A Revealing Letter about Ancient Christianity

After Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, every Roman emperor was Christian (at least nominally). This fact is remarkable, considering both the great pride Romans had long placed in worshiping their Gods and the fact the (Eastern) Roman Empire continued for another millennium. There was, however, a single exception to this rule—the emperor Julian, who reigned from AD 361–63.

Julian was distraught by the growth of Christianity and tried to restore the predominance of paganism. This meant funding pagan feasts, building temples, and paying priests. He even developed a “missiological strategy” for expanding paganism. In the letter below, Julian advises the chief priest of paganism in Galatia to—wait for this—act more like the Christians! In addition to being a fascinating outsider description of early Christianity, Julian’s letter is replete with honor-shame motifs. As you read it, note the nature of his concerns and the logic of his prescriptions.

A Letter of Julian (“the Apostate”) to Priscus, the high priest of Galatia (AD 359)

The pagan religion [hellēnismos/Hellenism] does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it; for the worship of the gods is on a splendid and magnificent scale, surpassing every prayer and every hope. May the goddess Adrasteia pardon my words, for indeed no one, a little while ago, would have ventured even to pray for a grand, complete, and swift change [i.e., the mass conversion of Romans to Christianity]. Why do we pagan leaders not observe that it is [the Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?

I believe that we pagans ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the pagan priests in Galatia, without exception. If they do not attend the worship of the gods with their entire household, but allow their servants or sons or wives to show impiety towards the gods and honor atheism [i.e., Christianity, which did not believe in the pagan gods] more than piety [i.e., public sacrifices to the gods], then either shame or persuade them into righteousness or else remove them from their priestly office.

 Also, admonish the pagan priests that none may enter a theatre, drink in a tavern, or control any craft or trade that is base and not respectable. Honour the pagan priests who obey you, but those who disobey, expel from office. In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit by our benevolence; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money.

I have made a plan to provide you funds for this—I have given directions that 60,000 gallons of corn and 7,500 gallons of wine shall be assigned every year for the whole of Galatia. I order that 20% of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars. No Jew ever has to beg [because they take of their own] and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but our pagans as well. From this, everyone sees that the people lack aid from us. That is disgraceful for us. Teach those of the pagan/Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort, to offer their first fruits to the gods, and to do these good works by teaching them that this was our practice of old. Remember the example of Eumaeus in Homer’s Odyssey (when he said to the filthy and unrecognizable Odysseus): “Stranger, it is not lawful for me, not even though a baser man than you should come, to dishonor a stranger. For from Zeus come all strangers and beggars. And a gift, though small, is precious.” Then let us not, by allowing others to outdo us in good works, disgrace by such negligence, or complete abandonment, the reverence due to the gods. If I hear that you are carrying out these orders I shall be filled with joy. [1]

Julian’s letter reveals the nature and impact of early Christianity in the honor-shame culture of fourth-century Rome. I note three aspects here.

Julian notes the problem that, because of Christians, the “splendid and magnificent” gods were not getting the honor they deserved. This echoes the logic of the Ephesian silversmiths in Acts 19—Christians brought disrepute upon the gods because they did not worship them. The pagans feared this would displease and anger the gods, leading to calamity. By the time of Julian, Christianity had made such inroads that even the priests’ own family members had begun to “show impiety toward the gods and honor atheism” (the latter term being a common slur for Christianity).

The reason for rapid Christian growth, according to Julian, was that Christians had, in effect, adopted a new honor code. They were extending beneficence and charity to the poor, the sick, and travelers, even those who were pagan outsiders. Christians unconditionally helped anyone with needs. In Julian’s words, “That is disgraceful for us.” The pagans looked bad because, in conventional Roman culture, people were cautious to give gifts only to those people who could reciprocate. In such a context, the Christian practice of setting up hostels for travelers and hospitals for the sick undermined the prevailing political and religious system, which was designed to increase and perpetuate the honor of elites, not attend to the needs of people in lower classes.

To re-honor the gods and restore the reputation of paganism, Julian jumpstarted the machinery of pagan worship. This involved whipping the priests into shape with the tools of honor and shame. Those who failed to transform their behavior would be shamed and removed from office; those who did get on board were to be honored. Though Julian does not clarify, this may have included job promotions, new titles, financial payment, and/or public accolades. Julian even provided a generous stipend to create institutional structures for helping the masses. Such benevolence was done in the name of paganism to recruit people back to pagan rituals.

Any comments or insights? Share below!

[1] The English translation is adapted from Julian the Apostate, “Letter to Arsacius, the High-Priest of Galatia,” in Letters, Vol. III, trans. by W. C. Wright (LCL; 1923), 67–73. Letter #22, online here.


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3 Comments on “A Revealing Letter about Ancient Christianity

  1. Another helpful example of how saturated with honor and shame was the ancient Roman culture. Julian was, in effect, noting what we would say in Thai, i.e., the Roman religion was น้อยหน้า (nooy naa- humiliated by being lesser in “face”) the Christians.

  2. Acts of mercy and charity toward our fellowman and piety toward our Father in Heaven continue to mark us as “Galileans” in a world in turmoil. Jesus points to love of God and love of fellowmen as the two greatest commandments. In Luke 10 he illustrates these Christian Core Values in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
    Thanks for the reminder.

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