Monday, September 1, 2008

Book Review: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

Today I finished reading The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert L. Wilken, 1984 Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-03627-2. Make that Dr. Robert L. Wilken. He is a retired professor of Early and Medieval Christian History and Thought at the University of Virginia. I did not find a biography of Dr. Wilken. You can find a summary of the book contents here.

I would not add this to my list of favorite books, but I did find it useful. Wilkens took the writings of five Roman critics of Christianity during the first three hundred years after Christ: Pliney the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. These men cover the years 110 AD to about 363 AD. Wilkens chose, rather than to survey the entire body of Christian criticism produced in this period, to focus on these five key critics. Each one represents a different era in the life of the church.

During Pliney's time as governor of Bithinia, Christians were still a tiny minority in the overall empire. By the time of Julian, Christianity was the State religion, embraced by Constantine a few decades before. Of the five, only Julian was raised a Christian and so had personal knowledge of the religion. The others were mainly doing their criticism from study of Christian texts and observation (or reports) of how Christians lived.

I found the book difficult to read. Part of this was the editing. Paragraphs in the same chapter, presenting close to the same infomation, often did so without awareness that the other paragraph existed. It was as if the author wrote these paragraphs at different times, maybe working at the end of a chapter then at the beginning, inserting and deleting through the revision process, then forgot to delete something that was no longer needed. I especially noticed this in the chapters on Porphyry and Julian. In addition, this read more like a college textbook (which perhaps it was intended to be) than for casual reading.

One thing that struck m was now each of these critics became aware of Christians or thought of the need to be a critic of them. It was always because of the lives of Christians, not because of their writings. The Christians lived as a people apart, taking no part in government or politics, shunning the State religion, but otherwise living exemplary lives. In this I found a lesson for today.

Should you read this book? I cannot recommend it. And I probably would not have finished it except I almost always finish any book I start, and I thought it might be additional research to add to Doctor Luke's Assistant. I don't think I will add it to my permanet library. Anyone want it? Cost of postage, only.

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