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“Pagan” Knowledge of Early Christian Texts

March 21, 2019

Scholars continue to probe whether and how early Christian texts such as those that make up the NT show knowledge and influence of “pagan” literary texts.  But far less frequently is the question asked whether literate pagans gave any attention to early Christian texts.  I confess that I’ve only recently come across an invaluable tool for addressing that question:  Giancarlo Rinaldi, Biblia Gentium: A First Contribution towards an Index of Biblical Quotations, References and Allusions Made by Greek and Latin Heathen Writers of the Roman Imperial Times (Rome:  Libreria Sacre Scritture, 1989).

After an extensive Introduction (in both Italian and English), Rinaldi lists identifiable references to, and/or uses of, biblical texts in pagan authors, 715 citations/allusions in all.  The references are listed in the canonical order of the biblical writings, starting with Genesis and extending on through Revelation, and even one reference to the Apocalypse of Peter.

Some 417 of the total are references to NT writings.  Of those that can be ascribed to a particular NT writing, 105 are to the Gospel according to Matthew, 16 to Mark, 41 to Luke, 64 to John.  There are another 60 references that are difficult to assign to any one Gospel, but definitely show an acquaintance with one or more.  There are, then, 110 other references to other NT writings.

So, the identifiable uses of Matthew are almost as many as the total number of identifiable references to the other NT Gospels.  This accords with the prominence of Matthew in other indexes of comparative popularity of the Gospels in early Christian circles too.

Each text in the book gives the reference to the classical author and the biblical writing, the Greek or Latin of the classical author, and a translation in Italian and English.  Indeed the bulk of the book (690 pages plus several indexes) arises from the helpful decision to give the Introduction and all other material both in Italian and English.

Building on Rinaldi’s catalog of references, John Granger Cook produced subsequently an analysis of the pagan references to NT writings:  The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Mohr Siebeck, 2000; reprint Hendrickson Publishers, 2002).  Granger discusses the use of NT writings in Celsus, Porphyry, Macarius Magnes, Hierocles, and the emperor Julian (often called “the Apostate”).

Various questions arise.  How did the pagan authors obtain access to early Christian texts?  Did Christians place copies in the various public libraries of the day?  Or?  Clearly, the pagan critics such as Celsus and Porphyry believed that a key part of their effort to refute Christians involved a critique of their scriptural texts, and these many references to NT writings are entirely for the purpose of pointing out alleged contradictions, or other intellectual problems.  (Obviously, one sees something similar today in some writers, in which critical issues are raised for the purpose of scoring points in religious polemics.)

But the larger matter is that, already by sometime in the second century (at the latest), various writings that came to form part of the NT were not only being read in Christian assemblies but were also being read by some pagan intellectuals of the day.  And the results may not have been only refutations of Christian claims.  Some scholars have mooted the possibility that Christian texts and idea had an influence in the wider religious and literary world of the time.  For example, some have suggested that Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana may have been shaped in part in imitation of the Gospels accounts of Jesus.

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  1. Hon-Lee Kwok permalink

    Thank you Prof. Hurtado for this helpful information and inspiring discussion.

  2. I recall reading the suggestion by a classical scholar (name escapes me) that the Greek novels were influenced by the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It is from the second century (?) onwards that “resurrection” scenes (they are always apparent resurrections, with natural explanations, like Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale) start appear in the novels. It sound plausible at the time but I don’t know how one could verify it. Of course, it would not necessarily imply knowledge of Christian writings, only of the Christian message. The same goes for Lucian, who obviously knew about Christianity but need not have had access to the texts.

    • I associate this suggestion with Jan Bremmer, or at least I first heard of it through him.

  3. In connexion with the Christian myth’s influence on Philostratus, the story of Buddha made its way through several regions, religions, and languages to emerge as the hagiography of Barlaam and Josaphat.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    That’s interesting, is it right that most of these pagan works are preserved inside, and reconstructed from Christian texts such as Contra Celsus and so on? I wonder which of these pagan texts have survived independently of Christians.

    • Yes, we are almost entirely dependent on Christian texts to reconstruct the pagan texts in question.

  5. So, given that Celsus and other pagan critics derided Christian teaching, do we know which (if any) of these critics converted to Christianity? I can conceive that as some of them were copying and engaging/reflecting with the Christian text they may have changed (or even softened) their stance against Christianity sometime later. As you state in ‘Destroyer of the gods’ Galen appeared impressed with Christian virtues; although, it does appear that he remained a pagan.

    • None of the pagan critics converted to Christianity. Indeed, Porphyry appears to have been brought up as a Christian but turned critic of it.

  6. You make no mention of the Apocrypha.

    • The one Christian apocrphyal text noted is Apocalypse of Peter. Several of the OT apocryphal/deutero-canonical texts are cited as well.

  7. In addition to direct quotations or likely biblical references (a hundred or so perhaps questionable), many have suggested intellectual links, influences – back and forth possibly – between Christians, and pagans, like especially the five “good emperors” of the Pax Romana or Roman peace; culminating and ending with the gentle Stoicism and moralism of Marcus Aurelius, fl. 170 ACE.

    • First, why do you say that 100 or so quotations/allusions are “perhaps questionable”? Have you studied Rinaldi’s catalog or are you (again) spitballing? And the period that you mention wasn’t particularly a positive one as far as treatment of Christians was concerned. Marcus Aurelius was specifically disdainful, and under him Justin was executed.

      • I retract questionability. But Aurelius’ “Meditations” were long read in Catholic schools, until just a few years ago. And curent scholarship says that persecution of Christians was the resposibility entirely of subordinate officials.

        Christians Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Melito considered him a “philosopher “. A not entirely negative evaluation. The historian Herodian called him “blameless ”

        Meditations espoused a very humble stoicism reminiscent of Jesus, many have said .

        Not a Christian. But there are many articles that saw Christian influence in him. (While, only slightly off topic, many scholars turned that around, and saw stoic influence in even the earliest Christianity).

      • That Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was studied in Catholic schools is . . . irrelevant. We have his disparaging comments about Christians. Philosophy didn’t prevent one from opposing Christians!

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