Pagan (Classical Latin: pagus, meaning "province, rural district; country people,[1] rustic, hick";[2] Late Latin: paganus (14c.), adj. "villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant"; n. "of the country, of a village")[3] was incorporated into the Early Church vocabulary, from the Latin paganus, to mean "outsider" when referring to someone who is outside the Christian community. Although, it may have had been used non-tendentiously[4] for a brief time, the term was then used by the 4th century to characterize the Churchs' (Church Fathers) opponents.[5] Ambrosiaster (c.375) made heavy use of the expression "against the pagans",[6] where its connotation became more of a religious slur that was picked-up by Pacianus of Barcelona, Optatus of Milevis, Philastrius of Brescia, Prudentius, and especially by Augustine.[2]


In the Roman Empire, "paganus" was Roman military jargon (slang) for "civilian, incompetent soldier," which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (such as milites "soldier of Christ").[1] After the Christianization of Roman towns and cities,[1] the Church of the Holy Roman Empire adopted the view that a paganus was someone who was not a miles Christi.[7][2] Thus, the early Christian conservative use of the adjective pagan, denoted a non-Christian whose rural adherence was to the old gods[1] (See Polytheism). The terms Pagan and heathen were often interchangeable. However, Pagan was sometimes distinctively applied to those nations that, "although worshiping false gods, are more cultivated, as the Greeks and Romans"; whereas heathen were "uncivilized idolaters, as the tribes of Africa."[8] At least since 1902, adherents of Islam (Mohammedan) are not counted as pagans or heathens.[8] As of 1908, "pagan" also applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshippers.[1] Since the 1970s, new religious movements in neopaganism adopted the terms "pagan" and "heathen" into their belief systems (See Heathenry (new religious movement)).


The English surname Paine, Payne, etc., appears by old records to be from the Latin paganus, but is debated as to whether or not the surnames were meant to carry the same sense of the word, as in "villager," "rustic," or "heathen". Pagan was a common Christian name since the 13th century[1] "and was, no doubt, given without any thought of its meaning".[9]

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionarypagan (n.)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 J. J. O'Donnell (1977), Paganus: Evolution and Use, Classical Folia, 31: 163–69.
  3. Online Etymology Dictionarypagan, originally "district limited by markers," thus related to pangere "to fix, fasten," from PIE root *pag- "to fasten." As an adjective from early 15c.
  4. C. Mohrmann, "Encore une fois: paganus," Études sur le latin des chrétiens 3.277-89; orig. pub. in Vigiliae Christianae 6(1952) 109-21.
  5. Zeiller, op. cit. 5-7; these terms are influenced by the commonest New Testament expression, ta ethne.
  6. Ps.-Augustine (= Ambrosiaster?), Liber quaestionum (ed. A. Souter, CSEL 50), Q. 114, "Adversus Paganos."
  7. B. Altaner, "Paganus: Eine bedeutungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung," Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 38(1939) 130-41.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Century Dictionary, 1902
  9. Dictionary of English Surnames
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