Some people will try to co-opt the word Pagan and try to define it as being “Nature-Centric,” ostensibly using academia to prove the word “Paganism” has always meant “nature-centric spirituality” via etymology. Not only do these people ignore how their contemporary understanding of “nature” is itself embroiled in Romanticist-era reactionism to urbanization and Protestant overculture, but they hold a profound misunderstanding on the word’s etymology in the context that they’re trying to use it in. And to correctly understand the Latin word’s usage, we must look to the Greek language.
In the Greek New Testament, the Pagan peoples, those ascribing to pre-Christian religions, are called ta ethnē, “the nations” (Luke 24:47, Matthew 25:32, Matthew 28:19). As such, religions of “the nations” were deemed ethnikos, as pertaining to a nation, in opposition to katholikos, “catholic” or “universal,” like Christianity. In English translations of the New Testament, the word ethnē often gets translated as “Gentiles.”
But in the Latin West, the term Paganus was coined in the religious sense by Christians in Late Antiquity. The term paganus, coming from Latin pagus, “district,” also relates to the idea of nationhood. This word continued in the French word pays, meaning “a nation” or “country.”
The “rustic” angle has been overworked by contemporary Pagans who want to justify the notion of paganisms as “earth religion.” The Latin Paganus is the equivalent of the Greek ethnikos. The argument that Christians were calling pagans “rustic” doesn’t make sense because Christians never placed much value in classical education nor on “civilization,” which were worldly and sinful. Early Christians often warned about the vanity of worldly learning, the dangers of reading too many books, etc. After all, the lives of the saints are all about people turning their back on civilization to live simply. “Rustic” is hardly an insult which fits into that worldview, and examples of it are seen plainly in Tertullian, the “father of Latin Christianity,” who wrote that “heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy,” and that “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instructions come from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief” (Tertullian The Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 7).
At most, the word “Pagan” may have been used in the sense of what modern evangelists call the “unreached,” i.e., people who supposedly haven’t even heard the gospel because they are “so removed from society” or “out of touch.” However, it was more likely used to mean people who refuse the “universal faith” and stick to their particular “ethnic” Gods. The “cosmopolitan” in Late Antiquity, even if not in a certain sense, was likely to have been a “Hellene,” i.e., somebody with a classical “pagan” education.
Overall, we can conclude that the usage behind Paganus wasn’t about “rusticity,” but rather reflected the ethnikos and katholikos opposition: a multiplicity of “particularistic” faiths as opposed to the one universal “catholic” faith.
(Special thanks to my friend Edward Butler)
“Pagan.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pagan.
Tertullian. Hanover College History Department. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/344tert.html.