For the early Christians, “pagan” referred to a multitude of unbelievers: Greek and Roman devotees of the Olympian gods, and “barbarians” such as Arabs and Germans with their own array of deities. But while these groups were clearly outsiders or idolaters, who and what was pagan depended on the outlook of the observer, as Christopher Jones shows in this fresh and penetrating analysis. Treating paganism as a historical construct rather than a fixed entity, Between Pagan and Christian uncovers the ideas, rituals, and beliefs that Christians and pagans shared in Late Antiquity.
While the emperor Constantine’s conversion in 312 was a momentous event in the history of Christianity, the new religion had been gradually forming in the Roman Empire for centuries, as it moved away from its Jewish origins and adapted to the dominant pagan culture. Early Christians drew on pagan practices and claimed important pagans as their harbingers—asserting that Plato, Virgil, and others had glimpsed Christian truths. At the same time, Greeks and Romans had encountered in Judaism observances and beliefs shared by Christians such as the Sabbath and the idea of a single, creator God. Polytheism was the most obvious feature separating paganism and Christianity, but pagans could be monotheists, and Christians could be accused of polytheism and branded as pagans. In the diverse religious communities of the Roman Empire, as Jones makes clear, concepts of divinity, conversion, sacrifice, and prayer were much more fluid than traditional accounts of early Christianity have led us to believe.
Standard accounts of the meteoric rise of Christianity after Constantine’s conversion in 312 are familiar. Belief in Jesus Christ became the established state religion and a requirement for holders of public office in the Roman Empire. Pagan practices like idol worship and animal sacrifice were outlawed. Christian orthodoxy had no serious spiritual or political competitors. Distilling a life’s scholarship, Christopher Jones unveils a more complex reality in Between Pagan and Christian… Jones powerfully establishes his main argument: that paganism, in a multiplicity of forms, persisted and was tolerated much later than the reign of Constantine.
Between Pagan and Christian is a learned and lucid treatment of the persistence of paganism long after the sea-change of the fourth century that made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. While scholars of late antique religion will ruminate at length and with great profit on Jones’ many insights, the clarity of his presentation and the vividness of his historical examples make this book especially appealing for use by advanced undergraduates…Between Pagan and Christian is a provocative contribution to the current debates about religious identity and its salience in the fourth century and beyond that deserves to be widely read by scholars and students of late ancient religious culture.
This is important subject matter and a worthwhile read, and Jones is peerless in his discussions of the 4th century and beyond. For those interested in details as well as broad strokes, he is just the man to show us exactly how fuzzy the notion of paganism was in the ancient world.
Jones’s new book represents decades of thinking and teaching about the ambiguities of religion in the Roman Empire and especially about the elusive categories ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan.’ …This is a much-needed and salutary book, to be taken as an excellent remedy against many others.
Jones’s succinct and engaging book conjures a world of shared discourses, religious and intellectual resistance, and outright conflict between these two (putatively distinct) religious ideologies well into the sixth century.
Jones has written his own account of the rise of Christianity and the decline of paganism. It is grounded in broad learning, and marked by crystal clarity and economy. The examples and case studies of each chapter are felicitously chosen… This welcome book—on a subject fundamental not only for the Roman Empire but also for Western civilization—will be read by specialists, but it is also accessible to students and to serious general readers.
[Jones’s] highly distilled, clear, and calm account shows how the imperial sponsorship of the new, Christian religion still permitted traditional religious practice to continue and allowed double allegiances or ambiguous loyalties among late-ancient people both illiterate and cultured.
Given its rich detail, no brief review can do this book justice…For the layman it provides a fascinating account of a relatively obscure period, the emergence of Christendom in the years following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Jones has written a wonderful, clear, and lively book about a topic that has challenged scholars and non-scholars alike seemingly forever. Easy to read, full of minute insights and an excellent overarching theme—the complexities which lie between pagans and Christians that show us how complicated the entire venture was.
Jones is an outstanding scholar, and this book is consistent with the high standards he has always maintained. Between Pagan and Christian offers a unique contribution that captures the current state of scholarship, leads readers to a set of conversations that do not usually find their way into books about late antique pagan-Christian conflict, and points to intriguing new directions that studies of later paganism might go.
- 224 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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