The Christian Athens and the Mystic Babylon

Athens from Mount Lykavittos

This Fall, I was in Berlin, working on an article on the image of Athens in early Christian literature. Interestingly, both Berlin and my hometown, Nashville, have in their past identified with Athens. In the late-19th century, Berlin began to call itself “Spree-Athen,” that is, “Athens on the River Spree.” The city has a collection of museums in the middle of the river, known as Museumsinsel (Museum Island). The museums house many statues, vases, artifacts, even entire market gates and temple altars, of Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian origins. The moniker “Spree-Athen” highlights Berlin’s desire to be full of art, as Athens was many centuries before.

Bode Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. TV Tour in the background.
Bode Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. TV Tower in the background.

Nashville adopted the Athens-image around the same time as Berlin. During the centennial celebration of the founding of Tennessee, Nashville hosted a world’s fair and built a collection of plaster copies of world monuments in Centennial Park, on the west side of the city. Nashvillians fell in love with the plaster Parthenon, and when the end of the fair brought the removal of the plaster monuments, they decided to build a more permanent, full-size Parthenon out of the Tennessee version of marble, concrete. The city, like Berlin, aspired to be full of art, the “Athens of the South.”

The final scene of Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville, at the Parthenon.
The final scene of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, at the Parthenon.

Athens is so identifiable and brings such a specific image and emotion to mind that it is immediately obvious what “Spree-Athen” or “Athens of the South” connotes. It was a city of grand marble and lyrical poetry, as well as a place that experienced the growing pains of democracy and education. Berlin and Nashville’s nicknames serve to transfer Athens’ reputation for culture and innovation to each of the newer cities.

Saint Augustine
Saint Augustine
Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome









Two early church fathers, Augustine and Jerome, created similar nicknames for cities, which illuminate some of the early Christian conceptions of cities and their understanding of how their new religious movement fits within their world. Jerome views Jerusalem, the city where he lived his last years, in terms of Athens. In a letter written to his friend Marcella while he lived in Bethlehem, he called Jerusalem “the Christian Athens.” He encourages Marcella to travel to the Holy Land, suggesting that such a pilgrimage would be “the finishing touch” on her Christian devotion. He writes: “If a famous orator blames a man for having learned Greek at Lilybaeum instead of at Athens, and Latin in Sicily instead of Rome (on the ground, obviously, that each province has its own characteristics), can we suppose a Christian’s education complete who has not visited the Christian Athens?” (Ep. 46). Jerome highlights education as the defining feature of Athens, and the feature that he transfers to Jerusalem. Place is important for Christian belief, or, for that matter, any skill or worldview that requires education.

Augustine had a more negative view of Athens and did not associate it with Jerusalem but with another city. In his apologetic treatise City of God, he articulated the problems with the earthly city in contrast to the heavenly city that was home to Christians. The anti-thesis between these cities runs through the entire work, and the two actual cities that most often signify them are Jerusalem and Babylon. In Book 18, he devotes attention to Athens, “that city, the mother and nurse of liberal doctrines, and of so many and so great philosophers.” For Augustine, Athens is not the city of great art and famous architecture. Instead, he sees Athens as representing the Greek polytheistic religious system, which goes hand-in-hand with what he sees as philosophy’s errors. He grants that sometimes the philosophers got things right, but “even if some true things were said there, yet falsehoods were uttered with the same license; so that such a city has not amiss received the title of ‘the mystic Babylon'” (City of God 18.41). The mystic Babylon. For Augustine, Babylon means confusion, and this is the aspect of that Mesopotamian city that he transfers to the Greek city.

Augustine and Jerome had very different goals for writing these texts that include images of Athens. Augustine was engaged in apologetic arguments for Christianity, over and against Greek and Roman religions. Christian apologetic started much earlier, with the author Tatian the Syrian, and in most of these treatises, Athens is the negative symbol for all that is wrong with the Greek-speaking world: idolatry, philosophy, excess. Augustine fits into this tradition with his “mystic Babylon” idea. Jerome was a linguist and translator of biblical texts, who lived in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, for the last years of his life. He therefore emphasized education and pilgrimage, both of which characterized common views of Athens and Jerusalem.

The early church fathers did not have a monolithic view of what Athens stood for, but it was indeed a symbol that helped them define their cultural world. It could be both aspirational, as it has been for Berlin and Nashville, as well as repulsive.

***Edited to add: As I have delved more into Jerome’s letters, I have realized that Letter 46 was not written by Jerome, but by his friend Paula and her daughter Eustochium who settled with Jerome in Bethlehem and wrote to Marcella encouraging her to come to Jerusalem. This makes sense, as Jerome is much more negative about Jerusalem in another letter. Letter 46 is a fascinating letter, full of the two women’s reflections about Jerusalem, the “Holy Land,” and how one should interpret the various and divergent statements about Jerusalem in the Old and New Testaments. I hope to discuss this letter further in a later post…***

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Image: Athens by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.