Greco-Roman Understanding of Christianity

Authored by: Paul Hartog

The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought

Print publication date:  December  2009
Online publication date:  December  2009

Print ISBN: 9780415442251
eBook ISBN: 9780203864517
Adobe ISBN: 9781135193430




How did early Christianity appear to pagan observers within its Greco-Roman cultural context? Such a question underscores the difference between “insider” and “outsider” perspectives. As Robert Wilken notes, “The Christians ‘read’ themselves quite differently than their contemporaries ‘read’ them.” On the one hand, “insider” texts “present the life of Jesus and the beginning of the church as the turning point of history.” On the other hand, “outsider” texts view “the Christian communities as small, peculiar, anti-social, irreligious sects, drawing their adherents from the lower strata of society.”1

 Add to shortlist  Cite

Greco-Roman Understanding of Christianity

How did early Christianity appear to pagan observers within its Greco-Roman cultural context? Such a question underscores the difference between “insider” and “outsider” perspectives. As Robert Wilken notes, “The Christians ‘read’ themselves quite differently than their contemporaries ‘read’ them.” On the one hand, “insider” texts “present the life of Jesus and the beginning of the church as the turning point of history.” On the other hand, “outsider” texts view “the Christian communities as small, peculiar, anti-social, irreligious sects, drawing their adherents from the lower strata of society.”1

This present essay will trace the literature written by “outsiders,” individuals loyal to Greco-Roman society and its ideology that directly engaged and challenged Christianity in the second and third centuries. Such a task is not without its difficulties. The pagan perceptions of Christianity that survive are often found in offhand references or fragmentary sources. Many of them are extant only because they were “quoted (selectively) and paraphrased (tendentiously) by Christian authors.”2 Moreover, both Christianity and pagan philosophy were “moving targets,” since both “were in continuous change and development throughout the period.”3

Furthermore, most of these pagan materials are found in literature addressed to upper-class readers. Thus one senses that a certain “social prejudice” frequently characterizes the polemics.4 On the other hand, one should not assume that a “hard-and-fast” boundary fell between intellectual critics and popular perceptions. Sometimes the cultural elite adapted the simplistic prejudices of their social milieu, and at other times they shaped popular opinion. As a Christian apologist, Justin Martyr felt compelled to insist that judgment be given only “after an exact and searching enquiry, not moved by prejudice or by a wish to please superstitious people, nor by irrational impulse or long prevalent rumors.”5

Before the Decian suppression of Christianity, persecutions were usually prompted by popular opposition.6 Christian sources recognized this role of public opinion, and they frequently decried the role of the famae, the rumores, and the suspiciones.7 The acta martyria often highlight the decisive role played by hostile crowds. Popular opposition linked with official persecution, due to the wide latitude permitted to the provincial governors in sentences extra ordinem, as well as the function of delatores in the Roman legal system.8 The cases (below) of Marcus Cornelius Fronto and Sossianus Hierocles demonstrate that such popular opposition could be aggravated by those deemed to be intellectual elites. During this period the “outsider” views embodied in intellectual critiques, state policies, and popular prejudices were inseparably intertwined.

One should not assume that these “outsider” perspectives are irrelevant to the study of early Christianity as it “really” was or came to be. Wilken explains, “For the attitudes of outsiders not only defined the world Christians inhabited; they were also a factor in making Christianity what it eventually became. What is said critically by pagans in one generation will be mirrored positively by Christians in the next.”9 Christian apologists often felt compelled to define themselves in a manner that responded to an agenda set by “outsiders.”10 Pagan critiques served as dams that altered the flow of Christian development, thereby changing the terrain of Christian self-identity. For example, pagan opposition caused second-century apologists to portray Christianity as a philosophy comparable to other philosophical schools. “There is no doubt,” comments Marta Sordi, “that the apologists’ decision to present Christianity in these terms was also dictated by the historical situation of the times.”11 Pagan and Christian apologists participated in an intergenerational chess match that spread from Justin Martyr to Celsus to Origen to Porphyry. In turn, Porphyry’s polemic provoked rejoinders from a wide company of Christian defenders.12 This ideological debate never checkmated the progress of Christian apologetics, but it did change the defensive strategy.13

Furthermore, early Christian doctrines frequently developed in direct response to pagan critiques, and (in turn) the classical tradition was transformed by Christian influence.14 For example, philosophical criticisms sometimes prompted the further integration of Platonism into Christianity.15 Wilken argues that the pagan opponents caused Christians “to grasp the implications of Christian belief earlier than would have been possible if they had talked only among themselves – in short, to understand the very tradition they were defending.”16 Pagan critics forced Christians to find “their authentic voice,” and without them “Christianity would have been the poorer.”17 Wilken lists the following examples of tenets forged within the furnace of pagan opposition: the relationship of faith and reason, the relation of God to the world, creation ex nihilo, the relation of Christianity to Judaism, the status of Jesus and his relation to God, the historical reliability of the Scriptures, the role of civil religion and the civil position of Christianity, and the revelation of God in history.18 One might append the Christians’ discussions of free will and divine impassibility. In addition, Christianity clarified its relationship to Judaism partly in response to pagan criticisms.19

Early Greco-Roman references

While glancing back to the reign of Nero, Suetonius (a second-century equestrian and biographer) narrates that “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition (superstitio nova ac malefica).”20 While discussing the reign of Claudius, Suetonius asserts, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”21 The word Chrestus in this passage is sometimes interpreted as an alternative spelling (or corruption) of Christus (“Christ”).22 This ChristusChrestus debate shows no signs of abating, although the burden of proof appears to lie upon those who read Christianity into the passage.23

Tacitus, another early second-century Roman historian, narrates how Nero used Christians as scapegoats when he was accused of setting fire to Rome.24 It is noteworthy that this accusation of incendiarism seemed credible to many Roman residents, who seemed convinced that Christians were capable of various “abominable vices” or “atrocities” (flagitia).25 Christians were known for their “hatred of the human race” (odio humani generis).26 The pernicious superstition (exitiabilis superstitio) was plaguing Rome, “where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”27 Tacitus had already leveled this accusation of superstitio against the Jews, and he seems to have viewed Christianity as a “superstition” of Jewish origin.28

Around the year 112, Pliny the Younger sent a letter to the emperor Trajan, asking advice concerning the proper treatment of Christians. At the time, Pliny was the governor of Pontus and Bithynia.29 He complained that Christianity, as a “contagious superstition,” had spread beyond the cities to the villages and rural districts.30 Pliny had never been involved in the cognitio (legal investigation) of a Christian, so he posed a series of questions.31 Should age be taken into account? Could one be pardoned by recanting the Christian faith? Were Christians to be punished merely for the sake of the name itself (nomen ipsum = “Christian”), or was it necessary to find them guilty of affiliated offenses (flagitia cohaerentia nomini)?

For his part, Pliny ordered the accused to worship the gods, offer sacrifices, and curse Christ.32 Those who publicly recanted were summarily discharged. But if they disregarded his thrice-repeated threats and persisted in their Christian commitments, Pliny executed them or sent them on to Rome (in the case of Roman citizens). “For whatever the nature of their creed might be,” Pliny did not doubt that “pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy (pertinacia et inflexibilis obstinatio) deserved punishment.”33 Upon further investigation, Pliny could find no proof of criminal or conspiratorial activity within the Christian assemblies. Rather, the Christians sang hymns to Christ “as to god,” took an oath (sacramentum) not to commit crimes, and shared an innocent, common meal. He discovered “nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition” (superstitio prava et immodica).34 Both Trajan’s reply to Pliny and the later rescript of Hadrian sought to curb the abuses of delatio (informing) against Christians.35

Some philosophically minded writers of the second century appreciated the courage manifested by Christian martyrs in the face of death. Among these authors were Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Galen. Epictetus maintained that someone who was not improperly attached to life or material possessions would not manifest fear.36 He contended that the antidote to fear was a mental framework which allows one to “set the will neither upon dying nor upon living at any cost, but only as it is given one to live.”37 Epictetus noted that the same mindset can be produced by “madness” (maniva) or by “habit” (ejqou), as with “the Galileans.” Many scholars have interpreted Epictetus’s “Galileans” as a reference to Christians.38

Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History includes a letter purportedly written by Marcus Aurelius to the Council of Asia.39 The letter states,

But you drive them into tumult, for you confirm them in the opinion which they hold by accusing them as atheists (ajqevwn), and they too when so accused might well prefer apparent death rather than life for the sake of their own God.

(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.13.3) This same material is found in Justin Martyr’s Apology, but he ascribes it to Antoninus Pius.40 Benko notes, “Whether the letter is a complete Christian forgery or whether Christian interpolators have altered an originally genuine text is still a subject of scholarly debate.”41

The extant text of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations includes an offhand reference to Christians.42 The emperor admired the soul which is “ready and resolved” to “be released from the body.” This readiness must “arise from a specific decision, not out of sheer opposition like the Christians.”43 For his part, Marcus Aurelius espoused “reflection and dignity” rather than “histrionic display.” While he valued certain traits found among Christian martyrs, he still viewed their final moments as too emotional and melodramatic. One should stalwartly face death but not play the stage-heroics of a theatrical martyr.

Galen, the famous Roman physician and philosopher, praised “the people called Christians” for their contempt of death, restraint in cohabitation, self-control in food and drink, and keen pursuit of justice. In these matters, they were not inferior to “genuine philosophers.”44 On one level, Galen treated Christians as adherents of a philosophical school, as when he compared “the followers of Moses and Christ” with “physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools.”45 Galen sympathetically admired the Christian conduct of a life, since they acted in the same way “as those who philosophize.” Nevertheless, they were merely playing the part, since they lacked a rational foundation.46

According to Galen, Christian virtue rested upon parables, miracles, and tales of rewards and punishments in a future life. In “the school of Moses and Christ,” one hears talk of “undemonstrated laws, and that where it is least appropriate.”47 Galen grumbled that the “followers of Moses and Christ” order their pupils “to accept everything on faith.”48 For him, “Christians were neither dangerous conspirators nor abominable cannibals, but were rather adherents of an inferior philosophical school.”49 Although they did not pose a serious threat to society, they had been hoodwinked by a simplistic belief system.

The brunt of speeches and satires

In his public speeches, Crescens attacked Christians as “impious” and as “atheists.”50 According to the reconstruction of many scholars, Crescens’s contemporary, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, delivered a speech accusing Christians of incestuous banqueting and of infanticide.51 Fronto’s tirade may provide a backdrop to the persecution of Christians in Lyons and Vienne c. 177, as well as the response embodied in Athenagoras’s Plea.52

In one of his speeches, the orator Aelius Aristides referred to “those impious people of Palestine.” They “do not believe in the higher powers” but have “defected from the Greek race, or rather from all that is higher.” “But they are cleverest of all at housebreaking, in upsetting those within and bringing them into conflict with one another, and in claiming that they can take care of everything. They have never spoken, discovered, or written a fruitful word; they have never added adornment to the national festivals, never honored the gods.”53

Benko wavers in his assessment of this material from Aristides, which “may or may not refer to Christians.”54 The charges of antisocialism and disturbing family life certainly parallel common perceptions of Christians. According to pagan censures, Christians were affiliated with “the repudiation of pleasure, the breaking of home and family ties, the ruining of business, the abandonment of religion, and the avoidance of civic duties.”55 From the pagan perspective, Christian commitment subverted familial bonds and preyed on the emotionally vulnerable.56 Pagans resented the disruptive force of Christianity upon the Roman commonwealth and upon traditional family values.57 “Many a pagan first heard of Christianity as the disintegrating force that had wrecked a neighbor’s home.”58

Apuleius’s Metamorphoses is a comic tale of the protagonist’s alteration into a donkey by magic, his adventures as an ass, and his eventual transformation back into a human through the benevolence of Isis. While living as a donkey, Lucius was sold to a baker and his wife. Apuleius wrote that this woman did not lack “a single fault,” but “her soul was like some muddy latrine into which absolutely every vice had flowed.” She was “cruel, and perverse, crazy for men and wine, headstrong and obstinate, grasping in her mean thefts and a spendthrift in her loathsome extravagances, an enemy of fidelity and a foe to chastity.” Furthermore, “she scorned and spurned all the gods in heaven, and, instead of holding a definite faith, she used the false sacrilegious presumption of a god, whom she would call ‘one and only’.” In this god’s honor she invented “meaningless rites to cheat everyone and deceive her wretched husband, having sold her body to drink from dawn and to debauchery the whole day.”59 This passage may disparage Christian women (or perhaps Jewish women), yet its contemptuous tenor reveals an uncritical adaptation and satirical exploitation of popular prejudice.60

In his Apology, Apuleius describes a certain Aemilianus who mocked divine matters and despised the gods:

For I learn from certain men of Oea who know him, that to this day he has never prayed to any god or frequented any temple, while if he chances to pass any shrine, he regards it as a crime to raise his hand to his lips in token of reverence.

(Apuleius, Apology 56)61 Whether this “atheist” was a Christian cannot be established with certainty, although V. Hunink argues that “much is to be said” for this theory.62

Lucian of Samosata was another famous literary wit who ridiculed Christians, along with many others who came within the cross-hairs of his satirical sights.63 Peregrinus Proteus, the protagonist and namesake of one of Lucian’s satires, was a huckster and a swindler. After murdering his father, Peregrinus slipped away to Palestine to learn “the wonderful wisdom of the Christians,” and he quickly rose among their ranks. Lucian mocked the “credulity” of the Christians, yet he also satirized “the fanatical masses who wanted to see the Christians sentenced to death for atheism.”64 When Peregrinus was imprisoned, his fellow believers visited him and luxuriously supported their “new Socrates.”65 Peregrinus was able to amass a sizeable fortune through Christian beneficence, but he was finally excommunicated from the church when he ate meat sacrificed to idols. He eventually became a Cynic philosopher and wandering teacher before his dramatic demise via self-immolation.

In one passage, Lucian characterizes the Christians as follows:

The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore, they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.

(Lucian, Peregrinus 5)66 Lucian briefly returns to the subject of Christians in his account of Alexander of Abonoteichus. “Pontus was full of atheists and Christians who had the hardihood to utter the vilest abuse of [Alexander].”67 Within the narrative, “death to the Epicureans” and “death to the Christians” are interchangeable exclamations with “death to the atheists,” because of a shared disregard for the traditional gods.68 Lucian manifests a surface-level understanding of Christianity, which he merely employs as a foil within his satirical caricaturizations.69 As M. J. Edwards surmises, “Satire seeks, not truth, but the characteristics and the probable: it depicts living creatures, not as individuals, but as representative[s].”70

Celsus, Porphyry, and Hierocles

Most of the pagan critics described above did not make “a serious effort to study Christian teachings or to observe Christians in action.”71 All this changed with Celsus, who wrote an entire treatise against Christianity in True Doctrine, probably composed in the 160s or 170s.72 Although the work is now lost, much of it can be reconstructed from Origen’s reply in Against Celsus. The True Doctrine reveals that Celsus was a traditional conservative who believed that “religion was inextricably bound to the unique customs of a people,” that behind all the traditional religions was “an ancient doctrine that has existed from the beginning,” and that the “old doctrine” was the “true doctrine.”73 Christianity was dangerous because it unraveled the social fabric of traditional piety that wove together religion, society, and politics. Celsus raised anti-Christian polemic to a whole new level, since he personally examined the Jewish and Christian scriptures and even recognized internal quarrels among Christians.74

Celsus castigated the Christians for their unsocial behavior and for practicing their religion in secret.75 “They wall themselves off and break away from the rest of mankind.”76 They rejected Hellenic paideia and culture by turning to “barbarian” beliefs.77 They shirked their civil responsibilities, such as cooperating with the emperor and fighting as his “fellow-soldiers” and “fellow-generals.”78 They were like ungrateful tenants who gave nothing back for the use of property.79

Celsus opposed the fideistic gullibility and incredulous dogmatism he alleged was among Christians. They “vulgarly discuss fundamental principles and make arrogant pronouncements about matters of which they know nothing.”80 Therefore, claimed Celsus, adherents represented “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” They convinced “only the foolish, dishonourable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.”81 Instead of giving “a reason for what they believe,” Christian teachers repeated stock expressions such as “Do not ask questions, just believe!”82

Celsus argued that Jesus was a magician and could not have been divine.83 Why, asked Celsus, would a god need to eat, as Jesus did? Why would a god, who should be unafraid of death, need to flee to Egypt as a child? Why would a god permit himself to be arrested? How could an immortal god suffer and die? Why would the Son of God require an angel to move the tomb stone? If Jesus were God, why would the men who tortured him go unpunished?84 Celsus concludes that “the Christians are the losers, since they worship neither a god nor even a demon, but a dead man!”85

Celsus attacked the biblical writings as fables. He maintained that the original belief in Jesus’ resurrection was based upon sorcery-formed delusion, wishful thinking, and female hysteria.86 The disciples later fabricated Jesus’ prophecies of his death and resurrection to make it appear that the entire plot was foretold. Celsus argued that Christians also foisted Jesus upon the Hebrew prophecies, since “the prophecies could be applied to thousands of others far more plausibly than to Jesus.”87 In addition, the idea of a virgin birth was borrowed from pre-existing myths.88

Celsus claimed that Christian theology was riddled with internal contradictions. Why was an omnipotent, sovereign God unable to control his creatures?89 How could humans be made in the image of an incorporeal God? Why would an omnipotent God need a day of rest after creation?90 How could God create the world, leave it to evil, and only return to its rescue centuries later?91 Why would he come to an out-ofthe-way corner of the earth like Palestine? How could an immutable God change and take on human form?92

Celsus complained that Christianity was unoriginal and yet had the brazenness to claim exclusivity. While the Jewish religion could rightfully claim ancient roots, Christians freely picked their teachings and rituals from other sources.93 Not only did the Christians refuse to admit their free borrowing, they even claimed that “they alone know the right way to live.”94 But the multiplicity of Christian schisms raised an epistemological specter. How could all of the schismatic groups claim exclusive truth?

Porphyry of Gaza, who had been tutored by Origen, later became a pupil of Plotinus, a Neoplatonic philosopher whose lectures criticized “Christians of many kinds” (and especially Gnostics).95 Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles included various anti-Christian pieces. For instance, Augustine preserved Porphyrian oracular materials concerning a pagan husband’s concern for his Christian wife.96 “Let her go as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, singing in lamentation for a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by right-thinking judges, and killed in hideous fashion by the worst of deaths.”97 Porphyry also composed a multi-volume work (or collection of works) eventually known as Against the Christians.98 Modern scholars have attempted to reconstruct some of the contents, based upon secondary excerpts.99 T. D. Barnes has described Against the Christians as “the largest, most learned and most dangerous of all the ancient literary attacks on Christianity.”100 Porphyry “could not be laughed off as an ignorant and ill-informed critic.”101

Porphyry derided Christianity as “an irrational and unexamined pistis,” and he called Christians “impious” and “atheists” for throwing aside their ancestral gods.102 He portrayed the apostles and evangelists as “poor country bumpkins (rusticani et pauperes) who performed second-rate magic merely ‘for profit’.”103 He maintained that the evangelists manipulated and misquoted the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures,104 that the Gospels contradicted one another,105 and that Paul was erroneous and inconsistent in his own writings.106 Porphyry argued that the book of Daniel was written as prophecy ex eventu in the second century bce.

Lactantius reports hearing two anti-Christian polemicists speak at Diocletian’s court immediately before the outbreak of the “Great Persecution,” and some modern scholars believe that one of the pair was Porphyry.107 The other was most probably Sossianus Hierocles, governor of Bithynia.108 Scholars debate the dating of Hierocles’ work, Lover of Truth, although Michael Simmons argues that an edition was circulating in the Eastern provinces by c. 303.109 Hierocles depicted Apollonius of Tyana (a pagan wonder-worker) as a holy-man possessed with divine qualities, while he portrayed Jesus as a brigand, and a leader of low-class disciples. Hierocles contrasted pagan “well-established judgment” with “the easy credulity of Christians.”110 “For whereas we reckon him who wrought such feats not a god, but only a man pleasing to the gods, they on the strength of a few miracles proclaim their Jesus a god.”111 Simmons notes how the Lover of Truth reveals significant information concerning the background of the pagan–Christian conflict leading into the Great Persecution, the relationship between pagan intellectuals and the religious policies of the Tetrarchy, the polemical focus upon miracles and prophecy, and the development of the apologetic genre in the late Roman Empire.112

Celsus, Porphyry, and Hierocles embodied the “increasingly hostile attack upon Christianity by some of the best representatives of the cultured classes of the Roman Empire.”113 These opponents caused Christians to clarify the issues, refine many arguments, and take positive corrective measures. One should not assume that “this response would have been formulated in the absence of the challenge.”114

Recurring themes

Intellectual opponents caricatured Christianity as appealing to those deemed as social inferiors.115 In the words of Celsus, Christianity appealed to women, slaves, and children.116 Critics also highlighted the “barbarian” character of Christianity, in contrast with the cultural achievements of the Greeks.117 As a corollary to such “social prejudice,” pagans frequently looked down upon the Christian Scriptures, which seemed “uncouth and barbaric” and “grated on the sensibilities” of the educated.118 “It is difficult,” explains A. H. M. Jones, “for us to appreciate how serious an obstacle this was.”119 Christian authors sought to ease the tension by employing allegorical interpretation.120 And when pagan polemicists insisted upon the superiority and antiquity of Greco-Roman culture, Christian apologists countered that the classical Greek writings borrowed from Moses.121

At the same time, there was no hard-and-fast boundary between the clamor of the ignorant masses and the intellectual critiques of the literary elites. The intellectual critics were not immune to adopting (or even inciting) popular accusations. For instance, Marcus Cornelius Fronto accused Christians of incest and cannibalism. Pliny asked Trajan whether the Christians were to be punished merely for the sake of the name itself (“Christian”), or was it necessary to find them guilty of affiliated offenses (flagitia cohaerentia nomini)? Pliny, it is true, made the effort to investigate Christian meetings before jumping to rash conclusions, and he found no evidence of such flagitia. But his question still manifests that he was a man of his times.

Christians often felt persecuted merely for the sake of the name, the nomen Christianum.122 Justin Martyr protested, “By the mere statement of a name, nothing is decided, either good or evil, apart from the actions associated with the name.”123 But the name “Christian” was often associated with the undesirable traits of superstitio and obstinatio, as well as a wider “complex of guilt,” including the purported flagitia of incest and cannibalistic infanticide (“Oedipean intercourse” and “Thyestean banquets”).124 Tertullian complained, therefore, that the only thing necessary to incite public hatred was “the confession of the name of Christian, not an investigation of the charge.”125

Like the pagan masses, the pagan literary figures were suspicious of Christian secrecy. According to Celsus, Christians conducted their business and instruction “in secret.”126 Pagans spoke of the Christians’ “mysterious intimacy,” including their nocturnal gatherings.127 Their lack of altars, images, and temples within worship was a telltale sign of a secret society.128 Minucius Felix’s pagan interlocutor insisted that Christians are “a furtive race which shuns the light, mute in the open but garrulous in the corners.”129 Secrecy was cousin to conspiracy, and although the Christians were secretive, they were well-organized.130

The Greco-Roman critique often focused upon six recurring themes – Christianity as a superstitio, as “atheism,” as a novel sect, as a “blind faith,” as a magical movement pandering supernatural wonders, and as the source of scandalous doctrines. First, we have seen that Pliny, Suetonius, and Tacitus all agreed that Christianity was a superstitio.131 Among the educated, the term superstitio designated irrational, fanatical, exotic, idiosyncratic, or degenerate religion.132 “Superstition” was associated with irreligion and impiety (asebia).133 True religio “promoted and engendered virtue, justice, public morality, whereas superstition did not.”134 Therefore, in the Greco-Roman world, impiety carried political undertones of sedition. As Cicero explained, “In all probability the disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.”135

Second, pagan critics such as Crescens, Lucian, and Porphyry accused Christians of “atheism.”136 Minucius Felix’s pagan interlocutor exclaims, “They despise the temples as no better than sepulchers, abominate the gods, sneer at our sacred rites.”137 Faithful Christians also refused to participate in the imperial cult, a central facet of public ritual.138 They would not take an oath by the emperor’s Genius, nor sacrifice to the gods on his behalf.139 Tertullian repeats a common anti-Christian accusation in his Apology: “You do not worship the gods … and you do not offer sacrifice for the emperors.”140

Third, critics came to view Christianity as a novel sect. Galen closely associated Christianity with Judaism (“the followers of Moses and Christ”), and he merged criticisms common to both. Other pagan authors, however, began to discriminate between the two, and they used the schismatic origin of Christianity to their argumentative advantage. Judaism was “vindicated by its antiquity,” even if it exhibited some of the same exclusivistic, antisocial tendencies as Christianity.141 Christianity, however, was a religious upstart recently founded by a seditious leader, and Christians possessed neither an ethnic identity nor a national history.142 Celsus disparaged Christianity as a rebellious sect from a people who themselves were rebels (the Jews).143

Fourth, Greco-Roman critics attacked Christianity as a blind faith.144 Galen complained that Christianity relied upon faith and revelation rather than upon proof, logic, and demonstrable laws. Celsus “had no respect for religions that were based on faith alone, because in his opinion faith was a poor substitute for experienced truth.”145 Porphyry likewise condemned the Christians’ “mindless and unexamined faith.”146 Hierocles ridiculed “the easy credulity of the Christians.”147 From the pagan perspective, Christians naively adopted the “stupid fables” of the Jewish scriptures and then added their own fantastic fabrications.

Fifth, pagan “outsiders” depicted Christianity as a magical movement.148 Certain Christian rites such as exorcisms, glossolalia, healings, praying “in the name of Jesus,” and making the sign of the cross could all be viewed as magic.149 Celsus depicted Jesus himself as a magician who had learned his trade in Egypt.150 Since both Christians and pagans conceded supernatural wonders, the debate centered upon the source of power. Porphyry concluded that Christians “have performed some wonders by their magic arts,” but adds that “to perform wonders is no great thing.”151

Sixth, pagan intellectuals critiqued the scandalous nature of specific Christian beliefs. For example, the Christian doctrines of incarnation, crucifixion, and atonement were “ludicrous” to Porphyry, who maintained absolute divine transcendence, immutability, and impassibility.152 Pagan philosophers considered “resurrection in the flesh” to be “a startling, distasteful idea, at odds with everything that passed for wisdom among the educated.”153 According to Porphyry, the soul could not be saved until it was liberated from the body with its sensations and passions.154 “Platonism,” notes Simmons, “could teach a final salvation in and from the body, but never, as Christians professed, of the body.”155

Christian apocalyptic material that predicted the fall of Rome (and sometimes gleefully) would have been an automatic affront to Roman officials.156 The Christian doctrine of eternal punishment was also scandalous, and divine wrath was “held to be monstrous by the educated pagan.”157 Celsus mocked the belief that “God applies the fire like a cook,” so that “all the rest of mankind will be thoroughly roasted and they alone will survive.”158 Celsus reasoned that if all religions claimed the exclusive route to salvation, how would the earnest seeker ever choose? “Are they to throw dice in order to divine where they may turn, and whom they are to follow?”159

Pagans also opposed the notion of the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth.160 Porphyry was willing to grant that Jesus was a devout man, but he recoiled when Christians claimed Jesus as “the sole and universal source of salvation.”161 Porphyry hunted for a soteriological via universalis, and he recommended living in accordance with the nous, participating in theurgical purifications, and rejecting bodily passions. Christian authors could borrow aspects of this philosophical program, but they still emphasized God’s redemptive works in history and particularity in Jesus Christ and thereby downplayed argumentation based upon human reason confined to the abstract.162 But this Christian response lies beyond the purview of this essay.

Further reading

Primary sources

R. M. Berchman , Porphyry Against the Christians, Leiden: Brill, 2005. (An introduction to Porphyry and his polemical material against Christianity, followed by translations of fragments and testimonia.)
Celsus , trans. R. J. Hoffmann , Celsus: On the True Doctrine: A Discourse against the Christians, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. (A lively rendition of Celsus’s arguments that attempts to restore his original tenor and style, an admittedly subjective endeavor.)

Secondary sources

T. D. Barnes , “Pagan Perceptions of Christianity,” in Ian Hazlett (ed.), Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to A.D. 400, London: SPCK, 1991, pp. 231–44. (A brief survey of the pagan social attitudes directed toward Christians, ranging from hostile contempt to intellectual acceptance.)
S. Benko , “Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the First Two Centuries,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.23.2, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980, pp. 1055–1118. (A compilation and critical analysis of the primary source critiques of Christianity from Suetonius to Galen, as well as a synopsis of Celsus’s polemic.)
G. Clark , Christianity and Roman Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. (A concise yet rich study that includes a chapter on “Christians and Others,” which discusses how pagans viewed early Christianity.)
C. De Vos , “Popular Graeco-Roman Responses to Christianity,” in P. F. Esler (ed.), The Early Christian World, London: Routledge, 2000, pp. 869–89. (An evaluation of the popular resentment arising from Christianity’s threat to traditional Greco-Roman society.)
R. L. Fox , Pagans and Christians, New York: Knopf, 1987. (An extensive yet engaging portrait of the vigor of pagan religiosity and the eventual triumph of Christianity.)
A. Meredith , “Porphyry and Julian against the Christians,” Aufstieg und Niedergang in der römischen Welt 2.23.2, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980, pp. 1119–49. (A critical review of the anti-Christian polemic of Porphyry and Julian, accompanied by an assessment of relevant modern scholarship.)
M. B. Simmons , “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” in P. F. Esler (ed.), The Early Christian World, vol. 2, London: Routledge, 2000, pp. 840–68. (An examination of the “increasingly hostile” and refined attack upon Christianity represented by Celsus, Porphyry, Hierocles, and Julian.)
R. L. Wilken , The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984. (A fascinating interpretation of the pagan descriptions and critiques of early Christianity, grounded in scholarly expertise but targeting a wide audience.)


R. L. Wilken, “Toward a Social Interpretation of Early Christian Apologetics,” Church History 39, 1970, pp. 438–9.

G. Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 17.

E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 103.

R. MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: A.D. 100–400, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984, pp. 38; 135, n. 24.

Justin, First Apology 2; trans. L.W. Barnard, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies, New York: Paulist, 1997, p. 23. One notes how Justin turned the charge of “superstition” back upon his opponents.

E. C. Colwell, “Popular Reactions against Christianity in the Roman Empire,” in J. T. McNeill, M. Spink, and H. R. Willoughby (eds), Environmental Factors in Christian History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939, pp. 53–71; J. Engberg, Impulsore Chresto: Opposition to Christianity in the Roman Empire c. 50–250 AD , Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007.

Cf. Tertullian, Apology 7.8–14.

A. N. Sherwin-White, “The Early Persecutions and Roman Law Again,” Journal of Theological Studies 3, 1952, p. 212. The standard procedure against Christians was “accusatory” rather than “inquisitorial,” and therefore required a formal denunciation by a delator (G. E. M. Ste Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” Past and Present 26, 1963, p. 15).

R. L. Wilken, “Christians as the Romans (and Greeks) Saw Them,” in E. P. Sanders (ed.), Jewish and Christian Self-definition, vol. 2, London: SCM, 1980, p. 101.

R. L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984, p. xv.

M. Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire, trans. A. Bedini, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1986, p. 161.

See M. B. Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” in P. F. Esler (ed.), The Early Christian World, vol. 2, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 851.

On Christian assemblies as collegia (clubs) or burial societies, see Pliny, Letters 10.33–34, 10.96; Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pp. 31–47.

See C. N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957; H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Cf. C. Andresen, “The Integration of Platonism into Early Christian Theology,” Studia Patristica 15.1, 1984, pp. 399–413.

Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. 200.

Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. 205.

Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. xvi.

See H. Remus, “Outside/Inside: Celsus on Jewish and Christian Nomoi,” in J. Neusner et al. (eds), New Perspectives on Judaism, vol. 2, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987, pp. 133–50.

Suetonius, Life of Nero 16.2, cf. 19.3; trans. J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1939, p. 111.

Suetonius, The Deified Claudius 25; trans. Rolfe, Suetonius, p. 53.

For evidence, see S. Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity during the First Two Centuries A.D.,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.23.2, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980, pp. 1057–8.

D. Slingerland, “Chrestus: Christus?,” in A. J. Avery-Peck (ed.), The Literature of Early Rabbinic Judaism: Issues in Talmudic Redaction and Interpretation, vol. 4 of J. Neusner, E. S. Frerichs, W. S. Green, G. Porton et al. (eds), New Perspectives on Ancient Judaism, Studies in Judaism, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989, pp. 133–44.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44. E. Laupot further argues that the reference to Christiani in the piece known as “Tacitus’ Fragment 2” (Sulpicius Severus, Chronicles 2.30.6–7) is genuine (E. Laupot, “Tacitus’ Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans,” Vigiliae Christianae 54, 2000, pp. 233–47).

Ste Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?,” p. 8.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44.2–4.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44; trans. J. J. Jackson, in Tacitus: The Histories and The Annals, vol. 4, Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1937, p. 283.

Tacitus, Histories 5.5.

According to R. MacMullen, Pliny’s trouble with Christians concerned only Pontus (see MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, p. 135, n. 26).

Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.

Recent studies include A. Reichert, “Durchdachte Konfusion: Plinius, Trajan und das Christentum,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 93, 2002, pp. 227–50; K. Thraede, “Noch Einmal: Plinius d. J. und die Christen,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 95, 2004, pp. 102–28.

See Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” pp. 1073–4.

Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96; adapted from trans. W. Melmoth, Pliny: Letters, vol. 2, London: Heinemann, 1927, pp. 401–3.


Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.97; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.8.6, 4.9.1–3, 4.26.10; Justin, First Apology 68. See Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” pp. 1079–80.

Epictetus, Discourses 4.7.4–6.

Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.3; adapted from trans. W. A. Oldfather, Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1946, p. 361.

Some have deemed the text to be a reference to Galilean Zealots, but compare Lucian, Peregrinus 13; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.3; cf. Origen, Against Celsus 8.65; R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, London: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 15. Julian “the Apostate” reused the label “Galileans” as a reference to Christians. Clark theorizes that Epictetus may have confused Jews and Christians in Discourses 2.9.20–21 (see Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 27).

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.13.1–7; trans. K. Lake, Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1965, p. 333.

Justin, First Apology 68.

Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” p. 1093.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.3. Some maintain that the words referring to Christians have been interpolated. See P. A. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius and the Christians,” in C. Deroux (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, vol. 1, Brussels: Latomus, 1979, pp. 483–519.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.3; trans. A. S. L. Farquharson, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 102.

Galen’s commentary on Plato’s work; trans. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p. 15. Cf. S. Gero, “Galen on the Christians: A Reappraisal of the Arabic Evidence,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 56, 1990, pp. 371–411.

Galen, On the Differences of Pulses 3.3; trans. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p. 14.

Galen’s commentary on Plato’s work; trans. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p. 15.

Galen, On the Differences of Pulses 2.4; trans. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p. 14.

Galen’s commentary on Plato’s work; trans. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p. 15.

S. Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986, p. 144.

Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” p. 1078.

Minucius Felix, Octavius 9.6; 31.2; cf. Sordi, Christians and the Roman Empire, pp. 197–98. Minucius Felix may have preserved a fragment of this oration in Octavius 8–9 (Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” pp. 1081–9). Barnes argues that Fronto more probably attacked Christianity in the lost work Against Pelops (T. D. Barnes, “Pagan Perceptions of Christianity,” in I. Hazlett [ed.], Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to A.D. 400, London: SPCK, 1991, pp. 233–4). Cf. C. P. Hammond Bammel, “Die erste lateinische Rede gegen die Christen,” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 104, 1993, pp. 295–311.

See Sordi, Christians and the Roman Empire, pp. 195, 198.

Aelius Aristides, Orations 3.671; trans. C. A. Behr, Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works, vol. 1, Leiden: Brill, 1986, p. 275.

Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” p. 1098.

Colwell, “Popular Reactions against Christianity in the Roman Empire,” p. 61.

Origen, Against Celsus 3.55. From the Christian standpoint, the local assembly (e;kklhsiva) functioned as an alternative family, offering practical aid, spiritual community, and mutual support (see Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, p. 21).

Cf. Acts of Paul and Thecla 8–15, 20.

Colwell, “Popular Reactions against Christianity in the Roman Empire,” p. 62.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass 9.14; trans. J. A. Hanson, Apuleius: Metamorphoses, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 151–3.

T. D. Barnes overstates the case when he argues that the baker’s wife is “unambiguously and unmistakeably depicted as a Christian” (Barnes, “Pagan Perceptions of Christianity,” p. 233).

Trans. H. E. Butler, The Apologia and Florida of Apuleius of Madaura, Oxford: Clarendon, 1909, p. 97.

V. Hunink, “Apuleius, Pudentilla, and Christianity,” Vigiliae Christianae 54, 2000, p. 90.

H. V. Schmidt, “Reaktionen auf das Christentum in den Metamorphosen des Apuleius,” Vigiliae Christianae 51, 1997, pp. 51–71.

Sordi, Christians and the Roman Empire, p. 161.

Lucian, Peregrinus 12; cf. Justin, Second Apology 10; Athenagoras, Plea on Behalf of Christians 8.2.

Trans. A. M. Harmon, Lucian, vol. 5, Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1936, p. 15.

Lucian, Alexander 25; adapted from trans. Harmon, Lucian, vol. 4, p. 209.

Lucian, Alexander 38. See Sordi, Christians and the Roman Empire, p. 162. “Death to the …” is a dynamic translation of ejxw.

Benko argues that Lucian viewed the Christian movement as a philosophical school or a new oriental mystery, or perhaps a blend of both (Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity,” p. 1097).

M. J. Edwards, “Satire and Verisimilitude: Christianity in Lucian’s Peregrinus,” Historia 38, 1989, p. 89.

Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p. 140.

R. J. Hoffmann, Celsus: On the True Doctrine, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987; M. Frede, “Origen’s Treatise Against Celsus,” in M. Edwards, M. Goodman, and S. Price (eds), Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews and Christians, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 132.

Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pp. 201–2; Origen, Against Celsus 1.14.

Frede, “Origen’s Treatise Against Celsus,” p. 133.

Origen, Against Celsus 1.1.

Origen, Against Celsus 8.2; trans. Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p. 155.

Origen, Against Celsus 1.2.

Origen, Against Celsus 8.73; trans. H. Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 509.

Origen, Against Celsus 8.55

Trans. Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p. 153; based on Origen, Against Celsus 3.68; 1.27; 3.44, 50, 55, 59, 74–5; 6.7ff., 11–14, 65; 7.42, 45.

Origen, Against Celsus 3.55, 3.44; trans. Chadwick, Origen, p. 158.

Origen, Against Celsus, 1.9; trans. Chadwick, Origen, p. 12.

See E. V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus, Chico: Scholars, 1982; M. Choi, “Christianity, Magic, and Difference: Name-Calling and Resistance between the Lines in Contra Celsum,” Semeia 79, 1997, pp. 75–92.

See Hoffmann, Celsus, pp. 59–62, 90, 107, 119.

Origen, Against Celsus 7.68; trans. Hoffmann, Celsus, p. 115.

Origen, Against Celsus 2.55.

Origen, Against Celsus 2.28; trans. Chadwick, Origen, p. 91.

Origen, Against Celsus 1.37.

Origen, Against Celsus 4.40.

Origen, Against Celsus 6.61.

See A. Stötzel, “Warum Christus so spät erschien: Die apologetische Argumentation des frühen Christentums,” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 92, 1981, pp. 147–60.

Origen, Against Celsus 4.14.

R. J. Hoffmann, Celsus, pp. 67, 89, 95, 98; See M. Fédou, Christianisme et religions païennes dans le Contre Celse d’Origène, Paris: Beauchesne, 1988.

Origen, Against Celsus 3.55; trans. Hoffmann, Celsus, p. 73.

Porphyry, On the Life of Plotinus 16. See D. T. Runia (ed.), Plotinus amid Gnostics and Christians, Amsterdam: Netherlands Free University Press, 1984; C. Evangeliou, “Plotinus’s Anti-Gnostic Polemic and Porphyry’s Against the Christians,” in R. T. Wallis and J. Bregman (eds), Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, Studies in Neoplatonism: Ancient and Modern 6, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1992, pp. 111–28.

See J. J. O’Meara, Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine, Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1959.

Augustine, City of God 19.23; trans. H. Bettenson, Saint Augustine: City of God, London: Penguin, 2003, pp. 884–5.

See R. M. Berchman, Porphyry Against the Christians, Leiden: Brill, 2005, pp. 1–6. Berchman argues that Against the Christians was originally a “collection of several works,” perhaps including Philosophy from Oracles.

A. Meredith, “Porphyry and Julian against the Christians,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 2.23.2, pp. 1119–49; J. G. Cook, “A Possible Fragment of Porphyry’s Contra Christianos from Michael the Syrian,” Zeitschrift für Christentum 2, 1998, pp. 113–22.

Barnes, “Pagan Perceptions of Christianity,” p. 238.

Barnes, “Pagan Perceptions of Christianity,” p. 239.

See Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, p. 121; Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 1.2.2.

Porphyry, Against the Christians frg. 4; trans. J. M. Schott, “Porphyry on Christians and Others: ‘Barbarian Wisdom’, Identity Politics, and Anti-Christian Polemics on the Eve of the Great Persecution,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 13, 2005, p. 303. The numbering system of the fragments is taken from A. Harnack. For a recent edition of Porphyrian fragments, see Berchman, Porphyry Against the Christians. Scholars have debated whether materials embedded in Macarius Magnes should be attributed to Porphyry’s Against the Christians. T. D. Barnes concludes negatively in “Porphyry, Against the Christians: Date and the Attribution of Fragments,” Journal of Theological Studies 24, 1973, pp. 424–42. R. J. Hoffmann argues affirmatively in Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, Amherst: Prometheus, 1994. See also E. DePalma Digeser, “Porphyry, Julian, or Hierocles? The Anonymous Hellene in Makarios Magnes’ Apokritikos,” Journal of Theological Studies 53, 2002, pp. 466–502.

Porphyry, Against the Christians frgs 9–10.

Porphyry, Against the Christians 12, 15, 16.

Porphyry, Against the Christians 21, 30–33.

Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5. See Schott, “Porphyry on Christians and Others,” pp. 285–7.

Lactantius, On the Deaths of Persecutors 11, 16.

Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” p. 848.

Eusebius, Against Hierocles 2; trans. Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” p. 849.


Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” p. 849.

Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” p. 861.

Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p. 158, referring specifically to Celsus.

According to Tertullian, Apology 37.4, Christians could be observed in the imperial palace and the senate. A Valerian edict of 257 suggests that Christians were found among senators and equites Romani (Cyprian, Letters 80.2). Of course, Christian apologists naturally emphasized such examples to improve the overall social reputation of Christianity. On the “socially mixed character of the early Christian communities,” see E. A. Judge, “The Social Identity of the First Christians: A Question of Method in Religious History,” Journal of Religious History 11, 1980, pp. 201–17.

Cf. Tatian, Oration 33.

See J. M. Schott, “Porphyry on Christians and Others.”

A. H. M. Jones, “The Social Background of the Struggle between Paganism and Christianity,” in A. Momigliano (ed.), The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, Oxford: Clarendon, 1963, p. 20; cf. Origen, Against Celsus 4.87, 6.2.

Jones, “Social Background of the Struggle,” p. 20.

This approach was criticized by pagan opponents. See P. Sellew, “Achilles or Christ: Porphyry and Didymus in Debate over Allegorical Interpretation,” Harvard Theological Review 82, 1989, pp. 79–100; cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.19.4.

Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” pp. 844–7.

Martyrdom of Polycarp 12.2; Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 97; Justin, First Apology 1; Second Apology 2. See G. E. M. Ste Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted? – A Rejoinder,” Past and Present 27, 1964, pp. 28–33; D. Horrell, “The Label Cristianov: 1 Peter 4:16 and the Formation of Christian Identity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, 2007, pp. 361–81.

Justin, First Apology 4; trans. Barnard, St. Justin Martyr, p. 24.

Acts of Paul and Thecla 15, 20; Athenagoras, Plea on Behalf of Christians 3.31; Justin, First Apology 26; Second Apology 12; Dialogue with Trypho 10; Tertullian, Apology 6–8; Minucius Felix, Octavius 8–9, 28, 30–31; Origen, Against Celsus 6.27, 40; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.7.11; 5.1.14–26; 9.5.2.

Tertullian, Apology 2.3; trans. R. Arbesmann, E. J. Daly, and E. A. Quain, Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix: Octavius, New York: Fathers of the Church, 1950, p. 10.

Origen, Against Celsus 1.3. Cf. the reappearance of “secrecy” in Origen, Against Celsus 1.1, 7; 8.17, 39.

Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, p. 111.

Origen, Against Celsus 8.17.

Minucius Felix, Octavius 8; trans. Arbesmann et al., Tertullian, p. 335.

Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, pp. 20, 24.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Suetonius, Deified Claudius 25.3; Life of Nero 16.3; Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96–97. Cf. Origen, Against Celsus 3.29, 79; 4.5.

See L. F. Janssen, “‘Superstitio’ and the Persecution of Christians,” Vigiliae Christianae 33, 1979, pp. 131–59. Religio deos colit, superstitio violat (Seneca, On Clemency 2.3.1).

Wilken, “Toward a Social Interpretation,” 440. Philo, however, distinguishes between superstition and impiety (Philo, On the Special Laws 5.147–48).

Wilken, “Toward a Social Interpretation,” 439.

Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.3–4; trans. Wilken, “Christians as the Romans (and Greeks) Saw Them,” p. 107.

Lucian, Alexander 25, 38; Apuleius, The Golden Ass 9.14. See the charge of “atheism” as found in Martyrdom of Polycarp 3.2; 9.2; 12.2; Epistle to Diognetus 2.6; Justin, First Apology 5–6, 13; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.9; Athenagoras, Plea on Behalf of Christians 1, 3, 4–30; Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 7.1.1; Tertullian, Apology 6.10, 10.1–28.2; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles 1.29, 3.28, 5.30, 6.27. Cf. W. R. Schoedel, “Christian ‘Atheism’ and the Peace of the Roman Empire,” Church History 42, 1973, pp. 309–19; J. J. Walsh, “On Christian Atheism,” Vigiliae Christianae 45, 1991, pp. 255–77.

Minucius Felix, Octavius 8; trans. Arbesmann et al., Tertullian, p. 335.

See D. L. Jones, “Christianity and the Roman Imperial Cult,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.23.2, pp. 1023–54.

Ste Croix downplays the role of emperor-worship proper in “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?,” p. 10.

Tertullian, Apology 10.1; trans. Arbesmann, et al., Tertullian, p. 35.

Origen, Against Celsus 5.25–26, 5.34–35; cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.5.

See P. Stockmeier, “Christlicher Glaube und antike Religiosität,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.23.2, pp. 871–909.

This turn of phrase comes from Wilken, “Christians as the Romans (and Greeks) Saw Them,” p. 120. See Origen, Against Celsus 3.1, 4.31.

See J. Bregman, “Logismos and Pistis,” in R. C. Smith and J. Lounibos (eds), Pagan and Christian Anxiety: A Response to E. R. Dodds, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984, pp. 217–31.

Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p. 142.

See E. A. Judge, “Christian Innovation and Its Contemporary Observers,” in B. Croke and A. M. Emmett (eds), History and Historians in Late Antiquity, Sydney: Pergamon, 1983, p. 17.

Eusebius, Against Hierocles 2; trans. Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” p. 849.

Origen, Against Celsus 1.9; Minucius Felix, Octavius 11.6. See A. B. Kolenkow, “A Problem of Power: How Miracle-Doers Counter Charges of Magic in the Hellenistic World,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, 1976, pp. 105–10; H. Remus, Pagan–Christian Conflict over Miracle in the Second Century, Cambridge, MA: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1983.

See Tertullian, To His Wife 5.

Origen, Against Celsus 2.52–53; 8.9.

Porphyry, Against the Christians frg. 4; trans. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, p. 125.

M. B. Simmons, “Porphyry of Tyre’s Biblical Criticism: A Historical and Theological Appraisal,” in C. A. Bobertz and D. Brakke (eds), Reading in Christian Communities, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002, pp. 96–7.

MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, p. 12; cf. H. Chadwick, “Celsus and the Resurrection of the Body,” Harvard Theological Review 41, 1948, pp. 83–102.

Simmons, “Porphyry of Tyre’s Biblical Criticism,” p. 100.

Simmons, “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition,” pp. 857–8.

See A. Momigliano, “Some Preliminary Remarks on the ‘Religious Opposition’ to the Roman Empire,” in On Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987, pp. 120–41.

A. Cameron, “Palladas and Christian Polemic,” Journal of Roman Studies 55, 1965, p. 26.

Origen, Against Celsus 5.15–16; trans. Chadwick, Origen, pp. 275–6.

Origen, Against Celsus 6.11; trans. Chadwick, Origen, p. 324.

See M. Fédou, “L’unicité du Christ selon le Contre Celse d’Origène,” Studia Patristica 36, 2001, pp. 415–20.

Schott, “Porphyry on Christians and Others,” 312; cf. Porphyry’s oracle in Augustine, City of God 19.23.

Simmons, “Porphyry of Tyre’s Biblical Criticism,” pp. 99–100. See also L. Alexander, “‘Foolishness to the Greeks’: Jews and Christians in the Public Life of the Empire,” in G. Clark and T. Rajak (eds), Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 229–49.

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.