Christianity at the Crossroads: Superstitio

A valuable lesson for 21st century Christians is found in the writings of three 2nd century Romans: Pliny the Younger, an imperial governor; Tacitus, both senator and historian; and Suetonius, a prolific biographer of Caesars, poets, orators, historians, grammarians and rhetoricians.

Observed in careful detail in Michael Kruger’s, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, each of these ancient Romans left behind scornful commentary on the practice of early Christians. What is particularly instructive is how each identified Christianity as a superstitio.

Pliny summarized Christianity as a “depraved, excessive superstition” and wrings his hands that “the contagion of this superstition” has spread not only to the cities but to the countryside (Letters, 10.96).

Tacitus speaks similarly. After stating the historic facts of Christ’s judicial death during the reign of Tiberius, he adds: “a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular” (Annals, 15.44).

Suetonius, in a biographical sketch of Nero, briefly outlines persecutions the emperor leveled against Christians: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (Nero, 16.2).

At first reading, this all might seem like a case of the pot calling the kettle black. After all, did not Hadrian, a second century emperor, build the Pantheon, a temple honoring the twelve-plus gods of the Roman state – and not a few deified emperors? Is not this superstitio?

Technically, no.

As Dale B. Martin argues in his 2007 work, Inventing Superstition: From Hippocratics to the Christians, the superstitio tag leveled against Christians by ancient Roman powerbrokers was “not just the philosophical criticism of superstition, which tended to see it as shameful and ridiculous but not necessarily of great importance politically. Rather, these Roman writers also were introducing into the picture the particularly Roman fear of superstitio as politically subversive and socially dangerous, as a threat to Rome itself” (p. 135).

Charging second century Christians with superstitio declared them a threat to the common good. This is especially vivid in Pliny who notes how in Bithynia the pagan temples were being deserted, religious rites were being neglected, and sacrificial animals were not being purchased, all declines Pliny links to Christianity breaking out like a contagious superstitio.  

Thus, the Christian religion was superstitio because it did not support piety toward Roman gods, which in turn was falsely perceived as weakening the bonds of Roman citizenry and destabilizing the Roman commonwealth. As Kruger puts it: “…a superstitio is a religious group that was out of sync with the traditional Roman understanding of what religion was designed to do.”

Religion in ancient Rome was designed to hold Rome together. Any religious dogma or practice that did not sufficiently commingle with the Roman gods was considered selfish, dangerous and subversive – superstitio.

This is brought out sharply in The Octavius of Minucius Felix, a dialogue between a pagan and a Christian dated within, or just after, the second century. The pagan Caecilius says: “

You do not attend the shows; you take no part in the processions; fight shy of public banquets; abhor the sacred games, meats from the victims, drinks poured in libation on the altars. So frightened are you of the gods you deny (Oct. 12). 

That final sentence shows Caecilius is listing activities of religious significance, not just benign matters of civic life. As Kruger observes, it was this non-participation which led Tacitus to add a new charge to that of superstitio – Christianity embodied “hatred against mankind” (Annals, 15.44)

The great lesson then, for 21st century Christians and the churches within which we faithfully worship, is a lesson on fidelity within the shadow of the cross.

How frequently are Christians told, “You are on the wrong side of history.” This is something akin to the old charge of superstitio in new language. You, dear Christian, beloved of God, are persona non grata in this world – a person not wanted nor welcome. You adhere to a message of salvation, a canon of dogma, and a narrow road of piety which will mark you as a nuisance at best, a danger at worst. This helps you seek things that are above, where you have been raised with Christ (Col. 3:1).

Paul, speaking not only of himself, said: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

Our holy and heavenly calling will not establish us on glory platforms in this age. We will, rather, like our living Head, be pushed out of this present evil age. Which, wonderfully and ironically, like our suffering Savior, gives us the privilege of testifying to another age altogether.  

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley