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Book Review: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

by mrzee

 In his book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Robert Louis Wilken assesses the criticisms towards Christianity by looking at the faith through the point of view of five pagan critics. The critics, Celsus, Pliny, Porphyry, Julian and Galen, all perceived Christianity as being a threat to the Roman empire’s religious and social order (Wilken, 2003). Wilken himself does not write as an adversary or apologist of Christianity, but a charitable historian towards the faith who seeks to make clear how Christianity developed by understanding its critics. Since the book is not written in a strictly academic setting, it is easily comprehensible by most readers as it has quoted and summarized significant sources of history. This aspect has made the book a useful reading to those interested in history as well as Christians who seek an insight into the controversies that have shaped their coming into being, doctrines, theology and the church. The writer has drawn from widely known Christian and pagan sources to offer readers an enlightening account of the way Romans perceived Christianity before it was established as their empire’s religion. This paper will present a review of the 238-page book, which was published in 2003. 

Book Review: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

            The book offers an absorbing depiction of the Christian movement of the early era from Roman’s point of view and an understanding of human thought. In the introductory chapter, Wilken points out that his intention is to put Roman history and early Christianity into a closer conjunction than has been offered by previous literature. As a Christian scholar, he believes the most effective way to achieve that is by studying the thoughts of pagan critics and giving clarifications from Christian sources. One of the critics, Porphyry, who was also a literary scholar and philosopher, viciously attacks the Christian perspective of a book in the bible (Daniel). He also passes harsh judgment on the Christian practice of worshipping both God and Jesus as though they were equals. A reader gets an early impression that all criticism that targets Christianity is usually contextual. Wilken’s subject, which is predominantly on apologetics of the apostolic era, teaches that although modern criticism may not be new, the context is considerably different. As Porphyry opines, Jesus did not deem himself as divine at any one time, and the fact that early Christians are the ones who made him divine is not a new concept. He emphasizes that not many Jews are not in acceptance of the divinity of Jesus, with only a small number being in Christianity.

            Through Wilken’s portrayal of Galen, one of the critics and a philosopher and physician of the second century, a reader understands that Christians achieved considerable learning from their critics. Galen expounds on the contradiction of the story of creation in Genesis with that of the concept held by the Greeks. He acknowledges the works of Christian scholars like Justin Martyr who pointed out the parallels between Christianity and Plato, both of which defined a divine being through which the world was created. However, Galen also stresses that Plato defined a divine being that brought the world into being from matter that already existed, and that is where the conflict with the details of creation by God as described in Genesis lies. In Genesis, Christians are told God created the world out of nothing, which is termed as ex nihilo, as opposed to Plato’s view that is termed as ex materia. The book presents Galen to readers as a person who viewed Christianity as a philosophy that was second rated and incorporated admirable attributes mainly based on deceptive reasoning. His ideas are shown to have drawn anger from Christian apologists, who preached the faith as bearing significance to all people and conform to universal notions. Wilken shows how Galen, together with the other critics, may be at war with their own paganism, because dedicating their writings to fight Christian notions could only mean that they take the concepts of Christian scholars seriously. In that context, the book successfully passes the message of how Christians of early ages represented Christian thinking in a manner that bore enough impact to make pagans think of them seriously.  

            Another of the critics, a second-century Roman named Celsus, strongly opposed the biblical story of the dead ever rising again in the same body. Wilken’s account of Celsus paints him in the light of one who fiercely disapproved Christianity, terming its followers as dreamers, wishful thinkers and a hallucinating lot deluded by sorcery. According to Celsus, the entire bible is only a fantastic tale aiming to impress people. He does not believe in the idea of a person not helping himself in life and allows himself to be killed and rise after three days. Being the first pagan that studied and researched Christianity deeply, Celsus challenged Christians to justify their thoughts that he called lunatic ideas. Wilken shows Celsus as a person who believes the only achievement of Christianity was cutting the ties that traditionally existed between the nation and religion. According to him, ancient people did not understand that religion was linked in an insoluble manner to particular people or cities.

            Through the book, Wilken manages to use the thoughts of the critics to show that most of the apologetic challenges faced by Christians over the years are not new. He describes how they existed in the initial centuries of the existence of the church. This angle gives the book its historical perspectives as it develops its narrative on the church’s challenges and extensive discussions about religion. It is interesting to see how the book portrays the Romans as people who regarded themselves as being a very religious nation even when their religion was mostly similar to the civil religion of Rousseau. Their line of thought was that they were not secular and irreligious people who were being forced upon by the growing Christianity. Rather, they viewed Christianity as interfering with their devout as well as being a threat to the purity and peace of their traditions and religion. Wilken shows how apologetics have always been oriented against irreligion and unbelief issues as they seek to persuade atheists of the being of God, who is the God of Christians. He then points out how the Romans frustrated Christians by considering them as the atheists and harmful.

            Towards the end of the book, Wilken uses a lot of repetition as he attempts to weave the different interpretations from critics. Although he overdoes it, it serves the purpose of making readers understand his point as he does not digress from his subject. Readers can draw the commonality shared by contemporary apologists with skeptical, non-believing critics of nearly two millennia ago. The two groups both seek the truth. Wilken portrays apologists as seemingly antagonistic on one level because of engaging in debates that strive to persuade their critics of their (apologists) truth. On the other hand, Wilken also portrays them as partners in the quest for truth with their critics, an initiative that not many people can productively engage in. Wilken has successfully shown how the two groups, by their acts of searching for the truth together by engaging in debates, may have a better understanding of their own positions and see the imperfections of others in a better perspective. The reader feels that it is through the skeptics that Christian apologists have managed to grow and progress in wisdom from what started in a very different form from what the church today is known as. Although the book may seem to be one-sided, it offers a basic understanding of early Christianity in a simple language flow that demonstrates how theology is shaped to oppose error. It even makes it clear that development may be enhanced by the presence of tension between antagonists and another group.

  • Wilken, R. L. (2003). The Christians as the Romans saw them. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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