- Between Pagan and Christian by Christopher P. Jones
The preposition “between” is capable of at least two meanings. It can indicate a midway point, as when something is neither fish nor fowl—for example, the instances of “pagan monotheism” that have caught the eye of a number of recent scholars. It can also denote a point of contact, as when a dialogue takes place “between” two groups. In this refreshingly brief study, Christopher Jones deploys both meanings, but his chief interest is in the latter: by focusing on similarities between Christians and that problematic group called “pagans,” his aim is to show how Christians sought, “to build a bridge from their own side to the other” (xiv). Many others have been over this ground; Jones’s book stands out for the perspective he has gained from a lifetime of studying classical culture. Experience has made him chary of generalizations about that Christian “other” (“Paganism is always a blurred and shifting category that defies neat taxonomies,” p. 7) and more sensitive to changes within it. His book restores a sense of dynamism to a topic often smothered in stereotypes.
Although he does not ignore earlier or later periods, Jones’s focus is on the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christians first started to use the label “pagan” for their opponents. He devotes an opening chapter to “The Perception of Paganism,” a title that reflects his interest in determining the extent to which the term reflects the reality of the opposition Christians faced. Throwing cold water [End Page 233] on recent efforts to drain the term of its pejorative connotation, Jones points out that it remains “a Latin term used primarily by an in-group to denote an out group” (p. 6), and needs to be deployed with that burden in mind. Still, useful distinctions can be made. He notes, for instance, that the association of paganus with rusticity in Latin-speaking parts of the empire is a striking contrast with the term Hellēn, used for opponents in the Greek East, since that term, “refers to high culture.” The difference, therefore, “is a reminder that the evolution of Christianity occurred in different ways in the two main divisions of the empire.” (Following his own advice, Jones later devotes separate chapters to the process of conversion in the two parts of the empire.)
Jones shows the same willingness to ignore scholarly fashion in the next two chapters, on “Constantine” and “After Constantine.” Since the appearance of Weiss’s revival of the “halo phenomenon” argument in 1993, scholars have been enamored of the idea that Constantine’s true conversion experience occurred in 310, not 312. But after reading the passage in a panegyric on which much of the argument is based, Jones concludes that the “supposed vision” of Apollo mentioned therein was “either a hallucination of the emperor, or some kind of flattering demonstration arranged by the priests of the temple.” He grants a “special place” to the 310 event, but decides that, “it is not a turning point equivalent to that of 312” (p. 13). Jones also takes a middle course regarding supposed inconsistencies in Constantine’s record as a Christian emperor. Some have concluded that these mean his conversion was insincere, others that they are only apparent, and others still (full disclosure: including the author of this review) that Constantine was personally Christian but publicly neutral. Jones sensibly argues that “such ‘pagan’ practices came only slowly to be seen as incompatible with the new faith” (p. 18), and that the “comparative rarity” of antipagan legislation in the law codes shows that the same held true for Constantine’s successors. Until the time of Justinian, emperors for the most part used the carrot rather than the stick to induce conversions.
Three subsequent chapters deal with topics that divided Christians and pagans: “God and Other Divinities,” “Idolatry,” “Sacrifice, Blood and Prayer.” Jones deals with these in much the same way he concluded Constantine dealt with religion: a “combination of conservatism and innovation” (p. 18). Chapter...