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.


  1. Pliny would write: “Whatever the nature of their admission, I am not convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.” – BM

    There are three negatives in this statement and it really threw me off. I had to puzzle through it repeatedly before I figured it out. Eventually, to make sure I had it right, I wrote out all the variables of the phrase “ought not to go unpunished”, as shown here:

    1. ought not to go unpunished
    2. ought not to go punished
    3. ought to go unpunished
    4. ought to go punished

    1 and 4 are equivalent and result in punishment. 2 and 3 are equivalent and result in non-punishment.

    What Pliny appears to be saying is that the ‘stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy’ of these people ought to be punished. It is not so much the ‘nature of their admission’ (confession of the crime or the crime itself, for that matter) which irritated him, it was the fact that they would not recant their beliefs. They knew what they believed and would not change regardless of any amount of outside pressure, including the distinct possibility that they might lose their lives because of their stand.

    That Pliny said he was ‘not convinced’ shows that he either had some doubts about his actions, or that others had tried to persuade him that he was wrong, or perhaps both. None of this mattered. He had already made up his mind to punish them if they refused to back down. This sounds to me like one stubborn, obstinate person with a lot of power taking it out on other stubborn, obstinate persons with very little or none, perhaps uncomfortable with the protocol, but refusing to change anything about it.

    This is the religion of power. It is no different today than it was then. There can be no deviation from the official, approved pattern of thought. If you choose to buck it, you will be punished.

  2. “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.” – BM

    America, in more ways than one, has been compared with the Roman Empire. There is some weight to this. Certainly, worship of State power, the military, and the welfare/pleasure system (bread/circus distractions) are comparable. I think it is also safe to say that the condition we are currently in bears some resemblance to Tsarist Russia, just before the Bolshevik Revolution and the concurrent civil wars.

    Regardless, if Christianity was able to conquer the Roman empire, then the question to ask is whether it will be able to conquer the American one. We know from history how Rome fell and the changes that ensued. What did the Christians do then, if anything, to effect that? How did they live in the immediate chaos and survive to tell about their experience? What can we do? Indeed, as Francis Schaeffer wrote, “How should we then live?”

    Of one thing I am certain. The use of violence and power will not work for us. It will only make things worse. Instead, we have to go through the process, defending ourselves personally if possible, but turning the other cheek as necessary. We may have to suffer the pain and punishment that comes with non-conformity, always holding to our belief that Jesus will eventually come through.

    It is a mistake to believe that all this will be corrected in an instant. The Roman state gradually fell apart and disappeared over centuries. The modern one may (or may not) take longer. We are in this for the long haul and need to see it through to the end.

  3. Great post. The interaction between Romans and Christians is a most interesting subject. Now we know from the old Testament that Jews had multiple wives. It is apparently from their assimilation into Roman society that this tradition was reworked to incorporate the Roman norm of monogamy. As well the Romans were apparently rather prudish in comparison to the Jews. Christian chasteness and monogamy appear to be Roman characteristics absorbed into Judaism and re-expressed in Christianity. I sometimes wonder whether it is not more accurate to say that discourses from one culture collide, modify and are modified by the discourses of another with sustained contact, as much as one culture can be said to have conquered another.
    And at the risk of getting off topic but in the spirit of the season, my understanding is that the Puritan tradition in the US forbade Christmas festivities. It was not until the arrival of the Germans in the 19th century that what we now know as Christmas was able to overcome and displace the puritan Christian anti Christmas discourse and establish itself as the great universal Christian tradition in the US. The greatest Christmas carol 'Silent Night' was composed by two Austrians in 1816 ultimately finding its way into American society when translated by the Episcopalian priest John Freeman Young in 1859 while at New York City's Trinity Church, in of all places the very heart of what is now the Wall Street financial district. Christmas carols in general seem to bear the stamp of the more cultivated Episcopalian Christianity of the 19th century with their soothing music and text evoking such intense feelings of optimism, calm, and wonder.