Keep christian literature out of the classics!

Today I saw a series of tweets which started with Tertullian’s Ad Nationes – a work rich in quotations from Varro – and then read as follows:

@hashtagoras: Tertullian v neglected by classicists, methinks.

@b_hawk: I’ve a feeling Tertullian is often relegated to religious studies, & often used more for contextual info.

@hashtagoras: By virtue of our training and the constitution of our canon, most classicists contrive to avoid christian stuff

He’s right, of course; they do.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Considering the sheer mass of Christian Latin and Greek literature, such a policy by classicists is simply a survival strategy.

If classicists “broadened” their canon, they would cease to be classicists.  Each would muddy the stream with some element of patristic or medieval material – interesting, certainly, but not classical in literary or linguistic terms – and we would lose touch with the pure classical world.  Nobody would know what was really classical any more.  Nobody would study pure classics any more.  In the process, the special qualities of classical studies would dissolve in the stream of all ancient literature.

The classics, as a discipline, is the study of the finest products, the highest point, the “classic” version of the literature of each language.  To focus on that is to identify it, and to study it.  To mix in other things is to cease to be a classicist.

Let us not forget that our society was brought into existence by the rediscovery of the classics.

Boundaries are important things.  We ring-fence things that are important to study, and exclude others from that fenced area.  We exclude other things, not because they don’t matter, but because the practical effect of admitting them is to dilute, to confuse, to muddle, and to dissolve the separate identity of the item we intend to study.

It occurs to me that current proposals in the USA to mingle Patristics and New Testament studies are equally liable to the same objection.  The reason that we study the NT by itself is because otherwise the slender volume of biblical literature will drown in the mass of patristic commentary upon it.  Anybody writing on Romans will instead end up referring 90% of the time to Origen; or Augustine.

In fact, when we start thinking of Augustine, and the mass of material of that date, subsuming the pure New Testament, then aren’t we at once face-ot-face with Catholicism?

I wonder (ignorantly) whether New Testament studies exists as a distinct discipline for exactly this reason.  Did protestants in the early modern world grow tired of patristic wrangling matches with catholics about texts which the former did not consider authoritative?  I can see that it might happen.  I can see that they wanted to study the New Testament for itself, without the long shadow of later anachronistic interpretation.  Medieval bible study is what you get if you combine the two.  It would be ironic if the efforts of atheists like Bart Ehrman, to invade Patristics, resulted instead in New Testament studies disappearing into a Catholic-style discipline.

Let us preserve the distinctions.  If we want something studied, keep a firm hand on the edges.  I know that patristics and late antique studies have benefited greatly from the work of Roman historians like T.D.Barnes, who made the journey over the boundary.  But if we want to keep benefiting, let’s keep classics healthy.

Which means no Tertullian in the classics schools, please.


5 thoughts on “Keep christian literature out of the classics!

  1. Extreme academic specialization was largely a product of the late nineteenth century, not the early modern period. In fact, you still see people in the early 1900’s in the UK mocking modern specialization as something weird from US universities. Individual academics would specialize, but their teaching or tutoring would be more general. The idea of people only majoring in the NT, instead of in theology or the Biblical languages or various forms of Greek, would have been thought weird.

    I would say that the problem today is not so much that young academic people specialize as that they often have very little general background knowledge. This can come back to bite them. I was just reading Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God, which is a very interesting book about a native Hebrew speaker reading English Bible translations for the first time (including some useful Hebrew hints), and was stunned by how much she did not get about the Christian Bible studies world after putting years into this book and talking to academics. She has a long bit where she lovingly describes Jewish Bibles printed with rabbinical commentaries all around them, and proposes that Christian religious history would be totally different if Christian Bibles did the same thing, and then she says that only the Geneva Bible ever attempted anything similar. She totally knows nothing of the Glossa Ordinaria, even though she does know about Akkadian linguistics. (There are other large knowledge gaps, basically explained by the fact that you can attempt to study the NT while ignoring anything Septuagint, patristic, or medieval, while easily running across Biblical commentaries by US football coaches. But I do not understand why her academic advisers did not point out these gaps, as I thought that was what a thesis advisor does.) So obviously we have trouble conveying even basic summary type info, in today’s academia.

    As for NT studies, I was just reading Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus from the library, and he is one of many academics who has discovered that you can’t understand certain Gospel things without understanding Jewish culture, history, and OT prophetic interpretations. And then, sure enough, you tend to find out that the Fathers already explained in detail about that Jewish thing you just “discovered”! Ignoring the Fathers also led to folks like Ehrman being blithely able to ignore them on topics like Gospel authorship, while quoting them whenever it furthers his particular BS of the moment.

    Anyhow, I agree that classicists should not be forced to read early Christian stuff, and vice versa. But I also think that wide, unforced background reading for pleasure is helpful, and that you often find and bring back goodies for your particular field after reading material from related fields. (Like yet another footnote for Beatus.)

  2. My Universities classics department, in my time secular the freshman Latin courses being Caesar and Cicero, is now part of the Religious Studies Department. Saddened me to see the change of focus and made me reconsider a bequest. Dr. Obbink and I both did our undergraduate work there, such as he might never arise there again.

  3. Re: moving Classics to Religious Studies —

    So they’re now studying pagan Roman religion instead of Classics? Do they sacrifice roosters too?

    I agree that “Religious Studies” is pretty useless. Either you’re doing Theology or Anthropology. There’s no middle road.

Leave a Reply