The Christians as the Romans Saw Them - Robert Louis Wilken

Book Review by Ursus

"The place to study early Christian thought is with its critics," according to Robert Louis Wilken, professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. "Christianity became the religion it did, at least in part, because of critics like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian." The modern Western world, with rising levels of both secularism and religious diversity, moves slowly out under the shadow cast down by centuries of Christian influence. Judeo-Christian conservatives decry the trend and fight ever so assiduously to retain their status as the establishment. It is therefore educational and perhaps wickedly entertaining to study a time when Christians were counter-culture activists themselves arrayed against a hostile establishment. Wilken presents a highly readable account of Roman views on the upstart Gallilean cult.

The main critics of Christianity were Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry and the emperor Julian. Wilken devotes a chapter to each of these men and expertly elucidates their arguments. Each of the individuals took a different approach to Christianity relative to their own background. Pliny, Trajan's governor in an eastern province, viewed the cult primarily as a political nuisance. Galen the doctor viewed the Judeo-Christian god as operating outside all laws of natue as understand by the Greco-Roman tradition. Celsus, the first true intellectual to attack Christianity, saw the cult as an apostasy of Judaism. Porphyry the philosopher derided Christianity as an unreasoning faith. Finally, Wilken describes Julian as the "first pagan convert in history." From his position as emperor he launched a frontal attack on Christianity that might have proved victorious were it not for his untimely death.

Two lesser chapters deal with what Greco-Roman society as a whole, rather than particular individuals, made of Christianity. One chapter deals with Christianity as a private club. Throughout the Greco-Roman world there were a variety of socio-religious groups forged by men of common professional and religious interests, and which funded for their members' decent burials. Christianity was first seen in this light, and viewed with the same suspicion that greeted other shadowy societies. The other chapter provides an overview of normative Greco-Roman religion and what it meant to its followers. The Greeks and the Romans both prided themselves as religious peoples, though by and large theirs was a public faith connected with the civic life of the state. Christianity made such exclusive claims that in the establishment's view it completely severed individuals from the civic life of the city-state as they understood it.

There are a few main pagan critiques of Christianity that were iterated time and again. All pagans who were educated enough to understand the difference between Judaism and Christianity claimed the latter was an illicit offshoot of the former, as Christianity did not in any way adhere to the laws of Moses. Christianity when compared to Judaism was merely an upstart foreign superstition; Emperor Julian attempted to rebuild the Jewish temple to underscore the point. Pagans also denied the divinity of Jesus. Christ was either a wise sage or a scheming magician depending on the critic, but not the only son of the indivisible Jewish deity. Furthermore, its god violated the laws of nature as defined by Plato and Aristotle. Finally, all pagan critics of an intellectual leaning saw Christianity as a blind faith that appealed to cheap emotion.

The early Church fathers were forced to respond to the criticism, and in so doing helped define their faith. The pagan denial of Christ's divinity was something shared by certain "heretical" Christian sects which the early church councils were convened to address. The dialectic of Christianity versus Greco-Roman culture was resolved only when the former absorbed the latter. As part of their response to attacks from pagan intellectuals, educated Christians began explaining Christianity in terms of Greco-Roman philosophy and culture. What had once been a counter-cultural religion thus became increasingly consonant with classical civilization, and under Constantine and his successors would finally replace the pagan establishment with its own.

Wilken's book is well researched. Very well written, it is easily understood by the layman. Missing from the book are the usual photographs and color plates of individuals and places from Antiquity - not even a bust of Julian is present. A chronology of people and events might have been useful as well. These are minor points, however, and I otherwise found this work very enjoyable and illuminating.

As an epilogue to this review, I'd like to relay an anecdote Wilken shares in his introduction. The book having been translated into Japanese, the author inquired how it was selling in Japan. Very well, it turns out: Japanese hostile to the spread of Christianity in their native culture were combing the book for ammunition! Surely Julian and company would find that the highest compliment to their legacy.

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Book Review of The Christians as the Romans Saw Them - Related Topic: Early Christianity


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