Skip to comments.Book Review: Opinion: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them
Posted on 02/06/2011 9:42:22 AM PST by SeekAndFind
My Christmas week reflections are inspired by a brilliant 25-year-old book by historian Robert L. Wilken. I picked up The Christians as the Romans Saw Them in hopes of finding resources for my research on the sanctity of life. I thought that Wilken might reveal the extent to which the Romans noticed the unique early Christian commitment to protecting human life.
Instead, the book focuses on five pagan observers who offered a barrage of criticisms of the young religion. The five critics in chronological order were Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry and Julian, and each critic was more sophisticated and devastating in his critique than the one before.
I was especially struck by learning about Julian, an apostate Christian who attacked the faith with the unique resources available only to a Roman emperor (361-363) who had previously been a Christian. Julian's critiques of Christianity were seen as so devastating that efforts were still being made to refute them long after his death. One Christian observer said that Julian's books had "disturbed many and done much harm" and that even those strong in faith had been troubled.
Here on the eve of Christmas it was fascinating to learn that from a learned pagan perspective it was precisely our claims related to the divinity of Jesus that featured centrally in Julian's attacks. Working from the New Testament and writing amidst intense doctrinal disputes among Christians, Julian claims that only the evangelist John attests the divinity of Christ, that Jesus himself never made such a claim, and that the idea was a late Christian invention. Turning to the Old Testament, Julian argues that Moses "taught that there was only one God" and that the idea of a divine Son of God is totally alien to Jewish thought, as Jews themselves had long said.
This latter point dovetails with what Wilken sees as Julian's most damaging criticism of Christianity -- that it was essentially an apostasy from Judaism. Julian himself had mixed feelings about Judaism. He believed that it was essentially a tribal-national religion that made unnecessarily grandiose claims about its deity and its own special place in the cosmos, but Roman thinkers tended to value tradition and at least respected Judaism as an internally coherent tribal religion of great antiquity.
Christianity, on the other hand, had according to Julian essentially borrowed and wrecked the Jewish heritage. It claimed to be the true successor to biblical Judaism but abandoned both its theological essentials and its ancient practices such as obedience to Torah.
In the most astonishing discovery I made in reading this book, Wilken reports that Julian decided to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in order to strike at the way Christian apologists used the destruction of the Temple as verification of Christian truth claims about both Judaism and itself.
Julian died before he could carry out this plan. The Temple never was rebuilt. But his criticisms exposed fairly early the way in which patristic-era Christianity tragically built its intellectual case for our faith on a supersessionist reading of Judaism.
Wilken speaks of Christianity's "bad conscience" in relation to Judaism, and we now know the destructive implications in history of the defining of Christianity as negation, displacement, and supersession of Judaism. It has only been after the Holocaust that some Christian theologians and traditions have sought ways to disentangle Christianity from anti-Judaism.
It is striking to learn that few of the intellectual criticisms thrown at Christianity are altogether new. Questions about our belief in special revelation, the incarnation, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the trustworthiness of the Bible, our relationship with Judaism and the relation of faith and reason are not at all new.
Nor are criticisms that a serious Christianity undercuts national loyalty because it teaches adherents to love Jesus and each other more than any state, tribe, or people. Wilken shows that this kind of transnational religion was indeed a fundamentally new thing in human history, and as Christianity grew in numbers it was viewed as a mortal threat by many thoughtful Roman observers.
Christianity was persecuted not because most Roman leaders couldn't handle religious diversity, but because they could not accept a kind of diversity that taught people to detach from primary loyalty to the Empire, its sponsoring deities and its way of life.
I am among those who teach that precisely this detachment is a non-negotiable aspect of our faith. But I see that it is just as destabilizing to nations and tribes now as it was then. Christians will always feel both internal and external pressures to resort to nationalized religion, and this corrupted form of the faith is the version most prevalent in the United States.
-- David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University
More here :
Book Review - The Christians as the Romans Saw Them -
By Robert Louis Wilken
Here’s a quick review of the book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken.
Wilken doesn’t write as a Christian apologist, nor an antagonist, he is a historian and is charitable toward Christianity. This book is a survey of the critics of Christianity, he believes that by understanding Christianity’s critics we can understand the development of Christianity better. He surveys the criticisms of five major critics of Christianity - Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry and Julian the apostate. The gist of their criticisms, in my humble opinion, is that Christianity was a threat to the social and religious order of the empire.
The Social/Political Threat
This one came in others, but it is mostly spoken of by Pliny. The Romans were nervous about the development of any kinds of associations, no matter the purpose. These associations at times were used to foment political and social disorder. Thus, the Christians, with their secretive ways and allegiance to a God above the empire were considered a threat to the social and political stability of the empire.
The Religious Threat
Here’s a quote about Celsus that hints at the religiosity of the Romans and the threat Christians posed.
Celsus sensed that Christians had severed the traditional bond between religion and a “nation” or people. The ancients took for granted that religion was indissolubly linked to a particular city or people. Indeed, there was no term for religon in the sense we now use it to refer to the beliefs and practices of a specific group of people or of a voluntary association divorced from ethnic or national identity. The term “could speak of a particular system of rites (a cult or an initiation), or a particular se of beliefs (doctrine or opinions), or a legal code, or a body of natoinal customs and tradtitions; but for the perculaiar synthesis of all those whihc we call a ‘religon’ the one Hellenistic word which came the closest was ‘philosophy.’” The idea fo an association of people bound together by a religous allegiance with its own traditons nad belifs, its own history, and its own way of life independent of a particular city or nation was foreign to the ancients. Religion belonged to a people, and it was bestowed on an individual by the people or nation from whihc one came or in which one lived. “Piety lay in a calm performance of traditional rites and in a faithful performance of traditional standards.”
One of the great things about this book is that it shows that pretty much all of the apologetic challenges Christians have faced through the years were present in the first few centuries of the church’s existence. So this gives some good historical perspective on the challenges the church always faces.
One of the most helpful things for me in this book was the extended discussions on religion. The Romans considered themselves to be a very religious people, albeit their religion looked a lot more like Rousseau’s civil religion. But, from the Romans point of view, they were not irreligious secular people being imposed upon by the Christians, they were a devout and religious people, and the Christians were threatening the peace and purity of their religious traditions.
At least here in America, and maybe the west in general, apologetics have usually been directed against issues of unbelief and irreligion, seeking to persuade the atheist there is a God and He is the Christian God. In Rome, the Christians were considered the atheists, and were considered harmful. With the great shift in western Christianity, society is now much more favorable to religion and the criticisms of Christianity in our day will take on more of the flavor of Roman criticisms back then.
A Word About What the Book Doesn’t Say
Wilken purposely focused on the critics of Christianity. He has written another book called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought which surveys the early Christian writers.
My only concern in this book is that you could come away with impression that the empire was united against the Christians. I don’t think Wilken intends us t think this, again remember that he is surveying the thought of five major critics over a period of 400 years.
If Rodney Stark is correct in The Rise of Christianity, we can believe that there were many upper class and well-placed people in the Roman empire who supported the Christian church. Thus, these critics are not representative of the whole of the empire. Remember, the other side of the coin is in Wilken’s other book.
But it is also true that theology is usually formed in opposition to error, or perceived error and development rides on the tensions between a group and its antagonists. Thus, though this work is one sided it is important for understanding early Christianity.
Who Is It For?
Although it is published by Yale Press it isn’t too academic. Most anyone can read it with profit. Amateur historians who love history but don’t have the time to read the primary sources will benefit greatly from this as he does a good job of quoting, summarizing and explaining some of the important primary sources. And of course those with a deeper interest can find some pointers in where to go to further their studies.
Also, I highly recommend this for anyone in ministry or for the Christian who wants a greater understanding of their family history and the controversies that shaped and continue to shape the church.
My first guess is that the professor who wrote this piece is a flaming liberal who fears some kind of turn towards Christian theocracy in our country. My second guess is that he's a conservative concerned about Christianity "selling out" and becoming a social adjunct to the state and the prevailing consumerist culture. My sister went to Mercer -- I seem to remember her saying it was fairly orthodox and conservative in terms of the theology taught there, so maybe it's the latter.
It’s a good book.
When Julian wanted to destroy Christianity, he tried to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. God stopped him:
1. ...But Julian, who in his third consulship had taken as his colleague Sallustius, the prefect of Gaul, now entered on his fourth year, and by a novel arrangement took as his colleague a private individual; an act of which no one recollected an instance since that of Diocletian and Aristobulus.
2. And although, foreseeing in his anxious mind the various accidents that might happen, he urged on with great diligence all the endless preparations necessary for his expedition, yet distributing his diligence everywhere; and being eager to extend the recollection of his reign by the greatness of his exploits, he proposed to rebuild at a vast expense the once magnificent temple of Jerusalem, which after mauy deadly contests was with difficulty taken by Vespasian and Titus, who succeeded his father in the conduct of the siege. And he assigned the task to Alypius of Antioch. who had formerly been proprefect of Britain.
3. But though Alypius applied himself vigorously to the work, and though the governor of the province co-operated with him, fearful balls of fire burst forth with continual eruptions close to the foundations, burning several of the workmen and making the spot altogether inaccessible. And thus the very elements, as if by some fate, repelling the attempt, it was laid aside.
(Ammianus Marcellinus, XXIII; A.M. was a pagan military man. He was by no means favorable to Christians.)
Maybe this will help: http://arturovasquez.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/an-evening-with-robert-louis-wilken/
Thanks for the link. I requested the book on Kindle.
And, hey Amazon: don’t charge the same for the Kindle version as for the paper version (as is being done with Rumsfeld’s book).
Thanks but I was referring to David Gushee who wrote the article about the book, not Wilken who wrote the book (which sounds very interesting). It seems like Gushee is trying to use the book to make his own point, and I’m speculating about what he’s up to.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” - synoptic Gospels. Another way of saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” - John’s Gospel. Christians are like fish out of water in this life, but they do not mind all that much because they know this life is not all there is. Sure rattles those who think otherwise!
By this time in history, the Roman world was aware that the gods and godesses were but variations on the same theme, one of the major secrets of the pagan “mystery religions.” It was the “multiculturalism” of that day, and quite fashionable. The Roman government didn’t care what pagan god you worshipped - as long as you didn’t make it exclusive! Like the Christians did.
The Pagan historian, Tacitus, first century, wrote that Christians hated mankind. Does that sounds very familiar? We hear the same sort of thing today, history repeats, the Christian religion is now branded as “hateful” in multicultural America. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, has gained a huge following pushing the same sort of new age paganism. The list goes on, Al Gore, the Clintons, Obama, etc.
The Christians of the Roman empire didn’t cave in, they maintained their witness despite being hated by the pagans and persecuted. The test is on again, it is only true believers that will maintain the exclusivity of Christianity.
RE: We hear the same sort of thing today, history repeats, the Christian religion is now branded as hateful in multicultural America.
Belief in a God who created the universe is also considered “superstitious nonsense” by our academia and is grounds for not giving tenure to Chrisian faculty who holds this view, no matter how qualified the candidate is.
See here for instance :
Author: Rod Bennet
Four ancient Christian writersfour witnesses to early Christianity left us an extensive body of documentation on this vital subject, and this book brings their fascinating testimony to life for modern believers. With all the power and drama of a gripping novel, this book is a journey of discovery of ancient and beautiful truths through the lives of four great saints of the early ChurchClement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons.
This book is an awesome story! I finished this book in a short time, finding the story very compelling. It felt more like I was reading a novel than some dry history book. Rod Bennett does a wonderful job setting the historical stage for each character, revealing the conflicts and emotions that they must have faced. Bennett reveals what early Christians believed and how they endured despite persecution, leading to the growth of the Church. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians" wrote Tertullian. Every Christian will find the story of these witnesses inspiring.