Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.45

Jennifer Ebbeler, Disciplining Christians: Correction and Community in Augustine's Letters. Oxford studies in late antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 254.  ISBN 9780195372564.  xii, 254.  

Reviewed by Winrich Löhr, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (

The correspondence of Augustine belongs to those parts of his oeuvre that are still but rarely studied in their own right. In her important monograph, Jennifer Ebbeler focuses on those letters by which the bishop of Hippo tried to correct the thought and conduct of his addressees. With this type of letters, Ebbeler claims, Augustine transformed the traditional mores of epistolary exchange (7f): The letters exchanged between members of the educated elite were traditionally conceived of as a colloquium absentium amicorum, a conversation between friends over a distance. Never entirely private, they helped to establish and maintain elite networks. Harsh criticism and the attendant risk of publicly humiliating one's friends were to be avoided in these mutual admiration societies. Augustine, however, set out to conduct his correspondence in a different, Christian key: He wrote letters in order to rebuke and correct and he expected his correspondents to reply and acknowledge their error in written form. With his attempt at Christianizing the epistolary culture of late antiquity, Augustine was clearly asking for trouble. And—as Ebbeler's fine study shows in abundant detail—he did not ask in vain.

Ebbeler kicks off with an introduction that surveys the textual transmission and editorial history of Augustine's corpus of letters and notes the dearth of monographs on Augustine's correspondence (3-26). Chapter 1 ("Rebuke, Friendship and Community"/ 27-62) explores how Augustine in his Confessiones narrates both his conversion and his progress towards true friendship which neither detracts friends from being centred on God alone nor hesitates to give and to receive correction (40). Ebbeler looks for "scriptural and philosophical influences" (42-50): Whilst there are indications that Epicurean circles espoused a similar ideal of friendly correction—the Epicurean Philodemus wrote a treatise On Frank Criticism——Ebbeler rightly views the influence of scripture as much more certain and important: Paul's correction of Peter in Galatians 2 provided the model (48f). Ancient epistolography—Ebbeler cites Pseudo-Demetrius—discussed various types of corrective letters. But in practice—always bearing in mind the fragmentary state of our knowledge—corrective letters seem to be comparatively rare among the surviving evidence (51). Ebbeler's survey of Latin precedents of Augustine's corrective letters—Cicero, Jerome, Cyprian and Seneca— concludes that "Seneca's letters are the closest we come to a reciprocal, corrective correspondence before Augustine." (54). In Paulinus of Nola Augustine found a correspondent who was also interested in an epistolary conversation among Christian friends. However, Paulinus, unlike Augustine, valued the exchange of letters higher than a personal encounter, he saw the correspondence between Christians "as a sacramental act" (58). For Augustine, by contrast, a correspondence such as theirs was pragmatically aimed at "assisting Christians in attaining a more perfect understanding of God's truths as they were written in scripture." (58) Consequently, Augustine was rather reluctant to switch to the mode of conventional letters of friendship—as is demonstrated by ep.109 to Severus (59-61).

Chapter 2 ("Experiments in Epistolary Correction" / 63-99) surveys Augustine's early and ultimately unsuccessful attempts (c.391-395C.Ebbeler) at entering into a corrective letter exchange with Maximus of Madaura (ep.16/17), the Donatist bishop Maximinus (ep.23) and Jerome (ep.28). In Maximus of Madaura, for example, Augustine seemed to have found a pagan sparring partner, who initially was not averse to an open and frank debate in written form. Two letters (Augustine, ep.16;17) have survived from a more extended correspondence. In ep.16, 4 Maximus wishes to withdraw from the exchange of arguments, ending on a pious note. In his reply (ep.17) Augustine refutes Maximus' arguments at some length, the tone of his letter being "humourless and uncompromising" (69). Again, Paulinus of Nola seems to have seen himself as the ideal partner for a mutually corrective letter exchange. But although the epistolary double act of him and Augustine displays all the finesse of late antique literary culture, "Paulinus stopped short of making himself an object of Augustine's correction" (92). Augustine cautioned Paulinus against Pelagius and his doctrine (ep.186), yet he shrank from overtly rebuking his rich ascetic friend (98).

Chapter 3 ("The Honeyed Sword: Rebuking Jerome" / 101-150) deals with the correspondence between Augustine and Jerome that took place in two phases—394/5 to 405 and 415 to 419—and of which 19 letters have survived. For her analysis—which takes into account lost letters and their possible import—Ebbeler can build on the excellent work of Alfons Fürst, 1 generously acknowledged in the text and the footnotes. Ebbeler throws new light on the dynamics— literary and psychological—of the exchange. The conventional picture of a warm-hearted and theologically engaged Augustine, confronted with Jerome, a vain and cantankerous old scholar, cannot stand—as Fürst had already realized. Ebbeler demonstrates that the main cause of Jerome's irritation lay precisely in Augustine's bold redefining of the mores of epistolary exchange between friends: "For Jerome, a letter was either friendly or hostile. The very presence of rebuke, even if charitable and well intentioned, made a letter hostile and allowed for a hostile response." (131) Jerome was no stranger to frank criticism, he himself wrote polemical treatises against Rufinus, Vigilantius, Jovinian and others. But among friends, correction had conventionally to take place during a face-to-face encounter, not in a letter (128). Moreover, Jerome had reason to complain that Augustine's violation of epistolary etiquette precluded a friendly correspondence inspired by Christian caritas. In this way Augustine "forced him out of his proper role as a teacher and mentor and transformed their relationship into an unseemly rivalry." (127). At the close of the first phase of the correspondence with Jerome, Ebbeler notes, Augustine had to abandon his hope of initiating a mutually corrective correspondence whose greater charity (maior caritas) seemed out of reach. He had to content himself with the minor caritas of a conventionally friendly correspondence (145). Although Ebbeler believes that Jerome did not reply to Augustine's ep. 82 (145), we cannot be completely sure. Regarding the main topic of debate between the two—the interpretation of Paul's rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2, 11-14—Ebbeler assumes that Jerome eventually accepted Augustine's correction, though not in public. However, according to Fürst 2—to whom Ebbeler refers—it is not at all clear whether Jerome ever consciously abandoned his exegesis of the passage in question.

Chapter 4 ("The Donatists and the Limits of the Corrective Correspondence"/ 151-189) presents Augustin as a militant bishop keen on drawing Donatist laity, clergy and bishops into a corrective correspondence. Although the letters to Donatists were not addressed as to friends, Augustine believed that Christian charity should try to reach out to one's opponents as to fellow human beings—if only to correct them. (151-2). The letters are hard to classify (166-167), even for Augustine himself who compared them to letters to pagans (ep. 43,1). As Ebbeler nicely observes, in at least two cases (epp. 49,1; 51,1) Augustine used the epistolary medium in order to avoid a public and confrontational debate with Donatists. This was understandable given the fact that in Numidia the Catholic church—which in the wake of what Brent Shaw and Ebbeler insist on calling "Caecilianist" (25-26)—was in a minority position (173). If the (rare) conversion of a Donatist bishop happened, Augustine did not hesitate to use it for propaganda purposes (152-154). On the whole, however, Augustine's epistolary efforts failed to elicit a publishable response from committed Donatists. Consequently, Augustine began to view the letters more and more only as a paper trail documenting Donatist deviance and therefore potentially useful in the law courts (172-173.181-184). At the beginning of the 5th century, when he had abandoned all hope of epistolary correction, Augustine used fragments of intercepted intra-Donatist correspondence in order to enter into a (fictive) dialogue with Donatist bishops such as Petilian or Parmenian (e.g. in Contra Litteras Petiliani bk 1, Contra epistulam Parminiani)— Parmenian being already dead at the time of Augustine's writing (177-180).

Chapter 5 ("The Retrospective Correction of Pelagius"/ 191-225) presents a reconstruction of the correspondence between Augustine and Pelagius of which only one letter (ep.146) has survived. 3 According to Ebbeler, until 416, Augustine maintained friendly relations—and possibly a correspondence—with Pelagius. He neither realized Pelagius' role as the head of a movement nor was he aware that the treatise De natura which Pelagius' disciples Timasius and Jacobus had handed over to him, was, in fact, from Pelagius' pen. It was only in 416, after Orosius had returned from Palestine and had informed him about Pelagius' authorship of De natura 4 that Augustine recognized the British monk at his opponent. Augustine's narrative of his relations with Pelagius in De gestis Pelagii is therefore no more than an elaborate retrospective cover up of Augustine's own initial ignorance (224). Augustine's interpretation of the formulaic note ep. 146 in De gestis Pelagii 26,51 undertook to "invent a corrective correspondence…where none existed." (221). I am not entirely convinced by this hypothesis: It neglects the testimony of De dono perseverantiae 20,53 which relates Pelagius'' critique of Augustine's formula "Da quod iubes et iube quod vis" in Rome c. 405, in the presence of an African bishop, probably—according to Aimé Solignac—Augustine's friend Evodius of Uzalis. It also seems to rest on a misreading of De gestis Pelagii 25,49: The passage does not say, pace Ebbeler (203), that Timasius and Jacobus, disciples of Pelagius, did not reveal to Augustine Pelagius's authorship of De natura because they hoped to stay friends with Pelagius. It rather seems to say that the two disciples—who had not mentioned Pelagius' name in their own thank you letter to Augustine—approved of Augustine's suppressing it in his De natura et gratia. Moreover, her hypothesis requires Ebbeler to assume that Orosius (Liber apologeticus 3) engaged in a "blatant misrepresentation of reality" (209) in order to antagonize Pelagius when he told the assembly in Jerusalem in July 415 that Augustine was at work refuting a book of Pelagius. But how could Orosius have learned in Jerusalem that Pelagius was the author of De natura? Pelagius himself never acknowledged his authorship of the writing. And Ebbeler's hypothesis that Augustine presents in De gestis Pelagii 26,51 a purely retrospective re-interpretation of the language of ep.146 has yet to meet the arguments to the contrary of Yves-Marie Duval.5

The conclusion ("The Paper Trail" / 227-234) offers some further reflections: Ebbeler observes—not without some exaggeration—that Augustine wrote in an age "in which it was quickly becoming typical for interpersonal relationships to be cultivated completely in absentia, through the exchange of letters, books, and the like."(228). However, Augustine's attempt to transform the mores of epistolary exchange have to be judged "an unmitigated failure" (231). Ebbeler sees a connection between Augustine''s ideal of mutual epistolary correction and the practice of fraternal correction in a monastic context: By his corrective letters, Augustine created a virtual monastery, his letters may be viewed "as a late antique prequel to the institutionalized penitential practices of medieval Christianity." (230) But was Augustine really prepared to accept correction from others? Ebbeler gives reasons to remain doubtful (233).

Ebbeler has written a bold and original monograph, full of fresh insights. It is warmly recommended to all those who are interested in Augustine and the literary culture of Late Antiquity.


1.   Alfons Fürst, Augustins Briefwechsel mit Hieronymus, Münster 1999; Augustinus-Hieronymus.Epistulae mutuae –Briefwechsel I/II (Fontes Christiani 41,1-2), Turnhout 2002.
2.   Alfons Fürst, Augustins Briefwechsel mit Hieronymus, Münster 1999, 80-87.
3.   For a reconstruction, see, in addition to Ebbeler's bibliography: Yves-Marie Duval, "La correspondance entre Augustin et Pélage", Revue des études augustiniennes 45, 1999, 363-384, and my "Augustinus und sein Verhältnis zu Pelagius", in: Augustiniana 60, 2010, 63-86.
4.   This is how I understand Ebbeler's narrative on p. 210.
5.   Yves-Marie Duval, "Augustin et les règles épistolaires'", in: Léon Nadjo / Élisabeth Gavoille (ed.), Epistulae antiquae II. Actes du IIe colloque international "Le genre épistolaire antique et ses prolongements européens" (Université Francois-Rabelais, Tours, 28-30 septembre 2000), Louvain-Paris 2002, 355-365.

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