Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.38

Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 37.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2005.  Pp. xii; 346.  ISBN 0-520-24296-3.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by William Klingshirn, The Catholic University of America (
Word count: 2365 words

"Holy" is the operative word in the title of this book. What Claudia Rapp wants above all to demonstrate is that the most distinctive feature of episcopal leadership in late antiquity was not the bishop's political position, profession of orthodoxy, performance of ritual, teaching of scripture, control of wealth, or patronage of the poor, but the holiness that grounded these and all other aspects of episcopal office. Bishops were esteemed as holy, in Rapp's view, by virtue of the spiritual power bestowed on them through ordination, the ascetic lifestyles they chose to practice, and the good work of administration, pastoral care, and charity they performed. Accordingly, they exercised three types of authority -- spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic -- with ascetic authority serving as "the vital link to the other two" (17). Ascetic authority also linked the bishop to the holy man, Rapp maintains, which allows her to use Peter Brown's ideas about this figure as a framework of interpretation, both explicitly in programmatic passages (15-16, 155-56), and implicitly throughout the book.1 The result is a subtly argued, erudite, and fascinating contribution to a subject of continuing interest to scholars of late antiquity.2 Whether its thesis is entirely convincing will depend on the degree to which readers are willing to accept holiness as the defining feature of an office of considerable plasticity, an office occupied by individuals of widely varying backgrounds, motivations, degrees of integrity, and capacities for self-promotion, and, from the fourth century on, an office that carried with it increasing wealth, power, influence, and involvement with the state.

The book is divided into two parts, with an epilogue. The first part (chapters 1-4) studies ideals of episcopal holiness; the second part (chapters 5-9) applies those ideals to the realities of episcopal activity; and the epilogue briefly surveys the result: holy bishops as depicted in epitaphs and saints' lives.

Chapter 1 ("The nature of leadership in late antiquity") surveys earlier scholarship on bishops and introduces the main themes of the book. Rapp makes it clear that she does not seek to define an unchanging essence of episcopal leadership but rather to study the changing dynamics of spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic authority in an "age of transition," roughly the third through early seventh century. She prefers this "tripartite scheme" (17) to what she maintains are anachronistic dichotomies, for instance, the "sharp distinction between the secular and the religious" made in the Enlightenment (6), or Max Weber's separation of charismatic from institutional authority (17, 137). As the argument of the book unfolds, it becomes clear that the advantage of rejecting modern classifications in favor of more traditional ones is that holiness can thus be seen in every exercise of episcopal authority, whether the bishop is relieving a food shortage, seeking tax relief, or saying a Mass.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 discuss in turn the foundations of pragmatic, spiritual, and ascetic authority. Pragmatic authority, already visible in the administrative duties assigned to "overseers" in the New Testament, is further delineated in the portraits of ideal bishops found in early church orders such as the Didascalia and Apostolic Constitutions, in patristic commentaries on 1 Timothy 3:1ff. (εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται, καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ), and in treatises on spiritual leadership (otherwise known as manuals of pastoral care) by Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Julianus Pomerius, and Gregory the Great. With clear reform tendencies (though these are not explored in the book) and a strenuous effort to keep bishops from behaving badly, these texts place a heavy emphasis on the personal qualities of bishops and on their proper use of power. Rapp makes good use of the ideals they present without dwelling much on the correlative, namely that their emphasis on holiness was designed not only to motivate right behavior but also to restrain wrongdoing. But in so doing, she is sticking to her principles, foregrounding what the texts themselves foreground, in an effort to discover what was most important to Christians of the time. This chapter also sets the stage for one of the book's central themes, most explicitly stated in a later chapter, that "pragmatic authority never seems to exist on its own but is embedded in a larger context where spiritual and ascetic authority also play their part" (131).

Chapter 3 begins by differentiating spiritual authority from ascetic authority. Spiritual authority came directly from the Spirit (as grace), while ascetic authority was earned (through works). The two were obviously related of course, and many Christian ascetics were thought to carry spiritual authority, but one could have spiritual authority without being an ascetic (martyrs, for instance, or clerics who had received ordination), and one could also be an ascetic without having spiritual authority. Spiritual authority was closely connected to teaching, "discernment," prayer (particularly prayer for others' sins), and inevitably miracles, though Rapp downplays hagiographical accounts of these as "sensationalist" (67, 82). Spiritual authority is studied in this chapter through the writings of its theorists -- Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Evagrius of Pontus -- and in monastic letter collections from Egypt and Palestine. Bishops are treated in this chapter mainly in connection with the conflicts that arose in the second and third centuries between those who held spiritual authority by virtue of their office (deacons, priests, bishops), and those who held it by virtue of their election by the Spirit (martyrs, confessors, teachers).

Chapter 4 studies ascetic authority by focusing on two main themes: the importance of the desert, and in particular the Egyptian desert, in the origins of monasticism, and the representation of Moses as the model Christian leader. The point of both is to deconstruct the widely held assumption that monks and clergy existed in radically separate worlds and exercised fundamentally different forms of religious authority. Rapp draws attention to the boast that Egyptian monks had "made the desert a city," and shows how the desert of monastic exertions could be transformed into a "state of mind" applicable to any land, even a lush Mediterranean island like Lérins, where numerous future Gallic bishops spent their formative years (123). Further, she notes that the desert (like Lérins) could be a place of transition and preparation for a life of service, as it was for Moses (107-8) and Jesus (108-9). She expands this point by discussing the career of Moses, traditionally divided into three 40-year periods, the first, of service to the Pharaoh, the second, of life in the desert of Midian, and the third, of leadership during the exodus. The life of Moses could thus serve as a model for the many fourth- and fifth-century bishops whose career paths took them from a secular education to the monastic life, and from there to leadership in the church (133). Having argued for the permeability of the desert and the city and the portability of monastic experience, Rapp then concludes the chapter with examples of monks who received ordination (whether or not they exercised any actual ministry) and of bishops who lived as monks.

In the second part of the book Rapp turns from the theoretical foundations of episcopal holiness to the activities of actual bishops in their cities. Here it is the work of bishops as patrons (explicitly compared to the activities of holy men, 155-6) that sustains their claims to holiness. Chapter 5 introduces this theme by looking at the work of two very different "bishops in action": Synesius, the student of Hypatia, who became bishop of Ptolemais in 411 on condition that he be permitted to continue living with his wife and not be required to preach against his Neoplatonic beliefs, and Theodore of Sykeon (d. 613), the son of a circus performer and innkeeper, who became bishop of Anastasioupolis (Galatia) after a long monastic career. Rapp analyzes the mixture of pragmatic, spiritual, and ascetic authority that each exercised, notes the patronage they were able to exercise, and points to the growing tendency to see episcopal office as not only a "work" (the ἔργον of 1 Timothy), but also an "honor," thus aligning bishops not only with holy men, but also with civic patrons.

It is in this part of the book that the search for holy bishops becomes more difficult. This is not because some bishops signally failed to meet the minimal expectations of holiness that others had of them, since it is expectations that Rapp is chiefly interested in. The difficulty, rather, lies in the undeniable fact that as the empire and especially the populations of its cities became increasingly Christian, bishops acted more and more like civic leaders, that is, leaders of their Christian cities, not only in the West, (from which Rapp draws only "supplementary evidence" for this part of the book, 19) but also in the cities of the Levant, on which her main inquiries are focused.

The easy way to deal with the consequences of this development would have been to concentrate on the institutional dimensions of episcopal holiness: preaching, baptism, the Eucharist, and other ritual activities. Rapp does not neglect these, but her interest in the bishop as holy man requires her to go further. As Peter Brown observed in 1979: "Even in the most securely Christianised and stable provinces of the Late Roman world, the episcopate never became an 'ascribed status.' Priesthood and episcopate alike carried with them the heady flavor of 'achieved status.' At one time or other, a bishop or priest had to 'rise' to his office on his 'merits' (or be thought to have done so), and would often be called upon to justify his authority in terms of his personal religious and social achievements."3 And so, in chapters 6, 7, and 8 Rapp examines the "social contexts" of bishops (education, wealth, class, family connections), their urban sphere of action (residences, management of wealth, building programs, charitable activities), and their interactions with the empire and emperor. While not downplaying the advantages of wealth, social status, or family traditions of ecclesiastical office-holding, Rapp wants to emphasize that the motivations and activities of bishops and holy men frequently resembled one another and differed more in "scale" and "means" than in "essence" (219-20). Bishops spent money, and monks prayed, but both acted with the same charitable intentions (220). Many similar comparisons are made between bishops and holy men, especially in chapters 7 and 8. The argument is forceful, yet respectful of the evidence. Indeed, Rapp's wide knowledge of Byzantine texts often requires her to balance ideals of holiness against the weight of civic and imperial realities. And in the end, she admits that it was these that prevailed. "In the two centuries after Constantine, a new understanding of the episcopate developed that privileged the bishop's pragmatic authority over his ascetic authority" (274).

The book's final chapter ("The Bishop as a New Urban Functionary") explores this transformation by examining imperial laws pertaining to bishops up to the time of Justinian. Increasingly important within his own community, the bishop became more and more useful to the imperial government, and was given a new range of civic obligations. That this occurred because of the bishop's "position of ecclesiastical and spiritual leadership" (289) is beyond doubt, but it is increasingly difficult to recognize the holy man behind the "functionary" these laws describe. This may be the justification for the epilogue that follows, which puts holy bishops fully back in the picture. Through epigraphic commemoration and especially hagiography, bishops were depicted after death as their followers needed and wished them to be depicted. Rapp has no difficulty in showing the special holiness that bishops exhibited in these texts, including foreknowledge, true asceticism, and abundant miracles, especially in connection with conversion. Nonetheless, even in this medium, she sees a change at the end of antiquity: the commemoration in hagiography of "career-bishops" like John the Almsgiver (d. 619), who worked no miracles, but "did ... restore social justice to his city by wise administrative measures" (302). Of course, he was perceived to have had ascetic credentials as well (297, and Leontius's vita, passim), but it is one of the beguiling features of this book that it does not tell everything it knows; rather, it invites readers to look further into the texts it cites and the ideas it sketches out. For instance, readers familiar with Ammianus Marcellinus's account of the conflict between Damasus and Ursinus over the see of Rome will follow up Rapp's citation of 27.3.13 (187n80) and 27.3.14 (218) with their own recollection of the advice that follows in 27.3.15, addressed to episcopal candidates for the see of Rome: "They could be truly happy ... if they lived according to the example of certain provincial bishops, whose extreme moderation in eating and drinking, cheap clothing, and humble demeanor commends them to the eternal divinity and his true worshipers as pure and modest."

Any book as richly documented as this will inevitably contain small flaws of one kind or another, but I found very few of these. A minor confusion occurs on p. 40 where the text and footnotes do not match. What the text should probably state (as the corresponding footnotes do) is that Ambrosiaster is the author of both the Commentary on the First Letter of Timothy and Questions on the Old and New Testament (Clavis Patrum Latinorum 184, 185), not that Ambrosiaster is the author of the first and "another fourth-century author, Pseudo-Augustine" is the author of the second. On p. 124n106 and in the bibliography, the correct spelling of the author's name is A. Goddard Elliot. Finally, the inscription cited on pp. 203-4 (MAMA 1.170), grammatically a single sentence, would read better if translated in the first person throughout. In the second last line of the inscription, the word πέλτα, which Rapp translates as 'lid [?]' probably here means 'footing' or 'base'; it can also mean 'tomb' (cf. LSJ, rev. suppl. [1996] s.v.).

But these are mere quibbles. Claudia Rapp has written an excellent book, and one that will need to be taken in account by all those working on bishops in late antiquity. It can also be used with profit by non-specialists and general readers: the primary sources are quoted in translation, all Greek is transliterated, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources is included.


1.   Peter Brown's work on the holy man has received critical treatment in two recent essay collections: The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Contribution of Peter Brown, ed. J. Howard-Johnston and P. A. Hayward (Oxford, 1999), and Charisma and Society: The 25th Anniversary of Peter Brown's Analysis of the Late Antique Holy Man, ed. S. Elm and N. Janowitz, Special issue of The Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.3 (1998). It is interesting to note that Claudia Rapp is the only author with essays in both volumes.
2.   Most recently, E. Elm, Die Macht der Weisheit: Das Bild des Bischofs in der Vita Augustini des Possidius und anderen spätantiken und frühmittelalterlichen Bischofsviten (Leiden, 2003) and A. Sterk, Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass., 2004).
3.   Response to Henry Chadwick, "The Role of the Christian Bishop in Ancient Society," Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, Colloquy 35 (Berkeley, 1979), p. 19. The entire document (paper, responses, and minutes of the discussion) is relevant to the questions raised in Rapp's book.

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