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Christian History Home > 1998 > Issue 57 > Defending the Cannibals

Defending the Cannibals
How Christians responded to the sometimes strange accusations of their critics.
J. David Cassel | posted 1/01/1998 12:00AM

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Christians are cannibalistic, incestuous, ass-worshiping magicians who practice dangerous superstitions. Or at least that is what early critics thought.

Christianity faced opposition from its inception. Its founder was killed, and its first major missionaries were martyred. But as Christianity spread beyond Judea, the nature of the criticisms changed. Rather than opposing Jesus' teachings, most attacks against Christianity arose from ignorance and fear. Frequently critics had little, if any, firsthand experience with Christians, their worship, or their beliefs. So for the first two centuries, at least, attacks tended to restate stereotypes, stock objections, and misconceptions circulating throughout the pagan world.

If we examine the main charges and how Christians responded, we'll discover why Christianity could not easily be dismissed in the ancient world.

"Deadly superstition"

In his Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius (a Roman writer and secretary to Emperor Hadrian) was one of the first pagan writers to mention Christianity. But the context was hardly positive: believers are mentioned only as "a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition." This charge of superstition was perhaps the most serious, and most common, pagan accusation.

The comment was repeated by Tacitus, a Roman historian, in his account of the burning of Rome. He acknowledged that Nero fabricated the accusations that Christians started the fire, but he held little sympathy for the "notoriously depraved" believers.

"Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius's reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus," he wrote. "But in spite of this temporary setback, this deadly superstition had broken out not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital."

Pliny the Younger, a Roman official sent to the province of Bithynia (in what is now northern Turkey) about the year 110, shared some of the same sentiments. Although Pliny had extensive governmental experience, he had never been involved in a trial involving Christians. So when it came time to question some of them, he wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice.

"I do not know what crime is usually punished or investigated or to what extent," he wrote. He was uncertain whether those admitting to be Christians should be punished or if they had to be charged with a crime as well.

Meanwhile, he asked the accused if they were Christians. To those who confessed, he asked a second time, then a third. When, even after "threatening punishment," they still confessed to be Christians, Pliny ordered that they be punished. "For I did not doubt that, whatever it was they admitted, obstinacy and unbending perversity certainly deserve to be punished."

The seeming lack of respect toward Roman authority seems to have angered Pliny more than anything. He likened this Christian attitude to a kind of contagious insanity or mental disorder that would inevitably result in crimes against the Roman state. As he closed his letter, he warned, "This contagious superstition is not confined to the cities alone but has spread its infection among the country villages." Trajan, incidentally, commended Pliny for his actions.

But what did the Romans mean by superstition? According to several prominent Roman authors, including Cicero and Plutarch, it was any offensive religious belief or practice that deviated from Roman norms. Certain groups were given to such "irrational" religions, in which they acted unpredictably—without regard for the rites, rituals, and traditions of Rome.

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