Christianity at start-up: “a stupid, pernicious, and vulgar religion” 6

What is also clear is that Celsus is more than just disdainful. He is worried. Pervading his writing is a clear anxiety that this religion—a religion that he considers stupid, pernicious and vulgar—might spread even further and, in so doing, damage Rome. Over 1,500 years later, the eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon would draw similar conclusions, laying part of the blame for the fall of the Roman Empire firmly at the door of the Christians. The Christians’ belief in their forthcoming heavenly realm made them dangerously indifferent to the needs of their earthly one. Christians shirked military service, the clergy actively preached pusillanimity, and vast amounts of public money were spent not on protecting armies but squandered instead on the “useless multitudes” of the Church’s monks and nuns. They showed, Gibbon felt, an “indolent, or even criminal, disregard for the public welfare.  

The Catholic Church and its “useless multitudes” were, in return, magnificently unimpressed by Gibbon’s arguments, and they promptly placed his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, its list of banned books.

Even in liberal England, the atmosphere became fiercely hostile to the historian. Gibbon later said that he had been shocked by the response to his work. “Had I believed,” he wrote, “that the majority of English readers were so fondly attached even to the name and shadow of Christianity . . . I might, perhaps, have softened the two invidious chapters, which would create many enemies, and conciliate few friends.”

Celsus did not soften his attack either. This first assault on Christianity was vicious, powerful and, like Gibbon, immensely readable. Yet unlike Gibbon, today almost no one has heard of Celsus and fewer still have read his work. Because Celsus’s fears came true. Christianity continued to spread, and not just among the lower classes. Within 150 years of Celsus’s attack, even the emperor of Rome professed himself a follower of the religion.

(From The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey)

Posted under Christianity by Jillian Becker on Sunday, May 27, 2018

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This post has 6 comments.

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  • liz

    The mention of the “useless multitudes of monks and nuns” calls to mind this quote of Francois Dupuis: “What spectacle can be more humiliating for humanity than that of a strong and vigorous man, who by reason of religious principle lives on alms rather than that of the fruits of his labor, who – if employed in the arts and in commerce, could lead an active life, useful to himself and to his fellow citizens – is preferring to be rather a contemplative ninny, because the most brilliant rewards are promised by religion to this kind of social uselessness…”

  • Theophilus

    “Over 1,500 years later, the eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon would draw similar conclusions, laying part of the blame for the fall of the Roman Empire firmly at the door of the Christians. The Christians’ belief in their forthcoming heavenly realm made them dangerously indifferent to the needs of their earthly one.”

    -The accepted historical main reasoning for the fall of the Western Empire was the mostly pagan raids of the barbarian tribes. In the meantime, the reading I have done argues Christianity didn’t really flourish until after Constantine’s famous conversion in the early 4th century when main historical argument agrees the decay was well underway.
    -Emmet Scott revisits Henri Pirenne’s thesis that the Islamic invasions into Europe had massive impact, cutting off the main lines of trading, including for papyrus, highly significant and lucrative.
    -The last part of the quote suggests all the sects were the same in Christianity. Don’t the Nag Hammadi discoveries say otherwise?
    -Considerations of motivations of authors?

    • The Pauline church became the orthodoxy. The Gnostic sects were self-doomed to extinction by their hatred of all things earthly, including the proliferation of the human race. The exception was the church of Marcion (which many historians insist was not Gnostic). Marcion’s followers were possibly as numerous as those of the orthodox church, and more closely and strictly followers of Paul. The Marcionite church was organized, and the first to compile a “new testament” – inspiring the Roman church to do the same. But the Roman church won, big. The Marcionite movement faded away as a heresy.

      Many of the barbarian raiders were Christians (as you imply).

      Fact is, the Roman empire was replaced by a Christian empire – or rather, two Christian empires: one centered in Rome, one in Constantinople. The Western withered under Christianity for a thousand years. The Eastern lasted longer, until Islam destroyed it.

      Fact is, Christianity did bring darkness down upon the greater part of Europe.

      The motivations of historians are of course worth taking into account, but we can only judge the case they make by the authenticity of their sources and the reasonableness of their conclusions.

    • One of Justinian’s laws: “We forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labor under the insanity of paganism.” Catherine Nixey in her impressive and important book “The Darkening Age” comments (pp.248-249): Its consequences were formidable. This was the law that caused the Academy [of Athens] to close. It was the law that led Edward Gibbon to declare that the entirety of the barbarian invasions had been less damaging to Athenian philosophy than Christianity was. It was from this moment that a Dark Age began to descend upon Europe.

      • Theophilus

        Ah, but what extent did one law affect the broader populace? Certainly, one school was closed. Yes. But did every single school close down? Was every single element of paganism superb? Don’t think I ask this as religious. In Britain, the Romans persecuted the druids to no end before they were Christians. Was this therefore part of the glorious non-dark age? There is an argument, backed by archaeology, of continuity of the Western Roman Empire (of course, our categorization) with those barbarians. However, change wrought through the constant Saracen onslaught; this, not readily pursued in mainstream historical thought.
        Gibbon, wasn’t he 18th century Enlightenment, and they generally sought every way they could of attacking religion especially Christianity, the lethal enemy? One law does not counter an entire set of barbarian invasions/migrations, I’m suggesting.