The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken: A Review

My degree is in history.  I enjoy studying history, and when I hear people complain that history is boring, it bothers me a little.  Notice, I said “a little.”  Why?  Because they actually have a legitimate complaint.  Their complaint is not due to the nature of history itself, but it is due to the dry and unengaging way history books are written including those books that aren’t textbooks.  Forget the teachers that teach history as facts, dates, and maps.  That is not history either.  Luckily, I had teachers who made history interesting, showed me its connections to present day life, and showed me its depths and how we can apply our understanding of it to make better sense of the world and make better decisions.

What is the nature of history then?  History is a representation (and at times a re-creation) of how the past was in a certain time period.  When studied correctly, it should let you see how people thought and lived, what they worried about, what brought them joy, and how they approached and dealt with life.  It is deeply enriching.  It can be like you going to a foreign country as a tourist or even like time travel.

Now back to what people are taught is history, it would certainly help the field if historians wrote history in ways that were intelligible, relevant, and connected to a lay audience.  History’s power is in knowing it, and if only a select chosen few know it, then there is no benefit whatsoever.

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them is not like those dry history books at all.  It is extremely engaging, clear, and illuminating.  It is straight to the point and expresses much in the relatively short length it has; it is 238 pages long.  That is shorter than most popular novels.

Who is the author?

Before reading any book, it is always good to know about the author and the background especially when it comes to fields like Christian history.  Robert Louis Wilken is a retired professor of early Christian history.  He is Catholic and deeply grounded in the Church Fathers, not only the Latin Fathers but also the Greek Fathers.  He is currently on the board of the great magazine First Things, which seeks to comment on all aspects of culture and ideas from a Christian point of view.  He also writes for this magazine.  He has published several books on Christian history and thought.

What is the focus of the book?

Wilken’s focus is on how pagan Romans perceived Christianity.  He says that if we do not understand how Christianity was perceived, then “we will never understand what Christianity was or is.  How something is perceived is an aspect of what it is” (pg. Xvii).  This is what makes this book a must read for those who are interested or those who study Christian history.  Most books on early Christian history focus on the development of the Christian faith or focus on how Christianity understood itself.  It is also important to know how the Romans thought about early Christianity because it was this world that Christianity grew in, and more importantly, it was this world to which Christians brought the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ successfully.

What are his sources?

How does Wilken reconstruct the history of how the Romans thought about Christianity?

Wilken takes the written accounts (which are still available for us to read) of several Romans of different backgrounds such as Pliny the governor, Tacitus the historian, Galen the physician and philosopher, Celsus an intellectual critic, Porphyry a Neoplatonist critic, and Julian the Emperor, a convert from Christianity to paganism. These pagan sources range from the early 2nd Century to the mid-4th century.  The Church Fathers even responded to their criticisms up until the early 5th century.

As a result it provides a large and varied presentation of how pagan Romans viewed Christianity.  There were multiple pagan views, and that is what he presents and examines in this book.

Wilken does not only say what the pagan Romans thought, but he explains in depth why they thought what they did.

How does he make clear what the Romans thought?

An example of how he does this can be illustrated from Chapter 1, in Pliny’s letter where he referred to Christians as a political association.  If we stopped there, then it would not make much sense or have any type of meaning for us.  We would simply call it strange. However, Wilken goes on in the next chapter to examine in detail what political associations were in the Roman Empire.  He explains they were societies for people with similar beliefs, social status, or religious backgrounds.  They would have a patron god, and would spend time to together, eat together, and sometimes financially support each other.

If you are thinking at this point, wait!  This sounds kind of like Christianity.  You’re right.  And now you are starting to understand how a pagan viewed them in the 2nd Century.  The pagan Roman Pliny, because he was interpreting Christianity based on his own backgroundsand point of view saw the similarities, so he concluded that they were one of these political associations.  They certainly resembled them, but that was not the whole story.  However, this is how Wilken illuminates his reader with this book by showing us Roman culture and thought, and how they tried to understand Christianity within this framework.

Another example would be the definition and functions of Roman religion along with Wilken’s several examples of how Romans thought about religion through written Roman sources.  He then lines that up with Christianity and shows that Christianity did not fit the definition of a religion.  That is why some Romans accused Christians of being atheists.

Rather, it fit the definition of a philosophy much like Platonism or Stoicism.  Philosophies at this time were not simply thoughts about the world or courses of study; they were ways of life.  Christians too were concerned about how to live their lives from their waking moments even through their sleep.  From the beginning of life to the very end.  That was not religion in Roman times; that was a philosophy, so Galen, a Roman philosopher and physician, viewed Christianity as a philosophy.

Those are two examples.  If you are interested in more, then click here to buy the book.

Why should you read this book?

Halfway through the book if not earlier, it feels as if you have time-traveled to the Roman Empire of the first four centuries A.D.  You build a viewpoint that is clear, and you understand how Christianity was viewed.  This is important because if we are engaged in evangelism today, we must necessarily understand how the people to whom we are preaching view Christianity.  When we understand their viewpoint, then we are better able to communicate Christianity to them.  We can make connections too.  Why not learn how pagans viewed early Christians?  If we read the Fathers, then many things will become clear.  We will see how the Fathers were communicating Christianity to Roman society.  They certainly made connections with many different groups, and that helped them with spreading the Gospel and faith of Christ.

This book brings up in my mind a quote from the great Roman statesman, Cicero, who said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” (Orator).

Of how much more worth is that life when it is woven into the lives, not of physical ancestors, but of others who followed the same Lord Jesus Christ and were also indwelt with the Holy Spirit.  That is a fellowship that transcends not only distance, but also the centuries.  This book will illuminate that fellowship even more.

You can click here to purchase a copy of The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.

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