The Criminality of Earliest Christianity

Until the spread of Christianity, the Roman government held a remarkably tolerant and inclusive range of policies regarding ancient religious practice and assembly. Indeed, these pluralistic attitudes survived from the late Republic only to broaden and further solidify in the early Empire under Julius Caesar and Augustus in the first century B.C.E. Such strategies helped to maintain governance over Rome’s far-flung, expanding empire, particularly in the Greek East. The oriental cults of Cybele, Isis, and Osirus, for instance, enjoyed considerable state-sanction and embrace, despite mos maiorum and foreign competition with the politically established Roman pantheon. Albeit, considerable senatorial restrictions followed the youthful rise of Bacchanal nighttime assemblies, particularly with the licentiousness and various crimes associated with such gatherings. 

The Savage Superstition

Even ongoing aggravation from the Jews, particularly in Jerusalem, but also in the urban centers, indeed even in Rome itself, did not prove sufficient provocation for the Roman government to outlaw the religion. Exemptions and concessions were made along the way, allowing the Jews to practice their codes, sabbath, and exclusive monotheistic devotion. The most famous of senators, Cicero, however, encapsulates the general assessment by learned Romans, describing early Judaism as a barbara superstitio (Flacc. 67). The Oxford Latin Dictionary confirms the connotative and denotative sense of the term superstitio as that which is characterized by “an attitude of irrational credulity,” a pejorative term precisely equivalent to the modern English “superstition.”

Christians as the Romans First Saw Them

As Roman provincial governor of Bythinia-Pontus (Asia Minor) in the early second century, Pliny the Younger routinely corresponded with the emperor Trajan. In one letter to the princeps (Epist. 10.96; c. 111 C.E.), Pliny described trouble arising from the spread of Christianity in his province, resulting in many punished and some even executed for their crime. And just what had been their crime? “None other than misguided and excessive superstition.” (Nihil aliud inveni quam superstitionem pravam et immodicam.) Even for broad-minded Roman sensibilities, the whimsical layer-cake of irrational early Christian myth-production was too extensive and over the top.  The Christian West has traditionally foisted stereotypes of the Roman government, particularly the emperors, but also the ruling aristocracy, as a maniacally perverse lot and early Christian incarceration and execution as arising out of a deep streak of nigh-demonic madness. They, the rulers, were the irrational ones; how else could they have incarcerated, tortured, and executed the original leaders and devotees of the way?

About 5 years after Pliny’s letter, the famous Roman historian Tacitus applied the same term in his description of the Christian movement (Annals 15.44). They were, by his candid familiarity, given to exitiabilis superstitio (damaging superstition). As I unpack in my most recent published article, you see, early Christian mythology constituted a belief system. By that I mean, a fideist embrace of tall tales and a non-evidentialist (mythopoetic) alternative framework of reality. Unlike how modern apologists attempt to pass off the religion, early Christian narratives and apologies conspicuously lacked any attempt at compelling historiological argumentation, no authentication of Gospel accounts, no epistemological representation of their mythology as defensible “knowledge.” From the beginning, they offered πίστις (“faith”) as the psychological gateway into their alternative reality, drawn up on a textual storyboard, not discovered in objective ontological reality itself, despite the historicizing tropes encrusting their sacred legends. The Roman government, as in their handling of traveling sorcerers, goetic soothsayers, and itinerant frauds and charlatans, did not take lightly to the exploitation and degradation of their citizenry. 

Curing the Disease

Even for the Romans, a people steeped in their own varied traditions of cultic practice and pietas, the explosion of earliest Christian myth-pedaling was perceived as mentally and socially destructive and altogether intolerable (cf. Lucian’s Alexander Mantis as one “deserving to be torn apart by foxes and apes in the arena”). In the final analysis, their judgment was correct, even if their sentencing and approach proved at times excessive and ultimately ineffective in ending the viral spread of superstitio in the course of Western civilization (cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44). The vaccine today, following the tradition of ancient critics such as Celsus and Lucian, must be our persistent example of applied social standards of rational evidentialism. As in ancient times, conversion does not arise out of long critical study in history, philosophy, and culture; giving one’s “life to Jesus” happens during guitar sing-alongs and crowded emotional evangelistic ploys, that is, “belief” as a conscious act of mental indulgence, despite insufficient and conflicting evidence.
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Dr. Miller, author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge, 2015), is a humanistic critic of contemporary religion and a trans-disciplinary research scholar exploring the cultural and literary nexus between classical antiquity and the social origins of earliest Christianity. His published work focuses on the mythological roots of the New Testament Gospel portraitures of Jesus, the sacralized founding emblem of the Christian religion.