Thursday, December 22, 2011


Haven't done a quiz in a long while.  Here's one that will outrage you.

What famous enlightenment figure is guilty of the following quote.  Remember, he (or she) said it, I didn't:
What age or period of life is the most addicted to superstition? The weakest and most timid. What sex? The same answer must be given. “The leaders and examples of every kind of superstition”, says Strabo, “are the women. These excite the men to devotion and supplications, and the observance of religious days. It is rare to meet with one that lives apart from the females, and yet is addicted to such practices."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Pit of Resurrection

Virtually nothing is known of Celsus, a late second century Greek philosopher, other than the fact that in the 170s AD he wrote a major work, called the True Discourse, devoted to debunking Christianity. Ironically, the text is preserved and known to us only because some eighty years later the early Church Father Origen wrote a massive reply to Celsus, in eight volumes, in which Origen quoted from Celsus's arguments at length before refuting them.

Surprisingly, the brief Wikipedia article on Celsus does not quote his most well known bit of invective, which displays an acid wit. I therefore thought I'd share it with you. Origen quotes it in Chapter 34 of Book 6 of his response, Contra Celsum:

Everywhere in their [the Christians'] writings, mention is made of the tree of life, and a resurrection of the flesh by means of the “tree,” because, I imagine, their teacher was nailed to a cross, and was a carpenter by trade; so that if he had chanced to have been cast from a precipice, or thrust into a pit, or suffocated by hanging, or had been a leather-cutter, or stone-mason, or worker in iron, there would have been a precipice of life beyond the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a sacred leather! Now what old woman would not be ashamed to utter such things in a whisper, even when making stories to lull an infant to sleep?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pliny the Younger

 In his delightful book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Robert Louis Wilken does a wonderful job teasing out all sorts of information about Roman habits and attitudes - how a social club worked, for example, or the difference in Roman eyes between a "superstition" and a "religion."  But I particularly enjoyed his portrait of the diligent and dutiful aristocrat Pliny the Younger, who famously encountered Christians while serving as governor of Bithynia and Pontus in 112 AD and corresponded with the Emperor Trajan about what to do with them.

Like most upper class Romans, Pliny wore his ambition on his sleeve.  But at the same time his frankness on the subject conveys an almost child-like innocence rather than arrogant grasping.  I just loved his straightforward admission in a letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus, of his desire to be mentioned at least in one of Tacitus's works:

I believe that your histories will be immortal, a prophecy that will surely prove correct.  That is why, I frankly admit, I am anxious to appear in them.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

How Did Christianity Grow Before the Edict of Milan?

The best guess seems to be that, immediately before the emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, about 5 percent to 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Christian. Although these percentages may seen low, they translate to millions of converts. Assuming a total population of about 55 million in the Roman Empire at the time, the number of Christians would have been somewhere between 2.75 million and 5.5 million.

And yet, as Ramsay MacMullen notes in Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400, a profound mystery remains as to how Christianity had acquired so many converts. “After New Testament times and before Constantine,” there is almost no evidence of “open advertising” of Christianity, and much evidence that Christians were urged to lay low and to associate only with other Christians, both to avoid being identified in the event of persecution and in order to avoid the impure practices of the pagans.

How exactly, then, Prof. MacMullen wonders, did Christianity generate those millions of followers in the years before toleration? He suggests an answer by trying to “imagine in some detail a scene that conflicts with no point of the little that is known about conversion in the second and third centuries.”

I would choose the room of some sick person: there, a servant talking to a mistress, or one spouse to another, saying, perhaps: “Unquestionably they can help, if you believe. And I know, I have seen, I have heard, they have related to me, they have books, they have a special person, a sort of officer. It is true. Besides and anyway, if you don't believe, then you are doomed when a certain time comes, so say the prophecies; whereas, if you do, then they can help even in great sickness. I know people who have seen or who have spoken with others who have seen. And healing is even the least that they tell. Theirs is truly a God all-powerful. He has worked a hundred wonders.” So a priest is sent for, or an exorcist; illness is healed; the household after that counts as Christian; it is baptized; and through instruction it comes to accept the first consequences: that all other cults are false and wicked, all seeming gods, the same.
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