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1 Nov


No discussion on critics of the ancient church would be complete without the most salient of them all – the pagan intellectual Celsus.

He wrote a polemical tour de force titled True Doctrine (also translated as True Word, True Account or True Discourse), published in the late second century (ca.  170 AD). Celsus’ attack was the first all-out – and informed – salvo we have on Christianity. More than a passing comment or a veiled allusion; it was a collection of objections contra Christianity.

Initially, Celsus seems to have been overlooked by Christians but a century later Origen felt it was prudent to respond to the work in his Against Celsus (ca. 246 AD). The strange thing about Origen going toe to toe with the ghost of Celsus is both were essentially Platonists! They held in common many presuppositions, though Origen saw God as personal and Celsus did not, for Celsus believed Christianity’s “doctrine of a divine intervention in history is incompatible with Platonic axioms”.[1] Celsus, a a philosopher of the Middle Platonist school, did not reject everything in Christianity outright (e.g., the Logos doctrine, certain ethical principles, etc.).

I have a begrudging respect for Celsus and readily admit some of his arguments went unanswered by Christian apologists, even the illuminative Origen. In a twist of history that would probably surprise both men, the way we have Celsus’ True Doctrine preserved today is because Origen quoted Celsus at-length in his response work, Contra Celsum.





Celsus attacked the church out of genuine love for the Roman Empire, which he felt was being undermined. Celsus chided Christians as “sectarians “. Celsus was annoyed, perhaps even frightened that Christianity was not linked to any one state or place. Henry Chadwick says “Celsus was the first known person to realize this non-political, quietist, and pacifist community had in its power to transform the social and political order of the empire” and that “it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata” [2]. This is something Celsus did not want.

Celsus – like many Roman gentlemen – was a social conservative in a certain sense of the word. Celsus had misgivings about polytheism but still defended more traditional Roman religious views. Celsus claimed at hero shrines, the gods can be seen in human form and they do not appear only once “in a secretive and stealthy manner like the fellow who deceived the Christians” [Origen, Against Celsus 7.35]. Celsus lists positive benefits some have experienced from oracles: wisdom, revelation, miracle signs, appearances, health, and prophetic utterances which are fulfilled [Against Celsus 8.45].

This general Roman attitude, which Celsus displayed, was one reason the Romans gave Jews a degree of freedom in their religious practice – it was old: “”As the Jews, then, became a peculiar people, and enacted laws in keeping with the customs of their country, and maintain them up to the present time, and observe a mode of worship which, whatever be its nature, is yet derived from their fathers…” [Against Celsus 5.25]. Christianity was novel, though, and Celsus even mocked this new faith for not having buildings!

Celsus discerned Christianity was not like Judaism: it was not limited to a certain ethnic group; people of all backgrounds were converting to Christianity. Celsus explained Christian unity in light of sociology: “Their agreement is quite amazing, the more so as it may be shown to rest on no trustworthy foundation.” The thing that binds them together, Celsus believes, is persecution; this helps their cause.



Generally speaking, Celsus did not uncritically repeat wild rumors floating around about Christianity. Instead, Celsus launched attacks where it would hurt. He was not given to attacking straw men, for Celsus “was a man who relied not on rumors and hearsay evidence but on personal observation and careful study” [3]. Celsus took time and effort to study Christianity to dissect it properly. He studied the Hebrew Scriptures and some of the gospels (he at least knew Matthew, Luke and 1 Corinthians).

He probably had personal contact with Christians. He claimed he knew what appear to be hyper-Charismatics (Montanists, perhaps?) in both Palestine and Phoenicia – he even quotes some of their ecstatic utterances [Against Celsus 7.9].

It is possible Celsus had even been witnessed to by some Christians. The evangelistic zeal of the early church is something that annoyed him: “Christians with little or no education seized every opportunity to witness to people, and when confronted by educated pagans they still would not stop pushing their opinions” [4].

Not only was Celsus familiar with Christian evangelists but he was also familiar with some of the work of Christian apologists, the heretic Marcion, and some of the gnostic sects. Celsus is acquainted enough with Marcionism that he uses the clever tactic of leveraging the Christian’s own heretics against the orthodox Christians.



Contra Celsum 2.6: “Jesus kept all the Jewish customs”.

Celsus says the praxis of Jesus stands in contradistinction to the praxis of Christians. Of course, Celsus had his fair share of criticism for the Jews and their Scriptures! Celsus probably borrowed some of his verbal ammunition from Jewish sources (an unknown Jewish anti-Christian polemical tract?). In the course of an attack on Christian doctrine, Celsus introduces a Jewish character (Origen called him “the Jew of Celsus”) who repeats common Jewish jabs against Jesus [Against Celsus 1.32]. By this method, Celsus even includes the charge that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a soldier named Panthera.

Contra Celsum 1.38: “there he learned certain magical powers which the Egyptians are proud to have. He returned full of pride in these powers, and gave himself the title of God”.[5] 

Celsus also says Jesus studied magic and practiced sorcery in Egypt. [6] Celsus uses more elements from the life of Jesus against the Christians here. Celsus refers to both the miracles and some of the (misconstrued) background of Jesus in a very real, albeit negative, way.

Contra Celsum 6.34: “If Christ had been thrown down a cliff or pushed into a pit, or strangled with a rope … then they would speak of a cliff of life, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality”.

Celsus mockingly confirms the death of Jesus as well as the method. Celsus made fun of Christian references to the cross as a glorious thing. Celsus questioned the logic of the crucifixion, wondering why the so-called “Son of God” would let himself be killed that way. Celsus pointed out that Christians would not worship Zeus because his tomb was right there in plain sight in Crete, yet their “god” was supposedly resurrected from his tomb.

Celsus did not believe in the resurrection; in his mind, it was a decidedly disgusting and repugnant belief. Celsus wondered why Christians worshipped a dead man as immortal. Further, Celsus argues that Christian doctrine twisted the Greek concept of immortality of the soul into the resurrection. Celsus felt the doctrine of the resurrection was based on an incorrect interpretation of reincarnation. Celsus chided the Christians for rejecting the traditional gods on one hand and then worshipping a mere man on the other. Worse yet; the man had lived recently: “If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently” (Contra Celsum 8.12).

Not surprisingly, Celsus honed in on the central feature of Christianity: the worship of Christ. He criticized Christians for being inconsistent: how can they claim to worship the one true God, reject polytheism, and yet then offer unto Jesus hyperthreskeuousi: “excessive worship”?[Against Celsus 8.12] Besides, there were other men more worthy of worship than Christ, such as figures from ancient Greece. If that is not bad enough, this man was a convicted criminal who had been disgraced and executed. It is not hard to see why Celsus thought these were better candidates when he viewed Jesus, the lowly carpenter who was, “a pestilent fellow”, a liar and a wicked sorcerer (remember, Celsus claimed Jesus learned magic while studying in Egypt).

Against Celsus 4.3: “What could be the purpose of such a visit to earth by God? To find out what is taking place among human? Does he not know everything?”

Celsus fundamentally rejected the incarnation. He accused Christians of exalting Jesus the man to godhood status in order to ignore any real god – a Christological cop out. For Celsus, it was ludicrous they thought this was consistent with monotheism!


Celsus was willing to use historical elements from the life of Jesus against Christianity; a clever tactic. The Christ-Mythicist should see that if Jesus never existed, Celsus would have been more than willing to say so. Why did he not just say, “Your Messiah never even existed”? Furthermore, Celsus mocked the Hebrew Scriptures for being chock full of stupid myths and silly fables. This is important because Celsus never made a similar charge about the existence of Jesus. Although he had great suspicions about the alleged supernatural aspects to his life, such as the virgin birth and the fulfilled prophecies attributed to him, Celsus never questioned the existence of Jesus.


[1] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 116.
[2] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 69.
[3] Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 148]
[4] Tim Dowley, Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1977), 87.
[5] Ibid., 1.28 Alternate translation: ” “…having tried his hand at certain magical powers he returned from there, and on account of those magical powers gave himself the title of God”.
[6] Both of these thoughts can be found in the Babylonian Talmud(b. Sanhedrin 67a; 106a; cf. The Toledoth Jesu). See Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).


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

Emperor Marcus Aurelius & Fronto vs. The Early Christians

8 Dec


An interesting account we have of early criticism towards Christianity has been preserved for us by Marcus Minucius Felix, circa 210-230 AD.  It can be read in the Ante-Nicene Fathers 4.02.01-04 and it is about a Christian named Octavius Januarius debating a pagan named Q. Caecilius Natalis. 

Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-166 AD) was a Latin rhetorician and a tutor of Marcus Aurelius. Most scholars agree that we have a fragment of Fronto’s words on Christianity preserved in Minicius Felix’s Octavius (31.1-2; cf. 9.5-6), via the anti-Christian speeches from the character named Caecilius.

It is a brief piece of slander that claims Christians feast once a week until the “flame of impure lust and drunkenness has been lit”. Then, Fronto via Caecilius claims those gathered entice a dog that has been tied to a lampstand to “jump and dance by a little cake tossed beyond the area of its tether”. This has the intended effect of extinguishing the light and then people of all ages – including family members – have sex with the first person they bump into in the dark. As Fronto reports, they “embrace one another in their unspeakable lust as chance brings them together and … all alike are incestuous…”. In the second century, the charge of incest was a common one against Christians and could even be found on the lips and pens of educated Romans.

Caecilius accused Christians of all sorts of mischievous behavior: secret signs, clandestine meetings, arrogance, ignorance, exclusivity, gullibility, anti-social tendencies, boorish, uncultured, rude, sexually promiscuous, drunken party animals, infant killers and cannibalism. The following are notable: “I hear that they adore the head of an ass” and “some say they worship the genitals of their priests”, although he does admit he is unsure if these rumors are true. Caecilius even used a primitive form of Hume’s “wicked or weak” argument against the Christian god in light of human pain and suffering (especially amongst the Christians themselves!).

Caecilius made fun of the idea of resurrection and was especially annoyed with the idea of this nosy and bossy (omnipresent and omniscient) god. Many of these critiques were nothing new; for similar arguments were most likely found in the now lost works of Fronto (see Edward Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 64-66).

More basic were Fronto’s put downs (again, via Minicius Felix’s character Caecilius) towards Christians as people “who lack education and culture, and are crude and ignorant”[Octavius 12] and who propagate “sick delusions”, a “senseless and crazy superstition”, and an “old-womanly superstition”. The crucifixion also finds its way into Fronto’s critical cross-hairs: “To say that their ceremonies center on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve” [11.1; 13.5; 9.4.].

-For great overview of this narrative, cf. Henry Wace and William C. Piercy A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography: A Reference Guide to Over 800 Christian Men and Women, Heretics, and Sects of the First Six Centuries (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 727-730 and for a commentary on this literature, see G.W. Clarke, The Octavius of Minucius Felix (NY: Newman Press, 1976), especially pages 1-14.
-For a helpful discussion on a terminus a quo on Octavius, see Michael E. Hardwick, Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius Brown Judais Studies 128 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), pages 20-23.


Fronto’s former pupil, Marcus Aurelius, became emperor in 161 AD. He reigned until 180 AD. Marcus was a Stoic philosopher critical of Christianity.  There are a few citations against Christian practices in his Meditations (1.6; 3.16.1; 7.68; 8.48; 8.51.2; 11.3) but Meditations 11.3 is the most explicit. 

Marcus begins by saying it is “admirable” for the soul to be ready when facing death. He says “this readiness must come from its own decision, not from mere opposition like the Christians, but rationally, religiously, and so as to persuade others, without dramatics”. Marcus admires the person who looks death calmly in the face – but not out of sheer force of will but despises the Christian who dies with excessive flair out of an irrational and contrarian compulsion. His view of Christian martyrs was they were “playing the tragedy-hero” and in doing so “are immature and insincere” (Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century. Philadelphia, Westminster Press: 1988, p 78). Marcus thought the reason Christians faced death with such eagerness was non-sensical, unattractive, and done more out of the rebellious nature of their religion than of any individualistic determination.
Marcus persecuted the church during his reign. He probably witnessed his fair share of martyrs. It is likely he was annoyed by the bible verses, prayers and preaching that often came before the Christian’s last breath.


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


24 Nov

Lucian of Samosata (circa 115-200 AD) was a Greek satirist. He wrote On the Death of Peregrinus, also translated as Passing of Peregrinus.  Lucian parodies what he sees as the inherent naïveté in Christians and in their doctrine; he depicts Christians as lackeys and dolts. Lucian directs no small amount of mockery towards Christians, calling them “poor wretches” who have “persuaded themselves that they will be immortal”.


Lucian says Christians are gullible and accept “all their doctrines without accurate demonstration”. In fact, “any charlatan or trickster” who comes to them “quickly becomes rich by imposing on simple people”. Lucian’s satire features Peregrinus Proteus – one such huckster who takes advantage of the Christians stupid generosity. The Cynic-philosopher-turned-religious-hustler lives it up for a while until he is caught eating (forbidden) food that was sacrificed to idols; this results in his expulsion from the community.

Lucian says the Christians “revered him as a god … next after that other whom they still, worship, the man crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world”. The “him” in this passage is the character Peregrinus who had infiltrated the Christian community in order to take advantage of these “misguided creatures”.

In another portion of the work, Lucian tells the story of the fraud leader Peregrinus being imprisoned. Lucian says the Christians rushed to help him immediately and “at daybreak one could see aged widows and orphan children waiting by the prison”. It is interesting Lucian specifically mentions these two groups of people (widows and orphans) as comprising the church, especially when Lucian tells us that Peregrinus gets rich off the church. Lucian says the church officers bribed the guards to sleep in the prison with Peregrinus.

Lucian speaks of Christ as “their first legislator” who convinced them that “once they have transgressed by denying the Greek gods” then they “are all brothers of one another”. Lucian says the Christians “have thrown over the gods of Greece”, instead “worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws” (Peregrinus 13). 

One reason why this sarcastic satirist’s works are noteworthy is his word for crucifixion: anaskolopisthenta. This word does not mean “crucified” but rather “impaled”, which technically can be said of a crucifixion victim. This word is not the same word used in the gospels for crucifixion, which was usually stauroo (σταυρόω). This shows Lucian may have received his information from a non-Christian source. It is also one more subtle way for Lucian to parody the silliness of this simple superstition based around a sophist who had been crucified in Palestine.

Lucian is an interesting critic because he almost has more sympathy than disdain for Christians. He portrays them as generous, gullible, and guileless except for their leaders, who are comprised of sophists and charlatans. Even more notable, though, is the fact that he “thought his readers would have heard something about Christians and would enjoy a story told at their expense” (Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003, 490).

For more on Lucian, see Francis G. Allison, Lucian: Satirist and Artist (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963) and H.W Fowler, The Works of Lucian of Samosata (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905).


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

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


1 Nov

Towards the end of John 15, as part of the Farewell Discourse (John 15:18–16:4) , Jesus told his disciples that they will be hated by the world for his names’ sake. Gentiles disliked Jews for some of the same reasons for why they disliked Christians: both groups were exclusive. In a multi-cultural world filled with gods and various philosophies, Christians were called ‘The Way’. But the idea of Jesus being The Way to the Father (John 14:6) is offensive to the unregenerate mind. The exclusive claims of Jesus and his followers were/are viewed as simplistic, backwards, ignorant, naïve, arrogant, bigoted, and even hateful. The Christians preached there was only one name under heaven by which men could be saved (Acts 4:12). They told the  Gentile pagans they were wrong and challenged them to recognize Christ alone as God and Savior (Acts 17). 

Christians would not burn a pinch of incense and swear by the genius of the Caesar. They were not willing to simply add their neighbor’s deities to a pantheon, as a sort of a cultural common courtesy. The early church would not go this direction, despite the many cultural obstacles in front of them; least of which was the fact they followed a convicted criminal (see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). Simultaneously, the leaders of  Judaism steadfastly denied – and even attacked them. In John 16, Jesus told his followers they would be cast out of the cultural centers of worship (the synagogue) and even killed by people who thought they were performing an act of service to God by killing them. NOTE: Here is a sermon I preached on martyrs from the Gospel of John called “I HEART HATERS”

 The result of the earliest Christians rigidness was twofold: many martyrs and many conversions. In the now famous words of Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”(Apologeticus, Chapter 50). I give an example of one such account in this brief video here.


“Christians”, writes Robin Lane Fox, “attracted blackmail and slander”. Fox goes on to say that “‘atheism’ was the basic cause of their maltreatment” – the pejorative term atheist being applied to Christians is generally not seen as the mob literally thinking the Christians believed in no god(s) but rather that they rejected all the officially recognized gods – essentially reducing their faith to a godless or an atheistic one. An example may be the trial under Domitian, circa 70 AD, where Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla are executed for “atheism” and “Jewish practices” (Dio Cassius 67.14.1-3; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.18.4). There is some question whether they were Jewish or Christian but the weight of the evidence seems to favor the latter. The “Christians refused to concur” with the “forms of contemporary cult” and to the average Roman, “their lack of respect was intolerable”. To make matters worse, Christians not only mocked the gods (in the vein of the prophet Isaiah) but equated them to demons. 


This could be dangerous because “if a god was dishonored, he might send his anger against the community” by withholding good things or sending bad things, as in “famine, plague, or drought”. Fox relays that in the fourth-century “no rain, because of the Christians” was “proverbial” (see Pagans and Christians: Religion and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century A.D., When the Gods of Olympus Lost their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 425). There is reason to believe that Christians were faulted for catastrophes in Asia Minor, specifically earthquakes (152 AD) and plagues (165 AD). Similarly, an Imperial decree (circa 166-168 AD) “to offer sacrifices to the gods so that the empire could survive a plague and invasions by German tribes may have led to mob reactions against Christians in certain locations” (see “Persecution” by Mark Reasoner in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 910).
Many local Roman officials could care less what Christians did in their spare time; they just wanted the Christians to comply with such gestures as offering a pinch of incense to the gods and saying a few words in honor of them. Others were more forceful:  they demanded the Christian to also curse Christ. For example, see the Martyrdom of Polycarp, (8.2; 9.2; 10, 1), circa 155 AD. For the most part, though, they could still worship Jesus as they liked; what they could not do was display a rebellious attitude towards their rulers or a disrespectful attitude towards the gods of Rome. These actions were unpatriotic – even treasonous – and could have a negative impact on the cohesion and long-term survival of the Roman Empire.
The mobs were especially concerned with the anger of the gods. To some politicians, this was notion was merely the superstition of the crowds. Marcus Aurelius – who despised Christians – thought this way. Many followers of the gods had their favorites and could be quite passionate in their zeal towards the deities. According to some scholars, association or affiliation with Jesus (as in the name ‘Christian’) coupled with rejection of the gods is what may be seen as the “two outward marks” identifying “the earliest Christians”. This “refusal to worship set a clear boundary between [them] and their neighbors” (Paul Corb Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York: Oxford, 1994), 105). The Christians disrespect towards the gods and the state was an extreme affront to Roman religious and political sensibilities – especially if it resulted in (super)natural disasters. Tertullian has a classic quote to that effect: “If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’” (Apology chapter XL. Translated by S. Thelwall).


One of the main reasons early Christians were persecuted was because they refused to burn incense to a statue of the Emperor and swear by his “genius”. They were viewed as subversive and unpatriotic, which helped put them on the fast track to martyrdom. Because they didn’t take part in what historians call the Cult of the Emperor, they were suspect. The Emperors demanded to be called Lord but no Christian would call them by this title – as it was reserved for Jesus alone.

Traditionally, historians have labeled ten different periods prior to Constantine as ones of persecution. The last one under Diocletian lasted from about 303 to 313 AD and was the only one that was Empire wide and systematic. Some of the Emperors ignored or even tried to protect Christians, such as Trajan (53-117 AD) in Epistles 10.97 and his successor Hadrian (76-138 AD) in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.9.1-3.

The first period of persecution was under Nero. After the Great Fire in Rome, Nero needed a scapegoat because the populace (wrongly) thought Nero was responsible. Nero (rightly) assumed Christians were hated enough to take the blame. Tacitus speaks of the Christians as a class of men hated for their incendiarism but even more so for their antisocial ways and their hatred of mankind. Suetonius, in a much shorter passage, speaks of Christians as people following a depraved superstition. Tacitus describes how Nero lit Christians on fire in his garden, dragged them around in chariots, threw them in bags with snakes, crucified them, placed them in animal skins on them and threw them in arenas with wild beasts. It is likely that during this time, approximately 67 AD, that both Peter (crucified) and Paul (beheaded) were martyred in Rome. The Neronian persecution was centered in Rome and although it was intense, did not last long.

Another Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued a policy of persecuting Christians and may have even been alluded to in the Book of Revelation, circa 96 AD. We see a glimpse of persecution from the letters of Pliny the Younger, writing around 112 AD. Pliny was a governor in Asia Minor and was writing to the Emperor to help forge a policy for prosecuting Christians. 

Things intensified in 249 AD when Decius became Emperor. Decius desired to restore Rome’s glory but a great hindrance in this area was that Rome had abandoned her gods. This line of thought led Decius to order that worship of the gods was now mandatory. To obey, people were now required to sacrifice burn incense before a statue and receive a certificate. This policy was enforced off and on in the following years and in different degrees of intensity throughout the Empire. 


As far as pagan critics of the ancient church, Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last (pagan) man standing. Julian was an undercover pagan who came out of the proverbial closet when he took the purple (he reigned from 361-363 AD). Rodney Stark describes Julian as a “puritanical, ascetic, and fanatical pagan” (Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 194). Julian sincerely loved the old gods and despised the ‘Galileans’, whose “haughty ministers neither understood nor believed their religion” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin Press) 1776, 1994 … 2.23.864.). Julian saw Christianity as an innovation and its founder as insufficient. An example of this attitude comes from one of Julian’s letters, in which he tells of his plan to pen a paper panning the “divinity falsely ascribed to … that new-fangled Galilean god” (Epistles 55.). True to his word, Julian found the time to write a three-volume polemic against Christianity: Against the Galileans (This work was destroyed. Portions were preserved in Cyril of Alexandria’s rebuttal, Contra Julianum, written between 412-444 AD).
Julian did not execute any Christians directly but he did allow mass executions of Christians to take place in Syria (Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 44) and Alexandria (Polymnia Athanassiadi, “Persecution and Response in Late Paganism: The Evidence of Damascius” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies 1993, 113:1-29, 13.). In Heliopolis, some pagans ripped a group of Christian virgins from limb to limb and then tossed their remains to swine (Johannes Geffcken, The Last Days of Greco-Roman Paganism (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing, 1920/1978), 144.). Julian did nothing about these injustices and even gave the Imperial nod to the torture of some bishops and others he personally ordered into exile. Julian reinitiated pagan celebrations, complete with mass sacrifices (H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 434-436) and he eliminated funding for churches while financially supporting pagan institutions. He switched out Christian with pagans in many government jobs and outlawed teachers who were Christians to instruct in the classics, saying: “if they think the classics wrong … then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the church” (Epistles 36; the text of this order is in Codex Theodosianus 13.3.5). 
Emperors prior to Julian had wielded Roman law against the Christians but these men were all conservatives trying to maintain the status quo; most of them had very little knowledge of the Christian faith and were not well-informed critics. Julian was different in that he knew about Christianity, hated it, wanted to stamp it out, and longed to see a pagan revival in its stead. However, when all was said and done, Julian failed to revive paganism. Even though he only reigned for 18-months, he will forever be known as Julian – the Apostate.

Summary of pagan criticism:
–          The doctrine of the resurrection is absurd
–          There are contradictions in the Scriptures
–          Atheism is widely held
–          Christianity is the worship of a criminal
–          Christianity is a novelty
–          Christianity evidences a lack of patriotism
–          Christians practice incest
–          Christians practice cannibalism
–          Christianity leads to the destruction of a society

For more on this, here is a Backpack Radio episode we did on THE TOP 10 CRITICS of the EARLY CHURCH. (This list is from the helpful “The Arguments of the Apologists” in Robert C. Walton’s Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005), Chart 15.)

From this recap, we can get a good sense of why Paul said what he said in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[66] All this raises the question: what resources did the early Christians have to offer potential converts other than the promise of persecution or at the very least extreme ridicule? In the physical, the answer is nothing. But John 16:33 and Hebrews 11:35–40 provide some of the answer. This fact only serves to dispel the notions of people become Christians to make their lives easier (the only caveat: if by “easier” one means more fulfillment, joy, and peace, then OK). 
Christianity has always had its critics – and it always will. Celsus, an early opponent of Christianity, wrote: “Like all quacks they [the Christians] gather a crowd of slaves, children, women and idlers. I speak bitterly about this”. Early Christianity was largely comprised of the lower classes, women, and especially slaves. Only later did members of the aristocracy join because it was fashionable, due to Emperor Theodosius I making Christianity the state religion at the very end of the 4th Century. The church of Christ has withstood all of these attacks – and it always will. 


This list is by no means exhaustive. I selected some events I felt were interesting and noteworthy. 

03 AD-The Birth of Christ brings the Head of the Church to the world
30 AD-The Death, Burial, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. Pentecost fire from the Holy Spirit falls on the 120 gathered in Upper Room
44 AD-James is martyred by the way of beheading under Herod Agrippa II
46 AD-Paul’s 1st Missionary
49 AD-Paul’s 2nd Missionary
50 AD-Jerusalem Council solves the “Gentile problem”
53 AD-Paul’s 3rd Missionary
59 AD-Paul’s 4th Missionary
64 AD-Burning of Rome by Nero, who blames it on the Christians
65 AD-Persecution of the misunderstood Christians under Nero intensifies
68 AD-Paul’s martyrdom by way of the sword under Nero
70 AD-Fall of Jerusalem by the Roman General Titus
95 AD-More Roman persecution under Domitian
132 AD-Jews rebel against the Romans under Bar Kochba
135 AD-Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans
150 AD-Gnosticism, a heretical teaching that plagued the early church, reaches its peak
250 AD-persecution goes from local movements to widespread (universal)
300 AD-Christianity spreads to 10%-15% of the whole Roman Empire
303 AD-The Great Persecution. Diocletian issues first edict for official persecution of the Christians and presided over the most extensive persecution of Christians to date
313 AD-Edict of Milan by Constantine & Licinius legalizes Christianity, grants toleration
325 AD-Nicaea: Ecumenical council initiated by Constantine to deal with Arianism, other divisive issues; solves Easter controversy. Golden Age of the Church Fathers (apologists and polemicists) commences
311-400 AD: The Donatism Controversy Schism in N. Africa regarding how to properly deal with church members who were seen as “traitors”
361 AD-Emperor Julian “The Apostate” embraces Neoplatonism
367 AD-Athanasius’ Easter Letter Festal letter outlined our New Testament canon
370 AD-Basil of Caesarea popularizes the monastic life
381 AD-Council of Constantinople declares Montanists pagans; Christianity state religion


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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