Gilles Dorival on continuities and ruptures between Hellenism and Christianity

In his contribution to a volume of studies edited by Arnaud Perrot (Les Chretiens et l’Hellenisme, Editions rue d’Ulm, 2012), Gilles Dorival turns to territory long familiar in academic discourse, the interface between early Christian thought and that of the surrounding Greek Hellenistic world. He is particularly interested in what he calls continuity and persistence, opposed to discontinuity, rupture and  novelty. For example, building on the work of Pierre Hadot, he points out that the manner of exegesis of texts practised by philosophers in late antiquity may owe something to the ways in which Christians processed their texts, rather than in the reverse direction, although the two systems attributed very different status to their texts. Pagan philosophy and patristic theology had in common a desire for assimilation with God, although the approach of the former was inclusive and that of the latter excusive. Christians took a decidedly dim view of classical paideia (a short work by St Basil that has been taken since the Renaissance to valorise the latter does nothing of the kind.)  The disappearance of bloody circus games had less to do with Christian laws than with an evolution of sensibility, and other developments are hard to sort out: did the value Christians accorded marriage and their forbidding of divorce cause men to respect women more, or give rise to hatred and violence within marriages? The disappearance of slavery is to be accounted for by an evolution of economic conditions rather than a desire to give slaves the same social status as other Christians, and the attention given poor people and foreigners was more of a Christian contribution.

As this brief summary suggests, Dorival’s discussion ends with the recitation of various points rather than offering a broad synthesis. But it has the merit of raising yet again the perennial question of the relationship between the two aspects of what the Germans call Antike und Christentum. Within the modern academy I suspect that scholars of the second have been more interested in the former than the reverse; it can be hard to get classicists to take seriously the fact that the New Testament is far and away the most influential book produced in their period. It will be a good day when Christentum will be seen as something that came about and developed within the ancient world rather than as something exotic and disruptive, a view that may involve adopting the stance of early Christian commentators to a greater extent than we should.

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