Christians Reading Pagans — Part 1

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The Early Latin West:

Tertullian, the irascible third century African church father, famously criticized the use of pagan literature by Christians with a terse question: quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis? (1). He continues in this splenetic vein for some lines, concluding, in words eerily reminiscent of a modern fundamentalist, Cum credimus, nihil desideramus ultra credere (2).Of the early fathers, another north African, Augustine, made his own highly influential and sustained attack on the Christian use of pagan literature. In the Confessions he describes his encounter with the Aeneid in terms both tragic and deeply ironic:

. . . better, because more certain, were [the study of] the first letters, than those studies by which I was compelled to learn of the wanderings of an unknown ‘Aeneas,’ all the while oblivious of my own wanderings from you; and to weep for the dead Dido, because she killed herself for separation from her love, when meanwhile I, dear God, I most wretched, bore with dry eyes the fact that, by my wanderings, I myself was dying, separated from you who are my life. (3)

Augustine went on in other works to imagine a Christian culture that would replace the cultural paganism still dominant in the officially Christian Roman Empire of the fifth century. In education, he thought, the pagan classics such as the Aeneid and manuals of rhetoric by Cicero should be replaced with the Scriptures and Augustine’s own guide to preaching, de doctrina Christiana, just as Dominica should replace the pagan dies Solis as the name for the first day of the week (4).

Anyone who has spent time in a contemporary classical Christian school knows that Augustine’s advice has not been heeded. The Aeneid is a frequently read and even celebrated text, both in the original Latin and in translation. The works of Hesiod, Homer, Cicero, and other unabashed pagans are similarly honored in classical curricula. The strangeness of this juxtaposition never really occurred to me until I taught tenth grade humanities, which included a full reading of Augustine’s Confessions. When we got to the section quoted in the first paragraph of this essay and began discussing it, the students asked a rather pointed question: “this is a Christian school — so, why do we read books by pagans?” A good question, one that I have pondered now for several years.

The answer is rather complicated. There has never been one, canonical attitude toward pagan literature within the Christian tradition: only varying patterns of reaction ranging from open rejection to open admiration, embracing many more ambivalent responses in between (5). To make things more complicated, in this realm practice and theory were often unaligned. In their pronouncements, the church fathers tended to decry the pagan myths as lies and to encourage scriptural education instead. Yet these same church fathers and doctors, even late into the medieval period of both east and west, continued to be educated in the Greek and Latin pagan classics respectively. Rarely did they renounce their education in such a way as to stop making use of it: allusions, homages, oblique puns, and altered quotations to Homer, Aeschylus, Ovid, Virgil, and others, sprinkle their writings like warm and familiar spices.

In a short series of forthcoming essays (to which this serves as an introduction), I will be exploring some of the varying responses to the question of pagan literature in different periods of the Christian tradition, both eastern and western. Anyone who reads the great pagan classics with sympathy and understanding will inevitably sense their beauty and wisdom, which is, at root, the source of their perennial appeal. That Christians continue to engage these texts two thousand years after the birth of Christ is my primary piece of evidence for their enduring relevance. However, the reasons why these blatantly pagan works were not destroyed in the bonfires that consumed the works of Arius, Nestorius, and other heretics, have rarely (if at all) been articulated. In these short explorations on a knotty, complex theme, I hope to unwind a few minsuderstandings as well as point out where some of the threads take us if we follow them to their conclusions.

Related Course:

Myth Made Fact


  1. “What is Athens to Jerusalem?” or more literally, “what is common to both Athens and Jerusalem?” De præscriptione hæreticorum VII.9.
  2. “When we believe [in the Gospel], let us seek nothing else beyond believing.” Ibid, VII.13.
  3. meliores, quia certiores, erant primæ illae litteræ . . . quam illae quibus tenere cogebar Aeneæ nescio cuius errores, oblitus errorum meorum, et plorare Didonem mortuam, quia se occidit ab amore, cum interea me ipsum in his a te morientem, deus, vita mea, siccis oculis ferrem miserrimus. Confessiones I.xiii.20. The translation is my own.
  4. Interestingly, in the modern Romance languages, as well as in modern Greek, the name for the first day of the week is Christian in character. The Latin dominica and its modern descendents such as the Spanish domingo all mean “the Lord’s day” (the Greek name, with the same meaning, is Kyriaki). The Germanic languages, including English, all still keep the pagan dedication of the first day to the sun god.
  5. This is true of both pre-Christian philosophy as well as literature, although our focus here is literature.

Author John Carr, after attending the Graduate Institute at St John’s College, taught humanities, Greek, and Latin for several years in classical schools.  He recently left a homestead in the Green Mountains of Vermont to travel full-time with his family. 

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