What do I think of Wilken’s book on how Romans viewed the Christians? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Wilken’s book has been seen as a classic in the field on investigating what were the opinions of the Romans on the Christians that goes from Pliny all the way to Julian the Apostate.
As one goes through the book, they see that over time, attitudes change as the Roman Empire has to get used to the growing Christian church. For Pliny and Tacitus, it was just this bizarre little group and hopefully it will go away before too long. For Celsus, it was a threat to true religion that needed to be dealt with. For Porphyry, it was here to stay, but let’s try and make it fit into the Roman system.
Let’s start with Pliny. Pliny saw the Christians as people who were practicing a bizarre superstition. In fact, it was hard for him to know what Christians really did believe as all manner of rumors were told about them, such as that the Lord’s Supper was a meal of cannibals and that regular orgies went on at their “love feasts.”
Pliny made it a point to sentence any Christian who was brought to him, but he also did not go out seeking out the Christians. There was not much study done of them directly and they were seen by people like Pliny as a burial society that would make sure the deceased in the group were given proper honors when they died.
This goes on to people like Tacitus and others. A recurring theme that shows up is that the Christian religion was new and as new, it was viewed with suspicion. Picture the crowd you see at a Baptist church saying “We’ve never done it that way before!” The people who the ancients saw as the ancients were deemed to be the closest to the gods. The best way to live was to follow their pattern. If you went against that, you would bring about the wrath of the gods. New beliefs were looked at with suspicion.
As time passes on, we get to Galen, a physician who actually saw the new movement as a philosophy. It was clear also he had read some of the writings of the Jews and the Christians as he referred to Moses and Christ and what they taught. He did not accept what they taught, but Galen was someone who was never married to any one philosophical school but studied them all. At this point, Christianity is starting to come more into its own and starting to interact more with the academics of the day.
Once we get to Celsus, we have the first real argument against the Christians that we know of. What’s most fascinating when we get to these critics is that the objections they raised are still around today. Ever hear the claim that the Gospels are just hearsay? It was around back then and it was being investigated back then. Ever hear the claim that Christians are people who don’t think and just believe on blind faith? Celsus himself raised that charge. He claimed that it was the foolish people who believe this stuff but the Christians grow quiet when the scholars come around. There was even raised the question about “What about those people who came before Jesus or who never hear about Jesus?” Yes. There is nothing new under the sun. These people were answered back then and they must be again every generation.
Porphyry takes another stance. In fact, he was seen as the most dangerous critic from a purely intellectual perspective and was still being answered centuries later. He had heard Origen’s answers to Celsus and he was not convinced. He began his own writing and he was the most learned critic of them all.
Porphyry could have been said to know the Bible as well as his opponents. He raised objections about the dating of the book of Daniel and questions about consistencies in the Biblical record. If that was all that he had said, he would not have been seen as the most dangerous critic of all. Once again, those questions were debated and addressed back in the day.
What made him most dangerous was his challenge that Jesus should be accepted but as another wise man who was just divinized over time. (Bart Ehrman has not produced a new idea at all.) Jesus had taught the Kingdom of God and the worship of God and his apostles came and changed it into a message about Jesus.
Because of this, worship was being changed from the worship of the true God to the worship of Jesus. It’s not a shock that within a century of Porphyry’s death the Arian controversy broke out. Porphyry put Christians in a puzzle as he did highly praise Jesus and esteem Him, but He said Christians were getting it wrong by worshiping Jesus.
The last one looked at is Julian the Apostate. He became emperor with people thinking he was a Christian, only to find out that no, he wasn’t, and he decided to use his power as emperor to try to restore paganism. His main aspect get at was that of Christianity and Judaism. How could Christianity claim a connection to Judaism when it cut itself off from Judaism?
Interestingly, for the Christians of the past, the destruction of the temple was seen as a way of saying that God was done with the Jewish system. As long as the temple was in the state of destruction, then God was certainly out of covenant with the Jews. This was seen as evidence He had moved to the Christians.
This is particularly interesting since Julian decided he would rebuild the temple and lo and behold, he died shortly after that and the project was abandoned and never finished. It would be interesting to see what he and the Christians would think of so many modern dispensationalists who see it as their duty to help rebuild a temple in Jerusalem.
Despite this, Julian’s objections are still around. They have also still been answered. Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it. The sad reality is that too many skeptics think they are finding new objections that have not been answered when they have been, and too many Christians are doubting severely and sometimes abandoning the faith not knowing the answers they need might have already been given centuries ago.
Wilken’s book is an amazing read to learn how Christians were viewed by those on the outside. It’s worth noting as well how many arguments were not made. It was never claimed Jesus never even existed. It wasn’t even claimed that Jesus never did miracles. These are seen as main arguments today, but they weren’t in the time of the first critics of Christianity.
I encourage people to get this book and read it.