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The Christians as the Romans Saw Them Paperback – April 10, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"A fascinating ... account of early Christian thought. ... Readable and exciting."

"Should fascinate any reader with an interest in the history of human thought."

"The pioneering study in English of Roman impressions of Christians during the first four centuries A.D."

"A fascinating . . . account of early Christian thought. . . . Readable and exciting."

About the Author

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His previous books include "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them "and" The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought, "both available in paperback from Yale University Press.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 238 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 2 edition (April 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300098391
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300098396
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #259,088 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Robert Wilken takes a somewhat slightly different tack with this book of Roman history. He examines Christianity in the Roman Empire by looking at it through the eyes of pagan critics. Wilken states in his introduction that his goal in this book is to bring Roman history into closer conjunction with early Christianity. He argues that by studying the context of pagan critics, one can understand how the early Church shaped its theology and doctrines.
Wilken examines five pagan critics, starting with Pliny the Younger's letters to the emperor Trajan circa 112 C.E. Galen, Celsus, Porphyry and the Roman emperor Julian round out the cast of characters. As the accounts unfold, the development of Christianity can be seen clearly: from a small, almost unknown sect in Pliny's day to the powerful apparatus it became by the time Julian launched his reactionary attacks in the late 4th century. The attacks on Christians become more theological as time progresses, showing an increasing sophistication as knowledge about Christianity became better known. Pliny mentioned the Christians in passing, one event among many in his role as a provincial governor. By the time of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian, whole books are being written to refute Christian ideas.
Wilken points out that Pliny's concerns with the Christians mirror his function as a politician. With Galen, a concern for philosophical schools is reflected in his attack on Christianity, namely the creation doctrine and how it compares with the Greek conception of creation as Plato defined it in his work, Timaeus. Celsus attacks Christianity on several fronts, most importantly that Christianity is an apostasy from Judaism and that Jesus was a magician.
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Format: Paperback
I see I'm hardly in the minority rating this book five stars; as much as I like to be different, there IS no other rating this one can deserve. Wilken makes his subject, which is rather esoteric, accessible and interesting -- I would call it absolutely fascinating -- to the lay reader. I read this book with virtually no prior knowledge of the very early history of the Christian Church, and it quickly became the catalyst for a million new paths of thought and things to research.
Wilken divides the book into sections, each headed with the name of a well-known and influential pagan critic of Christianity. There are four sections -- Pliny, Celsus, Porphyry, Julian (the Apostate)-- plus 2 chapters not focused on a particular critic. They are chronological, and each builds upon the revelations of those before it. This format makes the book wonderfully easy to follow.
My only criticism of Wilken is that he tends to repeat himself (it gets worse toward the end, when he is tying together the various critics interpretations), but I think he does it on purpose, to make sure the reader will understand the point. All in all, the reiteration does not detract from the pleasure of reading the book, and it DOES impress important points in your mind as you read.
THE CHRISTIANS AS THE ROMANS SAW THEM presents a fresh view of Christianity (one that began as very different from the Church of today) in a relatively short, clearly and even humorously written, well-researched volume that is surprisingly difficult to put down. Based solely on this book, I intend to read Wilken's other work soon.
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Format: Paperback
Imperial Rome didn't like clubs. They almost invariably got themselves involved in politics and stirred up trouble. You had to have the Emperor's permission to form a club. When the Roman governor Pliny the Younger got complaints about an outlaw political club calling themselves Christians, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan seeking guidance as to how to deal with them.

When Pliny found that they were engaged in nothing more sinister than worship and instruction in right living, he wanted to be as kind as possible. He told Trajan he had decided not to condemn anyone on the basis of rumor and not to put anyone to death who renounced Christianity. Trajan approved.

Pliny's perspective is the first of five 'outside looking in' perspectives of ancient Christianity presented in this book. The physician Galen, the philosophers Celsus and Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian the Apostate also wrote about this upstart religion, and it is instructive to see how Roman attitudes changed over the years.

Galen thought of Christianity as a second-rate philosophy which had many admirable characteristics, but was ultimately based on fallacious reasoning. Celsus, the first pagan thinker to study Christianity in depth, took Christians to task for what he saw as all sorts of lunatic ideas. Porphyry penned what is probably the most incisive critique of Christianity ever written. Julian attacked Christianity with the fervor characteristic of many former Christians. He not only sought to discredit it with literature, he sought to destroy it with legislation. Interestingly, one of the laws with which Julian sought to undermine Christianity dealt with public education. Apparently Julian didn't like prayer in schools any more than the modern Supreme Court.
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