Early Critics of the Ancient Church: Epictetus & Galen

24 Nov


Over the next few weeks, I am going to write mini-blurbs about some of the main pagan critics from that early period. Most of my selections come before The Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. Church historian J.G. Davies comments on the late fourth century: “With Theodosius’ victory on 6th September 394 the pagan resistance collapsed and the unsuccessful struggle for a lost cause came to an end” (The Early Christian Church: A History of its First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980 reprint), 215). 394 AD can be delineated as a sort of terminus ad quem for paganism proper, as Christian orthodoxy became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius. Eventually, Theodosius even prohibited most pagan forms of religious expression (see Charles Freeman, A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. New York: The Overlook Press, 2009). 

I have not included every single negative statement uttered by any pagan critic; some statements are either so brief or cryptic as to barely warrant much notice. Some of these include Crescens, the Cynic philosopher who called Christian “atheistic” and “impious”, per Justin Martyr; Apuleius, the North African author of the Golden Ass (ca. 127-171 AD); possibly Juvenal, where he says that “Syrian Orontes flows into the Tiber”; and maybe even the historian Dio Cassius. There are also minutes from court proceedings where the prosecutors make disparaging remarks against the plaintiff’s Christianity. I  survey some of the criticisms of key figures, especially those who wrote whole works against Christianity. Here are some of the guys I will cover:

 Epictetus, 135 AD
Galen, 199 AD
Fronto, 160 AD
Marcus Aurelius, 166 AD
Lucian of Samosata, 200 AD
Celsus, 170 AD
Porphyry, 300 AD 

 ImageEpictetus the Moralist

Epictetus (died circa 135 AD), an ex-slave who became a Stoic moralist, refers to Christians once (that we know). In a lecture recorded by a student named Arrian, Epictetus makes this statement: “If madness can produce this attitude toward these things, and also habit, as with the Galileans, can no one learn from reason and demonstration that God has made everything in the universe, and the whole universe itself, to be unhampered and self-sufficient, and the parts of it for the use of the whole?”

Epictetus is observing that Christians are crazed and live a lifestyle reflective of a detached attitude towards material things, family ties, and even life itself (this is the context of the discussion surrounding these comments in Discourses 4.7.6).

ImageGalen the Physician

The philosopher physician Galen (130-199 AD) viewed Christianity as a school in which blind faith triumphed over evidence and reason: “the followers of Moses and Christ order them to accept everything on faith…” (as quoted from an Arabic version of On the Prime Unmoved Mover in Richard Walzer, Galen on the Jews and Christians. London: Oxford University Press, 1949, 13-15.) For this reason, Galen says it is pointless to talk to people like this. In his indictment he lumps physicians with unprovable theories in with both Jews and Christians (De Pulsuum Differentiis 2.4; 3.3). In one place, Galen says the cosmogony of Moses is better than that of Epicurus but he still condemns the former’s reliance on intelligent design as a sort of “god of the gaps theory” (this is my slightly anachronistic reading of section 11.4 in On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, circa 170 AD).

Even though Galen is critical of many biblical ideals, he is more curious than hostile. Galen even pays Christianity a philosophical compliment (of sorts) by viewing it more as a school of philosophy rather than a deranged foreign cult (like some of his contemporaries). Galen has a smidgen of begrudging respect for its practitioners: “…we now see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables and miracles, and yet sometimes acting in the same way as those who practice philosophy. For their contempt of death and of its sequel is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation.” He goes on to say this includes both men and women and says they have “self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers” (from Galen’s Libr. Ord. as quoted in Walzer’s Galen…, p 15). From this, it is clear Galen respected the moral lifestyle of many Christians but found their underlying reasons ignorant and blind.


Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing a D. Min at Talbot. Follow him on Twitter @VocabMalone

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