Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.15

Michel Narcy, Hellénisme et christianisme. Collection Mythes, Imaginaires, Religions.   Villeneuve d'Ascq:  Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2004.  Pp. 198.  ISBN 2-85939-804-X.  €32.00.  



Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, University of Exeter
Word count: 1431 words

This well-edited volume discusses in seven contributions the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity in late antiquity. The papers were presented in a seminar, organised by the section Histoire des doctrines de l'Antiquité et du Haut-Moyen-Âge of the French CNRS in October 2001. With two exceptions, viz. the papers by P.F. Beatrice and J. Rist, which seem to use a broader definition of Hellenism, all the papers are concerned with the relationship between paganism and Christianity in the fourth century A.D. The papers are not always innovative but most offer a good discussion of the methodological issues involved in the study of the confrontation of paganism and Christianity.

In his introduction (pp. 7-14), Eric Rebillard briefly sketches the main goal of the seminar: to shed new light on the meeting of, or clash between, Christianity and Hellenism in late antiquity, and this through an interdisciplinary approach, associating philosophers, philologists, and historians of religion. He then offers useful summaries of the seven papers that follow.

Pierre Chuvin (Christianisation et résistance des cultes traditionnels. Approches actuelles et enjeux historiographiques, pp. 15-34) discusses some general methodological issues about how to study the survival of pagan cults in the Christian empire. This is illustrated by two examples: the tenth homily of Asterius of Amasea, of which Chuvin criticizes the interpretation by F. Trombley (Hellenic Religion and Christianization, Leiden 1993-1994, Vol. 1, p. 293), and the Life of Porphyry of Gaza by Marc the Deacon, of which Chuvin accepts the general veracity. This paper ends with some rather confusing remarks (pp. 27-31) on the complex relationship between culture and religion. In general P. Chuvin stresses that Christianity was, up to a certain level, reconcilable with Hellenism. This paper offers little new, but the remarks by the author are in general judicious.

Claire Sotinel discusses the methodological problems involved in the study of the disappearance of pagan temples (La disparition des lieux de culte paiens en Occident: enjeux et méthodes, pp. 35-60). She stresses in particular the variety of cultic sites that are covered by the term temple (private sanctuaries, oracular shrines, temples big enough to host banquets, etc.). This is illustrated by the example of the military camp of Bu Njem in Africa. She shows that the archaeological sources, often used to correct the literary sources, are themselves dependant on modern interpretative schemes and that it is usually rather difficult to prove that a temple was abandoned or restored. The destruction of pagan temples (not so widespread a phenomenon as it was once believed to be) was paralleled by their conceptual appropriation by the Christians: the destruction of temples became used in Christian stories and discourses as a symbol, or a re-enactment on a small scale, of the victory of Christianity over paganism. It figured as a standardized episode in hagiography; the hagiographers can be said to have actually constructed the pagan temple. Claire Sotinel illustrates this with the Life of Saint Martin by Gregory of Tours, in which she sees the starting point of this evolution in the West. Especially her point concerning the way paganism was imagined by Christian authors is a welcome reminder of the constructed reality one encounters in late antique Christian texts, which, e.g., F. Trombley had a tendency to overlook in his influential Hellenic Religion and Christianization (1993-1994).

In the most detailed and best-argued paper of the volume, R. Goulet attacks the recent hypotheses of P.F. Beatrice on the scope of the Contra Christianos of Porphyry (Hypothèses récentes sur le traité de Porphyre Contre les chrétiens, pp. 61-109), and does so in a very convincing way. Beatrice proposed to identify as authentic the Contra Christianos, the Philosophy of oracles, the De regressu animae, the Peri agalmaton and a few more treatises of this philosopher (see e.g. P.F. Beatrice, art. Porphyrius, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie Vol. 27, 1997, pp. 54-59). The anonymous fragments found in Macarius Magnes cannot, according to this interpretation, be attributed to Porphyry. R. Goulet, the latest editor of Macarius of Magnesia (Macarios de Magnésie. Le Monogénès, 2 Vol., Paris 2003) argues strongly in favour of the traditional interpretation, which sees the above-mentioned works of Porphyry as separate treatises and identifies the anonymous adversary of Macarius with Porphyry. He also shows that it is very unlikely that the anonymous anti-Christian philosopher mentioned by Lactantius (Div. Inst. 5.2.4-11) is actually Porphyry, as has also been argued by E. Digeser (Lactantius, "Porphyry and the debate over religious toleration", Journal of Roman Studies, 88 (1998), pp. 129-146, see now also "Porphyry, Julian or Hierocles? The Anonymous Hellen in Makarios Magnes Apokritikos", Journal of Theological Studies 53 (2002), pp. 446-502).

J. Bouffartigue addresses the question whether the Emperor Julian's neoplatonic ideas were a cause of his anti-Christian stance (Philosophie et anti-christianisme chez l'empereur Julien, pp. 111-131), a link recently doubted by R. Smith (Julian's gods: religion and philosophy in the thoughts and action of Julian the Apostate, London, 1995). Reviewing the evidence for Julian's conversion to Christianity, he suggests there was a link, and he argues that it is incorrect to reduce Julian's ideas to a simple aggregate of those current in his days and to deny a speculative tendency in the emperor's thought. This paper, which is judicious in its arguments and judgments, could have profited from an inclusion of more recent literature which bears on this interesting question (e.g. S. Bradbury, "Julian's Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice", in Phoenix 49 (1995), pp. 331-356; K. Rosen, "Kaiser Julian auf dem Weg vom Christentum zum Heidentum", in Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 40 (1997), pp. 126-146; Suzanna Elm, "Orthodoxy and the True Philosophical Life: Julian and Gregory of Nazianzus", in Studia Patristica 37 (2001), pp. 69-85). One wonders also why Polymnia Athanassiadi, Julian and Hellenism (Oxford 1981) is not mentioned, as her position on this point seems to be close to that of J. Bouffartigue.

P.F. Beatrice discusses the accusation of atheism brought against Christians (L'accusation d'athéisme contre les chrétiens, pp. 133-152). He shows that the meaning of the term atheos depends on its context (e.g. atheos as negation of the existence of god; atheos as the negation of the existence of pagan gods). He also underlines the Christian appropriation of this accusation that they turned against the pagans themselves. Although not uninteresting, this paper does not seem to offer more than can be found e.g. in the article Atheismus by W. Nestle (Reallexicon für Antike und Christentum, Stuttgart 1950, pp. 886-870), or in M. Winiarczyk's two articles "Wer galt im Altertum als Atheist?" (Philologus 128 (1984), pp. 157-183 and Philologus 136 (1992), pp. 306-310).

Drawing on his earlier work and on his extensive knowledge of neoplatonic philosophy and patristic theology, J. Rist offers a general appreciation of the relationship between Christianism and neoplatonism (Christianisme et antiplatonisme: un bilan, pp. 153-170). After a review of the positions of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine and Dionysius Areopagiticus, he concludes that the Christian platonists are platonists in the sense that they use those fundamental principles of platonism that are useful to defend the rational character of their beliefs. Christians enter the field of platonism to the extent that it is useful to defend the coherence of their thought or to criticize that of their adversaries.

In an interesting but not very clearly structured paper, Irena Backus traces the image of paganism in 16th century ecclesiastical historiography (Images du paganisme dans les Histories ecclésiastiques du XVIe siècle, pp. 171-195). She concludes that most historians tried to position themselves in relation to classical pagan historiography: Melanchthon and his followers by seeing Herodotus and Thucydides as the continuators of the biblical books, Baronius by using the Roman model of the Annales, and the Centuriae of Magdeburg by stressing the superiority of inspired church history over pagan histories. They were almost all driven by an apologetic concerns and they saw in the ancient pagans a prefiguration of the modern heretics.

This collection of essays is useful; it would have been better if all the papers had been as detailed and forcefully argued as Goulet's. Many papers give the impression of having been written just for the occasion and published without reworking. Some are at times very selective in their use of sources and modern literature. As a consequence, although most authors do address current issues in the research on late antiquity (especially P. Chuvin, Claire Sotinel, P. Goulet and J. Bouffartigue), the volume cannot be read as an introduction to current problems. It lacks coherence, and most papers actually deal with a very limited aspect of the relationship with Christianity and Hellenism, the opposition between Christianity and paganism.

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