Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.47

Georg Schmelz, Kirchliche Amtsträger im spätantiken Ägypten nach den Aussagen der griechischen und koptischen Papyri und Ostraka. Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, Beiheft 13.   Munich and Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2002.  Pp. xi, 411.  ISBN 3-598-77548-2.  EUR 84.00.  



Reviewed by Arietta Papaconstantinou, Université Paris I (a.papaconstantinou@college-de-france.fr)
Word count: 1586 words

Here is a book that delivers more than its title might lead one to expect. Although it is focussed on the clergy of late antique Egypt, its scope is very large and includes among other things a description of the material world within which members of this clergy officiated. A long introductory chapter is followed by sections on the ways Church office was taken up (ch. II), on "liturgical life" (ch. III), on ecclesiastical discipline (ch. IV), on the role of members of the clergy in public life (ch. VII) and in the economic life of the Church (ch. V), as well as on their own resources and means of subsistence (ch. VI). What makes this book different from previous treatments of the topic is its reliance on papyrological evidence, both in Greek and -- a still rare accomplishment -- in Coptic. Papyri have preserved texts that are normally unknown to ancient and early medieval historians, such as contracts, accounts, letters or inventories, and thus offer a concrete, "daily life" view of the late antique Church that cannot be inferred from the writings of the Fathers and the canons of Church councils. Church historians will here find a great wealth of information on the clergy, assembled from the usual sources but also from hitherto unknown or unexploited texts, which are often given in extenso both in the original language and in translation.

Papyri are, of course, a rather tricky source, as the author explains in his introduction (p. 3). They have been preserved and discovered in an entirely haphazard way, so that certain cities or regions are overdocumented while others suffer from almost complete silence. They are most often than not short texts, sole survivors of a group of lost documents, which renders their interpretation quite difficult. However, patient work has resulted in the grouping of several series into what papyrologists call "archives", and the author briefly describes those which contain information for his subject (pp. 6-15). Short overviews of previous studies on Egyptian Church history and Church offices and institutions, as well as previous attempts to use papyri for Church history, make up the rest of the introduction.

Perhaps the most interesting group of source material for the study of the clergy is the archive of Apa Abraham, who was bishop of Hermonthis in Upper Egypt and superior of a monastery in the vicinity of that city around the year 600. Much of the bishop's correspondence dealing with the management of his diocese has survived, and it offers a glimpse into the everyday problems of a local church. We learn that, when somebody wanted to become a priest or a deacon, he wrote to the bishop asking to be ordained or had a third person nominate him, and sometimes write a letter of recommendation or of guarantee for him. He was asked to sign a statement that he would fulfill his obligations and conform to the rules, both moral and ritual. Typically, a future deacon or priest was expected to fast forty days for Lent, to know the Gospel of John by heart, to take care of the church and its altar, in particular the altar lamp. He was not to indulge in any kind of trade, make an incestuous marriage, or celebrate the Eucharist with food in his stomach.

The same archive gives us an unexpected glimpse into the diocese's liturgical life, which was the bishop's responsibility. He would supply local churches or chapels with bread and wine for the eucharist, organise the replacement of sick priests, and give permission to hold specific liturgical services other than the Sunday service. In his own city he was the centre of the stational liturgy, which meant he officiated in different churches according to the occasion, thus being present in each of them at least once a year. A rather unexpected section is inserted here on the Church's material culture. Exploiting the great number of inventories found among papyri, it gives a general overview of liturgical objects, decoration, clothing and furniture found within Christian cultic buildings.

Finally, Apa Abraham's correspondence is very rich on the question of order and discipline within the Church. Several letters document the failings of the clergy, but also those of laymen. Among the offenders we find priests who did not take proper care of the altar lamp, others who broke the fast during Lent, and even one who "behaved like a tyrant" (turannos). A group of laymen is punished for having desecrated a church, others for having behaved badly towards the clergy or towards the poor. Control over the eucharist and the liturgy was a bishop's main weapon against disorder in the church, and one that bishop Abraham of Hermonthis did not fear to use. Exclusion from the eucharist was usually temporary and is documented here by the petitions of those who ask to be readmitted. Exclusion from the clergy was a harder and perhaps more definitive punishment, with which subordinates are often threatened. Apa Abraham was both a bishop and the superior of a monastery and as such could exercise authority both over his monks and over the clergy of the region's churches. But in some cases, even priests or deacons seem to have been involved in maintaining ecclesiastical order.

Apart from the Apa Abraham archive, the evidence is overwhelmingly tilted towards economic questions. Schmelz built it into two chapters, the first concerning the clergy's role in the economy of the Church and the second on the resources of its own members. Through his extensive use of Coptic sources, he adds much information to the standard work by Ewa Wipszycka on the economic life of the Church (Les resources et les activités économiques des églises en Égypte du 4e au 8e siècle, Papyrologica Bruxellensia 10, Brussels: Fondation égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1972), albeit focussing more specifically on the clergy, and not on the Church as an institution. The second of these two chapters groups together the numerous documents showing how the institution cared for its members, housing some, giving others benefits in kind, but also allowing them to have a "second job", which was in fact the primary occupation for most rural clergymen. Unsurprisingly, in Egypt most of them worked as enapographoi (a status binding tenant farmers to their land) on large estates, in whose accounts they often appear. It is probably as such, and not as clergymen, that they receive gifts from the landowners at the time of various feasts (heortika).

The role of the clergy in public life is the subject of the book's last chapter. It is one of the best studied aspects of clerical life, being one that ecclesiastical writers have not feared to highlight. It mainly took the form of intercession between Christians and the local authorities or of the exercise of authority over questions of internal conflict. The episcopalis audientia is here the best known institution, but there were equivalent processes at a lower level. Papyri shed light on various moments of this process of arbitration. There is also evidence on the bishop as head of the community, especially from the period of the Persian occupation and under Arab rule.

After an "Exkursus" on the way villages were governed, comes a general conclusion which is actually a long summary of the preceding chapters. Here is perhaps the book's main drawback. As I have already mentioned, the author puts together much information that was not easily accessible and offers detailed discussions of important sources. Coming after the works of Ewa Wipszycka, Kirchliche Amtsträger will mark an important step in our knowledge of the late antique clergy. The use of hitherto neglected sources sheds new light on a much-discussed field, injecting fresh images of the clergy's everyday life and their actual activity in the field, giving scholars a perspective different from that of ecclesiastical writers. Unfortunately the book's conclusion does not put into light the importance of this alternative vision. In many cases, of course, the two sets of sources coincide, but in others they collide, and in most cases they do not cover exactly the same ground. In part, this is due to the kind of documents we are dealing with; but it also shows the discrepancy that naturally existed between norm and practice, and one feels this is a question the author might have gone into more deeply.

Given the lack of similar sources in other provinces, and the overwhelmingly non-Egyptian origin of other kinds of evidence, the ever-recurring question of how representative the Egyptian case might be within the general framework of the late antique Church looms over this book and may, as often, inhibit its readers. The topic is not easy to tackle, but it did deserve some discussion, just as that of regional variation within Egypt. There is also little interest here in chronology: neither the evolution of the clergy and its practices nor the possible differences between the situation within the later Roman empire and that under Islamic rule are taken into consideration. However important these issues may seem, and despite the occasional points of disagreement one might have with the author's source discussions, one must consider the enormous amount of work that lies behind such a book and accept that if it were ever to be published, the author had to stop somewhere. The sheer amount of evidence gathered and made available to scholars, and the discussion of each single source cited, should give most historians of the late antique Church food for their research and keep them content for some time.

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