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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie
Bildung, Elite und Konkurrenz. Heiden und Christen vor der Zeit Constantins.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2013. IX, 479 S. = Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 77. Kart. EUR 89,00. ISBN 978-3-16-149624-0.
This book by Katrin Pietzner is the revised version of a doctoral thesis submitted to the Humboldt University in Berlin ten years ago. It is an attempt to understand and explain the phenomenon of stigmatization of second- and third-century Christians by pagan intellectuals who claimed that Christians were socially inferior and unlearned. Christian apologists tried to counter these allegations by presenting themselves as philosophers familiar with the educational standards of their time. By focusing on Minucius Felix and Origen P. argues that Christian intellectuals before Constantine employed philosophical argumentation to defeat their pagan opponents on their own terms and to provide their educated fellow-Christians with arguments to defend themselves. The apologists’ appropriation of pagan paideia happened at a time when Christianity began to attract individuals from higher social levels fa-miliar with Graeco-Roman educational ideals.
P. is well aware of the methodological problems involved in studying the debates between Christian and pagan intellectuals: the existing literary sources are all ideological and tendentious; the abstract nature of much of the argumentation prevents an easy identification of the context in which it took place; only very few epigraphic and archaeological sources for Christian education in this time period exist.
She stresses that the Christian attitude towards paideia needs to be understood as a reaction to pagan stereotypes about Christian ignorance. What is especially innovative about her approach is the use of sociological and psychological theories about the stigmatization of minorities. The function of stereotyping is to marginalize people who seem to threaten the established norms of mainstream society, that is, to preserve the status quo. The ideal of paideia was linked to upper class status in Roman society. By stigmatizing Christians as unlearned pagan intellectuals tried to neutralize their Christian intellectual competitors who were increasingly able to attracted educated pagans.
The book provides an excellent survey of Christian higher education in late antiquity and analyzes the ways in which both pagan and Christian intellectuals tried to refute and degrade each other. The pagan insistence on traditional paideia was countered by the Christian philosophers presentation of Christianity as the »true« philosophy. Pagan paideia was linked to a high social status and elite identity: »Die Schüler erlernten hier zugleich Sprache und Verhaltensweisen einer sozialen wie politischen Elite« (49). It fostered the elite’s social coherence and self-distinction from ordinary people. At the same time, the middle strata of society aspired to this ideal and shared the elite’s norms.
P. maintains that this »Bildungsideal« provided practical orientation in life (ars vitae) for a broader set of Christians who adhered to certain philosophers without belonging to their closer disciple circles. One may ask whether and to what extent this notion of paideia as a broad educational ideal is based on the so-called »Bildungsbürgertum« which emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century and is still perceptible today. The late antique texts were all written by members of the upper strata of society who may have over-emphasized their appeal. Whether and how elite paideia would have been able to reach wider circles is not further discussed here.
There is a certain conflict between paideia as a broader ideal and pagan intellectuals’ attempts to circumscribe and protect it from alleged »pretenders« such as Christian philosophers who aspired to argue with them on an equal level. Since competition also took place amongst philosophical schools, it would have been interesting to know how arguments against Christians differed from arguments against other philosophical streams. P. points to Cynics as a group that was similarly stigmatized by the more established and normatively traditional Stoics and Neo-Platonists. Both Christians and Cynics were seen as »a-social«, operating outside the social establishment. Besides socio-economic distinctions, gender seems to have played a role: Christian philosophers addressed both men and women and admitted women, slaves, and minors to their home circles. This openness to everyone irrespective of their social and ideological background, age, and gender was probably partly due to the missionary purpose of the texts and gatherings. Yet it is clear that the Christian intellectuals, who all stemmed from wealthy social backgrounds, invaded the philosophical milieu in order to change it.
By focusing on Minucius Felix’ Octavius and Origen’s Contra Celsum, both written in the second half of the third century C. E., P. examines similarities and differences between Christian and pagan paideia, its organization, self-presentation, and audiences. It be-comes clear that the success of Christian missionizing amongst educated pagans was partly due to the wide distribution of Christian texts through networks and personal contacts. Students and adherents urged Christian philosophers to create written versions of their teachings and financed their publication and dissemination. The adoption of the codex form, which was much cheaper and easier to handle than scrolls, facilitated this process. By wearing the pallium, adopting a philosophical habitus, and evincing a sound knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and literature Justin, Tertullian, Clement, Origen and their likes would have appeared like a new philosophical sect that was, at the same time, radically different from the established schools. For they fiercely criticized polytheism and claimed to possess »true« knowledge based on di-vine wisdom. By offering their philosophy to everyone willing to listen, they clashed with the elite self-consciousness of pagan intellectuals.
Nevertheless, a certain contradiction remains: if the Christian »truth« was available to everyone, irrespective of their education, why was the philosophical argumentation necessary at all? Here a certain double standard becomes evident: complex philosophical arguments and exegeses geared at upper-class educated Christians and pagans, and a simple »truth« as the kernel of the Christian message, meant to convince the unlearned masses »by faith alone«. The crucial criterium allegedly was a virtuous lifestyle, which everyone could follow. Whether and to what extent the Christian philosophers’ arguments were helpful to their fellow-Christians and convinced pagans remains open. Historical developments of the fourth and following centuries indicate the success of the strategies of the Christian apologists, though.
The book can be highly recommended to anyone interested in late antiquity, early Christian and Roman history, and the history of education. It constitutes a welcome addition to the growing literature on Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian paideia in late antiquity. The book has indexes of persons and references but, unfortunately, lacks a subject index.