In AD 314, the Roman emperor Constantine issued an edict declaring that Christianity would now be tolerated – a sharp contrast to the persecutions of Christians that had taken place in the last years of his predecessor, the emperor Diocletian. Constantine was never actually baptised until he was on his deathbed and even then by an Arian Christian bishop, a subset of Christianity regarded as false by the mainstream orthdox church.
His legalisation of Christianity threw up more problems than it solved. In fact, more Christians would kill each other in the next hundred years in various power and doctrinal struggles than were ever fed to lions by pagan Romans. Arians versus Catholics, Donatists versus those who accepted imperial tolerance, Nestorians, Monophysites and you name it….every shade of conflict you could imagine.
On the surface, Christians would divide over the nature of Christ and the Trinity. But under the surface, much of this conflict was to do with who exactly would benefit from imperial patronage – as money previously channeled in to pagan temples now flowed in to church coffers. And on top of this, priests favored by the imperial authorities received tax breaks and access to public money.
The strangest conflict would be the climax of a long running feud between the church in Jerusalem and the bishop of Rome – with his shrill claims to be the true leader of Christianity. Note that in the first centuries of legally operating, Rome did not command the automatic loyalty and obedience of Christians. It had to compete with Constantinople, Antioch and especially Alexandria. Jerusalem also claimed a special place at the heart of the religion.
Pope Sylvester, first legal bishop of Rome, demanded loyalty to his appointed bishops and deacons but one story runs that in Jerusalem, they did not want to kneel to ‘Greek’ bishops. Instead, many Christians were still loyal to ‘desposyni’ – descendants of Christ.
According to the Irish priest and some time amateur historian Malachi Martin, a group of these desposyni angrily confronted Pope Sylvester demanding he remove the bishops appointed in Jerusalem and recognise their authority. They wanted the reinstatement of Jewish law and as descendants of Jesus and his siblings – they insisted on leading the church in the east.
Now, there is some scepticism about the work of Malachi Martin but instead of attacking him, I’m more inclined to think that these kinds of disputes would have arisen and there were likely to be plenty of charlatans and ecclesiastical chancers claiming to be a direct descendant of Jesus. Why not? There were imperial handouts going and claiming to be part of the bloodline of Jesus was as good a way as any of getting your hands on some riches.
It didn’t succeed and the desposyni seem to fade from the historical record.