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Christianity and Culture

8/24/2006 - 6:15 AM PST

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Interview With Philologist G.M. Vian

VATICAN CITY, AUG. 24, 2006 (Zenit) - Though it forms part of cultures, Christianity transcends them, says a professor of patristic philology at Rome's La Sapienza University.

Giovanni Maria Vian is the author of "Philology and History of Christian Texts: Divine Library," a book that analyzes the meaning of biblical texts from their origin to the present. The book is available in Spanish and Italian.

In this interview Vian points out that Christianity is not a culture, per se.

Q: As a patristic philologist, do you think it necessary to speak of Christianity as "culture"?

Vian: Absolutely not, belief in Jesus -- as definitive revelation of God -- being something that surpasses every culture.

However, Christianity -- founded precisely on the incarnation of the Divine Word in a specific historical and cultural context -- is rooted in different cultures, which it undoubtedly transcends but of which it is, at the same time, inseparable.

Q: Since when can the existence of a Christian culture be affirmed?

Vian: From the foregoing, one can speak of a Christian identity which began to be distinguished from Judaism as early as the second half of the first century. It is necessary to await the first decades of the second century to identify the traces of a Christian cultural awareness with different hues according to the different cultures of the time.

Thus in the second century there was an Asian Christian culture -- that is, which was manifested in what is present-day Turkey -- and in the third, the Alexandrian Christian culture was strongly affirmed, whose greatest representative was Origen and which would have an enormous influence in history.

The great dissemination of Christianity during the third century and, with Emperor Constantine, the recognition of religious freedom to the Christian Church had, among other effects, a growing influence on the Christian faith in the Greek-Roman world at all cultural levels, from refined intellectuals, such as Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome, to the popular mentality.

Since then, Christianity has been indissolubly united to the history of the Mediterranean and Eastern and Western European world, without forgetting of course the non-European Christians: from central Asia and India to the east, to Ethiopia to the south.

Q: Patristic texts must be considered as the others. What does as "others" mean?

Vian: Simply that the Christian texts must be studied -- including biblical texts -- as profane texts are studied. That is, in principle without ideological prejudices -- favorable or contrary, keeping of course in mind, from the historical point of view, that it is a question of religious texts.

Q: What can we learn today from the Alexandrian heritage?

Vian: On one hand, attention to the texts. One must always go to the sources, aware however that every piece of writing has profound meaning, beyond the letter, especially biblical texts.

On the other hand, we can learn from the enthusiasm to relate to the exterior cultural world.

Q: You quote many editions of the Bible in your book. According to your point of view as a scholar, which is the best?

Vian: The best biblical editions are critical editions of the originals -- [in] Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek -- and also of the ancient versions -- Greek and Latin. They are editions elaborated during the 20th century with an enormous philological effort which continues uninterruptedly. They are texts directed to specialists and it is impossible to name them here.

Because of its origin and ecumenical intent, however, mention must be made of "The Greek New Testament" -- published for the first time in 1966 by the United Bible Societies -- in its fourth revised edition of 1993. It is a text directed to those who wish to translate the original into languages spoken today.

Outstanding among the contemporary translations -- also for its excellent annotation -- is "The Jerusalem Bible," published in French in 1955 by the Dominicans of the …cole Biblique, with corrected editions in 1973 and 1998.

It is a very important edition, which is now being revised, to the point that its format has been amply used in other languages, among which is Spanish.

Q: Where does the Divine Library begin and end?

Vian: Divine Library is an expression of Jerome which means "books of God," which began therefore with the first authors of the biblical texts, who composed them throughout the first millennium B.C.

Since then, these books have not ceased to engender other texts, which have continued them and still comment on them. For a simple reason: Human words cannot exhaust the Divine Word, which has always existed and has no end.

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