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. Porphyry, a philosopher and literary scholar, demolishes the Christian view of the Book of Daniel and criticizes the Christian worship of Jesus on an equal footing with God. Julian takes criticism of Christianity much further, first by banning Christians from traditional Greek and Latin schools and an attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The idea of rebuilding the temple was an attempt to isolate Christians who believed that they were the legitimate successors to the Jewish traditions. By reconstructing the Temple, the Jews would be restored to their traditional role as defined in the Old Testament, relegating Christians to their rightful place: apostates of Judaism. The Temple project failed when Julian died on campaign in Persia and Christian emperors once again assumed power.
This is an excellent book that inspires the reader to pursue further reading on this fascinating topic. What is most relevant is that the same questions we ask about Christianity today have been around for almost two thousand years. This is recommended reading for Roman buffs and Christian scholars alike.
on April 13, 2002
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.
on July 25, 2004
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.
Wilken gives an engaging study of the hostile world into which Christianity was born, and in which it matured. This book does little to explain the miracle of how Christianity survived and thrived in the face of such opposition, but that is not its purpose. It admirably achieves its purpose of describing that hostile world.
on March 20, 2011
This book isn't quite Christians as the Romans saw them, but more so Christians as five different Roman critics (or anti-Christians) saw them. Four of the five individuals mentioned had written arguments against Christianity and forced the earliest of apologetics. This book definitely changed my view of the religious environment of the early Romans. One of the interesting things to me is that by the 3rd and 4th century Romans mostly were Henotheist (meaning there is one supreme god, Jupiter/Zeus and the other deities are lesser ones), and one of the big complaints is that Christians were worshiping a man Jesus and even elevating him to the same position as the one supreme God. Often times the Christians were called Atheists since they would no longer participate in any religious events. To me its interesting how many complaints from back there are still somewhat being discussed today. For example why did God wait until the 1st century to send his son to save mankind, what happens to the multitude of people before then. The fact that Christianity claimed to be a continuation of Judaism yet no longer practiced their customs. One person mentioned the gullibility of Christians and one now days only needs to turn on TBN to see the same thing is still taking place.
One of the saddest things to me though, is the fact that this book had to be compiled from surviving Christian documents which quoted the critics because the original documents were likely burned. For someone like me who loves history, its sad to know that so many early critics and non canonical writings were burned when Christianity took over for the Roman empire.
One of the more neglected aspects of early Church history is the view of the Church from the Roman pagan point of view. Accounts of the rise of Christianity within pagan Roman culture often wrongly portray traditional Roman religion as in an advance state of decay and incapable of countering the religious vigor of its new opponent. Such accounts, based on the Roman pagan culture's lack of what constitutes evidence of religious commitment within a culture steeped in two millennia of Christian belief, fails to recognize the Greco-Roman perspective on religion had an entirely different outlook on the purpose of religion than the Christian culture that would follow and the lack of the normative indicators of religious fervor that would hold in the latter does not indicate a lack of commitment on the part of adherents to the former.
One book that definitely avoids this fallacy (and others) is Robert Louis Wilken's The Chrisitians as the Romans Saw Them. Wilken's purpose is to outline the Roman critiques of Christianity from the perspective of the greatest apologists for traditional Roman religion and culture and thus to get a clear picture of the views that the Christian apologists were countering. The book is designed to be one of a two book study with the latter book to give the Chrisitan response within the context of the Roman critiques (Note: Wilken would publish the latter volume as The Spirit of Early Christian Thought).
Beginning with the early rise of the Christian faith within the empire, Wilken demostrates how the reaction from prominent Roman citizens evolved from rumors of "cannibalism" and "deicide" to an intellectually challenging critique of an alternate worldview from the established Roman norm. Rather than a decaying belief system, the pagan challenge to the Christian faith was vigorous and powerful. Based not on an outmoded mythological system but profound philosophical inquiry that looked to the pantheon of gods as a civil norm while acknowledging the existence of a supreme deity above all the lesser local and tribal gods, the critiques of men like Galen, Celsus, Porphyroy, and the emperor Julian the Apostate gave the Christian apologists all they could handle. The commonly held opinion that the Romans' faith in their native beliefs were in precipitous decline not only greatly undervalues the strength of the Roman way of life but also serves to downplay the strength of the Christian hope in the face of a powerful established belief system.
The opinion within much of the Church that the Romans were crass polytheists without any redeeming beliefs until the rise of Christianity is completely undermined by Wilken's analysis. It is precisely because they had redeeming values that the Church was able to utilize much of the best of classical thought in defense of the truth of the Christian faith. The greater virutes of a just society seen in Rome demostrated the existence of the "natural law" written in men's hearts and these virtues could recieve their proper end when placed in the service of Christ.
Roman criticism were based on many factors: the "absurdity" of the New Testament accounts, the exclusivity of Christian claims (with one critic castigating Christains by stating "We too are a religious people"), the equating of Christ with a supreme deity, and the break of Christianity with its Jewish roots. The latter served in the eyes of Romans with conservative Roman inclinations to undermine the Chrisitans as interlopers usurping the position of their more established forebearers. With still strong Jewish communities still established within most Roman cities, there were pointed questions about the abandonment of Jewish traditions. The presence of Judaism as a factor in pagan/Christian debates is an often overlooked element within the historical equation.
Wilken has written a marvelous exposition outlining the strenghts of Roman society that in some aspects set a high bar for the Church to equal. In The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, he has cleared much of the misinformation surrounding the rise of Christianity and the subsequent diaplacement of classical culture. In so doing, the air is cleared of the many misconceptions regarding the tranistion from a pagan to a Christian society and a basis given for the use of the appropriate intellectual achievements of classical culture within the emerging Chrisitan tradition. For those interested in the development of the patristic synthesis, Wilken's work is irreplacable.
on January 24, 1997
Something that often seems to be forgotten in studies of the history and development of Christianity is that, in its early years, its adherents were a significant minority. Wilken explores this subject from a point of view that we do not often see: the Roman contemporaries of the early Christians.
It's an impressive group of observers that Wilken has assembled, too, from Pliny to Julian the Apostate. From their perspective, we can witness the evolution of Christianity in the eyes of outsiders, from a minor cult whose practitioners were accused of bizarre practices to a social movement that came to be taken seriously by some of the period's greatest pagan intellectuals. Definitely a fascinating read
on June 20, 2011
I found this book by asking the question, "Why did Christianity become popular?". This book is both a great read and a real eye opener. The author tries to give the view of Christianity in the first couple of centuries from the perspective of the people who lived around the Christians. The source non-Christians included Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. The book speaks to a nice level, not pop-reading but not academic either while at the same time providing meaningful references so that one can validate the author's claims if one wants to. It is an easy read. One very meaningful part of the book was the information it provided on the religious beliefs and practices of the average Roman citizen that were not Christians and the role religion played in Roman society. In addition to presenting the writings of the previously mentioned Roman writers the author shows that one of the main objections to Christianity by their contemporaries was that they did not participate in the community. He proposes that to the Romans religion was about one's connection to the community and its stability. This is very similar to the current themes in the U.S. that connect Christian values to the American founding principles and the security of the family and the government.
This book is a great read and a must for anyone looking to better understand the forces behind the growth and spread of Christianity in the first few centuries CE.
on November 8, 2011
The thesis of this book is that an understanding of early Christianity depends on an understanding of the pagan views on Christians. He points out that many books on early Christianity offer little or no information about pagan beliefs and simply accept the Christian statements of them without question. Later Christian theologians presented a very specific view of pagan beliefs. Augustine stated that the Romans of old never believed in their gods but simply viewed them as a good method for keeping order and maintaining the strength of society. His efforts to prove this resulted in him rewriting the early history of Rome into a story of continual disaster, thus not only emphasizing their powerlessness but also solidifying his idea that their sole purpose was social control and `protection.' Since he describes the gods not as figments of man's imagination but as demons working to deceive man any statements he makes are unlikely to provide the proper perspective. Anyone basing their ideas off his is likely to end up viewing the pagan religion as phony and thus the success of Christianity inevitable. Even aside from the question of bias this leaves many readers with the impression that Christian doctrines were created out of nothing and ignores the interaction between the development of early Christian beliefs and the pagan beliefs that they abandoned or adapted. The Christian faith incorporated many features from pagan society into a new and unique religion. Many Platonist ideas were adapted to fit their god into the idea of a Christian god. Mithraism influenced Christian origin myths with the concept of a virgin birth, shepherds offering gifts, and even the date of Christmas. This is what makes his presentation of pagan beliefs so important. It is necessary to see what they believe in order to understand the filters they wore when perceiving Christianity. There are many books written on pagan religion but few on pagan conceptions of Christians which means that this book is important for those who have read n. He includes an excellent quote about how the Romans "were able to feel emotionally excited about the traditional stories of the gods, even when, with the rational side of their minds, they would dismiss them as fictions." There was an essential contradiction that went unresolved ever since men began questioning the actual
The idea that Pliny's persecution of Christians was brought to his attention by butchers who were upset at having their meat unsold due to the Christian lack of sacrifices is interesting. That has to be just about the worst of all possible reasons to begin a religious persecution. Admittedly this was only what brought the Christians to Pliny's attention, but it really goes to show how important the economic factors were to the Roman religion. Generally religions are not thought of economically but the religious activities themselves must have had a very important benefit to the Roman economy. When one thinks of the finances of Roman religion they usually think of how the cults were funded, who paid for the sacrifices, the value of offerings, etc. In other words money going in, not going out. Since modern society is used to churches being paid for by donations from all members while temples did not even have a regular, weekly congregation these questions are often the most important. Nonetheless construction, maintenance, sacrifices, and offerings must all have provided the local communities with work. The other striking thing about the section on Pliny is his reasoning behind the punishment of Christians. He felt that even if the Christians were guilty of no crime they still deserved punishment for their "stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy," in refusing to obey his order to renounce their faith. Pliny is generally considered to be an ethical man by Roman standards which just shows how easy it was to earn a death sentence under the Empire. Having read Emperors and Gladiators it is easily brought to mind what form their execution would take and how gruesome it would be. It brings home how important the Romans considered it to obey authority figures without question. For him the question was not whether their actions were illegal but whether they were questioning his authority to order them to desist.
The social nature of pagan religion is a very important point that Wilken makes. Worship was often a very public affair in which piety was made visible through public displays. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this fact in early Pagan-Christian interactions. Frequent mention is given to their antisocial nature and hatred of humanity. Christians were viewed as being antisocial because they did not participate in the public cults as their fellow men did. This meant that no matter how they behaved in other ways they were always going to be outcasts socially. To the Romans being an active member in society was at the core of what it meant to be civilized. The social pressure to conform must have been as enormous as the political pressure. To voluntarily cut oneself off from major aspects of Roman society was a sign of a social sickness.
His section on philosophy corrects a great many perceptions that people are likely to make. By the second century the different philosophical schools were more similar to modern religions with their creeds, traditions, and modes of dress than the philosophers who founded them. Becoming a philosopher in a certain school meant adopting the creed of that group wholeheartedly rather than reasoning it out for oneself. By the fourth century the religious angle was to become even more obvious with Neoplatonism and the theurgists who combined religious experiences with philosophy. That said the comparison of philosophers to priests can be taken too far. There were still philosophers making advances in the sciences. Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, Hypatia, Sextus Empiricus, and of course Galen were amongst these. Many of these men were, like Galen, eclectic in their adoption of philosophic ideas. Being a philosopher did not require one to be dogmatic. If the nature of the colleges encouraged it it did not force it.
The main advantage to this book is the way it is constructed. By dedicating each chapter to the views of a specific thinker Wilken is able to demonstrate how Romans felt about the Christians without falling victim to the danger of overgeneralizing. Some of his contemporary sources actually contradict each other and represent two different views that were prevalent at that time. In a book that was not divided in this way such views would blur into one as the author attempted to make the views match. This book is very hard to put down and is never dry. By focusing on the individuals it provides an interesting look at these people and their personalities as well as their religious beliefs. It makes fro a very enjoyable read.
on November 18, 2005
This fine volume explores the delayed, and often bewildered, response from the powerful Roman pagans of the first few centuries of the Common Era to the strange group of stand-offish cultists known to them as "Christians."
In the first decades of the 2nd century, Roman government official Pliny struggled to understand and deal with the Christian problem in Asia Minor. His correspondence with the emporer Trajan is a fascinating account from an outsider with regard to what the Romans of the day considered a "political club." Eventually, Pliny and Trajan decided upon a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regard to the "foreign cultists."
Dr. Wilken goes on to observe that to many Romans, the 2nd century Christians were a sort of "burial club," with unique rituals surrounding the handling of their dead. These same pagans were themselves religious people (a fact often overlooked by Christians from all ages), and from time to time had to remind the Christians of that fact.
Another aspect of the difficult Christians had with established, pagan Roman society stems from the inextricable nature of politics and religion in pagan Rome. A civic function was likely to involve sacrifices to the local pagan gods. A person who failed to participate in such state actions, therefore, might be called an "atheist" (as Christians were so called).
The pagan philosopher Galen (last part of 2nd century CE) informed himself about Christianity and saw it as a competing philosophy. (About this time, St. Justin Martyr similarly described his Christian beliefs.) Galen was the first informed critic to attack specific perceived weaknesses in Christianity: How could God create everything from nothing? He rejected Christianity as unprovable and requiring too much faith.
Next, Celsus (about 170 CE) was even better informed about Christian claims. He was also clever and sarcastic. In fact, Christians spent generations refuting the issues he brought up. Celsus called Jesus a "magician" (similar to Jewish claims probably from the same time period preserved in the Talmudic writings), and wondered how shameful Christian claims that God could come to earth could possibly be taken seriously. Why did God wait until just recently to send his son? Did he not love people before? If the Christians have one God, why do they also worship his son? Celsus concluded that Christians were merely a sect in apostasy from the more ancient Judaism. These and other criticism kept Christians from later generations (such as Origen) busy.
The great (neo)Platonic philosopher, Porphory (3rd century) went to battle Christianity for the minds and hearts of his civilization. By his time Christianity had grown into a major religious and philosophical force, and Porphory went to work. Christians were responding to him into the 5th century! Porphory had been aquainted with Origen and probably knew Christian sacred writings fairly well as evidenced by his criticims of the Book of Daniel with regard to history vs. prophecy, and the authorship of books attributed to Moses. In fact, Porphory subjected Christian sacred writings to an early form of historical criticism and required Christians to re-examine those books. But Porphory also found the Christian unwillingness to participate in the traditional politico-religious life of his beloved civilization offensive and dangerous to society.
The book ends with Julian "the apostate" (late 4th century) and the last view of Christianity - now a powerful force - through devout pagan eyes. Raised a Christian, Julian became a devout, religious pagan. A convert to the ancient gods of classical culture, he attempted a short-lived program to restore them, but died after less than two years as emperor. But his attacks from Christian scripture against Christianity were intended to prove that Jesus was merely a man, and his criticisms of sacrifices disstinct from those of his pagan heritage were designed to show that they were false.
For all students of early Christian history, this is a great look at the early Churches and the early Church from the outside, through fresh eyes.
on August 29, 2013
Dr. Wilken wrote a very interesting book and I really enjoyed it very much. At the beginning of the book he states that he is going to present pagan criticism of Christianity without presenting the Christian defense. And it is what he does in his book. I have learned a lot by reading it. I would like to make some comments concerning clubs/societies/associations in the Roman Empire.
According to Dr. Wilken, during the reign of Trajan, Christians were viewed as a burial or religious club/association. Perhaps, however one must not forget that there were many differences between such societies and the church and those differences were noticed by many in the Empire. For example:
- according to the cited in the book ancient sources, there was an entrance fee for those desiring to join clubs and associations: in one case it was 100 sesterces (25 denarii) and in the other 50 denarii.
Considering the fact that a hired man was paid 1 denarius a day, it is certain that the poorest (and they were many in the Empire) would not be able to join such a society because they simply could not afford it. They led so called hand-to-mouth lives so paying 50 day wages to join a club was out of the question.
On the contrary, there was no entrance fee in the church which attracted many poor to it.
Secondly, as far as I know (I may be wrong. And if I am please someone correct me. Thank you!)women were not accepted by clubs/societies. Church had no problem with that and many ladies joined it.
For all those who would like to see the other side of the coin I'd recommend Rodney Stark's book, Cities of God.
Thanks for reading.