They sure don’t make books like this anymore. This book is beautifully bound in coarse grey linen that is warm to the touch; the cover and the spine have a distinguished-looking maroon etiquette with the name of the author, the series title (“Quaestiones” without the pedantic ligature) and number. The publisher, frommann-holzboog (with admittedly somewhat dated lower-case) is among the most respected in the German-speaking academic field, which is less difficult if you can date the founding of your firm to the year 1727.
Winfried Schröder, the author of this book, is a most respected scholar. Between 1986 and 1998 he was editor of the final two volumes of the prestigious Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie; he currently edits a series of editions of clandestine philosophical literature of the European enlightenment. Most usefully, he is editor of a scholarly bilingual edition of De tribus impostoribus, an anonymous anti-religious tract of the same period. In addition he has published numerous articles and books on the role of Spinoza in the early German enlightenment, on “moral nihilism” and on the early history of atheism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The theme in this book is very specific, and it moves back, out of what must be the author’s comfort zone, into the early Christian centuries: the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, and more specifically the pagan philosophical criticism of Christianity and the relationship of these early anti-Christian arguments to the early modern critique of religion about which Schröder has published so much.
The book opens with a general discussion of the history of the problem of Athens and Jerusalem, the difficult relationship that created the presumed synthesis of Christianity and (pagan) philosophy and thus formed the ideological foundation of Western culture. According to the dominant view in the Western philosophical tradition, the church fathers, managed to incorporate Greek philosophy into the Judeo-Christian mindset without much difficulty, and so created an ideological construct that became and remains the basis of the Western view of the world. Schröder points out that this continuity thesis is much more problematic than commonly assumed, despite the fact that it is shared by most religious people today, including Joseph Ratzinger, who has claimed that Christianity is “the synthesis, transmitted through Jesus Christ, of the faith of Israel and the Greek spirit,” if it is not described as the “culmination of the whole of Greek philosophy “ in the title of an essay published in a fairly recent collection of German studies of the philosophy of the late classical period (quoted on p. 7).
What is left out of this traditional assessment is the original strong tension between Christianity and pagan philosophy, which is obvious when we read Tertullian’s sense of a chasm between Jerusalem and Athens (a feeling that was shared by the earliest church fathers).The sense of irreconcilable difference between Jewish and Greek ideas was also felt by the other party, notably in the work of the three pagan writers whose works have survived twelve centuries of censorship and selective copying, often against great odds: Celsus, Porphyry and Julian the Apostate. So after drawing the general outline of the question, Schröder devotes the second chapter of his book to a detailed discussion of the availability of the surviving texts of these early anti-Christian polemicists to writers in the early modern period. He finds that these basic works were accessible in roughly the same fragmentary form that we have today, but that they were often seriously misunderstood by writers who did not and could not understand the true impact of their philosophical arguments.
In the third chapter Schröder moves to a discussion of the most important characteristic of the ancient anti-Christian polemic: the philological and exegetical critique of the Bible and of Christianity’s exclusive claim to truth. Both in England and in Germany, early modern writers such as Anthony Collins and Hermann Samuel Reimarus found in the work of these three philosophers arguments for their own critique of the Bible. It is only in the space cleared by these ancient authors that modern historical-critical biblical scholarship would become possible. The author here might have mentioned how the competition between Catholic and Protestant bible scholars (and between different Protestant confessions) also had an important impact on the development of such modern scholarship.
The long central fourth chapter constitutes the core of the book. Schröder looks at the central texts of the three philosophical critics of Christianity, focused on three major points of criticism. The first deals with the question of blind faith: what is it that makes a religious doctrine true, why must we believe in it and what happens to those people who do not or do not completely agree with the resulting set of true doctrines? The second problem is that of miracles: what role and function do they have in Christianity and in the contemporary pagan world in which the early Christians were trying to find a place? What arguments did the pagan philosophers have against the Christian belief in miracles? A third problem is ethical: Christians propagated a different set of morals than was customary or even acceptable in antiquity. The author looks at poverty, humility and turning the other cheek and then studies those aspects of Christian morality that were most alien to these philosophers: the value of moral activity as opposed to the Christian idea of ethics as a gift from God, an idea of which Cicero had written in De natura deorum that nobody had ever thought of it (Schröder, p. 205).
In each of these separate sections Schröder discusses first what the common view on the subject was in the major philosophical schools active in the period of the first few centuries of the common era. Then he studies the biblical view, discussing, sometimes in detail, the most important passages in scripture that deal with the issue at hand. Only then does he present the polemical reactions of the pagan philosophers, usually followed by the arguments against Celsus, Porphyry and Julian of the church fathers. Finally he turns to the later clandestine literature that he knows so well and to the relevant enlightenment writers and philosophers who have written about the issue. In some cases he even includes arguments by modern and postmodern theologians.
In a concise conclusion he brings all of the arguments together in order to show, first, that the presumed synthesis between Athens and Jerusalem was always much less harmonious than we have wanted to believe and, second, that the strong anti-religious and anti-Christian arguments of the enlightenment had most certainly been prefigured by these earliest of the anti-Christian writers.
The book closes with a battery of appendices. First we have 40 pages of separate bibliographies: of the late classical writers (editions of the primary texts and secondary bibliography on their work); the works of the late classical authors in editions of the fifteenth to the eighteenth century; works by writers of the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and secondary literature on the later period.
The index is equally elaborate and helpful: first a subject index; then an index of biblical passages; a list of anonymous writings; an index of mythological, biblical and literary figures; and finally an index of names.
This is a highly sophisticated and thoroughly documented historical study that is also an exciting and enjoyable read. We should cherish books like this, because they sure don’t make a lot of them anymore.