Paganism and its Propaganda
On the religion of the Christiani, pagan authors were at first content with passing references to their exitiabilis superstitio (‘pernicious superstition’ Tacitus, c. 110), superstitio prava et immodica (‘depraved and gross superstition’ - Pliny, c. 112) or superstitio nova et malefica (‘new and malicious superstition’ - Suetonius, c. 120). 2
In his famous rescript to Pliny the Governor of Bithynia in 112, the Emperor Trajan (98 – 117) had, while ordering that anonymous denunciations be ignored, confirmed Nero’s ban. Very practical but quite inconsistent, Trajan had ordered that Christians were not to be hunted but if caught were to be put to death. Trajan also ordered, again inconsistently, that if the Christian renounced the Christian name and proved it by offering pagan sacrifice, he should be spared. No actual criminal act was needed: the mere wilfulness of holding to the Christian name itself was capital crime enough. 3
In 124 conditions for the Christiani eased a little when Hadrian (117 – 138) ordered that false informants against them were to suffer under the Roman law against calumnia. (This law against calumny ordered that a false accuser should suffer the crime’s penalty as if he had committed it himself. If the accused Christian apostatised, his pagan denouncer could be tortured, burnt or thrown to the beasts instead!) Would-be accusers now needed to be more careful. Thus began the era of the Christian apologists. The most famous of these was St. Justin Martyr (100 to 165). In about 130 on the beach near Alexandria, St. Justin, a professional philosopher, had been converted by his encounter with an aged Christian. In about 150 he was publicly conducting a school of ‘Christian wisdom’ in Rome itself. With the precious tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul to guard, however, the Church hierarchy in Rome remained carefully secretive. No official representative was publicly available for pagan enquirers. Such enquirers could only approach these individual learned Christians like St. Justin who were presenting themselves in public as apologists (i.e. ‘defenders’) of the religion of the Christiani. Thanks however to these apologists, the Christiani could no longer be ignored. Ignorance, calumny and persecution notwithstanding, their numbers were steadily growing. The case being put so eloquently by the apologists needed to be answered. 4
At last in c. 170, a pagan philosopher named Celsus published the first systematic attack upon the Christiani. His book, sarcastically entitled The True Doctrine, has not survived. We only have a very comprehensive selection of quotes from it as preserved by the great Christian scholar Origen who, in 235 in his Contra Celsum, set out systematically to refute it. Celsus was a professional philosopher who seems to have first made his name by publishing a book on witchcraft. He seems to have set out to learn as much as he could about the Christiani but was the willing victim of the prejudices of his informants. He did not consult such apologists as St. Justin but seems rather to have consulted the Jews and possibly Gnostic sectarians.
Published on Nov 29, 2011
This survey of how the New Testament came to be written is also a chronicle of the first 40 years of the history of the Christian Church. It...