Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.17

Jan Willem Drijvers, John M. Watt, Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium & the Christian Orient.   Leiden:  Brill, 1999.  Pp. 227.  ISBN 90-04-11459-9.  $75.00.  

Contributors: Elizabeth A. Clark, Alastair H. B. Logan, Christine Trevett, Rowan Williams, Jan Willem Drijvers, Stephen Mitchell, Han J. W. Drijvers, John W. Watt, Gerrit J. Reinink, Peter Hatlie

Reviewed by Michelle M. Sauer, Minot State University (
Word count: 2006 words

This collection of articles seeks to explode the myth that Late Antiquity focuses solely on "authority" and proposes to do this through a series of "portraits." Overall, the goal is to recharacterize what has been traditionally seen as authority as "the struggle for religious influence" (ix). To achieve this objective, the collection is divided into three parts. The first part, "People and Portraits," is comprised of only one essay, while the bulk of the pieces are in the latter two parts, "The Struggle for Authority" and "The Representation of Authority."

The initial essay focuses on the familiar figures of Augustine of Hippo and his mother, Monica. Though it begins bulkily by making the case for history as authority before moving on to examine Monica specifically, the author, Elizabeth Clark, ultimately investigates an interesting topic with important ramifications. Clark acknowledges that in demystifying authority, we may lose the "real" Augustine, but we will gain the representative one. She goes on to suggest that Monica may not have been as central to Augustine's works as previously thought. As an individual, she is as erasable as Patricius; her importance lies within the "Monica Function." Clark posits that Augustine uses Monica as a mirror that reflects his authority and his theological position. Similarly, she is representational of unlearned masses and hope for the "unworthy." This proves, overall, to be a convincing argument.

The second part of the collection is introduced by an article by Alastair H. B. Logan that examines magic and Gnosticism. Logan begins with a lengthy review of differences between "church" and "sect," then moves on to visionary authority. Using a convergence of Anthony Wallace's assertion that all religions stem from an individual's vision ("hallucinations") and Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge's "entrepreneur model" of religion formation as his parameters, Logan begins his investigation of three "cult founders" (32) -- Simon Magus, Valentinius, and Marcus the Magus.

Significantly, these men were all identified as either magicians or visionaries. Combined with charisma, supposed magical powers caused followers to create a subculture of myths to extend the cult-figures' words where there were none, or to replace events in the original mythology that did not occur.

Simon's followers trusted his powerful magic so much they had to create their own after his death. Valentinius' new mythology was mostly an adaptation of the existing one, lending both authority and appeal to his movement. Finally, Marcus, though traditionally seen as a disciple of Valentinius, is presented by Logan as worthy of individual examination. I agree, especially since Marcus appears to be the culmination of the other two figures. Like Simon, he is purported to have magical powers, and like Valentinius he has visions. Logan suggests that both are cultivated affectations, manipulated by Marcus to enhance his standing. Though this is a powerful suggestion, and a worthy one to explore, Logan provides no evidence. It is also unfortunate that the punctuation of this essay is distracting. It is riddled with exclamation points and parentheses, probably a holdover from its origin as a presentation.

In the next essay, Christine Trevett examines a conflict between established authority and grass-roots authority. The opposition is specifically reflected in a letter written by Bishop Firmilian of Caesarea to Bishop Cyprian of Carthage. The letter concerns an unnamed woman claiming the gift of prophecy, and Trevett posits that Firmilian wrote the letter as a piece of propaganda related to the controversy about the baptism of heretics and schismatics that plagued the Carthaginian church. Many followers flocked to the woman in question, and she responded by assuming a sacramental role. Trevett notes that Firmilian carefully presented the woman as demonic, not heretical. Yet, she further argues that the woman was not catholic but rather a member of the New Prophecy Movement (Cataphrygians). As such, Trevett posits that being female was weapon enough to discredit the New Prophecy movement and in turn to stigmatize ecstasy and prophecy, spiritual avenues that had always been open to females. Bringing this argument full circle, Firmilian also had the opportunity to discredit female usurpation of priestly functions and Church authority -- an area that was necessarily in flux as Christianity changed and grew, and indeed is still under investigation today.

Trevett presents solid evidence based primarily on geographical references and methods of prophecy. Though I am not fully persuaded by these arguments, they did at least cause me to reevaluate the accepted position.

The third essay in this section, by Rowan Williams, also presents a flawed but intriguing argument. The piece focuses on "holy bodies," specifically on male breasts. The connection between spirituality and the body is problematized, and "the martyr's body and the saint's living flesh are dangerous 'sites'" (67). The fear of the body is really the fear of conflation of the saint with the divine -- the saint can only emulate, never become, Christ. Any connections between saintly flesh and sacraments must be downplayed. Thus, while the holy person's body might be a location of the divine, it has no "power" on its own.

This brings up the fascinating topic of relics, which Williams, disappointingly, only touches on briefly. Hopefully, this connection will be explored further in future essays. The remainder of the piece is devoted to complex discussions of the Eucharist and Logos. Though useful to the background of sanctity of the body, it could have been less complicated and more interesting. As the discussion moves towards valuation of the body, it is distanced from the framework of authority. Thus by the end, the focus has shifted from bodily authority to an exploration of Christology and locative spirituality.

The second part of the collection concludes with an essay by one of the volume's editors, Jan Willem Drijvers. This piece is an examination of Cyril of Jerusalem's use of cross imagery to increase Jerusalem's importance in the Early Church, as well as to add to his own authority. In seeking to use the True Cross to promote his own power, Cyril downplayed its "negative" aspects, such as blood, the crucifixion, and suffering. Instead, Cyril emphasized the Cross' "positive" aspects such as salvation, illumination, and redemption.

Cyril particularly used this glorified Cross as an instrument in his ongoing battles with Acacius of Caesarea. For instance, after viewing a miraculous illuminated cross in the sky above Golgotha, Cyril rather astutely couched his report of the phenomenon as an argument that the miracle was proof of Jerusalem's divine favor. In sending this letter to the emperor, Cyril effectively secured Jerusalem's premiere position.

This well-written essay effectively combined historical, theological, and literary sources. It should prove significant not only to studies of Early Christianity, but also to examinations of the medieval Church. By the end of the Middle Ages, the idea of the cross had come full circle, and it was considered to be glorious because of its so-called negative aspects, not in spite of them.

The third part of the collection opens with Stephen Mitchell's article that examines the life of Gregory (Theodorus) Thaumaturgus in connection with the multiple written Lives of the same. Mitchell begins by reviewing Gregory's education in law and rhetoric and the questionable authority of contemporary documents. He states emphatically that "[t]he only unimpeachable historical document from Gregory's episcopacy is the so-called Canonical Letter" (106).

From here, Mitchell turns to Gregory's Life, a popular story that was retold many times in many languages. With multiple versions, it is difficult to determine which is the most authentic, or even which venue, speech or document, is more accurate. Yet another big leap is made to a discussion of Gregory of Nyssa's Life, which Mitchell calls a "new type of hagiography" (125) and which portrays numerous miracles, and the Latin Life which presents even more.

In the concluding paragraph, Mitchell finally cuts to the heart of the matter: by prioritizing miracles, Gregory of Nyssa shaped the legend of Gregory Thaumaturgus and impressed bishops. This point could easily have been made in half the space, and should have been introduced at the beginning of this dense, rather uninteresting article. At least the connections among the various pieces may have been more readily apparent.

In a similar fashion, the final four essays each examine an individual authority figure. Han J. W. Drijvers investigates Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa. According to Drijvers, the main problem facing scholars is that Rabbula's written documents are difficult to reconcile with his vita. The vita, for instance, "echoes" Theodoret of Cyrrhus' traditions and presents Rabbula as an ascetic hero who humbly accepted the authority thrust upon him.

Despite this exalted portrait, the "real" Rabbula did not demur upon election as bishop since he coveted the position. He also suppressed clerics through violence, and his main concern was the behavior of priests and monks. His secondary concern was with heretics, though he himself was willing to change parties to preserve his see or betray a former ally in order to preserve personal authority. Yet, Rabbula was a patron of the poor. Drijvers concludes not that Rabbula was either a tyrant or a saint, but that he was a real person. I found this examination of an Early Church authority to be refreshing.

John W. Watt's article on John Bar Aphtonia more broadly addresses him as an individual who had a significant impact on the transmission of Greek culture to Arabic lands. The essay gets bogged down by Watt's insistence on analyzing every piece of Bar's life according to Classical rhetoric. However, the conclusions that are eventually drawn are revealing in that they illustrate how a non-Arabic "hero" and his story can be subtly adapted to re-create authority.

Gerrit J. Reinink's essay provides an important contribution to understanding the East Syrian Church and Babai the Great's Life of George. Babai's hagiography of one of his monks was designed to convey the message that the vocations of monk and martyr do not clash. Moreover, since all Christians should prepare for martyrdom, the stories of the martyrs' lives are as important to future saints as the accounts of their deaths.

Significantly, Babai portrays George as a martyr for Orthodoxy, not just for Christianity, and as the co-author of the Confession of Faith. In doing both of these, Babai uses George -- that is the portrait of George that he created -- as a vehicle for his own statements. Emphasizing George's role as a victim of ecclesiastical power plots, Babai allows George to speak against the power structures that Babai himself was battling.

The final essay, by Peter Hatlie, provides a general look at issues of authority in Byzantine studies but addresses issues that are separate from Iconoclasm. This concluding essay also looks at attempts to document exercises in authority, especially in locations besides Constantinople. To clarify the points of the theoretical discussion, two spiritual "failures" are examined. Both of these portraits illustrate the capacity for loss of authority, even when the traditional recipes for success were followed. Hatlie's courageous investigation provides an excellent closing inasmuch as it reminds readers that authority in all its forms is fleeting and elusive. Moreover, his piece reveals a thoughtful retrospective of Church scholarship.

As with many collections, most of the problems with this volume are due to the inconsistent quality of the articles. Perhaps this inconsistency is heightened in this particular collection because of the origin of the volume -- the articles were all originally presented as part of a collaborative research workshop. Several retain the language of oral presentation instead of being recast, a few provide excessive background detail where little was needed, while still others assume knowledge that scholars not part of the workshop group may not have. The pieces that examined "propaganda" tended to be the best-argued and most interesting ones, though they also tended to be the farthest removed from examining "portraits." Despite these rough spots, I believe the overall collection to be a valuable addition to the study of Church history, particularly to Byzantine studies. Challenges to the foundations of assumed authority structures, or at least reconceptions of what constituted authority, provide invaluable platforms for scholarly investigation.

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