The Pagans Are Coming!

A graffito mocking the crucifixion from third-century Rome (Photo modified from R. Lanciani, 1898. Public domain).
A graffito mocking the crucifixion. From third-century Rome (Photo modified from R. Lanciani, 1898. Public domain.).

If expectant parents can’t wait for their baby (FYI: I’m an uncle now) and anxious artists can’t wait for their next idea, eager writers can’t wait for their proofs. It’s like getting ready for opening night: taking the words backstage for hair and makeup, one more dress rehearsal. Next time? A live audience!

That’s how I feel having just gotten some proofs of my own. What’s the cause of such much excitement, you ask? The pagans are coming! But there are pagans everywhere already, I hear you say. In sexy course titles (“Pagans, Christians, and Jews”) and in well known books (“The Last Pagans”). So why make such a fuss? Turns out, this one Latin word—pagan—when it finally paraded onto history’s stage, it didn’t quite mean what we’ve been taught it means. (Hat-tip: The Princess Bride).

The usual story goes like this: When Christianity conquered Rome, the pagans stood by as all their beloved religious traditions came under attack or simply limped away, swept aside by the triumphant rise of Christianity. According to one book, these pagan men and women eventually came to see themselves as the last of their generation. Of course, for all of Roman history, these people had never really thought of themselves as pagans. As the great historian of the church, Henry Chadwick, once quipped, “The pagans didn’t know they were pagan until the Christians told them so.” That’s why other scholars, like Peter Brown, have christened the Romans of the later empire not the last pagans but the “first pagans.”

Academic hairsplitting? Maybe—if you think the word was originally invented as a way to talk about non-Christians.

What if, it turns out, the Latin word paganus, which can mean “civilian,” wasn’t originally meant to describe non-Christians at all? What if the word was actually meant to separate Christians from each other? What would that picture look like? On one side, there would be Christians who saw themselves as “soldiers” enlisted in God’s heavenly army. On the other, there would be all the Christians who weren’t militant enough about their beliefs (the “civilians”). The result? The birth of a hurtful label, born of the dynamics of this intra-Christian debate.

There would be other historical ramifications, too. Instead of dancing gingerly around notions of a Mediterranean-wide culture clash between “the Christians and the Romans” leading to the transformation of the empire or assuming that Roman religion died at a tragically young age or presuming Christianity outlived it because of its innate strengths, we might begin to see Roman history rather differently: a place where many Christians were arguing vociferously with each other not over points of Christology but rather over how to live in the messy, cosmopolitan world around them. Do we go to games at the circus which feature processions for the gods? Do we go to the theater where the gods are honored? Should we go to the baths, where the gods are honored, too?

Watching that conversation play out would make for quite a show. I think it also might help us see the politics of the fourth century in an entirely new light.

Opening night is almost here!

(The article, “Hellenistic ‘Judaism’ and the Social Origins of the ‘Pagan-Christian’ Debate,” is forthcoming this summer in the Journal of Early Christian Studies. Credit for this post’s photo suggestion goes to Felicity Harley-McGowan.).

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