Book review: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Robert Louis Wilken

From a famous skeptic of Christianity:

“But we must examine this question whether anyone who really died ever rose again with the same body.  […]  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, 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 […] 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?” (Wilken 111)

This quote could easily come from any contemporary critic of Christianity.  But in fact it comes from Celsus, second-century Roman, whose massive attack on Christianity, True Doctrine, evoked an eight-book reply from Origen.  Celsus is one of the cultured Roman despisers of Christianity covered in Robert Louis Wilken’s fascinating and compact book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.  On the surface, Wilken’s book is only a historical work.  But it does not take long to find that his subject, apologetics in the apostolic age, can teach us a thing or two about apologetics now.

So what can we learn?

First, we can learn that all criticism of Christianity is contextual.  Some of the criticisms we hear today may be nothing new, but their context can be very different.  The claim that Jesus never claimed to be divine and that the early Christian community later divinized him is not new.  That was advanced in the third century by Porphyry.  Yet Porphyry appeals not to Jesus Seminar theories, but to the fact that most Jews do not accept Christ as divine, and only a small number of Jews have ever been in the Christian sect.  If this man was their god, would they not follow him?

Wilken also drives home the point that early Christians learned from their critics.  Second-century physician and philosopher Galen pointed out that the creation story in Genesis runs counter to the Greek concept of creation.  Some Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr had stressed the parallels between Plato and Christianity, as both described a deity who creates the world.  But, Galen noted, Plato described a god who created the world out of existing matter.  And this runs counter to the description of God’s creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1.  Thanks to his criticism of what he considered to be the philosophical school of Christianity, Christian thinkers clarified and solidified their view of creation ex nihilo.

For apologists almost two millennia later, this can be a reminder of the commonality we share with our skeptical, nonbeliever friends: we both seek truth.  On one level, we seem antagonistic, because we engage in debate and seek to persuade them of our truth.  But on another level, we are also partners in the act of truth-seeking, a quest that many people don’t bother to engage in.  And in seeking truth together through debate, we may better understand our own positions as well as better seeing the flaws in others’.  So we should thank our skeptics for helping us grow in wisdom.

So did early Christians take their critics seriously?  Back to Wilken:

“Christian apologists believed that the Christian way had significance for all people. If it were to be intelligible it had to be set forth in the universal language of reason.  The ‘teachings of our faith,’ wrote Origen, are ‘in complete accord with the universal notions.’  That pagans continued to write books against the Christians for three hundred years is evidence that they took the ideas of Christian thinkers seriously.” (199)

And it is our calling to represent Christian thinking seriously enough that the pagans of today will still take us seriously.  Wilken’s book is worth reading to see how Christians of a different time and place did so.


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About Jonathan Homrighausen

After growing up as a religious none, Jonathan was baptized and became Catholic at 19. He now studies theology, religion, Greek, Hebrew, and Buddhism at a Catholic university in California.