Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Early Years

How did Christianity appear to the men and women of the Roman Empire?  How did it look to the outsider before it became the established religion of western Europe and Byzantium?

These are the questions Wilken intends to answer in this book.  We know the story up until we find John on the island of Patmos, primarily through the book of Acts and through Paul’s letters.  We know the story of Constantine and his adoption of the faith – giving Christianity political authority for the first time. 

But what of the story in-between?  How was this sect seen by those in power: a military threat, a political threat, a source for revolution…or no threat at all?  Wilken will answer the questions not by examining the works of Christian authors, but through the observations of pagan observers of Christianity (albeit, we often only have excerpts of these writings captured in rebuttals offered by later Christian apologists).

Pliny called Christianity a “superstition”; Celsus wrote that Jesus was magician and sorcerer.  Porphyry, Julian, Galen and Lucian are also considered.  These authors cover a period of almost three hundred years – from the early second century into the late fourth century.  Wilken does not address if the criticisms are true or not; he is only after presenting the Roman view of Christianity (and “Roman” is meant to include both Roman and Greek authors).

In the earliest years, Christianity went virtually unnoticed:

For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire.

Pliny the Elder (Pliny’s uncle and, later, adopted father) wrote his Natural History a generation after the death of Jesus; in the section on Palestine, there is not a single mention of Christianity.  The first mention of the sect by a Roman writer occurs about eighty years after the beginning of Christianity.  To the extent the Christians were noticed, non-Christians saw the Christian community as “tiny, peculiar, antisocial, [and an] irreligious sect…” 

As mentioned, much of what Wilken would find from these authors regarding Christianity comes from Christian apologists in response – these Christian texts have been better preserved.  The debates at the time are the debates many still have today (albeit without even understanding the earlier arguments): creation out of nothing; faith vs. reason; the status and relation of Jesus to God; the historical reliability of the Scriptures.

Early in the second century, Pliny was sent as provincial governor of Bithynia-Pontus, on the northern coast of Asia Minor.  His assignments were numerous: look into irregularities in the handling of funds, examine the municipal administrations, put down potentially political disorders, deal with pending criminal cases, and investigate the military situation.  As can be seen, the sect of Christianity would be considered among a couple of these assignments.

When Pliny wrote of the Christians, he used the same term for club – hetaeria – as he used to described a firemen’s association.  The concern in both cases: would these clubs restrict themselves strictly to professional or social concerns, or would these turn political – eventually revolutionary?

Somewhere between the cities of Amisus and Amastris, Pliny wrote his famous letter regarding Christians.  It is not clear in which city the activities described were occurring – it can only be said that it was one of the coastal cities of northern Pontus.

A group of local citizens approached him to complain about the Christians in the vicinity.  The precise complaint is unknown, but it is possible to infer that the charge was brought by the local butchers: the Christians refused to buy meat for the sacrifice.  Whatever the specific trouble, this was unusual: in most areas of the Empire, Christians lived peaceably among their neighbors. 

Although [Pliny] expected to find evidence of Christian crimes, he found none.  He discovered instead that the rites were innocuous. …All Pliny found was a superstition, a foreign cult.

They would meet to chant verses in honor of Christ as if to a god; they would bind to each other by oath – but not for any criminal purpose, as they would abstain from theft, robbery and adultery; to commit no breach of trust.

With all this, he still summoned the accused Christians to confess: a yes answer would result in execution: per Wilken, “Christians were culpable for the sake of the name alone.”  He did not have authority to execute those Christians who were also Roman citizens; their fate is unknown.  Pliny would write: “Whatever the nature of their admission, I am not convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.”

Charges would increase in other cities; anonymously authored pamphlets were circulated, listing dozens of “suspects.”  Pliny would devise a method to better test the confessions: repeat the formula of invocation to the gods; make an offering to Trajan’s statue; revile the name of Christ.  Such a test had few, if any, precedents in Roman history. 

Trajan would concur with this formula, and add: “…pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation.”


From such beginnings, Christianity would eventually be able to conquer – for all of the good and bad that came with this – the largest empire in the western world.  But there are still a couple of centuries before this occurrence; these will be reviewed in subsequent posts.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Why Sacrifice Isaac?

NB: I know that this book crosses pretty far into the “Christian” side of the discussion here, but I am reviewing it in some detail for a couple of reasons: first, I think the problem of no pain directly contributes to the meaning crisis which directly contributes to the loss of purpose in man, and therefore to our loss of liberty; second, I want to understand better the counter to a tired criticism – if God is love, why is there pain?

Since the life of Christ is every way most bitter to nature and the Self and the Me (for in the true life of Christ, the Self and the Me and nature must be forsaken and lost and die altogether), therefore in each of us, nature hath a horror of it.

Theologia Germanica, XX

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis

Lewis offers the example of an accomplished artist.  One can envision such an artist sketching a quick picture for a young child, not so concerned about details or exactness.  But what of the painting meant for grand display?  Are we not that for God?

One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute.  In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but less.

The more that a father loves his son, the more care he takes in the son’s development; sometimes the form of this care is less than agreeable to the son.  Love is something far more than ensuring a son’s continuous happiness:

The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.

Why would a good God allow such pain?  Who says that His paramount objective is to ensure such pain is never experienced?  Who says that the avoidance of our pain is God’s purpose?

To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God…. I do not think I should value much the love of a friend who cared only for my happiness and did not object to my becoming dishonest.

Unless we are asking our friend to no longer be our friend.

…man, as a species, spoiled himself…good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.

Pain plays some part in the remedy.  We see this every day: one decides to pick himself up only after he recognizes and understands that he has hit bottom.  Without this recognition, no remediation would take place.

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.  Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.

Once we accept this, we can understand pain.  Why would we expect paradise and peace in a world of fallen man?  As we are fallen, why would we not want to learn how to get up?  As we are weak, why would we not want to learn the measure of our true strength?

Per Lewis: Good descends to us from God; evil is produced by rebellious man; God exploits that evil for His purpose; this produces the complex good to which accepted suffering contributes. 

It is my understanding that one of the primary reasons for the exponential growth of the early Church was its work in alleviating the pain and suffering of those living under the yoke of Rome.


Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed to God…

But as St Augustine points out, whatever God knew, Abraham at any rate did not know that his obedience could endure such a command until the event taught him: and the obedience which he did not know that he would choose, he cannot be said to have chosen.


I had to look up the Theologia Germanica – the source of the quote at the beginning of this post – wanting to understand something about it.  It was written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous author.  According to Martin Luther:

Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book has ever come into my hands from which I have learned more of God and Christ, and man and all things that are.

So, Luther loved it.  John Calvin, on the other hand:

…says it is "conceived by Satan's cunning... it contains a hidden poison which can poison the church."

The Church placed it on the list of prohibited books in 1612; it remained on the list until the latter half of the twentieth century.