The Christians as the Romans Saw Them | Reflections & Notes

Robert Louis Wilken. The Christians As the Romans Saw Them. Second Edition. Yale University, 2003. (214 pages)



Wilken’s closing words are worthy of being the opening of this reflection:

Perhaps this is the one large conclusion to be drawn from the study of pagan criticism of Christianity. Christianity became the kind of religion it did because it had critics like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. They helped Christians to find their authentic voice, and without them Christianity would have been the poorer. Christians encountered the traditions of the ancient world not simply as an intellectual legacy from the past, not only in the education they received, but as part of a vital interaction through the vigorous criticism of pagan intellectuals.

When one observes how much Christians shared with their critics, and how much they learned from them, it is tempting to say that Hellenism laid out the path for Christian thinkers. In fact, one might convincingly argue the reverse. Christianity set a new agenda for philosophers. The distinctive traits of the new religion and the tenacity of Christian apologists in defending their faith opened up new horizons for Greco-Roman culture and breathed new life into the spiritual and intellectual traditions of the ancient world. (205)

When I first read those words, I felt emboldened, encouraged, and inspired to be a part of a tradition that has valued the dialectic. God knows we need “new horizons” as we all gasp for “new life [in our] spiritual and intellectual traditions.” However, when I consider that our current cultural moment is fraught with contemptuous polarization that is soured and complicated by religious claims to political authority that nausiate me, I can’t help but lament how the once respectable endeavor of a cultural dialectic has devolved into what we call “culture wars.” Like the proverbial decimal point error that matters little to a space craft’s trajectory when close to earth–the further out it goes, the more damaging its effects–so, too, has almost 2000 years of history sent us off course. I deeply lament the historical trajectory that has brought us here, the absence of course correction, and the consistent and persistent Christian embrace of apologetic and polemical approaches that violate The Way of Jesus and the trust of Christianity in the public sphere. In the ancient world, Christianity didn’t make sense. In our world, Christianity is no longer any good. In the ancient world, pagan critics attacked what Christians believed. In our world, secular critics attack how Christians behave. This is not a mere gross oversimplification. It is part of the perception that makes up our reality.

So, how does reading a book like this help? What redemption is there?

First, we learn how to reclaim our ancestors’ value of a true dialectic. A dialectic is formative, allowing us to consider carefully how a religion is received; what effects it actually has on the real world.

Second, we can recognize that “the perception of others is an essential part of the reality [we] inhabit.” (xviii). We should dismiss the idea that we shouldn’t care what people think about us. We should, and we ought. It is part of the agenda of Jesus, to be good for the world.

Third, we can reclaim our ancestors’ base suppositions, that a defense of Christianity is predicated, not on its logical force, but on its human impact. Interwoven into the philosohpical arguments in these texts is a consistent underlying theme, that Christians lived in a way foreign to Roman ideas. That influence is what led critics to raise their voices, as Christianity’s moral force was a threat to the Roman “way” of life. That speaks to the Jesus movement’s commitment, early on, being about life, not just about “thinking,” or “mere theology.”

If a space craft is so far out that we cannot reach it, perhaps we can correct the error, here on earth, as it is in heaven, and set our trajectory differently for the next two thousand years.



…the (x) success of Christianity was not due to the deficiencies of the traditional religion. … Christianity…brought something new that fit uncomfortably into the settled assumptions of ancient society: “The Christian ideals had a different motivation and a different core.” (xi)

…Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the latter half o the fourth century, used Cicero’s treatise on ethics, On Duties, as the model for his work on the moral life and even gave it the same title. In it he appropriated the classical cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, as the basis for his presentation of Christian ethics. Augustine found his way to a spiritual understanding of God by reading the book of the Neoplatonists. (xi)

…as I have read more deeply in the ancient sources and particularly in the Christian sources I am more impressed at how different Christianity was from the world into which it was born. It was cen-(xi)tered on a living person, and it took form in a new kind of community independent of the state. Bishops were not functionaries of the cities, and political authorities had no say in their election. The Bible gave Christians a new vocabulary to speak about God, human beings, the world, and history. …on point after point Christian thinking breaks with the categories and conventions of Greco-Roman ways of thinking. Its imaginative horizon is formed and nurtured from within Christian tradition. Though they worked within patterns of thought rooted in ancient culture, Christian thinkers transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being. (xii)

The place to begin the study of early Christian thought is with the critics. From the beginning they had an uncanny sense of what set Christianity apart from the religion and philosophy of the ancient world. (xii)


How did Christianity appear to the men and women of the Roman Empire? How did it look to the outsider before it became the established religion of western Europ and Byzantium? (xv)

This book is a portrayal of pagan criticism of Christianity from its beginning in the early second century to the time of Julian in the late fourth century… I am convinced that the perceptions of outsiders tell us something significant about the character fo the Christian movement, and that without the views of those who made up the world in which Christianity grew to maturity, we will never understand what Christianity was or is. (xvii)

…the perception of others is an essential part of the reality people inhabit. (xviii)

| We have a distorted view of the history of early Christianity. The historian of the Roman Empire, who by training and perspective could view Christianity within the larger historical picture, has seldom bothered to look closely at the Christian sources. The student of Christianity, who does know the sources and the unique problems of early Christian history, is usually familiar with the pagan sources only at second hand and has inflated the Christian part of the canvas beyond all reasonable proportion. The historian of Christianity has given the impression that the rest of the canvas is simply background for the closeup–relegating the general history of the times to an introductory chapter of vague generalities. (xviii)

The earliest Christian writings, highly theological and directed primarily at Christian readers, present the life of Jesus and the beginning of the church as the turning point in history, whereas non-Christians see the Christian community as a tiny, peculiar, antisocial, irreligious sect, drawing its adherents from the lower strata of society. … The first mention of the Christina movement in a Roman writer does not occur until eighty years after the beginning of Christianity. (xix)

| One of my purposes in writing this book is to bring the world of ancient Rome into closer conjunction with that of early Christianity. (xix)

The more I read the apologists, however, the more I realized that they could not be understood without first studying the attitudes of outsiders to Christianity, the ideas the apologists were trying to combat as well as the beliefs they thought compatible with Christianity and in whose framework they presented the Christian message. Most of the early apologists were brought up as pagans and only converted to Christianity later in life. The spiritual and intellectual world in which they were nurtured remained a part of their thinking after they became Christians. (xix)



Though Pliny had prospered under Domitian, like most well-placed Romans he was relieved at the emperor’s death. Domitian had not only banished some rhetoricians and philosophers from Rome, he had also arbitrarily and indiscriminately exiled distinguished citizens, accused some of his own provincial governors of conspiracy, and driven from public life good and able men. “He robbed Rome of her best and noblest sons, unopposed. No hand was raised to avenge them,” wrote the poet Juvenal. In this atmosphere of fear and suspicion good men were unwilling to speak their minds to friends lest they be implicated as traitors and summarily whisked off to exile or death. (5)

In Rome the practice of religion was a public matter. (6)

No one who bears the insignia of supreme authority is despised unless his own meanness and ignobility show that he must be the first to despise himself. It is a poor thing if authority can only test its powers by insults to others, and if homage is to be won by terror; affection is far more effective than fear in gaining you your ends. Fear disappears at your departure, affection remains, and whereas fear engenders hatred, affection develops into genuine regard. Never, never forget (I must repeat this) the official title you bear, and keep clearly in mind what it means and how much it means to establish order in the constitution of free cities, for nothing can serve a city like ordered rule and nothing is so precious as freedom. – Pliny [Ep. 8.24] (8)


As governor, Pliny’s assignments were the following: (1) to look into the irregularities in the handling of funds (some cities were on (10) the verge of bankruptcy); (2) to examine the municipal administration of the cities; (3) to put down any political or potentially political disorders; (4) to deal with whatever criminal cases were pending; (5) to investigate the military situation in the provinces. (11)

All were subject to a system of licensing to prevent clubs from becoming a political nuisance, but Trajan thought that greater restrictions were necessary. (12)

I have received your suggestion that it should be possible to form a company of firemen at Nicomedia on the model of those existing elsewhere, but we must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for political disturbances in your province, particularly in its cities. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club (hetaeria). It is a better policy then to provide the equipment necessary for dealing with fires, and to instruct property owners to make use of it, calling on the help of the crowds which collect if they find it necessary. [Ep. 10.34]

The term used in this letter for “club,” hetaeria [εταιρια], is the same word Pliny was to use later when he wrote to Trajan about the Christians. It may seem surprising that the same term used to describe a firemen’s association would also be used to describe a group of Christians but in the circumstances, and from Pliny’s perspective, the designation was appropriate, as we shall see when we discuss this aspect of his letter in the next chapter. Trajan had good reasons for prohibiting the organization of a firemen’s association. Associations of this sort organized by members of the same trade or occupation did not restrict their activities to matters of “professional” interest. The clubs were also social organizations, and the members met together regularly for food and drink, fun and relaxation, and support in times of trouble. As a consequence, they were a natural breeding ground for grumbling about the conduct of civic affairs and they often became involved in politics. (13)

Another factor influencing Pliny’s handling of the matter was that the societies about which the citizens made the request were “benefit societies.” The term he uses is eranus, a different word from the somewhat more political term hetaeria. Benefit societies were a distinct class of societies, usually made up largely of poor people who banded together to help one another, especially in meeting funeral expenses and caring for each other in times of need. They also met together, however, for communal dining and recreation. Potentially they were as disruptive as the group in Nicomedia. (14)


The next geographical reference in his letters is to Amastris (Ep. 10.98), a city almost a hundred miles west of Amisus on the road back to Bithynia. Between the letter written at Amisus and the letter from Amastris, Pliny wrote his famous letter (Ep. 10.96) about the Christians. …the letter was written from one of the coastal cities of northern Pontus in the fall of A.D. 112. (15)

…from several hints in the letter it is possible to infer that the charge was brought by local merchants, perhaps butchers and others engaged in the slaughter and sale of sacrificial meat. Business was poor because people were not making sacrifices. Toward the end of the letter, written after Pliny had dealt with the problem, he observed that the “flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it.” (15)

I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes (flagitia) associated with the name. [Ep. 96]

When Pliny was informed of the presence of the Christian group in Bithynia, it is possible that he saw similarities between the Christians and the Bacchae. (17)

Not so long after Pliny, Christians were accused of clandestine rites involving promiscuous intercourse and ritual meals in which human flesh was eaten, the so-called Thystean banquets (Thystes, who seduced his brother’s wife, was invited to a banquet in which his sons were served up to him) and Oedipean unions (Athenagoras, Legatio 3.1; 31-32). (17)

…a Greek romance written by a certain Lollianus, recently discovered on a second-century papyrus from Cologne, may shed some light on the background of accusations that Christians engaged in promiscuous intercourse or ritual murder. The papyrus describes an elaborate rite of initiation which included the ritual murder of a young boy, the removal of the victim’s heart, an oath, eating of the heart and drinking of the blood, and sexual intercourse. The sacrificial murder is described as follows. (18)

At this moment another naked man arrived with a purple belt around his loins. He threw the boy’s body on its back, struck it, opened it, removed the heart and placed it over the fire. Then he took the roasted heart off the fire and cut it into halves. He sprinkled it with barley and drenched it with oil. When it was sufficiently prepared, he distributed portions of it to the initiates, and when they were holding them (in their hands), he made them swear an oath by the blood of the heart, not to leave in the lurch nor to betray…, even if they would be arrested or if they would be tortured or if their eyes would be dug out. [Text, translation, and discussion of the COlogne papyrus in Albert Henrichs, “Pagan Ritual and the Alleged Crime of the Early Christians: A Reconsideration.” In KyriakonFestschrift Johannes Quasten (Münster, 1970), 18-35 (citation on p. 30).]

Of course we cannot say that Pliny had so monstrous a ritual in mind. If so, it would explain why he acted so precipitously. But it seems unlikely. We do know that such accusations were made later. Minucius Felix, a third-century Latin apologist, gave a lurid account of Christian debauchery which he claims to have derived from Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-166 C.E.), a Latin Rhetor and tutor of Marcus Aurelius. (18)

A young baby is covered over with flour, the object being to deceive the unwary. It is then served before the person to be admitted into the rites. The recruit is urged to inflict blows onto it–they appear to be harmless because of the covering of flour. Thus the baby is killed with wounds that remain unseen and concealed. It is the blood of this infant–I shudder to mention it–it is this blood that they lick with thirsty lips; these are the limbs they distribute eagerly; this is the victim by which they seal their covenant. …

On a special day they gather in a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers–all sexes and all ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting and drinking, they begin to burn with incestuous passions. They provoke a dog tied to the lampstand to leap and bound towards a scrap of food which they have tossed outside the reach of his chain. By this means the light is overturned and extinguished, and with it common knowledge of their actions; in the shameless dark with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all equally being guilty of incest, some by deed, but everyone by complicity. … [Octavius 9.5-6] [Translation of Minucius by G. W. Clarke, The Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix, Ancient Christian Writers, no. 39 (New York, 1974). Discussion of the passage cited on pp. 221 ff.]

But the most dramatic account comes from a later Christian author, Epiphanius of Cyprus, who claimed to have knowledge of a Christian group called the Phibionites which practiced ritual intercourse and the eating of an unborn child. (20)

When they thus ate together and so to speak filled up their veins from the surplus of their strength they turn to excitements. The man leaving his wife says to his own wife: “Stand up and perform the agape with the brother.” Then the unfortunates unite with each other, and as I am truly ashamed to say the shameful things that are being done by them, because according to the holy apostle the things that are happening by them are shameful even to mention, nevertheless I will not be ashamed to say those things which they are not ashamed to do, in order that I may cause in every way a horror in those who hear about their shameful practices. After they have had intercourse in the passion of fornication they raise their own blasphemy to heaven. The woman and the man take the fluid of the emission of the man into their hands, they stand, turn toward heaven, their hands besmeared with the uncleanness, and pray as people called stratiotikoi [στρατιωτικοι] and gnostikoi [γνωστικοι], bringing to the father the nature of all that which they have on their hands, and they say: “We offer to thee this gift, the body of Christ.” And then they eat it, their own ugliness, and say: “This is the body of Christ and this is the Passover for the sake of which our bodies suffer and are forced to confess the suffering of Christ.” Similarly also with the woman when she happens to be in the flowing of the blood they gather the blood of menstruation of her uncleanness and eat it together and say: “This is the blood of Christ.” [Panarion 26.4-5]

If a Christian sect in one city celebrated the Eucharist without clothes, or participated in a ritual in which human semen was offered to God and consumed, it is not difficult to imagine how stories would spread that Christians in general were depraved and guilty of unspecified “crimes.” Outsiders could hardly be expected to distinguish one Christian group from another. (21)

…Pliny makes a point of explaining to Trajan that the Christian “food” was harmless intimates that rumors were already circulating. It would not be long before rumors were rife, and, whatever their origin or truth, they played a part in shaping the milieu in which the Christian movement made its way. …it must be noted–indeed emphasized–that the accusations of promiscuity and ritual murder appear only in Christian authors. They are not present in the writings of pagan critics of Christianity. [In Celsus’s book against the Christian there is no mention of Christians engaging in promiscuous rites. In his response to Celsus, Origen mentions the “rumor” that Christians “turn out the light and each man has sexual intercourse with the first woman he meets,” but he does not attribute it to Celsus (c. Cels. 6.27). It may be that the omission is insignificant and due to the fragmentary transmission of the writings of pagan critics, but it may also be that serious critics had more important things to say against Christianity.]

The Romans sometimes followed a trial procedure known as cognitio extra ordinem. …simply required that the party or parties appear before the governor and that he hear the evidence and adjudicate the matter on his own authority. Pliny first asked each person if he were a Christian while at the same time warning him that if he answered yes he would be executed. (23)

Whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. [Pliny]

Even in this early period of Christian history, not everyone who became a (24) Christian remained a Christian for the rest of his or her life. …in an age when religious distinctions were often blurred, people changed allegiances often and sometimes belonged to more than one religious group in the course of a lifetime. Consequently, there was much movement in and out of religious associations and across organizational lines. When Christianity did not meet some people’s expectations, they lost interest. (25)


This fuzziness on the edges of the Christian sect presented Pliny with a new problem. How was he to know when people were telling the truth? What would happen if, after leaving the city, those who claimed they were not Christians took up Christianity again and reorganized a Christian group? … He solved his dilemma by a “test” designed to determine who was and was not a Christian. He had statues of the emperor Trajan and of the Capitoline gods–Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva–brought into the room. Those who had already admitted that they were Christians he sent off to be executed, as he had done with the first group. Those who denied the charge he asked to repeat after him a “formula of invocation to the gods” and “to make an offering of wine and incense” to Trajan’s statue. He also ordered them to “revile the name of Christ.” (25)

In the time of Emperor Augustus, the historian Suetonius reports that Augustus provided that “before taking his seat each member [of the senate] should offer incense and wine at the altar of the god in whose temple the meeting was held” (Suet. Aug. 35.3). Augustus’s successor, Tiberius, himself followed this practice on accession to the throne. “On the first day that he entered the senate after the death of Augustus, to satisfy at once the demands of piety and religion, he offered sacrifice…with incense and wine.” (26)

As was Trajan’s custom, he replied to Pliny’s letter, and his letter is included in the collection of Pliny’s correspondence. (28)

You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But the pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age. [Ep. 10.97]


By the early part of the second century, when Pliny was living in Asia Minor, Christian groups could be found in perhaps forty or fifty cities within the Roman Empire. … The total number of Christians within the empire was probably less than fifty thousand, an infinitesimal number in a society comprising sixty million. The Jews, by contrast, were a significant minority numbering four to five million. (31)

Early in the second century, however, Greek and Roman authors began to take notice of the new movement. (31)

Knowledge based on what one sees and hears is thought to be superficial, for what one sees and hears is never the sum of things. Yet is it not equally true that how something appears, how it is perceived by others, is an aspect of what it is? … The perceptions of others, mistaken or not, create the world that men and women inhabit, and it is ill-advised to think that the self-understanding of the early Christian movement was formed independently of the attitudes and perceptions of outsiders. (32)

| In his letter to the emperor Trajan, Pliny used two terms to characterize the Christians, “superstition” (superstitio) and “political club” (hetaeria). The first, superstitio, appears in two other contemporary writers, Tacitus and Suetonius, referring to Christianity, and synonyms of the second occur in other writers from the period, which means that Pliny’s observations not only furnish us with a clue to how he perceived the Christians, but also give us some inkling of how the society at large viewed them. (32)


By the time Pliny had come into contact with Christianity, most Christians had adopted the term ecclesia [εκκλησια], the word translated as “church,” to refer to themselves. (32) … The book of Acts, written about the same time, i.e., at the end of the first century, speaks of “the church throughout Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria” (Acts 9:31). (33)

| The Romans did not use the term ecclesia to refer to the new movement. They simply called it “Christian.” Indeed, this term, Christianus, which would become the characteristic name for the followers of Jesus, was first used by outsiders (Acts 11:26). Pliny, too, calls them Christiani, identifying them by reference to their founder, just as the followers of Pythagoras were called Pythagoreans, the followers of Epicurus, Epicureans, the worshipers of Dionysus, Dionysiacs. Had Pliny heard the term ecclesia, he would have been puzzled, for in common usage in Greek and Latin ecclesia referred to the political assembly of the people of a city, as contrasted with the smaller group of elected officials who comprise the council (boule) [βουλη]. In a letter to Trajan written a few weeks after the affair with the Christians, Pliny refers to the vote of the “local boule and ecclesia” (Ep. 10.11). (33)

Besides the specific name Christiani, Pliny also used the general term hetaeria to identify the Christian group.

They [the Christians] also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath. … After this ceremony it has been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all hetaerias.

The term hetaeria, a transliteration into Latin of a Greek word, is usually rendered as “political club” or “association.” (34)


An interesting and quite complete inscription from Lanuvium, a town in Italy southeast of Rome, dated 136 C.E., provides us with a good example of how an association was organized and what some of its activities were. (36)

May this be propitious, happy and salutary to the Emperor Caesar Trajanus Hadrian Augustus and to the entire imperial house to us, to ours, and to our society, and may we have made proper and careful arrangements for providing decent obsequies at the departure of the dead. Therefore we must all agree to contribute faithfully, so that our society may be able to continue in existence a long time. You, who desire to enter this society as a new member, first read the by-laws carefully before entering, so as not to find cause for complaint later or bequeath a lawsuit to your heir.

The society to which one belonged was a cohesive group that became the focal point for many of the ordinary as well as extraordinary events of life. In it the craftsman, the merchant, the worker became “somebody.” Men from this class,…

…were placed always at the bottom of the political and social ladder; they saw in the association the only means to escape their isolation and weakness, to acquire some little consideration and even a little influence, finally to create for themselves in the society, in the city, an honorable place. … Religion, taking care of funerals, the desire to be stronger, to defend their interest, to elevate themselves above the common herd, the desire to fraternize and to make their difficult existence more pleasant–such were the diverse sources of that powerful need of association which worked in the popular class. [J.P. Waltzing, Etude historique sur les corporations professionelles chez les romains (Brussels, 1895-96), 1:332.]


There were other associations whose primary purpose was religious. It is among these associations that we find the closest parallel with the Christians. (41)

To the casual observer, the Christian communities in the cities of the Roman Empire appeared remarkably similar to religious associations such as the one described above or to a burial society such as the one at Lanuvium. Like these other associations, the Christian society met regularly for a common meal; it had its own ritual of initiation, rules, and standards for members; when the group came together, the members heard speeches and celebrated a religious rite involving offerings of wine, prayers, and hymns; and certain members of the group were elected to serve as officers and administrators of the association’s affairs. It also had a common chest drawn from the contributions of members, looked out for the needs of its members, provided for a decent burial, and in some cities had its own burial grounds. Like the followers of Heracles who were called Heraclists, the devotees of Asclepius called Asclepiasts, or the followers of Isis called Isiacs, the Christians were called Christiani. The Christian communities, writes the Roman social historian Jean Gagé, “offered at first glance an astonishing resemblance to a type of fraternal association, namely the funerary or burial society.” [Jean Gagé, Les classes sociales dans l’empire romain (Paris, 1964), 308.


Christianity, [Tertullian] argues, is an association devoted not to political maneuvering or clandestine activities but to inculcating moral principles in its members and training people to live virtuously. (46)

| Let me, says Tertullian, describe to you the “business of the Christian club (factio).”

We are an association (corpus) bound together by our religious profession, by the unity of our way of life and the bond of our common hope. … We must together as an assembly and as a society. … We pray for the emperors. … We gather together to read our sacred writing. … With the holy words we nourish our faith. … After the gathering is over the Christians go out as though they had come from a “school of virtue.” [Apol. 390]

No one suffers harm from these assemblies, he concludes, for when the virtuous gather together it “should not be called a political club but a council” (Apol. 39). (46)

If Tertullian was to make a credible case for the truth of Christianity, he had first to show its similarity to other accepted religious and social groups within the empire. What others thought about Christianity was a factor in shaping how Christians would think about themselves and how they would present themselves to the larger world. (47)


What did it mean, in the second century of the Roman Empire, to call Christianity a superstition? (48)

Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’s reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition [superstitio] had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital. [Tacitus, Annales]

Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition (Suetonius, Nero 16)

Thus the three Roman writers who mention Christianity at the beginning of the second century agree in calling the new movement a superstitio. (50)


In its most common and familiar sense, the term superstition referred to beliefs and practices that were foreign and strange to the Romans. (50)

Some, whose lot it was to have Sabbath-fearing fathers worship nothing but clouds and the numen of the heavens, and think it as great a crime to eat pork, from which their parents abstained, as human flesh. They get themselves circumcised, and look down on Roman law, preferring instead to lean and honor and fear the Jewish commandments, whatever was handed down by Moses in that arcane tone of his–never to show the way to any but fellow believers (if they ask where to get some water, find out if they’re foreskinless). But their fathers were the culprits; they made every seventh day taboo for all life’s business, dedicated to idleness.” [Juvenal, Satire 14]

Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. … The Egyptians worship a variety of animals and half-human, half-bestial forms, whereas the Jewish religion is a purely spiritual monotheism. They hold it to be impious to make idols of perishable materials in the likeness of man; for them, the Most High and Eternal cannot be portrayed by human hands and will never pass away. For this reason they erect no images in their cities, still less in their temples. – [Tacitus, Histories]

The Romans were thought to excel in law, in political sagacity, in their skill and foresight in constructing roads, in their administrative accomplish-(52)ments and tolerant rule over many disparate peoples. But Roman religion is thought to have been cold and lifeless, lacking in emotive appeal, ritualistic. (53)

Latin poetry is studded with the names of gods and Roman works of art, in particular the great public monuments, like the Altar of Peace with its magnificent sculptures…regularly depict religious scenes. But it is difficult for us to feel that this world of gods and goddesses is more than decoration. The influence of Christian education and tradition is so strong that we cannot imagine that the pagan gods ever had any real meaning of that people could actually believe in their existence or their power. – R. M. Ogilvie, The Romans and Their Gods (New York, 1969), 1.


The term used most frequently to designate the religious attitudes of men such as Pliny and Tacitus was piety (pietas in Latin, eusebeia [ευσεβεια] in Greek). (54)

Originally the word piety was used to designate the honor and respect one showed to members of one’s family, children to parents, children and parents to grandparents, and everyone to one’s ancestors. But the term came to be used in a wider sense, designating loyalty and obedience to the customs and traditions of Rome, to inherited laws, to those who lived in previous generations–in short to the “father-land.” As time went on, the term acquired a more specifically religious sense, meaning reverence and devotion to the gods and to the ritual or cultic acts by which the gods were honored, as for example the offering of sacrifices. (56)

Many coins from the first three centuries of the Roman Empire bear the word pietas or some combination of words with pietas, for example, pietas augusta. (56)

Roman religion was not, however, confined to the public realm. It also played a part in the life of the family, in associations and clubs, as we saw in the previous chapter, and in the personal lives of individuals. (57)

Not only were the Romans religious, they also considered themselves religious. (57)

Among the Romans there are no processions performed in mourning habits with expressions of sorrow and attended by the plaints and lamentation of women bewailing the disappearance of deities, such as the Greeks carry out in commemorating the rape of Proserpina and the adventures of Bacchus and many other things of the same nature. Nothing is to be seen among them (though their manners are now corrupted) of enthusiastic transports of corybantic mysteries, no promiscuous vigils of men and women in the temples, nor any extravagances of this kind. But all reverence is shown to the gods, both in words and actions, beyond what is practiced among either Greeks or Barbarians.” [Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 2.19.2-3]

There are and have been philosophers who hold that the gods exercise no control over human affairs whatever. But if their opinion is the true one, how can piety, reverence or religion exist? For all these are tributes which it is our duty to render in purity and holiness to the divine powers solely on the assumption that they take notice of them, and that some service has been rendered by the gods to the race of men. But if on the contrary the gods have neither the power nor the will to aid us, if they pay no heed to us at all and take no notice of our actions, if they can exert no possible influence upon the life of men, what ground have we for rendering any sort of worship, honor or prayer to the immortal gods? Piety, however, like the rest of the virtues, cannot exist in mere outward show and pretence; and with piety, reverence and religion must likewise disappear. And when these are gone, life soon becomes a welter of disorder and confusion.” [Cicero. Nat. D. 1.3-4]

Hence it was not inappropriate to contrast genuine religion and superstition. (60)

Religion has been distinguished from superstition not only by philosophers but by our ancestors. – Cicero

For superstition implied “groundless fear of the gods” whereas religion consisted in “pious worship of the gods” (Nat. D. 1.117; 2.72) (60)

…the term “piety” (eusebeia) [ευσεβεια from ευσεβης] bore many of the same overtones. (60)

According to Plutarch, superstition sets people off from the rest of society because the superstitious person does not use his intelligence in thinking about the gods. Instead he creates fearful images and horrible apparitions that lead to bizarre and extreme behavior. The superstitious man is also fanatical. His feelings toward the gods are exaggerated; he worships them with excessive awe; and he believes that one’s lot in life is dependent not on what one does–namely, on human responsibility–but on the decrees of fate and fortune over which one has no control. The superstitious man “enjoys no world in common with the rest of mankind” (166c). To him the gods are “rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel and easily offended,” for they deal capriciously and arbitrarily with men and women (170e). (61)

| Because superstition leads to irrational ideas about the gods, the inevitable consequence is atheism. (61)


One should not, wrote Plutarch, “distort and sully one’s own tongue with strange names and barbarous phrases, to disgrace and transgress the god-given ancestral dignity of our religion (eusebeia)” (166b). The primary test of truth in religious matters was custom and tradition, the practices of the ancients. (62)

There was very little doubt in people’s minds that the religious practices of one generation should be cherished without change by the next. … To be pious in any sense, to be respectable and decent, required the perpetuation of cult. – Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1981), 2.

In philosophical matters one might turn to intellectuals and philosophers, but in religious questions one looked to the past, to the accepted practices handed down by tradition, and to the guarantors of this tradition, the priests. Just as in public life the Romans were wary of the novus homo, the new man who had only achieved wealth and position, so in religion conservatism ran even deeper. (62)

If you wish to become immortal pursue a life of virtue and worship the divine according to the tradition of your fathers. … Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should abhor and punish, not merely for the sake of the gods, but such men by bringing in new divinities in place of the old, persuade many to adopt foreign practices, [sic] from which spring up conspiracies, factions and political clubs which are far from profitable to a monarchy. Do not therefore permit anyone to be an atheist or a sorcerer. [Dio Cassisus 52.36.2]

By the standards of religion familiar to most Westerners, and because of our propensity to view religion as a private and individual experience, the religious attitudes of the Romans seem superficial and emotionally unsatisfying. If, however, one views them as a form of public piety, ancient Roman religion is quite intelligible. Religion can be as much concerned with the public life of a society as it is with the private lives of individuals. (64)

One would have a very false idea of human nature to believe that this ancient religion was an imposture, and, so to speak, a comedy. Montesquieu pretends that the Romans adopted a worship only to restrain the people. A religion never had such an origin; and every religion that has come to sustain itself only from motives of public utility, has not stood long. [Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (New York: Doubleday Anchor Book, n.d.), 166-67).]

One of the functions of religion is to relate institutions, roles, and the events of family and society to an ultimate reality,… (64) Religion places the ordinary and extraordinary events of social and individual life within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference. (65)

When Tacitus wrote that Christianity was the “enemy of mankind,” he did not simply mean he did not like Christians and found them a nuisance (though this was surely true), but that they were an affront to his social and religious world. (66)

You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our sacred games. (Minucius Felix, Octavius 12).

Roman games were religious events as well as shows for gladiators or gymnastic contests. As one early Christian put it, thus reflecting the world in which he lived, “What is a stage show without a god, a game without a sacrifice?” (Pseudo-Cyprian, De spectaculis 4). (66)



Galen, Pergamum’s most famous native son, was born in ca. 130 C.E. on an estate outside the city. (69)

To further his studies Galen moved to Alexandria in 152,… By the time he returned home to Pergamum five or six years later, he had been studying anatomy and medicine for twelve years. (70)


The first reference to Christianity in Galen’s works occurs in a book on the pulse. (72)

For one might more easily teach novelties to the followers of Moses and Christ than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools. So in the end I decided that I should avoid unnecessary talk by having nothing to do with them at all, which is what I do at present and what I shall continue to do in the future (De pulsuum differentiis 3.3).

In another fragment Glane, speaking of the opinions of certain physicians, says,

They compare those who practice medicine without scientific knowledge to Moses, who framed laws for the tribe of Israel, since it is his method in his books to write without offering proofs, saying ‘God commanded, God spake,’ (On Hippocrate’s Anatomy). [Galen’s references to Christianity are conveniently edited and translated into English in Richard Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians (London, 1949). Texts discussed in this chapter can be found on pp. 10-16.]

It is curious that Galen, writing in the middle of the second century, lumps together Jews and Christians. By this time Christianity had es-(72)tablished itself as a movement independent of Judaism, and it is likely that even people who only knew Christians casually could tell the difference between Christians and Jews. … This passage from Galen, however, is not concerned with the historical relation between Judaism and Christianity, or with the relation of Christ to Moses; it is concerned with the similarity in the way the two religions deal with the question of “faith and reason.” (73)

Galen, in contrast to earlier observers, did not view Christianity as a superstitious sect or a foreign cult. Instead he dignified Christianity (and Judaism) with the term “school,” by which he meant a philosophical school, and he offered philosophical criticism of Christian and Jewish beliefs. (73)

…Platonists, Peripatetics (Aristotelians), Stoics, Epicureans, Pythagoreans, Cynics, Skeptics. Each of these schools had its own intel-(73)lectual tradition, exemplified in a succession of famous teachers, and adherents often came to resemble doctrinaire proponents of inherited views rather than inquiring philosophers. In some cases, members of a particular school exhibited an almost religious veneration of the founder, celebrating his memory with a festival that included religious sacrifices, a banquet, and readings from his works. (74)

| Philosophers became hucksters, salesmen marketing the ideas and beliefs of their respective schools. Addressing crowds on street corners and in the marketplace, they offered advice on how to live one’s life and deal with personal problems. Appealing less to reason and logic than to emotion and feeling, philosophers appeared as traveling evangelists, directing their hearers to the wondrous accomplishments of the founder of the school, its venerable tradition, or the high regard in which many people viewed it. In his dialogue, Philosphies for Sale, Lucian, a second-century satirist and contemporary of Galen, offers a humorous account of the hawking of philosophy in the great cities of the Roman Empire. [Text and translation of Lucian’s Philosophies for Sale (Vitarum Auctio), in A. M. Harmon, ed., Lucian (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1968), 2:449-511.] The setting for the following dialogue is a slave market in a Greek-speaking city in the eastern Mediterranean. (74)

Zeus: You arrange the benches and make the place ready for the men that are coming. You bring on the philosophies [literally “ways of life”] and put them in line: but first groom them up so that they will look well and will attract as many as possible. You, Hermes, be crier and call them together.

Hermes: Under the blessing of Heaven, let the buyers now appear at the sales-room. We shall put up for sale philosophies of every type and all manner of creeds; and if anyone is unable to pay cash, he is to name a surety and pay next year.

Hermes: Which do you want us to bring on first?

Zeus: This fellow with the long hair, the Ionian, for he seems to be someone of distinction.

Hermes: You Pythagorean, come forward and let yourself be looked over by the company. (74)

Zeus: Hawk him now.

Hermes: The noblest of philosophies for sale, the most distinguished; who’ll buy? Who wants to be more than man? Who wants to apprehend the music of the spheres and to be born again? (75)

A buyer steps up and asks the Pythagorean several questions about his philosophy and the Pythagorean replies with a  caricature of his school. “If I buy you, asks the interested customer, what will you teach me?” The Pythagorean answers. “I shall teach you nothing, but make you remember” [i.e. all genuine learning is remembering.]. Next Lucian places a Cynic on the platform, and he is followed by a Democritean and a Heraclitean. Then he puts up the Platonist. (75)

Hermes: Come here, sir. We are putting up a righteous and intelligent philosophy. Who’ll buy the height of sanctity?

Buyer: How am I to buy you, then? What I wanted was a tutor for my son, who is handsome.

Platonist: But who would be more suitable than I to associate with a handsome lad? It is not the body I love, it is the soul that I hold beautiful. As a matter of fact, even if they lie beneath the same cloak with me, they will tell you that I have done them no wrong. (75)

Next comes the Stoic. (75)

Zeus: Call another, the one over there with the cropped head, the dismal fellow from the porch (stoa).

Hermes: Quite right; at all events it looks as if the men who frequent the public square were writing for him in great numbers. Sell virtue itself, the most perfect of philosophies. Who wants to be the only one to know everything?

Buyer: What do you mean by that?

Hermes: That he is the only wise man, the only handsome man, (75) the only just man, brave man, king, orator, rich man, lawgiver, and everything else that there is.

Buyer: Come here, my good fellows, and tell your buyer what you are like, and first of all whether you are not displeased with being sold and living in slavery?

Stoic: Not at all for these things are not in our control and all that is not in our control is immaterial. (76)

Lucian is, of course, poking fun at the philosophical schools, but his caricature has an element of truth in it. The appeal of a philosopher frequently had less to do with the teachings of his school than with how the philosopher dressed, what kinds of success he could promise its adherents, and which philosophy was fashionable and highly regarded in influential circles. (76)

People admire this or that particular physician or philosopher without proper study of their subject and without a training in scientific demonstration, with the help of which they would be able to distinguish between false and true arguments; some do this because of their fathers, others because of their teachers, other because their friends were either empirics or dogmatics or methodics, or simply because a representative of a particular school was admired in their native city. The same applies to the philosophical schools; different people have for different reasons become Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, or Epicureans (Libr. ord.). [Walzer, 19-20).

As philosophy became more popular, the schools began to adapt to the personal inclinations of adherents and disciples. By the second century of the Common Era the philosophical schools were not simply intellectual schools of thought but ways of life (lucian calls them bioi) similar to what we today would call religious movements. Then as now, people embraced a new way of life because they were impressed by an exemplary life, because someone in their family belonged to a particular school, because of ties of marriage or friendship, or similar reasons. Joining a philosophical school often had little to do with rational argument or appeals to empirical evidence. (77)


…there was another group of men, less known, who lived in Rome at the time and may have been directly influenced by Galen’s criticism of Christianity and his approach to philosophical thinking. This group is described in a fascinating fragment, sometimes called the Little Labyrinth, preserved in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. (78)

This text, sometimes attributed to the early Christian writer Hippolytus describes in unfavorable terms a group of Christians who lived in Rome in the latter part of the second century (during the time of Bishop Victor, 187-89). According to the Little Labyrinth, their leader was a cobbler named Theodotus, and they admired the work of Galen and sought to set Christian belief on a rational foundation. “They have tampered with the Holy Scriptures without fear,” writes the author.

Instead of asking what Holy Scripture says, they strain every nerve to find a form of syllogism to bolster up their impiety [atheism]. If anyone challenges them with a text from divine Scripture, they examine it to see whether it can be turned into a conjunctive or disjunctive form of syllogism. They put aside the holy scriptures of God, and devote themselves to geometry, since they are from the earth and speak from the earth, and do not know the one who comes from above. Some of them give all their energies to the study of Euclidean geometry, they admire Aristotle and Theophrastus, and some of them almost worship Galen. When people avail themselves of the arts of unbelievers to lend color to their heretical views and with godless rascality corrupt the simple faith of the holy Scripture, it is obvious that they are nowhere near the faith. So it was that they laid hands unblushingly on the Holy Scriptures, claiming to have corrected them [Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.28.13-15]

The term superstition accented that Christianity was a foreign cult whose origin and practices stood outside the accepted religious standards of the Greco-Roman world. Superstition, by definition, was opposed to genuine religious feelings. The philosophical schools, on the other hand, were part of the public life of the empire. There were times, as for example under the capricious emperor Domitian, when philosophers were sent into exile, but in general people respected the philosophical life, and some from the upper classes identified with particular philosophical schools. In Galen’s time the emperor Marcus Aurelius had become a Stoic even though his tutor Fronto disapproved. Fronto, like Pliny, preferred rhetoric to philosophy. Marcus nevertheless went ahead with his plan. In calling Christianity a philosophical school, even one whose dialectical skill did not impress him, Galen gave Christianity a boost on the ladder of acceptance within the Roman world. From another of Galen’s works it is clear that what led him to call it a philosophy was the success Christians had in leading men and women to a life of virtue. (79)

Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables, and benefit from them just as we now see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables and miracles, and yet sometimes acting in the same way as those who practice philosophy. For their contempt of death and of its sequel is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabitating all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers. [Richard Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, 15]

Philosophy in Galen’s day had become less a way of thinking than a way of living. Although philosophers were the inheritors of intellectual traditions that dealt with the great metaphysical issues, and many still wrote books on these topics, they had gone into the streets of the cities to address the populace and to offer men and women advice on how to live. …the term used to describe the philosophical schools was bios (βιος) (way of life), and the selling point of the various philosophies turned more on life-style and ethics than on metaphysical or epistemological questions. Philosophy was a matter of moral discipline (ασκησις) (askēsis), and its goal of was a life of virtue. (80)

This conception of the philosopher had worked its way into Greco-Roman funerary art. … One of the more interesting types of sarcophagi from this period portrays a set of two figures: on one end a figure with hand uplifted in prayer, the so-called orans; on the other end, the figure of a young man carrying a sheep on his shoulder, the chriophoros. (Later Christian tradition came to identify this latter figure with the good shepherd of the Gospels.) The orans was a visible way of representing pietas toward the gods and the chriophoros was meant to represent philanthropy to one’s fellows. The two figures represent the two chief characteristics of a virtuous man or woman, piety and respect toward the gods and philanthropy and justice toward one’s fellow human beings. (81)

To Marcus, the Christians appeared fanatical and foolish–one might even say superstitious. Their presumed lack of fear of death did not arise out of genuine self-control, or out of an understanding of the self, or out of free will, but from mere obstinacy based on irrational ideas. (82)

Galen’s judgment, however, was the more prescient. For it was through their way of life, not simply their teachings, that Christians first caught the attention of the larger society, and the idea that Christianity was a philosophical school helped Christian apologists to pre-(82)sent the person of Jesus and the Christian way of life intelligibly and persuasively to outsiders. In the middle of the second century, Melito, Bishop of Sardis in western Asia Minor, spoke of Christianity as “our philosophy” (Frag. 7), and Justin Martyr, another early Christian apologist writing about the same time, presented his conversion to Christianity as a conversion to philosophy. His Dialogue with Trypho began with an account of his examination of the differing philosophical schools of his day–Stoics, Peripatetics, Platonists, et al. It was not, however, until he met an old man who introduced him to the Hebrew prophets that a flame enkindled his heart and he found “this philosophy [Christianity] alone to be sure and profitable” (Dial. 8). (83)


On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, written in Rome in approximately 170 C.E. [This text mentions only Moses, not Christ; but because Galen deals with Christians and Jews together in other places it seems reasonable to see his philosophical criticism as also applying to Christian teaching. Christians also used the Book of Genesis, and it is the account in Genesis that Galen is criticizing here. Further, Christian writers in the next several decades responded to criticisms similar to those of Galen. For discussion of the text, see Walzer, 24-37.] The book is a study in anatomy, not philosophy, but the analysis of the various functions of the parts of the body–hands, feet, digestive organs, eyes, nerves, and so on–caused Galen to reflect on the harmony of nature as exhibited in the order and structure of the human body. (83) … On the basis of his anatomical observations he sought to show the “cause of these things,” for “nature does nothing without a reason” (11.5; 11.2.3). (84)

| In one discussion Galen asks why there is hair on the top of the head and elsewhere on the face but none on the forehead. He gives the obvious answer that if hair grew on the forehead one would have to cut it continually in order to be able to see. This hair stays the same length, whereas nature has caused the hair of the head and chin to grow very long. But he wished to know why this hair does not grow and other hair does, and in discussing this problem he departs from his anatomical discussion to contrast the Greek view of creation with the viewpoint of Moses in the book of Genesis.

Did your demiurge [i.e., the creator in Geneis] simply enjoin this hair to preserve its length always equal, and does it strictly observe this order either from fear of its master’s command, or from reverence for the God who gave this order, or is it because it itself believes it better to do this. Is not this Moses’s way of treating nature and is it not superior to that of Epicurus? The best way, of course, is to follow neither of these but to maintain, like Moses, the principle of the demiurge as the origin of every created thing, but also adding to it the material principle [existing matter from which the world was made]. For our demiurge created it to preserve a constant length, because this was better. when he had determined to make it so, he set under part of it a hard body as a kind of cartilage, and under another part a hard skin attached to the cartilage through the eyebrows. For it was certainly not sufficient merely to will their becoming such; it would not have been possible for him to make a man out of a stone in an instant, by simply wishing so. [De usu partium 11.4].

The classical Greek view of creation that lies behind Galen’s criticism of Genesis was set forth by Plato in the Timaeus, and essay on cosmogony widely read and studied in the ancient world. … In it Plato describes God as the “fashioner” (demiurgos) of existing matter, a wise and providential craftsman who takes matter, as a potter takes clay, and fashions it into an object of form and beauty. The creator is the “maker” and “modeler.” His task was to bring order out of disorder, to bring to rest what was in discordant motion, and to produce a world of harmony and proportion (Timaeus 302-c). By the use of reason the creator transforms unformed and chaotic matter into an intelligible universe. (85)

Viewed from the perspective of Plato’s Timaeus, the Mosaic cosmogony appears to be the work of a capricious and unbridled deity who brought the world into being by an act of will without reference to the consequences of his actions. He simply spoke and things came to be. Because there is no mention of the reasons for creation, the account in Genesis suggested to the Greeks that if God had willed things to be another way he could, out of his unlimited power, have made them so. But this would place God completely beyond the cosmos and exempt him from the laws that govern the universe. In the Greek view, God is not above the laws of nature. He could not, for example, make a man out of a stone. (86)

It is precisely this point [i.e., the idea that God could have made man out of a stone if he had wished to do so] in which our own opinion of that of Plato and of the other Greeks who follow the right method in the natural science differ from the position taken up by Moses. For the latter it seems enough to say that God simply willed the arrangement of matter and it was presently arranged in due order; for he believes everything to be possible with God, even should he wish to make a bull or a horse out of ashes. We, however, do not hold this; we say that certain things are impossible by nature and that God does not even attempt such things at all but that he chooses the best out of the possibilities of becoming. We say therefore that since it was better that the eyelashes should always be equal in length and number, it was not that he just willed and they were instantly there; for even if He should just will numberless times, they would never come into being in this manner out of a soft skin; and in particular, it was altogether impossible for them to stand erect unless fixed on something hard. We say thus that God is the cause both of the choice of the best in the products of creation themselves and of the selection of the matter. For since it was required, first that the eyelashes should stand erect and secondly that they should be kept equal in length and number, he planted them firmly in a cartilaginous body. If he had planted them in a soft and fleshy substance he would have suffered a worse failure not only than Moses but also than a bad general who plants a wall or a camp in marshy ground [De usu partium 11.14].

There would be nothing remarkable, [Theophilus] wrote, in God making the world out of “already existent matter.” The power of God is revealed “by his making whatever he wishes out of what does not exist (ex ouk ontōn), just as the ability to give life and motion belongs to no one but God alone” (Theoph. ad Autol. 2.4). (89)

This was eventually to become the Christian teaching on the subject, and Glane was the first critic of Christianity to see the implications of the emerging Christian doctrine. (89)

“What sort of body, after being entirely corrupted, could return to its original nature and that same condition which it had before it was dissolved? As they [the Christians] have nothing to say in reply, they escape to a most outrageous refuge by saying that ‘anything is possible to God.’ But, indeed neither can God do what is shameful nor does He desire what is contrary to nature. … He himself is the reason of everything that exists; therefore he is not able to do anything contrary to reason or to his own character” (c. Ces. 5.14). What is at issue, then, in this criticism of Christian teaching is not simply the idea of creation out of nothing but the Christian view that God is beyond the laws of nature and has sovereign power to deal with the world at will. (90)

Nothing can eer be created by divine power out of nothing. The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of the path ahead, the problem of howt hings are created and occasioned without the aid of the gods. First then, if things were made out of nothing, any species could spring from any source and nothing would require seed. Men could arise from the sea and scaly fish from the earth, and birds could be hatched out of the sky. Cattle and other domestic animals and every kind of wild beast, multiplying indiscriminately, would occupy cultivated and waste lands alike. The same fruits would not grow constantly on the same trees, but they would keep changing; any tree might bear any fruit. If each species were not composed of its own generative bodies, why should each be born always of the same kind of mother? Actually, since each is formed out of specific seeds, it is born and emerges into the sunlit world only from a place where there exists the right material, the right kind of atoms. This is why everything cannot be born of everything, but a specific power of generation inheres in specific objects. [(Lucretius) De rerum natura 1.160].

God, in the Greek view, dwelt in a realm above the earth, but he did not stand outside of the world, the kosmos. (91)

How sharply the Christian view diverges from the classical can be seen in another Greek writer, this one an anonymous second-century author of an essay on cosmology: (91)

God is to us a law, evenly balanced, receptive neither to correction nor change, and I think better and more stable than those [laws] which are engraved on tablets. Under his motionless and harmonious rule the whole ordering of heaven and earth is administered, extending over all created things through the seeds of life in each both to plants and to animals, according to genera and species. … God and nothing else is meant when we speak of necessity” (PSeudo Aristotle, De mundo, 401 a-b).

By the middle of the second century Christianity had begun to make an impact on some Greek and Roman intellectuals. The contrast between the comments of Pliny and those of Galen is a sign of this shift in outlook. Pliny had to deal with the Christians in the course of his work as governor of the province of Bithynia. His knowledge of Christianity came largely through hearsay, through the statements of a few uneducated Christians, and perhaps through trials that had been held in Rome. But he had no real interest int he Christian movement and made only a limited effort to understand what Christians believed and practiced. He certainly had not read any Christian writings. (92)

| By contrast, Galen seems to have been interested in the new movement and made an effort to understand how Christians lived, what they believed, and how the Christian way of life compared with other “philosophies” in the world of his time. Galen is, as Walzer observes, “the first pagan author who implicitly places Greek philosophy and the Christian religion on the same footing.” [Walzer, 43.] Galen was impressed that Christian were able to lead men and women to a life of virtue in the same fashion as the leading philosophical schools of the day. Through Christian practice, Christian morality, the early Christian movement made its first bid for acceptance within the Greco-Roman world. (92)

| Galen, however, found Christian (and Jewish) teaching objectionable. He considered Christians dogmatic and uncritical. They were unwilling to submit their beliefs to philosophical examination. They asked people to accept their doctrines solely on faith. This was, if not a fatal flaw to Galen, certainly a serious shortcoming. But his criticism of Christianity extended to specific points of Christian doctrine. He singled out a topic of major theological and philosophical significance in discussing the interaction between Christianity and classical culture. (92) Even on the basis of his limited knowledge of Christianity, Galen sensed that the Christian and Jewish views had implications that were profoundly at odds with classical Greek conceptions of the relation of God to the world. To Galen the Christian God appeared capricious, arbitrary, even whimsical, subject to no laws other than his own will, and beyond the bounds of nature, a rule until himself. (93)

| Even though Galen does not mention creatio ex nihilio and only deals explicitly with the Book of Genesis, he sets forth what would become a classical criticism of the Christian doctrine of God. In doing so he calls attention to the emergence of a new and distinctively Christian teaching. Already at this early stage in the history of Christian thought, the belief that God had created the world by an act of volition had begun to suggest the idea of creation out of nothing. Galen’s contemporary, Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, criticized Greek philosophers for deifying the universe through their view that God created the world out of existing matter. If God is “uncreated” and matter is also “uncreated,” then the sovereignty of God is not demonstrated.” “What would be remarkable,” he asks, “if God made the world out of pre-existent matter? Even a human artisan, when he obtains material from someone, makes whatever he wishes out of it. But the power of God is revealed by his making whatever he wishes out of the non-existent, just as the ability to give life and motion belongs to no-one but God alone” (Ad Autol. 2.4). It was not to be long before Christian writers began to make the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo central to Christian thinking. Though his knowledge of Christianity was limited, Galen had insight into certain characteristics of the new movement. His curiosity helped prepare the way for Christianity to be taken seriously in intellectual circles. The appearance of philosophical critics of the new religion was a momentous development for the history of Christian theology. (93)


c. 170 C.E….Celsus wrote a major book devoted solely to the Christians…entitled the True Doctrine… (94)

In Greco-Roman society, “Epicurean” was an epithet somewhat like “communist” in the United States. Epicureans were thought to be atheists who undermined society. It was to Origen’s advantage to portray a critic of Christianity as an Epicurean. (95)

But Celsus was not an Epicurean. Close examination of the fragments of his book has shown that he cannot be identified with any of the major philosophical schools of his time. [The most perceptive and thorough analysis of Celsus’s True Doctrine is Carl Andresen, Logos und Nomos. Die Polemik des Kelsus wider das Christentum (Berlin, 1955). Citations of Celsus’s True Doctrine from Origen’s Contra Celsum, ed. Marcel Borret, S.J. OrigèneContre Celse, Sources Chrétiennes (Paris, 1967–). Translation by Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge, 1953).] He is closest to the Platonists, but his own philosophical stance was eclectic. He reflects popular beliefs and opinions that were not peculiar to any particular sect or school but were shared by intellectuals with differing philosophical or religious inclinations. I would characterize him as a conservative intellectual. He supports traditional values and defends accepted beliefs, but unlike Pliny, he is not a politician or civil official. He approaches the institutions and mores of society as an intellectual prepared to offer philosophical and religious arguments in support oft he traditional political and social order. His philosophical and religious ideas are not simply theoretical convictions; they are interwoven with the institutions, social conventions, and political structures of the Greco-Roman world. (95)


Everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life and of resurrection of the flesh by the tree–I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he had happened to be thrown off a cliff, or pushed into a pit, or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stone-mason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life above the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather. Would not an old woman who sings a story to lull a little child to sleep have been ashamed to whisper such tales as these. [c. Cels. 6:34]

One of his strategies was to compare Christianity to unpopular and arcane religious movements that offended the sensibilities of the Romans. (96)

…like Glane he is sharply critical of Christian fideism. (97)

In private houses also we see wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their fathers and schoolteachers, but must obey them; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know nor are able to do anything good, but are taken up with mere empty chatter. But they alone, they say, know the right way to live, and if the children would believe them, they would become happy and make their home happy as well” (c. Cels. 3:55).

The poor wretches have convinced themselves … that they are going to be immortal and live for all time. … They despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk [(Lucian) Peregrinus 13.]

Celsus is the first critic to call Jesus a magician and charge the Christians with practicing magic. It may be that this view was already adumbrated in Suetonius, who spoke of Christianity as a “new and criminal (maleficus) superstition.” The term maleficus can mean “magical,” and used as a noun it designated a magician. [Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge, 1973), 234; also, Jesus the Magician (New York, 1978), 45-67.] … Celsus is, however, explicit. “It was by magic that he [Jesus] was able to do the miracles which he appeared to have done” (c. Cels. 1.6). Further, he says that “Christians get the power which they seem to possess by pronouncing the names of certain daemons and incantations” (c. Cels. 1.6). (98)

| The practice of magic was a criminal offense in the Roman Empire, and the word magician a term of opprobrium and abuse. (99)

cf. Apuleius, The Golden Ass

Celsus did not dispute that Jesus performed miracles. What he wanted to know was: by whose power was he able to accomplish such wonders? (100)


…his theological criticisms. The first is the Christian claim that God came down from the heavens to live on earth among men. This assertion, says Celsus, “is most shameful and no lengthy argument is required to refute it” (c. Cels. 4.2). … “God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in a most beautiful state. If then he comes down to men, he must undergo a change, a change from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked. … It is the nature only of a mortal being to under-go change and remoulding, whereas it is the nature of an immortal being to remain the same without alteration. Accordingly, God could not be capable of undergoing this change” (c. Cels. 4.14). (102) … In effect, then, Celsus asks: If you truly claim to believe in the same kind of God that we do, how can you assert that God has taken on human form? How can a deity who is by definition immutable undergo change and alteration to live as a human being? (103)

“What is the purpose of such a descent on the part of God? Was it in order to learn what was going on among humans” (c. Cels. 4.2)? … Was he not capable of doing this “by divine power” without such a descent (c. Cels. 4.3)? … “Is it only now after such a long age that God has remembered to judge the human race? Did he not care before” (c. Cels. 4.8)? How can God concern himself only with humans who live at a particular time in history? The Christian view presents an arbitrary and capricious God who acts willfully without regard to what is best for all creatures. Hence Celsus is led to the conclusion that Christians “babble about God impiously and impurely” and it is only people who do not know better who are drawn to Christian beliefs. (c. Cels. 4.10). (103)

A second major criticism is a variant of Galen’s argument against the notion that “all things are possible to God.” Celsus, however, discusses the maxim in connection with the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. (103)

For what sort of body, after being entirely corrupted, could return to its original nature and that same condition which it had before it was dissolved? As they have nothing to say in reply, they escape to a most outrageous refuge by saying that ‘anything is possible to God.’ But, indeed neither can God do what is shameful nor does He desire what is contrary to nature. (c. Cels. 5.14). (104)

Celsus located the theological difficulty of the resurrection in the Christian understanding of God, specifically in God’s relation to the created order. Christians did not have a rational view of the deity. Instead of recognizing that God was subject to the laws of nature and reason, Christians believed in a God who stood completely above and beyond nature and was therefore capable of doing whatever he willed no matter how much it disrupted the order of the world. “As for the flesh, which is full of things which it is not even nice to mention,” says Celsus, “God would neither desire nor be able to make it everlasting contrary to reason. For he himself is the reason of everything that exists; therefore He is not able to do anything contrary to reason, or to his own character” ((c. Cels. 5.14). A God who is contrary to reason is not a fit object of devotion. (104)

A third major criticism was also leveled at the Christian view of God, specifically, the consequences of the worship of Jesus for the idea that God is one. If the Christians “worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have had a valid argument against others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who ap-(104)peared recently, and yet think it does not offend God if they also worship his servant” (c. Cels. 8.12). (105)

In principle, then, Celsus had no objection to the elevation of a man, even Jesus, to divine status. But was Jesus really deserving of such honor? Were Christians justified in ranking Jesus with such men as Heracles, Asclepius, or Orpheus? Some of the other men Christians (and Jews) revered were more deserving than Jesus. “A far more suitable person for you than Jesus would have been Jonah with his gourd, or Daniel who escaped from wild beasts, or those of whom stories yet more incredible than these are told” (c. Cels. 7.53). Jesus was a low-grade magician, not a great hero like the men of old. (105)

But Christians make Jesus almost equal to God, “not because they are paying very great reverence to God but because they are exalting Jesus (105) excessively” (c. Cels. 8.14). (106)

Christians threatened the hard-won view that there was only one God, a conviction shared by many pagan intellectuals in the early empire, and which was thought to be distinctly superior to the polytheism and anthropomorphism of popular religion. (106)

God being one yet has many names, being called after all the various conditions which he himself inaugurates. We call him Zen and Zeus, using the two names in the same sense. … He is called the son of Kronos and of Time. … He is the God of Lightning and Thunder. … Moreover, after the fruits he is called the Fruitful of God, after cities the City-God; he is God of Birth, God of the house-court, God of kindred and God of our fathers. … He is…in very truth the Savior and God of Freedom, and to complete the tale of his titles, God of heavens, and of the world below, deriving his names from all natural phenomena and conditions, inasmuch as he is himself the cause of all things.” [Ps. – Aristotle, De mundo, 401a]

So Christian worship of Jesus setup a rival God whose followers created an independent and factious group within the body politic. (108)


Celsus was the first critic of Christianity to give careful attention to the figure of Jesus. (108) … He realized, as earlier observers had not, that his attack on Christianity would be ineffective if he dwelt only on Christian behavior or doctrine. Christian assertions about the truth of their way of life rested finally on the credibility of their claims concerning Jesus. (109)

According to Celsus, it was Jesus himself who “fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin” (c. Cels. 1.28). Jesus had come from a Jewish village where he had been born of a “poor country woman who earned her living by spinning.” This woman became pregnant by another man, a soldier named Panthera, and “was driven out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, since she was convicted of adultery” (c. Cels. 1.32). While she was wandering about in disgrace she secretly gave birth to Jesus. When Jesus grew up he went to Egypt, and because he was poor, hired himself out as a workman and “there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of the powers, and on account of them gave himself the title Son of God” (c. Cels. 1.28). (109)

How many others produce wonders like this to convince simple hearers whom they exploit by deceit? They say that Zalmoxis, the slave of Pythagoras, also did this among the Scythians, and Pythagoras himself in Italy, and Rhampsinitus in Egypt. The last-named played dice with Demeter in Hades and returned bearing a gift form her, a golden napkin. Moreover, they say that Orpheus did this among the Odrysians, and Protesilaus in Thessaly, and Heracles at Taenarum, and Theseus. But we must examine this question whether anyone who really died ever rose again with the same body. Or do you think that the stories of these others really are the legends which they appear to be, and yet that the ending of your tragedy is to be regarded as noble and convincing–his cry from the cross when he expired, and the earthquake and the darkness? While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who say this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress the others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a chance for other beggars. [2.55]

Celsus’s concern with historical verification, like other points discussed in this chapter, helps one understand not only the nature of the conflict between Christianity and pagan intellectuals, but also gives us insight into the developing character of the Christian tradition. (112)


Anyone who knew anything about Christianity knew that the movement had begun in Palestine among the Jews and that Christians appealed to Jewish writings, specifically the Jewish Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). But not until Celsus had a pagan critic seen the significance of the relation between Christianity and Judaism for criticizing the Christian movement. Some people knew that “Christians and Jews quarrel with each other” (c. Cels. 3.1), but Celsus’s observations on (112) Christianity and Judaism cut deeper than that. He charged that Christians deserted the Jewish Law even though Jesus, the founder of Christianity, was a Jew and Christians claimed to be faithful to the Jewish heritage. Celsus puts this criticism into the mouth of a Jewish interlocutor. “Why do you [Christians] take your origin from our religion [Judaism], and then, as if you are progressing in knowledge, despise these things, although you cannot name any other origin for your doctrine than our law” (c. Cels. 2.4)? (113)

In many cities in this period, Palestine as well as elsewhere, Jews served on the city councils; some held posts in the Roman provincial administration; and Jews actively participated in the educational, cultural, and economic life of the cities. (114)

| In this milieu, where Christianity was a tiny unknown movement that had only recently originated and was only beginning to come to the attention of people, it perplexed pagans that Christians claimed to be inheritors of the Jewish tradition while at the same time rejecting the Jewish community and its customs and laws. It is obvious that Jews were justified in criticizing Christians for deserting the Jewish tradition yet claiming to be faithful to Jewish origins. In his Dialogue with Trypho, a debate between a Christian and a Jew, Justin Martyr quotes the Jew Trypho as follows: “But you [Christians] openly despising this covenant, neglect the [laws] which follow from it, and you attempt to persuade yourselves that you know God, even though you perform none of those things that those [Jews] who fear God do” (Dial. 10). (114)

What was wrong with you [Christians] that you left the law of our fathers, and being deluded by that man [Jesus] whom we were addressing just now, were quite ludicrously deceived and have deserted us for another name and another life?” (c. Cels. 2.1).

Celsus also knew that the Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. “Why is he not recognized by people who had been long expecting him?” asks Celsus. … Christians claimed that the facts of Jesus’ life were proclaimed beforehand in the Jewish prophecies, but in fact the “prophecies could be applied to thousands of others far more plausibly than to Jesus” (2.28). (115)

Celsus’s own religious outlook linked the “true teaching” to the “ancient teaching.” If a practice was traditional, Celsus (115) thought it was true and worth perpetuating. (116)

One of Celsus’s chief arguments, then, was that the Christians repudiation of its origin proved the illegitimacy of the new movement. (116)

As long as there were active Jewish communities living alongside the emerging Christian ones, critics such as Celsus could argue that Christianity was patently false because, contrary to its own claims, it had deserted Jew-(116)ish ways. Christians may have claimed to have the correct interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, but on those points which were clearly set forth in the Scriptures–such as circumcision and the keeping of the Sabbath, the festivals, and the food laws–Christians wantonly disregarded the meaning of the very books they claimed as their own. Christian apologists had to deal not only with the philosophical objections of pagans, but with scriptural and historical arguments offered by pagans (and by Jews) that were supported by a rival tradition of interpretation and of practice. In any effort to understand the response of pagan critics to Christianity in the Roman world, the continuing presence of the Jews is a major factor. Christianity’s claimed relation to Judaism was perceived as one of its most vulnerable points. (117)


Christians do more for the good of the empire, [Origen] says, by forming an “army of piety” that prays for the well-being of the emperor and the safety of the empire. (117)

The term revolution or sedition occurs several times in the True Doctrine to describe the Christian movement. As we have already noted, Celsus criticized Christians because they apostasized from Judaism. “A revolt against the [Jewish] community led to the introduction of new ideas.” But in the passage cited above from book 8, Celsus is speaking about a revolt against the institutions of the Greco-Roman world, against the customs and traditions of the cities, against the wisdom which had been handed down for generations by wise men of old. Christians had contempt for these ancient and hallowed ways. (118)

The Christian movement was revolutionary not because it had the men and resources to mount a war against the laws of the Roman empire, but because it created a social group that promoted its own laws and its own patterns of behavior. The life and teachings of Jesus led to the formation of a new community of people called “the church.” Christianity had begun to look like a separate people or nation, but without its own land or traditions to legitimate its unusual customs. (119)

If you taught them [the Christians] that Jesus is not [God’s] Son, but that God is father of all, and that we really ought to worship him alone, they would no longer be willing to listen to you unless you included Jesus as well, who is the author of their sedition. Indeed, when they call him Son of God, it is not because they are paying very great reverence to God, but because they are exalting Jesus greatly.” [c. Cels. 8.14]

Celsus was convinced that if an association of this sort attracted too many adherents it could disrupt the cohesion and stability of society. The Christian movement was beginning to create a “counterculture” that shifted people’s loyalties and drained their energies away from the larger society. (120) … By transgressing the Nomos (structure or law) of Judaism, the tradition from which it sprang, Christianity exposed Hellenism to acute peril. For the revolt against Judaism injected a poison into the society that would eventually destroy the traditions of Hellenism. Christianity “encourages the dissolution of the religious Nomos. The cause of its destructive influence lies finally in its unfaithfulness to that historical inheritance with which the various people have been entrusted in their Nomos.” [Andresen, Logos und Nomos, 223-24.] (121)

Nomos in Celsus’s vocabulary refers tot he accumulated wisdom and practices of a particular culture. (212)

But there was a deeper reason why Celsus appealed to the wisdom of antiquity. Unlike our culture, which seems to thrive on the new and up-to-date, Greco-Roman society revered the past. The older something was, the better it was thought to be. This was especially true in matters of religion, because the men and women of earlier times, especially those who lived very long ago, were thought to have been closer to the gods. (122)

It is not simply a debate between paganism and Christianity, but a debate about a new concept of religion. … The idea of an association of people bound together by a religious allegiance with its own traditions and beliefs, its own history, and its own way of life independent of a par-(124)ticular 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 which one came or in which one lived. (125)

If you overthrow the teaching that there is one king, says Celsus, there is “nothing to prevent the emperor from being abandoned, alone and deserted, while earthly things would come into the power of the most lawless and savage barbarians” (c. Cels. 8.68). (125)


Of all the critics of Christianity in antiquity, Porphyry, the biographer of the great Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus and editor of his enneads, was the most learned and astute. (126)

…we are uncer-(126)tain not only about what he actually wrote, but in what form, and whether he wrote one book or several against the Christian movement. What we do know is that his attack on Christianity made a deep impression on Christians; that it drew on wide learning in history, philosophy, religion, chronography, and literary criticism; and that it subjected both Jewish and Christian Scriptures to thorough and detailed criticism. Augustine, no mean scholar, called him the “most learned of philosophers,” and even Eusebius, himself a polymath, was intimidated by Porphyry. It was hard for Christian intellectuals to be comfortable with an opponent who knew the Bible almost as well as they knew it themselves. (127)

| Celsus wrote at a time when little was known about the Christian movement, when Christianity was a small sect gaining public attention for the first time. By the time Porphyry wrote, in the second half of the third century, Christianity had become a significant force within the Roman Empire. …he sensed that Christianity was here to stay and he sought, within the framework of the religious traditions of the Roman Empire, to find a way of accommodating the new creed. This is why he was so threatening to the Christians of antiquity and is so fascinating to us. (127)

He was a philosopher in his own right trying to preserve the intellectual tradition of Greek antiquity and a religious thinker who sought to reconcile the religious heritage of the Greco-Roman world with philosophical reason. (127)


The date of his birth is uncertain, but it was probably 233 C.E. (128)

Porphyry was to make the Bible more central to his attack on Christianity than any critic before or after him. (130)

In Athens Porphyry studied philosophy, but his chief preoccupation seems to have been philology and literary criticism. (131)

In a later work, however, De Antro Nympharum (Cave of the Nymphs) Porphyry showed that he was quite familiar with the tradition of allegorical interpretation. (131)

cf. Against the ChristiansPhilosophy from Oracles

The Philosophy from Oracles is not a work on Christianity as such, but a positive statement of the traditional religion of the Roman world. Porphyry presents an elaborate discussion of the theology of the various ancient peoples–Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chaldeans, even the Hebrews–to show that these ancient beliefs were similar to the philosophical religion accepted by many educated people in the third century. He does this by showing that the “oracles” of the traditional religions could be used as a source for belief in the One Supreme Being. His strategy was to provide a way to incorporate Christianity, which also claimed to believe in the one high God, into the religious framework of the Roman world. (136)

| In the discussion of Porphyry’s attack on Christianity which fol-(136)lows, I will draw both on the fragments that may come from the work usually known as Against the Christians as well as from his Philosophy from Oracles. (137)


…except for two fragments dealing with the historical problem of the date of Moses (the question is whether the Hebrew religion was older than other religions), all of the extant fragments from Porphyry’s criticism of the Jewish Scriptures deal with the Book of Daniel. (137)

Porphyry responded directly to this new development by arguing that Daniel could not be read as a prophecy of the future, as (137) Christians were inclined to interpret it, but as a history of events in the author’s own time. What Porphyry wrote about Daniel was so revolutionary, and so disturbing to Christian interpreters, that his critics sought to refute him in detail and at length. “The position of the neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry in this debate has been remarkable. Centuries before the advent of modern biblical criticism, Porphyry already knew that the book of Daniel was  Maccabean pseudepigraph.” [Casey, 15.] (138)

The Book of Daniel was seen as a fertile source of prophecies about the coming of Christ and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a topic which assumed a major role in early Christian views of history,… From the beginning of the Christian movement the appeal to prophecy was used to legitimate Christian claims about Jesus to Jews. (139)

But lest someone should argue against us, ‘What excludes the supposition that this person whom you call Christ was a man, of human origin, and did these miracles you speak of by magic arts, and so appeared to be Gods’ son?’ We will bring forward our demonstration. We do not trust in mere hearsay, but are forced to believe those who prophesied before [the events] happened, because we actually see things that have happened and are happening as was predicted’ [Justin Martyr] (Apol. 1.30). (139)

Porphyry wrote his twelfth book against the prophecy of Daniel, denying that it was composed by the person to whom it is ascribed in its title, bu rather by some individual living in Judaea at the time of Antiochus who was surnamed Epiphanes. He furthermore alleged that Daniel did not foretell the future so much as he related the past, and lastly that whatever he spoke of up till the time of Antiochus contained authentic history, whereas anything he may have conjectured beyond that point was false, inasmuch as he would not have foreknown the future. [Jerome] (141)

The issue was whether the author spoke as a prophet (from the perspective of the sixth century) or whether he was writing history. (141)

Because Porphyry saw that all these things had been fulfilled and could not deny that they had taken place, he overcame this evidence of historical accuracy by taking refuge in this evasion, contending that whatever is foretold concerning Antichrist at the end of the world was actually fulfilled in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, because of certain similarities to things which took place at this time” (Jerome, prologue, Comm. in Danielem).


Porphyry’s Against the Christians must have included a major section on the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament. We are, however, poorly informed about this aspect of Porphyry’s criticism, because Christian writers who do report pagan criticism of the New Testament seldom mention Porphyry as their source. It has been assumed,…that the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes, a fourth-century Christian apologist, was based on material drawn from Porphyry’s work, but there is no way of being certain of this. … Augustine’s On the Harmony of the Gospels (De consensu Evangelistarium). When this work is compared with the few presumably genuine fragments we do possess (not from Macarius), we can gain at least a general impression of Porphyry’s approach to the New Testament. (144)

Chief among their objections was that the Evangelists were “not in harmony with each other.” (144)

One of the reasons, says Augustine, that pagan critics subjected the Gospels to examination was to show that the disciples had fabricated the stories about Jesus and

claimed more for their master than he really was; so much more indeed that they even called him the son of God, and the word of God, by whom all things were made, and affirmed that he and God are one. And in the same way they [pagan critics] dispose of all other kindred passages in the epistles of the apostles, in the light of which we have been taught that he is to be worshipped as one God with the Father. For they are of the opinion that he is certainly to be honored as the wisest of men; but they deny that he is to be worshipped as God. [De cons. 1.11] (145)

Porphyry observed that the Gospel of Mark cited a verse from Malachi and assigned it to Isaiah (Mark 1:2; Frg. 9). In another place (Matt. 13:35), Porphyry pointed out that Matthew attributes to Isaiah a passage which in fact came from Psalm 77 (Frag. 10).

[via: Mark 1:2 reads “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” The underlined part is from Malachi 3:1, and the rest is from Isaiah 40:3. Matthew 13:35 reads, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundations of the world.'” The reference is to Psalm 78:2 (אפתחה במשל פי אביעה חעדות מנע-קדם), and Matthew does not say “Isaiah.”]

The Apocriticus of Marcarius Magnes enumerates many other criticisms, especially of Paul, whose choleric outbursts and paradoxical language, inconsistency, and irrationality were offensive to a man like Porphyry, but there is no way we can say with certainty that these criticisms originated with him. (147)

It is, I think, important for understanding pagan criticism of Christianity in antiquity, as well as the development of Christian apologetics, to emphasize that historical and literary criticism of the Scriptures played a part in the conflict between Hellenism and Christianity. [On the importance of the historical argument in Porphyry’s criticism of Christianity, see V. den Boer, “A Pagan historian and His enemies: Porphyry against the Christians,” Classical Philology 69 (1974): 198-208.] … If Christians were to make claims about the person and work of Jesus, they could not be based on faith or on the community’s own memory and self-understanding; they had to be substantiated by an appeal to the same critieria used in establishing any document as reliable or any event as historical. The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world. (147)


…he also wrote another book, the Philosophy from Oracles, … (148)

…a book about the worship of the gods. … To the ancients, however, there were many different forms of divinity, and, as observed in the previous chapter, sophisticated thinkers such as Porphyry or Celsus believed that though there was one supreme God this did not prevent people from believing in other lesser gods. The term divine designated a category of being stretching from the one high God down through the Olympian gods, the visible gods (e.g., the stars), the daimones, and finally to heroes or deified men. The supreme God presided over a company of gods. (148)

[via: Hence אלהים?]

| Each type of god required a different form of worship. To the one supreme God only spiritual worship of the mind and heart was thought appropriate, whereas to other gods it was proper to bring sacrifices. (149) … In his work On Abstinence from Animal Food, in which Porphyry defends vegetarianism, he outlines the different types of worship suitable to the various deities. “The first God is incorporeal, immoveable, and invisible and is in need of nothing external to himself.” Hence, to this god “who is above all things, one sacrifices neither with incense, nor dedicates anything sensible to him. … Neither is vocal language nor internal speech adapted to the highest god … but we should venerate him in profound silence with a pure soul, and with pure conceptions about him” (Abst. 2.37, 34). To his “progeny,” however, “hymns, recited orally, are to be offered.” To other gods, like the stars, sacrifices of inanimate objects are fitting, whereas to lower gods, religious observances and other sacrifices should be offered. The daimones, for example, love the smell of burning flesh (Abst. 2.42). (149)

| The various categories o the divine are not firmly fixed. It is possible for certain deities to ascend or descend in the hierarchy of divinity. This can be seen particularly in the case of heroes, for heroes were once outstanding men who in the course of time were elevated to divine status because of the character o their lives or the wondrous works they performed. (149)

Porphyry placed Jesus in book 3 among the heroes, as a human being, a sage who had been elevated to divinity after his death. (151)

For over a century, since the time when the Apologists first began to offer a reasoned and philosophical presentation of Christianity to pagan intellectuals, Christian thinkers had claimed that they worshipped the same God honored by the Greeks and Romans, in other words, the deity adored by other reasonable men and women. Indeed, Christians adopted precisely the same langauge to describe God as did pagan intellectuals. The Christian apologist Theophilus of Antioch, described God as “ineffable … inexpressible … uncontainable … incomprehensible … inconceivable … incomparable … unteachable … immutable … inexpressible … without beginning because he was uncreated, immutable because he is immortal” (Ad Autol. 1.3-4). This view, that God was an immaterial, timeless, and impassible divine being, who is known through the mind alone, became a keystone of Christian apologetics, for it served to establish a decisive link to the Greek spiritual and intellectual tradition. As late as the fifth century, in Augustine’s City of God and Theodoret of Cyrus’s apology, The Curing of Greek Maladies, apologists continued to argue that Christians and pagans worshipped the same supreme being. Porphyry’s strategy was to sever the link between Christianity and Hellenism by showing that Christians had abandoned worship of this God in favor of the worship of Christ. (151)

To summarize Porphyry’s argument: There is one God whom all men worship, and Jesus, like other pious men, worshipped this God and taught others to venerate him. By his teaching Jesus directed men’s attention to the one God, but his disciples fell into error and taught men to worship Jesus. “Thus Hecate said that he (Jesus) was a most devout man, and that his soul, like the souls of the other devout men, was endowed after death with the immortality it deserved; and that Christians in their ignorance worship this soul” (Civ. Dei 19.23). (153)

Why pagans should honor Christ can be seen from some of their philosophers–for example, Porphyry–who “consulted their gods to discover what they should respond about Christ and were compelled by their own oracles to praise him” (De cons. 1.15.23). 9153)

| These same pagan philosophers, continues Augustine, criticize the disciples of Jesus because, in abandoning the teaching of Jesus they apostasized from the traditional worship and advocated the “destruction of temples, the ceasing of animal sacrifice, and the shattering of idols.” Jesus cannot be blamed for the refusal of Christians to worship the gods, for the disciples “taught something different from what he taught” (De cons. 1.16.24). They began a revolutionary movement whose teaching was contrary to what they had learned from Christ, (153) and Christianity as it has been known and practiced since then is not the religion inaugurated by Jesus but a new system of beliefs initiated by his disciples. The new religion focuses on Jesus, whereas the religion of Jesus centered on the supreme God of all. Porphyry’s criticism has a curiously modern ring to it. (154)

On the basis of Augustine’s writings, Porphyry’s discussion of Christianity in the Philosophy from Oracles included the following: (1) praise for Jesus as a good and pious man who ranks among the other sages or divine men, for example, Pythagoras or Heracles, venerated by the Greeks and Romans; (2) criticism of the disciples, and of those who follow their teaching, because they misrepresented Jesus and inaugurated a new form of worship; (3) defense of the worship of the one high God; (4) praise of the Jews for worshipping this one God. (154)

| Besides Augustine, two other Latin apologists, Arnobius and Lactantius, both of whom wrote early int he fourth century (i.e., shortly after Porphyry), give us further information about Porphyry’s treatment of Christianity in the Philosophy from Oracles. In his Adversus Nationes written in 311 C.E., Arnobius says that he is at a loss to explain why the pagans attack and the gods are hostile to the Christians. “We have,” he writes, “one common religion with you and join with you in worshipping the one true God. To which the pagans reply: ‘The gods are hostile to you because you maintain taht a man, born of a human being … was God and you believe that he still exists and you worship him in daily prayers'” (Adv. Nat. 1.36). (154)

cf. Divine Institutions, Lactantius, 303 C.E.; Evangelical Preparation, Eusebius.

In a long passage in the first book of the Evangelical Preparation, Eusebius summarized the argument against the Christians, and this passage has been thought to derive from Porphyry, who is not named but is identified as “one of the Greeks.” Porphyry, according to Eusebius’s summary, wrote: (155)

How can men not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostasized from the customs of our fathers, through which every nation and city is sustained? What good can reasonably be hoped for from those who stand as enemies and warriors against their benefactors? What else are they than fighters against God? What types of pardon will they be worthy of who have turned away from those recognized as Gods from the earliest times among all Greeks and Barbarians, both in cities and in the country, with all types of sacrifices, and mysteries and initiations by all, kings and lawgivers and philosophers, and have rather chosen what is impious and atheistic among men … ? They ahve not adhered to the God who is honored among the Jews … but cut out form themselves a new way. … [Praep. Evang. 1.2.1-4]


cf. Maximin Daia (310-13 C.E.), one of the last persecutors of the Christians. (156)

We are fortunate to possess a copy of a petition addressed to the emperor by a number of cities in Asia Minor, as well as Maximin’s response to one sent by the city of Tyre. … The petition from Lycia and Pamphylia (provinces in southwestern Asia Minor) was discovered on a marble stele in 1892 in the village of Aruf (ancient Arykanda in Lycia) and can be seen today in the National Museum in Istanbul. It reads in part: (157)

To the masters of every nation and people, the emperors and Caesars Galerius Valerius Maximinus and Valerius Licinianus Licnius, from the nation of the Lycians and Pamphylians, a petition and supplication. Since the gods your kinsmen have demonstrated to all their love of mankind, oh most divine kings, who are concerned with worship of them on behalf of the eternal security of yourselves, we considered it would be well to take refuge with your eternal majesty and make petition that the Christians, long suffering from madness, and even now maintaining the same disease, should at length be made to cease and not give offense by some ill-omened new cult to the worship due to the gods.

In his response to this petition the emperor acknowledged that the world is “governed and kept secure by the benevolent providence of the immortal gods,” and he thanked the city for its petition, which shows what sort of “devotion and piety (theosebeia) you displayed toward the immortal gods.” He described Christians as those who “persist in that accursed folly” and encouraged the citizens to worship “Jupiter the best and greatest, the guardian of your most glorious city.” Those who persist in the folly of shunning the traditional worship are to be “driven from your city … so that it may be purged of all contamination and impiety (asebeia) and in pursuit of its set purpose may with due reverence give itself to the regular worship of the immortal (157) gods.” (158)

Porphyry issued his great challenge to the Christians just as the emperors were seeking one more time to halt the advance of the Christian movement through persecution. The issue between pagans and Christians centered on what Eusebius called “political theology”–that is, the religious and theological beliefs that are integral to the life of a people or a city. Pagans bring this charge against us, writes Eusebius, that we do not honor the divinities of the cities and we are thought guilty of “the greatest impiety in taking no account of such manifest and beneficent powers, but rather openly break the laws, which require that each venerate the ancestral customs and not disturb what is inviolable, and do not follow in the footsteps of the piety (eusebeia) of the forefathers and are meddlesome through a love o innovation.” (158)


Precisely at the time Prophyry was writing his book, Christian leaders were on the verge of a major dispute about the status of Christ. … To place


Like Galen and Celsius, Porphyry charged Christians with promulgating and “unreasoning faith” (Eusebius, Praep. Evang. 1.3.1). (161)

cf. Didymus the Blind, a fourth-century Christian exegete from Alexandria.

If Christ says he is the way, the grace, and the truth, and claims that only in himself can believing souls find a way to God, what did the people who lived in the many centuries before Christ do…? What became of the innumerable souls, who can in no way be faulted, if he in whom they were supposed to believe had not yet appeared among humankind? … Why did he who is called the Savior hide himself for so many ages?

It is arrogant for Christians to think that only since the coming of Christ have men and women had access to God. Realizing that Christians answered this objection by appealing to the antiquity of Jewish tradition, he says

Let them not say that the human race was saved by the ancient Jewish law, since the Jewish law appeared and flourished in a small part of Syria, a long time after [the ancient cults in Italy], and only later made its way into the Italian lands, after the rain of Gaius Caesar, or probably during his reign. What, then, became of the source of Romans or Latins who were deprived of the grace of Christ which had not yet come until the time of the Caesars? [Augustine, Ep. 102.8]


His one-time friend, Gregory Nazianzus, poet, rhetor, and Christian Bishop, composed two bitter invectives against him. “Here you nation, tribes, tongues,” begins the first,

Every kind of man from every age, as many as now are and as many as shall be … every power of heaven. Hear you angels, whose deed was the putting down of the tyrant, you have not overthrown Sihon, king of the Amorites, nor Og, king of Bashan–insignificant princess injuring but a small part of the land of Israel, but the dragon, the apostate, the great mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him who has madly raged and threatened much upon the earth, and has proclaimed such unrighteousness against heaven. [Or. 4.1]

..Libanius, teacher of both Gregory and Julian, in a lament over Julian, matches Gregory’s excesses with his own hyperbole, not to vilify but to mourn his passing.

Alas, great indeed is the grief that has beset, not just the land of Acadia, but the whole empire, where the laws of Rome hold sway. It is perhaps the greater in that part where the Greeks live … but the blow that smote and harrowed our souls with the thought that life is a mockery for the good man, who wants to lead a good life, has … smitten the whole length and breadth of the world. Gone is the glory of the good; the company of the wicked and the licentious is uplifted. [Or. 17.1-2]

Nevertheless, it came as a shock to Christians when the young son of Julius Constantius, half brother of Constantine, who had been raised as a Christian and served as lector in the church, became emperor, disowned the Christian tradition, and fervently embraced the gods of Greece and Rome. (165)

| Julian, however, was not content simply to return to the old religion and tolerate the innovations of the Christians. He initiated a (165) frontal attack on the Christian movement, using the law to restrict Christian influence and the power and prestige of his office to promote the practice of the traditional pagan rites. Julian was also a man of letters and a philosopher. (166)

cf. Against the GalileansContra Julianum, Cyril (412-44 C.E.)


Julian was born in 331 C.E. the son of Julius Constantius, half brother of Constantine, and Basilina, a wealthy woman from Bithynia. … the death of Constantin in 337 C.E. Constantine’s three sons came to power, Constantius, Constans, and Constantine II. (166)

Theurgy is the belief that the divine can be approached through “magical” acts, the use of salves and ointments, herbs and roots. It is not “thinking” that links men with the gods, said Iamblichus; union is attained “by the efficacy of the unspeakable acts performed in the appropriate manner, acts which are beyond all comprehension, and by the potency of the unutterable symbols which are comprehended only by the gods. … Without intellectual effort on our part these tokens accomplish their proper work by their own virtue” (Myst. 2.11). (167)

One of Cavafy’s poems captures (with some Christian editorializing) Julian’s fascination with the strange rites and his apprehension, at this time in his life, in the presence of the pagan gods. (168

But when he found himself in darkness
in the earth’s awful depths,
with a group of unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes of light,
the young Julian for a moment lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks glanced at each other.
The young man said: “Did you see the miracle?
I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make the holy sign of the cross?”
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
“Shame on you, Shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt.”
This is what they said to him, and the fool
recovered from his holy, blessed fear,
convinced by the unholy words of the Greeks.

Julian dates his conversion to this period in his life. He was twenty years old. The philosopher Maximus of Ephesus was instrumental in leading Julian away from Christianity to the ancient gods of Greece and Rome. “Upon your arrival in Ionia,” Libanius later wrote to Julian, “you beheld a man wise both in repute and in reality [Maximus], heard of the gods who fashioned and maintain this whole universe, gazed upon the beauty of philosophy and tasted of its sweetest springs. Then you quickly cats off your error and, lionlike, burst your bonds, released yourself from darkness, and grasped truth instead of ignorance, the real instead of the false, our old gods instead of this recent intruder, and his baneful rites” (Or. 13.12). (169)

With the elimination of the Christian Augustus (Constantius) Julian felt that the gods had rewarded his long years of secret piety and devotion. Just as he had given up shaving and stripped away the pretence of respect toward Constantius, so now he stripped away the pretence of being a Christian. The deferential Christian Caesar vanished, and in his place stood the pagan Augustus. [Glenn Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (Cambridge, 1978), 61.]


…he might rightly be called the first “convert” to paganism. (171)

Little more than six months after he became sole emperor Julian issued the following rescript:

Schoolmasters and teachers should excel in morality, in the first place, and second, in eloquence. But since I cannot be present myself in each city, I order that whoever wishes to teach should not rush hastily or uncircumspectly into this profession, but should be approved by the judgment of the council and obtain a decree of the curials, by common agreement and consent of the best men. For this decree will be referred to me to deal with, so that they may take up their posts in the city schools with my approval as a kind of higher commendation. [Text of Julian’s rescript can be found in Codex Theodosianus 13.3.5.]

What is new in this law is that teachers are to be evaluated not only on their competence in language and literature (“eloquence”) but also on their “character.” …that they should believe in the specific religious and moral values that were transmitted through Greek literature. (173)

Even the historian Ammianus Marcellinus called the law “inhumane” and said it “ought to be buried in eternal silence” (22.10.7). It became evident several months later that Christians were not mistaken in their feeling that the edict was directed against them. Julian writes: (174)

I do not on this account call on them [ teachers] to change their beliefs. I give them rather the choice either not to teach what they do not believe, or if they do teach, to do so honestly, and not to praise the ancients while condemning their religious beliefs. Since they live by their writings, it would be an admission that they will do anything for a few drachmae. Hitherto there were many reasons for not going to the temples, and secrecy about one’s beliefs was excusable. But now that the gods have granted us freedom it seems to me absurd for men to teach what they disapprove. If they are real interpreters of the ancient classics, let them first imitate the ancients’ piety towards the gods. If they think the classics wrong in this respect, then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the church. [Ep. 36].

For two centuries Christian intellectuals have been forging a link between Christianity and the classical tradition, and with one swift stroke Julian sought to sever that link. (175)


Through the work entitled Against the Galilaenas included three books, the fragments preserved in Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Iulianum, our chief source, contain material only from the first book. Cyril’s rebuttal was composed ca. 440 C.E. (ie.e, approximately eighty years after Against the Galilaeans was written, and long after Julian’s death). Furthermore, by the time Cyril wrote, the Roman Empire had become officially Christian (380 C.E.). It would seem that by that time pagan critics would have been silenced. Yet it must be recalled that it was not until 448 C.E. that the works of Porphyry were burned by the Christian emperor Theodosius II. (177)

| Julian’s work made a deep impression on Christians, and it was still being read in the middle of the fifth century. In the preface to his Against Julian, Cyril says that among all the “foes” of Christ Julian was especially to be feared because “before he became emperor he was numbered among the believers; he was worthy of holy Baptism, and he was trained in the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, he knew Christianity from the inside and was able to meet Christian apologists on their own terms. He was, says Cyril, also “naturally gifted in rhetoric,” not an insignificant gift in an age when rhetorical skill was an indispensable asset in religious controversy. (177)


That the human race possesses its knowledge of God by nature and not from teaching is proved to us first by all the universal yearning for the divine that is in all men whether private persons or communities, whether considered as individuals or as races. For all of us, without being taught, have attained to a belief in some sort of divinity, though it is not easy for all men to know the precise truth about it, nor is it possible for those who do know it to tell it to all men [52b]

The reason for introducing such an argument in the work against the Christians is to expose the foolish idea that this one God revealed himself in a specific historical revelation. With respect to the Jews, Julian singles out their (180) concept of election as the most offensive idea. “Moses says that the creator of the universe chose the Hebrew nation, that to that nation alone did he pay heed and cared for it, and he gives him charge of it alone. But how and by what sort of gods the other nations are governed he has not said a word” (100a). … “Jesus the Nazarene, yes and Paul also, who surpassed all the magicians and charlatans of every place and every time, assert that he is the God of Israel alone and of Judaea, and that the Jews are his chosen people” (100a). (181)

Julian,…asks why is Judaea “the only land that he chose to take thought for?” (141c) …Julian asks why God sent prophets to the Jews, “but to us no prophet, no oil of anointing, no teacher, no herald to announce his love for man which should one day, though late, reach even unto us also? … If he is the God of all of us alike, and the creator of all, why did he neglect us?” (106d). (181)

What Julian opposed to Christianity and Judaism was a sophisticated idea of God that he learned from his Platonic teachers. The true God is a spiritual being who is Lord of all and is known by all. “All humankind, without being taught, have come to believe in some sort of divinity” (52b). (181)

What kind of God is it, he asks, who would create men and women without the knowledge of good and evil? How can a good God create human beings without given them wisdom, the capacity to be able to discriminate between good and evil? If one takes the story at its face value, it is the serpent who should be praised, for it was the serpent who taught men and women moral responsibility. The Hebrew myth teaches the strange doctrine that “the serpent was a benefactor rather than a destroyer of the human race,” for the serpent helped humans to become responsible agents (93d). But if this is what the myth teaches, it is clear that the Hebrew Scriptures are “filled with many blasphemous sayings about God. In the first place to be ignorant that she who was created as a helpmeet would be the cause of the fall; secondly to refuse the knowledge of good and evil, which knowledge alone seems to give coherence to the mind of man; and lastly to be jealous lest man should take of the tree of life and from immortal become mortal–this is to be exceedingly grudging and envious” (94z). (182)

The Scriptures explicitly record God as saying, “I am a jealous God.” What kind of God can this be? (182)

If a man is jealous and envious you think him blameworthy, whereas if God is called jealous do you think it a divine quality? (155c)

…he pokes fun at the Christians because Moses did not say anything on the topic, implying that the Spirit must have been generated; if he had been ungenerated (divine) Moses would surely have said so. (183)

| It is curious, says Julian, that Christians, who claim to have such a spiritual religion, rely on an account of creation that has nothing to say about spiritual entities. “According to Moses, God is the creator of nothin that is incorporeal, but is only the disposer of matter that already existed. For the words, ‘and the earth was invisible and without (183) form’ can only mean that he regards the wet and dry substance as the original matter and that he introduces God as the disposer of this matter.” (184).


Julian singles out apostasy from Judaism as the most vulnerable point of Christianity. …his attack on Christianity was supported by a conspicuous historical gesture, and one that could only have been made by an emperor: the plan to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. More than anything else, this action set Julian apart from other critics and elicited the ire of later Christians. “May his very memory be a curse! Amen!” wrote the medieval chronicler Micahel the Syrian. (185)

What would be the impact of Christain appeals on history if the Temple were no longer in ruins and the Jews not only returned to the city but once again offered sacrifices in their Temple? Here lies the germ of Julian’s idea to rebuild the Temple. Earlier critics had disputed Christian claims by showing in such (188) matters as the observance of the Law, that Christianity had apostasized from Judaism. Julian now gave new force to these arguments by announcing that he would rebuild the Temple. What greater proof could there be that Christianity was false and that the Jews, not the Christians, were the rightful inheritors of the ancient tradition of Israel? His predecessors had had only literary or philosophical arguments to cast against the Christians. But why should he rely solely on words? He was the Roman emperor. Why talk about history when he could make history? (189)

Why not enlist the Jews as allies in the effort to restore traditional worship to the cities of the Roman Empire? (189)

Restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem would not only cast doubt (189) on Christian claims to be the true Israel as well as strengthen Julian’s program of religious reform; it would also provide additional proof that Jesus was not divine. For if the Temple were rebuilt, Jesus’ prophecy that “no stone will be left standing on another” would be proven false. (190)

Julian was well aware that Christians justified their departure from Jewish tradition by appealing to Jewish prophets. So he proceeded to demonstrate that Christians misunderstood the prophets and could not vindicate their new ways by such an appeal. (190)

Julian’s interpretation of biblical prophecy laid the groundwork for his central argument: Christians, without any warrant from the Scriptures, had instituted a new law and deserted the Law of the Jews. The Jews “have precise laws concerning religious worship” and these are still observed today. Christians do not observe the laws of Moses; indeed, they take pride in having abolished the Law. (192)

Another example of Christian transgression of the Law was the neglect of the practice of circumcision. (192)

The Achilles’ heel of the Christian tradition was its relation to Judaism. The truth of Christianity seemed to require the demise of Judaism. For if Judaism was still a living religion, an alternative to Christianity and the ancient Jewish tradition was still observed by Jews, and the Jewish Scriptures were still read and studied in Jewish communities, Christians could not claim to be the rightful inheritor of the patrimony of Israel and Jesus was not the Messiah whom the Jews had awaited. Even though Julian’s program to rebuild the Temple was unsuccessful, it was the final, and most brilliant, stroke in the ancient conflict between paganism and Christianity. (195)

In the end, pagan criticism of Christianity based its case not simply on an appeal to the intellectual tradition of classical antiquity but on Judaism. From the beginning pagan critics had sensed that the relation of Christianity to Judaism was an essential aspect of the new religion, but how vulnerable Christianity really was did not become apparent until Christians were faced with a critic who knew the Christian religion from the inside. (196)


Adolf von Harnack once wrote that Porphyry’s Against the Christians was “perhaps the most extensive and thoroughgoing treatise that has ever been written against Christianity. … It is not too much to say that the controversy between religious philosophy and Christianity lies in the very position in which Porphyry placed it. Even today Porphyry remains unanswered.” [Adolf von Harnack. The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (London, 1908), 1: 505.] Augustine in his time and many scholars in ours would no doubt agree. But it might equally well be argued that the emperor Julian offered as compelling a case against the Christian religion as did Porphyry. “None of our teachers is capable of rebutting or refuting his works,” wrote Cyril of Alexandria, his fifth-century opponent. (197)

Yet the tradition of pagan criticism of Christianity, especially as it was formulated by its most articulate thinkers, can be fully appreciated only if the Jews, who lived alongside pagans and Christians in the great cities of the Roman Empire, are included as part of the setting. (198)

My intention has been to understand the attitudes of the ancient Romans towards Christianity in the period when the Christian religion assumed its classical form and to learn from them something about the life and values of the ancient world, as well as about Christianity. In their efforts to understand and evaluate the new religion, pagan critics tell us much about themselves, how they viewed God, the practice of religion, nature, society, history, reason, faith, tradition, and the virtuous life. They also singled out some of the more distinctive characteristics of Christianity: belief in a historical revelation taht occurred at a particular place and time; adoration of Jesus, a human being, as divine; belief in a free and transcendent God who created the world by an act of will; a reluctance, at least initially, to relate the new faith to the public life of society and the political realm. One critic has hinted that the reason Christianity succeeded in making its way within the Roman world was due less to what Christians believed than to the way they lived. (198)

Yet it should be noted that during the almost three hundred years when the critics were most vocal, they did not speak in a vacuum. There was a genuine dialogue, not simply an outpouring of abuse. The credit goes as much to the Christians as to the pagans. (199)

Although Christianity had initiated a new way of life whose origins were in events that had taken place in Palestine in the first century, Christian apologists believed that the Christian way had significance for all people. If it were to be intelligible it had to be set forth in the universal language of reason. (199)

But on balance pagan intellectuals knew what they were talking about and understood the new religion remarkably well. That is why the books of these polemicists are worth reading today. They also performed an enormous service to the developing Christian tradition. They helped Christian thinkers to see the difficulties of the positions they adopted, to grasp the implications of Christian belief earlier than would have been possible if they had talked only among themselves–in short, to understand the very tradition they were defending. 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 a powerful factor in setting Christian thought on a sound course. Christian theology took shape in dialogue and discussion with alternative points of view. (200)

The very persistence of a dialogue between pagans and Christians over the course of three centuries is, I think, the best refutation of this view. Christians and pagans met each other on the same turf. No one can read Celsus’s True Doctrine and Origen’s Contra Celsum and come away with the impression that Celsus, a pagan philosopher, appealed to reason and argument, whereas Origen based his case on faith and (200) authority. One of the things pagans resented most was that Christian thinkers had adopted Greek ideas and methods of thinking to expound Christian teaching. Porphyry said Origen “played the Greek,” and Celsus complained that Christians had adopted the technique of allegory, an achievement of Greek reason, to interpret the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. (201)

| Indeed, one might legitimately argue that the debate between paganism and Christianity in antiquity was at bottom a conflict between two religious visions. (201)

Pagan critics saw in Christianity a privatizing of religion, a penchant to relegate it to the lives of individuals and the “voluntary” associations that Christians organized in the cities of the Roman world. (202)

I think it significant that the ancient debate between paganism and Christianity also had as one of its themes the historical character of Christian revelation. Early on, outsiders began to realize that Christians did not simply look to Jesus as the teacher and founder of their movement but saw in him the unique revelation of God. (202) … The new religion seemed to say that reason could no longer be confined to the abstract and logical processes of thinking or appeals to the evidence of nature. It had to embrace the events of history, in particular the history of Jesus. (203)

Perhaps this is the one large conclusion to be drawn from the study of pagan criticism of Christianity. Christianity became the kind of religion it did because it had critics like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. They helped Christians to find their authentic voice, and without them Christianity would have been the poorer. Christians encountered the traditions of the ancient world not simply as an intellectual legacy from the past, not only in the education they received, but as part of a vital interaction through the vigorous criticism of pagan intellectuals. (205)

| When one observes how much Christians shared with their critics, and how much they learned from them, it is tempting to say that Hellenism laid out the path for Christian thinkers. In fact, one might convincingly argue the reverse. Christianity set a new agenda for philosophers. [See, for example, Stephen Gersh, From Iamblichus to Eriugena (Leiden, 1978).] The distinctive traits of the new religion and the tenacity of Christian apologists in defending their faith opened up new horizons for Greco-Roman culture and breathed new life into the spiritual and intellectual traditions of the ancient world. (205)

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