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Pagan

PAGAN

A term now used in a religious sense to designate a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. How the Latin word paganus, from which it comes, acquired the meaning of non-Christian is still not entirely settled. In profane Latin of the 1st century a.d., paganus was used in two senses: first, in the meaning of "rural" to describe the inhabitant of a pagus, or country district; second, in the sense of "civil" or "civilian," in contrast to the "military." It was long assumed that the Christians eventually adopted the term paganus to designate a non-Christian, either because the inhabitants of country districts resisted conversion to Christianity or because the Christian was a miles Christi, "a soldier of Christ," and therefore to be distinguished in a religious sense from the non-Christian civilian. It is significant, however, that the Christians did not adopt the term paganus in the meaning of non-Christian before the age of Constantine. They commonly employed the terms of scriptural originnationes, gentilis, and ethnicus. With paganism still so strong in urban centers, especially in the West, there was no reason for making a sharp distinction between urban and rural conditions and for adopting a term for non-Christian that would apply primarily, if not exclusively, to rural areas. However when, in the course of the 4th century, Christians became more numerous and increasingly conscious of their own solidarity and social and religious prestige, the analogy of the contrast between paganus and militaris undoubtedly suggested the employment of the word as an appropriate designation, but not necessarily a derogatory one, for non-Christians as profane persons, outsiders, not members of the Christian community. The term, incidentally, seems to have had a history of popular usage before it was given literary and official sanction, for St. Augustine speaks of "gentiles vel iam vulgo usitato vocabulo paganos " (Epist. 184 bis 3, 5). It is first employed officially in a rescript of Valentinian I of the year a.d. 370 (Codex Theodosianus 14.2.18).

Bibliography: j. zeiller, Paganus: Étude de terminologie historique (Paris 1917); "Paganus: Sur l'origine de l'acceptation religieuse du mot," Comptes rendus de l'Acad. des Insc. et Belles Lettres (Paris 1940) 526543. c. mohrmann, "Encore une fois: 'Paganus,"' Vigiliae christianae 6 (Amsterdam 1952) 109121, the best treatment, and with pertinent bibliography. e. bickel, "'Pagani': Kaiseranbeter in den Laren-Kapellen der pagi urbani' im Rom Neros und des Apostels Petrus," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 97 (1954) 147.

[m. r. p. mcguire]

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