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Book Review: The Christians As The Romans Saw Them (Robert Louis Wilken)

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).

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