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Christians and secular authority 6: those wicked schoolteachers

Both Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition 16.13 and Tertullian’s On Idolatry 10 also indicated that teaching grade school was not an acceptable livelihood for Christians, which brings to the fore three aspects in which second- and third-century conditions differ from today’s. The objection was that the curriculum for much primary and elementary education heavily emphasized myths about Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Schoolteachers, noted Tertullian, must inculcate pagan knowledge into their pupils, and praise and commend some deities of the old religion. Like on Christian holidays in recent times, ancient schoolmasters were obliged to decorate schools on the occasion of the gods’ festivals, and to participate in and promote the events. In short, “If a believer teach literature, while he is teaching doubtless he commends, while he delivers he affirms, while he recalls he bears testimony to, the praises of idols interspersed therein.” (On Idolatry10)

Hippolytus’s tradition was more lenient, allowing new Christians to continue teaching school if they possessed no other abilities for earning a living.

If no allowance is made for changes over the centuries, schoolteachers are under a double condemnation. First, quite simply, they are teachers—a banned occupation. Secondly, most teachers since the nineteenth century have been paid by municipalities or provinces, and thus are government employees. Remember that the early Christians did not distinguish, as to sinfulness, between the offices of elected politicians and state functionaries who remain employed no matter which political party is in power. On the other hand, today there is no paganism in the curriculum, except for practice readings of myths in textbooks that teach the Latin language, and certainly no suggestion in our schools that these myths’ characters are still alive, let alone possess supernatural powers. Moreover, even the celebration or religious nature of Christmas and Easter are being phased out of public institutions of learning, and from public life in general.


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