Christian Intellectuals and the Roman Empire

From Justin Martyr to Origen

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Jared Secord
Inventing Christianity
  • State College: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , September
     214 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The significance of Jared Secord’s Christian Intellectuals and the Roman Empire exceeds its immediate focus, Christian intellectuals active from the 150s to the 230s, with implications for earlier Christianity and the intellectual history of the Roman Empire. It is impeccably researched, drawing on a wealth of uncommonly paired and underutilized primary sources. This evidentiary breadth owes much to Secord’s capacious definition of “intellectual,” which he extends to “people who presented themselves as authority figures because of what they knew or claimed to know, especially if this knowledge was based on the possession of high-level literacy” (2). An additional methodological strength lies in his decision to foreground the intellectual profiles of Christians so that their self-positionings, aspirations, and achievements emerge as the effects of broader field dynamics far more—or rather—than religious identities.

Secord grounds his analysis of Christian intellectuals in features of Roman intellectual culture that predated but were pronounced during the period of his study. He draws attention to how emphases on ancestry and cultural purity colluded to privilege Greek history and pedigrees over competing versions of the pasts. Foreign (or “barbarian”) intellectuals faced, in turn, major barriers to gaining recognition among Greek and Roman audiences; they were simultaneously expected to display mastery of Greek culture and literature while negotiating stereotypes of exoticism. The few foreigners who managed to infiltrate the circle of intellectuals orbiting the imperial household presented their heritage in a conspicuously Greek vernacular while showcasing their own elite credentials. Others adopted riskier strategies to court imperial attention, with the result that intellectual fame and the threat of persecution—from rivals and imperial officials alike—increasingly coincided. As provincials who also embraced an exotic paideia (education), most Christian intellectuals were in a sense twice barbarian; one wonders, then, whether their barriers and stakes were that much higher.

Justin Martyr embodies the plight of the provincial intellectual seeking standing within Rome’s ferociously competitive intellectual scene. A victim of persecution himself, Justin emerges equally in Secord’s context as an ambitious adversary. His petition to the emperor fits the litigious climate of his day: trading in rumor to distinguish Justin from rivals, including other Christians; furnishing exaggerated accounts of his intellectual confrontations; and inviting punishment as an index of philosophical legitimacy. In mapping these dynamics, Secord underscores how Justin’s presentation of martyrdom “was taking part in a larger debate about persecution and death” (73) wherein Christians earned some admiration. A fleeting observation about the failure of outside observers to draw meaningful distinctions between Christians, Cynics, and Jews recasts Justin’s parsing of “true” from all Christians, Christians from Jews, and Christian from Cynic philosophers as a series of reactive position taking, whose vitriol was a function of near indistinguishability from certain vantagepoints (62).

Despite his ambition, Justin remained marginal in his own time, even as his philosopher persona “provided a template for [subsequent] Christian intellectuals who sought to define themselves as experts” (76). While aspiring intellectuals of his generation kowtowed to Greek paideia by default, the landscape of possibility had already begun to expand for his students and their interlocutors. Tatian, Clement, and Irenaeus—who plausibly encountered Justin in Rome—all display a mastery of Greek culture but take opposing stances toward it. Whereas the latter two follow Justin’s example in affirming its dominance, Tatian embraces his status as a barbarian. For him, intimate knowledge of Greek culture only exposed its flaws.

Tatian’s exhibition of his knowledge is coy: he poses as an ethnographer of the Greek world to describe “with encyclopedic detail the great diversity of Greek error” (83). In making Greek paideia derivative of “our paideia”—the collective legacy of his Assyrian and other ancient Near Eastern cultures—he denounces implicitly any Christians who prefer the traditional definition to his more expansive one. And yet, Tatian’s chosen genre, language, interest in ancient books, and participation in contemporary debates ranging from medicine to astrology reveal him as no less serious a contender in the Greco-Roman intellectual arena for championing barbarian wisdom (or being a Christian). If scholars have been insufficiently critical of his intellectual alienation, they have also been overly credulous about Clement and Irenaeus’s dismissal of Tatian as a heretic. That both do so using subtle ethnic slurs and stereotypes—calling Tatian a Syrian versus an Assyrian, a label that carried more cultural and intellectual prestige, and depicting him as Asiatic rather than Attic—suggests that the main issue lay in a fundamental disagreement about Hellenocentrism. Secord’s insight aids efforts to theorize early Christian diversity without recourse to problematic concepts of orthodoxy and heresy by framing “diversity” in part as a conflict in attitudes about the status of Greek culture, as well as the lineages or chains of literary dependence that formed in the wake of such disagreements.

The third century witnesses the breakthrough of two Christians, Julius Africanus and Origen, into elite intellectual life, a sign for some of mounting imperial sympathy linked to Christian expansion. Secord is more circumspect, since their achievements were in keeping with Severan efforts to cultivate relations with marginal territories, including the Near Eastern provinces whence both intellectuals hailed. The Greek classicism of the preceding century was also giving way to interest in non-Greek forms of culture and wisdom, with the prolific output (and social mobility) of eastern jurists serving as one metric of this transformation. Eastern exoticism still raised hackles in the extreme, however. Africanus and Origen balanced new enthusiasms with the old respectability of Greek learning as each served the imperial household in the same capacities as earlier intellectuals. Africanus neither suppressed nor featured his Christian affiliation as he consulted on a new imperial library, while Origen’s exposition of religious matters before the empress Julia Mamaea resembled the sophistic demonstrations that the imperial family had adjudicated for over a century. Their behaviors and successes thus conform to broader intellectual currents, with Christianity playing only an incidental role.

Secord is to be commended for focalizing and advancing novel arguments about all the figures and texts he treats, particularly lesser-known Christian writers. But his book holds just as much potential for rethinking the status of earlier and later “Christian” intellectuals. It is a testament to his conceptualization that Christian Intellectuals is not really about Christianity per se, but about an evolving intellectual culture whose dynamics happen to be especially well preserved in Christian sources.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Heidi Wendt is associate professor of religions of the Greco-Roman world at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jared Secord is an academic strategist at the University of Calgary.



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