A Companion to Late Antique Literature by McGill Scott Watts Edward Jay & Edward J. Watts

A Companion to Late Antique Literature by McGill Scott Watts Edward Jay & Edward J. Watts

Author:McGill, Scott,Watts, Edward Jay & Edward J. Watts
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9781118830352
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Published: 2018-08-21T00:00:00+00:00

20.2 Approaching Late Antiquity: The Emergence of Christian Theological Literature

In classical antiquity the word “theology” had an ambiguous ring. “Theologians” were basically “mythologizers,” authors such as Homer or Hesiod, who explained natural events and processes in mythological terms. This is how the expression is used, for example, by Aristotle (e.g. Mete. 353a35) in a disparaging fashion. But elsewhere Aristotle also concedes that the question of the nature and origin of the universe as a whole can only be addressed through what amounts, ultimately, to a form of “theology” (Met. 983b27‐32). Aristotle seems here to refer to Plato, who sometimes addressed transcendental questions through myths. In late antiquity, the rationalizing exegesis of (the Homeric and Hesiodic) myths became a central activity of (especially Platonic) philosophy (Lamberton 1986; Brisson 2004), and although Christian theologians vehemently distanced themselves from their pagan counterparts by claiming their religion to be essentially different, their techniques of interpreting the biblical narratives and the core doctrines of their religion bore a striking resemblance to those employed by pagan philosophers and sophists. The cultural context from which this tradition emerged was, as already mentioned, that of the schools of grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy in the Roman Empire from the second century onward.

The beginnings of Christian theological writing in this sense thus predate late antiquity. They go back to the second century. In terms of theological (doctrinal) content, the main problem with which they were grappling could be summarized as follows (see Lössl 2010, pp. 159–163): “How can Christians claim to believe in and worship only one God, and yet claim at the same time that the man Jesus Christ is also God?” Christian writers addressed this question (a) by formulating their own positions (in a rational and “confessional” way) and (b) by demarcating their own positions against those of pagan, Jewish, and also other Christian opponents (so‐called heretics). The earliest form in which this kind of theological writing was cast was the apology (see Vessey 2008, p. 50 with reference to Overbeck 1882, p. 423). The early Christian apology of the second century, as represented, for example, by authors such as Quadratus, Aristides, Justin Martyr, or Athenagoras, was in some sense a continuation of Jewish apology, which emerged from the “war of books” between Greek and barbarian cultures during the Hellenistic age (Droge 1989, p. 7). Although they do not constitute a literary genre as such and are not exclusively Christian (cf. Edwards, Goodman, and Price 1999), apologies contain (besides other things) the first substantial pieces of Christian theological writing and were continued from the mid‐second century until long into late antiquity (Fiedrowicz 2006). Their importance lies in their interaction with pagan, Jewish, and heretical ideas and their reflection of a wider cultural‐intellectual trend at the time toward a more “monotheistic” outlook in philosophically informed types of religion (Edwards 2004; Potter 2004, pp. 173–214; Trapp 2007; Mitchell and van Nuffelen 2010; van Nuffelen 2011).

It was in the late second and early third century, with authors such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, that Christian theological writing reached a new point of departure.


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