Category Archives: Historiography

What do I do With Origen?

This is not the first time this question has been asked. Heck, the Church asked it for a couple of centuries before Justinian had him condemned in 553 at the Council of Constantinople. My perspective’s a bit different.

If you’ve been following my reading/blogging on Early Christianity posts you know that at the moment I’m reading forward from first century Christian origins (though many will say the date of the true origin is the same as for Judaism). I’m planning to do this fairly intensely until I get to Nicaea. My post-Nicaean level of knowledge is quite a bit higher so from that point I’ll be in more of a gap filling mode rather than this wholesale gobbling up of everything.

So here we have Origen. He’s prominent. He wrote from the early to the mid-3rd Century. He started his career in Alexandria and ended it in Caesarea. I should be able to go through his stuff and use him as another example of what Christians were thinking during that period, right?

Not so fast. Most of Origen’s writings come to us through early 5th century Latin translations by Rufinus of Aquileia. Rufinus has been roundly criticized by various folks, as early as his contemporary, Jerome, for mistranslation to the point of making wholesale changes to Origen’s text and completely altering his meaning.

To provide a little background, Rufinus’ Orthodoxy came into question in the late 4th century. One of the criticisms leveled against him was that he had not been a strong enough critic of Origen. There was this whole conflict between Jerome and Rufinus which I’ll need to read more on to fully discuss. I have read Claudian and he hates Rufinus passionately, though this has much more to do with Claudian being Stilicho’s panegyrist and the conflict between East and West/Arcadian and Honorius than religious reasons. 1 In any case, with his Orthodoxy still an open question, Rufinus was accused of amending Origen’s text. Jerome had access to the Greek and provided some translations of his own demonstrating these changes(these amounted to a small fraction of Rufinus’ translations).

There’s a LOT more to this but the essence is I don’t know what to do with Origen. I don’t think I can use him as an example of 3rd century Christian thought, not reliably, as what we have from him isn’t (probably) completely his own words and ideas. At the same time, Rufinus didn’t totally rewrite him so we can’t use him as an example of early 5th-century thought either.

What can be done, since Rufinus’ translation is what was handed down to posterity, is talk about Origen’s influence on Early Christianity or, more correctly, the influence of Origen-Rufinus. I can touch on this a little but as I haven’t completely gone through Jerome and Augustine (and other writings of Rufinus) I can’t assess this all that well either. In the end, I’ll probably limit myself to a single topical post on Origen’s writings, then hope to link back to them once I begin reading up on the late 4th/early 5th centuries. I’ll mention prominent concepts and areas were he got himself into trouble but the caution has to be made that it may not be that he got himself into trouble but that Rufinus got him in trouble (150 years after he died).

One area this highlights is the importance of critically analyzing sources. I think, though I have questions about my qualifications to do so, that I’ll probably put together a post on the use of sources. And for Origen, I’m going to focus less on specific ideas, as I did with Tertullian, and spend more time talking about broader concepts. I’m not terribly happy about this but I’m less happy about picking something specific which Origen talks about and say, “This is what 3rd century Christians thought.”

1 See Claudian, Against Rufinus(In Rufinum). He sprinkles criticism in elsewhere too.

Claudian, Maurice Platnauer, trans., Claudian (2 Volumes). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1922).

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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Historiography, Religion


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Charlemagne and His Bones

For the past few days reports have been circulating about analysis of bones found in Aachen Cathedral. I’m not going to offer much discussion of this or what it means here other than to repeat what others have found. Basically, analysis of the remains, on top of previous investigation, has provided pretty strong confirmatory evidence that the bones found in Charlemagne’s sarcophagus are indeed those of Charlemagne.

The remains interred at Aachen are those of a tall, thin man who likely walked with a limp as there is evidence of bone deposits related to injury in his heels and kneecaps. The full results of this investigation haven’t been published yet so it will be interesting to see what the results of an expected DNA analysis will provide.

The Karlsschrein, where Charlemagne’s remains (most of them) were interred.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

For me, I think this makes a nice transition to briefly talk about my current level of knowledge of the Carolingians, sort of a precursor to when I get out of Early Christianity and start reading up on Western Europe from the end of the 7th century to about 1000 AD (and very possibly later).

The Carolingians have always fascinated me. I’ve mentioned how when I first started reading on Medieval History, now approaching 20 years ago, within a few years I found that what interested me the most was the concept of a large, cohesive society (the Roman Empire) falling, breaking up into total chaos, then reforming itself. Keep in mind this is what I thought at the time. Once I started reading up on it it didn’t take long to find out that the reality was very different from the previous process and that I had a lot of misconceptions which I’d need to correct.

This leads me to a major misconception I likely have/had; my willingness to buy into the Carolingian myth. How well does what came to be believed about them match with what actually happened? This will be a main point of investigation for me. I don’t want to detract from the “pre-study level of knowledge” post I’ll likely put up, similar to what I wrote as I was beginning to look at Early Christianity. However the Carolingian Empire was highly romanticized after its dissolution. Subsequent rulers frequently used the Carolingians as justification for their own rule as they claimed to be direct inheritors of the divine right first acknowledged by Pope Zachary and later confirmed by Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne. Part of this justification likely meant portraying the Carolingian Empire as far more cohesive than it was. How much of this myth-making have I retained? How much of it reflects reality? How did this process take place and what were its impacts? Above all; where will this lead me (and how long will it take)? I guess another question is to wonder when I’ll finish up with Early Christianity and get to this but that is unanswerable.

I’m going to close this post here and offer a couple of links which discuss the recent evidence regarding Charlemagne’s bones:

From Medieval Histories, an online magazine about Medieval History: Bones of an Emperor

From The Local, an English-Language German news source: Charlemagne’s Bones are (probably) Real


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Semi-Random Thoughts, a Little on Tertullian and a Bit on Historical Models

I really have fallen off on my posting lately. I just have a lot going on, some of it personal and some professional. I’ll leave the personal alone, for now, but on the professional side I’ve moved from working in this office to working in this office. This is a parallel transfer, not a move up or down, other than now being head of the office (so maybe it is a bit of a step up) but it’s a new location, new co-workers, and new clientele. I can’t swear that my posting frequency will radically increase in the near future, however the main reason, overall, for this post is to get myself back in the habit. I have a few days off around Christmas and maybe I’ll put something together, or at least finish that second post on Irenaeus which I started last August.

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading Tertullian. This has been a slog. There is some interesting material but there’s been an unfortunate side effect. I don’t like him. Personally.

Obviously I don’t know the man, but from what I’ve read (which is all but the about 50 pages I have left from the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series) I’ve developed a personal distaste for him. This is important, and unfortunate. I think it’s very important to try, as well as we can, to understand, at least a little, where historical figures were coming from and develop some empathy for them. I’m having trouble doing this with Tertullian. He is so absolute, so rigorous, so unwilling to entertain the legitimacy of any opinion but his own, even from other Church authorities, that I can’t seem to get my empathy mode going. As yet another point highlighting my own ignorance, before going through his material I’d read how Tertullian is often referred to as, “The first of the Latin Theologians.” Silly me – I thought this meant he was the first to write his stuff in Latin. I now think – and I have a secondary book on him to read to confirm if this is the case – that this means that he is the first to adopt a completely different method of argument from prior Greek authors. Maybe method is a bit wrong as he does use philosophical arguments, but he doesn’t believe the writings of the ancient philosophers contain any hint of wisdom and he doesn’t say, “This is what I think, here’s why and you should consider this,” but rather, “This is what I think, here’s why, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.” Whether he felt this way when he wasn’t writing or not is another thing but all I can go by is what’s in print. I’ll have more analysis of him later but I wanted to get this preamble out of the way to warn you of this basic fact; I don’t like Tertullian. On a visceral level. So far as I can recall, this is a first when it comes to a source author.

To add to this potpourri of a post, a few months ago several posts were written which discussed new findings which were at odds with established historical models. I’ve mentioned several times that as I learn more I’ve come to increasingly distrust models. It’s not so much that patterns didn’t exist – they did. And I don’t see the problem with using them in books or in teaching. You can’t just teach everything so some synthesis is necessary. But so often it seems that researchers have a preexisting bias toward a model and view any new findings through this model-tinted lens. Katy Meyers has a very good post on Bones Don’t Lie about discovering that some Etruscan skeletal remains had been wrongly identified re their sex and how this is indicative of how modern bias and a reliance on models can lead researchers down the wrong path. This post becomes really good about halfway through it, just beyond the second image. Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives also wrote an interesting post about this same discovery.

You know, when I started writing the above paragraph I was sure I could come up with another post or two on the same basic theme but my memory of who wrote what seems to be flawed. Instead I’ll offer two new blogs I’ve come across:

James Palmer has a blog, merovingianworld which I’ve found interesting. I have one of his books, Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690-900 on my to-read shelf and have come across his name plenty of times but haven’t read much of his stuff.

From an American-centric perspective, in her blog, Manuscript Road Trip, Lisa Fagan Davis has been taking a virtual tour where she discusses holdings of medieval manuscripts in the United States on a state-by state basis. Lisa is co-author of an online resource, Directory of Institutions in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings so she’s well qualified to embark on this trip. Oh, and if you know of anything in North Dakota, please let her know.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll have more to come shortly and if you know of a way for me to start feeling warm and fuzzy towards Tertullian, let me know.


Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Blogology, Historiography, Other Blogs, Resources


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Were Medievals “Just Like Us?”

The above is a question I’ve steered away from for a bunch of reasons. Probably the main one is I don’t know how to properly approach it, not really. I’m not that smart. But I’ve decided to finally give it a shot even though I’m not very well qualified to talk about it. I’m not going to offer any sort of detailed evidence, just a description of my thoughts as they are now, and I make no promise that these won’t change at some point in the future.

The reason I’ve finally decided to address this (I’ve had a draft on this sitting around since the Spring of 2010, a few months after I started this blog) is because I’ve recently received quite a few hits from a site and, as is usual when this happens, I decided to see why/how I was mentioned. In some cases, particularly if it comes from another blog, I like to thank the person who provided the link. In this case the site is a discussion board talking about whether a historical Jesus really existed. In the middle of it one of the participants offered this as part of a comment:

Well, I tend to think people are not so different now as they were back then …

I’ve encountered this plenty of times. For myself, 15 (this is getting perilously close to 20) years or so ago when I first started reading on this, I’d often get into a discussion where I’d use what I thought was very logical reasoning for why some one or group may have behaved in a certain way only to be shot down (usually nicely) when someone pointed out that I was making a lot of assumptions that people back then thought and behaved the same as they do now.

So this is the question; Were Medievals pretty much like us? My answer is yes, and no.

First, there do appear to be some truths about Human behavior which largely transcend time and space. Human beings are social creatures, tending toward living in groups. The size of these groups obviously varies but we tend to want to be around others. These social groups almost always have some sort of hierarchical arrangement where certain members, classes or groups are dominant over other members, classes or groups. Related to this, Humans have a propensity to divide people into “us” and “them.” We tend to establish certain criteria by which we can judge the “us-ness” and “them-ness” of people. Now some groups are far more accepting of “thems” than others. But this still seems to be characteristic.

Family is important. This is almost as much as I want to say on the matter however this seems to be indicated for every group which I’ve read about. Keep in mind though that “family” can mean very different things in different cultures. Romans placed great value on adoption into the family. Some families indicate household members, not biological relations but there seems to be some value placed on family/kinship. This reaches the point of calling members of groups which do not involve kinship “brother” or “sister” in order to emphasize the importance of membership.

The range of Human emotions we have today seems to have existed at least as far back as there are written records. Literature of all times speaks of love, fear, anger, etc. And it’s not exactly an emotion but at least among literate Humans, questions about our origin, our place in the world and whether there is an afterlife and what form it may take seem to be pretty common.

So with all that, I can say yes; Medievals were like us. They were Human beings with some of the same characteristics as folks living today. Like us, they were products of their environments.

And Medievals were very different from us. Their personal characteristics, skills, belief systems, relationships and moralities were formed by their interactions with their own unique environments. These environments were profoundly different from those of modern western civilization. I think we can all see that the worlds in which a 6th century Merovingian, an 8th century Syrian Arab, a 9th century Anglo-Saxon, a 12th century Christian (or Muslim) Iberian or a 14th century Icelander lived in were very, very different from ours. These environments formed the basis for their development as individuals and as societal members. What was or was not important to them, how they thought, made decisions, etc., is based on this personal development. With such a difference in environments, is it reasonable to think that the end products of that environment, people, would be the same as we find today? I don’t think so.

A fairly obvious example of this is slavery. To me and the vast majority of others brought up as I was, the concept that one person can own another is reprehensible. For most of the medieval period, this was not the case, and this is even more explicit when we look at classical Rome. To many Romans, slaves were animals with the ability to talk. Any use a master chose to make of his or her slave (except for sexually if you were a married woman) was permitted. Some of these uses were frowned upon and not spoken of, but they were legal. If I hear of something like this going on (and unfortunately reports occasionally surface) today I become angry and repulsed. Most Romans would not have. This is a fairly obvious example and one that’s been mentioned quite often in literature but there are many others that appear in sources and I’m reasonably sure there are a lot of attitudes which can only be inferred. 1

The same concept of development related to the difference in environment holds true today. When I talk to someone from what we would label Western Civilization, my level of understanding of them is fairly high. It’s certainly far from perfect but I can carry on a conversation with someone from France or Germany where we each seem able to make certain assumptions about one another. We have a fairly closely shared heritage.

However when I interact with someone from, say, the Sudan or Nigeria (even Mexico or Costa Rica), this changes. They have likely learned English. We can understand each others’ words. In discussing specific issues or trying to solve a problem we get along just fine. However the core values and basic assumptions we carry with us are different, as are the worlds in which our identities were formed. This can create some problems if I’m not careful. I have to continuously think about how we interact, communicate, and relate to each other.

In the end, I don’t know exactly how Medievals thought. But I’m just about certain they thought very differently from me. And to add another layer, it’s very possible that the 95% or more of people who are not represented in the sources – the peasants, slaves and other members of the sub-elite classes – thought differently from those for whom we have a record. Heck, I often have a hard time figuring out what a Hollywood actor or someone who comes from old money is thinking. Why would I expect Joe Peasant to think the same as a king?

This is a conversation I enjoy and one which I think is important. Medievals were just like us. However this also means that they were almost certainly very different. The same holds true for today’s global society. Our commonality creates our diversity, and that’s a wonderful thing.

NOTE: I hope this doesn’t come across as condescending or anything. I suspect these are the kinds of issues covered in an introductory history course in college (probably should be in HS), particularly when teaching how to interpret source material. Likely 90% of the people who read this blog know this better than I but I still run across it when I talk to people. And I still have to remind myself of this when I’m reading. Every now and then I have to tell myself something along the lines of, “Really Curt? Do you actually think this was the reason Gregory hated Chilperic so much?”

1 There’s a fair amount of variability here which I’ll leave alone as I may want to eventually do a post on the differences between Christian and Roman concepts of slavery.


Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Historiography


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That Dead Richard III Fellow in a Parking Lot

Or Car Park, whatever that is exactly.

I wasn’t going to post on Richard III. What do I know about him other than that the date of his death has sometimes been used, erroneously, as the dividing line between the Medieval and Early-Modern periods? 1 He’s 800-1200 years later than my period and other than knowing Laura Blanchard, former head of the US branch of the Richard III Society(shameless name-dropping here), from usenet I have next to nothing to offer. But there’s just too much entertainment going on with this and I want to get in on the fun.

The kicker was when I started asking myself, “What does this discovery tell us, historically?” I mean, yeah, his bones have been found so you can confirm he’s dead but since he was born 560 years ago I think we knew that already, without physical proof.

Richard III is ALL dead, unlike the middle guy in this picture

OK, his skeleton shows a spinal curvature but not so much as to call him a hunchback but from what I’ve read on him (admittedly not much) historians had pretty much figured out that he wasn’t the withered cripple portrayed by Shakespeare. It would have been tough for a guy who was that messed up to have ridden into battle and almost gotten within striking distance of Henry Tudor.


 Richard III, portrayed on stage by Steven Weingartner. As he died in his early 30’s, based on this picture he must have led a hard life.

His height was about 5’8″ which doesn’t make him a giant but does put him above average for the period. I think the analysis of his bones to determine his diet is interesting but mostly confirms what everyone already knows; that kings ate better (if by better we mean a diet higher in total calories and saturated fats) than the bulk of the population.

His remains showed that he died violently. Not quite the dream of dying in bed surrounded by grandchildren but far better than Edward II’s (reputed) sorry end. His corpse was somewhat abused after his death and unceremoniously buried. Again, this could have been worse; at least pieces of his body weren’t sent to various places to be hung on posts which has been known to happen to deposed monarchs. It confirms that his body wasn’t thrown in a river but from my limited reading, all this seems to have been deduced by historians already.

It doesn’t shed any light on what happened to the princes in the tower, or explain why, if he didn’t kill them, he didn’t parade them around to demonstrate his innocence when rumors of their deaths started to circulate. It doesn’t tell what kind of man he was, how he was viewed publicly, or much of anything that people didn’t already know. But it has provided a great deal of humor, as the links at the bottom of this post by Historian on the Edge indicate. Katy Meyers at Bones Don’t Lie has one of the funny car park images in a recent post. I’ve seen others and won’t post them here though I think my favorite is the one of the reenactors at the site with a dialogue script, “I think we left him around here somewhere.”

And I can’t believe nobody’s done this yet (maybe they have but I haven’t run across it) so I’ll present my own offering:
For want of a nail …
I had to find a new place to park my car which made me late for work so you see why this really shouldn’t go on my performance evaluation, right?

The most significant aspect of the find, to me, is that it creates interest in the period, in history, in how the Tudors demonized Richard III to legitimize their claim, and in how Shakespeare picked up on this a century later and thought it would make a cool play. This find may result in a new movie about him. We’ll have to see if it’s historical, historically based, or ends up being something which, other than using his name, is so distanced from reality as to only be incidentally related to history. Whatever it does, it’ll need to fill seats.

There are all kinds of uses of this including showing what archaeology can and can’t do, providing a further example of how care needs to be used in interpreting sources (what’s nice in this case is that the examples are so obvious which provides a good teaching point for beginners – and then you can compare this with more subtle examples). But from a historical perspective re adding to what was already known, I’m not seeing a lot. Still, it’s interesting and people are having a bit of fun with it.

1 OK, maybe 1485 makes as much sense as any other date. I’ve commonly gone with 1517 and Martin Luther nailing some complaints against The Church on the door of a church in Wittenberg (or not doing so since said nailing is in question). Any of these arbitrary dates are mostly useful as discussion points. I’ve just tended to date my Medieval period as from 312 to 1517 as an era of a single Christian religious institution which was, IMO, the most influential social movement of the era. Of course Christianity really didn’t become the official religion until 380 and it was another decade or so before Luther’s movement resulted in another church – I’ve gone with the symbolic rather than the actual here. And now I’m arguing with myself. In a footnote.


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Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

The Review

Before I get to the review for this book I want to throw in a few quick comments (click on the above link if you want to skip this). First, it has been over a year since I posted a review. The reason for this is fairly simple. Ever since I began a concerted effort to read about Early Christianity I have largely encountered books I feel unqualified to write a review of. I’ve offered comments as something has caught my attention but for the most part I haven’t felt myself able to give an opinion on the quality of a book.1

Second, more related to the review which will follow is that I have never doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. My reasons, not being a Biblical scholar or even highly familiar with first century AD religion or source material discussions, have centered around one basic fact. He is too frequently mentioned in sources dating from a period too close to his death for him to not have existed. I have read/heard arguments such as, “We have nothing he wrote himself,” or, “There are no monuments or inscriptions dating from when he was alive with his name on them,” or even, “Nothing was written about him by someone who knew him personally.” This last is more debatable but it’s generally believed that the Gospel and other source authors were not among Jesus’ disciples.2

These are unrealistic standards. If we were to judge the existence of all people mentioned in source material similarly, history would be an empty thing. Non-elites didn’t write, or have monuments built to them. If we need to strike Jesus from history as someone who actually lived, then history will need to be rewritten in terms that will eliminate the existence of most non-elite individuals, and many elites. By the standards used to judge the probability of someone’s existence, there is plenty of evidence that a man named Jesus, a traveling teacher/preacher/rabbi in Judea, existed near the beginning of the first century. Within 10-15 years of his death, accounts of Jesus were told to large numbers of people who would have had every reason to be skeptical of this individual’s existence if they had not been pretty certain that he had lived. From a historical perspective, there are literally buckets of references to Jesus, chronologically close enough to when he lived to make his existence highly probable.

This does not mean that he is identical to the person we meet through the Gospels. As with any other source of that period, particularly written several decades after the subject lived, we have almost certainly been presented with an idealized Jesus(though I don’t buy arguments that he didn’t at all resemble this portrayal). The Gospel authors had their biases and must be evaluated with this in mind. Much of what is included in them is likely based on oral traditions which are generally less reliable (though numerous oral traditions that generally agree with one another should be viewed as another factor in favor of his having lived). Individuals in the 2nd or 3rd centuries may have redacted the Gospels to add additional details. And I have never had any urge to publicly debate the miracle stories. If you were to ask me if it is possible for a person to walk on water, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of little fish, heal people without ever meeting them, or rise from the dead I would say no. I would also say I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe these things(and for all you know I may believe these things). Those are matters of faith and I try very hard never to argue with someone over faith, except very close friends.

When it comes to Jesus, I find myself more interested in questions such as whether he actually ran the moneylenders and shopkeepers out of the Temple (let’s face it – he did something to piss the establishment off, to the extent that they executed him). How radical was he, with his devaluation of some matters of Jewish Law? And I enjoy discussions of how apocalyptic Jesus was or whether much of this was entered into his life by the authors of the Gospels, writing as they did (likely) shortly following the destruction of the Temple by Roman authorities.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Review


Levine, Amy-Jill, Allison, Dale C. Jr. and Crossan, John Dominic, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context, Princeton, Princeton University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-69100-992-9.

This is a collection of 28 essays designed to, as the title says, provide a context for Jesus’ life. As Levine says in her introduction, this book, “… provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself.” (1) How does Jesus, the man, teacher, rabbi and messiah fit into first-century Jewish and Roman society? Is he a radical outlier or can parallels be drawn between him and others of his time? How do the concepts, themes and ideas found in the Gospels compare with prominent themes from Jesus’ period? Where might some of these concepts, themes and ideas have originated from?

The essays in this volume are as follows:

  • Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine
  • 1. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels,” Jonathan L. Reed
  • 2. “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” Craig A. Evans
  • 3. “Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels,” Mary Rose D’Angelo
  • 4. “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Charles H. Talbert
  • 5. “First and Second Enoch: A Cry Against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance,” George W. E. Nickelsburg
  • 6. “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Peter Flint
  • 7. “The Chreia,” David B. Gowler
  • 8. “The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature,” Alan J. Avery-Peck
  • 9. “Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers,” Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
  • 10. “The Mithras Liturgy,” Marvin Meyer
  • 11. “Apuleius of Madauros,” Ian H. Henderson
  • 12. “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature,” Gary G. Porton
  • 13. “The Aesop Tradition,” Lawrence M. Wills
  • 14. “Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels,” Bruce Chilton
  • 15. “The Psalms of Solomon,” Joseph L. Trafton
  • 16. “Moral and Ritual Piety,” Jonathan Klawans
  • 17. “Gospel and Talmud,” Herbert W. Basser
  • 18. “Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory E. Sterling
  • 19. “The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ,” Thomas A. J. McGinn
  • 20. “Associations in the Ancient World,” John S. Kloppenborg
  • 21. “Anointing Traditions,” Teresa J. Hornsby
  • 22. “The Passover Haggadah,” Calum Carmichael
  • 23. “Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker,” Randall D. Chesnutt
  • 24. “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano
  • 25. “Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels,” Dennis R. MacDonald
  • 26. “Narratives of Noble Death,” Robert Doran
  • 27. “Isiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint),” Ben Witherington III
  • 28. “Thallus on the Crucifixion,” Dale C. Allison Jr.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern. It discusses a particular facet of ancient Jewish or Roman life, talks about source material related to that facet, and then provides translated sources demonstrating what was discussed. Occasionally these may be full sources but more often they are a selection. These materials are then compared and contrasted with how Jesus was portrayed, primarily in the Gospels.

The book is not what I’d call a popular history but it is written at a fairly basic level. I don’t know for sure but it looks like something designed for use in an introductory undergraduate course on source and textual analysis in Early Christianity. A negative of this book is it’s not footnoted though most sources are referenced in the text. As I do not intend to deeply explore issues related to this topic, this was less of a negative for me than it would be for some books.

As can be seen from the Table of Contents, the breadth of topics is considerable. The portrayal of Christ as a messianic figure, his use of parables as teaching tools, comparing his miracle stories with others of the period, exploring Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish scriptures and how he uses them, and discussions of his lack of concern with Jewish ritual impurity (compared with moral impurity) are covered, as well as other topics. I will briefly touch on some of the topics and essays which were of most interest to me.

Craig Evans analyzed the writings of Josephus to determine how prominently messianic figures appear in first-century Jewish culture. Josephus is negatively disposed to these individuals however he mentions several of them and, in contrast, he discusses John the Baptist in favorable terms. In essence, Jesus as a messiah is not out of place during this time and place.

Charles Talbert’s chapter was one of my favorites. He discusses multiple cases of miraculous conception in ancient literature, some of them fairly prominent such as Achilles as the son of the God Thetis and Hercules as the son of Zeus. Of more interest, and possibly more applicable to the portrayal of Jesus, are figures such as Pythagorus, Alexander the Great, and Plato. Talbert spends some time discussing how divine begetting was often attributed to an individual who had lived a particularly notable life. Arrian, in Anabasis 7.30 says of Alexander, “And so not even I can suppose that a man quite beyond all other men was born without some divine influence.” (84) In discussing a passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.45 Talbert says, “One could not do what Plato did had he not been the offspring of a God! One reason the ancients used stories of miraculous conceptions and births was as an explanation of the superiority of the individual.” (85) For me, while I was certainly aware of miraculous conceptions in ancient literature, I had never grouped the birth of Christ with these.

Peter Flint compares how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels with passages found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes had several messianic figures and in many ways their lives parallel the account of Jesus. However they differ in a couple of key points and Flint disagrees with prior analyses which describe an Essene precedent for either a killed Messiah or a sacrificial crucifixion to redeem man from sins.

Gary Porton, Bruce Chilton and Herbert Basser discuss prominent Jewish literature elements and their use by Jesus in the Gospels. Porton discusses parables found in rabbinic literature and believes that, “… one would expect the ‘historical’ Jesus to have taught throughout his life by parables.” (209). Chilton talks about a type of literature known as Targum. These are scriptural paraphrases where the general meaning of Hebrew scripture is rendered into the Aramaic most commonly in use in first-century scripture. He demonstrates that Jesus was well aware of and extensively used this literary form, indicating an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He also discusses one particular instance where the Greek translation provided by Luke misrepresents the Aramaic original. In Luke 4:16-30 Jesus is nearly stoned after speaking in a synagogue. Based on Luke, Jesus appears to provide a fairly traditional interpretation of Isiah however based on pronoun confusion, he is actually proclaiming himself not just as a divinely inspired preacher but as a full-on messiah who will personally see to the redemption of the souls of men from captivity. (252-4) Interestingly, Chilton describes a Jesus who knew and used Targum however he almost never used identical language and how he used scripture, “… shows that an innovative tendency is characteristic of his style of teaching.” (252) Basser describes how Jesus followed talmudic and rabbinic forms of teaching and argument, however his message in the Gospels is different from Judaic teachings.

A very useful chapter for me was authored by Jonathan Klawans. He discusses the difference between ritual purity and moral purity and how Jesus emphasized the importance of the latter but was not as concerned with the former. Ritual impurities are those which do not represent sin. For example, a woman is ritually impure during menstruation, however this does not demonstrate sin, just that she should avoid the temple during these times (interestingly, male genital emissions are also considered ritually impure). An individual who helped bury someone is ritually impure but not sinful – the dead must be cared for and buried – he or she must ritually cleanse him- or herself before entering the temple. In contrast, moral impurity such as sexual transgressions, bloodshed, and idolatry are sinful and result in long-lasting defilement which may not be removed simply by a ritual cleansing. Throughout the Gospels, Christ expresses little concern for ritual impurity. He and his disciples eat without first washing their hands, heal on the Sabbath and gather grain to eat on the Sabbath, all items prohibited under Jewish Law. Yet he is very concerned with greed, murder, adultery, etc. Klawans provides a useful analysis of Mark 7:1-23 in discussing this.

There were a few essays I considered less useful. I found Dennis MacDonald’s argument that the Gospels made extensive use of Greek epics unconvincing. The fact that Hector and Christ both died is certainly true however I do not see where the denial by Achilles to grant Priam his body resembles the account of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, similarly the death of Turnus in the Aenid. Marvin Meyer’s discussion and translation of the Mithras Liturgy was interesting, however he failed to adequately connect it to first-century Judaism which left me wondering what the point of the chapter was.

This is a good book. For me, it did what it was intended to do – provide me a contextual basis from which I could draw more insight into Jesus’ life, or at least his life as it is portrayed in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as a man of his times, a preacher/teacher who uses traditional Jewish literature, teaching methods, and whose messages are, in many cases, traditional. However he also comes across as a remarkable individual, even accounting for possible later redactions of the Gospels. While he uses traditional methods, much of his message is innovative. While bathing to remove ritual impurity is an every day aspect of Jewish life, the Gospel accounts provide a new, one-time-only, “baptism for life” for the remission of sins. Jesus breaks with Jewish authorities on what constitutes impurity. Once one recalls that in Rome, Emperors were commonly worshiped as deities, Jesus’ famous “Render unto God what is God and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” becomes a subversive denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Christ, depending on your viewpoint, was either an innovator or a radical, perhaps both. He was enough of each to earn the enmity of the Jewish establishment to the point of being executed.

There are areas left unexamined. In particular, I would have appreciated an account of Roman judicial practice in Judea during the period and an examination of how Christ’s trial, sentence and execution compared with normal judicial procedures. I have read where the trial and sentence is considered to have taken place very quickly and would have enjoyed a discussion of this. I would have also enjoyed more discussions such as Bruce Chilton’s discussing Aramaic/Greek translations and how this impacts determining the origin of Gospel accounts.3

This book will be valuable for a person who is just beginning his or her examination of first-century Christianity. My one recommendation is that you first read the canonical Gospels. These are frequently referred to and the Gospel accounts are compared and contrasted with other examples of ancient literature throughout.

1 It’s sheer coincidence that I’m posting something about Jesus on Christmas Day. I happened to finish this book over the weekend. Funny how that works out.

2 This is the biggest change in my preconceptions; that the Gospel authors were not Jesus’ companions. In essence, while some believe that Mark (considered the earliest Gospel) may have been written around 50 AD, most place it closer to about 70. The real disqualifier is that the Gospels were written in fairly high quality Greek. Jesus’ companions are unlikely to have known Greek and even more unlikely to have been able to write it.

3 One of the ways historians try to figure out when something in a Gospel account originated is by trying to reverse translate it from Greek into Aramaic. There are passages in the Greek which make no sense in Aramaic demonstrating, probably, something which was added a bit later, up to when the Gospel was written (later redactions are an entirely different matter). And there are stories which appear to make much more sense in Aramaic, indicating a fairly early origin. Of course most make sense both ways. And quite often the Gospels and Paul retain an original Aramaic word or phrase.


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The Construction of a Heresy

I have a hard time communicating to people why reading about and studying (it isn’t formal but while I’m not a historian I do consider what I do to be studying) history is such a passion of mine. Apparently my physical appearance doesn’t lead people to think of me as someone who spends a great deal of his spare time reading. As an example, a few months ago at a department meeting a young lady decided we had enough recent hires that we needed to do something to get to know each other better. She arranged a mixer which was patterned on speed dating where people switched seats every couple of minutes after chatting with each other. When she reached my table and I explained my history interest; this blog, conferences I go to, etc., her immediate response was, “I never would have dreamed that – I always thought of you as someone who did guy things.” On follow up those “guy things” would have included hunting and fishing. Now I don’t know why reading history can’t be a guy thing but I’m sure she left the chair puzzled as to why history fascinates me so much. I recently came across something which I hope can provide an example.

In my last post I mentioned how David Gwynn discussed Athanasius’ role in portraying Arianism and its adherents as a cohesive group which held to a fairly uniform set of beliefs. I recently finished Sara Parvis, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345 which revises this even further. This is a good book which provides a detailed look at the religious conflicts in the two decades following Nicaea, including examining dates of various sources and Church Councils, the makeup and purposes of the respective Councils, and the gradual hardening of opinions during this period. Definitely not for beginners and I imagine a lot of what Parvis has to say is controversial but she does provide detailed arguments though in many cases she is forced to rely on her sense of logic rather than actual evidence which is always hazardous.

Anyway, on page 180 she has a subheading titled, The invention of Arianism. I don’t think I can explain how delighted I was when I came across this. If I could, I could provide a solution to the problem I stated in my first sentence of this post. All I can say is that while I didn’t literally skip across my living room or break into a dance or anything, it wouldn’t have taken much to get me there. Never mind that it blasted yet another hole into one of my preconceptions from when I first started seriously reading up on early Christianity. This isn’t the first point in this where I’ve discovered I was wrong, though so far I think it may be my largest error.

Icon from the Mégalo Metéoron Monastery in Greece, representing the First Ecumenical Council of Nikea 325 A.D., with the condemned Arius in the bottom of the icon.
Image from the Mégalo Metéoron Monastery in Greece. This representation of the 325 Council of Nicaea shows Arius as condemned, kneeling beneath Constantine. The Monastery was constructed in the mid-14th century (I don’t have detailed information on the date of the image) so this is a nice example of how Arius came to be portrayed, not of his actual role or status in the controversies. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In essence, Parvis argues that there was no such thing as Arianism before about 340. Arius was a figure in the struggle over Orthodoxy but a minor one. Instead, during the period of Athanasius’ second exile (339-346) he and Marcellus created Arianism as a tool in what was primarily a political struggle between Eusebius of Nicomedia and his allies, and Athanasius, Marcellus, and Julius of Rome. This struggle became enmeshed in the conflicts between Constantius and Constans over rule of the Empire (or rule over parts of it anyway).

After Marcellus and Athanasius spent their year together in Rome, however, a new animal arises in the writings of both: the full-blown Arian heresy, modelled on the constructs of the old heresiologies, with its diabolical initiative, its roots in previous heresies or philosophies, and its single male heresiarch with his malignant followers, who propagate theological perversions with great vigour, persecute the orthodox, and, most importantly of all, have been clearly condemned by the Church. p. 181. 1

Parvis’ discussion of this covers pages 180-199 and there’s no way I can completely cover her argument. However there are some interesting pieces of evidence which support this. First is Nicaea itself. The 325 Council, while condemning those who deny the Son’s eternity, or who believe he is of a different essence than the Father, does not anathematize them. They are wrong, but still in communion with the Church. 2

It is also interesting that Nicaea does not name Arius or Arians. This has to wait for the Council of Constantinople in 381, following the lead of Theodosius earlier that year where he decreed that the Nicene faith was the only proper one. 3

Then there are the various creeds published by the Eusebian party over the years. As I mentioned in my previous post, most of these are not Arian. Some, such as the Fourth Creed of Antioch, are very close to orthodox. But Athanasius condemns them all as Arian (almost all anyway), however distinct they are from “classical” Arianism. 4 And above all, there is the difference in Athanasius’ writings, from spending over 10 years discussing doctrinal issues with barely a mention of Arius, to this sudden, concerted expression of a well-developed heretical doctrine.

Why Arius? Why did Athanasius and Marcellus name their heresy after him? He was a presbyter, not a bishop. As the Eusebian party said from Antioch, “We have not been followers of Arians – how could Bishops, such as we, follow a presbyter?” 5 Now there’s no evidence, just my opinion, but it seems likely that Arius was more of a convenient target than anything. He was a figure in all of this but bishops such as Eusebius or Asterius were far more prominent. However they were also closely allied with Constantius. It would have been hard to go after them without implying that the Emperor was guilty by association. The fact that Arius was dead by this time couldn’t have hurt either. And claiming that a group of bishops were basing their direction based on a presbyter would further discredit them.

In essence, after Athanasius and Marcellus were exiled, they started to play hardball. They created a specific target, Arius, and helped define his doctrine. The rhetoric increased in volume and intensity and, in Athanasius’ case, the Creed of Nicaea came to be used as a weapon. Whatever the Eusebian party came up with, even if it might be able to be considered orthodox, it wasn’t Nicene and Athanasius was there to contest it. While there was a theological dispute, the real conflict was a political one where the Eusebians contested with the Athanasian party for control of the Church. Arianism was crafted as a weapon.

An interesting aside in all of this is the role of Constantine. His intervention and what seems to be a search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict ended up dragging things out for another four decades. Now maybe the Alexandrian party wouldn’t have achieved a decisive victory at Nicaea but if they had the battle over orthodoxy (and the political one for control of the Church) might have been over much more quickly. And within a few months of Nicaea, Constantine had done an about-face and was supporting the Eusebians. Too bad he didn’t keep a diary to let us know what he was thinking. I can almost read it:

Dear Diary, Friggin’ bishops. Alexander wants to kick half of them out of their sees and for what – over a disagreement about a few words? I don’t have time for this mess. I just finished with Licinius and who knows how many pissed off leftovers of his are running around. The Persians are still acting up and Mom tells me that my son and my wife are getting it on with each other every chance they get. I don’t have the time to replace 90 bishops and deal with everything that would cause. Better to come up with a solution and get ’em off each others’ necks.

So this is what I call fun, discovering something completely new. It’s also, I think, evidence of how poorly read I am in this area. I have a feeling what Parvis is discussing isn’t new – it may even be the mainstream opinion. But it was new to me. Her argument is persuasive though I have to guard myself from being overly willing to adopt opinions which point to increasing historical complexity. And there are a bunch of specifics she offers which must be points of disagreement among the scholarly community. If I wanted to, I could dive into several more books and probably a dozen journal articles to refine my thinking further. Actually I do want to, but I won’t. I’ve spent nearly a year tracing back from the end of the 4th century and am only now at the Council of Nicaea. If I’m ever going to read back to the origins of Christianity and then return to the 5th and 6th centuries, I can’t go into a detailed investigation of every issue, however interesting I find it.

1 Parvis believes Athanasius and Marcellus spent 340 together in Rome.

2 Parvis believes that Nicaea would not have been viewed as a victory by Alexander of Alexandria and his party. She argues that he and his group had been working toward an ecumenical council which would prove decisive in the adoption of their doctrine. Instead, the Eusebian group, while told to set aside their doctrine, continue as members of the Church and are allowed to retain positions of influence.

3 For Theodosius’ law, see Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History VII.4. Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History V.9 preserves the synodal letter of the Council of Constantinople while Socrates Scholasticus’ Ecclesiatical History V.8 provides a summary of the Council.

4 We should be very grateful to Athanasius for preserving the various creeds developed by the Eusebian party. His de Synodis 25.2-5 provides the text of this creed.

5 From Athanasius, de Synodis 22.

Gwynn, David M., Athanasius of Alexander: Bishop, Theologian, Ascetic, Father. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-19-921095-4.

Parvis, Sara, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19928-0131.

Robertson, Archibald, ed., Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series 4. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN (for 14-volume set): 978-1-56563-116-8.


Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Historiography, Religion


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Athanasius and Another “ism”

Before I get into this, let me apologize for not posting in three months. Every year, I start to get extremely busy around mid-June. In past years I’ve tried to keep posting and have ended up putting up some pretty weak stuff which largely consists of me talking about buying books. This year I said the heck with it and decided if I couldn’t post something decent, I wouldn’t post at all. This year was even worse than usual as we’ve been short a person in our office and it hasn’t rained much on weekends, meaning I’ve been spending most of my time outdoors. Now I have to get myself back into the habit of regular posting. Fortunately, I still have some Kalamazoo reports to put up and I have a couple of other things I’ve started. Just need to knock the rust off.

I’ve recently been reading up on Athanasius. I haven’t gotten through his source material yet but I wanted to share something from David Gwynn’s Athanasius of Alexander. I’ve not been shy about putting up posts where I talk about my unease when I come across various “isms” or how I’ve developed a distrust of historical models. As I learn more about this stuff I’m constantly discovering that various processes of social development are far more complex than their models and/or “isms” indicate. This is no longer a surprise and these days, when faced with one of these which I consider important to whatever it is that I’m reading about at the moment, one of my first inclinations is to try to find out if these sorts of depictions are accurate. Now this isn’t to say that using models, or words that end in “ism” should be stricken from use. My caution is that a) these depictions are almost always more complex and nuanced than a general characterization can provide and b) be very skeptical when you read something in which the author or authors appear to have viewed specific evidence through a model or ism-tinted lens. The evidence must first be examined on its own terms and only after this should it be compared to a model. And yes, this will also vary depending on if this evidence is central to the author's argument or secondary. Historians can't go back and re-work everything; they have to rely on the work of others. Heck, I’m about to try to summarize Athanasius and his influence on our (non-specialist/amateur) concept of Arianism in a thousand words. If I was too worried about over-generalizing something, I wouldn’t even write this.

So I was not particularly surprised, though I was pleased, when Gwynn spent a significant portion of this book discussing something he called "Athanasian Arianism." In essence, Athanasius was a prolific writer. Many of his writings discuss his conflicts with those who did not embrace Nicene Christianity, including extensive discussions of what led to his various exiles. In these discussions he consistently describes his enemies as Arian and followers of the standard belief system which included the Son not being eternal and a product of the Father's will. The Son is a creature, though different from other creatures (and men), and not of the same substance as the Father. According to Arius there was a time when the Son did not exist. This contrasts with Nicene Christianity where the Son and the Father are eternal – there was never a time when they were not, and they are consubstantial; of the same matter and essence. 1

Athanasius of Alexandria, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Athanasius of Alexandria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However Gwynn argues that this lumping of all of Athanasius’ enemies under an Arian umbrella is inaccurate, at least in characterizing them as wholly subscribing to Arius’ doctrine. He begins by discussing Eusebius of Nicomedia, who led the effort which resulted in Athansius’ first exile in 335, and Asterius the Sophist. Regarding these two, Gwynn writes:

Both men shared Arius’ refusal to describe the Son as eternal, or from the Father’s ousia, and believed that the son must be a ktisma and a product of the Father’s will. Like Arius, they held that the father alone is eternal and unbegotten, and that to name the Son co-eternal or co-essential with the Father was to teach two unbegotten beings or impose material or Sabellian ideas upon God. Unlike Arius, they did not refer to the Son as ‘out of nothing’ or teach that he did not fully know the Father. They also placed a greater emphasis upon the unique divinity of the Son, whom Asterius is reported to have described as ‘the exact Image of His [the Father’s] Essence and Will and Power and Glory. p. 79 2

While Eusebius and Asterius did not subscribe to Nicene Christianity, clearly they did not completely agree with Arius. This becomes more evident in examining what has become known as the Dedication Creed, developed by a Council of Eastern Bishops (including Eusebius) in 341 at Antioch. This creed describes the Son as an exact image of the Father, immutable and unchangeable; not a creature, yet not eternal. This isn’t Nicene, but it isn’t Arian either. But Athanasius is quick to lump the 90 bishops with Arius and describes and condemns them as Arian. 3

Athanasius’ characterization of his opponents is picked up by later authors and has helped create the concept of a large, cohesive group of religious figures who subscribe to “classical” Arianism, in conflict with the defenders of Nicene Christianity. However the reality is much more complex, and interesting. Athanasius’ opponents, and opponents of Nicene Christianity, held a variety of beliefs. Some of them were very close to Arius’ original doctrine however many were not and differed to such an extent that Arius would have almost certainly denounced them himself.

Athanasius wrote a lot on the Arians and he is rightly considered among the foremost defenders of Nicene Christianity. However it is through Athanasius, and his depiction by later authors such as Sozomen, Theodoret, Socrates Scholasticus and others, where the concept has formed of Nicene Christianity battling with a uniform, united Arian party to determine what would be considered Orthodox. Athanasius had a lot to do with unifying Nicene Christianity and refining its arguments however he also characterized this conflict and its participants in a way which does not reflect historical reality. 4

1 See pp. 76-85 for Gwynn’s main discussion of Athanasian Arianism however he refers to this regularly throughout the remainder of the text.

2 Terms: ousia is substance, ktisma is creature.

3 The Dedication Creed and subsequent adaptations by this group of bishops can be found in Athanasius’ de Synodis 22-30. Athansius’ condemnation of them as Arian is in de Synodis 31-2.

4 I’ve not discussed how important Athanasius is in any detail however when Theodosius passed his law in February of 380 defining Orthodoxy, the lack of resistance to it is indicative of how crucial the theological battles of the preceding half-century had been. I think it’s also important to note that the Nicene Creed commonly used today is not the original one developed in 324 but the one issued by the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Gwynn, David M., Athanasius of Alexander: Bishop, Theologian, Ascetic, Father. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-19-921095-4.

Robertson, Archibald, ed., Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series 4. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN (for 14-volume set): 978-1-56563-116-8.


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Stuff I’m discovering I Don’t Want to Learn

This will be something of a fluff post, possibly of interest to nobody but myself. Dear diary, right?

I’ve been reading some 4th century stuff which I’m discovering covers an area I’m really not all that interested in. This is not the first time this has happened. More than 10 years ago, when I started to really get into Medieval History, I realized I wasn’t that interested in warfare. This was a surprise. If you’d asked me right when I was getting started I’d have probably told you that learning about folks sticking each other with sharp, pointy objects and how they went about it would be high on my list. It hasn’t been, even though I realize that this is a very important aspect of history (and continues to be today, though the methods have changed – we are one violent species).

Up to the last month I’d have told you that the evolution of thought is something I’m very interested in. I still think so, but there’s a level of detail at which this does not seem to be true. 1

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E., by Jason David BeDuhn. This book discusses Augustine’s early life, his time as a Manichean, and his conversion to Christianity. In large part, it analyzes Augustine’s story, based on his The Confessions and other early writings to examine what was going on inside Augustine’s head during this period. How did he think about himself? Realizing that The Confessions was written about ten years after his conversion, how does Augustine’s view of himself compare with what was likely happening internally? What do these writings tell us about Augustine’s development of “self?”

Guess what – I’m not buying Volume II when it comes out. There appears to be a whole branch devoted to discovering what Augustine thought of himself and really picking apart his conversion. This is fine. He’s one of the most important figures in the development of Western thought so figuring out how this thought came about and how his personal development impacted it is useful. But I also found out that it’s not something I’m interested in, not to the point of wanting to read 300-plus page books devoted to a subset of the topic. I suppose there could be a discussion of whether this is really history rather than one of the “ologies” (psychology, sociology, etc.) but I’ll leave that to others – those are intermingled with history anyway, as is anthropology.

I have always been interested in how our current Western European society developed its thinking and how this can be traced back to ancient Greece. I’ve read a lot of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato (in translation of course). I’ve read a fair amount of books discussing this in relatively (I now realize) general terms. However right now I’m reading Kevin Corrigan’s Evagrius and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. This is an extremely detailed examination of Evagorius Ponticus and Gregory of Nyssa and how their writings reflect a Greek classical origin. I’m fighting through this and recognizing that at this level of detail, picking through Evagrius’ Praktikos concept by concept and looking for its origin in Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, goes deeper than I want to go.

The funny thing is, I find the source material very interesting. But the analysis of this material (which is detailed and seems quite well done), at least to this level, has been boring me. I’m reading this in 5 page or so blocks, not a good way to get through something.

Let me provide an example from the introduction (you know – where general concepts are, uh, introduced) of Chapter 6, “Gregory and the Fall of Intellect”:

“The formulaic phomen, “we say,” indicates agreement among members of a school and what is agreed upon is a problem of interpretation in Plato’s Republic and Symposium. The Republic posits the good as the supreme mathêma, beyond both intellect and being. The Symposium, by contrast, in Diotima’s ladder of ascent, posits the beautiful as the goal of desire and vision. Are the two equivalent? The question remains open in Plato. But in Plotinus, the “beautiful” is ambiguous, indicating the beauty of intellect secondarily and that of the Good beyond it primarily (cf. EnneadI 6, 6-7; V 5, 12; and VI 7, 31-3), though this has been debated.” (103)

There are other aspects of medieval history where I love attention to detail but reading page after page of this makes my head want to explode. I believe (though I’m really not qualified to assess it) that Corrigan knows his stuff. But what I want to read would be something more along the lines of, “Gregory’s concept of beauty could be summarized as the mind as a mirror designed to reflect beauty and the body as a further reflective element, capable of receiving and sustaining the beauty of the mind. This concept can be traced to Plotinus, however its origin can be found in the writings of Plato.” Then give me footnotes (Corrigan footnotes the above anyway).

This is not to say that books such as this are not useful or even important. It’s just at a level of detail beyond what I want to explore (for now anyway – who knows where I’ll be a couple of years, or even months, down the road). This is the benefit of my doing this as a hobby. I can choose not to dive so deeply as Corrigan would take me. I love my real job but there are pieces of it which are quite tedious. Just yesterday I viewed a 2 hour webinar designed to introduce a FEMA technical guide (755 pages) on earthquake safety which I’ll need to mine for information on a publication I’m working on. These federal technical folks know their stuff but are not noted for giving the most thrilling presentation. But I’m being paid to do this and I will.

I’ll finish Corrigan. I have this stubborn thing which happens whenever I open a book and the only two times I’ve closed a book without finishing was over disgust at the crappy level of information provided, certainly not because it’s overly informative. I’m sure I’m going continue to gobble up source material, in particular Neoplatonist sources. But it reminds me that I do this as a hobby and my level of knowledge will never reach that of professionals (overall anyway). I can set aside critical areas because I choose not to investigate them thoroughly. It’s a flawed approach to true knowledge but for certain areas of history, it’s an approach I’m choosing to take.

1 Understanding that Medieval (and Ancient) folks thought differently from us (moderns) is a fundamental concept which I think should be one of the first things anyone interested in either period should explore. The best general survey on this which I’ve read is; Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1992). ISBN: 0-226-48231-6. For those familiar with this book, the level of detail I want to explore is somewhere between it and Corrigan.

BeDuhn, Jason David, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E.. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4210-2.

Corrigan, Kevin, Evagirus and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing (2009). ISBN: 978-0-7546-1685-6.


Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Historiography


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The Problem With Paganism

Actually, there is no problem with paganism itself, I’m becoming concerned with the term, in particular the “ism” part.

A long while back, when I was first getting started on this Medieval History thing, I read Susan Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals. This was very much a revision of what was often called feudalism or the feudal system. To contract a book of over 500 pages into a couple of sentences, she argued that there was no such thing as a feudal system, or feudalism. Land tenure arrangements varied widely from place to place and over time, making use of terminology such as “system or “ism” flawed. Good book and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Or at least read Elizabeth Brown’s 1974 American Historical Review article. I consider Reynolds one of the most influential Medieval History books I’ve read.

I’m just getting started on reading on Early Christianity but before I even get going on this, it seems to me that the term “paganism” suffers from the same problem. First, there was no “ism” about it. Different people revered different Gods and Goddesses and each of these cults had their own rituals (though I’m certain some were very similar). Some pagans revered one deity, such as Sol Invictus, others several. Some pagan cults engaged in ritual sacrifice (animal — claims of Human sacrifice, at least during the period of the Empire — should be considered baseless accusations, often by Christians who misinterpreted what went on at games) others used incense and/or wore laurel wreaths. An initiate into the cult of Mercury would have undergone a very different ritual from one entering that of Mithras. And this is before we get into all of the local cults and designated Gods for specific cities, or private ritual.

The only time this “ism” seems to be appropriate is in a discussion of how contemporary Christians viewed things. They do not seem to have made much of a distinction between one form of pagan practice and another. Otherwise, lumping all pagan practices under one label is a gross oversimplification of the multiple cults and practices that were followed and engaged in during the Roman Empire.

This is a problem, but IMO it isn’t the largest one. This “ism” infers, at least to me, that there was some sort of cohesiveness to pagan practice. In my mind, the term suggests the concept of large pagan congregations highly involved in their cult, receiving lessons in doctrine and worship and actively promoting their beliefs.

This wasn’t the case. Active paganism was largely the concern of the elites who were selected for various offices and priesthoods within their respective cults. State support was used for maintenance of temples and the “professionals” involved in promoting the cults (Vestal Virgins are probably the most well-known of these – their maintenance wasn’t free, or cheap). Until the later 4th century state funds supported temples and rituals. Large-scale participation among the populace was largely restricted to festivals. One of the reasons paganism (see — I’m doing it too — tried substituting pagan practices and it just didn’t seem right) sort of just faded away without any sort of epic battle against Christianity is that large numbers of the populace weren’t that concerned with it. This contrasts with Christianity with its organizational system based on bishops, involving the widespread teaching of doctrine and practice, and the ability to influence large numbers of people. The large scale religious responses seen in the fourth and fifth century were largely restricted to Christianity, an ancient form of “get out the vote” which could be translated to “take it to the streets.” The populace was very capable of demonstrating about other things. Food shortages, closure of games (they didn’t seem to much care if games were to honor a God or not so long as they were held), and opposition to/support for an Emperor all brought people out. But paganism was unable to inspire this sort of reaction.

I don’t have a substitute term for paganism — I wish I did. As I learn more about this I may find that someone has written on this, an Ancient History version of Elizabeth Brown’s article. For me the use of the term paganism carries the risk of oversimplifying the wide range of polytheistic and monotheistic practices carried out in the Empire as well as implying that there was a high degree of cohesiveness among practitioners and followers. Neither of these is true. There should be something better, or, unless used in the context of what contemporary Christians believed about non-Christians, these beliefs should be explained in more detail rather than being summed up with an imprecise 8-word term.1

I shall now tell my pedantic self to go sit in a corner. He may escape again though. Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain I’ll use paganism myself from time to time, as I have in this very post. Might be a case where I’ll need to resurrect my self-policing through fines.

1 There are a couple of exceptions to this. A statement such as “Symmachus wrote a letter defending paganism and urging Theodosius to restore state support for the temples as well as the Altar of Victory.” seems OK because it would be an instance of referring to the entire scope of practice, where the specifics are relatively unimportant. Another acceptable use would be if used in a discussion of specifics. For example, “Paganism associated with Jupiter included …” or “The form of paganism most strongly favored by the Symmachi involved …” However even in these cases, substituting “pagan practices” (or something) for “paganism” seems preferable to me.

Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.

Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN: 9780198-206484.


Posted by on December 6, 2011 in Historiography, Religion


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