Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.19

Jörg Ulrich, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, David Brakke (ed.), Invention, Rewriting, Usurpation: Discursive Fights over Religious Traditions in Antiquity. Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity, 11.   Frankfurt am Main:  Peter Lang, 2011.  Pp. xvi, 322.  ISBN 9783631635384.  $83.95.  

Reviewed by Robin Whelan, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

As literary criticism continues to permeate patristic scholarship, ancient religious truths seem to rest on ever more unstable foundations. The papers presented in this collection (from a 2010 conference held in Aarhus and Ebeltoft in Denmark) participate in an ongoing effort to undermine monolithic conceptions of the nature of ancient religions in general, and of Christianity more specifically. These scholars do not give their supposedly authoritative individuals and texts an easy ride, ruthlessly interrogating the claims made on their behalf: the apparently timeless traditions to which “orthodox” authors appealed were invented; the homogenously normative communities they addressed were imagined; the canonical texts on which they drew were interpreted, always subjectively – and often deviously. The result is a rightful appreciation of the uncertain environments of religious diversity in which these discursive combatants operated. The beatific light of posthumous reverence in which these individuals bathe is misleading: they were not so much saints as street fighters.

The volume is divided into four main themes. Eight papers come under the first rubric – ‘Reuse, rewriting and usurpation of biblical and Classical texts’ – tackling the reception of various authoritative texts.

After a summary introduction, the papers by Harold W. Attridge and Christian Müller make a good opening combination. Each tracks a narrative of canonisation amid changing methods of “rewriting”. For Attridge, this is the shift from the literal rewriting of the Gospel of John (with the apocryphal second-century Acts of John) to the metaphorical (with the Johannine commentaries of Origen and Heracleon). All these authors were engaged in “rewriting” the Gospel to suit their own interpretations; but, for the two commentators, the original text had now become fixed. For Müller, meanwhile, it is the fascinating process by which an authoritative Latin “Athanasius” came into being. Individual late-antique and early-medieval authors wrote as, and attributed texts to, Athanasius of Alexandria to channel the authority of the Nicene hero, culminating in the production of the Athanasian Creed in (perhaps) the late sixth century. By the Carolingian period, this body of material, now stable, was widely received as authentic and itself received commentary and exegesis. Müller takes an exemplary approach to a difficult and poorly-understood set of pseudonymous texts.

Two short papers discuss biblical reception. Gábor Kendeffy analyses Lactantius’ use of two Pauline passages (1 Cor 1:20f and 3:19) in the Divine Institutes, emphasising their importance to Lactantius’ thought on wisdom and folly. In the most exotic of the contributions, Jennifer Hart considers the Mandaean rewriting of the baptism of Christ, which privileges John the Baptist and critiques Christianity. She persuasively posits the influence of contemporary (late eighth- and mid- ninth-century) Islamic processes of self-differentiation from Christianity and Judaism.

But it is the classics and their reception which dominate this section. Two contributions on the classical canon form its core. Peter von Möllendorff’s paper on canonical authors in imperial Greek literature acts as an interesting and helpful counterpoint to the general focus on Christian attitudes to authoritative texts. Great writers may have been revered, but they were not simply to be replicated or regurgitated. Internalisation and mimesis was the first step of a process of education leading, eventually, to the development of one’s own unique style. Karla Pollmann then suggests various models for Christian reception of classical literary genres. Her starting-point is a neat illustration of the importance of genre: James Thurber’s short story ‘The Macbeth Murder Mystery’, in which an American tourist mistakes Shakespeare’s tragedy for a whodunit. The moral is, of course, that ‘the notion of genre pre-forms the readers’ expectations’ (105; her italics). Pollmann combines a satisfyingly complex approach to the problem of genre in classical antiquity with a compelling statement on early Christian reception: ‘creative transformation’ triumphed over ‘abrupt discontinuity’ (115).

Rounding out the first theme are two papers on the use of classical texts and ideas for Christian and Jewish apologetics respectively. Marianne Sághy shows how Damasus, bishop of Rome (366-384), used Vergil in his epigrams. She argues that Vergilian inter-texts were a means of lending prestige to Christianity in a Rome where ‘even Christians were more familiar with Vergil than with the Bible’ (52). Some of her examples are more persuasive than others, but the overall picture is convincing. Gunner Haaland, meanwhile, shows how the classical trope of the ideal, land-locked polis was employed by Josephus in his Contra Apionem both to explain the Greeks’ ignorance of the Jews and to lend the latter prestige. Haaland elegantly teases out the implications of this reworking, which simultaneously undermines and exploits Greek tradition, and thus ‘aligns the Jews with the Romans over against the Greeks’ (87).

The second theme is ‘Invention and Maintenance of Religious Traditions’. Anders Klostergaard Petersen and Oda Wischmeyer provide two thought-provoking theoretical pieces on the issue of “tradition”. In an excellent, if challenging paper, Klostergaard Petersen cogently argues that “invention” and “maintenance” are unhelpful categories, given both the nature of cultural systems like religions (constantly evolving and always open to various interpretations) and the use of similar ideas by ancient authors to make value judgements. Wischmeyer’s piece is a complementary attempt to apply Hobsbawm’s notion of “invented traditions” to New Testament texts. Partly because of similar qualms regarding the ascription of intention implied in “invention” (180-82, 189), she finds that, barring a few specific cases, “new tradition” fits these texts far better. Sandwiched between them, Jörg Ulrich puts forward an interesting typology of six major ‘dimensions’ of fourth- and fifth- century Christian historiography. The chapter does not engage so directly with the central themes of the volume (barring a roundup in its conclusion [175-76]). But, first implicitly, and later explicitly, it delineates the ways in which ‘Christian historiographers [took] over the sovereignty of interpreting the past’ (176): a truly monumental act of usurpation.

Theme 3 is perhaps the most cohesive of the set, with four papers exploring the issues of orthodoxy and heresy. Einar Thomassen recapitulates the historically contingent process by which early Christians invented the notion of heresy, but also notes the growing sociological literature that understands “orthodoxy” and “heresy” as concepts within all institutions. Even the rock climbing community has its dangerous innovators, ‘‘tricksters’, [accused] of betraying the very idea of climbing’ (197). The key issue is the degree to which these concepts are operative in any given ‘social organism’ (197); an insight leading naturally to a neat set of brief comparative analyses, taking in guilds, Confucianism and Marxist-Leninism.

Uta Heil makes a convincing reinterpretation of the nature of second-century Christianity over and against the formative work of Adolf von Harnack. Harnack saw a crisis in those years, brought on by the emergence of numerous heresies, which stimulated the solidification of apostolic norms: creeds, canon and bishops. Heil shows that all second-century Christian groups were using these norms to define themselves, and claimed to follow apostolic tradition (215-17). Moreover, Harnack’s model presupposes one single, pre-existing orthodoxy which required defending. This formative period was thus less one of crisis and solidification than plurality and contestation.

Thomas Graumann considers the creative use fifth- and sixth-century church councils made of the past. He argues that the frequently tendentious approach to history they manifest was in fact ‘learned from the Fathers’ (225), who had sought in their own time to create a normative theological past. In reconstructing the teachings of earlier councils and fathers, history held less sway than truth ‘to which [it] had to conform’ (236). Thus, ‘past and present collapse into the timelessness of orthodoxy’ (237). In a first-rate piece, Graumann usefully problematises the ongoing creation and representation of “orthodoxy”. Hugo Lundhaug’s paper on heresiology in Shenoute’s I am Amazed works as a good foil. Lundhaug considers the main themes of the fifth-century Egyptian abbot’s polemical text, focusing particularly on questions of authority and canonical literature. Shenoute’s crisp dividing lines between orthodox and heretical individuals and books are set against – and explained as a result of – a far more fluid Egyptian monastic culture which incorporated the reading and copying of Christian apocrypha (like the codices from Nag Hammadi) and the texts of supposedly “heretical” authors like Origen.

The final theme is ‘The Formation of the Biblical Canon’. David Brakke reassesses the formation of the New Testament canon, pulling apart the conventional, teleological narrative. Brakke criticises interpretations which plot individual authors along a single path of development from an “open” set of texts, via “still open” and “approaching closure” to “closed”. Using three ideal typologies as a frame, he shows that different processes of canon formation were at play in early Christianity. This strident paper has as its insistent and compelling refrain the notion that the New Testament canon did not stem from a single, linear project. Rather, it sprang from ‘several discursive fights over what should count as “the Christian tradition”’ (280). Stephen B. Chapman engages in a similar reframing of scholarly inquiry. But he pushes against an opposite tendency regarding the religious texts of Second Temple Judaism, namely the rejection of terms like “Bible”, “canon” and “scripture”. His crucial point is that a notion of canon could exist – along with hermeneutical practices preconditioned by such a notion – even where a universally accepted and absolutely “fixed” set of Scriptures did not.

Giovanni Bazzana considers a saying not found in Scripture but attributed to Christ, ‘be good moneychangers’, which, ironically enough, came to be used as motif for correct Christian reading practices. Bazzana sets the agraphon’s varying deployments by the Ps.-Clementine Homiliae, Apelles and Origen in the historical context of each author. Finally, Sebastian Moll analyses how several second-century Christian authors dealt with a key problem: the discrepancies between the Gospels and the Old Testament. For Moll, Marcion let this particular cat out of the bag. To resolve the problem, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho had to make the Jews into scapegoats for the divergence of their laws from God’s later, Christian covenant. ‘In a manner of speaking, Justin sacrificed the Jews in order to obtain their texts’ (322).

The volume has a considerable number of typographical errors, including an idiosyncratic formula for referring to decades (e.g. 380ties [118], 440ies [251]). Some of the papers could have benefited from one more rigorous edit to smooth out non- English idioms and grammatical structures; though, of course, all the contributors are to be warmly commended for making their work more accessible to an Anglophone audience. (It is difficult to see a group of English scholars reciprocating with such linguistic felicity.)

Overall, Invention, rewriting, usurpation is a well-organised and insightful volume, with several first-rate papers (Müller, von Möllendorff, Pollmann, Klostergaard Petersen, Thomassen, Graumann, Brakke). Perhaps most pleasingly, all the contributors seek consistently to tether to specific and carefully weighted historical contexts a collection of texts, processes and ideas which tend – in part because of their ubiquity – to float free across the first few centuries of the Common Era. Through the consistent application of critical historical analysis, the contributors reveal the messy realities concealed by ancient appeals to canon, uniformity and tradition.

Table of Contents

Anders-Christian Jacobsen and Jörg Ulrich, ‘Introduction’, vii-xvi.
Theme 1: Reuse, Rewriting and Usurpation of biblical and Classical Texts
Harold W. Attridge, ‘Invention, Rewriting, Usurpation: The Case of the Johannine Gospel in the Second Century’, 1-17.
Christian Müller, ‘From Athanasius to “Athanasius”: Usurping a “Nicene Hero” or: The Making-of of the “Athanasian Creed”’, 19-40.
Marianne Sághy, ‘Fido recubans sub tegmine Christi: Rewriting as Orthodoxy in the Epigrammata Damasiana’, 41-55.
Gábor Kendeffy, ‘Velamentum stultitiae: 1 Cor 1:20f and 3:19 in Lactantius’ Divine Institutes’, 57-70.
Gunnar Haaland, ‘An Intertextual Geography of Cultural Value: Flavius Josephus on the Inland Location of the Jewish People’, 71-88.
Peter von Möllendorff, ‘Canon as Pharmakón: Inside and Outside Discursive Sanity in Imperial Greek Literature’, 89-101.
Karla Pollmann, ‘Tradition and Innovation: The Transformation of Classical Literary Genres in Christian Late Antiquity’, 103-120.
Jennifer Hart, ‘An Unworthy Baptism Revisited’, 121-28.
Theme 2: Invention and Maintenance of Religious Traditions
Anders Klostergaard Petersen, ‘“Invention” and “Maintenance” of Religious Traditions: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives’, 129-60.
Jörg Ulrich, ‘Dimensions and Developments of Early Christian Historiography’, 161-76.
Oda Wischmeyer, ‘“Invented Traditions” and “New Traditions” in Earliest Christianity’, 177-89.
Theme 3: Orthodoxy and Heresy
Einar Thomassen, ‘What is Heresy, and Why Did it Matter?’, 191-201.
Uta Heil, ‘Bishop – Bible – Creed: Normative Rules in the Contest for “Orthodoxy” and “Heresy” in Early Christianity’, 203-218.
Thomas Graumann, ‘Orthodoxy, Authority and the (Re-)Construction of the Past in Church Councils’, 219-37.
Hugo Lundhaug, ‘Shenoute’s Heresiological Polemics and its Context(s)’, 239-61.
Theme 4: The Formation of the Biblical Canon
David Brakke, ‘Scriptural Practices in Early Christianity: Towards a New History of the New Testament Canon’, 263-80.
Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Second Temple Jewish Hermeneutics: How Canon is Not an Anachronism’, 281-96.
Giovanni Bazzana, ‘“Be Good Moneychangers”: The Role of an Agraphon in a Discursive Fight for the Canon of Scripture’, 297-311.
Sebastian Moll, ‘The Usurpation of the Old Testament’, 313-22.
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