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What Did the Classics Do to Christianity?

Specifically, what did the Humanists' emphasis on the Classics do to Christianity at the beginning of the modern world?

Photo by Patrick / Unsplash

Christianity started as a minority Jewish sect, and gradually came to take over the Roman Empire. This is the familiar story of ‘late antiquity’, often called the Christianisation of the Empire. It is a defining history of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. When, where and how Christianity separated as a religion from Judaism is one of the longest running debates in scholarship at the interface between history and theology. Answers vary from the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death to the 5th century, and each answer is motivated by a mix of ideology and partiality, as well as selective historical evidence.

Ever since Eusebius (c.262–339) founded Church history in the 4th century, the big picture is painted by Christian historians – with an obviously self-serving slant – as a narrative of God’s providential transformation of the world. Augustus’ empire grew precisely to make possible the spread of Christianity. Rome came to power as part of God’s plan. At the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the motto in hoc signo vinces – “You will be victorious under this sign” – and the rest is… history. This narrative in its different shapes keeps telling us how Christianity changed the pagan world of Greek and Roman culture.

I want to tell a different story, the story of how Classics – the study of Ancient Greek and Latin pagan literature, classical philology, philosophy and ancient history – changed Christianity. It is a story that is crucial to how we understand the place of Classics as a conservative or revolutionary subject – a topic that readers of Antigone will recognise as a burning issue for the contemporary university.

Before I turn back to late antiquity, I want to look at two crucial transformations in more recent history. The first is the Renaissance, which is named for the rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome, and is nicely visualised in the popular imagination as the shift from the lonely, hunched monk, studying his text by candlelight, to the display of Michelangelo’s David, white, naked, muscular, public body in the sunshine. But my iconic hero of the Renaissance is Erasmus. Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) was a leading figure in the republic of letters, whose scholarship helped fuel the Reformation and the creation of Protestant Christianity, although, unlike Martin Luther (1483–1546), Erasmus scarcely aimed at such a radical consequence for his work. Erasmus learned Greek at the beginning of the 16th century, and from his study in Queens’ College, Cambridge, he spread the word of how important it was to read the Gospels and other foundational texts of Christianity in the language in which they were first written. His battle cry was ad fontes (“back to the sources”), a phrase lifted from the Psalms, but which came to mark the threat and promise of the new scholarship.

After consulting the Greek manuscripts of the Bible he could find, Erasmus set out to retranslate the familiar Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate, which had been used for centuries in the church and in private reading. In 1516, he published his version, and to the shock and dismay of Christians across Europe, the famous first line of John, in principio erat verbum, emerged as in principio erat sermo: “in the beginning was speech/conversation” is a defensible translation of the Greek ἐν ἀρχῇ ᾖν ὁ λόγος (en archē en ho logos), but it caused a profound scandal to the faithful. What’s more, the single verse in the New Testament that seems to offer any evidence of Trinitarian thinking – from the Johannine Epistle I John 5.7 – Erasmus could not find in any early manuscript, and so he deleted it as an interpolation. This deletion was an even more challenging threat to the very theological foundations of the Nicene Creed. How terrifying and hated it was can be seen from this transcript of the trial of the Anabaptist Hermann van Flekwyk, who was burnt at the stake on 10 June 1569 for his views:

Inquisitor: You have sucked at the poisoned breast of Erasmus… But St John says “There are three that bear witness in heaven, the father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”

Anabaptist: I have heard that Erasmus in his Annotationes upon that phrase shows that this text is not in the Greek original

Erasmus’ textual criticism had become a life and death matter. The foundation of Protestantism, the violent battles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, were fuelled by the study of Ancient Greek texts. Thus, declared one churchman, “Learning Greek is heresy”; Greek was, claimed another, parodying Erasmus’ ad fontes, “the fount of all evil.” These theological conservatives may sound crazy as well as frightened: but they recognised what was happening. Classical study was changing the very shape of modern Christianity.

Read the rest at Antigone