Early Christianity did not develop in isolation, but within a complex landscape already occupied by belief systems, social networks, systems of identity, and political institutions, and it is essential not to regard it 'as somehow independent, as if the church were an entity existing apart from Christians living in particular times and places. Such a treatment neglects how the history of Christianity was influenced and shaped by its cultural environment.'
Foremost among the factors making up that environment was the Roman Empire, itself an amalgam of peoples, creeds and societies. The relationship between Christianity and pagan Rome was a complex and evolving one. This paper will examine Roman hostility to Christianity during this period, and aspects of Roman criticism of Christian belief.
In the earliest period of the Christian church's existence within the Roman Empire, Christians were commonly referred to as troublemakers, offending against Roman order and disturbing the Roman peace. The historian Tacitus gives an account of the repression of 'the notoriously depraved Christians' under the Emperor Nero (AD 54-68) in which he describes the new faith of the Christians in extremely unflattering terms:
Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.
The slightly later Roman historian Suetonius, who was writing in the early years of the second century AD, similarly described Christians them as 'causing continuous disturbances' in Rome 'at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ]' under the reign of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), who had them barred from the city as a result.
Officially, Christians were seen as practising a form of Judaism, and the Jewish religion was tolerated within the Empire. Difficulties arose for the Christians in their relations with Rome when some of the Jewish authorities, who opposed Christianity, sought to encourage Roman repression of them, and when particular aspects of Christian behavior offended Roman religious sensibilities. A particular bone of contention here was Christian refusal to take part in any way in the state religion of Rome. They would not worship the statues of the Roman gods, including images of the defied emperor himself, and would not purchase meat in the markets which they believed had come from animals sacrificed to pagan gods. When Pliny the Younger, as governor of Bithynia, wrote to the Emperor Trajan in c.110 AD to ask what he was to do with Christians in his province, he used their refusal to accept the rites of the imperial religion as a touchstone for judging the danger they posed to the state and whether they should be punished as criminals:
If they denied that they were or had been Christians, when, saying after me, they called upon the gods and with offerings of wine and incense prayed to your statue, which for this reason I had ordered to brought along with the images of the gods, if moreover they cursed Christ, none of which, it is said, can those who are truly Christians be forced to do. I thought that they should be let go.
It seems that 'it was not in the first instance their Christianity but their refusal to recognize the pagan gods which made their purposes suspect.'
This was the significance of the charge of 'atheism' that was laid against Christians, particularly from the second century AD onwards; to be an atheist was not to possess no religious belief, but to deny the traditional state gods of Rome.
Hostility to Christianity was widespread among Romans at all levels of society during the first three centuries of the Christian era. This period was characterized by the existence of a great range of religious practices and traditions: 'civic cults, private religious associations, official cults of the Roman state, and personal observances'
and it was not unusual for the adherents of these religions to attack each other with great ferocity. Many calumnies were spread about Christians during the periods of persecution: they were accused, for example, of cannibalism, incest, ritual murder, and worshipping the heads of animals, slanders that became well-rooted in Roman society and contributed to the widespread perception of Christians as an outcast sect of subversives and socially unreliable elements:
Is it not deplorable that men of an illegal sect, beyond hope or cure, should attack the gods? From the lowest dregs they collect the ignoramuses, and also credulous women, gullible because of their sex, and form the common herd of an impious conspiracy, whose members are linked together by nocturnal meetings and solemn fasts and inhuman foods, not by any sacred rite but by crime.
These words were placed in the mouth of a pagan named Caecilius in a dialogue called Octavius, written by Minucius Felix, a Christian convert, in the first half of the third century. It indicates how enduring these libels against the Christians were among the Romans during the years of the early church.
Such criticisms of Christians were not found only among the lower social orders of the Empire but also in the writings of intellectuals, historians and philosophers. The work of the philosopher Celsus (2nd century AD) provides one example. His text, known as The True Word or The True Account is a notable instance of anti-Christian writing.
It has not survived itself, but we have indirect access to Celsus's arguments through the great work of Christian apologetics which his text inspired: Against Celsus by the theologian Origen (3rd century AD). Celsus's view of Christianity is that it is incoherent, baseless, nonsensical and dangerous. He rejects the notion put forward by some of the Christian apologetic writers of the previous century -- perhaps most notably by Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-165) -- that a partial understanding of Christianity is present in some works of pagan philosophy, and that Christianity stands as a completion or fulfilment of the Platonist tradition of philosophy.
For Celsus the weakness of Christianity is that it has no tradition; it is not built upon previous systems of belief but is a breakaway movement of Judaism -- a religion for which he has harsh words, but which he does recognize as possessing an identity based on national and traditional lineage. Christianity lacks these characteristics and rests on an overturning of established customs and practices, which makes it a dangerous and destabilizing presence in society:
whatever is done among each nation in this way would be rightly done, wherever it was agreeable to the wishes (of the superintending powers), while it would be an act of impiety to get rid of the institutions established from the beginning in the various places.
Furthermore, the Christian conception of God is capricious and incoherent. God, if he is God, is beyond change and decay, yet Christians argue he was incarnated in this world that is full of change and decay. How, then, can he remain purely divine? This confusion is offensive to Celsus who 'would not have the creator God leave heaven':
God is good, and beautiful, and blessed, and that in the best and most beautiful degree. But if he come down among men, he must undergo a change, and a change from good to evil, from virtue to vice, from happiness to misery, and from best to worst. Who, then, would make choice of such a change? It is the nature of a mortal, indeed, to undergo change and remoulding, but of an immortal to remain the same and unaltered. God, then, could not admit of such a change.
The argument here is for a clear divide between the realms of the divine and the earthly, a divide which Christians undermine. This is particularly antagonistic to the pagan Roman religion which ultimately held divinity to be unknowable and remote from human experience, which could only approach it through practices rooted in earthly society: 'Cults and images ... were valid only because they existed already and encouraged civic cohesion; the nature of god was unknowable'.
For Celsus, the Christians appropriate the Hebrew scriptures, taking up the idea of God as the creator of the cosmos, but add the figure of Jesus as God who has the power to save them. Celsus argues that they fail to make of this a coherent doctrine, which is one instance of the anti-rational and ignorant nature of their faith. The Christians, charges Celsus, take beliefs and doctrines with little understanding from the established polytheistic religions and from the Judaism which is their own unacknowledged basis, and distort them without understanding. Many Christian ideas, he argues, 'are stated much better among the Greeks (than in the Scriptures). And in a manner which is free from all exaggerations and promises on the part of God, or the Son of God',
while the doctrines of cosmic creation and other primordial events are borrowed, via Moses and without real…