims. This is most frustrating, because there is a lot that Christmas borrows from Saturnalia, so to confuse everything like this is a missed opportunity for a documentary, to discuss the complexities of the evidence, or the actual links between pagan and Christian celebration today.
Similarly, the documentary says “Mithraism is embedded in the Gospels themselves, through the story of the three wise men.” First, there are no “three” wise men in the Gospels. There are “magi,” the Zoroastrian priests mentioned in the book of Daniel, but only in one Gospel, Matthew, and no number of them is stated. More importantly, they are priests of the original Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, not Mithraism, which was a peculiarly Roman invention. It took many of its core ideas from Zoroastrianism (in which Mithras is a figure, and the future resurrection of worshipers is a prominent belief), but it wasn’t the same religion. Matthew’s inclusion of magi (not taken up by any other Gospel author) is more obviously a nod to Daniel than any allusion to Mithraic mysteries (see Proving History, pp. 199-204).
Then there are dubious claims that mix up chronology and confuse legend with fact. They claim Constantine placed a piece of the true cross into a statue of Apollo he erected. Now, I don’t know where that idea comes from; no such legend dates from Late Antiquity that I know of. But even the notion that there were such fragments at all is a post-Constantinian legend. When Eusebius relates Helen’s (Constantine’s mother’s) “discovery” of the tomb of Jesus, he doesn’t mention her finding the cross. That legend arose decades later, decades after even the death of Constantine. So here the documentary states a later legend as if it were fact, and then draws inferences from that “fact” about Constantine’s syncretism of Christ with Apollo.
Likewise, the documentary claims that Constantine depicted Jesus as an armor-wearing emperor, because a “sixth century mosaic” does. Hopefully viewers are better at math than Simcha Jacobovici, and notice Constantine can’t have commissioned a mosaic two hundred years after he was dead. And yet Simcha plainly says, “So, Constantine didn’t start running around dressed like Jesus, he got Jesus to dress like him.” Uh. Maybe. But not based on that evidence.
So there are a lot of logical and factual errors, and confusions between speculation and knowledge, throughout this documentary.
And yet, at the same time, the documentary also says surprising things that happen to be true, and not misleading, such as that Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated at the famed Milvian Bridge, actually wasn’t a persecutor of Christians but quite tolerant of them. The Edict of Toleration legalizing Christianity was penned by Max’s father-in-law Galerius before Constantine became sole ruler. Just as the documentary says, Maxentius came to be painted as an enemy of Christians only after his death, as part of a standard vilification program against defeated enemies. It’s also well known that Constantine’s exact account of how he was “divinely inspired” to win the war changed over time, becoming more explicitly Christian (for the best treatment of the actual theology and politics behind Constantine’s use of this claim, see William Harris’s treatment in Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity, index, “Constantine”). And in addition to many true statements like that, much of what the documentary argues is still plausible, even if not in fact known to be true. So what’s in this documentary is not all bunk. Be aware that that can happen, too!
But the errors and misleading and miseducating details are still there. And this is the most plausible of the six episodes! The others are clearly entering the absurd, with conspiracy theories about the Israeli government covering up the discovery of Jesus’s crucifixion nails, a dying-and-rising pre-Christian rabbi, secrets uncovered from Pompeii explaining the triumph of Christianity over the West, a lost sea voyage of Jesus to distant lands, and carved skulls proving Christians had long infiltrated the Roman army. Good lords of Kobol. Enough already.
In the end, we just don’t know how much Constantine pushed or lobbied for seeing or representing Sol Invictus, Mithras, Apollo, and Jesus as all manifestations of the same One True God. We don’t know exactly when or how their properties came to be merged over the fourth century. Certainly Constantine’s actions played some role. But we don’t know how directly. (A better study of this phenomenon in Christian art is by the real historian Thomas Mathews, in Clash of the Gods.) Documentaries that claim more certainty and more knowledge than we have, are not being helpful. And they are being less than helpful when in pushing their agenda, they fail to teach us things we really need to know (such as that seeing all gods as the same god was normal among the pagan elite and not an innovation of Constantine), and even teach us things that are false (such as that Constantine built and named Constantinople, when in fact he did neither). Good historical documentaries need to be well vetted by appropriate experts. And they need to leave us with a better and more accurate understanding of what happened. Even if that consists of teaching us what we can’t be sure about. Until that becomes the norm, such documentaries need a careful dose of critical thinking before deeming them useful.