The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

Wilken, Robert Louis. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. 2d. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Find on Amazon.

As an interesting perusal of the pagan reaction to Christianity, Wilken provides a valuable insight into the ways in which Christianity is viewed by outsiders. What stands out, at least until Julian in the fourth century, is that the pagan reaction to Christianity was not one of biased hatred of Jesus. Rather, the pagans did not understand Christianity. Christians, rightfully, removed themselves from anything idolatrous and by reason of their persecution met in secret. Roman religion was external, public, and social. The Romans could not appreciate a religion without visible gods, without visible sacrifices. Similarly, Christianity appeared to them to be subversive, much like other illicit cults in the Empire. So, while the Christians rightly understood their persecution to be a spiritual in nature, individual Romans and Roman officials spurned Christianity for more innocuous reasons. The Hindu rejection of Christianity is probably similar. Hinduism as a religion is diametrically opposed to Christianity. It makes no sense to them. What is a required is a total break in worldview. The Romans also had to radically change their worldview in order to become Christians, or after becoming Christians, had to undergo that break. Hence, the battle to force Christians to offer supplications (25ff).

Also, Romans were proud of their religious piety (62ff), much as the Hindus or Buddhists, even Muslims. One of the growing objections to Christian missions is the universalistic claim that people of other religions are just as devout as, if not more so than, Christians. This objection is a red herring. Certainly devotion to other religion is a hinderance to the gospel, but it by no means swayed the early church. They pressed forward with the gospel. However, areas of intense persecution may also be areas where there is the greater devotion to a religion, as in Rome. The Roman cult demonstrates the pervasive nature of religion. Converting to Christianity has profound and pervasive cultural implications. Still, the early church strove to maintain their Roman-ness without being pagan (46–7).

Even so, the Romans recognized the subversive nature of the gospel (117ff). By its very nature, it was setting up a rival “myth” to the Roman way of life. A myth, an “antistructure” as understood by anthropologists, creates the foundation of a worldview by supplanting the previous alternative explanation of reality. Christianity was a genuine threat to Roman society. The early Christians may not have fully understood this, but the pagans rightfully felt it! Christianity is a threat to every society that holds to another religion. This does not mean that Christianity seeks to erase cultural distinctions, though this has been the case from time to time in Christian history. However, by its very nature, the gospel creates an alternative view of reality, a view based on the grand biblical narrative, from creation to Jesus, and from Jesus to consummation. This is why the Romans were incensed about Christian views of creation—it was a rival to the Platonic view (cf. Timeaus, 85–6, 133, 183–4).

Wilken’s book has further convinced me of the subversive nature of Christianity. This has profound implications for my view of contextualization. As much as continuity with a given culture is necessary for the communication of the gospel, the subversive elements of the gospel must be gently maintained. In other words, while the early apologists passionately implored their fellow Romans to be converted in terms that they could understand, and though they emphasized the elements of truth in the Roman worldview, they, for the most part among those orthodox, did not compromise the transforming (positive form of subversive) elements of the gospel. The Gospel transforms character and redefines worldview.

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  1. Hi, first time on your website. Good stuff. Thanks. I love the study of ancient history, especially the intersection between Christianity and the broader Greco-Roman culture. Two books worth looking at are: Stephen Benko’s Pagan Roman and Early Christians and Ramsey MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman Empire. There are certainly interesting negotiations going on for both sides.

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