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from issue no. 11 - 2003

Inculturation in the first millennium

Bruno Luiselli, Professor of Latin Literature, explains in his latest book how Christianity spread in the early centuries among the illiterate and the poor speaking in their own languages and through their own cultures. From the beginning the dynamics of inculturation were an obvious need, even though not theorized. An interview

by Paolo Mattei

Left, the offerers presented to Saint Ambrose by the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, east side of the ciborium (10th century), Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan

Left, the offerers presented to Saint Ambrose by the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, east side of the ciborium (10th century), Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan

Professor Bruno Luiselli calls the period in western Europe going from the 5th to the 8th century the «Romano-Barbarian age ». Centuries of epochal upheaval, of invasion of frontiers, of massive and violent migrations by nomadic and pagan people into the territories of the former Roman Empire. Centuries always simplified overhastily in the metaphor of sunset, with the night of cultural and human silence naturally to follow it. «Whereas I’ve always studied the period with eyes turned not to its past, but to its future. I look at the age not from a retrospective point of view but from a prospective one», Luiselli, Professor of Latin Literature at La Sapienza University, lecturer at the “Augustianum” Patristic Institute in Rome, explains to 30Days. The “prospective” viewpoint adopted by the professor makes for a better assessment in terms of human and cultural growth of the wealth of the harvest that ripened during the centuries of the Romano-Barbarian Age in western Europe. In his latest book, La formazione della cultura europea occidentale (The formation of western European culture), (Herder, Rome 2003), Luiselli goes over the stages in those great transformations. And pays particular attention to the evangelization process among peoples in the territories of the Empire and of the so-called Barbarians, using such lately coined sociological categories as “inculturation” and “acculturation”. We asked him some questions.

What sense does it make to speak of inculturation in the early centuries of Christianity?
BRUNO LUISELLI: The term inculturation is a gain of recent years, beginning with the Vatican II Ecumenical Council. It’s the dynamic through which the Gospel message and Christian doctrine enters local languages and cultures, they inculturate, to reach the recipients of the message, the doctrine, in relevant fashion. A rich bibliography on inculturation has been growing over the years; conferences are held and much theorizing is being done on it. So I asked myself: did early Christianity, did the early Church not have a dynamic of the kind, even if not theorized as now? I began thinking about it and I realized that many aspects and dynamics of Christianity in the early centuries were nothing other than inculturation. They didn’t theorize about inculturation, but it was an obvious need. And so I decided to write a history of christianization within the Roman world and in the so-called Barbarian areas, Germanic and Celtic.
You explain that one of the first manifestations of the concept of inculturation is to be found in Paul’s address to the Athenians on the Aeropagus.
LUISELLI: Yes, it is the episode that one reads in the Acts of the Apostles 17, 22-31. Paul is the first to enunciate the taking-in by Christianity of elements of pagan culture, precisely the altar to the Unknown God and the verse of the Greek poet-philosopher Aratus: «of that god we are the stock». The Apostle proclaims that the altar the pagans have dedicated to the god they do not know has been unconsciously erected to the true God. Paul thus enunciates the adopting of pagan reality for the purposes of the Christian message. But I should say that inculturation occurs in the history of Christianity even before the discourse on the Aeropagus. The very first occurrence is the Incarnation itself, when the Word with a capital W, God, takes on human nature and is expressed with the word of man, in time, in the particular place and culture in which Jesus lived. «The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us», says John.
Who were the recipients of Christian inculturation in the early centuries?
LUISELLI: First of all the poor. In Matthew 11.5 it says that «to the poor the good news is proclaimed». And the recipients of the first of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5,3) are « the poor in spirit» who, in my view, are precisely the poor, those who don’t possess riches. That is confirmed by the parallel Beatitude, in Luke 6,20, which only says «blessed are the poor». Indeed, the qualification «in spirit» underlines, in my view, the situation of the poor that doesn’t allow them the arrogance and the dogmaticity typical of the economically dominant classes.
How is the partiality for the poor in the evangelization of the Roman world expressed?
LUISELLI: The poor, the illiterate masses, were by far the largest component in ancient society. So the Christian message inculturated itself among the poor, among the illiterate masses, speaking in their own languages and with their own cultures. I show in the book that the Latin through which the Christian message is expressed at the moment in which it is addressed to the masses of the Roman world, is a humble, degraded Latin. That is why pagan intellectuals turned up their noses. The Christian apologists answered their criticisms with magnificent anti-grammatical and anti-purist stances. As Arnobius explained: «Is what is said less true perhaps because errors are made in number or case or preposition or participle or conjugation?» Augustine himself shows, in the very marrow of his preaching, the desire to make himself understood by the humble recipients of his words: «What do we care for the pretensions of grammarians? It is well that you understand us while we utter barbarisms, rather than that you are abandoned by us while we speak with eloquence»; or: «Being reprimanded by teachers of grammar is preferable to not being understood by people».
But the Christian message is by its nature addressed to everybody…
LUISELLI: Agreed. The socially elevated classes, the Roman intelligentsia was certainly not excluded from redemption. Hence the Christian message was also expressed through the culture of the aristocratic intelligentsia. Here we must remember that Christianity while being and remaining “religion of Tradition” is also “religion of the book”. The apostles of Christ and their successors brought both the oral Tradition and the Book, that is to say the canon of Old and New Testament texts, to all the world. For reading and understanding the Book par excellence Christian intellectuals found convenient and useful the tools of reading that the Roman scholastic and Hellenistic tradition put at their disposal. The profane Greco-Roman culture came together with the Christian one. The profane culture consisted of grammar, rhetoric, dialectics and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, i.e. the two complexes of disciplines, the artes liberales, that afterwards, from late antiquity and then throughout the Middle Ages, were to be called the “trivium” and the “quadrivium”. That is another type of inculturation, entirely within the Roman world. The Christian message when addressed to the pagan intelligentsia used a fitting idiom, exploiting the traditional arsenal of rhetoric, as seen, for example, in the literature in defense of the Christian creed from the attacks of the intelligentsia. Many Christians were pupils of pagan teachers and themselves became teachers of grammar and rhetoric to pagan pupils. In this way Christianity assimilated and preserved the most prestigious product of paganism: a great deal of classical culture and the school. In synthesis, one can say that the inculturation of Gospel doctrine in the Roman world was the assumption and valorization, by the Christians, of two different cultures expressive of that same world: of the humble one of the masses, to which the Christian message was chiefly addressed, and the elevated one of the cultured aristocracy.
And what happened in the Barbarian areas of the western world?
LUISELLI: Christianity spread according to the same dynamic of inculturation among the Germanic and Celtic peoples also, with the use of local languages and cultures when it was a matter of speaking at the level of the poor masses. Whereas when it was a matter of explaining the Book par excellence, those areas lacked the expressive cultured tradition and the grammatical doctrine and rhetoric present in the Roman world. It therefore became necessary to introduce into the extra-Roman territories the tools used in interpreting the scriptural text. Hence in non-Roman areas inculturation at the second level, the more elevated level, was transformed into “acculturation” into the Roman. Thus the dynamics of inculturation, using the local languages and cultures, legitimated and valorized those same languages and cultures, encouraging the birth of national literatures in the vernacular. While the dynamics of acculturation into the Roman created the intellectual koinè of Roman education capable of writing and speaking in Latin.
Saint Augustine dictating to a cleric, Sermon book of Egino (Codex Egino), late 7th century, National Library, Berlin

Saint Augustine dictating to a cleric, Sermon book of Egino (Codex Egino), late 7th century, National Library, Berlin

Within the Empire itself there were those, especially among the poor, who didn’t know Latin. What was the dynamic of inculturation in those cases?
LUISELLI: Yes, within the Roman world itself there were enclaves of resistance to Romanization and then of linguistic resistance to consequent Latinization. Some sensitive bishops strove to use the languages and cultures of peoples that we today define as “alloglot”: groups that were part of the Roman politico-institutional world but who still hadn’t assimilated Roman culture, to the point of not being able to express themselves in Latin. One example is Roman Africa, for the evangelization of which we have the testimony of Augustine. To reach up-country people Augustine considered it best to preach in the Punic language, what we today would call, in scholarly fashion, the “neo-Punic” language. Augustine was unable to preach in that language, though he knew a little of it. He therefore made use of one of his deacons, Lucillus, who spoke Punic. Augustine considered the collaboration of this deacon so important as to refuse to cede him to the bishop of Sitifi, Lucillus’s own brother, who had asked for him. Augustine wanted to speak to this vulgus humillimum, and he himself has testified that, apart from sermons, elementary psalms were composed in Punic as an aid to Christian education.
How did Christianity spread among the non-Roman peoples?
LUISELLI: Christianization in the early centuries was not official, not organized from above. The occasions were various. Prisoners, for example. Christians who were captured in Barbarian raids caught the attention of their masters who were intrigued by their goodness and positive humanity. This dynamic is already known from the second half of the 3rd century. Commodianus, a very interesting Christian poet, tells it us clearly when he speaks of pagan Goth invaders feeding Christians. Another channel were the merchants, leading spirits in terms of contacts within the “intralimitanean” Roman world – this side the confines of the Empire – and the “extralimitanean” world – beyond the confines of the Roman world. Tacitus speaks of it. It was not a matter of a learned or organized christianization. They were rather encounters between ordinary people, people of the lower orders. So, to summarize: in the Gothic areas, in the Germanic – both beyond the Rhine and among the British, that is among the Anglo-Saxons – and in the Celtic area, that is in the extreme west of Britain and in Ireland, I have been able to ascertain how the first seeds of Christianity were spread precisely by these humble people. That’s how the first believers came into being. The official Church always arrived later, that is when it became aware of the presence of believers in the non-Roman world. Then bishops were created ad hoc who were dispatched as pastors.
Your book goes over the history of christianization up to the 9th century. In 813 the Council of Tours was held, in a certain sense the “officialization” of Christian inculturation…
LUISELLI: The Council of Tours represents an epochal change, a fundamental moment. In canon 17 the community of Council Fathers establishes that the preaching texts inherited from the great antecedent Christian patristic tradition are no longer to be said in Latin but in « rusticam Romanam linguam Theodiscam aut, quo facilius cuncti possint intellegere quae dicuntur», that is in rustic “Roman” or in the “German” language so that everybody may more easily understand what is said. It was the recognition of the two large geocultural components making up Charlemagne’s empire: the world that had been Roman, the Romance world, of Latin tradition, as far as the Rhineland; and the Germanic world, from the Rhineland on. There were bishops from one and the other element at the Council of Tours. In the Romance area preaching was, from that moment onwards, to take place in the “Roman” but “rustic” tongue, that is in the mode of speech that derived from Latin; in the other area, in the Germanic mode. These two great geopolitical situations – the former Gallic Romance, now French, and the Germanic were to become leading nations in the history of Europe and the world.

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