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June 03, 2007


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The Christians didn't take over the temples of Zeus or Artemis; they turned them into living spaces or markets and built a new cathedral.

Bait! no, I'm not surprised. Artemis is an interesting choice as tutelary goddess -- perhaps because Gerasa was on the margin of the wild?

Early manuscripts of Mark have Gerasa instead of Gadara for the "my name is Legion" pigs incident. Only problem is, there's no lake. (The pigs make sense either way: both towns were in the Decapolis, which was mainly Greek and gentile. As was Amman, come to think of it.)


I had visited Jarash 2 years ago, but there is no sign of changing Zeus and Artemis to Masjed (Mosque), I found there prayer place totally built as Muslims praying places.

Doug M.

Ady, look again -- I didn't say the pagan temples became mosques.

Carlos, why not surprised?

Interesting about Mark. There's definitely no lake. There is a small river -- we'd call it a stream at best -- at the bottom of a gorge.

The city had a sewer system, BTW, and some seriously advanced architecture. It might have been literally on the edge of nowhere, but they kept up.

Doug M.


Because direct reconsecration of pagan temples as Christian churches was the exception, not the rule. In Rome, the Pantheon was used for secular purposes for two hundred years before being converted to a church. The Parthenon in Athens was reconsecrated after the temple was shut down and its great cult statue of Athena was looted (and in the 15th century it was turned into a mosque, but that's another story).

Sometimes the old site was demolished, like the Marneion in Gaza. Gaza was an intensely pagan city at the beginning of the 5th century. Zeus Marnas may have been equivalent to Dagon. (The Zeus in Gerasa is Zeus Olympios: the guy in Clash of the Titans, no local attributes.) All the temples in Gaza were demolished -- the Life of Porphyry takes lip-smacking pride in the destruction of the naked statue of Aphrodite -- but the Marneion was marked for special attention: torched with pitch and sulfur and pig's fat for days. Not even the old floorplan was used when building the new church on the site. They used the old stone to pave the streets.

There's a silly myth of pagan syncretism to Christianity (which you know is one of my hot buttons), as if early Christian missionaries were just fine with a santeria-like phase before they brought in the seminaries and the Magdalene Laundries. No, they knew what paganism was: demonic, or at best deceptive.

Noel Maurer

Carlos: from whence the myth of Christian syncretism? My guess is that it's reading the history of Christianity in the Americas back into the history of Christianity in Europe. Then again, I know the history of Christianity in the Americas, and so I may be making an unwarranted assumption.

So, from whence the misconception? (And if anyone on this blog ever misuses the word "meme" to mean "idea" or "misconception," I will wag my finger in a highly reproachful manner.)

Dennis Brennan

I betcha it's extrapolation from St. Christopher, Christmas traditions and Easter eggs, plus the stuff from Spanish America that you mention.


There are several different waves -- early humanism, early linguistic nationalism -- but the most currently influential in the English-speaking world is the literary anthropology of Sir James George Frazer and his followers. Frazer compared vast collections of myths, histories, and Victorian era field reports to the Bible, deliberately looking for common characteristics, which (by the standards of the time) implied a historical narrative. He was not himself a historian, but a classicist.

There was also a strong Celtic strain to this branch of scholarship, and Ireland does look like one of the few places in Europe where there was syncretic assimilation to Christianity.

The actual history of Christianity in the Americas played little role in the development of these ideas.

The story of Star Wars is a spin-off from this branch of scholarship. So is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. So is modern witchcraft. There's a definite flavor.

Andrew R.

The "Saints were just pagan gods with the serial numbers scraped off" has been pretty much exploded in the last few generations of scholarship. There are, OTOH, some examples of what might seem syncretic in the Evangelization of the Germanic peoples. Gregory the Great's letter to Abbot Mellitus (I.XXX of Bede's Ecclesiastical History), after all, counsels that the English pagan places of worship should be turned into churches to help ease their transition to Christianity.

Actually, as long as we're talking about enculturation, Carlos, what do you think of Jean-Claude Schmitt and Jacques LeGoff?


Been a while since I've read Bede, but "the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed," is not very syncretic.

I suspect Noel has in mind one particular town in Chiapas which venerates 'John the Baptist' (and uses Coca-Cola as a sacrament).

Actually, as long as we're talking about enculturation, Carlos, what do you think of Jean-Claude Schmitt and Jacques LeGoff?

Now you reach the limits of my knowledge. I've read some LeGoff, know of Schmitt, but don't know how they fit into current medieval scholarship.

Andrew R.

Carlos, you referring to limits of your knowledge is disconcerting. If you've read a bit of LeGoff and are familiar with Schmitt, you've basically got where they stand in medieval scholarship. They're very much of the anthropological turn of mind and tend to have a view of a culture that is in the main folkloric with a thin clerical stratum on top (that was the highly simplified version). It's very much in line with annales historiography in general.It's an approach that has it's detractors, especially in those who find it methodologically sketchy to try and construct an authentic folk culture using things like exempla which are, after all, written down by churchmen. There's also disagreement with seeing a clerical class as opposed to a tissue of multiple competing interests.Schmitt tends to stick in my craw for a few of the above reasons. But then, I also know that my own tendencies are to privileging text based authority. So I figured I'd ask you your thoughts.And on a final note, no, the approach counseled by Greg is not *that* syncretic, but can provide ammunition to someone predisposed to look for a thin veneer of Christianity over a largely pagan culture.Okay, now it's off to do productive things.


"Another seems to be that the region around Gerasa got largely depopulated... not sure why."

A late comment, or better to say, quote:

The defining characteristics of the Jordan region under most of these rulers was a remoteness from the seat of power; an Islamic population that was predominantly Sunni; a definitive decline in trade; a depopulation of the towns and other sedentary agricultural settlements, coupled with an influx of nomadic Arab bedouins; and an increasing reliance on the pilgrim caravan trade to Mecca.


That influx of Bedouins and the reliance on the pilgrims looks to be the main reason why the walls weren't carried away to become new walls.

BTW, hi, Doug. :-)

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