When Christianity was still young, the predominant pagan social structures of the time made increasingly desperate efforts to discredit and bury this new and growing religion.
One pagan counterattack during Christianity’s long campaign toward a true age of reason came from the emperor Julian the Apostate (330-363). Julian was born into a Christian family, but he turned against the Faith in a serious way after his family was slaughtered by other family members in a political power play. He was raised by two secret pagans who won him over the old pagan faith. At the death of Constantius II (317-361), Julian became emperor and began his campaign against Christianity in the hope of restoring paganism to its former glory.
By the time Julian became emperor, paganism was already on life support. It had lost its supporters to Christianity, and its feasts and celebrations had been largely abandoned
There are three components to Julian’s anti-Christian campaign. The first is financial. He revoked all the gifts of land, rights, and immunities Constantine had given to the Church and demanded their repayment. Second, he changed education, forbidding Christian teachers to teach rhetoric and grammar. Third, he tried to reform paganism so it could compete with Christianity.
In a letter to Arsacius, the high priest of Galatia (362), Julian allocated grain and wine to Galatia to be used by the pagan priests, with a fifth to be expended on the poor who served them. The remainder was to be given to strangers and beggars. As Julian noted,
it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. . . . We must pay special attention to this point, and by this means effect a cure. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests, then I think the impious Galileans observe this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices.
Julian tried to save paganism by making it look more Christian. Pagan priests were no longer allowed to carouse or engage in nefarious trade. Even more interesting is that Julian believed that Christian charity was the reason for its popularity. He likened it to the sweet cakes sailors would give children to entice them into slavery on their ships. His response? Government-subsidized charity.
Julian poured money and resources into pagan temples so their priests could give food to the poor. But Julian’s venture was doomed to failure, because Christian charity is not a gimmick. Charity, voluntary self-devotion, brotherhood, and detachment from worldly goods are the fruit of the law of Christ and intrinsic to the Christian worldview. Christ commands his followers: “I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). Christian charity isn’t merely something Christians do; it is who they are.
Pagans saw Christian charity as something absurd, since it is ludicrous to care for those who are fated to be poor. Not surprisingly, once Julian died and government support ceased, pagan “charity” stopped, and so did any hope of paganism’s revival.
Julian also forbade the appointment of Christians to the teaching offices of rhetoric and grammar. Here he saw how Christian teachers had colored education to reflect negatively on pagan ideals, and he wanted to reverse that. Julian saw education as divine instruction, since the greatest of the Greeks’ thinkers (Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Thucydides, etc.) received their wisdom from the gods, who communicated through the muses. Julian intuited the influence of the Christian worldview in education and wished to stop it. This instinct would pop up in later revolts against Christian thought.
Whereas Julian used his imperial muscle against Christianity, the pagan philosopher Porphyry used his keen intellect. Porphyry was a pagan neo-platonic philosopher, a student of the famed philosopher Plotinus, best known for his fifteen-volume anti-Christian work Against the Christians. From the surviving fragments of this work, it appears that much of his argumentation was focused on New Testament difficulties. But Porphyry’s deadliest attack is found in a different work, a lost one, titled The Philosophy of Oracles. The treatise is preserved in part by Augustine, who writes,
For, as if he were about to proclaim some marvelous thing passing belief, he [Porphyry’s oracle, Apollo] says, “What we are going to say will certainly take some by surprise. For the gods have declared that Christ was very pious, and has become immortal, and that they cherish his memory: that the Christians, however, are polluted, contaminated, and involved in error. And many other such things,” he says, “do the gods say against the Christians.”
Porphyry concedes the indisputable: Jesus was pious. But according to the oracle, Christ was a good pagan, who worshiped the “God, the Generator, and the King prior to all things” — a hat tip to the God of Hebrew revelation. Why, then, aren’t Christians good pagans? Apollo answers: Christ’s followers (i.e., the Church) distorted his memory and made him into a different figure, a myth.
Porphyry’s oracle strikes at the heart of Christ’s union with his Church. If the body (and its apostolic witness) has been corrupted, who is to say with certainty who and what Christ really is? If the whole Church (that is to say, the Catholic Church) is wrong, then some other revelation—from “Apollo” or any other source—could be right. Christ could be a good pagan, or a good Muslim, or anything we want to make him.
The counterattacks by Julian and Porphyry attempted to obscure the hard light of the Incarnation. For Julian, Christianity was nothing more than a philanthropical human endeavor. For Porphyry, the apostolic witness of Christ had become corrupted. What both failed to realize is that it is the truth revealed in the Incarnation that fuels Christian charity and makes the Church truly Christ’s body.
This article is adapted from Gary Michuta’s hit new book, Revolt Against Reality. Buy a copy now at the Catholic Answers Shop.