Roman Criticisms of Early Christianity: More Right Than They Ever Would Have Wanted To Be

I’m reading Robert Louis Wilken’s book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them right now. It’s a fascinating account of “secular” criticisms of Christianity in the first four to five centuries of its development. You often hear  about how Romans thought the Christians were “atheists” or “cannibals”; well Wilken actually delivers the goods. He explores the assumptions and cultural mores that were behind these sorts of accusations, giving them the background and perspective that made them rational criticisms from a Roman perspective. Wilken develops his narrative by focusing on individual personalities such as Pliny, Celsus, and Porphyry who mentioned Christianity in their correspondences and writings. This gives the narrative a concrete focus, and Wilken’s writing is concise, vivid, and nontechnical. An excellent and fascinating read.

It’s interesting and illuminating to get a picture of Christianity from the perspective of its observers, and Wilken does an excellent job of remaining sympathetic to the  Greeks and Romans he is describing. The following quotation is from the chapter on Celsus’s criticism of Christianity. What makes it so intriguing is that the passage is describing—from Celsus’s perspective—the Christian beliefs and practices that Celsus (who Wilken describes as a “conservative intellectual”) found threatening to Roman society. It was, in a way, a prescient observation; despite his fears, he was right. Christian belief and practice would, in the end, undermine the pagan beliefs and connected cultural infrastructure that the Romans held so dear. (It’s also a good example, for the most part, of what an ideal picture of the church might be today.)

The Christian movement was revolutionary [this word, from Celsus’s perspective, is pejorative] not because it had the men and resources to mount a war against the laws of the Roman Empire, but because it created a social group that promoted its own laws and its on patterns of behavior. The life and teachings of Jesus led to the formation of a new community of people called “the church.” Christianity had begun to look like a separate people or nation, but without its own land or traditions to legitimate its unusual customs. Like the Jews, Christians held profane what the Romans held sacred, and permitted what others thought reprehensible. But in contrast to the Jews, Christians had introduced a new feature into their cult—namely, the worship of a man, Jesus—and in giving adoration to Jesus, they had turned men and women away from true devotion to God.

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2 comments so far

  1. RCochran on

    Awesome.

  2. MJS on

    Hi Jeff. Miss you.

    This nice little window into a Roman perspective makes me wonder who the Celsuses of the contemporary scene are. Who are the conservative intellectuals worrying about the ebb and flow of cultural influence in our context?

    Maybe whatever takes the place of the fundamentalist/evangelical, (narrowly) orthodox Christian influence in the American heartland will be as positive an influence on our world as Xianity was in the late centuries of the Greco-Roman Empire.


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