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Early Christianity and Pagan Thought: Confluences and ConflictsAuthor(s): Marcel SimonReviewed work(s):Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 385-399Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20005092 .Accessed: 25/01/2012 06:05
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Rel. Stud. 9, pp. 385-399
MARCEL SIMON Professor of the History of Religions, the University of Strasbourg
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT: CONFLUENCES AND CONFLICTS
'What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What accord is there between the Academy and the Church? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who has himself taught that the Lord must be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with those who have brought forward a Stoic, or Platonic or dialectic Christianity. As for us, we need not be concernedtoknow anything but Jesus Christ, in quest of anything but the Gospel. Inasmuch as
we have faith, we need not believe anything else." Such are the thoroughly uncompromising terms in which, about the year 200, Tertullian defined an entirely negative relationship-what he at least considered the utter in compatibility-of Christianity and pagan philosophy.
About 50 years earlier, however, another representative of Christian apologetics, Justin Martyr, had spoken on the same subject in a totally different tone. 'Not only among the Greeks, through Socrates' teaching, has the Logos spoken forth the Truth; the Barbarians themselves have been enlightened by the same Logos, endowed with a tangible form, made man, and named Jesus Christ.'2 There is no longer any opposition here, rather harmony and somehow a providential continuity. Greek philosophy is, so to speak, a form of 'pre-Christianity', or a way towards Christianity. It contrib utes its own glimpses of revelation, before the complete revelation which shines forth in the person and message of Christ. We are not straining Justin's thought if we apply to philosophy what St Paul said of the Jewish dispensation: it is 'a schoolmaster unto Christ.'3
Those two views, however contradictory, are interesting for us inasmuch as they express, in particularly forceful terms, the great fascinating problem of the relationship between early Christianity and pagan thought. It goes without saying that I have no intention of handling it here in all its formid able complexity. My only and more humble concern is to offer a few random reflexions and considerations on some of its aspects.
The first question to be asked is how the contemporaries of Tertullian and Justin or, to put it more generally, the intelligentsia of the ancient world regarded Christianity. Does the opposition lie, as Tertullian suggests, between philosophy and something which condemns it radically, between
1 De Praeser. Haeret., 7, 9-13; cf. Apol., 46, i8. 2 I Apol. 5, 4. a Gal. 3, 24.
q86 MARCEL SIMON culture and anti-culture, between the intellectuals and the simple-minded? Or has paganism somehow been vanquished with its own weapons? What is the exact meaning of that conflict, and consequently what are the reasons for the Christian victory?
At first sight, and if we take into account the actual relationship between the ancient Church and the pagan world, from the beginnings of the Christian era onwards to Diocletian, we might feel tempted to conclude that, un deniably, those two confronted forces had nothing in common at all. The opposition between them-even if we leave aside the phases, in fact com paratively short, of violent and general persecution-cannot be ignored. It would be imprudent, though, to take the peremptory statements and verbal exaggerations of the hot-blooded Tertullian too literally. Once we have taken into account his fighting instincts, and the rhetorical devices which he handles in a most successful way-a field, by the way, in which even he proves to be dependent on Graeco-Roman culture-his declaration, put into more serene, less consciously aggressive words, presents a difference which nobody, either nowadays or at the time, would dream of denying: Chris tianity indeed, even though expressed in Platonic or Stoic terms, is different from Platonism and Stoicism. And the reason why the efforts made by Justin and the apologists of the irenic tendency have proved at first useless was that their pagan interlocutors were mostly aware of contrasts and oppositions.
But we must be careful. To anyone who closely analyses the complaints against Christianity in ancient texts, it will be clear that its main short
coming in the eyes of a Greek or a Roman is that it deviates from usual standards of behaviour. It is upbraided for its novelty and exclusiveness much
more than for its doctrinal contents. 'Molitores rerum novarum', instigators of novelties and revolutionaries, thus does Suetonius depict the victims of what is commonly known as the persecution of Domitian.1 Of course the imperial position-whether of Domitian, 'the second Nero', or Trajan 'optimus
princeps', is not necessarily the same, as far as Christianity is concerned, as that of cultured people. What emperors really fear from the expanding
Church is the undermining of established order. Their hostility rests on
political as well as on religious grounds-to the extent that the two
elements can be dissociated in the Roman Empire. What disturbs them is that Christianity deliberately stands aside from the Roman way of life, refuses to submit to the normal gestures commanded by loyalty to the State
and to the dynasty, gestures, that is, which happened-at least originally-to have a religious import. In that respect Christians, who shun the rites of the
imperial cult-even though these are hardly more than formal-appear to
the Roman authorities as innovators and revolutionaries. But the same complaint is to be found in the writings of the intelligentsia
1 Suetonius, Domitian, IO.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 387
and it would be dangerous to put down that similarity to mere flattery and court manners. In fact it would be misunderstanding the strength of con servative and traditional forces, not only in leading political circles or socially privileged groups, but also among the learned elite. The 'mos
majorum' is of enormous weight in the way pagan thought works, since it implies, as well as the bond and foundation of society, a common fund of
wisdom amassed in the course of centuries. The apologist Justin bitterly reproaches his enemies with giving precedence to tradition over truth, Tra sOr 7rpO rTTj a'AXOE1aST tq.aTE.1 We know, thanks to a large number of testimonies, that it was indeed a widespread tendency among intellectuals at that time to regard tradition in some measure as a criterion of moral and intellectual truth, and undoubtedly as that of good manners. According to Celsus, later refuted by Origen, 'a philosopher must keep to the customs of his country. Everybody must accept the laws and religion of his own country'.2 And since, at that time, political unity and cultural and intellectual syncretism had to a large extent blurred national differences within the Empire, it is to the com
mon heritage of Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman culture that general loyalty is demanded. Only the Jews are officially free from that duty which befalls every man both as a citizen and as a gentleman-and the reason for that privilege is that they still have their own traditions, firmly grounded in a country and a people, whose antiquity they can prove. This is something
which the Roman mind appreciated, and which largely contributed to the recognition of Judaism as 'religio licita'. The Jews might be despised or even hated: at least they had a past, a lineage, whereas the Christians who had just appeared in the world and boasted of belonging nowhere, of being free from all territorial or national boundaries, could not claim the same privilege. They have not been content with forsaking the rites and beliefs of paganism: they have also adopted those of the Jews only to forsake them in their turn. So they are guilty of a double offence against tradition, as well in the mind of Celsus as in that of the Emperor Julian. Setting aside their forefathers' heritage, they have produced a new cult.3 This, for such an unrelenting conservative as Julian, is the most grievous of all crimes.
We do indeed find in pagan thought a few qualifications or critical remarks, here and there, respecting the notion of tradition as the touchstone of ethics and truth. Julian reminds us that it was because Socrates had expressed them too roughly that he was condemned as an innovator and revolutionary, and accused of attempting to set up new divinities, Katva ELcYIEpELV
I Lq.tovLa.4 This is a precedent often invoked by Christian apolo
gists, who have frequently mentioned Socrates as their patron, a sort of pagan saint and forerunner of Christianity. But Socrates' case is an exception. He belongs to an already remote past. The political conditions of his time account
1 IApol. 12,6. 2 Origen, Contra Cels., 5, 27. 3Julian, Contra Galil., ed. Neumann, pp. 207 ff. 4 I ApoI., 5, 3 -
388 MARCEL SIMON for a condemnation which, in different conditions, would probably not have been passed. Others, later on, have called in question the soundness of the reliance on tradition and legality, other thinkers have opposed it. But they have generally done so in a very discreet and limited way. Cicero for one states that 'it is absurd to regard as right whatever is settled by national institutions and laws';' but he none the less turns to the Roman past and tradition as soon as he is in search of remedies for contemporary evils. And he never dreams of actually forsaking the cultural, political and spiritual heritage of Rome, just as unbelieving Romans-of which there was a rather large number in the last years of the Republic-never dreamed of shunning the rites of traditional religion. In fact, Christians alone, after the case of the Jews (but without the impunity which Jews enjoyed owing to their official status), bring to their logical conclusion their criticism of tradition and its practical consequences.
In the so called Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, in a particular passage whose Jewish origin is almost certain, Apion, the mouthpiece of pagan ideals, for whom 'it is most impious to forsake the customs of one's ancestors in order to take up barbarous manners', is answered by Clement, the exponent of
Christianity to the effect that 'one must not try at all costs to keep the cus toms of one's ancestors. They are to be retained if they are in accordance with piety, and rejected if they are not So'.2 And Clement goes on thus: 'There is a great difference between truth and custom. For truth, when it is genuinely sought after, cannot but be discovered in the end, whereas inherited custom
whatever its nature, whether it rests on truth or error, grows firmer by itself without the help of meditation. The man who has inherited it neither re joices in its veracity nor laments its falsity. It is not owing to a decision, but to a preconceived opinion, that he submits to that custom: chance alone makes him rely for his personal hope on the feelings of his forefathers. We cannot easily put away our ancestors' clothes, even when we are clearly made to
realise how foolish and ridiculous they are.'3 No text, in my opinion, better sets off the fundamental difference which
places early Christianity in opposition to pagans, even the learned ones. The latter, even though critical or ironical, go on complying with the rules of social and religious conformity. Christians on the other hand show in their behaviour their intellectual condemnation of received tradition. More precisely they refuse to comply with it as far as the cult is concerned and resist integration into that universal syncretism into which some had been ready to admit them. Thus the Emperor Alexander Severus is said by his biographer to have worshipped in his private oratory pictures of Abraham and Jesus next to those of Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana.4 As to the intellectual aspect of Graeco-Roman tradition, they look at it critically,
1 De Legibus, I, 15, 42. 2 Homilies, 4, 74.
'3 Homilies, 4, I I. 4 Hist. Aug., Severus Alexander, 29.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 389
retaining certain elements, to which they appeal, and rejecting others. The criterion of their choice is the agreement or opposition which they think they see between those elements and the data of biblical revelation. All the efforts
made by Justin and other conciliatory or irenic apologists tend to sort out in the spiritual legacy of paganism what is valuable and in the last resort inspired, because it is derived from Moses, and what is the work of the demons.
But the same process of thought can be traced, with different motives and different conclusions, in a number of pagan minds. From that point of view the example of Celsus is again highly significant. When, in his wish to make clear his fundamental complaint against Christians-namely that they keep away from the common run-he comes to criticise the details of their doctrine, he attacks it first for being a barbarous and foolish doctrine, meant for uncultured people-which is, expressed in other words, Tertullian's opinion-secondly for imitating and misinterpreting the teachings of Greek philosophy-which is, also transposed in a hostile tone, Justin's viewpoint. But in the religious and philosophic tradition of paganism, Celsus too, just like Justin, makes a choice. It is indeed well worth recording the fact that part of his criticism reflects, quite explicitly at times, on certain aspects of contemporary paganism, no less than on Christianity. Thus, when he likens the Christians to those who, 'in Dionysiac mysteries, scare those present by fake apparitions of ghosts and spectres',' the whole of the mystery paganism of oriental religions is in view. When he rejects both the Virgin birth of Christ and his resurrection, he refers by name to several mythological episodes, which are thereby rejected and condemned at one and the same stroke, and shown to deserve no more credit than the Gospel narratives. But, beyond everything else, there is implied, in his criticism of the funda mental Christian doctrine of Incarnation, a formal repudiation of a whole mythological corpus: 'If the Christians maintain that a deity, or the son of a deity, is come down on earth, or is about to come, that, of all their pretences, is the most shameful and needs no long argument to refute. What can such earthly journeying mean for a deity? Is it anxiety to learn how fares the
world of men? But isn't he omniscient? And is he powerless, almighty as he is, to improve that world without sending forth such an agent ?'2 To be sure, classical mythology knew of many divine visitations to this lower world.
Most Olympians, starting with Zeus himself, showed a great fancy for this earth of ours, for reasons not always reputable. Admittedly, theirs is a different case from Incarnation, in its Christian acceptance. Nevertheless, the objections raised by Celsus against a divine incarnation, in the name of divine omniscience, omnipotence and immutability, take in the myths of Graeco-Roman paganism as much as Christianity itself. 'Never did a deity, or
1 Origen, Contra Cels., 4, 10. 2 Contra Cels., 4, 3-5; cf. P. de Labriolle, La Rdactionpaienne, Paris, 934, pp. I 19 if.
390 MARCEL SIMON
his son, actually come down on earth, never will or can he.'" If therefore Celsus undertakes, in the name of tradition, culture and civility, to cham pion his fathers' religion, it is not until he has largely made it free from impurities in the course of a rationalism which, in point of fact, still remains rather tentative. And it has been pointed out more than once that, over and above their antagonism, Celsus and Origen, in their criticism of pagan beliefs, often come very close to each other in their judgment of things.
Besides, neither Celsus' criticisms, nor a fortiori the Voltairian irony and total scepticism-in appearance at least-of Lucian of Samosata, can be taken as fully representative of pagan thought in the second century. Both
men are, despite some differences, 'esprits forts'. But the semi-rationalism of Celsus combines itself, as best it can, with a largely platonising philosophy. Thence, at times, strains of sincere piety at which Origen marvels, for instance in such lines as these: 'We should never cut ourselves from God, either by night or by day, in public or in private, in any of our words or acts ... The soul must at every minute tend towards God ... As for those
whose hope it is that their soul or spirit will jointly with God participate in eternal life, of those I say this: They are right in judging that whosoever lives a morally good life will be admitted to bliss, while the wicked on the contrary
will suffer everlasting pains. From belief in this, neither they nor anybody else must ever depart.'2 Admittedly, this statement occurs in the course of a critique of the Christian belief in bodily resurrection, interpreted in its most
materialistic acceptance. Still, it did impress Origen, who welcomed in it 'a few sparks of truth'. It is enough to prove that the affinities between the two
men are not restricted to their critique of paganism, but can reach deeper and be far more positive.
Meanwhile, however, Celsus had about him a number of pagans who were far more deeply religious than he. Just as they were, in certain respects, better prepared to contend with Christianity because, in the place of a mere negative and intellectual critique, they had the warmth of a positive faith to offer, they were also and ipso facto more feelingly drawn towards the Christian message and open to the liability of a conversion; for obviously, between the two types of religion, the odds were not equal.
For indeed, when we study the conflict between Paganism and Christian ity, we should not dwell exclusively on the most philosophical forms of pagan thought. Whether we think of platonism, stoicism, neo-pythagorean ism and, later on, neo-platonism or else-to take the most common type of
thought towards the beginning of our era-a more or less happy blend of various traditions-they all of them alike represent a minority. The bulk of believing and practising religious people either had but a veneer of theology, or were completely innocent of any. The haughty criticisms of Celsus, a
1 Contra Cels., 5, 2. 2 Contra Cels., 8, 63 and 49; de Labriolle, op. cit., pp. I32-I33.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 391
scholar, relate, as already mentioned, no more to Judaism and Christianity than they do to several of the more vivid forms of pagan religiousness. His contempt for the rank and file and for whatever comes from the East strikes at the best part of his co-religionists, particularly the mass of those who, to a greater or lesser extent, welcomed the eastern creeds and rites. Contrary to what both Celsus and Tertullian, in their different perspectives, declare it to be, the antagonism between the learned and the unlearned is not a conflict between paganism and Christianity. It is much rather, within either of them, an opposition between the bulk of believers, hardly concerned with doctrinal statements, and the theologians, who endeavour to think out, as well as live, their creed.
And if even the theologians are apt to strike us as being fairly close to one another, then all the more will the non-dogmatists-whether from tempera
ment or avocation-who do not outline their creed with any degree of sharpness or accuracy. Above all it should not be forgotten that, within the syncretism-the constant give and take between the most varied rites and creeds which, more than anything else, marks out paganism in its decline the oriental elements are the more important ones; and they are closer to
Christianity, in every respect, than the specifically Graeco-Roman forms of religion, or the traditional philosophical schools. There lies the real conflict, far more than between Christianity and the philosophers proper who, in the second and third centuries, seem to be a very small minority whose thought only carried a measure of influence when combined with an alien element which, precisely, is oriental religiousness. That fact must be borne in mind if we are to get at the real significance of the conflict and at the causes of the Christian victory, as they fall within the purview of the historian.
The time is past, undoubtedly, when specialists, following upon the somewhat rough conclusions of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, regarded Christianity as a kind of by-product of Greek religiousness, mystery religions, pagan gnosis, and hermetism; and as being, in the well-known phrase, a syncretist religion. We are aware, far more than our predecessors, both of how original is the Christian religion and how deep are its biblical and Jewish roots. Nevertheless, it is a fact that from the first, and within the borders of Palestine itself, it encountered the pagan world. And while repudiating every form of compromise, it failed to evade altogether the influences of its environment, just as had happened with Judaism, despite its strict monotheistic exclusiveness: witness, Philo.
It was not long before it found its recruits almost exclusively among the Gentiles, for Jewish converts had ceased coming over as early as the first generation. Now they, on entering the Church, had not quite put off the old man, quite changed their intellectual categories and their affective reactions, quite abjured their culture, with its inextricable mixture of religious elements. And eventually, interpreted as it was by former pagans,
392 MARCEL SIMON for other pagans, it was in terms easy for the pagans to understand, since largely borrowed from their own language, that the Christian doctrine became meaningful for a growing number of them. And of course, the linguistic affinities point, in several cases, to deeper affinities. A survey of paganism at its close leads us to endorse the statement made by Franz Cumont, whose unique authority in the field is universally acknowledged: 'Cette religion est plus eloignee du culte qu'avait pretendu restaurer
Auguste que du christianisme qui la combat.'" It is a well known fact that a craving for salvation and a concern with
eternal life increasingly seized upon pagan souls as the Christian era moved on. The self-dependent will of the sage, bent on achieving the perfect self control advocated by the Stoics, gradually gave ground, or at any rate claimed with ever-growing emphasis the support of what we, in our Christian language, refer to as grace. In that perspective, characteristic of all salvation centered religions, the notion of a deity who suffers and dies, so contemp tuously held up to scorn by Celsus, was undoubtedly highly familiar and acceptable: it dominated the theology of the mystery cults. Classical
mythology itself has similar examples to offer: Asclepios, Dionysos, Hercules are explicitly mentioned by Justin who, while rejecting them as legendary, turns them to pedagogical account, the more effectually to bring his message home to the pagans. 'When we say of the Lord, the first-begotten of God, that he was begot through no carnal agency, was crucified, died, and after rising from the dead ascended into heaven, we accept nothing stranger than your own story of the sons of Zeus, as you call them.'2 For him, those are nothing but tales, preposterous and immoral. For the pagan believer, the passion of Attis, Osiris, Hercules, while belonging with the remote origins of the human race, was felt as actual fact.
The claim has often been made that there was an unbridgeable gap be tween, on the one hand, the Jewish-Christian notion of Creation and the
Creator, and, on the other, the views held on this theme in pagan philosophy. This is true, no doubt, if you think of the pure Platonic, and the pure Christian, doctrines. But is it quite certain that the bulk of believers did clearly distinguish between creation ex nihilo, such as is taught by the Bible and the Church Fathers, and the Demiurge's shaping of a pre-existent timeless matter? The point may legitimately be raised when we see Justin
Martyr himself referring to the creative process in highly ambiguous terms, though not, it seems, from a mere desire to win over the pagans by matching his language with theirs, but quite sincerely.3
We are again very much aware nowadays-and a whole series of recent
publications has called our attention to the point-of the difference between the pagan philosophic notion of the soul's immortality, and the Christian
1 Les Religions orientales dans le Paganisme romain, 3rd. ed., Paris, I929, p. 327. 2 I Apol., 2 I, I. 3 Cf I Apol., Io, 2 and 59, I.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 393
notion of a bodily resurrection.' Celsus and Porphyry stressed it with all due emphasis, and heaped ridicule on the Christian notion. But a huge mass of evidence, both literary and epigraphical, proves that the early Church did profess or anticipate both a universal resurrection, followed by the last Judgment, and the accession after death, whether instantly or gradually, of the individual soul, now disembodied, into bliss. Conversely, if the bulk of pagan believers seem to have cherished a belief in some such bliss, bodied forth by celestial or astral immortality, let us not forget that the mysteries of
Mithra, traceable on this point to Mazdean Persian eschatology, set forth, like Christianity, both the doctrine of a reward immediately following death and that of a universal resurrection at the end of time. Now, a modi fied, laxer Mithraism is precisely that about which the forces of declining paganism tend to rally themselves.
Again, stress has often been laid on the clash-a drastic one indeed if regard is had to strict theory-between the more or less explicitly dualistic conception that obtained in pagan religiousness, essentially platonistic in inspiration, and the more comprehensive notion of personality which
Christianity inherited from Judaism. Pagan Hellenism, we are told, con trasts body and spirit, the former being regarded but as the prison of the latter, and consequently death is welcomed as a release, a liberation. But in
Christianity we find that the human person is spirit, soul and body and can only achieve perfect fulfilment, after death, when the spiritual element has again put on, not of course a fleshly garment, but still a bodily garment, the 'spiritual body' Saint Paul refers to: hence precisely the opposition between the immortality of the soul and the resurrection, as previously noticed. All this again is true so far as the theory goes. But can we be certain that the believers, in either religion, have at all points clearly distinguished between a disembodied soul and a soul that has assumed its spiritual body? Besides,
where the practical consequences of the doctrines are concerned, it is plain that the morals broadly held and taught in the early Church, which tended to mortify the flesh and resulted in some measure of asceticism, rested on at least relative dualism, which had found a first definite expression with Saint Paul and came fairly close, eventually, in spirit if not strictly in the letter, to pagan religious philosophies.
Take a last example. Emphasis has often been put on the utter opposition between Christian monotheistic theology, with its sharp distinction between Creator and creation, and pagan religious thought which, in so far as it effectually broke loose from polytheism, achieved nothing but a kind of pantheism, where everything dissolves into the divinely-pervaded unity of the cosmos. This again is perfectly correct, particularly where stoicism colours the religious thought-for regard should be had to the different
1 Cf. in particular 0. Cullmann, Immortalite de l'ame ou Risurrection des morts?, Neuchatel, Paris, 1956, whose conclusions, however, are questionable.
394 MARCEL SIMON
schools of thought. Even so however, not all evidence points the same way. Even with respect to the theologians of paganism, it would seem from differ ent sources that the views they reached as a result of their systematic specula tion were one thing, and the spontaneous reactions of their religious sensi bility or their actual devotional practice, another.
Though Christianity expels dualism from its theology, it allows some amount of it into its ethics. Similarly pagan thought, which very often dissolves the personality of gods and of God, yet as a rule deals with piety as if it were considering a personal God to whom the believer is bound in a personal relationship. In this respect the piety of an enlightened pagan is not as radically different as one might think from that of a Christian, though and such contrast must be stressed all the same-the latter professes and worships a single God, conceived as being personal and both immanent in and transcendent to the universe which he has created, whereas, when the pagan endeavours to reconcile the various elements in his spiritual heritage in one coherent whole, he cannot but waver between his ancestral poly theism, or a pantheism which is a mere interpretation of this, and the
monotheism towards which both his deep-felt aspirations and the whole movement of contemporary religious thought incline him. He can at one and the same time pay lip-service to the host of the traditional gods, deny them any personal existence, and worship one among them who is thus promoted to the rank of supreme and practically single deity.
Plutarch writes: 'There are not different gods for different peoples; not barbarous gods and Greek gods, northern gods and southern gods. But even as the moon and the sun shed their light on all men, even as the sky, the earth and the sea are for one and all, however numerous may be the names by which they are known, so there is but one Intelligence reigning over the world, one Providence which rules it, and the same powers are at work everywhere. Only the names change, as do the forms of worship; and the symbols which raise the mind towards the divine are sometimes clear and sometimes obscure." Fundamental monotheism and practical polytheism: for Plutarch did not go so far as a complete rejection of the diversity of cults and of divine names which he records with such lucidity. He too was a prisoner of tradition and simply endeavoured to give it an acceptable significance.
Let us refer in this context to Apuleius and to the well-known speech he gave Isis when in a dream she appeared to the central character in his novel The Metamorphoses: 'Moved by your prayers I have come to you, Lucius, as the mother of all nature, the ruler of all elements, the origin and
principle of all times, the supreme deity, the first among the inhabitants of Heaven, the uniform type for the gods and the goddesses. The glittering heights of the sky, the wholesome breezes of the sea, the desolate soundless
1 De Is. et Osir., 67, quoted by J. Reville, La Religion a Rome sous les Sve'vres, Paris, i 886, p. I 14
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 395
wilderness of Hell, I govern all after my will. I am the single power which the world worships in many shapes, by various cults, under various names. Phrygians, who are the first-born among men, call me the mother of gods, the goddess of Pessinunt; the native Athenians call me Minerva . . . But those men on whom the rising Sun-God bestows the first beams of his light, the Ethiopian peoples and the Egyptians who derive their power from their ancient science, honour me by the cult which is truly mine, and call me by
my true name: Queen Isis.'" I do not know of any text that is more striking and more revealing of the
religious mentality of an enlightened pagan at the beginning of the Christian era. Here one realises all the hesitations of a mind attracted in opposite directions. It is the true profession of faith of syncretism. It remains poly theistic: Isis is 'the supreme deity' and 'the first among the inhabitants of
Heaven', which means there are other gods, and in this very text the Sun God is mentioned. However, Isis is 'the uniform type of gods and goddesses', which implies apparently that the other deities have no actual existence, that they are but aspects, symbols or emanations of that 'uniform type' which is also the 'mother of all nature': these are phrases which sound pantheistic.
And monotheism is there too: Isis is the single power, numen unicum, which, behind the diversity of names given it, remains immutably identical to itself and which after all has but one true name. There lies the drama of late
paganism: wavering between traditional polytheism and pantheism, it professes a vacillating, unstable, virtual monotheism and, as it cannot sacrifice any element in its heritage, it vainly strives to reconcile notions
which are irreconcilable. It is hardly necessary to dwell on the handicap such an ill-assured, inco
herent thought was bound to be when facing Christian theology, soundly structured as it was and, besides, expressed in a language easy to understand for cultivated pagans who were perfectly familiar with the terms and ideas of divine filiation, logos, pneuma, to instance but a few fundamental concepts. Undoubtedly, as they were transposed into Christian theology they under went a change of meaning that was often radical. Nevertheless that common vocabulary was a link: it certainly made easier the introduction of the Christian message into the pagan world, and its final victory.
In this respect it is particularly interesting to see that, at first by a natural impulse and a spontaneous evolution, then by a kind of more or less conscious
mimetism-which was but a reaction of defence-pagan theology gradually got organised along lines that were ever nearer to those of Christian theology. I have studied the phenomenon in one precise case: that of Hercules. May I be allowed to borrow some data from that piece of research.2
1 Metam, II, 5. 2 M. Simon, Hercule et le Christianisme, Paris, 1955. Since my book was published, the discovery
of the Roman catacomb of Via Latina, where a certain number of episodes of the myth of Hercules,
396 MARCEL SIMON
When one tries to evaluate the respective popularity of the various pagan deities at the beginning of the Christian era, one cannot help being struck by the considerable importance given to Hercules. Leaving aside the deities of the mystery cults, and considering only the traditional Pantheon, Hercules is undoubtedly among the most popular gods, even in very different social groups. One is tempted to associate his popularity with the rise of Christianity, for it developed and grew more definite at the very time when the Church expanded its conquests. Quite a few elements in the Heraclean myth closely resemble features in the Gospel story, and that was noticed both by Christian apologists and by their opponents, and many centuries later the French poet Ronsard, in his poem Hercule Chretien delighted in analysing the similarities, and explaining them by typological exegesis. Also, in philosophical circles, especially among Stoics and Cynics, and thanks to an allegorical interpreta tion of his legend, Hercules had then become a paragon of the wise man and the incarnation of all virtues. Concurrently, philosophical thought endowed him with a cosmic significance. The Stoic Cornutus, giving an allegorical exegesis of mythology in his treatise Theologiae Graecae Compendium, shows
Hercules as 'the Logos infused in all things, which gives nature both its power and its cohesion.'" The same interpretation was taken up by his contemporary Seneca, when he wrote: 'Quid enim aliud est natura quam Deus et divina ratio toti mundo partibusque ejus inserta?'2 And among the gods whose name can be given to this ratio divina he mentions Hercules. In this truly pantheistic atmosphere the traditional deities were somewhat interchangeable and were eventually absorbed into the Cosmos. But as it was deemed to be historical, the figure of Hercules resisted that absorption. By presenting the gods, and with even greater justification the semigods like Hercules, as divinised human beings, euhemerism has unwittingly served the cause of the old religion.
If, as is generally assumed nowadays, Seneca the philosopher and Seneca the tragic poet were one and the same person, how characteristic it is to see him, in his Heraclean tragedies, give Hercules all the attributes of a histori cal figure, whereas in his doctrinal treatises he strips him of any personal character and reduces him to one aspect of the deity, of deified nature. Euhemerism and allegorical exegesis combine in a more or less coherent way, without the Ancients ever coming down to deciding between one and the other. The result with Seneca is a kind of outline of the doctrine of Incarna
tion. The ratio divina Hercules, the Logos Hercules became incarnate as the
amongst others that of Hercules bringing Alcestis back from the underworld, are represented among
biblical themes, has corroborated the views I had developed about Hercules as a rival of Christ. Cf.
the publication of A. Ferrua, Le Pitture della nuova Catacomba di Via Latina, Citta del Vaticano,
I960, which minimises the significance of these Heraclean frescoes; also my contribution, 'Remar
ques sur la catacombe de la Via Latina', to Mullus, Festschrift Theodor Klauser, Munster, I964, pp.
327-335. 1 Tlzeol. Graec. Compend., 3I. 2 De Beneficiis, 4, 7, I .
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 397
traditional Hercules, and it is in a way a work of redemption which he accomplished on earth and by descending into hell. He triumphed over evil and thus stopped the divine wrath about to crash down upon a rebellious creation:
'Pacata tellus, inquit, et coelum et freta; Feris subactis omnibus victor redi. Depone fulmen'.1
He thus addresses his fatherJupiter. The infernal powers are annihilated:
'Transvectus vada Tartari Pacatis redit inferis. Jam nullus superest timor. Nil ultra jacet inferos'.2
His death but crowns as it were his labours of redemption and it is with a song of triumph that his torments end:
'Agnosco, agnosco, victum est chaos'.3
The Christian overtones of these lines have often been noted. They are all the more remarkable as there has been no influence one way or the other: nobody any longer believes in the alleged correspondence between Seneca and Saint Paul; Seneca did not know the Gospels or the Epistle to the Romans any more than Saint Paul knew Hercules on Mount Oeta.
This striking convergence has undeniably contributed to the later fortune of Hercules by turning him into a kind of pagan replica of Christ. I cannot here retrace the developments of what could be called heracleology and served as a doctrinal basis for the cult of the hero. It flourished in the days of the late Empire, under the Tetrarchy and especially under Julian the Apostate. It is probably no chance happening if Diocletian, anxious to give the political regime he was setting up a sound religious foundation, placed himself under the protection ofJupiter, while he gave Hercules as a patron to his associate
Maximian. His choosing Jupiter is normal: the supreme god was protecting the supreme emperor. That of Hercules, picked among a crowd of other possible gods, marks a capital stage in the career of the hero. The association
of the two deities, one the son of the other, appears as a replica, and probably
not a fortuitous one, of the Father-Son group in Christian theology. H. Mattingly has put forward an hypothesis, which actually is more ingenious than convincing: in building up the Jupiter-Hercules group, Diocletian
would have hoped to win over the Christians; he would have offered them, in a syncretistic perspective, a kind of equivalent of their own theology.4 As it stands the idea is not acceptable. Yet I am coinvinced at least that Diocletian
in this case was subject to a more or less conscious Christian influence.
1 Herc. Oet., 794 ff. 4 Herc. Oet., 889 if. 3 Herc. Oet., 1947. H. Mattingly, 'Jovius and Herculius', Harvard Theological Review, I952, pp. 131 fE
398 MARCEL SIMON
Rather than being meant to attract its followers, his theological system may have endeavoured to resist it by borrowing from it the elements of a line of defence.
The Christian influence appears even more indisputable in the case of Julian the Apostate. There is hardly a doubt that here transposition and plagiarism were deliberate. In his eyes, Hercules was the model both of a wise man and of a sovereign. To the traditional feats which Hercules was credited with by mythology, Julian added others: Hercules crossed the sea dry-shod, an obvious transposition of the episode in the Gospel when Jesus walks on the waters. His interpretation of Hercules' character was directly inspired by Christianity. It is in order to make him the saviour of the universe that Jupiter begot his son; which he did through the agency of Athene Pronoia,1 who played a part very closely comparable to-and described in the same terms as-that which the Christian symbols of faith attribute to the
Holy Ghost. So that the divine triad thus sketched out closely resembles a Trinity.
The career of Hercules reached its zenith at that time. But it was an unstable triumph. For with Julian, as with all late representatives of pagan ism, he could not succed in compelling recognition decisively and exclusively.
He met mightly rivals on his way, and especially Helios, whom Julian himself set at the very heart of his theology and his worship and who, though unsuccessfully, tended to absorb the other divine figures, including Hercules, who were thus interpreted as emanations, personified attributes or symbols of a single god.
Here again we hit upon the drama of late paganism, which I underlined when speaking of Apuleius. The inability of Hercules, of Mithra-Helios and a few others to hold the first rank for any length of time simply reflects the inability of the old religion which-still partly caught in the paralysing trammels of polytheism-cannot reorganise and rejuvenate itself around a central figure. A choice had to be made, but it did not succeed in making it, being a victim to those habits, those traditions, that mos majorum which its spokesmen magnified. After having in some sort opened the way to Chris tianity by lending it a vocabulary and some concepts to define itself, pagan ism was reduced to a pale copy of the rival cult. The best in it, as regards forms of thought, was integrated into Christianity so intimately that even now there are still controversies about the heritage and the legitimacy of the association. I do not mean to enter into the dispute or to make an excursion into the realm of theology. I have tried to be a historian only. For the theologian the triumph of Christianity was the triumph of trutlh over error. In the eyes of the historian, whatever his religious option may be, it appears as the victory of a decidedly monotheistic thought over a virtual mono
theism, torn between polytheism and pantheism. It is also something more. 1 Contra Heraclium, I I.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAGAN THOUGHT 399
Alfred Loisy, at the end of his life, when he had become completely detached from Christianity, used to say that there was only one article in the Creed to
which he still felt able to subscribe: 'He suffered under Pontius Pilate': a statement, that is, of an unquestionable historical fact. The victory of Christianity over paganism and mystery religions is indeed that of history over myth and allegory.