Hellenistic 'Judaism' and the Social Origins of the 'Pagan-Christian' Debate

Journal of Early Christian Studies 22 (2014) 167–96.

Article Abstract: Why did Latin writers label non-Christians with a word that evoked lack of culture (paganus) while their Greek brethren used a word (Hellene) that connoted the finest education around? How had Christians of the eastern Roman Empire inherited such a "civilized" mode of discourse? The answer which I propose in this article is that they did not.

I argue that Christians who used the latter term adopted it from the world of the late second Temple period. In 2 Maccabees "Hellenism" is a straw man, used to contrast "real Judaism" with other Jews who were looked down upon for acting "Greek." This dynamic suggests a new model for understanding the rise of paganus. Living in the wake of the so-called Edict of Milan, some Christians believed that social separation and rejection of Rome were non-negotiable aspects of Christian identity. Seeing themselves as heirs of Jewish tradition, embracing the legacy of the Maccabean martyrs who rejected aspects of Hellenistic culture, and writing in Greek, they adopted the word Hellene to disparage their more accommodating Christian peers. In Latin, the force of this argument was lost in translation. Drawing instead upon a tradition which divided "true Christian soldiers" from their more "civilian Christian peers," Latin writers used paganus as a substitute.

Hellene and pagan were thus deployed for similar ideological reasons throughout the fourth century: to draw lines in the sand between Christians over the issue of assimilation and accommodation to Roman culture, a mission that took on particular urgency after 313 C.E., at least for those sought to define Christianity as wholly incompatible with the Roman world. This research gives us an entirely new way of understanding the politics of the late fourth and early fifth century.