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The Classics, the Incarnation and Christianity
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The perennial problem for Catholic teachers of Latin and Greek literature is how to integrate these disciplines into the ultimate aim of education, which ennobles what is merely natural in life and secures for it new strength in the material and temporal order, no less than in the spiritual and eternal.  In other words, how can the pagan classics of Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and the rest be so spiritualized as to make their inclusion in the curriculum of a Catholic high school or college not only tolerable but positively desirable as instruments for producing, in the words of Pius XI, the true Christian, who thinks, judges and acts in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ. 
Many answers are possible and every teacher has his own method. The following study is intended to show one way in which the problem may be solved. For our basis of integration we shall take a body of religious facts which are frequently met in Latin and Greek. These will be evaluated with a view to profiting the student both academically and spiritually, and doing this by drawing upon the very essence of the pagan and Christian religions. As the subject of integration we shall use the transformation of gods into men and men into gods, which run as a theme through all the ancient classics.
Incarnation and Deifications Among the Greeks and Romans
The human-divine transformations in the Greek and Roman religion found expression in the only two ways possible: either as anthropomorphoses, where the gods took on human shape and consorted with men upon earth, or as apotheoses, whereby men became elevated to the status of the gods. It is often quite hard to distinguish between the two. Thus when Horace describes Pollux, Hercules, Augustus, Bacchus and Quirinus as assuming their seat at the celestial board, and beginning to partake of the nectar of the gods, the suspicion arises that merit so transcendent must have been of heavenly origin, and a birth story is invented to show that the person who was apotheosized was in reality, and antecedently, a god in human form.
However, there are numerous instances where the gods are directly said to have been humanized, generally for the purpose of gratifying their amorous desires. In this way the sons of Zeus by human mothers were innumerable. Among them were Perseus, Castor and Pollux, who were specially called the sons of Zeus, Hercules and Bacchus, Aeacus and Sarpedon. Many too were the sons of Poseidon, most of whom were marked by gigantic size and ruthlessness. Of the three brothers who divided the world between them, Hades alone seems to have been without issue of any kind.
The sons of the gods did not fail to show their mixed ancestry, by also entering into union with mortal women. As a consequence, a particular member of the human family might have attributed to him or her a strain of the divine. Theseus for example was said to have been the son of Poseidon. Troilus the son of Apollo, Meleager the son of Ares. Where the attribution of divine origin may have begun with a purely legendary figure, its terminus was not infrequently a real historical person. Thus the mythical chieftain Hellen was reputed to have been the son not of Deucalion, but of Zeus, which at once conferred the patent of divine nobility upon every Hellene. All the Greek physicians claimed to be descended from Asclepius, the god of medicine and son of Apollo. Along the same lines, Socrates is made to argue in the Euthyphro that all sculptors were descended from Daedalus, and so from Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, corresponding to the Roman Vulcan.
Love was not the only motive which induced the gods to take on human shape. It was anger at the gods which drove Demeter to leave heaven and incarnate herself as a woman. Hera wished to gratify her spite against Heracles and so assumed the form of an Amazon. On occasion the operating motive was the censorship of human morals. We read that Apollo and Poseidon assumed the figure of men in order to test the insolence of Laomedon; and Zeus himself came to earth in the likeness of a laboring-man to test Lycaon and his fifty sons, who were notorious for their wickedness. The same reputed motive underlies the well-known story of Baucis and Philemon, which was popularized by the poet Ovid. And we know from Hesiod that the gods were believed to roam the earth in the likeness of men to spy on their moral conduct.
Corresponding to divine incarnations are the legends of deification. Among the Greeks, after Plato had achieved immortality by his writings, he was reported to have been a son of Apollo. Incidentally, he is the only philosopher among the ancients who thus attained the honor of a birth story. The Spartan kind Demaratus, according to Herodotus, was declared by his mother to have been the son of the hero-god Atrabacus. Alexander the Great was believed even in his life-time to be the offspring of the sun-god Ammon. Similar apotheoses fill the pages of Roman history, from the founding of the city to the time of Constantine. Romulus, the traditional founder of Rome, was held to be the son of Mars and Ilia; and after death he was said to have returned to his heavenly home by being carried up to the gods from the Campus Martius. So too Aeneas is reported to have been deified and worshipped as Aeneas Indiges on the banks of the River Numicus.
With the beginning of the Empire, the deification of Roman rulers became an established practice of the nation. Julius Caesar was declared to be a god- Divus was the term used- the title given him by senatorial decree and his worship was put on a full ceremonial basis, with temple, priests and ritual. The same thing was done in the case of Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus. As time went on, this phase of the Roman religion grew apace. For while only four of the first eleven emperors attained deification, from Nerva on almost all were made Divi. The last of the Divi, deified in 307 A.D., was Romulus, the son of Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated at the Milvian bridge. There is no record of a member of the imperial family being formally deified in Rome during his lifetime. But there is ample evidence that the emperors were worshipped as gods in the provinces and in various parts of Italy even before their death. Moreover deification was not limited to emperors or members of the imperial household. The poet Virgin attained a virtual deification, and there were many who believed that the magician Apollonius of Tyana had divine powers, so that temples were erected in his honor.
Rationalist Interpretation of Pagan Incarnation and Deifications
The foregoing summary of pagan mythology is a commonplace to anyone familiar with the classics. But it has not been a commonplace in the hands of the enemies of Christian revelation. They have found in these human-divine transmutations so many arguments against the fundamental doctrine of Christianity, which is the Incarnation of the Son of God. As far back as the second century, the Epicurean philosopher Celsus argued against the divinity of Christ by appealing to parallels in Greek mythology, where gods and demi-gods become men, die and rise again from the dead. There was, he said, Zamolxis who dwelt beneath the earth for three years and returned to the surface alive; Rhampsinitus who played at dice with Demeter and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he received from her as a gift, besides Orpheus, Protesilaus, Hercules, Theseus and others.  Towards the end of the third century, when the struggle between Christianity and decadent paganism had reached its final stage, it occurred to some of the enemies of the new religion to set up Apollonius of Tyana as a rival of Jesus Christ. Apollonius was a sorcerer of the second century who was deified in Asia Minor. The many wonders reported in his life made him a formidable competitor in the minds of the pagans to Jesus of Nazareth. Since the rise of deism in the sixteenth century and up to modern times, critics of the Gospel have used the Life of Apollonius above Socrates and equal to Jesus as a god.  Sanday describes him as the most conspicuous example of a worker of pagan miracles.  Guignebert believes there is an essential similarity between Jesus and Apolloniusboth equivalently divine. 
Around the turn of the century an entire volume was published on the subject of Pagan Christs, in which the author tried to prove the hypothesis of a pre-Christian Jesus-God, as found in the pagan mythologies.  In recent years a series of books in commentary on the classics and in the field of comparative religion has been written with the undisguised purpose of equating the divinity of Christ with the incarnate gods and deified heroes of Greek and Roman antiquity. In Salomon Reinachs Orpheus, which has gone through thirty-eight editions, we are told that there are between Orphism and Christianity analogies so evident and so striking that it is impossible to accept them as accidental.  According to Gordon Laing, professor of Latin at the University of Chicago, Roman society at the time when Christianity emerged, was wholly familiar with the ideas of a man-god. Therefore the Christians adapted themselves to the pagan attitude, and also deified their hero-founder, Jesus of Nazareth.  Dr. Hopkins, professor of Comparative Philology at Yale, states that Christianity utilized for the construction of its Church, much pagan material, particularly from the Grecian cults. Baptism, fast purification, vigil, the hope of immortality and resurrection, miraculous cures, water turned into wine, all these were pre-Christian. More significantly, however:
The religious of the divine Mother and of Mithra had already taught the doctrine of a redeeming god, whose experience was shared by the initiated believer. Mortal man through the death and resurrection of the god became by partaking in the sacraments a partaker also in the divine nature; he was mystically cleansed of sin by blood or water and became a sharer in divine immortality. The epiphany of Dionysos became the epiphany of Christ. 
The list of radical comparative religionists includes teachers in schools of divinity, such as Frederick C. Grant of the Union Theological Seminary, who declares in his preface to Hellenistic Religions that early Christianity lived and flourished in a world of cults, old and new, of ancient Greek or Hellenized shrines, oracles, temples, priesthoods, and of new mystery rites of redemption. Consequently a theology of syncretism was created which proved useful to Christians in working out the intellectual presuppositions of their faith. As a result, on the basis of this theology rested many ideas of the mysteriosophical type widely favored in later antiquity, notably, the concept of a divine man, indeed, of a god-man. 
Catholic Interpretation of Pagan Incarnations and Deifications
Confronted on almost every page of the classics with gods in human form, the Catholic teacher has an opportunity, not to say a duty, to interpret this phenomenon properly to the student. Under pressure from the adversaries since the time of Justin and Origen, Christian apologists have developed two principal methods of explanation; the first appealing to reason and history alone, the second also invoking the aid of primitive revelation.
Do you think it would be a mean sort of life for a man, if his gaze were directed on that goal, and he not only beheld it in all its perfection but associated himself with the same? Do you not suppose that there alone, contemplating the Fair as best it may be seen, it will be his privilege to produce not the mere images of virtue but true virtues themselves, since it is Truth which he embraces. And after rearing true virtue which he begot, shall he not become dear to the gods and immortalif ever this lot may befall a man? 
Between these two extremes, with varying degrees of clarity, the poets and philosophers among the Greeks and Latins voiced the common hunger of their fellow pagans to partake in some way of the good things that were enjoyed by the gods. The gods would never die, so the people conceived their heroes and great men as taken up to the heavenly regions to receive the elixir of life which gave them immortality. The gods were very powerful, so on occasion a deity came down to earth to beget an offspring of superhuman strength, as in the case of Hercules. The gods were very wise, so at times they joined in marriage with mortal women to produce such men as Plato, who was deified. The gods were handsome and the goddesses beautiful, so in the case of Pandora, Vulcan made her of clay, but Venus gave her beauty, and the art of captivating was bestowed on her by the Graces.
Refutation of the Errors of Comparative Religionists
Having laid a foundation to explain the Graeco-Roman deifications and incarnations, the teacher is faced with the problem of answering the charge of modern rationalism that Christianity as a system, and its central dogma of the Incarnation in particular, are natural developments from pagan mythology. The more effectively this is done, the better will the students be prepared to meet the newest assault on the supernaturality of their faith.
The accusations of borrowing from paganism are not easy to classify. They are often so groundless as to defy analysis. But on one point at least there seems to be common agreement, that the pivotal doctrine of the Incarnation is a natural sublimation, derived from the ancient religions, notably of Greece and Rome. As described by one author:
The ideas of an Incarnate Saviour, of the Virgin Birth, of the Second Advent, of the Sacraments these seemed to be distinctive possessions of Christianity; these were marks clearly dividing it from any form of paganism . But it proves that we were completely mistaken. The modern study of primitive religion shows that every one of these beliefs is, or has been, held in some part or other of the pagan world, quite independently of Christianity. 
This attitude is the stock-in-trade of many textbooks and reference sources presently in use in non-Catholic universities.  It has been refuted many times, as far back as Origens reply Against Celsus. But the arguments need to be better known, first in principle and the in practice, to meet the modern counterpart to the enemies of the Church in the patristic age. In the following sequence, the arguments are directed against the radical claim that the Christian Incarnation is a natural development from pagan mythology.
Pope Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis instructed Catholics, especially teachers, to be on their guard against those who hold that the so-called theory of evolution explains the origin of all things, and they go so far as to support the monistic and pantheistic notion that the whole world is subject to continual evolution.  This warning has many applications, but none more important than regarding the origin of Christianity. Consequently if the teachers of religion and theology have a duty to explain the coming of Christ as a supernatural even that is unique in the history of the world, teachers of the classics have at least an opportunity to show that the Incarnation is not a natural evolution from the mythologies of pagan Greece and Rome.
 Pope Pius XI, Christian Education of Youth (New York: The Paulist Press, 1939), p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Celsus original diatribe has perished.But we have about ninetenths of it, mostly verbatim, in Origens Contra Celsum, written about 250 A.D., which is properly regarded as the great apologetic work of antiquity.
 Ernest Renán, The Life of Jesus (New York: Modern Library, 1927), p. 388.
 William Sunday, The Life of Jesus in Recent Research (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), p. 206.
 Charles Guigenbert, Jesus (London: Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1935), p. 193.
 John M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, Studies in Comparative Hierology (London: Watts and Co., 1911), p. xi.
 Salomon Reinach, Orpheus, A History of Religious (New York: Liveright, Inc., 1930), p. v.
 Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1931), p. 120.
 E. Washburn Hopkins, Origin and Evolution of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923), p. 334.
 Frederick C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions, The Age of Syncretism (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), p. xxxviii.
 Tertullian, Apology (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), p. 53.
 Homer, Iliad, XXVI: 526.
 Platonis Opera, II, Symposium (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 210e.
 Ibid., p. 211a-212a.
 Pietro Parente, La salvezza degli infedeli, LOsservatore Romano, February 15, 1951.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa Iiae, q. 2, a. 7-8.
 Vivian Phelips, Concerning Progressive Revelation (London: Watts and Co., 1937), pp. 7-8.
 It is not only philologists and secular academicians who propagate the theory vom Mythos zum Logos, but also teachers in schools of divinity. A recent example is Robert M. Grant, professor of theology at the University of the South, who goes through three hundred pages to prove that the miracles of Christ which claim to prove His divinity are only symbols [or] stories conveying pictures of the freedom and the power of God. However, some of the church fathers [like Augustine] were too much under the spell of Greek rationalism to be able to avoid rationalizing their own myths. They had to treat the miracles of fiat as if they were events subject to sense-perception. See Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1952), p. 269.
 Tertullian, op. cit., p. 36.
 St. Augustine, The City of God, Bk. II (Edinburgh: T. Clark, 1934), chap. Xxvii, p. 88.
 S. Angus, The Mystery-Religions and Christianity (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1925), pp. 309-311. The second-century Assyrian quoted is Tatian. The reference is from his apology Ad Graecos, p. 21.
 St. Augustine, op. cit., Bk. X, chap. Xvi, p. 406.
 Pliny Letters (New York: G.P. Putnams Sons, 1927), pp. 401-405. This is Letter 96, in Book X, of the standard collection.
 Ibid., p. 407.
 I Cor. 10:20.
 Rom. 1:22-23.
 St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1948), chaps. xxiv-xxv, pp. 59-60.
 Ibid., p. 61.
 Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of Religion, Journal of Speculative Philosophy, XV (January, 1881), 9-11.
 John B. Sparks, Histomap of Religion (Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1952). Introducing the histomap, which is widely used in public high schools, is a verse from the Moslem writer Abdu el-Yezdi:
All Faith is false, all Faith is true:
 Pope Pius XII, The Encyclical Humani Generis (Weston, Mass.: Weston College Press, 1951), p. 7.
The Catholic Educational Review
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