Debate & Dialogue


Maijastina Kahlos (Doctor philosophiae, Institutum Classicum, University of Helsinki)
Research project funded by the Finnish Academy 2000-2005


The results of the research project are presented in the monograph Debate and Dialogue – Christian and Pagan Cultures c.380-430 published by Ashgate in 2007.







As the Roman Empire was gradually Christianised and the polytheistic religions were pushed aside, the problems concerning religious tolerance and intolerance, the fate of the polytheistic religions in the Christianising Empire and the fate of the Empire in general were treated both in pagan and Christian texts. Christian writers attacked pagans and their cults ferociously in several pamphlets and poems as well as in historical and theological works at the end of the fourth century and even as late as in the fifth century.

The research project Debate & Dialogue studies the relations and interaction between pagan and Christian cultures. The foundations of the European civilisation as we know it today were laid in Late Antiquity and early Middle Ages. The project endeavours to enhance understanding of the roots of the contemporary multicultural European culture and society. The project aims at widening historical understanding of the cultural conflicts and the otherness in world history and thus to contribute to the ongoing discussion about the historical and conceptual basis of cultural tolerance and intolerance.




The Christian apologetic literature against pagans at the end of the fourth century and in the beginning of the fifth century has often been interpreted (e.g. R.A. Markus, L. Vidman) as merely a conventional literary topos, ‘shadow-boxing’ against the receding paganism. Was the Christian polemics targeted against real pagan adversaries and did the anti-pagan literature reflect the religious circumstances of the turn of the century? It has been recently argued (e.g. R. Lizzi, M.R. Salzman) that the significance and vitality of the pagan cults during this period has been underestimated.

In my research project, I will set the Christian polemical texts in the context of the general cultural atmosphere of Late Antiquity. When Christian apologists are used as sources for information on polytheistic cults, extreme caution is needed, since Christian writers, understandably wished to present a picture of receding paganism. In my research on Christian polemics against pagans, I will discuss in what kind of religious and ideological circumstances Christian authors wrote their attacks against pagans and, furthermore, why it was so crucial for them to attack pagan cults so profoundly and which purposes Christian polemics served inside as well as outside the main stream Christianity.




The research project will probe whether the problem concerning the Christian polemic in 380-430 is even deeper and more complicated than a mere juxtaposition of literary topos and ‘real’ religious circumstances. The Christian polemic tells us more about the Christian authors and their Christian communities than about pagans and polytheistic cults themselves. In the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, Christian identity was constructed by polarisation and building up dichotomies between Christians and others.

The cultural heritage of the pagan past was problematic to Christian writers, and they had to define their relationship with polytheistic religions as well as with literature, philosophy, history and the old cultural structures in which they had grown up. They had to define what was to be regarded as Christian and what as non-Christian and what was suitable for a Christian and what was not. Could a Christian study Greek philosophy and read old classical literature without endangering her/his soul? Could Christians take part in ‘pagan’ festivals and ceremonies in local communities, and how should they treat the adherents of other religions, i.e., pagans?

This more profound and complex perspective is an innovation and improvement with which I attempt to overcome the limitations of the earlier mainstream scholarship. The writings of Christian authors were not always merely debate against polytheists but they were also dialogue with the ‘pagan’ past. Augustine’s De civitate Dei (City of God), for example, is this kind of debate and dialogue – on one hand an attack against old gods, on the other hand a fruitful dialogue with Greco-Roman cultural tradition. The Christian polemics in 380-430 continued the long tradition of the debate and dialogue between pagans and Christians. The Christian writers in Late Antiquity exploited the ancient traditions of classical literature and Greek philosophy, using the concepts from classical tradition. Nevertheless, they wanted to break away clearly from the pagan past, which naturally caused numerous problems and contradictions. One of my aims is to discuss how they attempted to solve the contradictions between their Christian faith and Greco-Roman pagan culture. I will discuss the Christian polemics as a part of the great ideological transformation which occurred during the fourth and fifth centuries: that is, the transition from religious pluralism and tolerance to a much more intolerant culture which has dominated the European civilisation to the present day.

The research project focuses upon moments of debate and dialogue respectively in Latin Christian polemics against polytheists, polytheistic cults and all the aspects and phenomena in social and cultural life that were defined as ‘pagan’. Various genres of Christian writing between 380-430 (and even beyond) are surveyed, just to mention a few here. Polytheists were rebuked in anonymous poems as well as in Paulinus of Nola’s carmen 19 and Prudentius’ Contra Symmachum. An anonymous writer, often called Ambrosiaster, reproaches pagans in his theological tractate Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti as well as Maximus of Turin and Zeno of Verona do in their sermons. Augustine of Hippo criticizes classical pagan tradition in several tractates and attacks the old gods e.g. in De divinatione daemonum (On Divination of Demons). The debate between pagans and Christians culminates in Augustine’s De civitate Dei in which he tries, not only to refute pagans, but also to convince hesitating Christians. Similarly, the church historian Orosius composed a history against pagans, (Historia adversus paganos). Christian writers, e.g. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Paulinus of Nola, also contemplate on their relationship with classical tradition in their letters. Many themes, topoi and binary oppositions recurrent in the Christian literature in 380-430 are compared with similar elements in earlier Christian apologetics as well as in contemporary Greco-Roman literature in general.

Because the project deals primarily with literary culture, rhetorical strategies and tools for argumentation and persuasion used in Christian polemics are surveyed and analysed intensely. A wide and profound interdisciplinary approach is vital for my research. Therefore, I combine the methods and approaches of historical research and classical philology and I aim to discuss the cultural and religious borders and question their relevance in scholarly discourse.

One of the cultural borders that I discuss and question is the pagan-Christian dichotomy. Modern scholars have often interpreted pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity in terms of this sharp dichotomy. Modern pre-understanding of ancient paganism and Christianity has been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and, thus, perceives ancient people in a modern Christian-centred way, dividing them into Christians (i.e. us) and non-Christians (i.e. others). The term ‘pagan’ has represented otherness in the Western culture dominated by Christianity. Christian writers of Late Antiquity sharpened the division between pagans and Christians because they needed to clarify their own identity. Thus, the history of the term ‘pagan’ illustrates growing Christian self-consciousness, and Christian awareness of being separate and different from other religions.

The pagan-Christian antagonism and the conflictual aspect in the relations between pagans and Christians have often been exaggerated in previous scholarship even though in recent Late Antique studies, some scholars have reflected upon the pagan-Christian dichotomy and have tried to break away from this binary model. Instead of pagan-Christian antagonism, there seems to have been a wide no-man’s land and ample room for uncertainty between explicit pagans and uncompromising Christians in Late Antiquity. In the Christian-pagan dichotomy, the concepts of Christian and pagan are interdependent; Christians cannot be defined without a conceptual opposite, non-Christians (‘pagans’). Therefore, both parts of the binary opposition have been fundamentally contaminated by each other; the Christian is always infected by the ‘pagan’.


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