From Defence to Assault

The Transformation of Polemical Strategies in Christian Literature in 300-340

Maijastina Kahlos (Department of Classics, University of Helsinki, Finland)

A research project funded by the Finnish Academy 1.8.2006 – 31.7.2011.


Some results of the research project are presented in the monograph Forbearance and Compulsion. Rhetoric of Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity, Duckworth: London 2009.


The conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E. has been marked as a turning point in the Roman history as well as in the phases of the western civilization. The Christianization the Roman Empire took rise in the so-called Constantinian revolution.

The research project From Defence to Assault contributes to the research of the religious and ideological changes that occurred in the Roman world in the course of the fourth century. It aims at tracing some fundamental changes in religious atmosphere, focussing on the transformation of Christian apologetics (literary defences of Christianity) into Christian polemic against pagans in 300-340.

Background and significance of the research

Christian apologetics has aroused great interest recently in early Christian and Late Antique studies. Just to mention some recent publications: Les Apologistes chrétiens et la culture grecque, éd. B. Pouderon et J. Doré, Paris 1998; Apologetics in the Roman Empire. Pagans, Jews, and Christians, eds. M. Edwards, M. Goodman, S. Price & C. Rowland, Oxford 1999 and Michael Fiedrowicz, Apologie im frühen Christentum, Paderborn 2000.

In the light of the recent scholarship, a re-examination and revaluation of different aspects and levels of Christian apologetic and polemical writing is timely. Recent research on identity and self-perception has widened the perspectives in early Christian studies. In addition, the new rhetorical wave in Late Antique studies has produced many fresh viewpoints. In scholarly analyses of religious history of the late Roman world, active competition and rivalry of religions have been stressed. Inquiries that take into account these dynamic views of religions and set Christian apologetic and polemical texts into the context of this religious situation are requisite. Thus, these writings must be tackled at many levels. With these innovations and improvements, From Defence to Assault aims at overcoming the limitations of the earlier mainstream scholarship. Except my previous studies on the field, Christian apologetic and polemical writings have not been researched in Finland. Therefore, it is also well timed to introduce these new approaches to Christian polemics into the Finnish scholarly discussion.

Previous research

My project From Defence to Assault – The Transformation of Christian Apologetics in 300-340 is the second part of the wider overall enterprise called Pagans and Christians in the Transition of Late Antiquity [Pakanat ja kristityt myöhäisantiikin murroksessa]. The first part of this enterprise is Debate and Dialogue that was funded by the Finnish Academy from Sept. 15, 2000 until July 31, 2005 (postdoctoral researcher post). The main task of this project, the monograph Debate and Dialogue was published by Ashgate in 2007.

Objectives and hypotheses of the research

The project From Defence to Assault aims at revealing and analysing the structures of the Christian polemical writing against polytheists and polytheism. The Christian apologetic works of the previous centuries argued for the Christian doctrine and existence of Christianity. Within and after the ”Constantinian revolution”, the Christian apologia becomes categoria, that is, a defence is transformed into an attack.

However, the subject is more complicated than a mere shift from a defence to an assault. Even the earlier Christian apologetics of the second and third centuries already contained aggressive elements in their defensive arguments in relation to non-Christian outsiders. Defence was closely linked with polemic and attack. Nevertheless, the fourth-century Christian apologetics turned even more frequently into polemic against polytheists and Jews as well as Christian sects that were defined as heretical. The polemical texts of this period are examined as a part of the dialectical turn in early Christianity.

In order to tackle the question of this transformation thoroughly, the project will survey and analyse Christian polemical writings both before and after Constantine, that is, in 300-340. From Defence to Assault questions the assumption of too great a rupture brought about by Constantine. For example, the above-mentioned collection of essays Apologetics in the Roman Empire. Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Oxford 1999 ends with the reign of Emperor Constantine, suggesting that Christian apologetic ceases with ”Constantinian revolution”. This view is not altogether satisfactory: it tends to observe the Christian apologetic as too narrow a concept. Debate and dialogue with polytheists did not cease with the ”Constantinian revolution” but rather continued transforming themselves when facing new kind of issues and problems in altered circumstances.

Apologetic writings are not a genre but rather a mode of writing or a type of argumentation that is found in a variety of literary forms. I have chosen to term these modes of argumentation as polemical strategies since defence and attack are closely related with each other.

Both Latin and Greek Christian writers of the period are surveyed and analysed within the cultural context of their time. The most important Latin writers are Lactantius (Divinae institutiones between 304-313 and De mortibus persecutorum between 313-316), Arnobius (Adversus nationes between 302-305) and Firmicus Maternus (De errore profanarum religionum in the 340s). The Greek authors to be surveyed are Eusebius of Caesarea (Euangelike Proparaskeue = Praeparatio evangelica between 314-323) and Athanasius of Alexandria (Kata Hellenon = Contra gentes between 328-337). The rhetoric used in religious legislation of the period is also analysed.

The Christian polemical writing in 300-340 continued the long tradition of earlier Christian apologetics. In their argumentation against polytheists, the Christian authors also utilized the tradition of Jewish apologetic as well as traditions of classical literature and Greek philosophy. Therefore, in examining the themes recurrent in the Christian literature in 300-340, it is important to be aware of the literary antecedents. The aim of the research project From Defence to Assault is to concentrate in the relations between pagans and Christians and, therefore, polemic against Jews and Christian sects that were defined as heretical are viewed only when they are utilized as comparative material.

Approaches and research methods

The overriding theoretical framework is determined by recent developments in the historical, literary, and social sciences (discussion on binary oppositions and dichotomous structures, discourse analysis, new rhetoric, research on images, discussion on identity and otherness).

The fundamental theme in From Defence to Assault is the construction of Christian identity through inventing, fabricating and sharpening binary oppositions. Thus, the project will discuss how the argumentation against pagans and the binary oppositions are intertwined with self-perception and self-affirmation. The hypothesis to be tested is that the literary evidence tells us more about Christian authors and their audiences and communities than about any polytheists or polytheistic religions themselves. The project will probe whether Christian polemical writings were intended above all to the internal audience within the Christian communities.

From Defence to Assault continues with the promising approaches of the preceding, now finishing project Debate and Dialogue. Binary oppositions, such as Christians – pagans, religio – superstitio, truth – falsehood, the one true God – the multitude of demons, served to create and reinforce the Christian self-identity. I will start with the assumption that in the search for Christian identity the pagans were a good enemy – particularly in the altered religious circumstances after the Constantinian revolution. Furthermore, I propose that the construction of Christian identity/identities was (and is) an ever on-going process. Particular attention is paid to the changed state of affairs. In the course of the fourth and fifth centuries and later on, Christian identity was continuously re-constructed by polarisation and building up dichotomies between Christians and others. Thus, I propose that the Christian polemical writings functioned as a tool of establishing and defining boundaries between Christianity and other religions. Christian opinion leaders also took a stand on the frontier crossing and trespassing. We also perceive the boundaries of religious ideology evolving constantly.

The project is interested in the presentation of otherness in Christian polemical texts but the attention is paid to the Christian authors themselves, not the pagans as such. One of the basic assumptions of this research project is that the image of the ‘other’ reveals more of the creators of the image than of the object portrayed. It is worth noting that much of what we ‘know’, for example, about polytheistic religions in Late Antiquity has been conveyed by Christian authors in their polemical texts. The idea of polytheist religious views as morally, spiritually and intellectually bankrupt asserted by Christian apologists, e.g., by Lactantius, was taken at face value and largely continued until the very recent religious studies. I propose that in constructing the otherness to suit their purposes, Christian writers operated by moulding the alleged views of the opposition into forms that the writers could then use to their own advantage.

Because the project deals primarily with polemical strategies, rhetorical techniques and tools of argumentation and persuasion used in Christian polemics are examined and analysed. The rhetorical approach was introduced into Late Antique studies by Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. The Development of Christian Discourse (1991). In the research of polemic between Christians and pagans, the rhetorical approach has been applied only by a few scholars, e.g., J.W. Hargis, Against the Christians: The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic (1999) in the polemic against Christians. From Defence to Assault aims at applying the rhetorical approach in the polemic against pagans. In such a reading, the researcher does not judge whether the version argued in the polemic is truthful or not, but rather observes the strategies that the authors make use of in creating their concepts of reality and silencing alternative interpretations. Therefore, this project will not study, e.g., why and how the conversion of Constantine took place but rather how the Christian writers used it in their argumentation, or, why and to what extent Christians were persecuted during the reign of Diocletian but rather how the Christian authors utilized the persecutions in creating and shaping Christian identity.

Expected results and their significance
The project From Defence to Assault aims at tracing some fundamental features and changes in the Christian thinking in 300-340. It will examine how Christian authors, in their Christian self-affirmation, wanted to present their religion as a unique, superior and separate from other religious traditions of the Roman world and how they in their part sharpened and indeed also created a view of a world divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is their interpretation of history that has still strongly been influencing our views of the ‘triumph’ of Christianity in the Late Antiquity and the defeat of paganism as well as our conceptions of polytheistic religions of the Roman world. The project endeavours to challenge these views and deepen the historical understanding of these views in unfolding the rhetorical strategies of the Christian polemic.

From Defence to Assault examines the relations between pagan and Christian cultures in the Late Roman Empire. The foundations of Christianity as we know it today were laid in Late Antiquity and this Christianity was largely based on the exclusion of otherness. The project aims at enhancing historical awareness of the roots of the contemporary European culture and at contributing to the ongoing discussion about the otherness, tolerance and cultural conflicts in world history.


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