Joel Thomas Walker

title.none: Klingshirn and Vessey, eds., The Limits of Ancient Christianity (Walker)

identifier.other: baj9928.0104.004 01.04.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joel Thomas Walker, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Klingshirn, William, and Mark Vessey, eds. The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R. A. Markus. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp. vi, 348. $54.50. ISBN: 0-412-10997-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.04.04

Klingshirn, William, and Mark Vessey, eds. The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R. A. Markus. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp. vi, 348. $54.50. ISBN: 0-412-10997-9.

Reviewed by:

Joel Thomas Walker
University of Washington

In a publication record that spans five decades (1949 to the present), Robert A. Markus, Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at the University of Nottingham, has established himself as a distinguished interpreter of the history and theology of early medieval Latin Christianity. In this fine volume, William Klingshirn and Mark Vessey honor Robert Markus with a well-integrated collection of sixteen essays exploring the "limits of ancient Christianity." [1] The collection closely follows the primary themes of Markus' own oeuvre, investigating the 'thought and culture' of Late Antiquity, with special attention to the Latin Fathers from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) to Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604 CE). As the collection offers an admirable cross-section of current Anglo- American scholarship in this burgeoning field, I offer below brief summaries of all sixteen essays. Klingshirn and Vessey divide the book into four broad thematic sections, each with a short preface. The essays in Part I, "Sacred Histories," investigate the process by which prominent Christian intellectuals sought to "dismantle, rearrrange, and absorb the Greek, Roman, and Jewish narratives of universal history to which they owed most". (3) The North Africa rhetor Lactantius, tutor at the Constantinian court in Gaul, exemplifies the complexity and equivocation of this process, as Oliver Nicholson demonstrates in the opening essay of the collection ("Civitas Quae Adhuc Sustentat Omnia: Lactantius and the City of Rome"). Although a fierce critic of Roman religion, Lactantius could sometimes speak in fervent defense of Romanitas, particularly in his account of the afflictions heaped on the city of Rome by the 'barbarous' northern emperors of the Tetrarchy (293-305 CE). Citing the twin poles of early Christian political thought outlined by Robert Markus in Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge, 1970), Nicholson contends that Lactantius was "at once apocalyptic and appreciative" (25) in his assessment of Roman power. Sacred history of a different order lies at the center of Paula Fredrikson's essay on Augustine's theology of ancient Israel and the Law ("Secundum Carnem: History and Israel in the Theology of St. Augustine"). Fredrikson documents the marked disjunction that separates early Christian conceptions of the Law as a burden imposed on Israel "on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts" (Justin, Dial. 24) from the more tolerant position developed by Augustine through his reading of Tyconius and his debates against the Manichaeans. Fredrikson concentrates on a single application of this grand theme, namely the debate between Augustine and Jerome over the observance or rejection (the latter emphasized by Jerome) of the Law by the apostolic church. As Fredrikson makes plain, Augustine simultaneously accepted the notion that Jesus had "lived full-heartedly as a Law-observant Jew" while adamantly rejecting "any Christian flirtation with the observances of the Law". (40) Christians' relationship to Israelite sacred history remained a crux for debate between pagan and Christian intellectuals of the fifth- century, as Robert Wilken demonstrates in his pithy contribution, "Cyril of Alexandria's Contra Julianum." A mammoth text completed ca. 440 CE, Cyril's Contra Julianum responds to the arguments laid out by the emperor Julian, some eighty years earlier, in his treatise Against the Galileans. Julian's treatise had advanced a dual polemic, attacking Christians for accepting the anthropomorphic, tribal God of the Jewish Bible, while also failing to maintain the Mosaic Law in their own piety. In his response, Cyril defends the reality of God's appearance to the patriarchs and His election of Israel--"God's gracious self- disclosure" in Wilken's apt phrase (55)--as a necessary prelude to his "fullest self-disclosure through the Incarnation of the divine Word". (55) Wilken notes the paradoxical quality of Cyril's response to the Greeks: here "one of the sharpest critics of the Jewish Law in the early church"(55) acknowledges the vital role of the Law in God's process of self-disclosure that culminates with the Incarnation.

In part II, "Constructing Orthodoxy," Klingshirn and Vessey place four essays which all focus on the definition of orthodoxy in the century following the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). The contributions by historian of theology, Gerald Bonner ("Dic Christi Veritas Ubi Nunc Habitas: Ideas of Schism and Heresy in the Post-Nicene Age") and cultural historian, Virginia Burrus ("'In the Theater of This Life': The Performance of Orthodoxy in Late Antiquity") offer an interesting contrast in methodology. Bonner's essay takes a terminological and doctrinal approach, tracing the explicit convergence of 'schism' and 'heresy' in patristic thought of the late fourth century (the Council of Constantinople, Jerome, Augustine). He then explores the implications of this convergence in the "textbook example" of the Priscillianist controversy, where accusations of heresy combined "disastrously, as it turned out" with imperial intervention in ecclesiastical affairs. (75) Burrus centers her essay on a pair of broader, theoretical concepts: theatricality and the performance of orthodoxy. (80-1) Focusing on three precise case studies, Burrus highlights the rhetorical negotiation and ambiguity involved in patristic self- representations of orthodoxy.

The remaining essays of part II address struggles against "heresy" in the Christian communities of North Africa and Syria. Frederick Russell's contribution, "Persuading the Donatists: Augustine's Coercion by Words", returns to the critical and much-studied problem of Augustine's views on coercion as a tool for restoring the unity of the church. Frederick traces the gradual hardening of Augustine's attitude on this topic, a process that culminated in Augustine's appeal to Bonifice, the Count of Africa, in 417 CE, to employ imperial force (including flogging) against the Donatists. Sidney Griffith's essay, "Setting Right the Church of Syria: St. Ephraem's Hymns against Heresies", examines Ephraem's promotion of Nicene orthodoxy among the Christians of late- fourth century Syria. With clear and graceful strokes, Griffith elucidates the textual history, content, and historical circumstances of Ephraem's hymns against the diverse adversaries of the Syrian church. These adversaries included "insiders"--i.e. schismatic groups, such as Arians, whom Ephraem hoped to bring back to Nicene orthodoxy--as well as the rebellious "outsiders," such as Marcionites and Manichaeans. Though living on the borders of the empire, Ephraem looked to the Roman emperor to enforce this orthodoxy. He blamed the heresy of the pro-Arian emperor Valens (364-78 CE) on the intrigue of false ecclesiastical advisors: "priests have put stumbling blocks in the way of kings". (111)

The thought of Ambrose, Augustine, and their contemporaries remains the focus of the latter half of the book (Part III, "Ascetic Identities" and Part IV, "From Bede to Augustine"). In a lucid and fascinating essay entitled "Clerical Celibacy and the Veiling of Virgins: New Boundaries in Late Ancient Christianity", David Hunter shows how and why the veiling of virgins became "a decidedly episcopal event" (143) during the final decades of the fourth century. Hunter's essay documents the close nexus between clerical celibacy and female subordination, as argued most forcefully in the Scriptural commentaries of the Roman presbyter "Ambrosiaster". Two treatises by Ambrose, also discussed by Hunter, reveal a contrasting strategy. While sharing Ambrosiaster's emphasis on the "importance of female silence and submission" (151), Ambrose, as bishop of Milan, was willing to celebrate the Eucharistic quality of the virgin's sacrifice.

In her essay, "Constraining the Body, Expanding the Text: The Exegesis of Divorce in the Later Latin Fathers", Elizabeth Clark concisely illustrates the ingenuity with which Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine "expanded" the meaning of core Biblical texts to articulate their opposition to divorce. Patristic exegesis had to explain the apparent contradictions between Scriptural passages that accept the legitimacy of divorce (e.g. Deuteronomy 24; Matthew 5:32; 19:9: divorce permissible on grounds of the porneia of a spouse) and those passages which explicitly condemn divorce as adultery (esp. Luke 16:18). Jerome, as usual, offers the most rigorously ascetic interpretation, using the topic of divorce to attack the institution of marriage itself. Marital union, the bond by which man and woman become "two in one flesh" (Genesis 2:24) is most acceptable to Jerome as a spiritual bond, analogous to the joining of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32). Augustine also emphasizes the spiritual nature of the marital bond, but for very different effect. In Augustine's exegesis, no external complication--sterility, chronic disease, even adultery--is allowed to break the sanctity of the union of "two in one flesh". [2]

Philip Rousseau's essay, "Christian Culture and the Swine's Husks: Jerome, Augustine, and Paulinus", takes as its focus a curious exegetical convergence. In their exegesis of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), both Augustine (Confessions, Bk. 3) and Jerome (Letter 21) interpret the "swine's husks" (siliquas porcorum)--the fodder on which the starving prodigal son would gladly have fed himself--as the worldly literature on which they themselves once fed: the "petty tales of grammarians and poets" (Augustine: grammaticorum et poetarum fabulae); "the work of poets, worldly wisdom, the bombast of rhetoric (Jerome: carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum). Jerome and Augustine alike expected the partial rehabilitation of such "swine's husks" in the service of Christian literature, yet their interpretations of the passage reveal characteristic differences: Augustine's preoccupation with "appearance and reality, body and spirit" vis-a-vis Jerome's need to "escape from his literary past--Christian as well as pagan". (182) Using the correspondence between Jerome and Augustine and both men's correspondence with Paulinus of Nola, Rousseau adumbrates the rich dialogue held among these three Latin fathers in their efforts to "decide what standing the classics should have in a Christian society". (187)

I mention just briefly two further essays in the collection which continue the discussion of Augustine. In "The Next Life of Augustine," James O'Donnell considers the image of Augustine in the influential 1967 biography by Peter Brown, and encourages us to rethink Brown's "conversion-based narrative of Augustine's life". (227) More broadly, O'Donnell contends that it is time "to begin knowing Augustine not as a single entity^Êbut as a figure seen through a prism--a figure in that limited way not unlike ourselves and our contemporaries".(228) More persuasive is John Cavadini's essay, "Ambrose and Augustine, De Bono Mortis", which shows how Augustine's discussion of death in Book 13 of the City of God radically breaks from the Platonic notion of death as a 'good' espoused by his mentor Ambrose. Reacting to "perceived deficiencies" in the Christian Platonism of Ambrose (243), Augustine insists on the real and "troublesome" nature of death as a punishment for human sin. Cavadini's essay usefully locates Augustine's presentation of death as a punishment for sin within the larger context of Augustine's anti-Pelagian and anti-Manichaean writings. [3]

Three final essays explore related themes in the Latin Patristic literature of the fifth, sixth, and eighth centuries. Conrad Leyser's essay, "'This Sainted Isle': Panegyric, Nostalgia, and the Invention of Lerinian Monasticism", offers an illuminating discussion of three panegyrics in honor of Honoratus, founder of the island monastery of Lerins, near modern Cannes in southern France. Following his death ca. 429 CE, Honoratus was commemorated by his successors both at Lerins and in the nearby city of Arles, where he briefly served as bishop during the late 420's CE. This panegyric literature reveals the versatility of Christian writers vying to claim for their own communities the legacy of a common spiritual patron. In the treatise by the abbot of Lerins, the island itself becomes the locus of Honoratus' memory. As Leyser notes, "In Eucherius' ecphrasis, the Lerinian wilderness becomes the garden of Eden, 'a paradise for all those who live there, showing them the paradise they will possess'." (196, quoting from Eucherius, In Praise of the Desert). Honoratus' successor as bishop of Arles, Hilary, countered with his own claim, diverting attention from Lerins--which according to Hilary had been "a place of horror and infinite solitude, full of snakes" prior to Honoratus' arrival (198)--to Arles, where Honoratus was buried in an episcopal tomb. With the aid of a third panegyric composed at Lerins ca. 434 CE, Leyser shows how Lerinian monasticism responded to this challenge, and, through their study of John Cassian, molded themselves as the true heirs of Honoratus' pioneering asceticism. According to Leyser, Lerinian promotion of Cassian's ascetic ideals "may define the real significance of Lerins in the western ascetic tradition". (202)

With her essay, "Martyrdom and Christian Identity: Gregory the Great, Augustine, and Tradition", Carol Straw offers a particularly fine contribution on one of the major themes of Robert Markus' work: the internal evolution of Patristic thought from Augustine to Gregory the Great. [4] Martyrdom, as defined by Gregory, was not limited to the brave and extroverted heroes of the early Church. In Gregory's more inclusive definition of martyrdom, all those who offer themselves as a sacrifice to God are worthy of the title martyr: "The Lord himself assures us in the Gospel that martyrdom is possible without public suffering" (Dialogues 3.26.7-8, quoted at p. 254). As Straw observes, "Augustine remains the watershed for this change in definition from heroic and individual martyrdom to corporate and charitable self-sacrifice." (265) Gregory refines the Augustinian conception of martyrdom by grounding it in the sacraments and broadening its applicability. Ordinary believers, Gregory contends, must strive for martyrdom "to reciprocate the suffering and sacrifice Christ had offered for their redemption". (253)

Paul Meyvaert's essay, "'In the Footsteps of the Fathers': The Date of Bede's Thirty Questions on the Book of Kings to Nothelm", clarifies a technical question as part of a larger argument regarding Bede's study of Cassiodorus. [5] Meyvaert's argument rests, in part, on the shifting image of Ezra in Bede's exegetical works. In his Thirty Questions treatise addressed to a London priest named Nothelm, Bede depicts Ezra as a high priest (pontifex) of the Jerusalem Temple--a mistake he later corrects in his Commentary on Ezra. By re-dating the Thirty Questions treatise from ca. 725 to ca. 715 CE, Meyvaert seeks to document the earlier stages in Bede's growing appreciation for Cassiodorus, "the former senator suddenly become a Doctor of the Church" (In Ezra et Neemian, 2, quoted at p. 282).

In his epilogue to the collection, "Gloriosus Obitus: The End of the Ancient Other World", Peter Brown attempts to capture, in a short space, the outlines of a very large and complex change in Christian perceptions. Beginning with the vision narratives of the Irish monk Fursey (fl. 630's CE) and Salvius of Albi (d. 584 CE), a close friend of Gregory of Tours, Brown investigates the growing preoccupation with the precarious transition to the other world that emerges in the Latin literature of early medieval Europe. Already in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, one finds a heightened awareness of the potential for "exquisite and finely calibrated sufferings in the silent world beyond the grave". (298) Such afflictions directly correspond, in the thought of Latin Christian texts of this period (late 6th-8th centuries), with the "unpurged" sins of each man or woman. It is this change which Brown sees as fundamental: "the definitive reduction of all experience, of history, politics, and the social order quite as much as the destiny of individual souls, to two universal explanatory principles, sin and repentance". (313) Brown's argument gains depth and richness from the comparison he draws with Byzantine Christianity. They too looked to death as the "great leveler". (300) But in contrast their Latin contemporaries, the Christians of early medieval Byzantium avoided speculation about what lay beyond the grave: "Do not search out the condition of the soul after its departure from the body, for it is not for me or you to ask about such things. It is not for us to known even the nature of the soul, how should we know the nature of its place of rest?" (Andrew of Crete, Homilia de defunctis, quoted at p. 300. Andrew died ca. 740 CE).

In sum, this collection contains many important and several outstanding essays engaged in a sustained dialogue with Robert Markus' oeuvre in the field of Latin Patristics. Even scholars whose primary research lies outside of the field can learn much from this collection, though we should also recognize its limitations. The focus of the book is relentlessly textual, and there is little hint here of the richness of recent scholarship on, for example, the material culture of the late Roman and early medieval West. In this sense, the study of the Latin Fathers appears to remain a significantly self- referential discourse. Still, no student of Late Antiquity or medieval European Christianity can afford to ignore the intense and intellectually rigorous dialogue that the works of the Latin Fathers continue to inspire. The essays collected in this volume represent a highly stimulating cross-section of the best current Anglo-American scholarship in the field.

The editors have included interesting biographical notes on Robert Markus' training and career, and a complete bibliography that documents the breadth and impact of his published work: seven monographs; seventy-two articles, and over seventy encyclopedia articles and other short pieces. The editors are to be commended for including a general index, an index of modern sources, and a detailed index of Biblical, Classical, and Patristic sources.


[1] Their title alludes to Markus' influential The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, 1990). As Klingshirn and Vessey explain in their preface (vii-viii), for them, the idea of the "limits" of ancient Christianity" encompass a wide range of definitions--temporal, spatial, social, cultural--by which the early Christian community defined its boundaries.

[2] For further discussion of these themes, see now E. Clark, Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (Princeton, 1999).

[3] In a brief final note, Cavadini initiates a response to an important recent book on his topic: E. Rebillard, In hora mortis: Evolution de la pastorale chretienne de la mort au IVe et Ve siecles dans l'Occident latin (Rome, 1994).

[4] As Klingshirn and Vessey note (209), Markus' most recent book, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge, 1997) completes "the arc of an inquiry projected in the title of his earlier collection of essays, From Augustine to Gregory the Great" (London: Variorum, 1983).

[5] For the first part of the argument, see P. Meyvaert, "Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus," Speculum 71 (1996): 827-83.