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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 310-311
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Against the Christians.
The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic
Against the Christians. The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic. By Jeffrey W. Hargis. (New York: Peter Lang. 1999. Pp. ix, 172. $44.95.)
This book bears all the earmarks of a Ph.D. thesis. Many theses are never published because of their lack of originality and a school-boyish approach to the subject. However, a good dissertation requires much independent study and time spent in libraries, and this one was worth publishing because it takes a new view of an already familiar theme, i.e., the criticism of Christians by pagan intellectuals, especially Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. In three sections the author reviews the anti-Christian polemic of each critic and shows how Christian exclusivism prompted them to try to marginalize Christians. But as time went on, Christianity more and more assimilated Greco-Roman practices and eventually the adoption of the culture and philosophy of the "pagans" by "Christians" made such a marginalization impossible. The pagan strategy had to shift to assimilation.
The author does not deal with popular charges against Christians (such as cannibalism, promiscuity, etc.) but starts directly with the philosophical and theological arguments of Celsus, who portrays Christians as "in complete opposition to pagan values" (p. 13). Porphyry wrote nearly a century later than Celsus, and his polemic reflects the changed situation between paganism and Christianity. Not only had the number of Christians increased, but Christianity had begun to absorb the culture of Greco-Roman antiquity. Thus, one of Porphyry's strategies was to separate Christ from his worshipers, a strategy which, according to the author, Julian also adopted. Their aim was now to find a place in the pagan universe for the God of the Christians and thus to undermine Christian uniqueness. Much of the author's discussion of Julian revolves around this important and interesting point. By the time of Julian the similarities between pagans and Christians were so deep that they, unlike the Jews, could not be treated as a minority and fenced into a ghetto. These pages dealing with Jews and Christians are especially interesting reading. I imagine that these three noble scholars, Celsus, Porphyry, and Emperor Julian, would enjoy reading this [End Page 310] book and would be surprised to learn what ingenious strategies they developed to defeat their common adversary. From their own point of view they had simply reacted to the problem according to challenges of the ad hoc situation. But looking back from a distance of 1600 years the author's description of what happened seems accurate.
Of course, nobody would require completeness in a book like this, but every study of pagan-Christian relations begins with the pioneer study of P. DeLabriolle, La Réaction Païenne (Paris, 1934), and it does not seem that the author knows this book. A student might be forgiven for passing by my own book Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, Indiana, 1984), but when dealing with Porphyry, A. R. Sodano's Porfirio: Vangelo di un Pagano (Milan: Rusconi, 1993) is a required reading. Sodano is the greatest authority on Porphyry today, and his books show that Porphyry's anti-Christian attitude must be understood from the whole body of his work and not merely on the basis of the few remaining fragments from his Against the Christians. The lamentable lack of familiarity with foreign languages among graduate students of religion is probably responsible for these omissions, but it does not excuse them.
Nevertheless, this is a good book and patristic scholars who don't mind paying $44.95 for 138 pages of text (plus notes and bibliography for a total of 172 pages) will receive broader understanding of the conflict between pagans and Christians.