Sunday, August 21, 2011

Book Review: The Christians as the Romans saw them by Robert Louis Wilken

The Christians as the Romans Saw ThemThe Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I "read" this book (i.e. "had it assigned") in undergrad, but have gone back through it in the past couple of weeks as part of my "keeping up with political theory-ish stuff" project (counting this as part of the "Christian political theory" category).

Wilcken's project is to explore Christianity through the eyes of the pagan Romans, both in terms of the general cultural perception (in two chapters, one on the perception of Christians as a "burial society" and one on the perecption of Christians as a "superstition") and through the eyes of five observers: Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. Wilken suggests that there are two broad points uniting all Roman criticism of Christianity:

-Christians undermine the entire Roman system when they reject "the gods" of localities and traditions and replace "the one Supreme god" with Jesus. All of Roman society and order (especially under the Imperial system) was based on religious traditions. When Christianity rejected those traditions, it of necessity rejected the whole of Roman society. This is seen even in Christianty's own origins as a break-away Jewish cult, which even rejected its own traditions by refusing to obey the law (one of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Julian's attempt to rebuild the Jewish temple to prove Christianity wrong about the law being fulfilled).

-Christians make religion historical and personal by arguing that 1) God became a man and that 2) salvation comes to individuals. This is opposed to the accepted traditions that 1) the "Supreme god" is utterly transcendent, and would never step into a single location (which of necessity excludes all other peoples and locations); and that 2) all peoples, customs, and traditions have access to this one Supreme god via their local traditions and customs.

Overall, this book is very well done. It's just scholarly enough to show that Wilken knows his business, but well-written enough that anyone (even without a background in Ancient History) could pick it up and enjoy it. As with many books in this vein (including

Early Christian Thought & the Classical Tradition), Wilken's book is especially interesting given modern debates between Christians and the culture. Arguments used by Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, et. al. remain the primary points brought up by "modern" writers in their polemics against Christianity. Christians would be well served by going back and reading the early church's responses to these arguments and drawing on the long tradition of thought that has gone into them.

Highly recommended.

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