Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.19

Theresa Urbainczyk, Theodoret of Cyrrhus: The Bishop and the Holy Man.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2002.  Pp. x, 174.  ISBN 0-472-11266-X.  $49.50.  

Reviewed by Adam H. Becker, New York University (
Word count: 2426 words

By the end of Theresa Urbainczyk's slender, accessible, and diverting study of the Religious History of Theodoret of Cyrrhus the ambiguity in the book's subtitle seems appropriate. While the main focus of the book is on Theodoret the Bishop's authorial relationship to the various holy men whose lives he describes, Urbainczyk's examination of how Theodoret himself fits within his own work demonstrates that he is in fact not only the bishop but the titular holy man as well.

The Introduction (3-9)--the first chapter of Part I, "Setting the Scene"--presents the primary concerns of the book as a whole. Urbainczyk wants to examine Theodoret's self-positioning within the text, especially since in placing himself often at the center of things he demotes the position of the text's supposed heroes, the holy men. This is in contrast to previous scholars who have happily accepted the information Theodoret provides on his own life, attributing its inclusion merely to his own vanity. Urbainczyk suggests that Theodoret's work must be understood as an apology, within the context of the theological disputes of the fifth century, for both the author himself and the holy men of Syria. "Therefore, one reason not to dismiss Theodoret summarily as conceited or clumsy is that there were similar works circulating at the time celebrating the lives of Egyptian monks. It is a reasonable supposition that the Religious History might be a riposte to those other glorifications, an assertion that Syria, as well as Egypt, had produced models of holiness" (5). "Given his active role in the controversies of the day, the probability that this work was part of the debate seemed high"(5). The rest of the introduction describes other issues to be addressed: the role of women and clergy, the function of the Syriac language, and the text's apparent ambivalence towards asceticism.

Chapter 1, "Theodoret's Life and Times" (10-28), establishes Theodoret's late imperial context, especially with regard to the theological disputes of the fifth century. It describes events that occurred during Theodoret's childhood, including one significant to Urbainczyk's argument: the downfall of John Chrysostom, purportedly brought about by Theophilus of Alexandria, whose nephew, Cyril of Alexandria, would be the theological nemesis of Theodoret. Theodoret's Antiochene background, especially his education and the question of his first language, is addressed, as are his role as bishop of Cyrrhus and the events surrounding the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

In Chapter 2, "Writing the Religious History" (29-39), Urbainczyk argues that Theodoret's use of hagiography is not merely an attempt to employ yet another genre, but rather that "the Religious History is part of a struggle, not the product of a quiet hour" (32). "[I]t places Syria, the church, and last but not at all least Theodoret at the heart of this piece of hagiography" (32). "This work is a serious political tract, which demonstrates Syria's importance in producing holy men, the church's importance in mediating with them, and Theodoret's unique position as a local bishop who has known some of these remarkable, holy, and miracle-working individuals all his life. The implication is that any fight against the Syrian church and Theodoret also means a fight against these men of God" (33). Urbainczyk further addresses the title, the genre, and the structure of the work, especially in how it follows the chronology of Theodoret's own life.

Chapter 3, "Other Lives: The Literary Background" (40-51), sets the Religious History next to the several works describing the feats of the ascetic holy men of Egypt (e.g., Life of Antony (43-5) and Palladius's Lausiac History (49-51)). The comparison to another collective biography, The History of the Monks of Egypt (c. 440) (45-49), is particularly interesting because of the many similarities between the two (47). (Urbainczyk might have here contrasted the theological tendencies of the texts and further explored the question of Theodoret's possible knowledge of monastic texts deriving from Egypt.)

Chapter 4, "The Aims of the Religious History: The Prologue and Epilogue" (52-64), argues that the text's classical topoi, learnedness, varied allusions, and language in general suggest a classically trained audience. Urbainczyk's strengths are apparent in her discussions of genre and of the text's relationship to classical historiography. The chapter then rehearses the debate whether On Divine Love, the treatise appended to the text in many of the manuscripts, is part of the Religious History.

Part II, "The Heroes of the Religious History," begins with Chapter 5, "Who Were the Holy Men? Their Background and Role" (67-79), which argues that although the majority of Theodoret's holy men were wellborn, Syriac functions within the text as a way of marking someone as uneducated and thus demonstrating the great power of God to sanctify the lowly (the femininity of female saints is a similar marker of lowliness divinely redeemed). The focus on Syriac then introduces the broader theme of Theodoret's emphasis on Syrian holy men in his opposition to the Egyptian church (79).

In an attempt to counter the stereotype of Syrian ascetics as wild men living alone in the wilderness and rarely engaging with society, Urbainczyk begins Chapter 6, "The Desert and the City: How the Holy Men Lived" (80-88), by pointing out "the mixture of so-called coenobitic and anchorite existences" (80) and the fact that no eremitics remained completely aloof from the rest of society. Theodoret in fact seems to criticize complete withdrawal. In contrast to Antony's statement that a monk in society is like a fish on dry land, Urbainczyk argues that Theodoret supports the idea of community (84) and that in this communal setting there is an emphasis on the master-pupil relationship (86). "One might almost see Theodoret's Religious History as a monastery, a collection of individuals, to which readers come to learn" (83).

In Chapter 7, "Miracles and Marvels: What the Holy Men Did" (89-94), Urbainczyk argues that in some ways E.R. Dodds' famous statement on asceticism ("Where did all this madness come from?") is accurate: the lives of the holy men are supposed to shock us. Moreover, she specifically argues against Canivet, who (like other scholars over-identifying with the intellectual Theodoret) de-emphasized the miraculous in the text. "[F]or the most part the ascetics who perform the most miracles are those with the closest association with Theodoret" (91). "It is therefore not so much the presence or lack of the miraculous in the Religious History that matters buts its distribution" (93). Furthermore, the higher number of miracles in the first three lives is due to the prominence these men already enjoyed.

Chapter 8, "Symeon Stylites: A Special Case?" (95-102), is wholly devoted to the life of Symeon the Stylite because it is a disproportionately longer life than the others (with the exception of James of Cyrrhetica) and because of the great fame of its hero, to whom there are numerous ancient references. Furthermore, scholars have speculated that the Religious History originally ended after this life, with the others added on later by the author. In contrast to the other two extant lives, "criticism pervades the text" (100) of Theodoret's life of Symeon. This "less flattering" treatment is at least partly "due to his Hellenistic outlook" but also to Theodoret's being a bishop while the authors of the other two lives of Symeon were the saint's disciples (101).

In Chapter 9, "Women in the Religious History" (103-112), Urbainczyk cites Kate Cooper's 1992 JRS article (developed further in her 1996 book, The Virgin and the Bride) and Lynda Coon's 1996 Sacred Fictions to introduce the idea of how women are often used in narratives to help men think rather than to represent some ultimately "real" woman. Oddly enough, between statements of such a position on 107 and 111, a more historical reading of the texts is presented.

Part III, "Interaction with Clerics," opens with Chapter 10, "The Relationship between the Ascetics and the Church" (115-129). The main purpose of the chapter is to demonstrate how Theodoret promotes the subjection of the holy man to the bishop, whose position is more difficult and burdened with weightier responsibilities. "Theodoret appears several times in the text in his capacity as bishop, and the encounters all demonstrate in the clearest possible manner that bishops, particularly Theodoret, are natural leaders and guides for these zealous and remarkable but otherworldly and thus naïve ascetics" (116). Chapter 11, "Theodoret in the Religious History" (130-142), takes on the hagiographical aspect of Theodoret's presentation of his own life in the Religious History. For example, Urbainczyk examines how Theodoret's mother functions in the narrative only to disappear when she is no long useful. Chapter 12, "The Representation of the Ascetics" (143-7), argues that the depiction of the holy men as passive figures, along with the use of bridegroom imagery, turns them into malleable figures easily controlled by Theodoret the bishop. "Just as women need men to show them what to do, so holy men need Theodoret" (145). The Conclusion (148-152) reiterates Urbainczyk's main point, that the Religious History served to build Theodoret's reputation as well as to counter his Egyptian enemies and so should not be taken up simply as a source for Theodoret's life.

The origins of Syrian asceticism are obscure, but there are more sources for the background of Theodoret's holy men and women than Urbainczyk uses. Granted she is interested in Theodoret as a writer more than she is in the details of early Syrian asceticism, but incorporating these sources into the study would perhaps serve as a control for examining what Theodoret does in his work when he "Hellenizes" local Semitic material. Furthermore, the short shrift given to what we could possibly know about Theodoret's subjects (39) is further evidence of both the disciplinary divide between Greek and Syriac patristics and of the continuing reliance on the idea that the dichotomy between Greek- and Syriac-speakers was an insurmountable cultural gap. This does not do service to what we know about the bilingual culture of Syria. A figure like John the Solitary (of Apamea), for example, would serve as an interesting foil to Theodoret's Syrian wildmen.

More significant, though, is the issue of whom Theodoret is responding to in his writing. Urbainczyk's attempt to understand Theodoret as providing a counter-example to the monastic stories coming out of Egypt--the homeland of his theological enemies, the Cyrilline party--is a good idea; certainly, theological disputes and monasticism were inextricably related. However, there is perhaps a more useful comparison than that between the Religious History and the Egyptian literature ("Egyptian" being the term the author tends to use as opposed to "Alexandrian," thus conflating the monks of Egypt with the theology of Alexandria). This is the "Egyptians" much closer to home, the Cyrilline party of Syria itself. Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa (411/2-435), monastic reformer and fiery convert to the Cyrilline cause, was a slightly older contemporary as well as an archenemy of Theodoret. Rabbula's successor, Ibas, an epistolary associate of Theodoret, was condemned at the same time as Theodoret at the "Robber Council" of Ephesus in 449 when a group of archimandrites from Edessa entered the council and begged for his deposition.

Overall, I have some reservations about the book. The introduction is a bit confusing, and one wonders who the intended audience is when we are told, for example, that "The last Roman emperor in the west was deposed in 476 whereas the east survived as the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years" (11). An audience that needs to know the random fact that Antioch was founded by Seleucus I might also need to know who Seleucus I was (15). Furthermore, some of her arguments can be strained or not completely thought out. For example, "the nature of Theodoret's literary Greek" should not serve as evidence that Syriac was not Theodoret's or his mother's first language (p. 16). Lucian of Samosatta is specifically known for his Greek style and yet he himself states that "Syriac" was his mother tongue (Doubly Accused 27). Tatian, or more recently Conrad and Nabokov, might also serve as counter-examples.

Urbainczyk does not seem to be aware of much of the secondary literature. Her discussion of the bridegroom imagery and how in feminizing the holy men it also subjects them to Theodoret the bishop shows no awareness of how common bridegroom imagery is in contemporary Christian literature, especially in the Syriac milieu, and fails to engage with the expansive discussion of gender that has occurred in the field. Put simply, recent scholarship has shown that Christian ascetics must become male in respect to the world and to themselves in order to become female in respect to God. Furthermore, passivity is not simply the feminine virtue that it is in, for example, Aristotle's Politics Book I, but itself has been recast as a masculinizing virtue (see Brent Shaw, "Body/Power/Identity: Passions of the Martyrs," JECS 4 (1996): 269-312). Moreover, the secondary literature that Urbainczyk cites might have been more fully digested. She invokes it on detailed points and then fails to take it into account in her argument or even cite the same works and the broader project these works are engaged in. For example, Frances Young's Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (1997) discusses the problems with the simplistic dichotomy of Alexandrian vs. Antiochene theology and exegesis, and yet, despite one qualifying statement to the contrary (23 and n. 46), Urbainczyk follows the traditional model in her discussion (cf. 108 where Susannah Elm's Virgins of God (1994) might have been used, a book cited elsewhere in the text).

Finally, I found it strange that Urbainczyk would refer so cavalierly to Derek Krueger as being "charmed" by Theodoret's work (8 n. 13) and as making his remarks on it "a touch naively" (130 n. 3), whereas his articles are thoughtful, useful pieces on the topic. Her painfully clunky theoretical statements (e.g. 145-6) as well as the uneven level of scholarship of the book as a whole lead one to expect a less summary judgment of other scholars' work. The humor dispersed throughout the book, however, palliates this vexation (e.g., 69 n. 10; 95 on Symeon; 123 "as if they had all read Peter Brown"; 133 n. 10).

The University of Michigan press did not provide the level of quality all writers deserve. There are numerous textual mistakes, including accents missing in the Greek, places where italics should have been used, and missing quotation marks and punctuation. The subsections in each chapter are inconsistent and unclear. Furthermore, an editor should not have let pass the numerous redundancies, infelicitous phrases, and oddities of format in the book. The book has a bibliography (153-163), an index (165-170), and an index locorum (171-4).

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