"Over against all that reason suggests or would measure and fathom, yes, all that our senses feel and perceive, we must learn to cling to the Word and simply judge according to it."
The Christians as the Romans Saw Them
by: Stephen C. Lomax
Because we are especially familiar with the historical record of the times left us by the Church fathers and apologists in the generations directly succeeding the apostles, we are apt to overlook any other. Pagan observations of the Christians living amongst them indeed are meager in comparison to the documentation we have from Christians themselves. Our knowledge, for example, of Celsus’ charges come not from a surviving document authored by him, but from the many quotes from Celsus contested by the early Church father, Origin, in his massive eight volume polemic, Contra Celsus (Contra Celsum). Thus the existing record tends to confirm the adage that history is written by the victors for, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD, Christianity became state-sanctioned under revised religious toleration statutes. Many pagan manuscripts explicitly critical of Christians and the Church were destroyed in due time.
The Roman citizen in the street at that time (commendable cultural traits are accentuated) was pious in ritual observances, zealously honored his ancestors, and his religion was largely of a “civil” type (religion bound to the State), featuring “Emperor worship.” He was orderly, industrious, a respecter of subordination, disciplined but enterprising, possessed an original genius for organization, temperamentally favored action over contemplation, and was open to foreign influences, all of which served things practical rather than abstract. Much of this seems distinctly American.
At the same time, the Romans were energetically extending themselves in every direction through road-building, their legions on the march or under sail. The Roman Empire is a hitherto unexampled demonstration of how a moderately gifted people -- for they never produced a Plato, Aristotle, or Thucydides -- could rise and rule for hundreds of years over virtually the entire known world.
These are the people, along with Jews living in Rome, in words the Holy Spirit communicated to him by inspiration (II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:21) to whom St. Paul wrote. Soon enough reproach and cruel pitiless persecution would be inflicted on the earliest Christians by the greater pagan society surrounding them. Though some Emperors were more temperate and equitable than others, it is nonetheless obvious from that which we will read that most pagan Romans found Christians a detestable and strange people. They also found many Christians to be intractably faithful to Christ even under threat of death.
The record is clear that the upper and ruling classes in Rome in this period had become morally depraved, manifested in lawlessness and repellent behavior. Years of affluence had softened them physically and corrupted sound judgment. Evidence indicates that the criminal libertinism of the higher and ruling classes was beginning to crop up in the lower (freedmen) classes as well.1 It is our hope that this collection of comments from Roman era historians and other critics of the new religion (Christianity) will usefully serve as background as we progress through St. Paul’s letter to the congregations in Rome.
The historian Tacitus (56-117AD) in this narrative explains the Emperor Nero’s solution to his dilemma in fixing accountability for the fire he set in Rome; his botched attempt, you might say, at “urban renewal”:
The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sybilline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the Emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration [setting the city on fire] was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite torture on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the same extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for a moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.2
The Younger Pliny (61-113AD), a gentleman and trusted court favorite of the Emperor Trajan, was well-equipped by previous posts for his special commission in Asia Minor, the province of Bithynia located along the south coast of the Black Sea. But his task was dicey for several reasons: 1) political disorder was endemic to the region; 2) municipal bankruptcy due to unregulated public spending; 3) and manifold irregularities in administration both local and central.3 We shall see that the first of the three problems, especially, influences his treatment of Christians:
#96 - Pliny to the Emperor Trajan:
It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and to inform my ignorance.
I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.
For the moment this is the line that I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for punishment; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.
There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial [see Acts 25:10-12, 21; 26:32].
Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Amongst these I consider that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into the court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.
Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.
I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of the sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent.
#97- Trajan to Pliny [in reply]:
You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.4
Trajan’s reply to Pliny’s letter is most interesting. While generally commending the policies and methods of inquiry Pliny has set in place, he enunciates an approach to the problem that is less aggressive, bidding Pliny trust firm evidence only and not hearsay, and whose general tone, strange to say, sounds something like our “don’t ask / don’t tell” military policy.
The historian of the first twelve Caesars, Augustus to Domitian, provides a lively account of their generally lurid lives. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69/75-130AD), or simply Suetonius, also speaks of the Christians, albeit briefly:
Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [i.e., Christ], he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from the City [see Acts 18:2, St. Luke the historian is corroborated].5
After the great fire at Rome, Nero introduced his own new style of architecture: building out porches from the fronts of tenements and private houses to serve as fire-fighting platforms, and subsidizing the work himself. …..… Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief; …6
We should clarify the first statement. According to the translator, Robert Graves, “Chrestus,” a mangled Latinism for Christ, stands in the text because Suetonius failed to confirm his sources or adequately proof-read the text, or is a copyist’s error from the original autograph. And he obviously cannot mean “disturbances” were attributable to Christ, who ascended many years before this was written, but rather “at the instigation of” His teachings.
Celsus was a conservative philosopher of Greek Stoicism, who lived in the 2nd century:
At the time when he [i.e., Christ] was disbelieved while in the body, he preached without restraint to all; but when he would establish a strong faith after arising from the dead, he appeared secretly to just one woman and to those of his own associates [i.e., the apostles].7
Celsus here suggests that Jesus has founded a “secret association” or “club” based on His behavior upon rising from the grave, which seems to contradict that of His public ministry. Celsus knew his audience: his words would not be lost on Roman officials, for whom “clubs” typically meant ill political ramifications and consequent disorder. He’s inciting suspicion and fear. Moreover, his reason blanches at the idea that one who has conquered death would not come back swathed in glory and world-conquering power (see Is. 55:8).
Dio Cassius (155/164-229AD) was a historian in Bithynia; his words (a presumed speech by another to Augustus) nearly constitute a commentary on Pliny’s letter to Trajan about the Christians:
If you wish to become immortal pursue a life of virtue and worship the divine according to the traditions of your fathers … Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should abhor and punish, not merely for the sake of the gods, but such men by bringing in new divinities in place of the old, persuade many to adopt foreign practices, from which spring up conspiracies, factions and political clubs which are far from profitable to a monarchy. Do not therefore permit anyone to be an atheist or a sorcerer.8
Crescens, a Cynic philosopher about whom we know very little other than he lived in the 2nd century, called Christians “atheistic” and “impious.”9
The Emperor Hadrian (76-138AD), successor to Trajan, continued his predecessor’s somewhat equanimous policy toward the Christians:
If the inhabitants of the province can clearly sustain the petition against the Christians so as to give answer in a court of law, let them pursue this course alone, but let them not have resort to men’s petitions and outcries … But, by Hercules, if anyone bring any accusation through mere calumny, decide in regard to his [i.e., the accusers] criminality, and see to it you inflict punishment.10
The philosopher Galen (129-200AD) wrote extensively on the sciences of the day. Here he comments on the OT Scriptures:
It is precisely this point [i.e., the idea that God could have made man out of stone if he had wished to do so] in which our own opinion and that of Plato and of the other Greeks who followed the right method in the natural science differ from the position taken up by Moses. For the later it seems enough to say that God simply willed the arrangement of matter and it was precisely arranged in due order; for he believes everything to be possible with God, even should he wish to make a bull or a horse out of ashes. We, however, do not hold this; we say that certain things are impossible by nature and that God does not even attempt such things at all but that he chooses the best out of the possibilities of becoming.11
The author, Robert L. Wilkin, explains Galen’s words, “Galen’s criticism is directed at the account of creation in Genesis.” We note that Galen speaks of God using already existent matter (as if it, like God, were eternal), not creating matter, when He created all that is. Galen rejects creatio ex nihilo -- creation out of nothing -- which Moses in Genesis teaches.12
We return to and will conclude with some additional commentary from Celsus:
It was by magic that he [Jesus] was able to do the miracles which he appeared to have done. … Christians get the power which they seem to possess by pronouncing the names of certain daemons and incantations.13
[Jesus belonged among the] sorcerers who profess to do wonderful miracles … who for a few obols [Latin colloquialism: i.e., for pennies] make known their sacred lore in the middle of the market place and drive daemons out of men and blow away diseases and invoke the souls of heroes.14
God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in a most beautiful state. If then he comes down to men, he must undergo a change, a change from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked … It is the nature only of a mortal being to under-go change and remolding, whereas it is the nature of an immortal being to remain the same without alteration. Accordingly, God could not be capable of undergoing this change.
It is evident Celsus is conversant in the NT literature, for he mocks the miraculous, the supernatural found throughout its books. His principal task is to discredit any notion that Jesus is anything other than a compelling moral teacher. In fact his sarcasm is so rich that “his” Jesus amounts to little more than a posturing fraud. Too, he is rejects the cardinal doctrine of incarnation: that Jesus, the Son of God, is God and man, and sinless. How, Celsus muses, could God be a man?
God is the father of all and that we really ought to worship him alone. … [But the Christians make Jesus equal to God] not because they are paying very great reverence to God but because they are exalting Jesus excessively.15
But we must examine and question whether anyone who really died ever rose again with the same body. Or do you [he is now addressing Christians] think that the stories of these others [i.e., pagan mythology] really are the legends which they appear to be, and yet that the ending of your tragedy is to be regarded as noble and convincing -- his cry from the cross when he expired, and the earthquake and the darkness! While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who say this? A hysterical female [i.e., Mary Magdalene], as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress the others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a chance for other beggars.16
What was wrong with you [Christians] that you left the law of your fathers, and being deluded by that man [Jesus] whom we were addressing just now, were quite ludicrously deceived and have deserted us for another name and another life?17
We will examine Celsus’ arguments in order. In the first excerpt he attacks Trinitarian doctrine. We infer from his words that Celsus is a convinced monotheist. He disbelieves the polytheistic legends, though he leaves open whether neo-platonic “hierarchies” are true, but he would be satisfied if the Christians acknowledged one God only (see Matt. 28:19; the three Creeds, particularly the Athanasian). In the second, Celsus rejects the resurrection of Christ, attributing the accounts in the NT record to hysteria or delusion, or, as he suggests at last, sheer fabrication (see I Cor. 1:18, 3:19). Third and last, he mockingly scores Christians, of which many were Jews, for deserting the patrimony of their fathers. This to a Roman deserved the severest condemnation, for such action in the end undermines the state as well as public morals. He does not (or cares not) understand that Jesus Christ came to fulfill the law, not abrogate it (see Matt. 5:18).
There is almost nothing about Christians with which Celsus does not find himself in opposition:
[Christians do not] accept public office in our country … for the sake of the preservation of the laws of piety. … [Celsus cites Matt.6:44 and calls it a] seditious word [or “word of revolution”] … [of] people who wall themselves off and break away from the rest of mankind.18
Here he accuses them of sectarian, cultic, or “club” behavior. This immediately puts Christians under watchful suspicion by the State. Such associations in other contexts often were the seedbed of public disorder.
We end our citations with a piece of acid-dripping satire. In Celsus’ words his contempt for Christians and their beliefs keep breaking out:
Everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life and of resurrection of the flesh by the tree -- I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he had happened to be thrown off a cliff, or pushed into a pit, or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stonemason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life above the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather. Would not an old woman who sings a story to lull a little child to sleep have been ashamed to whisper such tales as these.19
The aforementioned criticisms of Christianity are incomplete but are representative of what Romans intellectuals thought in the times of the apostles and beyond and probably echoed the opinion of many a citizen. More sophisticated scoffers were yet to come. For instance, Porphyry (223-309AD), a formidably learned neo-platonic philosopher, and the last pagan Emperor, Julian (332-363AD), called the Apostate because he was raised in a Christian home but rejected Christ in adulthood to return to the paganism of his forefathers, were both implacably set against the Christians. Julian in fact was one of the early Church’s most persistent persecutors. However, they are beyond the scope of our paper.
A final thought in summary. We have listed many complaints against the early Christians. It should not then surprise us when visitors to St. Paul, who is incarcerated in a Roman prison, tell him regarding believers and the Church “that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22). Nonetheless, the root grievance the pagans harbored against the followers of Christ has mostly been hidden. Like an undercurrent, deep water you never see because of constant surface agitation, is hostility and contempt for the Christian doctrine of exclusivity (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12; Phil. 2:9). The Triune God of the Christians alone is true -- all other gods are false. No pagan system claimed as much for itself and the Romans, syncretists20 to the marrow -- with their major and lesser divinities, deified Emperors, and exalted human virtue -- despised Christians most of all for asserting that they alone possessed the truth.
Suggestion for further reading:
1. All the books listed in the footnotes (below).
2. Trans., Williamson, G.A.; Eusebius: The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine: Dorset Press, 1984 [hardcover reprint edition; orig. 1965]
3. Mattingly, Harold; The Man in the Roman Street: Norton, 1966 [orig. Numismatic Review, 1947]
4. Trans., Bull, C.R.L., Rev. Anthony; Giuseppe Ricciotti: The Age of the Martyrs: Christianity from Diocletian to Constantine: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1992 [reprint edition, orig., 1953]; this book falls outside our time period but is a valuable, accurate narrative of the facts of the worst seasons of persecution up to Constantine;
1 Ed., Hadas, Moses; The Complete Works of Tacitus: Modern Library, 1942, see Annals and The History
2 Ed., Hadas, Moses; The Complete Works of Tacitus: Modern Library, 1942, pgs. 380-381, (Annals, 15:44) here and hereafter all emphases within quotes are the compiler’s
3 Trans., Radice, Betty; The Letters of the Younger Pliny: Penquin Books, 1963; Introduction pg. 18
4 Ibid; Letters of the Younger Pliny, pgs. 293-295
5 Translator, Graves, Robert; Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars: Penguin Books, 1957, pg. 197
6 Ibid; The Twelve Caesars, pgs. 216-217
7 Wilkin, Robert L.; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them: Yale Univ. Pr., 1984, pg. 45
8 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 61
9 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. 68
10 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. 68
11 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pgs. 86-87
12 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 87
13 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 98
14 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 100
15 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pgs. 105-106
16 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 111
17 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 115
18 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 118
19 Ibid; The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pg. 96
20 Syncretism: “Both a tendency and a movement, … meaning ‘to be strong together,’ ‘to stand united,’ [or] ‘to mix up.’ Syncretism is practically a synonym for unionism, for it signifies the perverse attempts to combine unlike and irreconcilable elements in the interests of a false union.” - unsigned article; eds., Fuerbringer, Engelder, Kretzmann; The Concordia Cyclopedia: 1927, St. Louis, Mo., pg. 741. [The term defined above is theological and appropriately applied to Roman pagan religious belief and practice, which resembled nothing so much as a buffet-style build your own salad bar which, so long as one doesn’t insist that their salad alone is nutritious, is acceptable.]