Roman View of Christianity Early Term Paper

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It is not surprising, Celsus continues, that Christian beliefs are so nonsensical when those who believe them are drawn from the least intelligent and rational members of society. The Christian message, he argues is given to no-one 'who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence.'

He condemns Christians for not giving rational justifications for their beliefs but instead saying '"Do not examine, but believe!" and, "Your faith will save you!" And ... such also say, "The wisdom of this life is bad, but that foolishness is a good thing!"

He urges people to reject such teachings and to accept only rational doctrines, imparted to them by a rational teacher, not the 'persons of the most uninstructed and rustic character' he claims are favored as instructors by Christians.

All this adds up to a profound rejection of Christianity as Celsus understands it, on the grounds of its irrationality and incoherence, but also because he sees it as fundamentally opposed to the basic rules of rational human society and culture itself, as derived from the Greeks and transmitted through Roman society and culture. As the scholar Henry Chadwick describes it, Christianity is not merely a religious revolution with profound social and political consequences; it is essentially hostile to all positive human values.'

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The result is a foolish collection of ridiculous stories, such as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection from the dead, a type of magic similar to that of the priests of Cybele and Mithras, a doctrine suitable to the ignorant and the gullible, and a thoroughly socially and intellectually dangerous phenomenon.

Term Paper on Roman View of Christianity Early Assignment

The gullibility of Christians is also found reflected in the anti-Christian writings of the writer Lucian. He described Christians as 'children' for their belief in Christ, characterized them as consisting of 'old hags, women and orphan children' who were weak and naive, and portrayed them as ripe for exploitation by any rogue: '[they] think everything common property, accepting such teaching without any accurate proof. So if any charlatan or trickster and business-man comes among them, straightaway he becomes very rich and sneers at their naivety.'

Such arguments took on a more serious dimension in a context of state-directed attacks on Christians for their danger they supposedly posed to the Roman state.

Such arguments against Christians found increasing echoes at the end of the second century AD, as many pagan philosophers began to see Christianity as not merely a nuisance but an actual danger to the state. This is reflected in the writings of Tertullian, the son of a centurion, who converted to Christianity in his late thirties, some time around 197 AD. Tertullian's apologetics are motivated to a significant degree by the seriousness of the pagan challenge that Christians face, and by his desire to make other Christians take that challenge seriously. The climate of hostility to Christians is clear from his observation that 'If the Tiber rises too high for the walls, or the Nile too low for the fields, if the heavens do not open, or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, instantly the howl is, "The Christians to the lion!"

He describes how Christians are condemned for undermining the age-old traditions and customs of Rome and thus weakening the state, and turns this criticism back upon the anti-Christian pagans:

I would now have these most religious protectors and vindicators of the laws and institutions of their fathers, tell me, in regard to their own fidelity and the honour, and submission they themselves show to ancestral institutions, if they have departed from nothing -- if they have in nothing gone out of the old paths -- if they have not put aside whatsoever is most useful and necessary as rules of a virtuous life. What has become of the laws repressing expensive and ostentatious ways of living?

The general charge here is one of hypocrisy, but more important than that is the specific refutation of the accusation that to be a Christian is to subvert Roman civilization and thus threaten the security of the state. Tertullian argues that Christians are law-abiding, hard-working (when they are allowed to be) and well-behaved, and that in turning against them the rulers of Rome are doing no more than allowing popular ignorance and prejudice to guide their counsels. It is important to note that such attitudes did not mean Tertullian was anti-Roman; he was a Roman citizen and did not want to see the Empire crumble: 'The success of Rome in expanding its borders and defending them was a gift of God. Like any Roman citizen Tertullian feared what might happen were the barbarians able to conquer the empire.'

Tertullian's concerns reflect his awareness that the Roman attitude during earlier periods had been one of toleration, in which Christians had to behave provocatively before any official notice was taken of them (as reflected in Pliny's letter, quoted above), and episodes of persecution were infrequent and usually related to specifically local conditions; Robin Lane Fox notes that before the year 250 'there are only three references to concerted action against Christians which deserve any consideration from historians'.

After this period, imperial edicts began to command persecution, a change that partly reflected the increasing threat posed to the empire by the barbarians pressing on the frontiers. The emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) made Christians the scapegoats for the problems the empire was facing; it is notable that he paid particular attention to Christians within the army, as the Christian writer Eusebius recorded.

A believer in the science of divining the future by reading livers, Diocletian was offended when Christians present at one of these rites made the sign of the cross on their foreheads. As the augurs claimed, the effect of the Christians' presence was that the spirits were frightened away and, after several repetitions of the rite, no sign was forthcoming in the livers. Diocletian responded by commanding everyone in the place to sacrifice, those refusing to be scourged. Simultaneously he sent letters to all legion commanders that any soldier who did not sacrifice was to be dismissed from the military.

This episode is interesting for emphasizing the importance of Roman religion as a socially, politically and militarily unifying force that Christians threatened to undermine, but also for revealing that even under Diocletian, Christians had to make a nuisance of themselves in some way before active measure would be taken against them -- and even then the measures taken were the much less than fatal ones of dismissal from military service.

Dissident elements within the imperial fold were seen by emperors such as Decius (AD 249-51), Valerian (AD 253-60) and Diocletian as a potential threat to security, and Christians, with their refusal to accept the state religion and thus, perhaps, the authority of the emperor himself, were seen as dissidents. They were also increasingly organized, numerous and powerful; as Tertullian remarked, 'We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you -- cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, -- we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.'

In the end it was that continuing expansion of Christianity that guaranteed not only its survival but its ultimate supplanting of paganism as the religion of imperial Rome itself. The critics of Christianity of the earlier empire were, in a sense, proved right; pagan Rome and Christianity were incompatible. The paradox was resolved by the triumph of the latter over the former, and a new civilization was the result.


Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Robert Doran, Birth of a Worldview: Early Christianity in its Jewish and Pagan Context (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).

Mark J. Edwards, et al., eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

John Helgeland, 'Christians and the Roman Army A.D. 173-337', Church History, vol. 43, no. 2 (June 1974).

Origen, Contra Celsus, in Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD325, volume IV (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1885), at:

Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

William R. Schoedel, 'Christian "Atheism" and the Peace of the Roman Empire', Church History, vol. 42, no. 3 (September 1973).

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves (London: Penguin, 1957, rev. edn. 1979).

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. Michael Grant (London: Penguin, 1956, rev. edn. 1971).

Tertullian, Apologeticum, in Clavis Patrum Latinorum, trans. E. Dekkers (Turnhout: Brepols, 3rd edn., 1995) at:

Joseph W. Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1993).

Molly Whittaker, Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).


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