Attacks of Heathen Authors


The irreconcilable opposition between heathenism and Christianity found illustration in the literary sphere as well as in that of civil relations. If the contest here was less marked, it was because heathen mind was less ambitious, and less capable of conducting a conflict with Christianity, than heathen power. It was easier, on the whole, to refute with fire and sword and the torture-rack than with arguments.

Some of the writers contemporary with early Christianity have left no allusion to it whatever in their works. So Seneca, the elder Pliny, and Plutarch. Tacitus has no higher terms for it than exitiabilis superstitio, [Annal., xv. 44.] Suetonius styles it superstitio malefica, [Nero, xvi.] and the younger Pliny is scarcely more complimentary, calling it superstitio prava et immodica. [Epist., x. 96 (97).] Marcus Aurelius, as we have seen, acknowledged the fearlessness with which the Christians met death, but reprobated their courage as the product of a blind and unthinking enthusiasm [Meditations, xi. 3.] The Stoic Arrhian wrote in much the same vein.

Lucian, in the second half of the second century, gave a somewhat more extended notice of Christianity. He treated it as might be expected of an Epicurean humorist, not with hatred, but with infidel pleasantry. From the stand-point of his materialistic scepticism, all forms of religious belief were only differently colored vagaries; all alike were deserving of ridicule. His caricature of Christianity is of a piece with the heaped up sarcasms which he bestows on the heathen mythologies. As all faith, in his view, was folly, he pictures the Christians as a simple-minded set, good-natured indeed, but given up to delusion in thought and in practice. Among their delusions he ridicules in particular their wonderful brotherly love and their confident hope of immortality. To put his sarcasms in the most piquant form, he brings forward a strange genius, Peregrinus Proteus, who goes through various adventure, holds temporarily a place in the Church, experiences as a prisoner the lavish charity of the Christians, is afterwards expelled from their communion, takes up the role of a Cynic philosopher, and finally ends his life by a voluntary and ostentatious leap into the fire in the presence of a great multitude. After telling in a humorous way how his brethren of every class flocked to the prison of Peregrinus, while he was in durance for the faith, he gives this estimate of the Christians: "These people, in all such cases, where the interest of the whole community is concerned, are inconceivably alert and active, sparing neither trouble or expense. Accordingly, Peregrinus by his imprisonment amassed money to a large amount, in consequence of the presents that were sent him, and raised a considerable income from it. For these poor people have taken it into their heads, that they shall, body and soul, be immortal and live to all eternity; thence it is that they contemn death, and that many of them run voluntarily into his clutches. Besides, their original legislator taught them that they were all brothers when they had taken the great step to renounce the Grecian deities, and bow the knee to their crucified sophist, and live in conformity to his laws. All things else they despise in the lump, holding them vain and worthless, without having a competent reason for being attached to their opinions." [The Lifes-End of Peregrinus, translated by William Tooke.]

Another attack from the seat of the scornful, but more extended, and based upon a larger knowledge of Christianity, came from the eclectic philosopher Celsus, [Origen speaks of Celsus as an Epicurean philosopher, though not always confining himself to Epicurean tenets in his polemic against Christianity (Cont. Celsum, i. 8). He appears to have drawn much from Platonism.] who lived about the same time as Lucian. His elaborate treatise, entitled a "True Discourse," was early destroyed; but its contents are well indicated by the quotations of Origen, who took pains to answer it, proposition by proposition. The work of Celsus was written in a spirit of intense hatred, and spares no thrust which criticism, calumny, and sarcasm could supply. Some of his strictures are such as a, superficial rationalism always employs as a choice part of its stock in trade.

Celsus goes through the whole round of accusation. Master and disciple are equally slandered. Judaism and Christianity are both attacked; but the former is first subsidized for an assault upon the latter, and a Jew is made to utter every biting criticism which the more fanatical of his party might be imagined capable of producing. Christ is represented as the child of an adulterous connection between Mary and a Roman soldier. His ministry was that of an intentional deceiver, a "God-hated sorcerer," who learned his trade of working lying wonders in Egypt. [Cont. Celsum, i. 28, 32,71.] The claim that he was a divine being, the Son of God, is in every way preposterous. This claim, on the one hand, rests on a baseless assumption as to man's worth. It assumes that all things were made for men, that men are of unspeakable account in the eyes of God. Arrogant assumption! "Irrational animals are more beloved by God than we." "All things were not made for man, any more than they were made for lions, eagles, or dolphins. God is no more angry on account of men than on account of apes or flies." He only cares for the world as a whole, and the world as a whole grows neither better nor worse. [Cont. Cel., iv. 63, 85, 97, 99.] A divine incarnation argues an incredible and needless degradation of God. "No God, or Son of God, either came or will come down." [v. 2.] On the other hand, the divine claims of Christ are positively refuted by the facts of His life and death. He "obtained his living in a shameful and importunate manner," in the company of "the wickedest of tax-gatherers and sailors. [i. 62.] His life is a spectacle of impotence, contradictory on every side to the idea of divine strength. He could not even gain over His own disciples. [ii. 39.] He was powerless to avert a most shameful death. [ii. 9.] Think of the Son of God being nailed to a cross, God showing himself powerless to execute His threats against a disobedient nation in any better way than this; "whereas a malt who became angry with the Jews slew them all, from the youth upwards, and burned their city!" [iv. 73.] The claim to divinity is also contradicted by the inability of Christ to defend His followers. What help does He afford?" Do you not see [Christian] that even your own demon is not only reviled, but banished from every land and sea; and you yourself, who are, as it were, an image dedicated to him, are bound and led to punishment, and fastened to the stake, whilst your demon, or, as you call him, the Son of God, takes no vengeance on the evil-doer?" [Cont. Cel., viii. 39.] Never did a people appear more forsaken than this sect of the Nazarenes." If any of you transgresses even in secret, he is sought out and punished with death" [viii. 69.] (a very emphatic testimony, by the way, from the heathen side, as to the severity of heathen persecution). The story of the resurrection is a very poor expedient to help out the claim of Christ. Who were the witnesses of that event? "A half-frantic woman" as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged in the same system of delusion, who had either dreamed so, owing to a peculiar state of mind, or under the influence of a wandering imagination had formed to himself an appearance according to his own wishes." [ii.55.] How strikingly at this point Celsus anticipates Renan! The "half-frantic woman" of the former is only a less refined expression for the French critic's "Mary [who] alone loved enough to pass the bounds of nature, and revive the ghost of the perfect Master."

In the opinion of Celsus, the followers of the "God-hated sorcerer" rank no better than their chief, except as their ignorance may serve to excuse them. He counts it a piece of irrational stubbornness in the Christians that they should persist in maintaining their religion contrary to the laws of the State. [i. 1;v.34.] He charges them in particular with preferring ignorance to knowledge, the vile to the righteous. Their maxims, he says, are of the following nature: "Do not examine, but believe!" "Your faith will save you." "The wisdom of this life is bad, but foolishness is a good thing." [Cont. Cel., i. 9; iii. 18, 44.] "Those who invite to a participation in other mysteries," he continues, "make proclamation as follows: 'Every one who has clean hands and a prudent tongue;' others, again, thus: 'He who is pure from all pollution, and whose soul is conscious of no evil, and who has lived well and justly.' Such is the proclamation made by those who promise purification from sine. But let us hear what kind of persons these Christians invite. Every one, they say, who is a sinner, who is devoid of understanding, who is a child, and, to speak generally, whoever is unfortunate, him will the kingdom of God receive." [iii. 59.] The number of parties, Or factions, found among the Christians is also cited as a ground of reproach. [iii. 10.]

Many of the objections of Celsus, it is to be observed, were really of the nature of compliments to Christianity. They serve to illustrate how far the plane of the Christian religion is above that of an unspiritual philosophy, since they originated in the inability of the pagan critic to appreciate either the nobility of the Divine condescension, or the fitness of human condescension to men of low estate.

An attack in a somewhat profounder spirit came from Porphyry of Tyre, a representative of Neo-Platonism in the latter part of the third century. This was the philosophy of the heathen revival, which began in the latter half of the second century, and its character corresponded to its age and associations. Unlike the earlier philosophies, it assumed a distinctively religious cast; it patronized the heathen religion, and sought a rational interpretation of its mythology; it recognized man's craving after the supernatural, and was possessed with a spirit of ready assent to what appeared to be tokens of the supernatural, Eclectic in spirit, it did not shun to borrow, to a certain extent, from Christianity. Still, it was radically hostile to Christianity. It favored the persecuting policy of the Roman government. One of its representatives, Hierocles, was a prominent instigator and agent of the Diocletian persecution. It treated with scorn the claim for exceptional reverence toward Christ, and sought to exhibit the religious heroes of heathenism as being still more deserving. Thus the life of the philosopher and magician Apollonius of Tyana was idealized and set forth is something rivalling the life depicted in the gospel history. Hierocles openly drew the parallel in the early part of the fourth century, with the design of exhibiting the superiority of the heathen teacher and wonder-worker. [Lactantius, Inst. Div., v. 2, 3.] The same design, as many critics conclude, lay at the basis of the biography of Apollonius, which Philostratus wrote near the beginning of the third century. [Opinion is not unanimous as to the conscious intent of Philostratus. A brief summary of the evidence in favor of the conclusion expressed above may be found in Pressensé, Martyrs and Apologists, Book III, chap, i.; J. H. Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. ii.] A like interest may perhaps be detected in the endeavor of Porphyry and Jamblichus to exalt Pythagoras beyond measure.

Unlike Celsus, Porphyry ascribed to Christ the character of a noble and sincere teacher of the truth. We are not to calumniate him, but only to pity those, who, in pursuance of a delusion which fate has brought upon them, worship him as God since his exaltation to heaven. From such fragments as remain of his work against Christianity, Porphyry seems to have made a special effort to invalidate the authority of Scripture, and to disparage the apostles as compared with their Master. He denied the genuineness of the Book of Daniel, emphasized the disagreement between Peter and Paul at Antioch as being contradictory to the authority of their teaching, [Jerome, Epist., cxi. 6 (Migne).] alleged that the repudiation of sacrifices by Christians was out of harmony with their prescription in the Old Testament, [Augustine, Epist., cii.] and questioned whether the doctrine of eternal punishment could be reconciled with the rule of proportionate penalty which Christ himself enunciated. [Ibid.] He also intimated that the late appearance of Christ in the history of the race agrees ill with the supposition of necessary dependence upon him for salvation. [Ibid. Compare Jerome, Epist., cxxxiii.]

Hierocles, who wrote in the time of the Diocletian persecution, though assuming to deal with Christianity in a friendly and candid way, was less remote than Porphyry from the tactics of Celsus. As Lactantius represents, he ventured to assail Christ himself, as well as his followers, with odious accusations [Inst. Div., v. 2, 3. See also Euseb., Adv. Hieroclem.]