Robert Conner, Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus, Part 1

Robert Conner studied Greek, Hebrew, some Aramaic and even Coptic back in the mid-70's at Western Kentucky University. He's written nine books, including Jesus the Sorcerer, and the latest on The Secret Gospel of Mark, as well as a number of articles and essays. If you want a primer on what the earliest critics of Christianity had to say about this new cult then I'm publishing an essay he wrote in several parts, with approval. This is Part 1.

Christianity’s Critics:
The Romans Meet Jesus

Extended and Revised, 04/2016

Robert Conner

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 Christian-ity’s first centuries that confirm their allegations. Although apologists dismiss or at least attempt to minimize the force of the refutation of Roman intellec-tuals, it bears mention that writers such as Celsus, who wrote in the decade between 170—180, read gospels significantly older than any currently sur-viving 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 coun-ter-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 dis-tinguish themselves from Jews if, indeed, they even cared to make such a dis-tinction. That Christianity might eventually emerge victorious from the wel-ter 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 as-cendency.”[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 en-abled 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 educa-tion 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 pro-tected 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 religi-ously 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, there-fore, 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’ contemporar-ies: “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 ege-neto 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 im-possibility...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.

To escape the embarrassing predicament presented by the passage, Christian translators have gone to great lengths to paper over the problem of Luke’s statement—here is a sample of the creative renditions proposed: “the sun stopped shining” (New International Version), “the sun’s light failed” (Eng-lish Standard Version), “because the sun had stopped shining” (International Standard Version), “because the sun’s light failed” (NET Bible), “the sun’s light failing” (American Standard Version). According to these ‘translations’ whatever may have caused darkness to fall “over the whole land” it was defi-nitely not what Luke claimed it was, “an eclipse of the sun” (tou hliou ekli-pontoj), regardless of the fact that ancient writers used the expression ekleiyij hliou (ekleipsis hēliou), “eclipse of the sun” for, well, an eclipse of the sun. Aspiring expositors have proposed all sorts of alternative explanations such as sudden storms or dense clouds, but if bad weather caused the darkness that fell over the land, why did Luke use the verb ekleipw (ekleipō) which, when used of the sun or moon, means “to eclipse”? Indeed, our astronomical term ecliptic, the path of the sun as seen from earth, comes from the Greek eklei-ptikoj (ekleiptikos), “of or caused by an eclipse,”[17] because a solar eclipse can only occur when the moon crosses the ecliptic to block the light of the sun.

The uncomplicated syntax of Luke’s account makes these apologetic ‘transla-tions’—which are basically semi-disguised apologetic commentary—even less plausible. Grammatically speaking, Luke’s expression skotoj egeneto...tou hliou eklipontoj, “darkness fell...because of the eclipse of the sun,” is an un-complicated causative genitive participle that has clear parallels. Consider Acts 7:9, for example, which says “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt.”[18]Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph...” is an example of a genitive causative participle in Greekzhlwsantej ton Iwshf...patriarcai apedontothat explains why the patri-archs sold their brother into slavery: because they were jealous. At this point I would draw the reader’s attention back to the interpretations of Luke 23:45 mentioned abovetwo of them acknowledge the causative function of tou hliou eklipontoj even as they fudge the translation: because the sun had stopped shining” (International Standard Version), “because the sun’s light failed” (NET Bible). Although it may be obscure to those who have not stud-ied Greek, I belabor this point to illustrate how bad faith seems almost in-evitably to creep into and falsify Christian discourse. At this point one might well askrhetorically, of courseas does Paula Fredriksen, “Why, then, in a field generally so cautious and self-consciously critical, do New Testament scholars routinely confuse historical reality with theological polemic, and in the name of pursuing the former reproduce the latter?”[19]

As I have pointed out, Jesus came from an insignificant village and it is clear from the gospels that he avoided urban areas. Although it is nearly impossible to know anything certain about Jesus’ biography, a void that extends even to the dates of his birth and death, it is well established that ancient literacy was tightly connected to city life and that in areas where agriculture predomi-nated, literacy rates were very low.[20] It is nearly certain that Jesus himself was illiterate. Regarding “the quest for the historical Jesus” Gager observed, “On no other issue have such prodigious efforts led to more inconclusive re-sults.”[21] Those decades of aimless wandering in the scholarly wilderness is due almost entirely to theological commitment and a maidenly unwillingness to offend the gossamer sensibilities of believers and not to any lack of historical evidencethere were, as Celsus pointed out, many holy men of Jesus’ type gadding about the Roman world.

It has only recently been emphasized that “magic,” “pagan,” “heresy,” and “orthodoxy” are examples of “Christianity supplying the categories of analysis …so that the discussion of Greco-Roman religion and Christianity was left to passionate amateurs whose main interest was scoring points for their version of authentic Christianity…the last 40 years have seen a dramatic displace-ment of Christian schools of theology by university departments of religious studies as the center for serious conversation about religion.”[22] In point of fact, in the era under discussion, there was no ‘organized religion,’ but rather a broad spectrum of state and local, native and foreign cults, none of which (with the exception of Judaism) made an exclusive claim to truth. Indeed, the typical member of Greco-Roman society considered Christians to be atheists due to their denial of the gods of polytheism. Pagan was a pejorative term adopted by the Christians of late antiquity to falsely characterize their op-ponents: “The pagans did not know they were pagans until the Christians told them they were. The very concept of ‘paganism’ is a Jewish-Christian construct...It is a lump word, a Christian category imposed on all non-mono-theists to describe the unbaptized ‘civilian’ or ‘non-combatant’ whom they hoped to enlist in Christ’s army...”[23]

Uniformity of belief was fundamentally foreign to the mindset of pre-Chris-tian culture. As Burkert observed, “It was unthinkable that the entire life of the family should be subject to a special religious orientation, and that every child should find himself inescapably merged into a religious system where apostasy was considered to be worse than death. The very idea of Bacchic, Metroac, or even Isiac ‘education of children’ would approach the ridicu-lous.”[24] However the demands of Jesus’ God were all inclusive, even totali-tarian—the Jewish God commanded total devotion, heart, mind, and soul.[25]

It is instructive to reframe the history of early Christianity by looking at it through the lens of its Roman critics who charged that “both believers and the scriptures they read and trusted lacked intellectual integrity...Constituting a third facet of this literary barrage, followers of Jesus were ridiculed as igno-rant, gullible fools, and for mainly consisting of women and fanatics.”[26]

This essay dispenses entirely with affable, theologically based assumptions about Jesus and Christianity and utterly rejects the question begging and spe-cial pleading that infests much of the literature on early Christianity. To the surprise of many readers and the dismay of others, it can be rather easily demonstrated that the harshest denunciations of Jewish and Roman detrac-tors aimed at Jesus and his followers can be verified from early Christian writings and the actions of Christians themselves. However, apologetic scholarship has raised a serious barrier to understanding the founding docu-ments of Christianity—“The rationalizing instinct not infrequently appears in the service of faith with an apologetic function.”[27] Nor is this a new ploy. Roman critics frequently charged Christians with practicing magic; Christian apologists who attempted a rebuttal followed a well-worn path: “Jewish au-thors from [the Second Temple] period take pains to distinguish extraordi-nary events taking place in their midst from magical practices, especially in cases that require the employment of certain objects and rituals. The most common strategy was to ascribe miracles to God’s power and magic to hu-man agency.”[28]

To regard the triumph of Christianity as merely the victory of one religion over others is to completely miss the significance of the new intellectual re-gime that would dominate the western world for the next fifteen centuries. Far more than a set of religious doctrines, Christianity became the framework around which an enduring social order arose, a distorting prism through which a culture perceived the natural world, and a totalitarian ethos that sought out and destroyed all who challenged it. Christianity did much more than bury the gods of the Greco-Roman world under the rubble of their van-dalized templesits intensely anti-intellectual impulse smothered the voices of generations of genius. As Murdock noted, “[Constantine] let loose a philo-sophy that was to pervade every aspect of political, social, cultural, and, of course, religious life right up to modern times.”[29] Given all that Christian zealots erased, that we know anything at all about the amazing accomplish-ments of the world before Christianity is due in most cases to pure happen-stance.

An obvious example is the recent rescue of a portion of the text of the Archi-medes Codex, a collection of works by the greatest known mathematical gen-ius of the pre-Christian era. In this particular case, the original writing of Archimedes’ text was scraped off the parchment on which it had been copied, the codex cut into pieces, and the resulting pages used to create a prayer book. “The first piece of parchment in [the Christian scribe’s] new codex contained On Floating Bodies.[30] He covered it with a blessing for loaves for Easter. Further into the codex, he wrote over a different section with a prayer for repentance.”[31] The monk who repurposed the parchment of Archimedes’ text to make a prayer book was either too ignorant to know he was erasing a foundational work on mathematics or knew and didn’t care.

This essay focuses on two Roman writers in particular, Lucian of Samosata, whose extensive works have survived remarkably intact despite his characteri-zation of Jesus as “that crucified sophist,”[32] and a little known philosopher named Celsus, whose work comes down to us in the form of quotations in the Christian apologist Origen’s magnum opus, Contra Celsum—“That [Con-tra Celsum] still needed refutation seventy years after it was written is an in-dication of how seriously Christians took its arguments.”[33] “We know about these anti-Christian texts because they were quoted (selectively) and para-phrased (tendentiously) by Christian authors: Origen, Against Celsus (Contra Celsum),[34] Eusebius, Against Hierocles, and Cyril of Alexandria, Against Ju-lian.”[35]

The case of Flavius Claudius Julianus—Julian “the Apostate”—deserves some extended comment. Born into a Christian family, he converted to a theurgic form of Neo-Platonism, a conversion probably hastened by the murder of his father and eight of his relatives by his uncle, the Christian Constantius. “The savagery of what happened, in a Christian court, had a searing effect on the six-year-old boy...Libanius marked the murders as the major event of Julian’s infancy.”[36] While Julian was still in his teens, Constantius had the future em-peror’s half-brother Gallus, a committed Christian, murdered as well.

As a child, Julian was thoroughly indoctrinated in the tenets of Christianity, and although he came to loath the religion, he feigned belief until declared Augustus, consensu militum, at Paris in 360. Shortly after, Julian openly em-braced the ancient Roman religions. Julian’s criticisms—to the extent they have survived—are of particular interest therefore, coming as they do from the pen of an intelligent, indeed bookish, insider who repaid his Christian instructors with interest “for the enforced studies of his boyhood.”[37] His most direct attack on the Church, Against the Galileans, is, unfortunately, pre-served only in fragments.

“[Julian’s Against the Galileans] appears rather disjointed. What remains is disappointing, and it is not just because only around a third has survived. The passages we have are those garnered from an extensive refutation of the work by Cyril of Alexandria in the early 440’s. By definition it is the weakest passages that have survived. Not only are the passages Cyril excerpted natu-rally enough the ones he disagreed with, but also they are the one he felt he could refute.”[38] Cyril is widely acknowledged to have fomented murderous violence, not only against pagans, but also against other Christians; regarding the “tyrant-bishop” epitomized by Cyril, Gaddis notes, “The tyrant-bishop’s lust for power drove him to overstep the normal boundaries of his episcopal authority and interfere in the business of other dioceses and provinces...The tyrant-bishop’s greed betrayed itself in his love of luxury and pursuit of secu-lar ostentation...Tyrant-bishops resorted to violence, legal or otherwise, in order to satisfy their greed and ambition.”[39] Cyril went so far as to maintain a private army of thugs, the Nitrian monks, one of whom attached the Alex-andrian prefect Orestes who had the monk tortured to death.

Julian’s sense of irony is revealed by his decision to call the Christians Gali-leans, a choice that reflected the gospel saying, “out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.”[40] Nevertheless, Julian’s lifelong inclination toward mysticism, his ascetic personal habits, as well as his inflexibility may betray the aftereffects of early Christian indoctrination on a susceptible mind.

Julian’s pushback against the Church also took the form of cleverly crafted legal moves—since the days of Constantine orthodoxy had been “associated with tax exemptions for clergy as well as access to wealth and patronage and the high status enjoyed by the state church.”[41] Julian turned the tax code against the Church in the same way the Church had used it against the here-tics. He cancelled tax exemptions for the clergy: “Julian proclaimed that no one could henceforth claim exemption from service as a decurion (councillor) on the grounds of being a Christian. Since only the clergy had been entitled to seek this exemption, the measure was accordingly directed at them.”[42] With “the withdrawal of their lucrative tax exemptions,”[43] Julian struck a deft blow at the claim of Christian disdain for materialism. In addition, he passed a law that “banned [Christians] from teaching the three pillars of Roman education: grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy...In one fell swoop, Julian cut Christians off from potential converts and from the classical tradition...Julian had marginalized Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion.”[44] “[Julian] did his best to avoid direct, violent persecution in the manner of Diocletian—he did not wish to give the Christians more martyrs around which they could rally opposition...Julian relied on economic sanc-tions, job discrimination, confiscation of church property, and other more indirect measures...”[45]

Julian’s attack on the cult was that of an intelligent insider who was literally well-versed; it is little wonder that Christians reacted with glee to his death in battle in June, 363. In fact, later Christian legend claimed that the martyr Mercurius had returned from the dead to assassinate Julian on the orders of Christ himself.

Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234-c. 305 C.E.), a polymath and philosopher, wrote a work titled Against the Christians, “a great book of fifteen volumes, a scourge of the Christians,”[46] so feared by the Church that in 448 Theodosius II or-dered any copies still in existence burned. “Not only were Porphyry’s books destroyed, but many of the works of Christian writers incorporating sections of Porphyry’s polemic were burned in order to eliminate what one critic, the bishop Apollinarius, called the ‘poison of his thought.’”[47] In fact, it is no longer certain which fragments attributed to Porphyry are genuine; for the sake of simplicity, and because this is an essay, not a dissertation, I have elect-ed to follow Hoffman’s reconstruction. In any case, Porphyry’s insights into the new Jewish sect anticipated the conclusions of modern scholars: “Cen-turies before the advent of modern biblical criticism, Porphyry already knew that the book of Daniel was a Maccabean pseudepigraph,”[48] i.e., a faked ‘pro-phecy.’ Porphyry “contentiously reported that the oracle ascribed to Isaiah in Mark 1:2 was in fact a conflation between Isaiah and Malachi (to be exact, Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3). Similarly, he flagged Matthew 13:35, which wrongly assigns a passage from Psalm 78:2 to Isaiah...Porphyry in fact represented the contradictions and errors in these revered writings as the natural product of rustic and unsophisticated followers of Jesus...Attentive readers...noted within the gospels glaring factual errors, Old Testament citations wrongly attribut-ed, and inconsistencies in the details reported by the separate evangelical ac-counts.”[49] Later Christian scribes altered the text of Mark, which mistakenly attributed a quote to “Isaiah the prophet,”[50] to read “in the prophets” in a be-lated attempt to derail further criticism of the supposedly inerrant gospels’ multiple inaccuracies.

At least a generation passed between the appearance of the first Roman criti-ques of Christianity and the Christian apologetic response. Christian ortho-doxy “produced no leaders of the intellectual range and status of its oppo-nents...Irenaeus possessed a robust common sense, a long memory, and flash-es of theological insight, but between the memorable phrases his writing is prolix and tedious, and his ideas inflexible. Like his colleagues, he was en-cumbered with a millenarian legacy...There could be no accommodation with the thought of the Greco-Roman world so long as millenarianism pre-vailed.”[51]

That any trace of these criticisms survives—and even then only in quotation —is evidence of the acute anxiety they caused the early Church. Celsus in particular was a fearsome opponent: “He was a man who relied not on ru-mors and hearsay evidence but on personal observation and careful study. Be-cause he had read both the Old and New Testaments and was familiar with Jewish and Christian literature, he knew the difference between Gnostic and orthodox theologies, and his book is on the whole free of mistakes and mis-conceptions, excepting those that reflect the generally held superstitions of the second century. It contains none of the popular pagan antagonism against Christians and makes no unsubstantiated charges.”[52] Indeed, Celsus’ accuracy is widely acknowledged: “Celsus’ technical impartiality in the disputes he re-fers to is helpful—he had no interest in making the Christians seem better or more numerous than they were (exactly the reverse), so he has a good claim to be believed.”[53] Origen’s refutation of the Celsus’ True Doctrine did not ap-pear until some 70 years after its composition and even then “Origen may have deleted the most damaging parts.”[54]

The Roman intelligentsia took an extremely dim view of Christianity—they regarded it with the same mixture of disgust and incomprehension that West-erners reserve for Muslim suicide bombers—like modern Islamic extremists imbued with a martyr complex, “the Christian assailants” who vandalized pagan and Jewish religious buildings “seem to have planned their attack in the full expectation and hope of being killed for it, and thus attaining the crown of martyrdom...This aggressive paradigm of martyrdom pointed the way toward the more notorious, violent attacks on pagan temples and Jewish synagogues carried out by Christian holy men in the late fourth and fifth cen-turies.”[55]

The three Roman historians whose writings we have investigated were all contemporaries, and all reflected the aristocratic, well-bred Ro-man’s judgment that Christianity was one of a multitude of degraded foreign cults—“atrocious and shameful things” as Tacitus put it—that infested Rome... Romans of higher social classes believed that these oriental superstitions polluted Roman life and that they attack-ed the very fiber of society like a debilitating disease...Some of the liturgical practices of Christians, notably glossolalia, confessions of sins, prophecies, sacraments, and the sexual aberrations of fringe groups, may have contributed to a distorted picture of this “oriental superstition.”[56]

“Julian saw Christianity as a sickness infecting the Roman Empire”[57] and not without justification: “Christian zealots, convinced that Julian was a persecu-tor no different from Diocletian, sought by provocative acts to force his hand, to strip away his pretended tolerance, and to galvanize broader Chris-tian seems the majority [of ‘martyrs’] were actually killed by pagan mobs or by the secular authorities in retaliation for their provocative attacks against paganism—smashing idols, destroying temples, disrupting rit-uals. This fact is not only admitted but even celebrated by Christian sources, who without exception refer to the slain Christians as martyrs.”[58]

Christian book burning began early,[59] even before the composition of those most Christian of books, the gospels. “The burning of books was part of the advent and imposition of Christianity.”[60] “[Christianity’s] more extreme pro-ponents equated pre-Christian learning with paganism…in finding a home in a pagan building the books themselves became tarred with the brush of pa-ganism. Knowledge has always been the enemy of extremism, and for the most radical elements among Alexandria’s Christians, the books in the Sera-peum were a threat. So they simply destroyed them.”[61] The Council of Ephe-sus (431) decreed that Porphyry’s books be burned, and the Christian em-peror Justinian (529) likewise decreed that anti-Christian books were to be consigned to the flames.

As mentioned, Julian’s Against the Galileans survives only in the form of par-tial quotations in a refutation written by Cyril of Alexandria (429-441)— Cyril is infamous for his connection with the civic disturbances that led to the murder and dismemberment of Hypatia, the Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer, at the hands of a Christian mob as well as his support for violent confrontations between Alexandria’s Christians and Jews that even-tually led to the expulsion of the Jews. Concerning Julian’s much longer ori-ginal, “[Cyril] says that he omitted invectives against Christ and such matter as might contaminate the minds of Christians.”[62]

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), a celebrated poem that advanced the dangerous ideas that the universe ran without the inter-vention of gods and that religion actually posed a danger to human life sur-vived forgotten in the library of a German monastery until rediscovered in 1417. “When human life, all too conspicuous, lay foully groveling on earth, weighed down by grim religion looming from the skies, horribly threatening mortal men, a man, a Greek, first raised his mortal eyes bravely against this menace...Religion, so, is trampled underfoot, and by his victory we reach the stars.”[63] The Greek, of course, was Epicurus, author of the famous paradox: If God is willing to prevent evil but is unable, he is not omnipotent. If he is able, but unwilling, he is malevolent. If he is both able and willing, then from whence comes evil? If he is neither able nor willing, then why call him God?

What early critics had to say about the Christianity of their era has been of interest primarily to historians, but I will argue first that their criticisms were remarkably accurate, prescient in fact, and second that the first Romans to investigate the new religion identified fundamental flaws that broadly char-acterize much of Christianity in its present form. Early Christian writers of-ten provided unwitting support for Celsus’ appraisal of the fledgling faith and the observations of Lucian. Celsus and others accurately anticipated many modern scholarly insights into early Christianity as well as religious scandals of our own day.

Relevant terms are sometimes cited in Greek for those interested in the exact text of primary sources, but the essay has been written in a manner that hope-fully makes it easily accessible to the interested layman. Unless otherwise noted, the translations from Greek are my own. That said, let’s turn to the specific claims of ancient critics.

[1] The oldest manuscripts of the New Testament that preserve any substantial
amount of text are tentatively dated from the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries. P52, the famous Rylands fragment of John, which preserves a mere 114 letters on a piece of papyrus the size of a credit card, has been optimistically dated to the early 2nd century based on its Hadrianic script, but it may come from the late 2nd cen-tury. The terminus post quem of Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament, is 325 C.E.
[2] Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 163.
   “To date, no mention of Jesus of Nazareth has been located in a pagan source
written prior to the year 112 C.E...In the earliest years of the Christian move-ment, the Roman attitude toward followers of Jesus appears to have been marked by casual indifference.” (Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition, 24, 199).
[3] Johnson, Among the Gentiles, 172.
[4] Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 231-232.
[5] Hoffmen, Porphyry’s Against the Christians, 14.
[6] Pierce, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, 31, 33.
[7] Chadwick, Contra Celsum, 162 (III, 49-50).
[8] Gager, Kingdom and Community, xi, 3.
[9] Lüdemann, Paul, 240.
[10] McKechnie, The First Christian Centuries, 27.
[11] After a long discussion of Luke’s infancy narrative, a respected classical historian
concludes, “Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent. It clashes with his own date for the Annunciation (which he places under Herod) and with Matthew’s long story of the Nativity which also presupposes Herod the Great as king. It is, therefore, false.” (Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version, 27-31).
[12] John 7:15, ASV.
[13] Luke 23:45.
[14] “Three in the afternoon” renders “until the ninth hour” in Greek.
[15] Luke 23:44-45, The New American Bible, Revised Edition.
[16] Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition, 97.
[17] Liddell & Scott, A Greek English Lexicon, 437.
[18] Acts 7:9, NIV.
[19] Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, 103.
[20] Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, 35.
[21] Gager, 7.
[22] Johnson, 14, 16.
[23] Chadwick, History, Society and the Churches, 9.
[24] Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 52.
[25] Matthew 22:37.
[26] Kannaday, 35.
[27] Moberly, The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, 66.
[28] Twelftree, The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, 5.
[29] Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate, 4.
[30] The first known work on hydrostatics, or in layman’s terms, what makes an iron
ship float and an iron bar sink.
[31] Netz & Noel, The Archimedes Codex, 124-125.
[32] Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, 13.
[33] Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2nd edition, xvi.
[34] “[Origen’s] Against Celsus was a sustained piece of theological writing even though
 hardly relevant to Celsus’ charges made seventy years before.” (Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 373).
[35] Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, 17.
[36] Bowersock, Julian the Apostate, 23.
[37] Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian, III, 315 (Loeb).
[38] Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate, 133.
[39] Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, 220-221, 274-275.
[40] John 7:52 (KJV).
[41] Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, 194.
[42] Bowersock, 73-74.
[43] Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, 185.
[44] Murdoch, 138-139.
[45] Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, 90-91.
[46] Frend, 442.
[47] Hoffman, 164-165.
[48] Wilken, 138.
[49] Kannaday, 65, 68, 82.
[50] Mark 1:2.
[51] Frend, 231.
[52] Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, 148.
[53] McKechnie, 19.
[54] Benko, 156.
[55] Gaddis, 94.
[56] Benko, 21, 23.
[57] Murdoch, The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate, 132.
[58] Gaddis, 93-94.
[59] Acts 19:19.
[60] Canfora, The Vanished Library, 192.
[61] Pollard & Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, 282.
[62] Wright, Julian, III, 314.
[63] Humphries, Lucretius: The Way Things Are, 21.