Random Thoughts While Outlining a Paper on St .Jerome

So I’m working on a paper about St. Jerome and his anxieties over his love of Pagan literature and thinking about my final paper for my Asceticism and Monasticism class, which has been focusing on the desert fathers and as I’m outlining, I’m thinking about how to lay out clearly the complexity of the Pagan and Polytheistic world that preceded and overlapped early Christianity. Certainly until Christianity did its damndest to obliterate it, the Pagan world was synonymous with education, learning, and civilization. This created serious tension for early Christians (a tension with which I have zero sympathy I might add) as they attempted to define, develop, and refine a cohesive group identity.

I was talking to a couple of my theology colleagues at school last week and we were chatting about our paper topics and they were teasing me (I’m obviously the only polytheist in the class, and these two knew that so we were throwing good natured zingers back and forth) about being a polytheist who studies theology and I said something to the effect that we’re taking it back. That actually brought them up short and one said “but you never had it…Pagans didn’t have theology.” I’ve been pondering that (erroneous) statement ever since because it’s not an uncommon attitude in academia.

Firstly, by Pagan, we’re talking Polytheists and those who practiced their various ancestral religions and mystery cultus in the ancient world coincidentally with the growth of Christianity, so we’re talking, c. 3rd and 4th centuries. It is true that scholasticism and the academic discipline that we term ‘theology’ didn’t develop until the medieval period (with the rise of the university) but that does not mean that the Polytheistic world lacked theological inquiry.

I think a couple of things went on in the Pagan world. Firstly, many of the questions that today would fall under ‘theology’ were instead addressed by the various philosophical schools.(1) Beyond that, there were lived mystery cultus. There was an experiential component to the hammering out of theological inquiry that went hand in hand with philosophical exegesis. (2) To say that Pagans didn’t have theology is to imply that they asked no questions about the origins of their world, about the Gods, about the nature of the holy, and a thousand other questions that today would fall under that category and we simply know that this is not true. They did ask these questions and we have enough surviving material to prove it.(3)

To assume that Polytheists didn’t make these inquiries is to dismiss their religions as less than monotheism. It’s to say that they did not care about their traditions, or that there was something lacking in those traditions that precluded deep thought – all assumptions we know to be patently false. I don’ t think that my colleagues meant to imply these things at all, but the paradigm in which they’re working is based on precisely that implication.

One of the articles I’m reading in research for my paper kept putting ‘pagan’ and ‘pagans’ in quotes, and I almost had to trash the article this annoyed me so much. I had to sit and think about what the writer was saying about the extant religions that Christianity was so hellbent on replacing. Was he denying that they were legitimate religions? Was he questioning the uniformity of any one Paganism? Was he just objecting to a term applied to people by their enemies? I don’t know because he didn’t footnote his reasoning. What I do know is that whatever that reasoning might be, it diminishes the polytheistic identity that existed, however varied it may have been, prior to Christian obliteration and it misses the point that the final generations who led a protracted resistance to Christianization did adopt “pagan” as an identifier, whether it was imposed on them or not.(4) These things matter. Just like capitalizing the first letter of pronouns relating to our Gods matters. It sends a powerful psychological message and levels the playing field.

One of my professors was confused when I spoke about the diversity of the divine inherent in polytheism and I realized that he’d never considered what it meant to be polytheistic. It was a word, an idea, a placeholder until Christianity could happen for him, not a reality. These are the unspoken paradigms with which we’ve been taught to approach our world. No wonder this restoration is so hard. Our very ability to think has been crippled.

So now I’m going back to outlining my paper. Jerome goes on quite a bit ‘What has Cicero to do with the apostles? What has Vergil to do with Christ?” Nothing and I can think of no better reason to read them. Go read some Homer, Virgil, Cicero…it’s a good tonic to so much of the crap.


1. The influence of Hellenism and Neo-Platonism on early Christian theologians cannot be overestimated. Early Christian thinkers like Origen, particularly in the East, were deeply influenced by Hellenistic culture and philosophy to the point of integrating some of these ideas into their own writings.
2. Keep in mind that even that shining star of Christian theology and scholasticism, Thomas Aquinas, based much of his work on reworkings of Aristotle.
3. Plato’s Euthyphro for instance hammers at the idea of the holy, what is the holy and what makes something holy.
4. I shouldn’t be surprised since the article was trying to make the case that religious violence against temples and shrines wasn’t that bad.

Posted on November 27, 2016, in Literary Matters, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. This annoys the fuck out of me about many modern pagans as well, and I’ve heard praised-and-lauded elders in those communities say “‘Theology’ isn’t Pagan and it’s more appropriate to Christians,” which they say mostly unchallenged. The facts are: a) Plato invented the term “theology’; b) all of the poets were considered theologians; c) it was later Christians who said that “philosophy” was subordinate to “theology,” but in this they essentially meant that ideas gleaned from the Greek philosophers and the concerns outlined therein were subordinate to their own novel theological formulations, whereas for ancient polytheists, the philosophical inquiries included theology.

    For fuck’s sake…I’m so sick of these myopic people (Christians and monotheists or pagans) thinking their ill-informed opinions on these matters are facts.

    (I just met the new instructor in the “History of Christianity” class at one of my colleges, which is a 300-level class, whereas my Religion 101 course is on World Religions, so of course it is “less-advanced”…but independent of that, this new instructor–who is a chaplain for the Naval base’s chapel–visibly reeled at me when I said that we take a week (of our sight-week course) to cover Christianity, and in the other seven weeks we have about 18 other religions to cover, and he responded, “I didn’t know there were that many religions,” to which I responded “There are thousands.” I think his brain blew up a little…but I can’t believe this ignoramus is allowed to teach that class.)

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  2. also, all the poets being considered theologians…i can use that…source?

    Liked by 1 person

    • In Plato and Aristotle, “theologos” means mythological poet, so basically “theologoi” refers to Homer and Hesiod. They did not describe their own (philosophical) inquiry into the nature of the gods as “theologia” (traditional/mythological discourse about the gods).

      As far as I am aware, “theologia” acquired its modern sense in Hellenistic philosophy, where it was of course one of the principal disciplines, and it was this sense that Christianity took over (and then conflated with a host of other disciplines). “Theologos” still remained a synonym of (mythological) poet, though. At least this is the way Philodemus (1st century BCE) seems to be using the terms in his book On Piety, and I think this also the usage of the Neoplatonists.

      I’m not sure if “theologos” ever came to mean something like the modern word theologian among pagan thinkers, I rather don’t think so. I believe it continued to mean people like Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, and people knowledgeable about sacred matters, not practitioners of philosophical theology. On the other hand, “theologia” in the sense of theology was applied to the poetry of Homer, etc. In Neoplatonic exegesis, the “theologia” of Homer is the philosophical theology implied by the text, which is pretty much as we would now use it, I think.

      May I ask what the article about religious violence was?


      • thank you, and for the sources. that is very very helpful! I will post the article info when i get home tonight.


    • As for citable sources:
      -Richard Bodéüs, Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, pp. 73ff on the meaning of “theologia” and “theologos” in Aristotle (and Plato)
      Plato is not necessarily the inventor, his use of the word is just the first that is extant.
      -Albinus (2nd century CE), Introduction to Plato, ch. 5, calls the subject of the Timaeus “theology” (clearly in the modern sense, not the sense of “mythological poetry”) alongside other subjects like physics, etc. Albinus is just summarizing conventional Platonism, so the usage must be older. It is certainly not influenced by Christianity.


      • Thank you! Edward Butler recently recommended the Bodeus book too and I have it currently on order. This is very, very helpful.


    • Sorry for the spam, but I went to look at a few more primary sources, maybe what I found is a little helpful: http://historyofreligiousthought.blogspot.de/2016/11/the-use-and-meaning-of-word-theology.html


  3. Yeah…the idea that pagans had no theology is refuted, at the very least, by the fact that early Christian authors struggled to explain pagan knowledge. Some regarded it as a preparation for the gospel (Clement of Alexandria) while others thought pagans stole it from the Jews (Eusebius). Christians spilled a lot of ink addressing pagan ideas (like Philoponus’ Against the Eternity of the World, etc.) John Marenbon does a good job of outlining this in Pagans and Philosophers: the Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz.


    • I had a huge eye opener today in a theology class (we were discussing Aristotle) with just how doggedly closed minded many academics are to even the thought that polytheism may have been richly textured, living tradition. it as really quite shocking.


  4. I have been thinking about some of the same issues, so I quoted you in a new blog post, “Thoughts on Pagan Studies after the AAR Annual Meeting (2).”

    For thinking on Pagan theology (and maybe your question about the poets), I would look first at the work of the blessed Julian and his circle. He was raised on Christian theology, after all, which gave him a sort of insider/outsider perspective.

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  5. I personally used quotations when using the term ‘pagan’. I object to being identified by a word branded on my native traditions by a hostile apocalyptic cult who held nothing but loathing for them. I am not a ‘pagan’. When asked my religious affiliations, I simply say I am Norse. Saying I am Norse sums up my religion, my culture, my morals, and too many other things to list here. In fact, dividing those things into separate categories is something that only happened after Christianity infected most of Europe. To our ancestors, saying they were Norse (or whatever tribe or nation they belonged to) would include all those subjects by default.


    • Yes, but you’re not writing an academic article where such usage really should be explained. I get where you’re coming from, but if you were writing an academic piece, I’d still expect a footnoted explanation otherwise there are too many ways in which such usage could be taken and it detracts from the topic.


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