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Polemic Rhetoric: The Formation of Christian Identity in Late Antiquity Part 2
This is part 2 of a paper I wrote, part 1 is here.
While Celsus attacked Christianity with broad strokes, Porphyry sought out contradictions in the religion. Porphyry of Tyre, a Platonist of the third century, wrote a scathing rebuke of Christianity, Against the Christians. Porphyry witnessed in person Origen’s preaching, he studied both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and found them to be lacking in “literary quality and philosophical sophistication.” Like Celsus before him, Porphyry also argued that the disciples wrote works of fiction. “The evangelists were fiction writers-not observers or eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. Each of the four contradicts the other in writing his account of the events of his suffering and crucifixion.” Porphyry shows contradictions such as different accounts of the crucifixion, what Jesus drank while on the cross, and the different last words before his death, many of these contradictions are repeated today by modern critics.
Porphyry’s critics bring attention to religious conflict, he simply does not reject and mock Christianity, he attempts, I think, to make the Christian religion appear as the hostile aggressor and traditional Greco-Roman religion more accommodating. Christian theology is monotheistic and also antagonistic to the polytheistic Greco-Roman culture. Porphyry writes:
Your idea of the single rule [monarchy] is amiss, for a monarch is not the only man alive but the only man who rules. He rules, obviously, over his kinsmen and those like himself. Take for example the emperor Hadrian: he was a monarch because he ruled over those who were like him by race and nature-not because he existed alone somewhere or lorded it over oxen and sheep, as some. poor shepherd might do. In the same way: the supreme God would not be supreme unless he ruled over other gods. Only this sort of power would do justice to the greatness of God and redound to his honor… Why do we argue about names? Is this [difference of opinion] not really a difference over names? The one whom the Greeks call Athena is called Minerva by the Romans, and she is called other things by the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Thracians, and so on. Is something lost (I think not!) in addressing the goddess by different names?
What is discernible thus far by these short examinations of Celsus and Porphyry is that both these intellectuals do not see Christianity as a valid religion or the Christians as pious people. Instead, they are uncultured, irreligious, lawless barbarians that looked forward to the end of the world (end of Roman rule over the world).
The charge of barbarism is a classic way to invalidate a person or religion – a common and easy rebuke thrown at the Christians. Stamenka E. Antonova notes, “Christian apologetic writings from the second to the early part of the fourth centuries address several charges that were leveled against followers of the emerging religious movement in the Roman Empire. Among the various allegations brought against early Christians is the charge of barbarism, which takes on a number of denotations in the Christian apologetic corpus.” Antonova’s position is that the charge of barbarism is best understood as a rhetorical tool aimed at the “marginalization and persecution of a minority group.”
While I agree with Antonova that on the part of pagan criticism, the deployment of barbarism is a rhetorical tool, it is not only a rhetorical tool. It is indeed something that Christians themselves had to reconcile in terms of their own identity and standing in Roman society. Being a new religion that originated at the fringes of the empire in the east, it would have to wrestle with Roman and Greek culture as it grew and came into contact with the dominant culture and its standards.
Barbarian derives from Greek and was used in classical times to signify everyone and everything that was non-Greek. The term still retained its signification for otherness in Late Antiquity. However, it now included the Romans in what was acceptable as normal, civilized, and cultured. The Christians did not fit well into these established categories; there was natural trepidation on religious grounds and group identity. The Church historian Eusebius wrote:
For in the first place any one might naturally want to know who we are that have come forward to write. Are we Greeks or Barbarians? Or what can there be intermediate to these? and what do we claim to be, not in regard to the name, because this is manifest to all, but in the manner and purpose of our life? For they would see that we agree neither with the opinions of the Greeks nor with the customs of the Barbarians.
Ultimately Eusebius accepts the barbarian origins of his religion while at the same time not claiming to be barbarian. It is not an identity one professes to be since it is a term of othering. He accepts the barbarian status of his religion to denote that it falls outside of the realm of normative Greek culture and then redeems that status, turning it into a good. In the end, Christians like Eusebius are neither Greek nor Barbarian – but something new. This turning of a bad into a good that Eusebius performs we have already seen before with Origen. Both these Christian writers aim to defeat their critics by not trying to present Christianity as acceptable according to accepted norms. They seek to turn what is bad or undesirable into something appealing. What is appealing, in the end, becomes accepted and valid.
Eusebius makes barbarism appealing by arguing that the Greeks themselves have found wisdom from the barbarians. Things that Greeks value, philosophy, and religious ideas originate from the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Hebrews. By arguing this, Eusebius tries to minimize the barbarian qualities that people find repelling. Using Eusebius’ logic, it is easy to argue and possibly win over an audience by reasoning that if the Greeks owe so much to barbarians, we should not reject what is considered barbarian because there is truth to be found. Christianity becomes a third option out of the Greek and barbarian binary, which seeks to be universal for all people worldwide. Going back to an early observation I had, the Bithynians in Pliny’s writings are shunned for their quasi-Greek status and are our first Roman source mentioning Christians. Christianity was able to appeal to others not firmly set in an accepted identity of the Roman Empire, Greek in this case, because the province is in the east.
As the religion grew and the faith gain more converts over the centuries, established identities and established traditions clashed in more prominent ways. Before the conversion of Constantine, Christians sought to be understood, but after Constantine’s conversion and with imperial support, Christians didn’t quite feel the need to explain themselves anymore. They sought to impose their will on others. As a result, you have increased conflict, which appears in our written sources in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Much of the religious conflict between Christian and Pagans stems from unreconcilable theological differences. While many if not all Christian leaders benefited from a Greek education, studying philosophy and rhetoric, and living in a polytheistic dominant society – they rejected polytheism. For Christian hardliners, this rejection was not as simple as avoiding polytheism (avoid temples or festivals, for example) and coexisting with polytheists – their rejection was done through condemnation of polytheism. Fundamentally, for the Christian leaders, gods such as Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, or Aphrodite were demons and the people who worshipped them were insane, inflicted with a mental illness requiring healing. Such an attitude is presented in the 5th century Christian Theodoret. In his Therapeutiké, the use of medical language is used to persuade his reader that Christianity is the correct way to heal a person of their wrong beliefs and practices. Conversion to Christianity is akin to healing from a disease, the disease, in this case, is paganism.
Rejecting the gods of the empire was not just a religious issue and thus a private concern between peoples; it had societal implications since it was these gods, the gods of the empire, that secured the empire’s continued prosperity. Refusing to sacrifice to the gods was a hostile act toward the empire itself. Though they refused to sacrifice to the gods, Tertullian argued that Christians were the best citizens because they worshipped the true God and that worship of the true God and this worship offered real benefit to the empire. Christians were instructed by leadership to be upstanding citizens, to pay their taxes, and show loyalty to the emperor. As Christians slowly became favored by the state through imperial patronage, it would be argued that Christianity is the proper religio of the empire, not traditional practices.
This back-and-forth battle over correct religio would be battled between Christians and Pagans. Each side viewed their own worship as proper religio and painted their appoints’ worship as superstation. The political implication was significant in this debate because in the 3rd century the issue of religion was closely connected with citizenship along with loyalty to the emperor. Romaness was defined by the civic religion during the republic and early empire. When Caracalla (198-217) granted citizenship to all free people it was granted based also on religio. It was expected that these new citizens of the empire would join in on the common worship of the Roman gods which secured the prosperity of the empire. Christians later on in the 4th century onward, the shift to Christian worship would underpin the religio of a Roman citizen.
Naturally, if one side believes their worship to be true and correct and the other is false and deviant there must be conflict and violence. While violence did occur, the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire cannot be attributed to violence as its sole reason for victory over paganism. In reality, there were more people who fell somewhere in the middle of things, especially with religion in the ancient world. While terms such as pagan and Christian make clear sense (at least we think they do) to us now, in the Greek and Roman world there was more inclusivity of religious diversity. A pagan was not expected to have allegiance to one particular god or cult. A pagan could be initiated into different cults and worship many different gods. This would cause problems for Christian thought leaders who worked hard to define Christian identity boundaries and what was acceptable. In doing so, Christians thought leaders constantly complained about ‘bad’ Christians who do not act properly and instead continue pagan practices and or attend pagan festivals.
These supposedly “bad” Christians highlight for us that at the everyday level most people didn’t feel they had to be a hardliner to be a “proper” Christian. They are acting as they always have, I reason, they didn’t feel they had to be hyper exclusive in day-to-day lives. Maijastina Kahlos coined the term incerti to describe these in-between people. Kahlos writes:
Incerti refers to those unclassifiable and indefinable individuals who appear in the grey area between hard-line polytheism and hard-line Christianity in Late Antiquity and who elude the rigid pagan–Christian dichotomy. First, the term describes the state of uncertainty – incertitudo – on the mental level of individuals. Second, it draws into consideration the inflexibility of classifications and the conceptual violence done to individuals by hierarchies. Second, it draws into consideration the inflexibility of classifications and the conceptual violence done to individuals by hierarchies. They are both-this-and-that and neither-this-nor-that at the same time. An incerta or incertus person does not cease being a pagan but she or he does not cease to a Christian either. Becoming a Christian did not stop an incerta/incertus from continuing to be a pagan and vice versa. Thus, there is no clear-cut choice between the two.
 John G. Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism, 103.
 R. J. Hoffmann, Porphyry's Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (Oxford University, 1994), PDF e-book, 16.
 R. J. Hoffmann, Porphyry's Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, 32.
 R. J. Hoffmann, Porphyry's Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, 84.
 R. J. Hoffmann, Porphyry's Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, 151.
 Stamenka Antonova, Barbarian or Greek?: The Charge of Barbarism and Early Christian Apologetics (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 14.
 Stamenka Antonova, Barbarian or Greek?: The Charge of Barbarism and Early Christian Apologetics, 16.
 Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica 1.2 Translation by E.H. Gifford 1903, https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_01_book1.htm
 Stamenka Antonova, Barbarian or Greek?: The Charge of Barbarism and Early Christian Apologetics, 195.
 Stamenka Antonova, Barbarian or Greek?: The Charge of Barbarism and Early Christian Apologetics, 200.
 Maijastina Kahlos, Heikki J. Koskinen, and Ritva Palmén, "Recognition through persuasion: An aspect of late antique religious controversy," in Recognition and Religion: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2019), 112.
 Maijastina Kahlos, Forbearance and Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 2009), 28.
 Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures c. 360-430 (London: Routledge, 2016), 31.