BMCR 2018.05.49

Cristiani, Ebrei e pagani: il dibattito sulla Sacra Scrittura tra III e VI secolo

, Cristiani, Ebrei e pagani: il dibattito sulla Sacra Scrittura tra III e VI secolo = Christians, Jews and Heathens: The Debate on the Holy Scripture between the Third and Sixth Century. Judaïsme ancien et origines du christianisme, 12​. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. Pp. 276. ISBN 9782503575568. €90,00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at end of the review.]

Like so many volumes these days, this book is one of the outputs of a large collaborative project, this time on pagan-Jewish-Christian polemics and homiletics in the Latin fourth to sixth centuries.1 The topic is timely in the context of the renewed interest in Late Antiquity in general and in pagan-Christian polemics in particular.2

There are nine essays written in Italian, French, and English, more or less haphazardly distributed over three sections, “Contraddizioni bibliche e cultura pagana,” “Esegesi e polemica: Celso e Macario di Magnesia,” and “Ebrei, pagani e sacre scritture.” Sébastien Morlet, a specialist in Greek patristics, opens the collection with a discussion of the role of Scripture in anti-Christian polemic, from Celsus to Julian the Apostate, emphasizing those that focus on the absurdity of Christian myths and on their discordance within the Scriptures (διαφωνία). In Celsus’s attack on Christianity, scriptural contradictions play a minor role compared to the fact that they are absurd or have been stolen from other traditions, however the contradictions seem to have become increasingly important in the polemical literature. Morlet places these attacks of Christian texts in the Greek context of the use of διαφωνία in philosophical polemics and in that of the philological criticism of Homer.

Claudio Moreschini tries to reconstruct the North-African culture in the period by looking at four instances of pagan-Christian debate as witnessed in Augustine’s correspondence: the amicable exchanges with Longinus; the replies to the critique of church and Scripture in the correspondence with Deogratias and its relationship with Porphyry’s work; the exchange of letters with the pagan Volusianus and their mutual friend Marcellinus; and finally Augustine’s reading of local boy Apuleius and of Apollonius of Tyana. In all these exchanges the discussions are said to remain “calm and objective, an example for all kinds of polemics” (49).

In the third essay Alessandro Capone, an editor of Jerome’s homilies on the psalms, studies a number of sections in the saint’s Tractatus in psalmos, addressing objections that seem to find their origin in Porphyry’s philosophical critique of Christianity, but that turn out to be much older. Capone concludes that by the time of Jerome, the biblical criticism of Celsus and Porphyry had lost most of its bite.

Emanuela Saponaro opens the second division of the book with a return to the earlier period by means of a detailed and thorough look at the polemical strategies of Celsus regarding Jesus, God the Father, the Christians themselves, and finally the Jews and their own books.

Paolo di Giorgi contributes an essay on the figure of Peter and Paul in the polemical writings of Julian and in the work of the anonymous critic who is attacked by Macarius of Magnesia in his defense of Christianity. Earlier scholars have commented on the similarities between these two attacks, supposing a common source. In their treatment of Paul and Peter, di Giorgi also finds differences, with Julian showing more depth in his biblical critique. The two pagan writers do agree in their opinion that Paul, with all his rhetorical skills, is the more dangerous of the two.

Antonio Cataldo tackles the complex roles of the law, sin, and grace in Rom 5:20 that had already interested Origen in his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans and that the anonymous antagonist of Macarius made much of by reading the verse out of context. Yet the context itself was not unambiguous and it touches on Paul’s relationship with Jewish Law (and of Christianity with Judaism)—a relationship that can only be described by the useful phrase “it’s complicated.” This discussion is not helped by a careful survey of all the church fathers who wrote about the conundrum, but it is strange that Cataldo seems to assume that the difficulty has been solved in an interpretation that “we” all share.

The third and final division opens with Patrick Andrist’s essay on the role of Origen’s Contra Celsum in the instrumentalisation of anti-Jewish polemic. Central to this type of polemic are the testimonia —the sections of the Jewish scriptures that, for Christian authors, conclusively proved that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised messiah. This reading practice had roots in the earliest forms of the new religion, including the gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles. Exegetical proof from this form of “prophecy” seems to have been considered a reliable polemical weapon, implying almost automatically Jewish obstinacy in not recognizing the meaning of their own Torah. Christological interpretations of what became crucial Old Testament/Torah texts played an important role in the anti-Jewish comments of church fathers like Tertullian.

Giancarlo Rinaldi, author of the ground-breaking La Bibbia dei pagani, is a most appropriate person to give a survey of the childhood gospels found in Matthew and Luke, as well as the many apocryphal versions. These narratives were instrumental in the development of the devotion to Mary, but were also used by Jewish and pagan authors in their anti-Christian polemics (what the author calls the difference between “integrare” and “confutare”). One example is the conflicting genealogies of Joseph in Luke and Matthew, internal contradictions that pagan critics of Christianity such as the emperor Julian loved to point out. Because we know that there must have been a “divorce” between Christians and Jews, Rinaldi assumes that, like all divorces, it cannot have been “né indolore né troppo silenzioso” (190) and he looks at the infamous Toledot Yeshu and the two Talmuds. The conclusions of this most thorough of the essays in the collection remain tentative.

In the final contribution, Michael Ryzhik looks at the rhetoric of repetition in Bereshit [Genesis] Rabbah. This is an extremely technical essay about the role of the word atmaha in the different editions of this text, and probably an interesting contribution to Jewish studies (more specifically the interpretation of Torah) but without any discernable connection to the topic of this book.

Cristiani, Ebrei e pagani has a bilingual title and contributions in three languages, but it is a pity that the editors have decided to translate the word “pagani” in the title with the term “heathens.” The term “pagans” is difficult and problematic enough to describe Greek and Roman religious practices (always in contrast to Jewish and Christian), but at least the term in English doesn’t have the negative charge of the word heathen. 3 The editing in this volume is not always consistent; sometimes Greek and Latin passages are translated, but not always. Most of the time the English translations are adequate but not always idiomatic: expressions such as “the Prince of the Apostles” and “the Vicar of Christ” are less evident for English readers (Peter or Paul?) and especially the English of Ryzhik’s essay could have benefited from a few more rounds of revision.

Authors and titles

Prima Parte. Contraddizioni bibliche e cultura pagana
La discordance (διαφωνία) des Écritures dans la polémique antichrétienne de l’Antiquité, Sébastien Morlet
Pagani e Cristiani nell’Africa del quinto secolo: Agostino e i suoi corrispondenti, Claudio Moreschini
Sezioni antiporfiriane nei Tractatus geronimiani, Alessandro Capone
Seconda Parte. Esegesi e polemica: Celso e Macario di Magnesia
Les Saintes Écritures chez Celse : lexique et stratégies polémiques, Emanuela Saponaro
The figures of Peter and Paul from Julian to the anonymous polemicist in Macarius of Magnesia’s Apocriticus, Paolo De Giorgi
“So that sin might abound” (Rm 5, 20) in Macarius Magnes’ Apocriticus, Antonio Cataldo
Terza Parte. Ebrei, pagani e sacre scritture
Instrumentalisation de la polémique antijudaïque dans les apologies envers les gentils (s. II-IV). Le rôle pivot du Contre Celse d’Origène ?, Patrick Andrist
Vangeli dell’infanzia di pagani e guide, Giancarlo Rinaldi
Rhetoric means and strategies in the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, Michael Ryzhik


1. For more details on the project, see Marcello Marin. “Dell’intreccio fra polemica e omiletica nell’Occidente latino (IV–VI secolo),” in Forme della polemica nell’omiletica latina di IV–VI secolo. Convegno internazionale di Studi, Foggia 11–13 settembre 2013, eds. Marcello Marin and Francesca Maria Catarinella. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017, 11–15.

2. See in particular John Granger Cook’s two books on the pagan interpretation of Old and New Testament and Giancarlo Grinaldi’s two volumes on La Bibbia dei pagani.

3. In his Between Pagans and Christians, Christopher Jones has devoted an entire chapter to the words used by Christians to describe their non-Jewish adversaries and he remains hesitant about the term, but the word pagan seems to much more neutral than the loaded term “heathen.” See BMCR 2014.07.42.