Second Century Pagan Writers’ Knowledge of Christianity

Christians are mentioned in the surviving works of eleven pagan writers from the second century – Pliny, Trajan, Tacitus, Suetonius, Epictetus, Hadrian, Fronto, Marcus Aurelius, Lucian, Galen and Celsus. Two others, Lucius Apuleius and Aelius Aristides, might have described Christians without mentioning them by name, but they could have also been describing Jews (1). Their descriptions and opinions of Christians were largely negative.

Around 111-112 Pliny, the roman governor of Bithynia, wrote to Trajan concerning the persecution of Christians. Pliny wrote how he learned from former Christians how they used to meet before dawn, chanted verses to Christ as if to a god and swore an oath to live morally. They would meet again alter to “eat food of an ordinary, harmless kind” which sounds like the Eucharist (2).

Since it is normally superfluous to describe the food, which people eat, as harmless, this suggests that Pliny had heard the rumours that Christians practised cannibalism and he had learned they were not true.

It may have sounded like the Christians were harmless. Instead, Pliny wrote that it was all the more necessary to find out the truth by torturing two deaconesses (3). The description of their practices probably alarmed Pliny when it was seen through Roman eyes. Their meeting together suggested they were an illegal association (4). Meeting at night may have reminded him of the illegal Bacchanalia rites or of a political conspiracy. The swearing of an oath was also the sort of thing which conspirators did. Pliny may have thought their chanting verses to Christ was magic which was also illegal (5). Instead Pliny’s further investigation and torture revealed only “a perverse and extravagant superstition.” (6)

Around 115 the historian Tacitus wrote in the Annals how in 64 Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome and persecuted them. This passage is significant as early non-Christian historical evidence for Jesus. Tacitus said the founder of Christianity was called Christ and was executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea during Tiberius’ reign (7). Tacitus did not explain how he knew this. F.F. Bruce suggests that he may have had access to official documents (8). Alternatively, like Pliny, Tacitus probably encountered Christians and learned about their beliefs while he was a Roman governor in Asia (9).

Tacitus did not describe the Christians’ beliefs and practices. Instead, he described them as “notoriously depraved”, “a deadly superstition”, “degraded and shameful” and “having anti-social tendencies.” (10)

Around 122, Suetonius also mentioned how Nero persecuted the Christians who he described only as “a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition.” (11)

Both Tacitus and Suetonius knew that Christianity was something new and therefore, worthless in a culture in which the old was valued and respected.

Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius all described Christianity as a “superstition”. Meaning they saw it as something foreign and strange (12). A superstition did not involve proper and pious worship of the gods, but was fanatical and irrational (13). Christians contributed to this impression. They refused to participate in the sacrifices to the pagan gods and risked offending them, bringing their wrath down on the whole society. Their actions were seen as irresponsible, reckless and showing a lack of concern for others. This would explain the hostility shown toward Christians by Tacitus and why, even though he believed they were innocent of burning Rome, they still deserved to be punished (14).

Suetonius might have also been referring to Christians when he wrote that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of “continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (15) which may be a garbled reference to the conflict between Christians and Jews. If it is, then Suetonius probably knew little about the origin of Christianity and thought that Jesus was still alive at the time (16).

Unlike Pliny, who needed to know about their beliefs to ensure their trials were handled properly, neither Tacitus nor Suetonius revealed any knowledge of what Christians believed. Since they saw Christianity as a worthless and dangerous superstition, they probably did not care.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who died around 130, mentioned Christians when he was talking about fear in his Discourses. He called Galileans and said they were not afraid of death out of habit (17).

Some think that Epictetus was influenced by Christianity (18). If he was, one would expect him to have mentioned it more often other than one brief reference. Since he called them “Galileans”, he must have had some idea that they had their origins in Galilee. Otherwise, the only thing he knew was that they were persecuted and died bravely, which is presumably as much as the average pagan of the time knew about them.

There are three surviving references to Christians in the writings of second century Roman emperors, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. They all deal with the persecution of Christians.

Trajan was relying to Pliny’s letter, telling him that the Christians were “not to be hunted out” and if the accused Christian would sacrifice to the gods, they were to be acquitted (19).

Hadrian, around 122-123, was likewise writing about how to handle accusations against Christians (20).

Marcus Aurelius (161-180) was concerned with philosophical rather than legal issues. He did not believe the Christians laid down their lives nobly and for the right reasons, but out of “sheer opposition” and with “histrionic display” (21). From his perspective, all the Christians had to do was go through the motions of sacrificing and they would escape death. Their deaths must have seemed unnecessary and fanatical.

These brief references do not tell us how much, if anything, they knew about Christians, other than that they were persecuted. It is important not to fall for the logical fallacy of the argument from silence and remember that what they said in their surviving writings is not necessarily everything they knew about Christianity. They could have known more, but they did not write it down. Trajan did not say much about Christians in his letter to Pliny, but he would have had at least known everything Pliny told him in the first letter.

The satirist Lucian mentioned Christians in two works written in the 170s to 180s. In Alexander the False Prophet Christians are mentioned briefly, along with other undesirables, Epicureans and atheists, as the opponents of the false prophet Alexander. Pontus was apparently full of Christians and atheists and the Christians were victims of mob violence instigated by Alexander (22).

In The Death of Peregrinus Lucian described Christian beliefs and practices in more detail when he told how the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus, who committed suicide in 165, had previously encountered Christians in Palestine. Peregrinus met their “priests and scribes” and became the ruler of their “Synagogue”. He interpreted and even wrote their books. The Christians “took him for a God” and called him “the modern Socrates”. Lucian described some of their beliefs, that they worshipped their founder who had been crucified, had “sacred writing” (unlike the pagans), believed they had eternal life, had contempt for death, believed they were all brothers, denied the Greek gods and believed things by faith (23).

Lucian told his audience that “you know” the Christians worshipped their crucified founder, suggesting that they already knew it (24). By this time these details, which Lucian mentioned about Christians, were “common knowledge” (25).

When Peregrinus was arrested and imprisoned, the Christians supported him, visiting him and sending him food and money. Christians did support their imprisoned brethren, so much so that in 30, these visits were made illegal. Lucian was probably aware of such incidents but, instead of admiring their concern, he portrayed the Christians as naive and gullible, who had been taken advantage of by Peregrinus. The Didache warned about false prophets, who tried to take advantage of Christians (26), so Peregrinus was apparently not the only one to try this.

That is assuming that Peregrinus was really the fraud which Lucian made him out to be. Lucian was a satirist, not a historian or biographer. His goal was more to entertain, than to accurately record the facts. Some of what he wrote about Peregrinus and the Christians appears to have embellished or exaggerated to make the story more entertaining, rather than a record of what Lucian knew about Christians. Although Christians in Palestine still retained some Jewish traits and Lucian may have had known that Christianity had Jewish roots, he made them sound too Jewish with their priests and synagogue. Stephen Benko suggests that Lucian may not have understood the difference between Judaism and Christianity (27). It is unlikely that the Christians really “took him for a God” (which would have presumably made him the Second Coming) or called him “the modern Socrates”. If he really was so influential, they would have more likely called him “the modern Paul”, rather than after a pagan philosopher.

The physicians and philosopher Galen mentioned Christians three times in his surviving writings from the 170s to 180s. In On the Differences of the Pulse Galen wrote that it was easier to teach “the followers of Moses and Christ” than Archigenes. He also wrote that in the “school of Moses and Christ” they “hear talk of undemonstrated laws” (28). In On the Prime Unmoved Mover he likewise said that “the followers of Moses and Christ” order their pupils “to accept everything on faith” (29). In his summary of Plato’s Republic Galen wrote that most people cannot follow a demonstrative argument like Christians “drawing their faith from parables and miracles”. He went on to say that through their death, celibacy, self-disciple, self-control and pursuit of justice, Christians were “not inferior” to “genuine philosophers” (30).

In three of these passages Galen grouped Christians and Jews together. He understood that Christ was the founder of Christianity. He probably knew that Christianity and Judaism were now separate, but they had common roots and a similar approach to knowledge based on faith.

When Galen referred to Christians as a “school”, he meant a philosophical school or philosophy (31). Philosophy in this period was more concerned with how to live a moral and virtuous life than abstract intellectual issues. Galen was impressed by the Christians’ moral behaviour and self-discipline and saw it as something more worthwhile than previous pagan writers who had dismissed it as a superstition. Galen was not so impressed by the way Christians and Jews appealed to faith as their basis for knowledge, rather than giving demonstrable proofs and reasons for their beliefs. In classical Greek philosophy this was “the lowest grade of cognition”. (32)

Other than being founded by Christ, their appeals to faith, their common roots with Judaism and their moral lifestyle, Galen did not reveal how much else he knew about what Christians believed. Since he had a low opinion of their reliance on faith as the basis for their beliefs, he was presumably not that interested in what those beliefs actually were.

However, there are two possible references to the content of the Gospels. In On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body Galen criticised the Jewish view of creation, that God created the world out of nothing, in contrast with the Greek view that God used matter which already existed. He did not mention Christ or Christians, but he did write that “it would not be possible for him [God] to make a man out of a stone in an instant, by simply wishing so.” (33) He was arguing from a Greek perspective that God was not above the laws of nature, while the Jewish-Christian view said that he was (34). John the Baptist said that God can make people out of stones (Matthew 3:9). It sounds like Galen was responding to this passage so he must have heard it. However, R. Walzer suggests that John was quoting an existing Jewish expression, meaning that Galen could have heard it from a Jewish source rather than Matthew (35).

In his work on Plato Galen wrote how Christians drew their faith from parables and miracles. This sounds like he knew something about the ministry of Jesus and his use of parables and miracles.

Otherwise, Galen does not appear to have read any of the New Testament books (36) and it is not explained how he gained his knowledge of Christianity (37). His more favourable impressions of what others pagans regarded as a depraved superstition were probably formed by personal contact with a Christian community, enabling him to see their virtuous behaviour. This may have taken place during his early years in Pergamum, or while he was in Rome when Christians were tolerated and making inroads ingot the upper classes (38). Perhaps his criticism of their reliance on faith as a basis for truth is based on discussions with Christians which he would have found frustrating because of their appeals to faith rather than logic and demonstrable proof.

Around 177-180 Celsus wrote The True Word, an attack on Christianity, parts of which were preserved in quotations in Origen’s Contra Celsum written in the mid-third century. As far as know, this was the first time an entire pagan work had been devoted to Christianity, rather than passing references in other works. Celsus knew more about Christianity than any previous pagan writer. He was the first to refer to the founder of Christianity by his name, Jesus, rather than Christ. He knew many details which Christians believed about the life of Jesus, his virgin birth (39), the visit of the magi (40), the massacre of the innocents (41), his baptism by John (42), his disciples (43), miracles (44), his betrayal (45), crucifixion (46) and resurrection (47).

Celsus’ greater knowledge of Christianity led to a greater understanding of it. Instead of just dismissing Christianity like previous pagan writers had done, Celsus sought to discredit it and to construct logical arguments against its claims. Like previous pagans, Celsus understood that Christianity had grown out of Judaism and Christians argued that they were old and therefore, legitimate. Yet Celsus understood enough to challenge this argument by responding that Christianity was an apostasy from Judaism since Christians no longer followed the Law of Moses while the real Jews still did (48).

Celsus reasoned that if Christians worshipped Jesus, they could not be true monotheists (49), and understood that if he could discredit Jesus, he could discredit Christianity (50). He wrote that the virgin birth was made up and Jesus’ real father was a Roman called Panthera (51), that there were no reliable witnesses to the dove descending at Jesus’ baptism (52), and that Jesus” miracles happened, but were magic (53). He dismissed the resurrection as a hallucination and wishful thinking (54). He did not pay much attention to Jesus’ actual teachings, except to accuse him of plagiarizing Plato (55).

When it came to the beliefs of Christians, Celsus claimed, “I know them all” (56). Although he revealed more than any previous writer, he did not know as much as he thought he did. He was not sure how many times Jesus had (57). When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, Celsus assumed he had been hiding. Judging by Celsus’ hostile tone, he may have been misrepresenting the facts to make Christianity look bad.

Celsus only mentioned events from Jesus’ life recorded in Matthew. He mentioned the visit of the magi, whom he called Chaldeans, at Jesus’ birth (58), but not the shepherds from Luke (59). He did not discuss Jesus’ ascension into heaven because it is not included in Matthew. Celsus knew that Christians called Jesus the Logos (60), which is based on John 1:1, but there is no other evidence to suggest that he read John. He did not quote from the writings of Paul, except when he wrote that Christians said, “Wisdom in this life is evil, but faithfulness is good,” which Origen believed was misquoting Paul (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) (61). Celsus more likely heard these ideas from other Christians. Although Celsus knew that Christians believed that Jesus was the incarnation of the Son of God, he apparently did not understand the purpose of the incarnation, asking, “What is the purpose of such a descent on the part of God? Was it in order to learn what was going on among men?” (62) If he had read John or Paul, he would have had a greater understanding of the purpose of the incarnation and of Jesus’ death as atonement for sin and he would have cited them more in the same way that he cited Matthew. This suggests that Celsus had access to a copy of Matthew, which he had studied, but not other New Testament writings. This put Celsus at a disadvantage since while he relied on only one gospel for his arguments, Origen replied using all four and other New Testament writings.

Celsus’ knowledge was not just based on Christian sources, but also Gnostic and Jewish ones. The True Word was probably written in Alexandria where there were significant Gnostic and Jewish communities and the distinction between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism was not so clearly defined, so Celsus grouped Christians and Gnostics together resulting in a distorted view of Christianity (63). When he accused Christians of practising magic (64) and claimed to have seen “elders” with magic books (65), he was probably describing Gnostics whom he had encountered in Alexandria.

Celsus presented some of his arguments as though they were spoken by a Jew. His claim that Panthera was Jesus’ real father also appeared in Jewish rabbinical literature (66). Instead of making them up himself, Celsus appears to have used contemporary arguments from Jews against Christianity (67).

These pagan writers did not like Christianity, but what they knew about its origins and beliefs was largely accurate. There was no pagan equivalent of the dubious rumours which Tacitus recorded about the origins of the Jews (68). What he recorded about Christianity’s origins, that it was founded by Christ who was executed by Pilate, was accurate. An advantage of being new in a culture, which valued the old, was that there was no time for such rumours about their origin to develop. The little, which they knew, was accurate, but they did not like what they knew because it conflicted with their pagan values and traditions.

While Christian apologists of the second century, Justin Martyr and Athenagoras, wrote responses to charges that Christians practised incest and cannibalism, only one second century pagan writer mentioned them – Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-160) in a speech which survived as part of a fictitious debate about Christianity in the Octavius by Minuncius Felix from the early third century (69).

It sounds like Pliny was aware of these rumours, but his investigations revealed they were not true. The fact, that the other writers did not mention them, in spite of their dislike of Christianity, suggests they also knew they were not true. Pagan knowledge of Christianity clearly varied and except for Fronto, the more educated pagans knew more about Christianity.

Since the incest and cannibalism accusations were only preserved in Christian sources, if Christian apologists had not answered them, we probably would not know they had been accused of them.

For the first two-thirds of the second century, all, but one of the pagan writers who mentioned Christians, were official sources, emperors, governors and historians. The exception was Epictetus and his words were recorded by the Roman governor Arrian. All these writers only mentioned Christians in the context of their persecution. This suggests they had no intrinsic interest in Christians and their beliefs until these beliefs, namely their refusal to sacrifice, brought them into conflict with the Roman state and provoked a response. Even the stoic philosopher Epictetus, judging by his one brief comment, only noticed Christians because they were persecuted. If the Romans had not persecuted the Christians, no pagan writer would have mentioned them until Lucian, Galen and Celsus.

Those pagan writers, who had more to say about Christianity, Pliny, Tacitus, Lucian, Galen who grew up in Pergamum but moved to Rome, and Celsus, were all in the eastern part of the empire where there were more Christians. There is a correlation between the growth of Christianity and the growth of pagan knowledge about Christianity. According to Rodney Stark’s estimates, in 100 there were about 7800 Christians (70). They were few and had not been around for very long. Pagans knew so little about Christians that Pliny had to literally torture them to learn about their beliefs and practices. As Christians became more numerous, more pagans came into contact with them and learned something about what they believed. By 180, Stark estimates there were 107,000 Christians throughout the empire (71). They had grown in number and were more noticeable, so that “non-official” writers, Lucian, Galen and Celsus, knew and wrote about them. Lucian wrote for entertainment purposes and assumed his audience already knew what they were. Most significantly, Galen and Celsus wrote about the philosophical implications of their beliefs. Celsus represented another stage in the growth of pagan knowledge in that he not only relied on “word of mouth” sources, but he had access to a primary Christian writing, Matthew.

Nevertheless, their knowledge of Christianity was still limited. They understood that Christians worshipped Christ, but not his teachings or the purpose of his death. None of them mentioned Paul or his contribution to Christian belief. In fact, none mentioned any Christian by name, except for Peregrinus and his Christian phase. None of them indicated that they had attended a Christian meeting. In spite of their progress, pagan writers were still on the outside looking in, and their knowledge was incomplete.

 

 

 

 

Notes

(1) Benko, S., “Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the First Two Centuries A.D.”, Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt, II. 23. 2, (1980), p 1090, 1098

(2) Pliny, Letters, 10.96. 7

(3) Ibid., 10.96.8

(4) Wilken, R.L., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p 13

(5) Benko, S., Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p 10-13

(6) Pliny, Letters, 10.96.8

(7) Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.2-8

(8) Bruce, F.F., Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974), p 23

(9) Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity”, p 1063

(10) Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.2-8

(11) Suetonius, Life of Nero, 16.2

(12) Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p 50

(13) Ibid., p 60-61

(14) Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.8

(15) Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4

(16) Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity”, p 1059

(17) Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus, 4.7.6

(18) Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity”, p 1077

(19) Pliny, Letters, 10:97

(20) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 11:3

(21) Marcus Aurelius, Mediations, 11.3

(22) Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet, 25, 38

(23) Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, 11-13

(24) Ibid, 11

(25) Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity”, p 1095

(26) The Didache, 11-12

(27) Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity”, p 1096

(28) Walzer, R., Galen on Jews and Christians (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), 14

(29) Ibid., p 15

(30) Ibid., 15

(31) Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p 73

(32) Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity”, p 1100

(33) Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p 12

(34) Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p 85-86

(35) Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p 27

(36) Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p 87

(37) Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, p 145

(38) Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, p 9-10

(39) Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.28

(40) Ibid., 1.58

(41) Ibid., 1.58

(42) Ibid., 1.42

(43) Ibid., 1.62

(44) Ibid., 1.28, 2.49

(45) Ibid., 2.9

(46) Ibid., 2.55

(47) Ibid., 2.55. 5.22

(48) Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p 112-117

(49) Ibid., p 120

(50) Ibid., p 108-109

(51) Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.28, 1.32

(52) Ibid., 1.41

(53) Ibid., 1.28

(54) Ibid., 2.55

(55) Ibid., 1.58

(56) Ibid., 1.12

(57) Ibid., 1.62, 2.46

(58) Ibid., 2.9

(59) Luke 2.8-20

(60) Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.31

(61) Ibid., 1.9

(62) Ibid., 4.3

(63) Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. H. Chadwick (London: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p xxix

(64) Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.6

(65) Ibid., 6.40

(66) Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament, p 57

(67) Fox, R.L., Pagans and Christians (London: Penguin Books, 2006), p 483

(68) Tacitus, The Histories, 5.2-4

(69) Minuncius Felix, Octavius, 9

(70) Stark, R., Cities of God (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p 67

(71) Ibid., p 67

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Benko, S., “Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the First Two Centuries A.D.”, Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt, II. 23. 2, (1980), p 1055-1118

Benko, S., Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984)

Bruce, F.F., Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974)

Fox, R.L., Pagans and Christians (London: Penguin Books, 2006)

Grant, R.M., Second- Christianity, A Collection of Fragments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003

Lucian, The Works of Lucian Samosata, trans. H.W. and F.G. Fowler (London: Oxford University Press, 1905)

Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. H. Chadwick (London: Cambridge University Press, 1965)

Pliny, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. B. Radice (London: Penguin Classics, 1969)

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves (London: Penguin Classics, 1969)

Staniforth, M. (trans.), Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin Classics, 1987)

Stark, R., Cities of God (San Francisco: Harper, 2006)

Stevenson, J. (rev. W.H.C. Frend), A New Eusebius (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1987)

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. M. Grant (London: Penguin Classics, 1996)

Tacitus, The Histories, trans. K. Wellesley (Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1975)

Walzer, R., Galen on Jews and Christians (London: Oxford University Press, 1949)

Wilken, R.L., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (new Haven: Yale University Press, 2003)

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