But what was the sun like,
before it came up?

Walter de la Mare

Just as the Church initially sought to interpret Jesus as the glory of the people of Israel, so during the early years of the Christian faith it turned to interpreting him as the light of revelation long expected and foreshadowed in the cultures of many Gentiles. From the rich cultural cache of Greco-Roman civilization, Christian thinkers seized upon a wide swath of symbols and ideas that they believed to be arrows directing the Gentile community towards Christ. Although they could not have known it at the time, the theologians who attempted to reconcile these two bodies of thought were engaged in the task of grappling with what became the two pillars of western civilization - Greco-Roman culture and Christian faith.
But what was the sun like,
before it came up?

Walter de la Mare

Just as the Church initially sought to interpret Jesus as the glory of the people of Israel, so during the early years of the Christian faith it turned to interpreting him as the light of revelation long expected and foreshadowed in the cultures of many Gentiles. From the rich cultural cache of Greco-Roman civilization, Christian thinkers seized upon a wide swath of symbols and ideas that they believed to be arrows directing the Gentile community towards Christ. Although they could not have known it at the time, the theologians who attempted to reconcile these two bodies of thought were engaged in the task of grappling with what became the two pillars of western civilization - Greco-Roman culture and Christian faith.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Saint Paul Preaching on Mars Hill

Saint Paul (died c.65), known as "Apostle of the Gentiles," pursued his missionary work vigorously. Through his encounter with Christ, life's meaning had been restored to him and he was compelled to share his new-found meaning with others.

T. Shilippoteaux
19th Century
Engraving
PMA:J99.1968.
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


And therefore it behoved that blessed Job also, who uttered those high mysteries of His Incarnation, should by his life be a sign of Him, Whom by voice he proclaimed, and by all that he underwent should show forth what were to be His sufferings…

Gregory the Great, Moralia on Job, § 14 (26)

While messianic hope and messianic prophecy had been distinctive features of the Jewish faith, they were in no way the exclusive property of the Israelite community. Even within the Hebrew Bible itself, there appear individuals like Job, Jethro the father-in-law of Moses, and Balaam the prophet, who were not Jews but had received a divine dispensation. For the early church, these "Gentile saints" were, like the Jewish kings, prophets, and priests, fingers pointing the way to Christ. The remarkable story of Job, the righteous man afflicted with unimaginable suffering testing his faith in God, was of particular importance for the Christian theologians and saints, Jerome (d.420), Augustine (d.430), and Gregory the Great (d.594). As a saintly and righteous man, a model of Christian forbearance through suffering, and Read More
And therefore it behoved that blessed Job also, who uttered those high mysteries of His Incarnation, should by his life be a sign of Him, Whom by voice he proclaimed, and by all that he underwent should show forth what were to be His sufferings…

Gregory the Great, Moralia on Job, § 14 (26)

While messianic hope and messianic prophecy had been distinctive features of the Jewish faith, they were in no way the exclusive property of the Israelite community. Even within the Hebrew Bible itself, there appear individuals like Job, Jethro the father-in-law of Moses, and Balaam the prophet, who were not Jews but had received a divine dispensation. For the early church, these "Gentile saints" were, like the Jewish kings, prophets, and priests, fingers pointing the way to Christ. The remarkable story of Job, the righteous man afflicted with unimaginable suffering testing his faith in God, was of particular importance for the Christian theologians and saints, Jerome (d.420), Augustine (d.430), and Gregory the Great (d.594). As a saintly and righteous man, a model of Christian forbearance through suffering, and a premonition of the terrible agonies visited upon the innocent Jesus, Job was seen as a paradigmatic expression of God’s presence within the pre-Christian Gentile community.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Balaam's Prophecy

One of Balaam's four glorious blessings of the Israelite people was understood, by Christians, to point forward to the coming messiah: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel..." (Numbers 24:17)

The Provincial Museum of Alberta
19th Century
Engraving
PMA:J99.1964.
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


Now the virgin is returning...
A new human race is descending from the heights of heaven...
The birth of a child, with whom
the iron age of humanity will
end and the golden age begin...

Virgil, Fourth Eclogue

Few works of literature, few philosophical discourses could have afforded the Church a more explicit premonition of the life of Jesus than the Roman poet Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, commonly called the Messiah Eclogue. In this remarkable work (ironically written to celebrate the emperor Augustus), Virgil wrote of the birth of the "offspring of Jove" and the restoration of the world. The coming of this child would end the iron age of humanity and commence a golden age, an age in which "all footprints of our guilt/ Shall perish" and "all the earth/ Shall be all-fruitful." There were also refer Read More
Now the virgin is returning...
A new human race is descending from the heights of heaven...
The birth of a child, with whom
the iron age of humanity will
end and the golden age begin...

Virgil, Fourth Eclogue

Few works of literature, few philosophical discourses could have afforded the Church a more explicit premonition of the life of Jesus than the Roman poet Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, commonly called the Messiah Eclogue. In this remarkable work (ironically written to celebrate the emperor Augustus), Virgil wrote of the birth of the "offspring of Jove" and the restoration of the world. The coming of this child would end the iron age of humanity and commence a golden age, an age in which "all footprints of our guilt/ Shall perish" and "all the earth/ Shall be all-fruitful." There were also references to the coming of a Virgin, the crushing of a serpent, and the abolition of the ancient blight of wickedness so firmly rooted in the human heart. It is perhaps unsurprising that Dante, more than a millennium later, would state of his literary and spiritual father, Virgil: "Through you I became a poet, through you, a Christian."

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Dante and Virgil among the Avaricious

Virgil, who represents natural reason, guides Dante into the deepest regions of hell to show the need for redemption.

Gustave Doré
c. 1868
Engraving
PMA:J99.1703
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


"Then said the Lady Circe:... ’Square in your ship’s path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by;

Woe to the innocent who hears that sound!
...the Sirens will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling....

But if you wish to listen, let the men tie you in the lugger, hand and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast, so you may hear those harpies’ thrilling voices’…"

Homer, Odyssey, Book XII

Among the many affinities between pagan and Christian symbolism which Clement of Alexandria (d.215) explored, one was of particular interest for the seafaring people around the Mediterranean Sea - the image of Odysseus lashed to the mast in Homer’s Odyssey. Fearful of being tempted by the sirens, mythical creatures whose seductive songs lured sailors to their destruction, Odysseus orders his men to place Read More
"Then said the Lady Circe:... ’Square in your ship’s path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by;

Woe to the innocent who hears that sound!
...the Sirens will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling....

But if you wish to listen, let the men tie you in the lugger, hand and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast, so you may hear those harpies’ thrilling voices’…"


Homer, Odyssey, Book XII

Among the many affinities between pagan and Christian symbolism which Clement of Alexandria (d.215) explored, one was of particular interest for the seafaring people around the Mediterranean Sea - the image of Odysseus lashed to the mast in Homer’s Odyssey. Fearful of being tempted by the sirens, mythical creatures whose seductive songs lured sailors to their destruction, Odysseus orders his men to place wax in their ears and to bind him fast to the mast of the ship. In Christian interpretations of this myth, Odysseus became a "type" or prefiguring of Christ, and the mast was seen as a premonition of the cross. Just as Odysseus had safely guided his ship through all manner of perils, so, too, Jesus steers the ship of the church through the narrow pass between sin and error. Just as a mast enabled a ship to triumph over the fearsome storms of the sea, the cross - and all that it represented - enabled the church to emerge victorious over all the vices and depravities of this world.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Odysseus lashed to the Mast.

In the thought of Clement of Alexandria, the image of Odysseus lashed to the mast prefigures Christ nailed to the cross.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta

Greek vase painting
PMA:J99.1702
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Using examples, identify God’s pre-Christian presence among the Gentiles
  • Using examples, identify premonitions of Christ in pagan literature

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