Stories love a good villain. Star Wars has Darth Vader, Superman has Lex Luther, Spiderman has the Green Goblin, and the Avengers have Loki.  In his new book, Villains of the Early Church (Emmaus Road, 2018), Mike Aquilina introduces us to some of the bad guys of the early church. Some of the names will be familiar to you: Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, and Arius, while others may be less familiar: Valentius, Celsus, Diocletian, and Julian the Apostate.

Legends abound about each of these people. For example, did you know that one legend has it that Judas was Caiaphas’ nephew and planted as a mole to infiltrate Jesus’ apostles? Likewise, another legend says Caiaphas converted to Christianity and took up missionary work. And did you know that in Coptic and Ethiopian churches Pontus Pilate is a saint and a martyr? Aquilina writes of the Eastern church, “Maybe they knew that Caiaphas and Pilate were stand-ins, doing the work of every sinner—of every one of us. They wished them well and wished it ardently” (36).

Some may be confused by the inclusion of Origen in a list of villains. Aquilina acknowledges this as “the strangest case. He’s not really a villain at all” (99). Some of Origen’s teachings are considered heresy today but Origen himself is not considered a heretic. Origen is known for his wild speculations but Aquilina points out that he was not a stubborn man and was always willing to give up an opinion if the Church decided against it. His faith never wavered, which earned him the nickname “Adamantius: the man with the diamond-hard faith” (104). The church had not decided on many of the issues that Origen speculated but he wrote that if he gave offense to the Church or wrote anything contrary to the rule laid down by her, then he hoped “the whole Church will unite with one consent and cast me off” (111).

This is a fun book and very easy to read. I recommend it to anyone interested in “those tortured souls” of church history “who thought they were doing divine work.”