Pope Paul Will be Canonized this Year!

Pope-KoreaThis is irresistible. We now have this right from the Pope’s mouth:

At the end of a closed-door question and answer session with priests of Rome on Thursday, the Pope said it will be a “holy year” for Paul VI. “There are two Bishops of Rome who have recently become saints: John XXIII and John Paul II,” the Pope said. “Paul VI will become one this year. One cause for beatification is underway, John Paul I; his cause is open. And Benedict and I are on the waiting list. Pray for us.”


I always love his humor. I look forward to being able to officially pray to Paul and John Paul I for their intercession, especially on behalf of their successors.

(update: Feb 25, He will actually be canonized, not beatified! I don’t know how I made this error. I had been correcting people for some time, telling them to call him “Bl. Paul VI.”

Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part III

Well, I had the best intentions, but I was ill with whatever was going around the first two weeks of January, so I wasn’t able to post any more installments then, spent about two weeks trying to catch up with work, and then was hit with the news that I need to find a new apartment and move as soon as possible. So this installment has been greatly delayed and I just finished. I think that for now I’ll skip what I was going to write about whether Matthew or Luke was written first. It is interesting and important for the questions I’ve been addressing, but not so much for the material I now want to cover.


A medieval manuscript listing the genealogy of Jesus according to Luke

Bart Ehrman’s 2012 Newsweek article “What do we Know about Jesus?” is a pretty shoddy piece of journalism that is not important or unusual in itself, and is now more than five years old, but I’m using it because it is quite typical of the approach so many secularists take to the Gospel story. Ehrman begins his questioning the of historical nature of the Nativity story with the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. It illustrates perfectly what I have been saying: that what Ehrman writes shows not only his ignorance of the history of Jewish people and Palestine at the time of Christ, but his lack of interest in ancient modes of thought and writing about history. To do this, I’ll look at his specific objections and then answer them.

The evangelists want to relate Jesus to the ancestral line of the Jewish patriarchs. Neither of them has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task. So they have provided genealogies that have been invented for the purpose.

Here is a good example of Ehrman’s muddled thinking. On one hand, he seems to be claiming that the evangelists used in good faith the genealogical material they had, but unfortunately for them, the material wasn’t reliable. On the other hand, he also suggests that they just “invented for the purpose” the genealogies they had to prove their contention about Jesus’ Davidic descent. He suggests both but never outright states either. He also completely ignores the relevant historical factors that gave rise to genealogies in Israel to begin with, and allow us to understand how they were shaped. None of this, of course, could be done in the single sentence that Ehrman thinks is all that the subject deserves.

In reality, there is no question that the evangelists had abundant data. The ancient Israelites were almost obsessed with compiling genealogies.

Their data began with census lists. The taking of censuses in Israel began with the Exodus, when God told Moses to take censuses of the Israelites; the purpose was to require all male Israelites who were of age to contribute a ransom, or tax, of a half-shekel to the upkeep of the sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant, and later for the temple (Ex 30:11-16). Census were also done to count men who were of age for military service (Num 26:1-4). Census-taking was done “by clans and ancestral houses, registering by name each male individually” (Num 1:2). This was continued throughout Israelite history.

So there was an actual basis for the many genealogies scattered throughout the Old Testament. They were probably compiled from written records of censuses and used to form genealogies, which in turn were used for future censuses. We learn from the Book of Chronicles:

The sons of Gad dwelt over against them in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah: Joel the chief, Shapham the second, Janai, and Shaphat in Bashan. And their kinsmen according to their fathers’ houses [After naming them, the author concludes] All of these were enrolled by genealogies in the days of Jotham king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam king of Israel. (I Chronicles 5:11-17)

Ehrman would no doubt say that the genealogies in Chronicles are unhistorical. (Keep in mind that for him “unhistorical” means they have an error or errors somewhere). Does he have any genealogies of the same people that are without errors to compare them with? We don’t have anything like this, of course. Most of the earlier parts of the genealogies stem from various writings of the Old Testament the compilers would have been familiar with, and while there are some discrepancies between the two that need to be explained, there are clear sources. The latter parts from the exile up to Jesus no doubt come from family traditions. What can we say about the accuracy of these?

Here we have the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who tells us that genealogies were very carefully kept down to his own time. “For anyone who takes a share in the priesthood must father children by a woman of the same nation; he must pay no attention to wealth or other distinctions, but should examine her pedigree, procuring her genealogy from the archives and supplying multiple witnesses.”[1] As he was from the priestly line, he also refers to his own pedigree, “as I find it recorded in the public registers” in Jerusalem.[2] He says that these archives existed until they were burned during the destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 A.D.[3]

Though Josephus’ evidence regards only priestly genealogies, the same seems to have been true of the other surviving tribes as well. Other records traceable to the first century reveal that the different families of the tribe of Judah, including “the family of David,” were appointed to bring wood to the Temple altar at different times of the year, implying that all of them were able to give an account of what family they were from.[4] In 1972, Israeli archaeologists discovered an ossuary, or box both, at a burial site in Jerusalem, with an inscription describing the person or persons buried there as “belonging to the family of David.”[5]

Other skeptics say that genealogies like those in Matthew and Luke must be artificial constructions because Matthew obviously does not include all the names and skips generations. (“son” is often used in these genealogies in the sense of “descendant”). He further divides the names into three groups of fourteen generations, because the number 14 in Hebrew can be used to spell out the name “David.” This may look artificial to us, but it is perfectly natural to the mindset of the people of the time. That their data set was interwoven with religious concepts foreign to modern secularist does not at necessarily imply that their data was faulty. Of course, we can’t say that the genealogies were accurate in every detail over a large number of generations, but are we prepared to say that Jesus was not descended in any way from King David?

Why are they giving the line through Joseph when he’s not a relative of Jesus?

It is not only blood descendants that appear in Jewish genealogies of the time. Jewish people readily regarded a man as a legal descendant of someone even when not a direct biological descendant. For instance, if a man had no descendants and died, his brother (or in some cases, another close relative) could marry his widow, and agree to their first-born son being the legal heir of his brother. This known as a levirate marriage. In this way, a man could be considered the son of a man who was dead at the time of his conception, while he was the biological son of another.

Israelites also recognized adopted sons as heirs; among the Judahite ancestors of King David was the son of a slave who had been adopted (e.g. 1 Chron. 2:34-6). Caleb was biologically the son of an Edomite (a non-Jew) named Jephunneh (Num. 32:12), but he was adopted into the tribe of Judah (Numbers 34:12), and his descendants would have been recognized as belonging to that tribe.

Why do the genealogies, though both evidently of Joseph, show him having different fathers?

There have been a number of different answers to this puzzle. Some suggest that Joseph and Mary were from two different branches of the Davidic line, and that Luke is actually giving Mary’s genealogy. That is, Luke has “Jesus . . . was the son, as was thought, the son of Joseph, the son of Heli . . .” while this interpretation requires awkward reading “the son, as was thought, of Joseph, [but really] the son of Heli” and that Heli was Mary’s father, who had made Joseph his heir. But I find this theory unconvincing for other reasons as well. Being the son of David through Mary would not have been much use in regard to legal descent, which was traced through the father; in addition, what Luke actually tells us about Mary’s family was that she was a sungenis or blood relative of Elizabeth, who was descended from Aaron (1:5, and 1:36); this would mean Mary was from the tribe of Levi, at least on one side of her family.[6] Neither Matthew nor Luke explicitly tells us anywhere that Mary was descended from David, though this was a widespread opinion very early in the Church.[7] This raises the question: If Luke is not concerned at all to tell us about Mary’s Davidic ancestry in his narrative, what reason would he have to put it in his genealogy?

More convincing is the idea that both genealogies are of Joseph, and that a levirate marriage was involved (see above). This is one for which there is actually some historical evidence. Julius Africanus, a third-century Christian writer, born in Israel, who collected traditions from the descendants of Jesus’ family, writes that though Herod had destroyed their genealogies, their reconstructed version said that Joseph was the product of a levirate marriage, one side descended from the Solomonic (or royal) line of Judah, the other side descended from another son of David, Nathan. He writes: “Matthan, descended from Solomon, begat Jacob. When Matthan died, Melchi, descended from Nathan, begat Heli by the same wife [Estha]. Therefore, Heli and Jacob are uterine brothers. Heli dying childless, Jacob raised up seed to him and begat Joseph, his own son by nature, but the son of Heli by law. Thus Joseph was rightly called the son of both.”[8]

Africanus’ report would indeed explain the differences in the line up to Matthan, as well as the difference between Heli and Jacob. In order for this to work, Matthat and Matthan have to refer to the same person; they do seem be two forms of the same name.

Nevertheless, this solution gives rise to another puzzle: the genealogy of Luke, who traces the line from Nathan, does include a Melchi, but makes him Heli’s great-grandfather, not his father. Luke’s line runs Melchi, Levi, Matthat, Heli, Joseph. Matthew’s runs Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, Joseph. Many scholars think that Africanus or his sources confused the names or made some other error. But there is no problem when we look at Matthew’s genealogy and assume that there was a Melchi a couple of generations down, let’s say a nephew of Levi, who married Matthan’s widow, and that Matthew simply doesn’t mention him or the other Melchi because he is tracing descent from Solomon. Since names do tend to run in families, this is a possible solution. But it leaves the question, why, then does Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers (Eleazar/Levi)? We evidently have to suppose that there was a levirate marriage in the previous generation as well. But this is certainly not impossible, given that this was an Israelite custom.

If nothing else, this story does illustrate the enormous effort Jews expended on their genealogies, and how complex the record-keeping was, since they had to keep track of levirate marriages, and recall whether “son of” meant son or grandson in a particular case, and so on. And the reason that it is so difficult for us to reconstruct the genealogies in a way that would satisfy our modern minds is that we don’t have all the information that the ancient Israelites did – which once again tells against Ehrman’s thesis.

One more installment after this, on the census of Quirinius.


[1] Flavius Josephus, Against Apion: 1:32, nos. 126-28, in Against Apion: Translation and Commentary, by John M. G. Barclay (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007), pp. 24-26; see also Midrash, Sifrei Bamidbar, 116.

[2] Josephus, Life, 3-6 in Josephus, Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library (New York: Putnam, 1926), vol. I, pp. 4-5.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 2.427; 6.354.

[4] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period; translated from the 3rd German edition (1962) and revised by author in 1967 by F. H. and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia, 1969), p. 226. For an argument in favor of the descendant of David keeping genealogical records, see Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London/New York: T & T Clark International), pp. 159-61.

[5] David Flusser, “The House of David on an Ossuary,” in Flusser and R. Stephen Notley, Jesus (3rd edn.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001, repr. 2012), pp. 180-86.

[6] The most compelling reason to consider Mary as a descendant of David is that she would normally have married someone of her own tribe, as this was required by Numbers 36:1-2, to keep a daughter’s inheritance from passing into another tribe; the Fathers of the Church generally believed this is why Mary had to be of David ancestry to marry Joseph. But this is not necessarily true. As time went on, after the exile, preventing intermarriage with Gentiles and securing pure ethnic Israelite ancestry became more of a concern among Jews than tribal identities; according to Jeremias, there were certainly marriages between members of priestly families and those of other tribes in the first century (Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, p. 219). That leaves at least a possibility that Mary was descended from both the tribes of Levi and Judah.

[7] The earliest reference is a Jewish-Christian work probably from before 70 A.D., the Ascension of Isaiah, 11.2 (“a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name [was] Mary”). Some use Luke 1:27: “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David . . .” as evidence, supposing that the words “of the house of David” refer back to Mary rather than Joseph, as some of the Fathers believed. See Marcus Bockmuehl, “The Son of David and His Mother,” Journal of Theological Studies, N.S. 62:2 (October 2011): 491-92.

[8] Julius Africanus, Letter to Aristides, the text of which is preserved in Eusebius, Church History, 1.7.1-17.

Pope Paul’s Canonization on the Way

PaoloVIYesterday I read with great joy that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has approved a miracle for Blessed Pope Paul VI, that will pave the way for his canonization, probably this fall. Not coincidentally, both miracles for this great Pope of life are of the safe delivery of children in medically dangerous pregnancies and the healing of their mothers. Here’s the article from the Catholic News Agency.

I don’t have time to publish much more right now. But it is a good time to provide some links to my earlier posts on “The Real Paul VI.”

Part I – Was Paul a Gloomy Pope?

Part II – His Spirituality

Part III- The Assassination Attempt

Part IV – Pope Paul and his Successor

I’ll have more as the time for his canonization approaches.


Franciscan Saints, January 2018 — Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, Part 2

I am finally getting around to talking again about Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, as we once again observe her feast day on January 31. It has taken me a year because reading through the 1672 biography of her by Giovanni Pauolo has proved difficult, partly because of his style, which made it hard to extract even a few good nuggets of information from a mountain of fulsome Baroque rhetoric. Since an appreciation of this saint’s whole life would be impossible in the space of a post like this, I will confine myself to describing Ludovica’s Franciscan vocation and the nature of her spirituality, since Pauolo describes in detail her profession and life as a member of the Third Order.

"The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms" by Baciccio

“The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms” by Baciccio

As I mentioned in my last post about Ludovica, there is astonishing little material on her from the first hundred or so years after her death in 1533. She is not mentioned even by the Franciscan chronicler Luke Wadding, who wrote in the early 1600’s, when the fame of her sanctity was spreading, and she was honored by the government of Rome (one of the few things we do know).

Pauolo’s work is the first full-scale biography of Ludovica. It does have the advantage of being written by one of her descendants, the procurator of her cause for canonization, who was also an Observant Franciscan friar at the monastery attached to the church in Rome where she is buried, San Francesco a Ripa.[1] Because he was a Franciscan, and in particular an Observant, with the emphasis that this branch of the order placed on poverty, austerity and apostolic preaching to the laity, he seems well placed to articulate her spirituality.

To recapitulate a little, Ludovica was born in 1473 to Stefano Albertoni and Lucrezia Tebaldi, both from noble Roman families. In her youth, she greatly desired to embrace the religious life, but in obedience to her parents, married Giacomo della Cetera, also of noble rank; we don’t know the date, but probably around 1590. Pauolo describes Giacomo as “a most noble youth and a noble Roman.”[2] They had three daughters, Camilla, Silvia and Antonina. In 1506, Giacomo became sick and died after a lingering illness, tended by his wife. Ludovica, then 33 years old, was left to raise their three daughters alone. She did so with the greatest care for their religious education. The oldest, Camilla, died while still young. But Ludovica found husbands for the two other girls in noble Roman families.

Ludovica as a Tertiary

The young widow was sought in marriage by many Roman noblemen, but instead she became a Franciscan Tertiary; it was probably a step she had contemplated for a long time. Though she had been baptized in the church of Santa Maria della Corte in the Piazza Campitelli, her parents’ parish church, she moved to the Trastevere with her husband when she married, and they attended his parish of San Francesco a Ripa together. Most likely her spiritual director, who Pauolo mentions, was a Franciscan of the monastery. It was here that she made her profession as a Tertiary:

Accompanied therefore by many venerable matrons, she went to the Church of San Francesco; on her knees there, she made a brief but fervent prayer, recommending herself in her heart to the Lord, in the presence of many ladies and noblemen, she was vested by the superior of that Sacred Convent with the habit of a Tertiary. And she received it with such joy that she clearly revealed to everyone the internal jubilation of her heart.[3]

The ladies mentioned here often appear in Ludovica’s company, but Pauolo doesn’t make their relationship to her clear. Were they perhaps members of a fraternity or Tertiary community? We know that they were her constant companions and were also at her side when she died.

In fact, even during her marriage, Ludovica had gathered many other young noble matrons around her and together they read books of devotion, engaged in spiritual conversations and the others listened to Ludovica’s exhortations. This was the period in which printed books were becoming more and more common. Ludovica and her companions could have read works like The Imitation of Christ in their own language (it was printed in Italian as early as 1502), and Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis and the Fioretti (both printed in one volume in 1503). Pauolo tells us that Ludovica read the life of St. Francis a number of times.

Even before entering the Third Order, Ludovica practiced great austerities; after she entered she increased them, fasting on bread and water for much of the week; on the days she received the Eucharist she took no other food. She gave up all her fine clothes, and did not wear any clothing but her habit when she went out in cold weather. She wore a hair shirt under her clothes and slept on a hard pallet, spending long nights in prayer.

Pauolo remarks wisely that while many people wrongly practice penance and austerity as an end, they are really only a means toward perfection. Some start out by wanting to counter hypocrisy, and end up practicing austerity for show, to gain a reputation for sanctity. On the other hand, Ludovica’s goal, he says, was “enjoying the embraces of her sweetest spouse Jesus.”[4] Her way of practicing mortification was also in line with Franciscan spirituality. When she slept on a pallet, “she meditated devoutly on the manger of our Lord Jesus Christ as a baby, who being king of glory, wanted to be at that tender age laying on the straw in a manger for animals.”[5] This was certainly the same spirit that motivated St. Francis in founding the Christmas crib. Love for the poverty of Christ would certainly have increased her love for the poor, which I spoke about in my first post.

Ludovica also had a great love for the Cross. Pauolo gives the prayer that she used to say prostrate before the crucifix. (It is so different from his own pompous style that I feel sure he got it from an early source). It makes clear her great love for the cross, which she had even before becoming a tertiary:

“Yes, in the past, I was not my own, thanks more to my husband, than to me, therefore I could not consecrate myself completely to you, my Jesus: now therefore, since I am living all on my own, I leave off being mine, in order to belong completely to you. And because widowhood is hated, I embrace it from my heart to live as a widow in the world, and to make myself the spouse of your most holy Cross. What else is widowhood, but a very fertile field of the holy Church? Yes, cultivate it, my God; to you belong the planting, to you the increase, to you the fruit. And widowhood is good, since it is the wise teacher of the Catholic faith, teacher of the most exemplary chastity. I could not, in order to obey my parents, preserve my virginity; I yearn at least to be a norm of chastity; You, Divine Master of most chaste counsel, instill my heart true precepts of chastity. Our flesh undermines us widows; you most simple spirit, guard my heart from the allurements of the senses; clear my mind from the darkness of the thoughts of the world; defend my soul from the proud assaults of the enemy Satan. I adore your cross, having nailed myself with loving feelings to that wood; since it is the wood of life, it gives life to the one who dies for it. I unite myself to you, my Jesus, since you are Master of chastity, I will be able to live securely from the allurements of the tempter spirit.”[6]

Like St. Francis, Ludovica frequently meditated on the Passion of Christ and desired to imitated him; often “prostrate before the image of the Saint, she would pray insistently to him to implore from God for her for that fervor of spirit that had inflamed his soul; that oneness with Jesus through which he merited being similar to him in his most sacred wounds.”[7] At the hour of her death, at the age of sixty, on January 31, 1533, she held a crucifix, “devoutly kissing the feet and all the sacred wounds of the Crucified, weeping with compassion, she repeated often ‘into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’”[8]

Ludovica was buried, at her request in San Francesco a Ripa beside her husband, and it became a site for devotion, as well as miracles. The Franciscans there still cherish her memory along with that of St. Francis and Lady Jacopa.


[1] Pauolo, Giovanni. Vita della beata Ludovica Albertoni, Piermattei Paluzzi del Terzo Ordo (Rome: Giovanni Corvo, 1672). We don’t know much about Pauolo’s sources. He describes them as “some ancient memoirs, which in spite of the passing of time, have been preserved up to the present day,” and as a “legend” (the usual name for a saint’s life), which he quotes from in Latin; elsewhere he speaks of a “brief Latin compendium of her life.” The last two, or even all three, might be referring to the same work. None of them is mentioned in the other early literature on Ludovica. Some parts of his work, such as the “memoirs,” might be family tradition. He did evidently take some things from her canonization process, which took place in 1671 and was printed the same year. It was devoted mostly to establishing the antiquity of Ludovica’s cult, in accordance with the decree of Urban VIII in 1634. I don’t have a complete copy of the process, but a lengthy resume with quotations can be found in Shelley Karen Perlove, Bernini and the Idealization of Death: The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and the Altieri Chapel (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press,1990), pp. 57-66. It does not shed any light on these source, which remain a mystery. Perlove’s book does add a great deal of helpful historical background.

[2] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 32.

[3] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 53.

[4] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, pp. 58-59.

[5] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 61.

[6] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, pp. 50-51.

[7] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 56.

[8] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 229.


C. S. Lewis’ Christmas Sermon for Pagans

LewisThere is a very widespread confusion among modern people about the ancient world, specifically its religious aspect. I have been a witness to a number of discussions on Christianity where the skeptic tartly demands “contemporary secular sources” for the story told in the Gospels, before he will consent to accept the historical reality of Jesus. He believes these “secular” sources, though from the time of Jesus, won’t be affected by the religious fanaticism of Christians, who actually believed in miracles. I always wait in anticipation of the moment when the Christian apologist counters with: “But all the contemporary Greek and Roman writers were religious and believed in miracles too!” Happily, most modern apologists know their stuff; they will be alert to this kind of thing and able to counter it.

But many Christians too fall victim to this confusion. Many of them have been complaining about a creeping paganism in our culture. And by this they don’t mean that people are sacrificing to Diana or Zeus. This is clearly indicated by a newly published article by Mary Eberstadt, “The Zealous Faith of Secularism: How the Sexual Revolution became a Dogma” in First Things, January 2018. She writes:

To begin with a point to which many Christian thinkers would agree, the United States and other nations rooted in Judeo-Christianity have entered a time of paganization—what we might also call “re-paganization.” The gravitational pull of traditional religion seems to be diminishing, even as a-religious and anti-religious elements accumulate mass. This paganization is especially ascendant among the young, now famously more prone than any other group to checking “none of the above” when asked for their religious affiliation; according to the Pew Research Center and others, the combination of self-described atheists and self-defined “nones” is now the fastest-growing “religious” group.

The mistaken view that modern secularism is essentially the same thing as paganism is very problematic. In part, it may have come about by conflating ancient paganism and its simulated modern counterpoint, deeply infiltrated with modern New Age notions, with Wiccans who don’t really believe in the reality of their own earth-goddess, but who do really believe that “I am goddess.” To confuse something like this with ancient pagan religion is a fundamental distortion of the reality of the ancient world. And it actually distorts modernity too, and gives a false idea of our real problems.

No one knew how to address this question better than C. S. Lewis. He was a student of literature who was an expert on the classics and Greek and Roman myth; in fact, he loved these myths long before becoming a committed Christian as an adult, as well as a Christian apologist. This is why I was so delighted to learn a few days ago that a long-lost article by him on this subject has just-been discovered. Titled, “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” it was originally published in the popular British magazine The Strand in December 1946. Two modern scholars independently discovered it, and it is going to be re-published in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center in January 2018.

Only a few excerpts have been published so far. But I have been carefully going through the issue, still, alas, under copyright, which is offered in “snippet” view on Google Books, testing keywords, and actually coming up with more of the article (Hey, some people stand in line all day to see Star Wars films, I do this).

Lewis begins:

When I was asked to write “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” I accepted the job light heartedly enough; but now that I sit down to tackle it I discover a difficulty. Are there any Pagans in England for me to write to? I know that people keep on telling us that this country is relapsing into Paganism. But they only mean that it is ceasing to be Christian. And is that at all the same thing?

Lewis begins by reminding people of the original of the word “pagan”; they were “the backward people in the remote districts who had not yet been converted, who were still pre-Christian.” He continues:

To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. And that is like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. [They do have something in common], namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains. But they are very different in every other respect. Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead . . .

Lewis also pointed this out in more detail in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, in 1954:

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “lapsing into Paganism.” It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminister Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.[1]

Going back now to the new article, how does Lewis find that the pagan differs from the post-Christian? “Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. . . the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive. . .”


Dryad, Narnia illustration by Pauline Baynes

Lewis is speaking here of the wood and water nymphs. He especially loved the dryads, or the tree spirits, and wrote delightfully of them in his Narnia tales. At the beginning of Prince Caspian, Narnia had undergone a long period of unbelief, not just disbelief in Aslan, but as a corollary, disbelief in the reality of the dryads, who never appeared any longer, but who lay asleep in their trees until with Aslan’s approach, Lucy sees them awaken and dance in the forest. Later, they come to Aslan, who provides them a welcome where modern secularists would not. In fact, the only way they can really survive as themselves is as creatures (even of the imagination) under him.

Pale birch-girls were tossing their heads, willow-women pushed back their hair from their brooding faces to gaze on Aslan, the queenly beeches stood still and adored him, shaggy oak-men, lean and melancholy elms, shock-headed hollies (dark themselves but their wives all bright with berries) and gay rowans, all bowed and rose again, shouting “Aslan, Aslan!” in their various husky or creaking or wave-like voices.[2]

But for Lewis, there was a second and more important likeness between ancient pagans and ancient Christians.

Secondly, they “believed in what we now call an ‘Objective’ Right or Wrong,” that is, that “the distinction between pious and impious acts was something which existed independently of human opinions . . . which (like the multiplication table) he had better take notice of. The gods would punish him if he did not.

To be sure, by Christian standards, his list of “Right” or “Wrong” acts was rather a muddled one. He thought (and the Christians agreed) that the gods would punish him for setting the dogs on a beggar who came to his door or for striking his father: but he also thought they would punish him for turning his face to the wrong point of the compass when he began ploughing. But though this code included some fantastic sins and duties, it got in most of the real ones.

Lewis knew that the idea of morality did not come into being with Christianity. I recall one of my professors in college, who taught my class in Roman History, had a very hard time grasping this idea. He saw the Romans as “enlightened,” especially in regard to sexual morality, avoiding the hang-ups that Christians have in these areas. Most of the sources we studied in regard to the Roman Republic, however, told a different story. They spoke of the virtues of the Old Republic, which included marital chastity and devotion to home and hearth, as well as moral integrity or virtus in other areas. Even the word “virtue” is of Latin origin!

Indeed, Lewis says, the difference between the post-Christian man and the pagan was that “[the Pagan] knew he had sinned.” He felt “a deep sadness” because he had not obeyed the moral law perfectly. “And the Pagan dealt with this situation in a rather silly way. His religious was a mass of ceremonies (sacrifices, purifications, etc.) which were supposed to take away guilt. But they never quite [did so].”

But today we have a different situation, Lewis wrote. “There is no objective Right or Wrong,” there are only different ideologies, but “none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map to New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York.”

Modern relativists don’t understand that in getting rid of what they think is “repressive” Christianity morality, they are really getting rid of all the morality that has ever existed – not only that, but every morality that ever could exist, as Lewis showed in his Abolition of Man.

A third great problem that Lewis saw was the rise of the “post-Christian” view of nature. The problem has become even more acute in our own time, when modern secularists have replaced both the pagan reverence for nature and the Christian idea of stewardship of creation with another attitude that “complete already in some people and still incomplete in others – is quite different. According to it Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit.”

Indeed, Lewis thought that nature in his time might be “hitting back.” There was “the present threat of world famine. We know now that it is not entirely due to the war. From country after country comes the same story of failing harvests: even the whales have less oil. Can it be that Nature (or something behind Nature) is not simply a machine” that we can do what we want with? Even if this is not the case, he says, the modern irreverent conquest over nature by humans is disastrous; it “yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen.”

Since Lewis’ time, secularists have acquired another and even more destructive ideological replacement for Christian and pagan beliefs: only reverence for nature, or “the environment” exists, neither God nor man is of any account. Humans are urged to kill themselves off as a species to protect the environment, though they can’t even give a morally coherent account of why the environment should be preserved. As Lewis explains, again in The Abolition of Man, they have taken one of the old moral principles and worship it in isolation, while allowing the whole moral framework that supported the principle in the first place to fall.

If correct, Lewis says, the post-Christian view means we have awakened into a true freedom from “the old fear, the old reverence, the old restraints,” But this freedom may not be what we had hoped:

A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks [movies] and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages. . . .

But what if the post-Christian view is not correct? Lewis is building to his point. And, as always, his prose invites quotation:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

The pagans had been aware of a “deep sadness” brought onto the world by sin. The very Pagan thing we do on December 25 of “singing and feasting because a God has been born” may be, Lewis says, our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”


[1] C. S, Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969). pp. 4-5.

[2] Lewis, Prince Caspian (London: Bles, New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 130-31.