- Between Pagan and Christian by Christopher P. Jones
Introduction by Robin Darling Young (The Catholic University of America)
Was there a battle in late antiquity between Christians and pagans? Ancient ecclesiastical debaters and chroniclers, supported by their scriptures and theology, said so; and many modern historians have agreed. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall erected a tableau of paganism’s combat, struggle, and protracted death that has encouraged the modern historiography of dramatic conflict. Like an ancient Civil War, clear battles between Christian and pagan have provided meaning, entertainment—and even the possibility for reenactment in the form of recent Kulturkämpfe.
The very title of Christopher P. Jones’s Between Pagan and Christian suggests another possible construal of late-ancient religious culture. Jones, emeritus professor of classics at Harvard, here scrutinizes Christian and pagan texts and monuments from the reign of Constantine through the sixth century. His highly distilled, clear, and calm account shows how the imperial sponsorship of the new, Christian religion still permitted traditional religious practice to continue and allowed double allegiances or ambiguous loyalties among late-ancient people both illiterate and cultured. In the West, Jones argues, medieval Christendom emerged only between the sixth and the eleventh centuries, and carried paganism in its genes; in the East, only Islam brought paganism to an end.
Jones does not begin his account in the first century, traditionally the beginning of the pagan-Christian clash. Instead, he arranges his examination with three narrative chapters at the beginning and two at the end of the book. The five middle chapters discuss topics: the Christian God and the idolatry of “other divinities” (p. 34); sacrifice, blood, and prayer; [End Page 771] debate; and conversion. A timeline of engagements discussed in the book follows an appendix, and the book’s irenic tone reflects Jones’s long engagement with the subject. Jones’s fascination with the topic began decades ago, when his attention turned to a set of late-ancient inscriptions that seemed to evidence neither, or both, Christian and pagan beliefs. His philologist’s attention to the nuances of language and text allows him to perceive, in a wide array of written texts and images, the ambiguity and mingling of pagan and Christian that the late-ancient Mediterranean world collected, often despite the austerity of episcopal or imperial commands to disentangle.
Chapter 1 begins with an encounter told by that most cosmopolitan of New Testament writings, the Book of Acts. Jones uses the exemplary story in Acts 17 to illustrate that the first interaction between Christianity and paganism happened during St. Paul’s missionary journey to Greece. The Acts of the Apostles records Paul’s speech on the Areopagus as an effort to show that an aspect of the Athenians’ own devotion pointed toward the belief in one God and allowed for the recognition of the resurrection as its proof. If this speech actually occurred, then Paul may have been the origin of the idea that the following of Jesus was the specification and culmination of ideas implicit in Hellenism. As a Jew, Paul also expressed an idea shared and expounded in much greater detail and length by Philo, who found Greek philosophy and philosophical conduct anticipated in Judaism—as did Josephus, several decades later. Yet later Christian authors also condemned the religion of polytheism—and these views, too, were shaped by books of the Old Testament usually referred to as Deuteronomistic—those works insisting on a sharp line of demarcation between those faithful to the covenant of Abraham and those who followed the religion of “outsiders” such as the Philistines or the Egyptians.
Christians themselves harbored a similar ambivalence toward paganism, based on the library of Jewish works they took with them as churches and synagogues separated (and on their local experiences), and it deepened regarding all religious expressions that were not Christian and not Jewish. But what should contemporary scholars call...