Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part One)

Roman authors such as Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, and Lucian of Samosata argued that Christianity is a farce and a fraud. In fact, many of their insights into the new cult, which anticipated the findings of 20th century religious scholars by 18 centuries, are easily confirmed by the writings of the earliest Christians themselves. This essay examines some of the charges made by early Roman and Jewish critics and briefly interrogates documents from Christianity’s first centuries that confirm their allegations. Although apologists dismiss or at least attempt to minimize the force of the refutation of Roman intellectuals, it bears mention that writers such as Celsus, who wrote in the decade between 170—180, read gospels significantly older than any currently surviving copies(1) and used real 2nd century Christians as sources, i.e., Celsus did not make do with hypothetical ‘gnostics’ based on extrapolations from a few surviving texts as a basis for reconstructing early Christian belief—Celsus had access to the real thing.

Until the middle of the 2nd century Christianity barely registered on the social consciousness of Roman intellectuals and even then they dismissed it “as a close-knit Judaistic sect, and an increasingly noxious one,”(2) at that. As counter-intuitive as it seems to us, living in a world in which some two billion people claim to believe in one of the 40,000 or so permutations of Christian-ity, in the mid-1st century many converts to the cult of Jesus could barely distinguish themselves from Jews if, indeed, they even cared to make such a distinction. That Christianity might eventually emerge victorious from the welter of competing mystery cults, regional and national religions and various Jewish sects may appear self-evident in retrospect, but in the 1st century it probably appeared, even to the most ardent Christians, “a most unlikely ascendency.”(3) The most plausible explanation for the triumph of Christianity, it seems to me, was proposed by Walter Bauer: although “the sum total of consciously orthodox and anti-heretical Christians was numerically inferior” to that of the heterodox, by the early 4th century “the Roman government finally came to recognize that the Christianity ecclesiastically organized from Rome was flesh of its flesh, came to unite with it, and thereby actually enabled it to achieve ultimate victory over unbelievers and heretics.”(4)

In any case, as Hoffman has so perfectly stated it, the Christian “movement was Rome’s Vietnam, a slow war of attrition which had been fought to stop a multiform enemy.”(5) Although he certainly does not claim to explain anything so complicated or grandiose as the eventual triumph of ancient Christianity, Pierce’s observation regarding the inroads made by Christian fundamentalists into the American body politic is worth quoting in this context: “Very often, it was the cranks who provided the conflict by which the consensus changed. They did so by working diligently on the margins until, subtly, without most of the country noticing, those margins moved (emphasis added)…[America’s] indolent tolerance of them causes the classic American crank to drift easily into the mainstream, whereupon the cranks lose all of their charm and the country loses another piece of its mind.”(6)

The surreptitious infiltration of Christians into the margins of Roman society must have been something very much like what Pierce describes. The Roman Celsus noted, “[Christians] convince only the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children…whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools [the Christians] push themselves in and show off.”(7)

Christians, their critics charged, targeted what we today call ‘low information voters,’ and, like the Campus Crusade for Christ, they proselytized among the impressionable, those whose youth and lack of sophistication or education rendered them vulnerable to the blandishments of missionaries.

Historians have treated Christianity with extreme deference. “A combination of theological, cultural, and historical factors has conspired to create a protected enclave for this particular religion. As a consequence, methods and techniques that are taken for granted in the treatment of other religions have been ignored or discarded in dealing with this one…the further assumption has been made, with however much sophistication, that certain events in early Christianity are not only historically distinctive but in some sense religiously unique…”(8) “…dogmatic images of normative Christian origins are not only reinforced every Sunday during worship but are also subconsciously lodged in the minds of scholars.” (9)

McKechnie provides an easy example of a scholar so entranced: “Jesus was literate, and read Isaiah aloud in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-20). He, therefore, knew biblical Hebrew as well as Aramaic which was the spoken language of Judea.”(10) While credulously accepting the testimony of Luke, who was no historian,(11) McKechnie ignores the reported opinion of Jesus’ contemporaries: “The Jews therefore marveled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?”(12) Historians necessarily deal with probabilities, and that a laborer, a woodworker whose social status was one notch above a slave and who lived in Nazareth, a village of no importance, would possess any significant degree of literacy is quite improbable. It is far more likely that Jesus’ Jewish critics had it right: Jesus did not know letters, having never learned.

There are other reasons to doubt the accuracy of Luke’s account. According to Luke, when Jesus was crucified the sun was “eclipsed”(13) kai skotoj egeneto ef olhn thn ghn ewj wraj enanthj tou hliou eklipontoj—“and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon (14) because of an eclipse of the sun.” (15) However, a solar eclipse at Passover is “an astronomical impossibility…since Passovers occur at full moon and solar eclipses occur only at new moon…By way of defense [the apologist] Origen insisted that secret enemies of the church had introduced the notion of an eclipse into the text to make it vulnerable to a show of reason.” (16)

An unembellished translation of Luke’s grammatically straightforward Greek will leave the translator on the horns of a dilemma: either the gospel writer did not know that a solar eclipse was impossible during a full moon, or he claimed that an eclipse of the sun had not only occurred during a full moon, but lasted three hours! A total solar eclipse that caused ‘darkness to come over the whole land’ would last less than eight minutes at best, not three hours.