Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Pagan Readers of Christian Scripture

New Article: Ian N. Mills, ‘Pagan Readers of Christian Scripture: the Role of Books in Early Autobiographical Conversion Narratives’ Vigiliae Christianae 73 (2019), 481–506.
Abstract: Most scholars agree that “pagans” did not read Christian scripture. This critical consensus, however, places inordinate weight on a decontextualized quotation from Tertullian and neglects a body of evidence to the contrary. In particular, the role of books in early autobiographical conversion narratives suggests that early Christian authors and copyists could sometimes work with a reasonable expectation of pagan readership. Against traditional notions of the restricted appeal and circulation of Christian literature, pagan and Christian sources alike indicate that Christian writings found an audience among philo-barbarian thinkers and that certain Christians promoted their books in pagan circles.
Brief thoughts: an interesting argument, works through six autobiographical conversion reports (Justin, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Commodian, and Dionysius of Alexandria), finds four of them (Tatian, Theophilus, Commodian, Dionysius) to have been influenced by their encounter with books (and the other two reflect an encounter with a bookish Christian). There is (frustratingly, PMH) little detail about the nature of the books in the sources (most of the testimonies would suggest Jewish books of law and prophecy, Mills shifts these towards including Christian texts and gospel traditions, not always on convincing grounds - it is interesting how little is specified in these testimonies). Concluding sentence: ‘the pronounced role of scripture in early autobiographical conversion narratives indicates that pagans—sympathetic and hostile—occasionally encountered Christian books.’ (p. 506). Also shows that “pagan” sources spoke about Christian propagandising with literature and public reading.

Interesting information. Not directly interested in textual criticism, but interesting as the other side of arguments such as those in W. C. Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition (Atlanta, GA, 2004).


  1. << Most scholars agree that “pagans” did not read Christian scripture. >>

    Mmmwhaa? What about Porphyry and Hierocles?

    1. And what was Celsus thinking writing a treatise to attack/criticize a religion none of his fellow pagans would read about?

    2. Some pagans read about the religion, but Celsus was concerned also with some who might be illiterate. E.g., those hearing prophets, who, he claimed, "pretend to be moved, as if by some oracular utterance....'Blessed is he who has worshipped me now! But I will cast everlasting fire upon all the rest'...they then go on to add incomprehensible, incoherent, and utterly obscure utterances, the meaning of which no intelligent person could discover; for they are meaningless and nonsensical, and give a chance for any fool or sorcerer to take the words in whatever sense he likes" (Cels. VII, 9).
      For an attempt to situate Celsus and the Christians, and those of some other religions, that he encountered: "Celsus of Pergamum" (online).

    3. How about the case of Celsus himself? We have a pretty good sampling of what his understanding of Christianity was in his own words. Do Origen's quotations from him indicate that Celsus's knowledge of Christianity came from reading Christian scriptures directly himself?

      I can't recall the answer to this myself.

    4. Celsus challenged and critiqued various Gospel accounts of Jesus, such as His virgin birth, escape to Egypt, baptism, association with tax-collectors, the Crucifixion and post-resurrection appearances, and basically argued that Jesus was not divine by pagan standard.

      It is hard to believe that Celsus learned all that just by hearsay, without reading Christian writings directly. Given that the Gospels were the most popular Christians writings in the earliest centuries-- if extant manuscript count is an indication of popularity, it is very likely, as Origen wrote, that Celsus read the Gospels, Matthew in particular

    5. Of course Celsus read some Christian writings. I tried to add that he also met some Christians, and where.

    6. I will need to revisit Contra Celsus and look into this. I think everything you mention could have been learned by Celsus by hearsay, except for the part that Origen claimed he had likely read Matthew. Can you cite the reference for that?

    7. In Against Celsus 1.7, Origen writes that "almost the entire world""was acquainted with what Christians preach", i.e., "Jesus was born of a virgin, and that He was crucified, and that His resurrection is an article of faith among many, and that a general judgment is announced to come". Celsus demonstrated knowledge beyond these things which could be learned by hearsay. So it is reasonable to infer that he read Christian writings directly.

      There are quite a few references in Book 1 of Against Celsus. Just to give a couple:
      Against Celsus 1.34 ( ANF 4:411)
      Ibid. 1.40 (ANF 4:413)

    8. Notice what that quote itself mentions as the source of what almost the entire world knows. It is Christian preaching, not Christian writings. And even that is a statement by Origan about the state of things in his own day, not necessarily in the earlier generation of Celsus. Celsus of course had a higher level of acquaintance with what Christians preach than most of his contemporaries did. But the source of his knowledge is another matter. Does he ever in the quotations Origen provides explicitly respond to something he read in a book of the Bible, such as what Porphyry would later do?

    9. As to the two specific references (1.34 and 1. 40), I think the first one actually supports the claim that Celsus responded to Christian doctrines without directly interacting with the scriptures, and in fact that's precisely the complaint Origen makes there, even saying that he wasn't sure if this was due to ignorance on Celsus's part, or unwillingness.

      The case of 1.40 is more supportive of Celsus having read one or more of the Gospels. But notice that that's merely what Origen seems to assume as the source of Celsus's knowledge. He doesn't quote Celsus referring explicitly to a written Gospel here, only to the account of a dove at the baptism of Jesus. And beyond that, Origen again seems befuddled as to what Celsus's strategy is here, if Celsus intends to provide a rejoinder to a Gospel. Origen complains about his lack of a systematic approach. The way Origen characterizes Celsus's argument is consistent with the hypothesis that Celsus wasn't actually responding to a specific written Gospel at all, but rather to Christian preaching he had heard.

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    11. Eric,

      It never ceases to amaze/amuse me how different people can draw vastly different conclusions from the same evidence.. :)

      You wrote, "Celsus of course had a higher level of acquaintance with what Christians preach than most of his contemporaries did. But the source of his knowledge is another matter."

      You seemed to have already presumed the source of Celsus' knowledge is "what Christians preach", not their writings.

      The question, as I understand it, is whether Celsus had read Christian writings directly, not whether he was responding to a specific Gospel, when he wrote his critique. Instead of making any direct quotations, he could respond by paraphrasing and summarizing them, if that is his way of arguing. In other words, lack of direct quotations is not necessarily evidence that Celsus didn't read the Scriptures.

      In 1.34, Origen writes that Celsus "makes numerous quotations from the Gospel according to Matthew", but makes no mention of the prophecy of Isaiah, which might support the virgin birth. Either Celsus was ignorant of the OT prophecy, which would contradict his claim that he "knew all their [Christian] doctrines", or he was unwilling to deal with all the evidence fairly, which would suggest prejudice on his part. At least I think that is Origin's point; In 1.40, Origen continues the "ad hominem"(in the original sense) attack, saying that the disorderly way in which Celsus makes his arguments is indicative of an angry and hateful mind, not worthy of a philosopher.

      Origen frequently challenges/questions Celsus' motive and objectivity, but nothing suggests Origen doubts that Celsus read Matthew, and perhaps other Gospels.

      It is possible that Origen made the wrong assumption, although I think it is unlikely. My point is that Origen knew what Christians preached in the world, and he was in a position to judge the difference between what was commonly preached and what was contained in the Scripture, and make an educated inference about whether Celsus had read the Scripture.

      I'm still curious how you would make the opposite case. :)


  2. Off Topic: NT VMR is up and running again