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 ...

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