Intermittent persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities continued over the second and third centuries. Christianity eventually became an accepted religion of the Roman Empire after the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, having seen Jesus Christ in a dream before the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312AD. The following year, he declared religious tolerance for Christians, and later banned pagan public sacrifices and temple prostitution when he became sole emperor in 324AD. As well as presiding over the Council of Nicaea (modern-day Iznik in Turkey) in 325AD, he embarked on an ambitious church-building programme that included the first basilica dedicated to St Peter in Rome.
St Peter's Basilica, Rome
In 326AD, in order to commemorate the notable events of Jesus’s life, he despatched his mother – the dowager Empress Helena – to re-discover the sites at which Jesus was born, crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. The magnificent fourth century ‘Byzantine’ (late Roman) churches built at these sites became known as the ‘Helena churches’.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – the earliest part of which dates from 326AD – was built where Christians at that time believed Jesus had been born. The cave underneath the altar (reached by steps to one side) is thought to be the room shared with the animals, where the baby Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no space in the ‘guest room’ (Greek, ‘kataluma’ – see Luke 2:7). This is the world’s oldest church still in regular use (see the feature on Bethlehem in Section 3).
The Star of Bethlehem beneath the Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – also dating originally from 326AD – marks the site believed by fourth century Christians to be the hill of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified. The church is also believed to be the site of the tomb in which Jesus was laid and from where he was resurrected three days later (see the feature on The Tomb of Jesus in Section 6).
Empress Helena identified the site of the Ascension as outside a small cave on the upper slopes of the Mount of Olives (see Luke 24:50 & Acts 1:12). The Church of the Ascension that she built over this cave, near the olive groves of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, came to be known as the ‘Eleona’ Church (Greek, meaning ‘of Olives’). This church was destroyed by the Persians in 614AD and the site is now occupied by the Pater Noster Church, built in the 1860s (see the feature on The Lord’s Prayer in Section 5).