Christians are cannibalistic, incestuous, ass-worshiping magicians who practice dangerous superstitions. Or at least that is what early critics thought.

Christianity faced opposition from its inception. Its founder was killed, and its first major missionaries were martyred. But as Christianity spread beyond Judea, the nature of the criticisms changed. Rather than opposing Jesus' teachings, most attacks against Christianity arose from ignorance and fear. Frequently critics had little, if any, firsthand experience with Christians, their worship, or their beliefs. So for the first two centuries, at least, attacks tended to restate stereotypes, stock objections, and misconceptions circulating throughout the pagan world.

If we examine the main charges and how Christians responded, we'll discover why Christianity could not easily be dismissed in the ancient world.

"Deadly superstition"

In his Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius (a Roman writer and secretary to Emperor Hadrian) was one of the first pagan writers to mention Christianity. But the context was hardly positive: believers are mentioned only as "a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition." This charge of superstition was perhaps the most serious, and most common, pagan accusation.

The comment was repeated by Tacitus, a Roman historian, in his account of the burning of Rome. He acknowledged that Nero fabricated the accusations that Christians started the fire, but he held little sympathy for the "notoriously depraved" believers.

"Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius's reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus," he wrote. "But in spite of this temporary setback, this deadly superstition had broken out not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital."

Pliny the Younger, a Roman official sent to the province of Bithynia (in what is now northern Turkey) about the year 110, shared some of the same sentiments. Although Pliny had extensive governmental experience, he had never been involved in a trial involving Christians. So when it came time to question some of them, he wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice.

"I do not know what crime is usually punished or investigated or to what extent," he wrote. He was uncertain whether those admitting to be Christians should be punished or if they had to be charged with a crime as well.

Meanwhile, he asked the accused if they were Christians. To those who confessed, he asked a second time, then a third. When, even after "threatening punishment," they still confessed to be Christians, Pliny ordered that they be punished. "For I did not doubt that, whatever it was they admitted, obstinacy and unbending perversity certainly deserve to be punished."

The seeming lack of respect toward Roman authority seems to have angered Pliny more than anything. He likened this Christian attitude to a kind of contagious insanity or mental disorder that would inevitably result in crimes against the Roman state. As he closed his letter, he warned, "This contagious superstition is not confined to the cities alone but has spread its infection among the country villages." Trajan, incidentally, commended Pliny for his actions.

But what did the Romans mean by superstition? According to several prominent Roman authors, including Cicero and Plutarch, it was any offensive religious belief or practice that deviated from Roman norms. Certain groups were given to such "irrational" religions, in which they acted unpredictably—without regard for the rites, rituals, and traditions of Rome.

Plutarch, the famous biographer, suggested that superstition was even worse than atheism: "The atheist is unmoved regarding the Divinity, whereas the superstitious people are moved as they ought not to be, and their minds are perverted."

To Pliny the Younger, Christians were akin to heraeria, subversive political societies that lobbied for the interests of their group over the interests of the state:

"If the people assemble for the common purpose," he wrote, "whatever name we give them and for whatever reasons, they soon turn into a political club."

Indeed, it was political suspicions, not necessarily religious ones, that concerned Roman elites. Romans incorporated many religions into their empire. As long as devotees continued to observe Roman religious rites, they were free to worship any god they wished.

Christians, however, refused to acknowledge any god but their own. For the Romans, that was bad enough, but Christians also refused to participate in any non-Christian religious rites, to serve in the army, or to accept public office. Their refusal to eat meat during Roman religious rites, for example, prompted the trial before Pliny in Bithynia.

"Incestuous cannibals"

A stranger complaint of critics was this: Christians were cannibals and practiced incest. They were thought to be involved in bizarre and abhorrent religious rituals such as Thyestian feasts and Oedipean sex—the most heinous acts in Greco-Roman myth and literature. In these two myths, Thyestes eats his own children, and Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.

How could pagans associate these myths with Christianity? Most likely the critics misread the Christian Scriptures. New Testament writers referred to their fellow Christians as brothers and sisters (James 2:15) and encouraged them to greet one another with a "holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16). This could have been misunderstood as incestuous, especially if a married couple were referred to as a brother and sister in Christ. This perspective may have been intensified by the secrecy of early eucharistic services, which were open only to baptized Christians.

The charge of cannibalism could also have arisen from a false understanding of the Christian Scripture and liturgy. The very words of the Eucharist,"Take and eat, this is my body broken for you," could be misread in a literal, cannibalistic sense by a reader ignorant of the metaphor.

Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403), a self-proclaimed expert on Christian heresies, offered another explanation. He suggested there were certain heretical Gnostic sects that proclaimed themselves Christians while performing rituals with no Christian origin or meaning. Christians were lumped together with Gnostics, who were said to gorge themselves with food and then engage in sexual orgies as wild dogs were turned loose on the leftovers.

Christians were also accused of worshiping the head of an ass. The source of this accusation is unclear, though according to Tertullian, it arose from an account found in Tacitus's Histories. Tacitus wrote that when the Jews were released from slavery in Egypt and wandered in the desert, they often followed wild asses because these beasts would lead them to water at hidden oases. In gratitude, Tacitus suggested, Jews deified the head of this animal. Since Christianity and Judaism were closely identified, critics likely tarred both groups with the libel.

"Hocus pocus"

Celsus was a Roman philosopher who penned a critique of Christianity, On True Doctrine, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). In it he derided Christians as "wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who could not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters."

Critics thought of Christianity as merely another version of Greek sorcery. In fact, the phrase Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body) was later adapted to "hocus pocus.". Celsus also dismissed Christianity as nothing more than magic and sorcery. For critics like Celsus, Christianity had more to do with the external manipulation of events through rites and incantations (magic) than with a belief system (religion).

Critics thought of Christianity as merely another version of Greek sorcery, with rites, spells, and magical formulas, amulets, and artifacts.

This accusation may have had several sources. One of the early accusations against Jesus himself was that he was a magician, and in fact, all Middle-Eastern religions at the time were accused of practicing magic in one form or another.

Christianity, however, may have left itself open to such charges by its emphasis on the mysterious and spiritual elements of baptism and the Eucharist. Before a baptismal service in the early church, priests often performed exorcisms over the candidates, and the ritualized liturgy could easily be mistaken for purification rites that often accompanied magic spells of the period.

The intonation of these rites had a semi-mystical quality and sounded similar to the chants used by Roman magicians. In fact, the phrase Hoc est corpus meum ("This is my body") from the Latin Rite of the Eucharist, was later adapted by magicians as "hocus pocus."

The empire's "best allies"

Christians among the elite, usually philosophers and writers, vigorously refuted the charges against their religion. They are known as apologists, from the Greek apologeo meaning "to defend." Once they established their defensive position, however, apologists took the offensive, arguing that Christianity was the only true philosophy.

Christian apologists often drew from the apologetic tradition of Hellenistic Judaism. This was helpful since many of the charges leveled against the Christians, such as atheism and political subversion, had once been cast against the Jews. Many apologists also drew from Roman philosophy, especially Platonism (Plato's Apology of Socrates remains now, as then, the most famous of all apologetic works).

The apologist Athenagoras, whose primary concern was to deny the charges of atheism, Thyestian banquets, and Oedipean incest, challenged his pagan opponents to examine the lives of Christians in detail before judging them. Christians, he maintained, came from all walks of life, and though sometimes"unable to prove in words the benefits of our doctrine, by their deeds, they exhibit the benefit arising from the possession of its truth."

Justin Martyr, a convert from paganism who became the best known of the early apologists, went a step further, arguing that Christians should not be condemned unless factual evidence proved they were criminals. A close examination of the facts, he said, will prove that Christians are moral, upright, and law-abiding citizens who are the empire's "best allies in securing good order."

The apologists admitted that Christians did not worship the emperor or other gods and that most did not take part in the social events associated with pagan religion. But this did not make Christians bad citizens, the apologists stressed.

Christians obeyed Christ's command to pay taxes (Matt. 22:15-22), as well as Paul's teaching to submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-5). How could that be considered subversion? Even more, Christians regularly offered prayers for the emperor and the empire as a part of their worship!

As even further evidence, Justin recounted a dubious tale of how the"thundering legion" (i.e., Christians) had saved Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the rest of the Roman army at Carnuntum by prayer.

The apologist Tatian, who tended not to employ classical philosophy in his defense, avowed his allegiance to Rome: "Why am I abhorred as a vile miscreant? If the emperor levies a tax, I am willing and ready to pay it. If I am a bondsman and my master commands me to serve, I acknowledge my status and obey. … Only when I am commanded to deny my God will I not obey, since I would rather die than show myself false and ungrateful."

Sunshine policy

To counter the charge that Christian worship was a vile and secret assembly full of cannibalism, magic, and incest, apologists carefully and openly laid out the order and content of worship.

In his First Apology, Justin Martyr explained the innocent nature of the "holy kiss" and then described the Eucharist and baptism:

"When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water. … We do not, however, receive these things as common bread or common drink; but … we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer … is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus and that washing of baptism was not a magical cleansing but an action symbolizing the cleansing action of God within the believer."

Justin also went through the order of worship for a typical Sunday worship service in detail, demonstrating that though sometimes mystical, it was never indecent.

Taking the offensive

Most apologists reproached their critics with tact and traditional Greco-Roman diplomacy. Avoiding ad hominem attacks on their critics, apologists regularly attributed the rumors to demonic activity, accentuated by Roman zeal for truth and disgust for evil. Marcus Minucius Felix, for example, wrote, "For we were once the same as you; blind and ignorant, our opinions were once the same as yours. We believed that the Christians worshiped monsters, ate the flesh of infants, and practiced incest at their feasts. We did not understand that these tales were always being spread abroad by the demons, without examination or proof."

Yet apologists were not content simply to defend the faith: they also mocked, criticized, and condemned Roman philosophy and religion. They often turned the tables on their accusers, suggesting they were guilty of that which they accused Christians. "Who would be so foolish as to worship [an ass's head]," wrote Felix, "or even still more foolish, to believe it—except yourselves, who keep whole asses as sacred in your stables together with your or their Epona [horse goddess]?"

Tertullian wrote, "How absurd it is for you to believe that [Christians] are panting for the blood of man when to your own knowledge they abhor the blood of man—unless indeed you have found by experience that human blood is the more palatable of the two! Again, who are more incestuous than those whom Jupiter himself has taught?"

The Romans worshiped gods who assumed human shape to impregnate mortals, and who petulantly harassed, punished, or killed mortals whom they disliked. Furthermore, argued the apologists, pagans emulated the behavior of these gods by exposing unwanted babies (i.e., infanticide), raising abandoned girls to be prostitutes, participating in or tacitly accepting pedophilia, sodomy, incest, and other immorality. The Christian God, they argued, is pure, holy and chaste, and expects the same moral excellence from Christians.

The seed of reason

Still, many early Christians did not argue that pagan religion and philosophy were completely wrong, only that they were inadequate or perverted reflections of the truth.

Justin Martyr was especially fond of this approach, and suggested that prior to Christ, God had scattered the seed of reason among all peoples. This seed enlightened not only the Hebrew prophets but also the pagan philosophers, so that even their best insights could be attributed to God.

Justin argued that everything done according to this seed of reason was "Christian," even if these people had no idea of the ultimate origin of the truth:

"We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and he is … the Logos ["word" or "reason"] of which every race partakes. Those who lived in accordance with the Logos are Christians, even though they were called godless." As examples, Justin listed Greeks like Socrates and Heraclitus with Abraham, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, and Elijah,"and many others whose deeds and names I forebear to list."

This seed present in all people, however, was insufficient and incomplete until it appeared in all its fullness as the divine Logos, manifest in Christ (John 1:1-18). The errors and inadequacies of the pagan philosophers and Hebrew prophets came about because they did not know or see the fullness of God revealed in Christ. It is only Christians, he argued, who worship and trust the revealed and embodied Logos, who have full access to eternal truth. In short, "Whatever things were rightly said among all teachers are the property of us Christians."

Christian apologetics, then or now, have never won masses of people to the faith. Few ancients were convinced solely by intellectual argument that Christianity was the truth. But apologetic writings demonstrated that Christianity was not a religion only for the simple minded or the irrational. It was a faith, a world view, with intellectual breadth and depth, one that no pagan could dismiss lightly.

J. David Cassel is assistant professor of theology at Hanover College.