The Strange Case of Julian “The Apostate”

Wayne Jackson
The Roman emperor, known as Julian “the Apostate,” represents but another “glitch” on the panoramic screen of history in the futile efforts to discredit Christianity.

According to some historians, the influence of that Roman ruler, known as Julian “the Apostate” (A.D. 361-363), was a critical point in the history of the Christian movement. Let us pick up some background on this matter.

The new religion of Jesus Christ was scarcely out of its swaddling clothes when persecution hit it hard. First, as the book of Acts indicates, the Jews targeted the Christian movement as an object of determined persecution. Then, in the latter days of Nero’s administration (A.D. 54-68), the Lord’s disciples fell victim to the forces of the Roman Empire.

For the next two and one-half centuries, the church of Christ was bathed in its own blood. Vicious and repeated waves of severe persecution came upon the saints. But the church grew all the more. Tertullian, a second-century writer, would say that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the kingdom.”

Finally, however, some respite came. When Constantine assumed the imperial throne, he issued his famous Edict of Toleration (A.D. 313), which officially put an end to Christian persecution. It would be well to remember, though, that the “Christianity” of this period was already deep into a state of spiritual degeneration. Many corruptions of the primitive pattern were in full bloom.

In A.D. 337, Constantine died, and his kingdom fell to his three foolish and ambitious sons, who were twenty-one, twenty, and seventeen years old respectively. Each was over a portion of the empire. Immediately they set about eliminating possible rivals to the throne—and kinship mattered not at all. Uncles and cousins alike were murdered. In the process of this family purging, two young boys were spared because they were not considered potential threats. One of them, Gallus, was sickly; the other, Julian, was but five or six years old.

Both lads were dispatched to a remote region of Cappadocia where they were under house imprisonment, being subject to austere discipline and some education in the languages and sciences of the day.

As the years sped by, Gallus eventually became a ruler in the eastern portion of the empire, at which point he freed Julian from his confinement.

From this point it is necessary that we focus only upon Julian. He went to Constantinople where he studied under those who were addicted to heathen philosophy. Having been so abused by men who professed Christianity, he became a willing student of those who were antagonistic to the teaching of Jesus. This is a crucial point to remember: ungodly treatment at the hands of hypocritical religionists, combined with humanistic dogma, is a deadly mixture!

Fairly early in his life, therefore, Julian evolved an intense hatred for Christianity, though, for political reasons, he concealed his feelings for a decade, dutifully performing the functions of a “church” person.

Finally, however, through a series of military and political maneuvers, in A.D. 361 Julian himself was elevated to the Roman throne, barely over thirty at the time. That very year he declared himself the public enemy of Christianity. As an interesting sidelight, Julian was so intense about his devotion to paganism that he adopted a radical sort of “pietism.” He wanted to prove that heathenism could inspire a dedication as acute as the teaching of Christ had done among Christians. He abandoned luxury, slept on the ground, allowed himself to go unclean and disheveled, and permitted his body to become host to a variety of vermin. In one of his letters he boasted of his long nails, shaggy head, and dirty hands! He became a bizarre spectacle.

The Nefarious Plan

As imperial ruler, Julian had two primary goals: the complete abolition of the Christian religion, and the restoration of paganism (which had fallen on hard times in recent decades).

Unlike the persecutors of earlier times, Julian would not initiate a bloodbath. That procedure had not worked in checking the spread of Christianity. Rather, the ruler would feign a benevolent demeanor. He would claim that his philosophy mandated tolerance for all faiths. At the same time, in covert fashion he would attempt to demolish the system he hated so passionately.

It makes a fascinating study to consider the techniques employed by this shrewd and vicious monarch. He would, in subtle ways, attempt to undermine “the faith.”

Let us consider some of the methods Julian employed, and see what we might learn from this historical record, for, as has been often said, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them.

Julian, as a military man, likely was familiar with the maxim, “divide and conquer.” Accordingly, he encouraged strife among those who professed allegiance to Christ. Certain antagonistic bishops, who had been in exile, he restored to their offices, and said “sic ’em,” in the hope they would devour one another. Oh, he was devious.

The Lord himself had prayed for the unity of believers on the ground that such harmony could be a tool for evangelism (cf. John 17:20-21). It does not take considerable acumen to conclude that division will produce the opposite result. Just think of the evil that has resulted from the advocacy of false doctrines that necessitated division (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:19). Reflect upon the ugly, self-centered attitudes that have afflicted the church. The Roman ruler knew of a point of vulnerability in the church of his day. And what of our own time?

The emperor issued a prohibition against Christian schools. One historian notes: “The Christian schools were broken up, and the children of Christians denied all education save in the school of the idolaters” (Abbott n.d., 335). Julian knew that the church’s future is with its youth. He thought, therefore, if he could deprive Christian families of educating their children, he could check the spread of this loathsome system among the more educated. Christianity thus would be relegated to the ignorant masses. Moreover, in a controlled environment, he could corrupt tender faith. His effort in this regard revealed that he was aware that the cultured mind, and the religion of Jesus, are not mutually exclusive. One can be a devotee of Christ and still be an intellectually respectable person.

There are powers today who view with alarm the fact that there is an increasing number of parents (who identify themselves as “Christians”—at least nominally) who are choosing to educate their own children, rather than surrender that responsibility to secular forces. Some politicians fear this trend, and do all within their power to ridicule it, or subdue it in other subtle ways. Too, one hardly needs to demonstrate how many of our Christian youth have had their faith destroyed by the educational system of this nation.

Julian knew that the Christian religion is propagated by teaching and example. Followers of the Lord are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13ff). Accordingly, he attempted to have Christians removed from places of public position and influence. He wanted their voice muted. If the shedding of the saints’ blood would not halt the growth of this malignancy at least he could stifle their influence.

It is all too apparent that in today’s culture there are numerous voices and political forces who do not wish to see the influence of Christianity shaping laws or influencing the enforcement of high moral standards. They are oblivious to the fact that the very foundation of law is grounded in an ultimate moral standard—which only God himself has the authority to define.

Julian sought to silence preachers by withdrawing from them certain immunities that previously had been granted as a result of Constantine’s influence. He was astute enough to know that finances are a powerful factor in muffling some pulpits.

Certain governmental agencies, even today, are not without similar persuasive powers. As an example, many moral issues (e.g., abortion rights, homosexuality, etc.) have become so politicized, that preachers who boldly address such matters are accused of bringing the church into the political arena. Tactical pressures, such as veiled threats of the loss of tax-exempt status, etc., become increasingly commonplace. History seems to repeat itself.

While Julian was pragmatic enough not to launch a personal bloodbath against those who professed Christianity, he, by the subversion of law, encouraged violence against devotees of the faith. John Hurst noted that Julian did not “punish his heathen subjects for acts of violence committed against the Christians,” and yet he took great pains “to punish a Christian for the slightest offense” (1897, 421). And so, by manipulating the law and practicing injustice, his evil designs were implemented.

This method—in principle—has been employed across the centuries. Evil rulers maneuver the legal system for their own godless purposes. Justice is flung into the wind.

As the Jews plotted their heinous course that would end at Calvary, a coming judgment from God for this evil was inevitable. In several instructive formats—both literally and in parabolic symbolism—Christ foretold the impending destruction of Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 22:7ff; 24:1ff). In one of his exhortations, the Lord warned: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:38; cf. 24:15). While the term “house” may have had a broader application than just the temple, it surely included that structure. Moreover, there is a note of finality in the Savior’s prediction.

Julian felt if he could encourage the Jews to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, such would be a monument to the falsity of Christ as a prophet, and therefore contribute to the downfall of the Christian system. He thus issued an official document praising the Jews; he eased their tax burdens, and provided funds from the public treasury for the rebuilding of the temple. The young heathen even promised that, upon completion, he would officiate in the consecration of the sacred building.

The Jews seized the moment with unbounded zest. They engaged the work of rebuilding with fervor, under the conviction that this project would usher in the reign of the “true Messiah” (rather than that of this “Jesus” imposter).

But the project was a resounding failure, as is admitted uniformly by historians, both ancient and modern. Strange fires kept breaking out, and ferocious storms hindered the enterprise. Workers became discouraged and eventually abandoned the effort, without having completed even the foundation. Some, like the infidel historian Gibbon, regarded these destructive events as purely natural disasters. Others saw them as supernatural judgments (even though the age of miracles was past). Many, however, with a more reasonable approach, viewed the events as providentially orchestrated impediments (Schaff 1981, 56-57).

Finally, since Julian fancied himself an intellectual, having steeped himself in the philosophy of the pagans, shortly before his final military engagements, he launched a literary attack against the doctrine of Christ. He produced a work (of three volumes) titled Adversus Christianos, which was an assault upon Christianity. This composition was but a rehash of the earlier skeptical polemics (e.g., those of Porphyry, Celsus, and Lucius), infused with Julian’s better knowledge of the Scriptures, and his more fanatical disposition. But there are several factors about this production that are of interest to the student of Christian history.

First, no copies of Julian’s anti-Christian tirade survive. It is known only through the writings of those Christian apologists who responded to his arguments, notably Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum, written some sixty years following Julian’s death. Is it not remarkable that whereas more than five thousand copies (in part or whole) of the ancient New Testament Scriptures have survived, almost nothing of the antique skeptical works is extant?

Second, Julian’s attack, in an undesigned manner, has provided valuable early evidence for the authenticity of the Christian system. In the mid-eighteenth century A.D., a brilliant English scholar named Nathaniel Lardner produced a remarkable set of volumes titled The Credibility of the Gospel History. Lardner demonstrated that Julian, while attempting to oppose Christianity, had, in reality, provided supporting evidence for the system. For example, the ruler concedes the historicity of Christ, though he said Jesus did nothing remarkable—unless you count the fact that he “heal[ed] the cripples and blind” and “exorcis[ed] those possessed of demons.” He mentions that Jesus calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee and walked upon its waters, though he attempts to explain these extraordinary events naturally. He alludes to the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and to the book of Acts, as well as some of Paul’s writings, conceding their early dates. Lardner thus concluded:

He aimed to overthrow the Christian religion, but has confirmed it: his arguments against it are perfectly harmless, and insufficient to unsettle the weakest Christian (McClintock 1969, 1090).

In A.D. 363, Julian finally died in a battle against the Persians. He was but thirty-two years of age, having reigned only twenty months. He represents but another “glitch” on the panoramic screen of history in the futile efforts to discredit Christianity.

  • Abbott, John S.C. n.d. The History of Christianity. Cleveland, OH: American Publishing Co.
  • Hurst, John F. 1897. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • McClintock, John and Strong, James. 1969. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Schaff, Philip. 1981. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.