Christian History – Opponents and persecutions of the early church
By Mark Grilus
As the Gospel spread throughout the known world in the early 100’s and 200’s, its unique message of Jesus as the only way of salvation, would gain the attention of certain philosophers, who would question the beliefs and practices of the new religion.
Fronto – Slanderous arguments
Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100 – late 160s) was a Roman grammarian and rhetorician. He had been a consul in the Roman Empire. His abilities brought him to the attention of the Roman Emperor, and he became the tutor to the Emperors’ son, Marcus Aurelius.
One accusation against the Christians is documented in The Octavius of Minucius Felix. It was a common slanderous argument of the time regarding the sacrament of the Lords Table. Minucius mentions Fronto, referring to him as a Cirtensian, then proceeds to quote his argument.
“And of their banqueting it is well known all men speak of it everywhere; even the speech of our Cirtensian testifies to it. On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and every age. There, after much feasting, when the fellowship has grown warm, and the fervour of incestuous lust has grown hot with drunkenness, a dog that has been tied to the chandelier is provoked, by throwing a small piece of offal beyond the length of a line by which he is bound, to rush and spring; and thus the conscious light being overturned and extinguished in the shameless darkness, the connections of abominable lust involve them in the uncertainty of fate. Although not all in fact, yet in consciousness all are alike incestuous, since by the desire of all of them everything is sought for which can happen in the act of each individual.”
We only have fragments left of the writings of Fronto, a full examination of his writings is not at this time possible. Perhaps more of his works will be discovered revealing greater detail about his thoughts and arguments against Christianity.
Celsus – Origen refutes arguments that still prevail to this day
Celsus was an opponent of Christianity during the second century. He was a Platonist and lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was familiar with both the writings of the early church and Judaism. His writings against Christianity are in his book, The True Word. The book has been lost but its content has been preserved in the writings of Origen, Contra Celsus. Origen had been sent a copy of Celsus book by Ambrosius requesting that he write a refutation to the work.
Celsus asserts that the ancients worshipped numerous gods, that it was the Jews and the Christians who introduced this new innovation of their being only one god. This belief, he views as arrogant, as it flies in the face of all the wisdom of antiquity and the common views held by many peoples.
He rejects the idea that God could become man, “God is good, and beautiful, and blessed, and that in the best and most beautiful degree. But if he come down among men, he must undergo a change, and a change from good to evil, from virtue to vice, from happiness to misery, and from best to worst. Who, then, would make choice of such a change? It is the nature of a mortal, indeed, to undergo change and remoulding, but of an immortal to remain the same and unaltered. God, then, could not admit of such a change.”
Celsus argues that Jesus is a failed messiah, “While he was in the body, and no one believed upon him, he preached to ail without intermission; but when he might have produced a powerful belief in himself after rising from the dead, he showed himself secretly only to one woman, and to his own boon companions.”
His arguments were easily refuted by Origen. Yet many of them form the basis of common objections that prevail to this day.
Porphyry – philosophy rejects Christ
Porphyry was born in Phoenicia in the city of Tyre in 234 A.D. His parents had named him Malchus. His name was changed after he came under the teaching of the rhetorician Cassius Longinus, who renamed him Porphyry, an allusion to being a king. Around 263-268 Porphyry went to Rome and studied under the Neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus.
While under the tutelage of Plotinus, Porphyry struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide. Plotinus encouraged him to move to Sicily to recover from his mental illness.
Porphyry became a prolific writer. Perhaps 60 works, writing on a variety of subjects. He systemized the writings of Plotinus’ work the Enneads. While in Sicily he writes, Against the Christians which is composed of 15 books.
He was familiar with the writings of Celsus yet employs a different method of attacking the Christian faith. He would employ literary criticism to poke holes in the Scriptures. W.H.C. Frend in his book, The Early Church, sums up the method used, “The inconsistencies of the Gospel narrative of incidences in Jesus’ life were exposed, as were the less attractive aspects of the characters of Peter and Paul, while a brilliant piece of literary acumen showed the book of Daniel to have been written during the Jewish revolt against Antiochus IV, and therefore of no relevance for Christian prophecy.” He focuses his attack primarily on the prophecies claiming that they are spurious, and the miracles never happened. His methodology has been used by such men as Edward Gibbons, and was adopted by some modern-day liberal scholars.
Little is known of his later life, he married a widow Marcella, who had seven children. Apparently, she had an interest in the study of philosophy. The date of his death is not known.
On November 1 we will pray for those who are persecuted for their faith today. In the next installment of Christian History – Opponents and persecutions of the early church, we will look at persecution of the early church.
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