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Polemic Rhetoric: The Formation of Christian Identity in Late Antiquity Part 1
The following is the paper I wrote for my independent study course during my MA History program.
The following is the paper I wrote for my independent study course during my MA program. Late Antiquity is a time period I am interested in, namely to understand the formation and rise of Christianity and how I, a polytheist, can contribute to the conversation. The paper is long and will have to be shared in parts since Substack has a limit per post.
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The Late Antique world, a period roughly between 200-800 C.E, is described as a long-lasting phenomenon by Peter Brown in, The World of Late Antiquity. The centuries that marked the boundaries of Late Antiquity witnessed the conclusion of the ancient Mediterranean world and the emergence of three new and equal civilizations (western Europe, Byzantium, and Islam) as the heirs to antiquity. Being a period largely defined for its transformative and transitional qualities due to the rise and transition of the Roman Empire from polytheism to Christianity, this paper will examine the emergence of Christianity and Christian identity formation through polemical arguments between the 4th and 5th centuries. Conflict with the dominant Greco-Roman culture catalyzed Christian opinion leaders to formulate their group identity through resilient rhetoric to legitimize themselves and delegitimize their opponents. This Christian identity was forged in the context of Greco-Roman culture and used the same Greco-Roman culture to legitimatize the new identity.
The period under evaluation is profoundly complex and fascinating for this reason. The ground for research and analysis seems endless. This research paper aims to understand how a marginalized religion from the remote eastern parts of the Roman Empire, over time, came to be the prevailing religion. To answer this, I will examine the rhetoric of leading Christian opinion leaders, the rhetoric of pagans, and the current academic discourse on their meanings. I aim to demonstrate that despite the Christian narrative of a “triumph” of Christianity over paganism, the domination of Christianity was not a guarantee from the beginning. The Christianization of the Roman Empire was a centuries-long process that required recognition and validation through persuasive rhetoric, imperial patronage of the Church, and imperial suppression of heretical forms of Christianity and Greco-Roman traditional cults.
The life and death of Jesus and the first communities of Christians emerged during the empire’s most peaceful and prosperous period, known as the Pax Romana, which began with Augustus (161-180 CE) through to Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE). The new religion was not noticed much by the outside world at first. Our first Roman source to mention the Christians by name appears in a letter to emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger between 110 and 113 CE while he was the imperial governor of Bithynia in the Pontus province. The province had questionable Greekness as most Bithynians, Greek in language, culture, and tradition, were related to the inhabitants of Thrace on the far side of the Bosphorus. They also had little contact with or concern with Rome, its history, or its language. Few possessed Roman citizenship.
Interestingly, it is in this province that we should find the first Roman mention of Christians. By this time in the early second century, Christians are forming communities away from the early communities in and around Jerusalem. I speculate that this location was, for some reason, receptive to the proselytization of the religion, given the inhabitation's indifference and disconnection from Roman and Greek culture. Pliny’s letter to Trajan displays a range of commitment to the religion, from devout to transitory. In letter 96 to Trajan, Pliny writes:
Others, whose names were given me by an informer, first said that they were Christians and afterwards denied it, declaring that they had been but were so no longer, some of them having recanted many years before, and more than one so long as twenty years back.
As we shall see throughout this paper, the nature of Christian identity, affiliation, and commitment will fall on a spectrum like the one shown in Pliny.
While Pliny’s account records Roman hostility to the new religion, the first fully developed polemical attack on Christianity wouldn’t appear until the end of the second century, roughly sixty-five years after Pliny’s letter. The True Word (Λόγος Ἀληθής), written by the middle Platonist Celsus, passionately attacked Christianity, which he viewed as a departure from everything he knew to be ancient and true to the education and piety of his time. We do not have the True Word in its entirety. The work comes down to us through Origen, the Christian Bishop of Alexandria. In his Contra Celsum, written in the middle of the third century, Origen responds to Celsus, who has been long dead by this point, to refute his critiques of Christianity. In doing so, Origen quotes from the True Word to great length.
Church historian Philip Schaff writing on Celsus says, “[h]e employs all the aids which the culture of his age afforded, all the weapons of learning, common sense, wit, sarcasm, and dramatic animation of style, to disprove Christianity… his book is, on the whole, a very superficial, loose, and light-minded work, and gives striking proof of the inability of the natural reason to understand the Christian truth. Schaff’s evaluation is typical of the “apologetic tendencies of a now outmoded historiographical school.” Modern evaluations of Celsus highlight his conservatism. Hoffmann writes, “[h]is attack on Christianity is not, as Carl Andresen suggested, a planless polemic but rather "is written from a consistent point of view, and his rejection of the Christian movement arises out of his views about the society in which he lives, the intellectual and spiritual traditions that animated his society, and the religious convictions on which it was based." In short, Celsus may be regarded as a defender of the old order and its religious values, one who regarded Christianity as a potentially seditionist cult, retailing new ideas that seemed to him unwarranted modifications of old doctrines.”
A complete analysis of Celsus’ opposition to Christianity cannot be presented in this paper, what I will aim to do for Celsus, as with the other polemists against Christianity is to present some of their more impactful critiques which had a delegitimizing effect on the religion and its adherents. My thesis aims to show how Christian identity was forged in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which does require us to show the persistent tension across many centuries. I think it is fitting to begin with Celsus, though he is outside of the main time period under discussion. Because he is an early critic and is influential on the arguments from later writers against Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries it is worthy to present the case of Celsus and Origen first to establish the precedent of Roman intellectual criticism and Christian apologetic reply.
Celsus’ viewed the gospels as unhistorical, while there are true things that could be said of Jesus, overall, Celsus thinks the disciples wrote fictitious accounts about Jesus. “Even though I have many true things to say concerning what happened to Jesus – and not all like what was written by the disciples of Jesus – those I willingly leave aside” wrote Celsus.  One such fictious or preposterous belief, to Celsus, is the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. Celsus rejects the virgin birth story and alleges that Jesus’ mother committed adultery, her husband cast her out of the house and she gave birth to Jesus in secret. Celsus continues his rebuke through illegitimate birth by saying that “a god would not have had such a body as yours…the body of a god would not have been begotten the way you, Jesus, were begotten.”
Celsus’ attempt to smear Jesus’ virgin birth account is a smart tactic as it would appeal to his educated Roman audience by depicting Jesus as someone to be looked down at in context of Roman morality. Sexual taboos were persistent in Roman culture, it is unclear from the sources what sort of punishment for adultery was considered appropriate under the Republic – during the rule of Augustus however, in 18 CE, the Julian Law on adultery (Lex Iulia de Adulteriis) was passed as part of wider moral reform. The law’s stipulations for transgressive sex included many different situations, including married women with partners, not their husbands. By the standards of this law, if they were to have been applied in the case of Jesus’ birth through adultery, Mary would have been persecuted by her husband Joseph. In Celsus’ story, Joseph does not persecute his wife, he casts her out of the house. Under the Julian law, he would be liable for persecution for pandering (lenocinium). Both Jesus’ mother and father, in the eyes of a ‘good’ and ‘moral’ Roman, are morally depraved. Jesus then, could not be a god let alone admirable.
Origen responds to these claims by suggesting that, even if this was the case that Jesus was born in the circumstances Celsus claims though, of course, Origen does not believe it, Jesus would still be worthy of the announcement that he is the son of God by overcoming his low stature in society. Origen writes:
Among men noble birth, honourable and distinguished parents, an upbringing at the hands of wealthy people who are able to spend money on the education of their son, and a great and famous native country, are things which help to make a man famous and distinguished and get his name well known. But when a man whose circumstances are entirely contrary to this is able to rise above the hindrances to him and to become well known, and to impress those who hear him so that he becomes eminent and famous throughout the whole world so that people alter their tone about him, should we not admire at once such a nature for being noble, for tackling great difficulties, and for possessing remarkable boldness? If one were also to inquire further into the circumstances of such a man, how could one help trying to find out how a man, brought up in meanness and poverty, who had no general education and had learnt no arguments and doctrines by which he could have become a persuasive speaker to crowds and a popular leader and have won over many hearers, could devote himself to teaching new doctrines and introduce to mankind a doctrine which did away with the customs of the Jews while reverencing their prophets, and which abolished the laws of the Greeks, particularly in respect of the worship of God? How could such a man, brought up in this, way, who had received no serious instruction from men (as even those who speak evil of him admit), say such noble utterances about the judgment of God, about the punishments for wickedness, and rewards for goodness, that not only rustic and illiterate people were converted by his words, but also a considerable number of the more intelligent, whose vision could penetrate the veil of apparently quite simple expressions, which conceals within itself, as one might say, a more mysterious interpretation?
Such an argument appeals, in my view, to those already in the religion and already believe in Jesus’ virgin birth. Because the idea of adultery is in this situation a hypothetical which is never to be accepted in the end. Origen’s refutation does not have to disprove Celsus with evidence. A Marxist reading of this argument would highlight the elements of class conflict. The argument would appeal to people who fall into the lower levels of society, suggesting to them they too can overcome the same adversities. Jesus, in this interpretation, is a working-class hero, born into poverty, without an education, money, and honor yet he grew up to do wonders. Origen, through his skillful rhetoric, is able to turn what is normally seen as dishonorable into something inspiring for his audience.
 Hervé F. Inglebert, "Introduction: Late Antique Concepts of Late Antiquity," in The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4.
 "Pax Romana," Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Pax-Romana.
 Roy K. Gibson, Man of High Empire: The Life of Pliny the Younger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), PDF e-book, 190.
 Roy K. Gibson, Man of High Empire, 201.
 Pliny the Younger: Letters 10.96 Translated by J.B Firth 1900 http://www.attalus.org/old/pliny10b.html
 John G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 17.
 Philip Schaff, "History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325," Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc2/hcc2.v.v.v.html?queryID=17545542&resultID=161454.
 R. J. Hoffmann, Celsus: True doctrine (Oxford University press, 1987), PDF e-book, 33.
 R. J. Hoffmann, Celsus: True doctrine.
 John G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism, 26.
 John G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism, 29.
 John G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism.
 Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), PDF e-book, 20.
 Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome.
 Origen, Contra Celsum 1:30, translation by Henry Chadwick in Origen: Contra Celsum, Cambridge University Press 1980, 29.
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