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The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

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This book offers an engrossing portrayal of the early years of the Christian movement from the perspective of the Romans. Acknowledgments Introduction Abbreviations Pliny: a Roman gentleman. The making of a Roman official; Travels of a provincial governor; A Christian association; Offerings of wine & incense Christianity as a burial society. Church or political club?; A sense o This book offers an engrossing portrayal of the early years of the Christian movement from the perspective of the Romans. Acknowledgments Introduction Abbreviations Pliny: a Roman gentleman. The making of a Roman official; Travels of a provincial governor; A Christian association; Offerings of wine & incense Christianity as a burial society. Church or political club?; A sense of belonging; A Bacchic society; An obscure & secret association The piety of the persecutors. Roman religion & Christian prejudice; The practice of religion; "We too are a religious people" Galen: the curiosity of a philosopher. Philosophy & medicine; Christianity as a philosophical school; The practice of philosophy; The arbitrary god of the Christians Celsus: a conservative intellectual. Begging priests of Cybele & soothsayers; The deficiencies of Christian doctrine; Demythologizing the story of Jesus; An apostasy from Judaism; Religion & the social order Porphyry: the most learned critic of all. In defense of Plato; The Jewish scriptures; The Christian New Testament; Philosophy from oracles; The religion of the emperor; Jesus not a magician; An unreasoning faith Julian the Apostate: Jewish law & Christian truth. The emperor's piety; Greek education & Christian values; Against the Galilaeans; The tribal god of Jews & Christians; An apostasy from Judaism Epilogue Suggestions for Further Reader Index


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This book offers an engrossing portrayal of the early years of the Christian movement from the perspective of the Romans. Acknowledgments Introduction Abbreviations Pliny: a Roman gentleman. The making of a Roman official; Travels of a provincial governor; A Christian association; Offerings of wine & incense Christianity as a burial society. Church or political club?; A sense o This book offers an engrossing portrayal of the early years of the Christian movement from the perspective of the Romans. Acknowledgments Introduction Abbreviations Pliny: a Roman gentleman. The making of a Roman official; Travels of a provincial governor; A Christian association; Offerings of wine & incense Christianity as a burial society. Church or political club?; A sense of belonging; A Bacchic society; An obscure & secret association The piety of the persecutors. Roman religion & Christian prejudice; The practice of religion; "We too are a religious people" Galen: the curiosity of a philosopher. Philosophy & medicine; Christianity as a philosophical school; The practice of philosophy; The arbitrary god of the Christians Celsus: a conservative intellectual. Begging priests of Cybele & soothsayers; The deficiencies of Christian doctrine; Demythologizing the story of Jesus; An apostasy from Judaism; Religion & the social order Porphyry: the most learned critic of all. In defense of Plato; The Jewish scriptures; The Christian New Testament; Philosophy from oracles; The religion of the emperor; Jesus not a magician; An unreasoning faith Julian the Apostate: Jewish law & Christian truth. The emperor's piety; Greek education & Christian values; Against the Galilaeans; The tribal god of Jews & Christians; An apostasy from Judaism Epilogue Suggestions for Further Reader Index

30 review for The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

  1. 4 out of 5

    Joe Krakovsky

    Normally I give the highest rating to books I really enjoyed or learned something from. I learned a lot from this book, and I'll tell you, if it wasn't for my faith in my faith, my faith might have been shaken! The author has put a lot of research into this book. It is pretty evident by all the footnotes and references, many of which are in foreign languages. I am giving it a 4.5 star rounded up to 5. My reason, which I will state shortly, may seem like one little itsy-bitsy thing, but in reality Normally I give the highest rating to books I really enjoyed or learned something from. I learned a lot from this book, and I'll tell you, if it wasn't for my faith in my faith, my faith might have been shaken! The author has put a lot of research into this book. It is pretty evident by all the footnotes and references, many of which are in foreign languages. I am giving it a 4.5 star rounded up to 5. My reason, which I will state shortly, may seem like one little itsy-bitsy thing, but in reality, considering the topic, a glaring error of omission. In order to explain what the ancient Romans thought of the early Christians, the author had to first explain something about the Romans' attitudes, beliefs, and practices. He then presented the criticisms leveled by three of the most outstanding opponents to the new religion. Now this was easier said than done as the books and manuscripts of these 'pagans' were burned by later Christians when Christianity became the official language of the empire. So by using the rebuttals by the early Christian apologists, he was able to 'reverse engineer' what their original arguments must have been. From the looks of it, these guys 'knew their enemies' inside and out. They used quotes and referred to ancient Jewish scriptures and believes to argue the point that Christianity was without foundation, nothing but a superstition, and that Jesus was merely a magician. From the sound of it, any type of rebuttal by the early Christians was limited to just having faith and believing. This belief must have been pretty strong to be willing to die as a martyr! It wasn't until later (sometimes centuries) that arguments were composed and presented. What the author states is that this helped the Christians better understand, clarify or change the presentation of their religion. Thus he says, the Romans actually did them a favor by criticizing them. What I will add upon closing is my reason for 4.5 stars. Religion is not something based on rhetoric but rather spirituality. Heck, under the right conditions, you can make slavery or fascism sound like a good thing. No, in spiritual matters you have to pray, sometimes long and hard. The author should have stressed this more. To overlook this fact is just plain dumb!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Charles Haywood

    We tend to think of Christianity’s global spread as somehow predestined. A little thought, of course, shows this to be far from the truth. In fact, many cultures have strongly resisted the message of the Gospel—most dramatically with violence and the creation of martyrs, but sometimes more successfully with intellectual arguments against the truth of Christianity. For example, Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s "Silence" shows the torture and martyrdom of Christians—but i We tend to think of Christianity’s global spread as somehow predestined. A little thought, of course, shows this to be far from the truth. In fact, many cultures have strongly resisted the message of the Gospel—most dramatically with violence and the creation of martyrs, but sometimes more successfully with intellectual arguments against the truth of Christianity. For example, Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s "Silence" shows the torture and martyrdom of Christians—but it also shows vigorous and successful Japanese efforts to combat Christianity intellectually. In the Preface to this 2003 second edition of "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them," the author, Robert Louis Wilken, ruefully relates that the Japanese translator of the first (1984) edition ascribed the book’s success in Japan to that it “has given Japanese intellectuals new arguments against Christianity.” This book, therefore, proves three things—that there are internally coherent intellectual arguments against Christianity, that those have been made for thousands of years, and that Christians equally have thousands of years of sound intellectual answers to those arguments. Today’s so-called New Atheists apparently realize none of these things. They would benefit from reading this book, although, of course, finding the truth and maintaining intellectual discipline are not actually on their to-do lists, so they will not read it. Christians certainly benefited from the arguments reviewed in this book—as Wilken says, the pagans “helped Christians clarify what they believed, and without them Christianity would have been intellectually poorer.” And still today, both Christians and non-Christians can both benefit from reading this book and understanding these arguments. Wilken is today a Roman Catholic and a strong Christian apologist. It is not clear to me when he was writing this book, nearly forty years ago, whether he was Christian at all. Arguably this ambiguity is deliberate; in the preface, he notes that when writing, “My goal was to think my way into the world of the critics and to present their views on Christianity with as much sympathy and understanding as I could muster.” This is not a book “why the pagans were wrong.” Rather, it shows a great deal of appreciation both for the pagans and their world view. Probably too much appreciation, given that pagan behavior was often appalling, “noble pagans” or not—Sarah Ruden’s "Paul Among The People" gives a good flavor of this. But on an intellectual level, Wilken’s book is wholly neutral, and that makes it valuable to those interested in thinking clearly. The book covers five separate pagan authors in detail, in order of their appearance on the historical stage, and also covers more generally how Christianity appeared to pagans in light of certain pagan social groupings and conventions. The five authors are Pliny (the Younger—the Elder, his uncle, died at Pompeii), Galen (famous today mostly as a physician), Celsus (the first man to write wholly focused on refuting Christianity), Porphyry (a highly regarded philosopher); and the Emperor Julian, called Apostate. Each of these men evaluated and interacted with Christianity, not always as a belief system with which to grapple, but at least as something with which they had to deal. In addition, Wilken notes the writings of other Romans that touch on Christians in passing, such as the historian Tacitus and the satirist Lucian. Wilken rejects the common view, of both today and earlier thinkers such as St. Augustine, that the religion of the Romans was an instrument of the powerful in which nobody really believed. Instead, he strongly argues that the Romans had a “genuine religious sensibility,” but that sensibility was somewhat different than our conception of religion, colored as that is by the triumph of Christianity. “The idea of ‘conversion’—that is, a conscious and individual decision to embrace a certain creed or way of life—was wholly foreign to the ancients.” In essence, the Romans thought of pietas as having inseparable public and private components—to them, “religion [was] a patrimony from the past which sustain[ed] the life of the state.” Their religion placed “the ordinary and extraordinary events of social and individual life within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference.” “When later critics faulted Christians for not participating in civic affairs or in the military, the point of such criticism was as religious as it was social, although the specific acts mentioned to us do not appear to be religious.” In particular, that the Roman religion was from the past, a gift carried down through tradition, was critical to its validity. For the Romans, a “new religion” was a contradiction in terms. Judaism was considered a superstition, but it was usually (grudgingly) accepted due to its antiquity. Thus, it was “inevitable that the piety of the persecutors would conflict with the new movement that had begun in Palestine.” Wilken begins with Pliny, who was an administrator dealing with early Christians as a matter of governance, not an intellectual opponent of Christianity as a religion. Pliny ended a stellar career with a stint as governor of Bithynia-Pontus, a province in Asia Minor (roughly today’s Turkey), near the Black Sea. That doesn’t sound particularly prestigious, but it was, and he continuously corresponded directly with the Emperor Trajan on matters regarding the area Pliny governed, around 110 A.D. It probably never occurred to Pliny to engage directly or intellectually with Christianity, any more than with any other cult. Most of his time was taken up with visiting cities under his governorship, dealing with financial problems, organizational issues of various sorts, and so on. As part of that, he was responsible for social order, and this involved, naturally, making sure that no groups evolved that undermined the stability of the state or the authority of the Emperor. Such groups did not necessarily involve religion—they were commonly "hetaeriae," an association or political club organized around a common purpose, which frequently became involved in political disturbances. For example, Trajan instructed Pliny to refuse to allow a company of fireman to be formed in one city, fearing it would become a hetaeria and a potential problem. Instead, equipment was provided for ad hoc use by property owners. In one city, local citizens complained about Christians, who were apparently not popular. Pliny knew little about Christians; he generally seems to have lumped them with superstitious cults accused of grossly anti-social behavior like orgies and cannibalism, such as the Bacchae. Wilken thinks it is possible that some Christian or Gnostic splinter groups did indeed engage in highly dubious activities, in part because all knowledge of such accusations comes from Christian authors, though at this remove it is hard to say, and such charges against religious opponents are common throughout history. In any case, Pliny obliquely implied that the Christians were accused of such activities, and asked Trajan whether merely being a Christian should be punishable, or only otherwise criminal activities conducted by Christians, as well as whether a Christian could escape punishment by renouncing Christ. Pliny proceeded to investigate, and execute anyone who admitted being a Christian, or who refused to worship the Emperor and “revile the name of Christ.” He did this not for their crimes, of which he found no evidence (though he did regard Christians as a foreign “depraved superstition carried to extravagant lengths”), but mostly for “obstinacy,” meaning “contempt and defiance of a magistrate.” Trajan endorsed this approach, but he carefully noted that “these people must not be hunted out,” and that anonymous accusations were not to be tolerated or given credence. As I say, Pliny identified Christians as a hetaeria; a type of association. Such groups, Wilken notes, could be religious but normally were not. Usually they were organized around trades or were funerary societies and were composed of the lower ranks of society. Whatever the logic of the group, “The associations enriched the lives of men and women by providing a social unit more inclusive than the family yet smaller than the city. . . . [T]hey offered a sense of belonging, relief from the responsibilities of family life, and the company of friends.” While, as Wilken notes in connection with Pliny, such groups could attract the baleful attention of the state, usually they were of no interest to the government, and Christian apologists frequently used technical terms related to such associations to explain to potential converts how Christianity fit into the familiar scheme of daily life (though was of course superior to other such groups). Wilken next discusses the physician Galen, born in Pergamum (also in Asia Minor) but who lived in Rome most of his adult life, in the second half of the Second Century A.D. Rome had the largest group of Christians in the Empire, still small compared to the Jews or the followers of Isis. Galen didn’t write systematically about Christians, but in his voluminous writings mentions them several times. He lumped together both Jews and Christians (although by this time the groups were quite distinct), and criticized them for basing their beliefs on “undemonstrated laws”—that is, on faith, not on reason. But instead of characterizing Christianity as a “superstition,” he upgraded Christians to a philosophical “school,” thereby implying that Christians were now considered part of the public life of the Empire. In essence, Galen tried to fit Christ into the panoply of Roman gods, and criticized Christians for refusing to accept the existing structure. The Romans (and the Greeks) by this time generally believed in a hierarchy of deities, with a universal, remote god ruling over all, as envisioned by Plato. The key distinction, though, was that the “universal god” was part of the cosmos and not exempt from the natural laws that govern the universe; he would not and could not do anything contrary to reason. Thus, whatever he does, from creation onwards, he does to make things better in an objective and rational way understandable to humans—as Galen puts it, he “chooses the best out of the possibilities of becoming.” This is the view of Plato’s "Timaeus," which Wilken notes was Plato’s most popular book in antiquity. Galen objected to the implicit Christian view that God was outside nature itself. Criticisms such as Galen’s spurred Christians to develop and defend the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, demonstrating the supreme sovereignty of God, in direct contradiction to Greek and Roman thinking. Wilken then spends quite a bit of time discussing Celsus, which is understandable, considering Celsus wrote the first major book directed solely to an attack on Christianity—"True Doctrine," written about 170 A.D. (and known to us only through its extensive quoting by Origen in his response, "Against Celsus"). Wilken rejects that Celsus belonged to a particular philosophical school, such as the Epicureans; he instead casts him as a “conservative intellectual.” Celsus had a wide range of objections to the Christians, ranging from that they were gullible people taken in by the huckster magician Jesus to that the real universal god would not degrade himself by becoming human, and would not need to. But his biggest problem with Christians was the idea that there was only one God, and even more, that Jesus was also God (i.e., the Trinity, though that doctrine was not fully developed at the time). Celsus accepted that Jesus might have been an excellent human being, a sage, and perhaps had become a minor deity, or daimone, on his death. But certainly no more, and too much focus on Jesus “robbed the one high God of his proper due and discouraged devotion to other divine beings.” In addition, Celsus originated an argument commonly made thereafter, that Christians were mere Jewish apostates. They were not inheritors of the Jewish tradition, given that the Jews (who at this point were much more numerous and powerful, and actively participated in Christian persecutions) rejected them. And Christians rejected the Mosaic Law, yet claimed to be the legitimate successors of the Jews. Since novelty in religion was anathema to the Romans, this itself proved the invalidity of Christianity. Finally, the Christians were engaged in “revolution” or “sedition,” not because they “had the men and resources to mount a war against the laws of the Roman Empire, but because [they] created a social group that promoted its own laws and its own patterns of behavior.” These laws and patterns were novel and eroded the social plan of the communities in which the Christians lived. “Disregard for tradition could only lead to error and social anarchy.” For Celsus, gods were closely tied to a particular city or locality; thus religion was linked to that particular city or locality. The idea of a universal religion applicable to very different groups of people widely separated was a contradiction in terms, and showed that Christianity made no sense. Next up is Porphyry, who wrote in the late Third Century. He was the anti-Christian writer to whom the Christians directed the most responses, over several centuries. He was a “man of genuine intellectual stature,” and his attack was wide-ranging and had great impact on Christians and Christianity (although we only have fragments of his books and are not sure of their exact structure and contents). Porphyry was very familiar with the Bible and used exegesis against the Christians. Among other attacks, he criticized Christian interpretation of the Book of Daniel as a prophecy of the Messiah, as well as interpretations of other sections of the Old Testament (along with portions of the Old Testament itself). His attacks based on the New Testament are largely lost, but were similarly expansive in scope, and included the common pagan characterization of Jesus as a sage, but not divine (but also not a huckster magician), as well as criticism of contradictions within the Gospels (which were well known to the Christians, of course, who early analyzed and defended them—modern beliefs that these arguments are new notwithstanding). In particular, Porphyry attacked the disciples of Jesus for raising to divine status a man who did not himself claim to be divine. Wilken finishes with the emperor Julian the Apostate, who died in 363 A.D. He was a nephew of the emperor Constantine, so Christianity had acceded to a great deal of power (although it was not the official religion of the Empire, which only happened in 380 A.D.). Julian was raised Christian, in a childhood racked by uncertainty, given that most of Julian’s relatives, including his father, had been murdered by his cousin, Constantine’s son Constantius, during the struggle for succession. But he became interested in theurgy, the ritualistic invocation of deities to obtain results in the physical world. As a result, he converted to paganism, with the zeal of a convert, but with a personal devotion to the old gods that was dissimilar to the traditional Roman way of viewing the gods. Julian kept this secret until he (somewhat unexpectedly) became Emperor, and then began to persecute the Christians and attempt to reinstate the old religion. He approached this goal with two methods in the few years he reigned. One was to exclude Christian teachers from the schools that taught rhetoric and thus were necessary for social acceptance and advancement. Christians had by this time endorsed the classical tradition in matters other than religion; Julian argued that to participate in classical education it was necessary to also accept the classical religion. If this approach had been continued, Christians would gradually have been excluded from educated society (although they immediately made plans for a parallel education system, so Julian might not have accomplished his goal). His second method was to write an attack himself, "Against the Galileans." This also is largely lost, but he made arguments similar to Porphyry’s. In particular he focused on Christianity as apostasy from Judaism—but in order to add punch to this argument, and undermine the Christian argument that Judaism had been superseded as shown by the destruction of the Temple, Julian made plans to rebuild the Temple, and in fact one of his lieutenants began the reconstruction. But Julian died fighting in Persia, and his plans came to nothing (with the rebuilding of the Temple, according to pagan sources, being stopped by “balls of fire” from the ground). Wilken sums up his book by rejecting the supposed dichotomy between classical reason and Christian faith. “That Christianity became the object of criticism by the best philosophical minds of the day at the same time when Christians were forging an intellectual tradition of their own was powerful factor in setting Christian thought on a sound course. . . . Indeed, one might legitimately argue that the debate between paganism and Christianity in antiquity was at bottom a conflict between two religious visions. The Romans were not less religious than the Christians.” In 2005, Wilken published "The Spirit of Early Christian Thought," covering in detail the Christian response to the various attacks detailed in this book, and expanding on the non-contradiction of Christian faith and reason. In fact, he had apparently planned to combine the material in one book, but ultimately separated them. That later book is a masterpiece of explanation of difficult theological concepts that are more familiar to us; this book is a masterpiece of explanation of much simpler concepts that are often alien to us, and which appear in distorted, inferior form among ignorant modern writers. I strongly suggest reading both books if you want to understand from where Christian theology came, and also to understand the depth of learning the ancients showed in their arguments (plus, to give yourself a reason to weep at the puerile mewlings of Richard Dawkins and his ilk).

  3. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    This little book introduces the Greco-Roman critique of Christianity in terms of what we can make out of the views of Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and the emperor Julian (361-63). Written for the general public, it does not go into detail as regards textual provenance. Sadly, we rely too much on Christian citations of their critics. Still, while most histories relate the triumph of the Church(es), this one gives the reader some pause to consider what might have been had the Christ This little book introduces the Greco-Roman critique of Christianity in terms of what we can make out of the views of Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and the emperor Julian (361-63). Written for the general public, it does not go into detail as regards textual provenance. Sadly, we rely too much on Christian citations of their critics. Still, while most histories relate the triumph of the Church(es), this one gives the reader some pause to consider what might have been had the Christians gone the Arian path and reconciled themselves with the traditional henotheistic religions of the empire.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David S. T.

    This book isn't quite Christians as the Romans saw them, but more so Christians as five different Roman critics (or anti-Christians) saw them. Four of the five individuals mentioned had written arguments against Christianity and forced the earliest of apologetics. This book definitely changed my view of the religious environment of the early Romans. One of the interesting things to me is that by the 3rd and 4th century Romans mostly were Henotheist (meaning there is one supreme god, Jupiter/Zeus This book isn't quite Christians as the Romans saw them, but more so Christians as five different Roman critics (or anti-Christians) saw them. Four of the five individuals mentioned had written arguments against Christianity and forced the earliest of apologetics. This book definitely changed my view of the religious environment of the early Romans. One of the interesting things to me is that by the 3rd and 4th century Romans mostly were Henotheist (meaning there is one supreme god, Jupiter/Zeus and the other deities are lesser ones), and one of the big complaints is that Christians were worshiping a man Jesus and even elevating him to the same position as the one supreme God. Often times the Christians were called Atheists since they would no longer participate in any religious events. To me its interesting how many complaints from back there are still somewhat being discussed today. For example why did God wait until the 1st century to send his son to save mankind, what happens to the multitude of people before then. The fact that Christianity claimed to be a continuation of Judaism yet no longer practiced their customs. One person mentioned the gullibility of Christians and one now days only needs to turn on TBN to see the same thing is still taking place. One of the saddest things to me though, is the fact that this book had to be compiled from surviving Christian documents which quoted the critics because the original documents were likely burned. For someone like me who loves history, its sad to know that so many early critics and non canonical writings were burned when Christianity took over for the Roman empire.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Scott Pilkington

    In his highly regarded and well-reviewed book: ‘The Christians as the Romans Saw Them’, Robert L Wilken counters his previous research into the early Apologists by looking at the pagan writing of the time about Christians, to see the issue from the other side of the coin. He argues that this is important as it is an area of focus not normally covered by ancient historians and/or theologians, to understand the apologists; you have to understand their pagan critics. Wilken attempts to use Roman an In his highly regarded and well-reviewed book: ‘The Christians as the Romans Saw Them’, Robert L Wilken counters his previous research into the early Apologists by looking at the pagan writing of the time about Christians, to see the issue from the other side of the coin. He argues that this is important as it is an area of focus not normally covered by ancient historians and/or theologians, to understand the apologists; you have to understand their pagan critics. Wilken attempts to use Roman and Greek sources to examine early Christianity instead of the standard Christian sources, but mentions that this is difficult as there is a lack of sources – when Christianity took power in Rome it destroyed its critics and in many instances the only material surviving is in quotes and references made by Apologists. From this text it is clear that Wilken considers two main themes important in this research: who the critics were, and what they said; and the context in which all of this was said and received by the Christian community that resulted in the passionate responses from Apologists even decades after the critics’ deaths, and running into multiple volumes of response. He argues that the shape of Christianity as seen over the following seventeen centuries is shaped directly by these two themes, and that Christianity would not be the same were it not for them. Wilken chose five Roman critics to serve as case studies of how Roman society viewed the ‘Christian’ population using a portrayal of pagan criticism of Christianity from early second century to Julian in the late fourth century.   The Critics Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, early second century: Christianity as superstition. Pliny (the Younger) was an administrator and politician in what is now Turkey in the early second century. After running successful administrative campaigns in near-bankrupt or corrupt cities, he was assigned Bithynia by Trajan to overhaul the area. As governor, Pliny had to try to quell and disband the quarrelsome groups and clubs (similar to modern unions and lodges) as instructed by Rome, and it is within this guise that he comes upon the Christians. He examined stories of barbaric Christian acts, but all he found was a “superstition”, a foreign cult. This word, like many words, took on a harmful meaning later in its life and was then used by Christians to describe pagans. Further, Pliny found no real evidence that the Christians had anything to do with the Jews either. Wilken argues that Pliny contends that there are two ways of categorising the Christians, and only one of them Trajan will accept: superstitio (a superstition – foreign religion), or a hetaeria (political club). During this period the word ecclesia was in common use in Rome and Greece to mean a political meeting, so the use of this word by early Christians further caught the attention of Piny and the other administrators and philosophers. If Christianity is to be a superstition endured by the empire, it certainly cannot be substituting jargon applicable to meetings of potentially riotous political rabble-rousers. Galen the physician and philosopher, second century: Christianity as a school. Galen was a physician and philosopher, and is one of the first to realise in Christianity the different view of process of creation from Greek tradition. Wilken argues that Galen considered Judaism and Christianity (together) not as a superstitious sect, or as a foreign cult, but as a philosophical school, in much the same form as the Neo-Platonists and Aristotelians. It is worth noting here, Wilken argues, that Pliny’s knowledge of Christians, their acts, habits, and beliefs were largely the result of hear-say. He had a few tortured confessions, and second-hand reports from members of his court and advisors, but unlike later critics (notably critical philosophers), he had no first-hand knowledge, and certainly did not undertake any direct study and comprehension of Christianity. Galen, however, was very interested in Christianity (however not as a potential convert) and did his own research, finding Christians to be dogmatic and uncritical. Like other critics, Galen took issue that Christians sought out gullible and uneducated people who were unable to give reasons or argument for their beliefs, and asked others to believe without questioning. Celsus the philosopher, late second century: Jesus the magician and sorcerer. While Pliny, Tacitus, Galen did not write specifically about Christians, only mentioning them in works on other topics, in 170 CE Celsus writes the first book to actually examine the Christian community directly. Like Galen, Celsus found a focus from Christians to preach to the uneducated and illiterate. Wilken postulates that this infers that the early Christian community were not strong defenders of their own religion and so did not posit their beliefs to the middle and ruling classes who were able to intellectually/coldly evaluate a strange new religion. This would have been unusual at this time, as we will see, because religion was a pious and political act and series of duties carried out by the upper classes, so to ignore the sustaining class for religion and focus on the little/ignorant people with their little house gods would have raised suspicions of the critics. Further, Wilken postulates that Celsus considered Jesus only to be a mere magician or sorcerer. This raises two issues. The first, leading on from the Christian approach just discussed is a cynical one: Jesus was able to perform “miracles” that wowed crowds of naïve ignorant workers and won them over. None of these so-called miracles were witnessed by rational men, and some were witnessed only by Jesus’ disciples and a handful of women. Because the stories in the Christian religious texts of Jesus are not covered by Roman sources, should observers be sceptical? Wilken’s argument here is that Celsus questioned the very foundation of Christianity: was Jesus really “god” (let alone “God”)? His thesis is that Celsus was the first Roman critic to realise Jesus as the focus of Christianity: earlier critics had merely looked at Christians rather than Christianity. The second issue, far simpler, is that at this time magicians and sorcerers were banned by Rome, making Jesus, his followers, and all of his “miracles” illegal, criminal, and heretical. Porphyry the philosopher, third century: Jesus as the Son of God? Wilken introduces Porphyry by running briefly through his biography, revealing him to be extremely well educated – even more than Celsus and Galen – to point that Porphyry is the most learned and astute critic the Christians faced. Whether Wilken means this to be the most during this period or not is unclear, as he does not substantiate his claim, so could be meaning ‘of all time’, or ‘of the five critics examined’. It is apparent that Porphyry was familiar with some of Christian religious texts of the time, to the point that he was aware that (at least) some of them were pure fabrications. During his chapter on Porphyry, Wilken’s argument’s logic becomes difficult to follow. He writes extensively that the religious texts that Porphyry did have available to him were feared to be a link to an old religion, but instead of evidencing and explaining claim, he moves on to discuss philosophical arguments of third century scholars. The essence of the argument appears to be the question: did Jesus create the story that he was the Son of God, or did his followers? Lastly, Wilken questions whether Porphyry’s defence of the old religion may have been a veiled attack on the new one. While this is very possible, Wilken also argues that Porphyry was too astute for that, and with the rising pressure from Christianity, he recognised that it would be only a matter of time before Christianity was the religion of Rome. Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor, fourth century. Wilken lastly introduces a somewhat unlikely candidate for the fifth critic: a former Christian turned pagan who became Emperor, change the state religion, and die in battle aged thirty-one, nineteen months later. Wilken argues that Julian was one of the first critics, or even writers generally, for whom religion was not just a social and cultural phenomenon to be carried out, in much the same way that one would be expected to attend the wedding of a third-cousin-once-removed. Instead, this was a ‘feeling’ religion. Julian was, firstly and most importantly, a man of letters and a philosopher. This is what made a Christian young man critically evaluate the new and old religions and decide to convert. Wilken attests that Julian saw Jesus as a mere man, not a god, and – contrary to Porphyry the best part of a century earlier – not even a sage and healer. It is unclear from Wilken’s writing whether Julian considered Jesus to be a political troublemaker (after Pliny), a philosopher who preyed on the naïve, ignorant, and gullible (after Galen), a magician and mere criminal and confidence huckster (following Celsus), or a member of the ecclesia misinterpreted to be the Son of God (following Porphyry). It is highly likely that Wilken does not know either, but nor does he discuss this either. However, Julian’s issue with Christianity appears to have stopped there. Wilken reports that while he attacked Judaism, it was not in the same way or with any of the same intensity as his persecution of Christianity. Perhaps he respected them? After all, he intended rebuild the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem, but died in battle before work could begin. Importance of context Wilken argues that it is precisely this environment of criticism that allowed Christianity to form in the way that it did – in fact it is the very foundation of Christianity as we know it today. He emphasises the need to focus on pagan perspectives – Christianity did not begin in a vacuum. Christianity formed at a time of great flux, with a backdrop of civil unrest with many upset parties clambering amongst each other. Further, the Christian theological tradition was not borne out of a single original idea, but grew in time in an organic fashion, in consultation with the outside world, and due to its critics and its way for who they were: ‘they helped Christians to find their authentic voice, and without them Christianity would have been the poorer.’ Wilken argues that Pagans admired the Christians for incorporating the Greek traditions into their own culture. Christianity was in a precarious position as a new religion as not having a longstanding tradition on which to find support. As a ‘superstition’, Christianity was something to be endured. Foreign religions with a sense of history and tradition – like the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Jewish religions – were acceptable within this perspective, as although they clash with Roman religion, they came with a past, and could be aligned with Roman philosophy and appreciation for cultural heritage. However, Christianity could not make this claim. As mentioned, it severed its roots with Judaism and lost this sense of heritage, but further it argued that there was one true God (not unusual), but that there were no other, lesser Gods (e.g. Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) from the Greco-Roman model accepted elsewhere in the empire. This made Christianity a dangerous and noticeably different cult, and a target for criticism. Wilken argues that during this period there was a further fundamental change in theology, and that Christianity set a new agenda for philosophers away from the Hellenistic tradition. Christians and Romans had completely different philosophies behind religion, one viewing it as a demonstration of piety and as part of one’s social contract, the other viewing it as something a person feels and believes in without questioning or needing reasons. Galen identified [unfortunate] a profound shift in thinking, which created a distinct Christian teaching, a new school of thought from the previous ones focussed on piety and virtue. Further, Wilken avers that in the writing of Celsus there is an ideological shift, and a new concept of religion. He argues that Celsus documents Christianity severing the state-nation bond that had been traditional, and for the first time someone could move away from an area and keep their religion. While this isn’t to say that religions did not travel before this period, religions were tied to states in such a way that immigrants to a city/state would adopt the fundamentals of the dominant religion there while worshipping their minor ‘home’ gods – but Christianity set a new precedent by separating these further so that an immigrant might not take up any parts of their new state’s religion. Naturally, Wilken attests, this was politically and culturally dangerous. Interestingly, Wilken argues that Christians claimed they worshipped the same alpha god as the Greeks and Romans. The evidence does not appear to match his argument, however, as he makes this claim while discussing Porphyry, having already mentioned that Pliny, Galen, and Celsus had all suggested that maybe Christians could be contended by considering the Christian god as just another manifestation of Kronos/Caelus, which was rejected by the Apologists writing a few decades after those critics. However, this does allow Wilken to conjecture that Porphyry was able to question whether Jesus’ disciples were wrong and worshipped the wrong person? The thesis question is whether Jesus called himself the Son of God, equal in the triumvirate with the Holy Father and Holy Spirit, or whether this was fabricated by the disciples after Jesus’ death, indicating that they missed the point and should be worshipping the alpha God after all. To this end, Wilken reminds the reader that philosophers were within a larger societal context, and under direct pressure from the Roman Emperors. Assumedly there would have been a very intricate relationship there, and the critics would have feared retribution if they failed to adequately seriously evaluate this newcomer religion. Conclusion Wilken’s classic text on Roman perspectives of early Christianity is certainly well reviewed, and appeals to the academic and general readers. There is an overbearing assumption the reader is a theologian or classicist, and there no scope for scope for the modern historian dabbling in the period, but one is able to keep up nonetheless. Unusually for this type of text, Wilken uses no diagrams, maps, or timelines. Wilken confidently uses pagan Roman sources to inform about the early Apologists and critically evaluates the critics Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian; and explains that sources are difficult to come by as later Christianity were not restrictive in their destruction of opposing views. Unfortunately, Wilken mentions other sources in great detail, quoting them in great length to support the five critics: Tacitus, Suetonius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Maxim, and Eusebius; but does not identify why he chose the five that he did, because clearly there are other Roman critics on which he could have drawn. Wilken successfully introduces two themes: critics and context. The comments made by the critics identify weaknesses present in Christianity during this period and apparent to the thinkers of the time, and the context explains how Apologists and early Christian leaders used these criticisms to build the shape the church. What is not clear in Wilken’s analysis is whether these criticisms were widely held, or held by a few philosophers. It is likely that we cannot be certain either way, but should be discussed nonetheless. His conclusion however is memorable: the early church was born in a setting of criticism and persecution, and would not be the way it is now were it not for these Roman writers.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kate Walker

    not a bad book, but I am never opening it again

  7. 5 out of 5

    Damien

    This book sheds some much needed light on a weird cult that has been causing trouble lately

  8. 4 out of 5

    Regan

    Excellent philosophical overview of the tension between Greeks/Romans, Christians and Jews during the formation of Christianity.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dakota

    Absolutely loved this book. Opened my eyes to the Roman perspective of Christians. Completely fascinating book that presents an early Greco-Roman critique of Christianity from a philosophical and literary criticism. Highly recommend it to my friends.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Beau Johnson

    The Christians as the Romans Saw Them This book is a great historical picture of how the Christians were viewed in the first centuries CE. It, through the eyes of several contemporary (read: first and second century) authors, shows us just how counter-cultural the early Christians were. More than a vivid description of how the Romans viewed the Christians, it is a convicting account of how much as change, and how much hasn't. Take, for example, what we learn from Tertullian. In this chapter the au The Christians as the Romans Saw Them This book is a great historical picture of how the Christians were viewed in the first centuries CE. It, through the eyes of several contemporary (read: first and second century) authors, shows us just how counter-cultural the early Christians were. More than a vivid description of how the Romans viewed the Christians, it is a convicting account of how much as change, and how much hasn't. Take, for example, what we learn from Tertullian. In this chapter the author writes, "What others thought aobut Christianity was a factor in shaping how Christians would think about themselves and how they would present themselves to the larger world." (pg. 47) The clear depiction in the New Testament is that Christians were undergoing persecution and this was an accepted part of the faith. This is made clear in this book over and over. Tacitus writes that Christianity is the "enemy of mankind" (p. 66), a nuisance to his daily life and an affront to his social and religious world. It begs the reader this question: Is this how our faith was meant to be lived out? Perhaps one should ask Reinhold Neibuhr (the author of Christ and Culture). A favorite quote (p. 118): "The point of Celsius's comments is not that Christians are pacifists, but that they refuse to participate in any way in the public and civic life of the cities of the Roman Empire. As another critic put it, Christians, 'do not understand their civic duty.""

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ed

    In the first century of the first millennium followers of Christ were under suspicion of subverting the empire, attacked and arrested in Rome and the provinces and executed unless they denounced Christianity and made sacrifice to the Roman gods. By 380 it had become the state church of the empire and its imperial patron, Constantine, was hailed as the model of a Christian ruler in Roman Church and as a saint in Eastern Christianity. Robert Wilken’s excellent social and cultural history of the pe In the first century of the first millennium followers of Christ were under suspicion of subverting the empire, attacked and arrested in Rome and the provinces and executed unless they denounced Christianity and made sacrifice to the Roman gods. By 380 it had become the state church of the empire and its imperial patron, Constantine, was hailed as the model of a Christian ruler in Roman Church and as a saint in Eastern Christianity. Robert Wilken’s excellent social and cultural history of the period shows how this happened by looking at how Christians dealt with condemnation and how they changed in relationship to the civil power of Rome. Initially Christians were persecuted for being “superstitio”, a description of a new and unlawful cult without official sanction of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Domitian had persecuted the Christians, classifying them as a “superstitio Judaica” — given its historical roots as a Jewish movement it was considered a heretical offshoot of Judaism. They were accused of abominations, in this case cannibalism, “eating and drinking the body and blood of their god” and incest since they referred to other members of the sect as brother and sister. In truth the Romans weren’t really interested in the beliefs of odd religions from the far corners of the empire, having confronted and absorbed sects like the Celts, Goths and Huns. Wilken looks at several of the main critics of Christianity including Pliny the Younger, Galen, Porphyry and the Emperor Julian. Since history is written by the winners, he has been known as Julian the Apostate. Pliny was the earliest and most straightforward. The Emperor Trajan sent him as governor to the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus in modern day Turkey. Taxes had been slow to come to Rome, there were reports of rebellion and conspiracy and Roman citizens and even officials hadn’t been shown the respect they deserved. Pliny was sent to get them into shape. He encountered Christians for the first time and found them to be pig-headed, obdurate and arrogant with strange beliefs and unwilling to show they were loyal citizens of the empire (or at least trustworthy subjects if not citizens) by taking part in the ceremonies propitiating the gods that were a part of daily life in Rome and the provinces. Pliny didn’t bother with their beliefs but wrote to Trajan that “for whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment. They threatened the civil order by their refusal to recognize Roman gods. Pliny felt that he treated them leniently—Christians who were denounced were given three chances to recant before they were executed and no one would be subject to trial based solely on anonymous accusations. Galen was interested in Christianity and tried to understand how Christians lived, what they believed and how their beliefs differed from other ethical religious rules existing in the empire. He was impressed with how they were able to lead men and women to lives of virtue but saw this Judeo-Christian god as operating outside the laws of nature and Greco-Roman tradition, the continuation of which was essential for continued peace and prosperity in the empire. Part of this was the growing general interest in the early Christian movement--Galen wrote in the century after Pliny--but also in their different functions. Galen was a polymath, a physician who spent years traveling the eastern part of the empire studying while Pliny had to be concerned with civil unrest and how failing to worship the Roman gods could lead to it. Galen's curiosity showed the acceptance of Christian thought if not belief in intellectual circles. Porphyry, the author of “Against the Christians” the most learned and astute (and therefore dangerous) critic but was much more than an efficient detractor of Christianity. He was a biographer and student of the great neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and editor of his works. He drew on wide learning in history, philosophy, religion, language and literary criticism. Augustine called Porphyry the “most learned of philosophers”. The Emperor Constantine didn’t bother composing a treatise against him but put his writings to the torch. Several generations of Christian intellectuals spent years trying to counter him. This showed just how far Christianity had progressed in the empire, going from a cult in Palestine and Asia Minor whose adherents could either recant or die to the almost official religion of Rome, defended by the emperor himself. Wilken has spent his career immersed in the history of early Christianity, mastering sources in Latin, Greek and at least one modern European language as well as English. He wears his learning lightly but doesn’t write down to his non-academic audience. There is a lot here for the general reader and it is recommended to anyone who is interested in the cultural, social and religious history of the first few centuries after the death of Christ.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Coyle

    I "read" this book (i.e. "had it assigned") in undergrad, but have gone back through it in the past couple of weeks as part of my "keeping up with political theory-ish stuff" project (counting this as part of the "Christian political theory" category). Wilcken's project is to explore Christianity through the eyes of the pagan Romans, both in terms of the general cultural perception (in two chapters, one on the perception of Christians as a "burial society" and one on the perecption of Christians I "read" this book (i.e. "had it assigned") in undergrad, but have gone back through it in the past couple of weeks as part of my "keeping up with political theory-ish stuff" project (counting this as part of the "Christian political theory" category). Wilcken's project is to explore Christianity through the eyes of the pagan Romans, both in terms of the general cultural perception (in two chapters, one on the perception of Christians as a "burial society" and one on the perecption of Christians as a "superstition") and through the eyes of five observers: Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. Wilken suggests that there are two broad points uniting all Roman criticism of Christianity: -Christians undermine the entire Roman system when they reject "the gods" of localities and traditions and replace "the one Supreme god" with Jesus. All of Roman society and order (especially under the Imperial system) was based on religious traditions. When Christianity rejected those traditions, it of necessity rejected the whole of Roman society. This is seen even in Christianty's own origins as a break-away Jewish cult, which even rejected its own traditions by refusing to obey the law (one of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Julian's attempt to rebuild the Jewish temple to prove Christianity wrong about the law being fulfilled). -Christians make religion historical and personal by arguing that 1) God became a man and that 2) salvation comes to individuals. This is opposed to the accepted traditions that 1) the "Supreme god" is utterly transcendent, and would never step into a single location (which of necessity excludes all other peoples and locations); and that 2) all peoples, customs, and traditions have access to this one Supreme god via their local traditions and customs. Overall, this book is very well done. It's just scholarly enough to show that Wilken knows his business, but well-written enough that anyone (even without a background in Ancient History) could pick it up and enjoy it. As with many books in this vein (including Early Christian Thought & the Classical Tradition), Wilken's book is especially interesting given modern debates between Christians and the culture. Arguments used by Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, et. al. remain the primary points brought up by "modern" writers in their polemics against Christianity. Christians would be well served by going back and reading the early church's responses to these arguments and drawing on the long tradition of thought that has gone into them. Highly recommended.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Adam Robinson

    CS Lewis said that for every 3 modern books you read you should read one ancient book. It's good for us. It reminds us that people before us were just as smart and intellectually curious as we are and also that they had egregious blind spots. That is not to their discredit. On the contrary, it should remind us that we moderns simply have different blind spots even now. Wilkens' book has done a couple for things for me. First, it has given me a much clearer picture of the Roman world during the f CS Lewis said that for every 3 modern books you read you should read one ancient book. It's good for us. It reminds us that people before us were just as smart and intellectually curious as we are and also that they had egregious blind spots. That is not to their discredit. On the contrary, it should remind us that we moderns simply have different blind spots even now. Wilkens' book has done a couple for things for me. First, it has given me a much clearer picture of the Roman world during the first few centuries of common era. I am shocked by how cartoonish and thin my ideas about that culture are in light of these ancient writers. In many ways their intellectual life was far superior to ours. Second, I have a much better understanding of the Romans as a religious people, not simply empire builders. Third, I am proud of the intellectual tradition of the early Christians and the intellectual battles they fought with these critics. Far from being a fideistic group of dullards who eschewed deep thought in favor of blind faith or even fervent believers riding a wave of religious feeling these early believers were intent upon understanding their faith and making it understood for the culture around them. We can learn a lot from them. This book was much more engrossing than I expected it to be. The author has accomplished his goal in writing an historical account that is easily grasped by those outside of academia. Enjoy!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    I enjoyed this book for its examination of major trends in the reception of early Christianity by pagan intellectuals of the period. Wilken covers the major authors and their works, and his description of their contents and the challenges they presented to Christian apologists is lucid and accessible without being overly-simple or blatantly incomplete. I feel that, having read this book, I have a good background on the subject and could tackle more specialized works if I wanted to now. My only co I enjoyed this book for its examination of major trends in the reception of early Christianity by pagan intellectuals of the period. Wilken covers the major authors and their works, and his description of their contents and the challenges they presented to Christian apologists is lucid and accessible without being overly-simple or blatantly incomplete. I feel that, having read this book, I have a good background on the subject and could tackle more specialized works if I wanted to now. My only complaint is that over the course of the entire (admittedly relatively short), Wilken only examines and handful of works. These are obviously the major works on the subject, but they necessarily give an incomplete picture of how the Romans saw the Christians, because only a tremendously small percentage of the Romans had the kind of education, intellect, and free time to write such works and draw such conclusions. So what did the rest of the Romans think? Certainly there would be far less evidence of this, if any, but I do wish Wilken had addressed this issue at some point in the book. On the whole, though, a solid start into the intellectual history of the pagan reception of early Christianity and well worth the read for anyone interested in the topic.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ken McGuire

    For years I have read multiple church fathers as an amateur, and have often seen this book referenced in modern editions. In addition, I have seen many of the texts he quotes. And so much of the information is not really that new to me. But this is very good information, that is presented quite well, with great discernment. It introduces the reader to a fair bit of scholarship on this era that otherwise can be hidden away for experts. He finds quite interesting connections between what was happen For years I have read multiple church fathers as an amateur, and have often seen this book referenced in modern editions. In addition, I have seen many of the texts he quotes. And so much of the information is not really that new to me. But this is very good information, that is presented quite well, with great discernment. It introduces the reader to a fair bit of scholarship on this era that otherwise can be hidden away for experts. He finds quite interesting connections between what was happening in the history of Christian Doctrine and the pagan critiques of Christianity, but leaves the details of this for further research. In short, an wonderful overview - at least for those interested in the subject and enough of a background to understand all that he is connecting. And so it has become a standard text in many classes. I can easily see why teachers would require it. Other reviews show maybe some weaknesses from the student perspective. But if for me, it is a wonderful treatment that ties together so much of the era it describes.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Alvers

    This is a fantastic well written resource. I found the authors purpose to be unique and entertaining. I wasn't used to hearing "the other side" and not in the way its presented here. Objectivity is difficult to pursue in writing and seeing it presented well often means you are being taken for a ride. In this work you enjoy the ride because the writing is also done with fantastic skill. This work itself has drawn me into reading future works of his and I have began to notice that this work itself This is a fantastic well written resource. I found the authors purpose to be unique and entertaining. I wasn't used to hearing "the other side" and not in the way its presented here. Objectivity is difficult to pursue in writing and seeing it presented well often means you are being taken for a ride. In this work you enjoy the ride because the writing is also done with fantastic skill. This work itself has drawn me into reading future works of his and I have began to notice that this work itself is very influential. It's not an extremely long work and you can read it in a short amount of time. Take your time if you are not familiar with the people its talking about because that will only add to your interest. The good thing about this work is that its meant for everyone. You should check it out if you are Christian or even if you are a non-Christian. You can see that Christianity welcomes adversaries for growth and the truth is not able to be defeated. Jesus got up from the dead! Jesus is Lord!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Greg Williams

    This book looks at what the Romans thought of early Christianity by surveying some early Roman writings that mention Christianity in the first 4 centuries after Christ's death. As you can imagine, they were critical of this young religious movement that didn't integrate well with Roman society and refused to worship the emperor or the traditional Roman gods. But in reading their critique, we can gain some insights into what the early Christian movement was like. I read this several years ago and This book looks at what the Romans thought of early Christianity by surveying some early Roman writings that mention Christianity in the first 4 centuries after Christ's death. As you can imagine, they were critical of this young religious movement that didn't integrate well with Roman society and refused to worship the emperor or the traditional Roman gods. But in reading their critique, we can gain some insights into what the early Christian movement was like. I read this several years ago and found it fascinating. I just re-read it again and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in early Christian history.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sidney Smeets

    Wonderful little book showing the criticism against Christianitty to be remarkably consistent from ancient times 'till the present. Especially Celsus is astute in his observations and his humour helps keep his views accessible to modern readers. Christians have not been able to refute criticism regarding the virgin birth or the historicity of Christ in almost 20 centuries. I wouldn't hold my breath they ever will. A joy to read. Wonderful little book showing the criticism against Christianitty to be remarkably consistent from ancient times 'till the present. Especially Celsus is astute in his observations and his humour helps keep his views accessible to modern readers. Christians have not been able to refute criticism regarding the virgin birth or the historicity of Christ in almost 20 centuries. I wouldn't hold my breath they ever will. A joy to read.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Angela Pippinger

    Excellent book! I highly recommend anyone interested in religious history to take a look at this one.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Saint Katherine BookstoreVA

    "And a servant of the Lord ought not to fight, but to be gentle to all, skillful at teaching, forbearing, in meekness instructing those that oppose, if God perhaps may give them repentance, to a full knowledge of the truth, and they regain their senses and escape out of the snare of the devil, having been captured alive by him to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:24-26 EMTV) Christians as the Romans Saw Them offers a very readable overview of the top Roman critics of early Christianity: Pliny, Galen, Ce "And a servant of the Lord ought not to fight, but to be gentle to all, skillful at teaching, forbearing, in meekness instructing those that oppose, if God perhaps may give them repentance, to a full knowledge of the truth, and they regain their senses and escape out of the snare of the devil, having been captured alive by him to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:24-26 EMTV) Christians as the Romans Saw Them offers a very readable overview of the top Roman critics of early Christianity: Pliny, Galen, Celsus, and most notably, Porphyry and the Byzantine emperor Julian. All of these were learned and accomplished men with the finest educations in rhetoric, critical reasoning, and literary analysis. Porphyry wrote extensively in response to the work of Origen, the first systematic Christian theologian. Julian became known to history as the Apostate, who, having been baptized and educated in a Christian (albeit Arian) court, became an enthusiastic “convert” to the worship of Roman gods. He (as well as Porphyry) intended to show that Christian claims to be the successor of the Hebrews, along with the doctrine of Christ’ divinity, were merely imaginative thinking based on unreasonable and unsupportable assumptions. Wilken points out the great existential challenges to the Faith that these men posed, noting that some early Fathers admitted that they could not always overcome their challengers’ arguments by reason alone. In some cases, emperors and churchmen resorted to banning and burning these works. But their intellectual and rhetorical challenges forced the development of Christian apologetics supported by the same intellectual prowess. This helped the Faith define and explain itself as it was disputed by factions both within and without. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The same scornful tone and similar intellectual arguments are deployed by militant secularists and “evangelical” atheists against Christianity today. Just as always, the rules of logic and argument can be set up and manipulated to either affirm or cast doubt; the content of the argument always depends on the subjective starting points and depth of knowledge of the principal debaters. For the consumer of these debates who is attending only to the workings of the intellect, the outcome depends on which of the competing narratives that they accept. Some fall away today reading Erdman and Hutchins just as they fell away reading Julian and Porphyry. But their fall is a deadly one caused by the smallest of tripwires – “reason alone” is not a fully human response to any existential question.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Supimpa

    Another reviewer observed that this book should be called "The Christians as Five Romans Saw them." I would go a little further to name the book "The Christians as Five Unsympathetic Romans Saw them (and how they helped Christianity)". Wilken departs from the writings of five men from the late Roman period: Pliny the younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry and Julian the Apostate. They run from the beginning of the 2nd to 4th century AD, and, for Wilken, represent the most developed intellectual critiq Another reviewer observed that this book should be called "The Christians as Five Romans Saw them." I would go a little further to name the book "The Christians as Five Unsympathetic Romans Saw them (and how they helped Christianity)". Wilken departs from the writings of five men from the late Roman period: Pliny the younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry and Julian the Apostate. They run from the beginning of the 2nd to 4th century AD, and, for Wilken, represent the most developed intellectual critiques of Christianity by classical culture that we still have access to. The objective of the book is brought accurately at the preface of the second edition, so it is worth citing it at length: "I was interested chiefly in depicting the religious world in which the Christian movement took root and showing how it shaped perceptions of the new movement within society. [...] Christianity became the kind of religion it did, at least in part, because of critics like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. Christians encountered the traditions of the ancient world not simply as a literary legacy from the past, but through vital interactions and vigorous criticism of Greek and Roman intellectuals. They helped Christians clarify what they believed, and without them Christianity would have been intellectually poorer." (xi) In other words, the dialogue established during this period was essential to the intellectual formation of early Christian thought, an essential period for Christian tradition. In the conclusion of the work, Wilken restate that such dialogue with alternative points of view strengthen Christianity. The analysis of the five thinkers is historically honest and deal with primary sources, which adds value to Wilken´s work. It's quite interesting to observe some Christian distinctives that became crutial to the Greek-Roman questions: belief in a particular and exclusivist revelation from God to Israel and later in Jesus; the worship of Jesus as the only true God; belief in a free and transcendent God working by acts of his own will; and the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, which would legitimate or not the former's value and an ancient tradition. Easy reading, with valuable topics for Christians aiming on how to encounter their surrounding culture intelligently. Worth the reading

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    This book came up on a list of best Christian history books, and having found a good copy at a cheap price, I decided to try my hand at reading it. I was glad that I did. It is one of the most interesting takes on early Christianity I have read, one that seems like a very obvious study to undertake but that Wilken actually did. Wilken focuses on the work of five individual Roman writers over the course of the first four centuries of Christianity--Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Ju This book came up on a list of best Christian history books, and having found a good copy at a cheap price, I decided to try my hand at reading it. I was glad that I did. It is one of the most interesting takes on early Christianity I have read, one that seems like a very obvious study to undertake but that Wilken actually did. Wilken focuses on the work of five individual Roman writers over the course of the first four centuries of Christianity--Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. In the course of doing so, he shows how the reaction of Christianity changed especially as it increased in popularity. One issue with early writing about Christianity from those outside of the communion of believers is that so little of it survives. Pliny and Galen both mention it only briefly, as during their lifetimes, the religion was hardly widespread. Pliny's letter to Titus regarding what to do about Christians was well familiar to me. In it, he calls Christianity a superstition, which was one of two main ways that it could be perceived by those outside its associates. Galen, by contrast, in his brief offhand mentions of the faith seems to equate it with philosophy. Celsus and Porphyry both take the religion much more seriously as a threat to social order. Alas, neither of their writings survive in whole. However, we are lucky to have large chunks of their works preserved in the writings of others who wrote responses to their work. Although both writers see issues with the faith mostly in relation to societal order, the latter is more familiar with Christian teachings. Such would be even more the case with Julian, who was raised Christian. As such, each writer posed a greater challenge to Christian orthodoxy, even as Christian orthodoxy took on a stronger and stronger role within the empire. This intermix of arguments for and against Christianity, Wilkin argues, in the end, opened up new avenues in intellectual thinking throughout the Western world, avenues that continue to reverberate today.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Robert Rogers

    Fascinating look at pagan Roman intellectuals in the second, third and fourth century critiqued Christianity. This book is not only valuable to understand how non-Christian Romans viewed the Christians, but also to see what were the major theological issue they addressed, and how Christian apologists responded. Surprisingly, this is an excellent resource for Christian apologetics! As the author says, "Christianity needed its critics and profited from them... They helped Christians to find their Fascinating look at pagan Roman intellectuals in the second, third and fourth century critiqued Christianity. This book is not only valuable to understand how non-Christian Romans viewed the Christians, but also to see what were the major theological issue they addressed, and how Christian apologists responded. Surprisingly, this is an excellent resource for Christian apologetics! As the author says, "Christianity needed its critics and profited from them... They helped Christians to find their authentic voice, and without them Christianity would have been the poorer" (p. 204, 205).

  24. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

    From Pliny on the early second century to Julian the Apostate in the fourth, Wilken has selected seven critics of Christianity in that period, presenting their attacks in some detail. It is always useful for the church to see itself from the outside; to see itself as its opponents see it. It helps to clarify and sharpen the church's understanding of itself and its mission. "But on balance pagan intellectuals knew what they were talking about and understood the new religion remarkably well" (200) From Pliny on the early second century to Julian the Apostate in the fourth, Wilken has selected seven critics of Christianity in that period, presenting their attacks in some detail. It is always useful for the church to see itself from the outside; to see itself as its opponents see it. It helps to clarify and sharpen the church's understanding of itself and its mission. "But on balance pagan intellectuals knew what they were talking about and understood the new religion remarkably well" (200). It is, perhaps, something of a shame that the same cannot be said for today's "New Atheists."

  25. 5 out of 5

    David Pendergrass

    To every Christian I recommend this book. At least have it for skimming and research. The Christian faith did not find itself born into a vacuum, or from one. We need to understand how the early church dealt with the culture of its day to better understand 21st apologetics. We find a closer correlation between the 1st few centuries and today than any other time (arguably).

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bluecoloredlines

    A much needed Roman (pagan) perspective on the first centuries of Christianity, and a window on the culturally changing scenery of the times. Research really needs these non-Christian accounts if it really aspires to be critical. I quite liked the narrative structure of this book, and the language. Most academic books are quite poorly written, this one makes an exception.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    If you're familiar with early church history, you'll be familiar with most of these figures and the issues discussed. But, this is a helpful and thoughtful way of structuring the story of the early church in its Roman cultural context, written in clear prose. An excellent introduction. If you're familiar with early church history, you'll be familiar with most of these figures and the issues discussed. But, this is a helpful and thoughtful way of structuring the story of the early church in its Roman cultural context, written in clear prose. An excellent introduction.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Hickman Walker

    This did not meet my expectations. Mostly due to the way the book was organised. I understand why the focus was on specific writers, who left records of their and others' opinions, but I would have preferred a more generalised analysis. This did not meet my expectations. Mostly due to the way the book was organised. I understand why the focus was on specific writers, who left records of their and others' opinions, but I would have preferred a more generalised analysis.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Laferriere

    One of my first fore-rays into historical, great treatment of the periods covered, Porphyry, Julian, Galena, Pliny were some names dropped with great contextual treatment of each.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Chani

    Absolutely fascinating! A very understandable read. I enjoyed seeing what the Romans thought of Christianity in the early centuries, and was shocked at how mistaken those early Christians could be!

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