What did Classics do to Christianity?

Simon Goldhill

Christianity started as a minority Jewish sect, and gradually came to take over the Roman Empire. This is the familiar story of ‘late antiqpuity’, often called the Christianisation of the Empire. It is a defining history of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. When, where and how Christianity separated as a religion from Judaism is one of the longest running debates in scholarship at the interface between history and theology. Answers vary from the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death to the 5th century, and each answer is motivated by a mix of ideology and partiality, as well as selective historical evidence.

Ever since Eusebius (c.262–339) founded Church history in the 4th century, the big picture is painted by Christian historians – with an obviously self-serving slant – as a narrative of God’s providential transformation of the world. Augustus’ empire grew precisely to make possible the spread of Christianity. Rome came to power as part of God’s plan. At the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the motto in hoc signo vinces – “You will be victorious under this sign” – and the rest is… history. This narrative in its different shapes keeps telling us how Christianity changed the pagan world of Greek and Roman culture.

I want to tell a different story, the story of how Classics – the study of Ancient Greek and Latin pagan literature, classical philology, philosophy and ancient history – changed Christianity. It is a story that is crucial to how we understand the place of Classics as a conservative or revolutionary subject – a topic that readers of Antigone will recognise as a burning issue for the contemporary university.

Ezra the Scribe depicted in a monastic scriptorium; illumination in the Codex Amiatnus, the oldest complete text of the Latin Vulgate Bible, Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Monastery, Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, 710s (owned by the Abbazia di San Salvatore, Mt Amiata, but deposited in the Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).

Before I turn back to late antiquity, I want to look at two crucial transformations in more recent history. The first is the Renaissance, which is named for the rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome, and is nicely visualised in the popular imagination as the shift from the lonely, hunched monk, studying his text by candlelight, to the display of Michelangelo’s David, white, naked, muscular, public body in the sunshine. But my iconic hero of the Renaissance is Erasmus. Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) was a leading figure in the republic of letters, whose scholarship helped fuel the Reformation and the creation of Protestant Christianity, although, unlike Martin Luther (1483–1546), Erasmus scarcely aimed at such a radical consequence for his work. Erasmus learned Greek at the beginning of the 16th century, and from his study in Queens’ College, Cambridge, he spread the word of how important it was to read the Gospels and other foundational texts of Christianity in the language in which they were first written. His battle cry was ad fontes (“back to the sources”), a phrase lifted from the Psalms, but which came to mark the threat and promise of the new scholarship.

David, Michelangelo, 1501–4 (originally erected outdoors in the Palazzo Vecchio, but now in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy).

After consulting the Greek manuscripts of the Bible he could find, Erasmus set out to retranslate the familiar Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate, which had been used for centuries in the church and in private reading. In 1516, he published his version, and to the shock and dismay of Christians across Europe, the famous first line of John, in principio erat verbum, emerged as in principio erat sermo: “in the beginning was speech/conversation” is a defensible translation of the Greek ἐν ἀρχῇ ᾖν ὁ λόγος (en archē en ho logos), but it caused a profound scandal to the faithful. What’s more, the single verse in the New Testament that seems to offer any evidence of Trinitarian thinking – from the Johannine Epistle I John 5.7 – Erasmus could not find in any early manuscript, and so he deleted it as an interpolation. This deletion was an even more challenging threat to the very theological foundations of the Nicene Creed. How terrifying and hated it was can be seen from this transcript of the trial of the Anabaptist Hermann van Flekwyk, who was burnt at the stake on 10 June 1569 for his views:

Inquisitor: You have sucked at the poisoned breast of Erasmus… But St John says “There are three that bear witness in heaven, the father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”

Anabaptist: I have heard that Erasmus in his Annotationes upon that phrase shows that this text is not in the Greek original

Erasmus’ textual criticism had become a life and death matter. The foundation of Protestantism, the violent battles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, were fuelled by the study of Ancient Greek texts. Thus, declared one churchman, “Learning Greek is heresy”; Greek was, claimed another, parodying Erasmus’ ad fontes, “the fount of all evil.” These theological conservatives may sound crazy as well as frightened: but they recognised what was happening. Classical study was changing the very shape of modern Christianity.

Old Hall, Queens’ College, Cambridge: on the left hangs Thomas Hudson’s portrait of Erasmus, alongside Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and second foundress of Queens’, and Sir Thomas Smith, the Elizabethan polymath.

The 19th century, my second transformational period, is often described as the era of the West’s secularisation. The story of triumphant secularisation, led by the materialist understanding of science, is far too oversimplified a narrative. But from the mid-century onwards there was a very significant challenge mounted to the establishment of the church and its foundational stories. At one level, this challenge to the religious understanding came from geology, which made the biblical account of the age of the earth untenable, and from biology where Darwin’s evolutionary theory undermined the enumerated generations of humanity from Adam to Augustus. But the most painful challenge for many serious Christians came from critical history and the philological study of ancient texts.

Constantin von Tischendorf (1815–74) was a hunter of manuscripts, a hero in the mould of Indiana Jones (at least in his own self-representation), whose greatest discovery, the Codex Sinaiticus, is now in the British Library. In St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai in 1859, von Tischendorf discovered what was the very earliest manuscript of the Greek Bible, and it immediately caused international furore. It led readers closer to the original Gospels than any previous text could do. The trouble was, however, that the manuscript had more than 20,000 corrections in it, many revealing deep arguments about what the right reading of the text might be, and, most worryingly of all, the Codex showed without any scholarly doubt that the transmitted last verses of the Gospel of Mark were a late interpolation. From the beginning, the word of God was being rewritten, changed and corrupted by human hand. The text even of the Gospels was unreliable.

The Codex Sinaiticus, written in the mid/late 4th cent. AD; its leaves are divided among four libraries, with the majority being in London’s British Library.

Von Tischendorf was only one of a string of scholars whose work threatened the status of the texts of the established church. Philology, the “queen of the sciences”, began its challenging journey with Homer and the work of Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824). Wolf’s uncovering of the multiple historical levels of Homeric Greek was quickly seen as a very damaging discovery. Elizabeth Barrett Browning caught the mood:

Wolf’s an atheist
And if the Iliad fell out, as he says,
By mere fortuitous concourse of old songs
We’d guess as much, too, for the Universe.

Wolf’s understanding of the Iliad leads to doubting the whole order of things. Barrett Browning’s humour is pointed, but John Lockhart (1794–1854), the celebrated, combative editor, now best known as the biographer of Walter Scott, was not smiling when he wrote that contemporary Homeric scholarship was an “anti-Christian conspiracy”. Saints’ Lives were easy pickings for the critical historians who uncovered their stories of miracles as “pious frauds”. The Hebrew Bible was next: John William Colenso (1814–83), Bishop of Natal, wondered whether it could be literally true – and was locked out of his own church in the scandal that followed. Benjamin Jowett (1817–93) had his salary withheld in Oxford because he had written that the Bible should be read”‘like any other book” – that is evaluated and critically examined rather than taken as simply and directly true. Ernst Renan’s Life of Jesus (1863) became a best-seller across Europe. It depicted Jesus as a very good person. It was profoundly upsetting to the committedly religious – as it set out to be. Renan (1823–92) wrote that “the founders of the modern spirit are the philologists”. He explained: “The modern spirit, that is, rationalism, criticism, liberalism, was founded on the same day as philology.” Renan had grown up studying in a seminary of the Catholic Church. He is exemplary of the era when he declares that his faith was destroyed by ‘critical history’.

Classics and, above all, Classical philology, was at the centre of the undermining of the Church, especially the Anglican Church with its close connections to the university and broader educational system. Classics was dominant in the university and public school curricula, and a significant majority of students were destined to enter the Church, many of them quite contentedly. It was because classical education and a training for the Church were intimately connected that the threat of critical history and philology to the Christian establishment was so intently felt. Classical philology showed that the texts on which the church was founded, and the history told by those texts, was unreliable. Classical study formulated the 19th-century challenge to the very foundations of Christianity.

Ernst Renan photographed in his study at the College of France, 1870s.

Let us return now to late antiquity, and the early church. There is a long anxiety about how Greek the early Church was or should be. It would be hard to deny the influence of Neo-Platonic thought on the theology of the 4th and 5th centuries – indeed, from Origen (185–253) onwards – and for many theologians this influx of Greek – or pagan – thinking is very worrying for their idealized notions of the purity of Christian thought. The word “Greek” – Ἕλλην (Hellēn) – is, after all, the normal Christian expression in Greek for “pagan”.

Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), the great German liberal Protestant theologian, thought the rot set in with the first verse of the Gospel of John, that is, with the philosophical implications of logos, as if the purity of early Christianity was challenged even as the Gospels were being written down. Pope Benedict, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, became notorious for his Regensburg Address (12 September 2006) because of some passing remarks about Islam that were understood as dismissive. But the most remarkable element of this speech – unnoticed by the journalists, of course – is how it challenged centuries of church teaching about Hellenization. He agreed that John 1.1 “bears the imprint of the Greek spirit” but welcomed this as a sign of Christianity’s development of monotheism against myth. Greek thinking could, at last, be embraced as integral to the development of Christianity.

Gold solidus depicting the Emperor Julian (obverse) and a soldier carrying a trophy while dragging a captive (reverse), within the motto VIRTVS EXERCITVS ROMANORVM (“The valour of the Roman army”). Antioch mint, AD 361–3.

The anxiety about how Hellenized Christianity could be was already a battleground in late antiquity. The emperor Julian (331–63, reigned 361–3), known as the Apostate, attempted to reverse the Christianization of the Empire and promoted a return to pagan religious observance. He promulgated a law, the Christians tell us, which banned Christians from teaching the Classics – the pagan literature of Greece –  on the reasonable grounds that either they were teaching what they did not believe and were thus hypocrites, or they did not believe Christian principles and were thus in their profession of Christianity… hypocrites. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–90) was one of those who exploded with rage at this slur. He passionately defended his paideia – his cultivated education – both against Julian’s attacks and against Christian ascetics who wanted Christianity to be more violently austere, and who “spit on learning”, as Gregory put it. Gregory of Nazianzus was mates with Basil of Caesarea (330–79), who wrote a treatise on how Christians could and should study Classics, and Gregory of Nyssa (335–95), who was equally committed to studying Greek literature and philosophy. These three Cappadocian Fathers of the Church, each theologically influenced by Origen, insisted on an elite, sophisticated, theologically informed leadership for the church. Gregory of Nazianzus has left us more poetry than any other Greek writer from antiquity: Christians, he insists, should have literature that is as good as pagan literature. The pagans can’t have all the best tunes.

But the Cappadocian Fathers also insisted that theology was the science necessary for a churchman and a science whose complexities were designed only for the few, the educated. Gregory was celibate and took a vow of silence for a year (during which he wrote reams of poetry), but he also had nice estates, drank wine and read an immense library. He was firmly not like the Syrian saints who sat on pillars for decades, displaying their rotting flesh to the crowds of pilgrims, nor like the monks in the desert monasteries, praying, fasting and working to order. The Cappadocian Fathers insisted that theology was crucial to being a good Christian. The bitter rows between Arians and what became the Orthodox Church – rows that culminated in the Councils of Nicaea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451 – are part and parcel of this turn towards a Christianity that is deeply intellectual, where church doctrine is central to religious observance and to self-understanding. For the Byzantines, Gregory was known simply enough as The Theologian. His sermons are the most copied texts of the past, after the New Testament, and became part of liturgy. Gregory’s Classical training was integral to how he could conceive of himself as a Christian. And the writing of Gregory and his friends changed the shape of Christianity, demanding an intense bookishness for this people of the book.

Gregory of Nazianzus, fresco of c.1315 (Kariye Camii, Istanbul, Turkey).

I have offered here three snapshots, each one of which could be expanded into very long and intricate histories. But my point is a simple one. In late antiquity, the Renaissance and the 19th century, the study of the Classical past was a fundamental and instrumental force in changing the shape of Christianity, and in revolutionary ways. For late antiquity, the study of Classics was integral to the formation of Christianity as a theological and critically sophisticated intellectual enterprise. For the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Greek learning fuelled the transformational violence – intellectual and physical – of the Reformation and the foundation of Protestantism. For the 19th century, Classical philology and critical history challenged the status of the texts of Christianity, and drove the doubts and transformations of secularisation, with continuing and profound purchase on contemporary culture.

In recent years, scholars of Classics have often self-lacerated about how the study of antiquity has been mobilized in the service of imperialism, social and educational exclusion, and even violent repression. It is good and right to be highly critical of such mobilisations in the past and, even more pressingly, in the present – and to act against them. But it will not do to ignore how much such mobilisations are in tension with – and often in response to – the radical potential of the study of Classical antiquity to transform the contemporary world. The history of how Classics and Christianity interact, both in complicity and in aggressive difference, is a wonderful test-case for the complexity and richness and seriousness of the battle between radical and conservative forces in understanding the past – and in how understanding the past continues to structure understanding of the present.


Simon Goldhill is Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge, and Foreign Secretary of the British Academy. He has lectured and broadcast all over the world, and his books have won three international prizes and been translated into ten languages.


Further Reading

On Late Antiquity, Glen Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World (Cambridge, MA, 1999); Philip Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford UP, 2009); Neil McLynn, Christian Politics and Religious Culture in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, Farnham, 2009).

On ascetics, Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia UP, New York, 1988).

On Erasmus, see my Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (Cambridge UP, 2002); Lisa Jardine, Erasmus Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print (Princeton UP, 1993).

On Ad Fontes see my chapter of that name in Adelene Buckland and Sadia Qureshi (eds.), Victorian Time Travellers (Chicago UP, 2019) 67–85.

On secularization, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2007; Saba Mahmoud, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton UP, 2015); Joan Wallach Scott Sex and Secularism (Princeton UP, 2018); Cécile Laborde Liberalism’s Religion (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2017); and Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford UP, 2003).

On Gregory of Nazianzus, the Cappadocians and Julian, see Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus and the Vision of Rome (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2012); Christopher Beeley (ed.), Re-Reading Gregory of Nazianzus: Essays on History, Theology and Culture (The Catholic Univ. of America Press, Washington, DC, 2012).

On Victorian Classics, see my Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction and the Proclamation of Modernity (Princeton UP, 2011); Christopher Stray Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities and Society in England 1830–1960 (Oxford UP, 1998).

On Victorian Theology, see Timothy Larsen, Contested Christianity: the Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology (Baylor UP, Waco, TX, 2004); Robert Morgan and John Barton Biblical Interpretation (Oxford UP, 1988)

For the Regensburg Address, see James Schall, The Regensburg Lecture (St Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IND, 2007); and Renaud Gagné, “Whose Handmaiden? ‘Hellenisation’ between Philology and Theology,” in Catherine Conybeare & S. Goldhill (eds.), Classical Philology and Theology: Entanglement, Disavowal and the God-Like Scholar (Cambridge UP, 2021) 110–25; Peter Martens, “Embodiment, heresy and the Hellenization of Christianity: the descent of the soul in Plato and Origen,” Harvard Theological Review 108 (2015) 594–620.