In Intolerance, Polemics, and Debate in Antiquity scholars reflect on politico-cultural, philosophical, and religious forms of critical conversation in the ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, Graeco-Roman, and early-Islamic world. They enquire into the boundaries between debate, polemics, and intolerance, and address their manifestations in both philosophy and religion. This cross-cultural and inclusive approach shows that debate and polemics are not so different as often assumed, since polemics may also indicate that ultimate values are at stake. Polemics can also have a positive effect, stimulating further cultural development. Intolerance is more straightforwardly negative. Religious intolerance is often a justification for politics, but also elite rationalism can become totalitarian.
This contribution discusses the anti-Christian criticism expounded by an anonymous Jew who is used as an authoritative informant in the anti-Christian polemics of the Platonist philosopher Celsus in his True Word around 180 CE. Although there is otherwise no known Jewish evidence of a Jewish counterpart to the Christian Adversus Judaeos tradition before the Rabbinic period (in the sense of a Jewish Adversus Christianos literature paralleling the widespread phenomenon of pagan anti-Christian literature), it is argued that the anti-Christian polemic of “Celsus’s Jew” (as he is known) is authentic and therefore the first unambiguous example of a pagan showing knowledge of Jewish association with Christians and exploiting this fact for his own purposes. Celsus’s Jew’s criticism is levelled against both Jesus and his followers, and focuses primarily on Jesus’s alleged divinity, arguing that the biographical details of his life are incompatible with his supposed divine origins and demonstrate that he could not be the divine Logos. Celsus’s Jew appears to be familiar with and polemicising against Christian gospels (in particular against the gospels of Matthew and John), inverting their accounts of Jesus’s life in a kind of popular counter-narrative and mixing them with pre-existing, polemically oriented stories about Jesus. In this way, he creates a biographical calumny that attacks Jesus’s character and actions rather than his ideas, with the principal purpose of showing that there is a striking disjunction between the claims made for Jesus’s divinity and the reality of his life. Interestingly, this Jew also inscribes his critique of Jesus in a broader comparison with the (demi-)gods of Greek myths, from which Jesus emerges unfavourably. The continued existence of such a genre of comprehensive counter-narratives about Jesus seems confirmed in passages from Justin, Tertullian, Lactantius, and possibly in the fourth-century Martyrdom of Conon, according to which, during the persecution of the Christians under the emperor Decius (249–251 CE), a group of Jews presented a Roman governor with critical accounts of the life of Jesus. This kind of ad hominem counter-narratival polemics probably constituted the earliest phase of Jewish-Christian polemics, before the rise of the counter-exegesis and counter-argument that came into favour in the Christian Anti Judaeos polemics. The contexts in which such polemical counter-narratives emerged and functioned are probably shaped by direct disputations between Jews and Christian Jews, in which the former tried to prevent the latter from abandoning their ancestral law and deserting them “for another name and another life”— the stated intention of Celsus’s Jew. In these situations, ad hominem attacks on the founder of the Christian movement were considered more effective than counter-exegetical strategies.
In the first few centuries, Christianity grew quickly. By AD100, it had become mostly Gentile and had begun to break from its Jewish origins. By 200, the faith had permeated most regions of the Roman Empire, though Christians were mostly in the larger urban areas (Gaul, Lyons, Carthage, Rome). By 325, an estimated 7 million were Christians with as many as 2 million killed for the faith. This growth can be attributed to the new faith's meeting needs across cultural barriers, its giving general meaning to life for many, the overall transformation of those lives, the social concerns of Christians during the plagues for the sick and the poor, and the power of its doctrine. News of the resurrection of Christ produced great loyalty among followers. Christian martyrdom also, ironically, created vast interest in and respect for the Christians and increased their numbers.
Reasons for Persecutions
- Sometimes local, socio-economic conflict with Jewish circles created persecution in the first century.
- After A.D. 50, Christianity was put on the imperial list of "illicit" sects, and after A.D. 64, it was declared illegal, though this did not always result in continual persecution. Christians had many periods of nominal and benign neglect.
- Christian refusal to worship or honor other gods was a source of great contention.
- Before A.D. 300, Christians were often from the urban poor and lower classes; thus, they were easy prey for those seeking power or goods. However, a sizeable group of educated, middle-class Christians also existed.
- Christians were accused of being atheists because of their denial of the other gods and refusal of emperor worship. Thus, they were accused of treason to the state.
- They were accused of "secret immoral worship" practices, including cannibalism, incest, and beastalism.
- They were also charged as haters of humanity and being irrational in their beliefs. For many provincial governors, Christians were considered social radicals, rather than being persecuted specifically for their faith only.
- Early Jewish Persecution (1st century)--cf. I Peter, Hebrews, and James.
- Early Sporadic persecutions--Nero (A.D. 64); Domitian (A.D. 81-96); and Trajan (A.D. 108)
- Marcus Aurelius (A.D.162)--The perseuction of the Christians at Lyon is the most famous incident during his period.
- Severus (A.D. 192)--Not everone agrees that Severus himself was responsible for Christian persecutions. The most well-known incidents took places in North Africa, such as the executions of Perpetua and Felicity.
- Maximus (A.D. 235)--Again, it is debated whether Maximus himself authorized these or whether they were the decisions of local governors. Several well-known Christian senators and leaders were executed during this time, while others such as Hippolytus were sent into exile.
- Decius (A.D. 249-251) tried to force apostasy rather than create martyrdom. He created the libellus, a stamp of state approval given after swearing fealty to Caesar.
- Valerian (A.D. 253-260) singled out bishops, forcing them to recant or die. He also kept Christians from meeting in cemeteries. This period has been called the Great Persecution.
- Diocletian (A.D. 285-305)/ "Age of the Martyrs" known for evicting Christians from their homes, the army, and jobs. Christian churches and homes are burnt, copies of scriptures burnt, and Christian civil servants persecuted.
- The Apostates: Many left the faith.
- The Lapsed: Some denied under torture but returned amidst opposition.
- The Confessors: Those who endured persecution and lived to tell about it.
- The Martyrs: Those who witnessed unto death.
- Black Market: Some in wealthier families purchased the libellus on the black market.