Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.24

Daniel L. Schwartz, Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia. Hellenic Studies, 57.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2013.  Pp. xii, 170.  ISBN 9780674067035.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Nathan K.C. Bennett, Claremont Graduate University (

Daniel Schwartz’s Paideia and Cult examines the catechetical homilies of Theodore of Mopsuestia, illustrating how the process of catechesis was instrumental in producing a Christian culture in Late Antiquity. Seeking to differentiate his work from previous scholarship, which has tended to focus more narrowly on the intellectual and theological aspects of catechetical teaching,1 Schwartz addresses three important facets of catechesis: immersion into the social structure of the church, instruction in Christian theology, and the ritual performance of conversion. He argues that the social, intellectual, and physical impact of catechesis amounted to something close to classical paideia. Like Greco-Roman education, which socialized elites via a thorough instruction in grammar and rhetoric, catechesis instilled in converts a distinctly Christian culture.

The introduction locates Schwartz’s investigation of catechesis within the much larger discussion of Christianization in the Roman Empire. Scholars have long been fascinated with the historical circumstances in which the unconscious polytheism of Greco-Roman culture gave way to the dogmatic monotheism of Christianity. More recent studies have reacted against the earlier work of Arthur Darby Nock, who understood the process of Christianization as the product of individuals having experienced highly intellectualized conversions.2 Many historians have instead treated the topic at an institutional level, focusing, for example, on the religious orientation of the imperial administration or the aristocracy.3 Schwartz’s work represents a slight correction to earlier rejections of Nock’s notions of individual conversion. He takes seriously the role of catechesis in Christianizing the Roman Empire, and for good reason: the religious edification of potential converts is a logical locus for exploring the process of Christianization. Schwartz’s book is a valuable addition to the large body of scholarship on the topic.

Chapter One (“Theodore’s Life, Education, and Ministry”) provides readers uninitiated in late-antique studies with information on Theodore’s life and thought. Most importantly, Schwartz outlines Theodore’s educational background, chronicling his transition from rhetorical studies under Libanius to a biblically oriented education under the guidance of Diodore (29-33). Schwartz also describes Theodore’s ecclesiastical career, contextualizing his priestly vocation within the turbulent theological disputes of the Antiochene church (33-37). While most of the chapter is expository in nature, Schwartz effectively explains the ways in which paideia was thought to shape the minds of elite students, and convincingly demonstrates how Theodore’s education influenced his approach to Christian doctrine and scripture (38- 41).

Chapter Two (“Approaching Catechesis”) describes the practices that constituted catechesis. Despite the increasing prominence of Christianity in the fourth century, priests continued to insist on a hushed sense of mystery surrounding the rituals of Christian liturgy, which included baptism and the Eucharist (48-58). Schwartz suggests that this insistence on secrecy in the face of widespread recognition of Christian ceremony had an important social function. By presenting catechesis as an initiation into arcane knowledge and practice, priests were able to magnify the divisions between the baptized faithful, catechumens who were preparing for initiation, and those outside the church community. The emphasis on secrecy also served to heighten the sense of personal transformation for catechumens who were, for the most part, familiar with basic Christian doctrine (63).

In Chapter Three (“The Community of Citizens”) Schwartz addresses Theodore’s Catechetical Homilies in more focused detail, examining the social aspects of Christian initiation. Schwartz explains how Theodore utilized specific language to describe the church and its functionaries, emphasizing the importance of a Christian hierarchy that extended all the way from the baptized initiates to God. Not surprisingly, significant authority is ascribed to the bishop, who administered the Eucharist, educated the congregation, exemplified proper decorum, and cared for the poor (73- 81). Below the bishop and presbyters stood the minor clergy, including sub-deacons, readers, confessors, and virgins. Schwartz astutely points out that the hierarchical character of the clergy did not necessarily produce a sense of distance or division among the laity (90). Just the opposite, the Christian community amounted to a continuum of spiritual authority, stretching from God, through the bishop and clergy, to the congregation. Schwartz presents catechesis as the means by which converts could integrate themselves into this continuum and thus connect with the divine (86).

Chapter Four (“Teaching the Creed”) discusses the educational aspects of catechesis. Schwartz briefly outlines the content of Theodore’s ten catechetical sermons and clarifies the theological position staked out in the homilies. He is less interested in questions of orthodoxy and heresy in Theodore’s Christology, deferring to the work of other scholars on such issues. Instead, Schwartz examines the language of education in Theodore’s homilies, which he views as proof of the extent to which Theodore understood catechesis as an educational system (102). That Theodore employed a range of terms related to education should come as no surprise, given the instructional nature of catechesis. Whether Theodore considered catechesis an educational system, on the other hand, remains less certain. A comparison of Theodore’s pedagogy with similar practices found in classical paideia would strengthen Schwartz’s argument. He does, however, illustrate clearly the pedagogical tools utilized by Theodore to explain the finer theological points of the baptismal creed. Theodore’s use of mnemonic devices, repetition, and the rhetoric of simplicity are especially significant in demonstrating the ways in which he taught difficult theological concepts to a diverse audience (103-111). Finally, Schwartz points out the means by which Theodore attempted to inculcate in catechumens a sense of communal consensus regarding his presentation of Trinitarian theology (111-116).

Chapter Five (“Teaching Liturgy and Performing Theology”) addresses the ritual acts of catechesis. Schwartz avoids the problematic bifurcation of action and thought common in ritual studies by focusing on the catechumen’s experience of the liturgy, as described by Theodore. He identifies how Theodore, in addition to assigning meaning to the ritual actions of the liturgy in his homilies, attempted to shape his students’ intellectual and emotional response to the various practices (118). Theodore vividly described the theological meaning reflected in each action in order to inspire awe in the catechumens and impress upon them the significance of the Christian liturgy. Schwartz also explains Theodore’s “correspondence theory” of ritual, in which each movement and utterance corresponded with a spiritual reality (118). For example, Theodore taught the catechumens that when they genuflected during their initiation and later rose, the movement reenacted their previous submission to sin and eventual redemption through Christ. By explaining the meaning of each ritual in his catechetical teaching, Theodore instructed his students on how to experience the Christian liturgy (138). Schwartz’s brief monograph is an excellent introduction to the topic of Christian catechesis in Late Antiquity. The book describes the process of initiation and offers enough contextual detail to make the work accessible even to those unfamiliar with the subject. At the same time, Schwartz provides a perceptive analysis of the social and spiritual significance of catechesis.

The only real shortcoming in Schwartz’s interpretation of catechesis relates to the title of the book. The paideia in Paideia and Cult refers to Schwartz’s supposition that Theodore offered a distinctive Christian paideia in his homilies. Theodore’s educational background no doubt influenced his catechetical sermons. He put his rhetorical training to good use when, for example, he employed the technique of ekphrasisto instill a sense of awe in his students. Yet Theodore had no intention of training his catechumens to employ the same rhetorical device themselvesEkphrasiswas simply a tool Theodore used to better convey his message. Schwartz is right in asserting that paideia signified “culture” as well as “education” (3).The culture paideiadenoted, however, was cultivated through instruction in and replication of highly polished speech; inherent in the culture of paideia was the reproduction of techniques learned. Theodore’s Catechetical Homilies, on the other hand, were concerned primarily with the catechumen’s acceptance of his theological positions. Thus, the conclusion that catechesis was itself a type of paideia, in the sense of a system of instruction that inculcated in students certain habits of thought and action through the repetition of learning exercises, falls somewhat short. Schwartz correctly recognizes the influence of paideia on Theodore’s homilies, though, and his book is a very useful text for understanding Theodore’s catechetical pedagogy as well as the significance of catechesis more generally.


1.   See Simon Gerber, Theodor von Mopsuestia und das Nicänum (Boston: Brill, 2000).
2.   Arthur Darby Nock, Conversion: the Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933); for critiques of Nock, see Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Knopf, 1987); R.A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
3.   See, for example, Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1-26; Michele Salzman, The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

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