The current moment in the Western church is a watershed in our history. Today, for the first time since antiquity, Western Christians inhabit a largely non-Christian society. For most of us, these changes take the form not of aggressive persecutions but of subtler social pressures. Regular church attendance is no longer a cultural expectation but, in many places, something of an oddity. In personal interactions, we have likely experienced questioning, misunderstanding, or even mockery of theological or moral beliefs once taken for granted in a notionally Christian polite society. Perhaps we have been drawn into the abyss of social media debates, or seen a Thanksgiving dinner go awry as the conversation turns toward Christianity. In these contexts, the question facing us is a difficult one: How do we maintain a winsome engagement with our friends and neighbors, and with the intellectual currents of our age, while maintaining faithfulness to our convictions?
Thankfully, we are not the first generation of Christians to ask such questions. In this article, I want to explore what lessons we might draw from an era that was well aware of the challenges of faithful witness in a non-Christian world: the early church. (I should say first that the modern American Christian experience is by no means a perfect analogy for that of the church in the Roman Empire—no exercise in historical comparison ever is.) This particular historical analogy has been the subject of far too many hyperbolic essays, so my intention here is to remain true to the historical record, drawing application where there is commonality.
Most Christians in the first centuries of the church never faced lions, pyres, or crosses, yet all of them had to constantly negotiate how to live and participate in a society that was by turns opposed to, perplexed by, or indifferent toward them. In what follows, I want to explore two ways in which early Christians navigated their cultural contexts, and offer some lessons we might draw from their experiences. First, I will highlight the ways that early Christians challenged the social expectations for religious practice and modeled an alternative vision of religion and community. I will then discuss the early Christian engagement with their pagan intellectual critics, an encounter that left the church forever transformed.
Religion and Superstition
While most early Christians did not experience brazen, imperially sponsored persecution, Christians from all levels of society faced persistent opposition in subtler and potentially even more culturally potent forms. One of the primary reasons for this antagonism was Christianity’s defiance of social expectations for religious practice. In the ancient Mediterranean world, religio (the Latin ancestor of our word religion) was associated with a particular place or people group. The Jews had their religio, as did the people of Athens and the inhabitants of Rome. Traditional cultic practices offered a way to celebrate and honor one’s homeland and its representative deities. They provided time-honored means to petition the gods for aid in times of need. Temples and shrines functioned as economic engines by collecting offerings and spurring industries (e.g., the manufacture and sale of cultic objects). Ancient religions were not particularly exclusive—one could take part in the rites of the emperor, offer a sacrifice to a city god, and pray to a household deity in a single day. Finally, a moral code of conduct was not central to the practice of religio. Simply put, in the ancient Mediterranean world, religio was a collection of social practices that were thought to promote social cohesion and traditional values. It was therefore inextricably bound up with social and political life. Participation in these rites was as essential for membership in the community as our own national rituals of reciting the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem.
When judged by these standards, it is easy to see why Greco-Roman elites did not dignify Christianity with the label of religio. Instead, they viewed it as a dangerous superstitio, characterized by irrationality, a fervent and overzealous devotion to the divine, and a threatening exclusivism. By abstaining from participation in the civic religio, Christians showed their disdain for their city, their people, and the traditions of their ancestors. Rumors and insinuations spread that Christian superstitio took dangerously deviant forms—including cannibalism and incest. Harsh criticism and hostile public perception undoubtedly increased the social pressure on Christians to conceal or renounce their faith.
In his recent book Destroyer of the Gods, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado makes the case that early Christianity challenged and fundamentally redefined the very idea of religion in the ancient world. He highlights several factors that contributed to Christianity’s “distinctiveness” in relation to other ancient religions. Two of these are particularly relevant here: early Christian “exclusivism” and early Christian “ethics.”1 Because of Christians’ refusal to participate in local, civic, or ethnic religio, their community was, by definition, exclusive and thereby offensive to the pagan pluralism that bound the Roman Empire together. Yet it also promised any willing convert access to a community that was purposefully translocal, transcivic, and transethnic. Their exclusivism set them apart, the heterodox Syrian Christian Bardaisan argued, as a “new race” spread among the nations. Even as their stubborn abstinence from pagan religio earned the scorn of others, their moral convictions and radical generosity impressed even the most contemptuous of their critics.
Sometime in the late second century, Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata (ca. AD 120–180) composed a satirical biography of Peregrinus, a roving Cynic philosopher best known for his public self-immolation at the Olympic Games in AD 165. In Lucian’s telling, Peregrinus feigned a conversion to Christianity, using his position among them to take advantage of their generosity and credulousness. Lucian writes that when Peregrinus was imprisoned, the Christians leapt to his defense:
In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice. The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrinus, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. . . . Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them. (De Morte Peregrini 13)2
While we do not know Peregrinus’s motivations (his time among the Christians could have been part of a sincere search for truth), Lucian clearly wishes to portray him as a con man who easily fooled the irrational and gullible Christians. While his account drips with mockery, Lucian nevertheless marvels at the Christians’ quick defense and support of a man they viewed as one of their own. The deep solidarity of the Christian community shines through Lucian’s narrative.
In the face of such opposition, however, the early church continued to grow. One of the greatest attractions of conversion to Christianity, it seems, was the love shown by Christians. In his Plea for the Christians, second-century apologist Athenagoras of Athens praised the faithful witness of those everyday Christians “unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine,” who nevertheless bore witness to the truth through their love and good deeds (Leg. 11). As churches grew bigger and more organized, charitable activities (in the forms of food distribution, care for the sick, and protection of orphans) became large-scale enterprises. These sorts of activities were foreign to Greco-Roman religio. By the fourth century, the devoutly pagan emperor Julian “the Apostate” (ruled AD 361) sought to establish pagan high priesthoods in cities that would be tasked with the mission of overseeing charitable work, in a conscious imitation of Christianity (Letter 84). Julian believed that if pagans were to win back converts, they must “Christianize” their religion, thus making it more attractive to the masses.
The religious landscape of twenty-first-century America is obviously radically different from that of the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, our notions of distinct “secular” and “religious” spheres and our constitutional separation of religion and state would be incomprehensible to an ancient observer. Despite these differences, there is much we could learn from the experiences of early Christians.
Today, several forms of modern religio vie for the adherence of Americans. Like ancient Greco-Roman religio, these cultural forces do not particularly care what Christians believe, nor are they particularly interested in morality. They want to see demonstrations of allegiance. For all its diversity, ancient Mediterranean society was deeply tribal. In such a context, the practices of religio served as public demonstrations of loyalty to family, city, or empire. The tribal fault lines in our society are quite different, increasingly drawn in terms of party, political ideology, or identification with a particular interest group. The more these factions divide our society, the more loyalty they demand from Christians. Early Christians tried to walk a fine line: to declare their obedience to the emperor and their earthly citizenship in their place of residence, while resisting the daily public pressure to show support to those powers through sacrifices, libations, and festivals. Faced with these social demands, who knows how many early Christians poured out an occasional libation in the name of Athena or made some other small compromise? Today, American Christians face subtle (or overt) pressures to compromise in various ways—to blend in with the crowd, to show our allegiance to particular political or ideological factions and our contempt for those on the other side. In other words, we are tempted to trade the generous exclusivism of the church for a hostile exclusivism based on party, movement, or cultural identity.
The experience of the early Christians reminds us that the church must always transcend these divisions. In the first centuries of the church, it was the love and charity of Christians that first drew many to hear the gospel. When faced with pressure to show devotion to the religio of the age, our communities must welcome the native-born and the foreigner, the liberal and the conservative, the weak and the powerful. As the fault lines grow deeper, we must show more unity and a greater willingness to challenge social divisions in the name of Christ. Our greatest ambition should be for our non-Christian critics to echo the words of Tertullian of Carthage (ca. AD 155–240): “Look how they love one another!” (Apol. 39.7).
In addition to the cultural and social pressures of everyday life in the ancient world, early Christians faced derision and condemnation from intellectual circles. Just as in our own time, intellectual elites had an outsized clout among the richest and most powerful members of society. Ancient critiques of Christianity drew upon a very different set of cultural values and beliefs than modern critiques. Despite the common hostility to Christianity, Celsus was no ancient Richard Dawkins. Nevertheless, the early Christian experience in navigating and responding to these challenges is instructive for our own time. As Robert Wilken argues, these critics “performed an enormous service to the developing Christian tradition. They helped Christian thinkers to see the difficulties of the positions they adopted, to grasp the implications of Christian belief earlier than would have been possible if they had talked only among themselves.”3 In other words, a thorough engagement between early Christians and their opponents laid the groundwork for the development of Christian theology.
The Kerygmatic Church
No ancient intellectual critiques of Christianity were more influential than Celsus’s True Doctrine (late second century) and Porphyry of Tyre’s Against the Christians (late third century). In both of these texts, we find many of the most common features of ancient anti-Christian polemic: assertions of the superiority of Greek culture over “barbarian” cultures such as Judaism, critiques of Christian Scripture, and a strong dependence on traditional Greek authorities (especially Plato). Neither writer was opposed to the notion that the divine had inspired authoritative truth to draw people to salvation. Rather, they argued that Christians had utilized the wrong sources. In their view, Christian Scriptures had no claim to the antiquity of the tradition of the inspired Homer, Plato, and Aristotle. As such, Celsus argued, they could easily be refuted by “an ancient doctrine which has existed from the beginning, which has always been maintained by the wisest nations and cities and wise men” (Contra Celsum 1.14). The deep respect accorded to the classics in the Greco-Roman world meant that Christians had to take these criticisms seriously. The fact that significant fragments of Porphyry’s and Celsus’s works have survived is an indication that many of them did. These fragments live on in the writings of Christian authors, most notably Origen of Alexandria (AD 185–254), author of Against Celsus.
Some early Christians took a more adversarial position toward the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, positioning it as an opponent of the Christian gospel. Tertullian’s question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” is a well-known example of this viewpoint (De praescr. haer. 7.9). Even critics took the opportunity to demonstrate points of agreement between Christianity and popular ideas of the time. Tertullian elsewhere acknowledges, “Of course we shall not deny that philosophers have sometimes thought the same things as ourselves” (De anima 2).
Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100–165) exemplifies a more positive assessment of Greco-Roman thought. Borrowing the language of the Stoic school, he claims that the authorities and teachers of the Greek intellectual tradition “all spoke well in proportion to the share [they] had of the seminal Logos” (2 Apol. 13.2). Whatever truth they possessed came from Reason/the Word—Jesus Christ. In the ancient tradition of philosophy, Justin saw a way to connect with Christianity’s critics and explain its odd moral system and exclusivist practices to an uncomprehending audience. “I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable,” he recounts. “Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher” (Dial. 8).
It is a mistake to think of ancient philosophy as an ivory-tower endeavor disconnected from the realities of everyday life. Philosophical traditions (Greek: bioi, “lifestyles”) like Stoicism and Platonism revered their founding teachers, taught ethical living, and actively sought disciples. They were well-known fixtures of ancient cities—Wilken even compares them to traveling evangelists!4 It is unsurprising that, faced with accusations of superstitio and impiety for their rejection of traditional religio, Christian apologists such as Justin would have sought to portray themselves in these familiar terms. Even an outsider like the pagan physician Galen seems to have understood Christianity in this way, describing it as a philosophical “school” (Greek: bios). The ethical focus of philosophical traditions explains how Justin and Augustine both viewed Greco-Roman philosophy as a crucial stepping-stone in their journeys toward Christianity.
Yet early Christianity was never just a system of ethics. It was first and foremost a proclamation (Greek: kerygma) of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reading the writers of the second and third centuries, one has the impression that a commitment to this kerygma drives their interactions with Greco-Roman thought. They borrow traditional philosophical categories, ideas, and terminology, but they tend to put them at the service of their own idiosyncratic faith in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. While non-Christian critics of Christianity sometimes admired the Christian way of life, the Christian kerygma was a frequent stumbling block.
As much as Christians sought to explain and defend themselves to pagan critics, the exclusivity and offensiveness of the kerygma formed a wall between most Christian thinkers and non-Christian intellectuals. Since the nineteenth century, scholars have spoken of the “Hellenization of Christianity.” While there may be germs of truth to the notion—some early Christians surrendered too much to the intellectual currents of their time—ancient Greco-Roman critics recognized a greater danger: the “Christianization of Hellenism.” With their kerygma Christians would not hesitate to reject, appropriate, or completely refashion the revered teachings of the ancients. When the bishops at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) looked for language to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, they turned to terminology familiar to Greek philosophy—ousia (“being”)—a term some Christians decried as unbiblical! Ultimately, the Christian engagement with Greco-Roman critics shaped the articulation of doctrine.
Again, there are some clear differences between the situation of the early church and the church in modern America. Pagan critics attacked Christianity as untraditional, a novel innovation on the teachings of antiquity. Such an argument carries far less weight today, when novelty is typically a virtue and tradition is often suspect. There are, however, some important lessons to draw from the engagement between early Christians and their intellectual critics.
The first is rather straightforward. Although frequently misunderstood and even suspect, Christians did not retreat into their own communities. Rather, they defended themselves and engaged their critics on their own terms. Every generation of Christians faces criticisms and encounters new questions, both from within and without. It is incumbent upon theologians, pastors, and thinking people to rise to the moment and engage with those critiques. The experience of the early Christians reminds us that there is always a tension in this engagement between accommodation and rejection of external criticisms.
Nevertheless, in the first centuries of the church, this engagement was the impetus for some of the earliest Christian attempts to bring their Scripture, their kerygma, and their moral convictions into a comprehensive theological system. We cannot know how well Christian apologists and theologians managed to persuade any of their critics. It is possible (and perhaps likely) that non-Christian intellectuals paid little attention to these rebuttals. Christians, however, paid attention, as leaders among them rose to speak on their behalf. These leaders offered a vision of Christian faith that was rational and all-encompassing, distinctly Christian, yet culturally engaged.
I recently watched a video of a debate held several years ago between scientist and “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins and the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Although Williams is an admirable and learned spokesman for the Christian faith, I had little reason to believe that Dawkins left the debate convinced by his arguments. The debate was more beneficial for those who watched it, particularly Christians, reminding us that our faith is intellectually defensible and that the arguments of critics, while often compelling and worth addressing, are not foolproof. Nevertheless, those rival claims push us to give a response and to do so in a manner that is comprehensible in our time and context.
History never provides perfect analogies for the present. It is always tempting to use history selectively, to make it say what we want in the present moment. A vast gulf of history, culture, technology, language, and countless other differences separate the modern American church from the early church. Yet wherever the church catholic exists, it participates in a story that began in the Roman Empire, along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. It is part of our calling to listen to this past and try to let it speak into the present. We have much to learn if we are to live without presuming a moral and cultural power we no longer possess. The early church reminds us that to remain winsomely engaged with a non-Christian world, while remaining faithful to the gospel, requires resistance to the religios that seek our allegiance. It involves an ever-deeper commitment to and love for one another. It also demands that we answer the challenges of our critics and seek common ground in light of our kerygma. We would do well to read the fathers of the church.
Blake Hartung has a PhD in historical theology from Saint Louis University. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, Sarah, and teaches theology, history, and language courses.
- Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).
- Ancient sources cited in this article can be found in Ante-Nicene Fathers , 10 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
- Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 200.
- Wilken, 74.