This book provides “the story of the intellectual give and take between Athens and Jerusalem during the first four and one half centuries when Jewish-Christian convictions encountered the commitments of the honored but aging Greek and Roman Classical world. On the whole, it would appear that Christianity was quite selective in its rejections, compromises, and endorsements of Classical values. It was fortunate that such was the case because the choices were momentous ones destined to have an incalculable impact on emerging western thought arising out of the synthesis of the two cultures, a synthesis so profound that it would reach its apex only in the thirteenth century and would suffer serious dissolutions only in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.” (233)
Notice: (1) the apex of the synthesis rests squarely on Aquinas, and (2) the dissolutions come when the premodern philosophy the Classical world supplied was jettisoned. These last are observations Weltin throws out, not things he researches or argues, but they map onto what Muller and Trueman teach, so I include them. The synthesis is the burden of the book.
“Though born in Hellenized Judaea, young Christianity quickly leaped over the wall of Palestine, alienated its Jewish parentage, and chose to risk its future among Gentiles in the Classical world of Greece and Rome.” (1) This is as good a summary of the first three centuries of the church as you will find in one sentence.
Weltin works through five different areas, explaining the synthesis. What kind of sense of the individual did the pagan world had? It was not strong. “As the original but persistent tribal consciousness yielded to the inexorable drive toward the larger commonwealth of polis and empire, the individual’s consciousness of his meaning and importance became blurred and more remote.” (22) Weltin himself is good at synthesizing. You read of Cicero and his moment, of Augustus and his moment, of Tiberius, of what Constantine did. Weltin puts it into a story, from the growing totalitarian concept of the Empire to its eventual demise. In order to achieve his ends, Weltin has to understand classical civilization thoroughly. He demonstrates that he does by showing he has read all there is to read, both in Antiquity and in Christian Late Antiquity. Of course, since I’m not an expert and have not read as widely or deeply as he has, I am in a way unqualified to judge. But what little I do know—thinly but widely distributed—rings true. His interpretations make sense. His argument is sound.
It is not how we usually think of the ancient world: they were totalitarians. But it is not a hard argument to make. You were for or against. You were in or you were out. You had everything or nothing. How did Christianity do with this totalitarian empire? “Once a larger number of individuals found meaning outside the corporate, the totalitarian sweep of the Classical commonwealth was threatened. When Jesus remarked ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ he not only enraged the Jews but eventually upset the whole Classical consensus.” (49) And so Christianity challenged, but as Weltin argues, it also modified and adapted the Classical consensus. The church and the state would vie for the individual afterward, resulting in a sense of the individual’s domain, or human rights.
His second area is the Rational, his third is Legal and Institutional, fourth the Aristocratic, and the last is Humanism. His survey of the philosophical outlooks is accurate, from what I can tell, and daunting: he has done his reading. The argument is that Christianity opted for appropriating speculative thought and providing rational answers (with Clement and Origen at the center of the story, as they should be), and that it got from Rome the way of practical, consistent laws and viable institutions to perpetuate itself. He argues that Christianity made a compromise with the Aristotelian aristocratic ideal (an elitist trap otherwise). Where he gets bogged down is in the chapter on Humanism, which ends up tangled Augustine’s views on free will. Yet he concludes that the classical project of humanism was uninterrupted, indeed, made more possible by Christianity because of the reaction to Augustine’s hard, dim outlook.
This was a hard book to read because the pages are so very full. One does not go as quickly as expected. I think its 236 pages could easily be 400, so one senses little progress. It is worth persevering through, however. It is always a joy to read a historian who can demonstrate a deep and wide knowledge of the primary sources because it is more interesting: there is more to learn, more to observe, more to connect. I was surprised how rich the book was. That it is long does not mean it is not lucid and interesting, but it does mean that the sustained effort of concentrating is protracted.
How much is the modern world indebted to Christianity? What might have been had Classical Antiquity not encountered Christianity? “Would not Protagoras, Aristotle, and Cicero have lived largely in vain?”