12

It's not that I don't know what contemporary means.

It's just that in my specific sentence (below) I'm not sure if it could be ambiguous. If it is ambiguous, then I'm looking for a word or phrase to substitute for 'contemporary' that makes it clear that the pagan philosophers lived at a time when Christianity was still in its infancy. Here's the sentence:

And that’s what the early modern readers of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian were bent on discovering: how early Christianity was perceived and judged by contemporary pagan philosophers.

'Contemporary' is meant to refer to the pagans of antiquity, not of the early modern period (and certainly not modern-day pagans). Is this clear? Would 'coeval' make it any clearer?

And that’s what the early modern readers of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian were bent on discovering: how early Christianity was perceived and judged by coeval pagan philosophers.

Or do I have to completely changed the sentence to be unambiguous:

And that’s what the early modern readers of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian were bent on discovering: how early Christianity was perceived and judged by the pagan philosophers who witnessed its birth and infancy.

(I would prefer not to have to use the last sentence, since my sentence is a translation from German and I would prefer to stay more closely to the original text.)

  • 6
    Not a word, but a phrase: "...judged by pagan philosophers of the time." – jamesqf May 3 at 17:33
  • 2
    you're looking for contemporaneous. – Fattie May 3 at 21:06
  • 1
    Your final sentence is perfect BTW. – Fattie May 3 at 21:25
  • The headline is a bit confusing: your sentence is ambiguous. The word contemporary is not ambiguous at all. – Fattie May 3 at 21:33
4

I think usage of contemporary would be less ambiguous if you reworded slightly:

...how early Christianity was perceived and judged by its pagan philosopher contemporaries.

This way, you're explicitly stating that the pagan philosophers are contemporary to early Christianity.

Also, if you wanted, you could remove reference to specific pagan philosophers:

...how early Christianity was perceived and judged by contemporary [or contemporaneous] pagan philosophy.

13

And that’s what the early modern readers of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian were bent on discovering: how early Christianity was perceived and judged by contemporary pagan philosophers.

As I read that sentence, the words "was perceived" make it clear that the question is not about the perception of those "who are living and writing today" (as suggested in another answer). Additionally, the statement "that's what the early modern readers of ... were bent on discovering" makes it abundantly clear that the time period referred to cannot be later than the "early modern period".

One alternative version would be:

And that’s what the early modern readers of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian were bent on discovering: how early Christianity was perceived and judged by their contemporary pagan philosophers.

but to me, the word "their" then reads back to "the early modern readers".

But if you were to write:

And that’s what the early modern readers of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian were bent on discovering: how early Christianity was perceived and judged by its contemporary pagan philosophers.

then (to me) the only predecessor for "its" could be "early Christianity", thus making it clear that the reference to "contemporary pagan philosophers" refers to those contemporaneous with "early Christianity" (which is what I understand the reference in your question to "the pagans of antiquity" to mean).

(P.S. I should point out that I started writing this answer before the answer by Acccumulation had appeared.)

11

It is somewhat ambiguous; "contemporary" means "same time as", so it requires some other noun to compare it to. A reader could take it as referring to "modern readers" or "Christianity".

You can reduce the ambiguity somewhat by using the past perfect tense: "how early Christianity had been perceived and judged by contemporary pagan philosophers." The past perfect is used to discuss something that happened before some other past event, so using this tense emphasizes that you are discussing what happened before "modern readers were bent on discovering". You can also add "its" before "contemporary": "how early Christianity had been perceived and judged by its contemporary pagan philosophers." Since "its" is a singular pronoun, this emphasizes that the pagan philosophers were contemporary to Christianity (singular) and not modern readers (plural). Or you can make the comparison explicit: "how pagan philosophers contemporary with early Christianity perceived and judged it." This has the additional effect of removing the passive voice.

11

It is definitely ambiguous. My first reading of that sentence is: ...how early Christianity was perceived and judged by pagan philosophers who are living and writing today.

Fortunately, there's a very similar word that is not ambiguous:1

contemporaneous

: existing, occurring, or originating during the same time

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contemporaneous

This should work: "...how early Christianity was perceived and judged by contemporaneous pagan philosophers."


1 As Kundor points out, there's still some ambiguity here. The pagan philosophers could be contemporaneous with something other than early Christianity; for instance, it could imply (incorrectly) that those Greek and Roman philosophers were contemporaneous with each other. This seems like a counter-intuitive reading to me, but not impossible. If you really wanted to be completely free of ambiguity, you'd probably need to rephrase in a more major way, like your updated question proposes.

  • 1
    Surely, if you were asking about "pagan philosophers who are living and writing today", the question would have been "how early Christianity is perceived by ..."? – TrevorD May 3 at 15:32
  • It's useful to know that it's confusing. I'll definitely change it, though not sure how yet. Is it ok to use contemporaneous to compare an event with a person (rather than with an event)? And could it still be confused in the sample sentence as contemporaneous with the early modern era? – S Conroy May 3 at 15:39
  • @SConroy, contemporary sometimes means belonging to the same time and sometimes means belonging to the current time, whereas contemporaneous only ever means belonging to the same time. So there's no ambiguity there. I don't think it's a problem to compare pagan writers to early Christianity. – Juhasz May 3 at 15:43
  • 2
    I don't think this would work. "Contemporaneous pagan philosophers" means a group of pagan philosophers who operated at the same time, but I don't think it means they're contemporary with other subjects in the sentence. "Historians found evidence of contemporaneous revolutions in Babylon and Nineveh", for example, doesn't mean the revolutions happened at the time the historians were working. – Kundor May 3 at 20:40
  • @Kundor, you're right my sentence is actually somewhat ambiguous. To me, it's less ambiguous than the version with "contemporary," but I'll update my answer. – Juhasz May 3 at 21:12
1

coeval

is a rarer synonym of

contemporary

'Coeval' is more about periods of time, and 'contemporary' about people:

The Athenian enlightenment period of Greece was coeval with the Han Dynasty in China.

but

Socrates was a contemporary of Confucius, but they were not able to influence each other.

'Contemporary' is sometimes confused with 'currently' as in at the time of the author writing it, but that is not what the word means.

So your first sentence is correct if it is to match the last.

  • With respect to the German, we have no idea if either sentence is relevant if this is a matter of translation. – Mitch May 3 at 15:25
  • Thanks for the coeval explanation. I'm realising that there might be another problem. Can we say a person (here the pagans) is contemporary with a movement? Or does a person have to be contemporary with a person. (I do know what the German sentence means, so it's not really a translation question.) – S Conroy May 3 at 15:32
  • 1
    I don't think the rules are hard and fast just general collocation; contemporary should be fine between people and periods or periods and periods. – Mitch May 3 at 15:39

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