Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.59

Yannis Papadogiannakis, Christianity and Hellenism in the Fifth-century Greek East: Theodoret's Apologetics against the Greeks in Context. Hellenic studies, 49.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 183.  ISBN 9780674060678.  $19.95 (pb).  


Reviewed by Adam M. Schor, University of South Carolina (schor@sc.edu)

Table of Contents

Among the writers of the fifth-century Roman East, Theodoret of Cyrrhus has drawn ballooning attention. His large, varied corpus has inspired studies on everything from asceticism and theological controversy to bishops’ shifting position in society. Yet few have examined Theodoret’s influential Therapeutikê (“Treatment”) for Hellenic Maladies (aka. the Curatio). Only now is an English translation available, thanks to Thomas Halton and Paulist Press. 1 And only recently has Yannis Papadogiannakis’ paperback Christianity and Hellenism in the Fifth Century Greek East,2 provided its valuable exploration of this work in cultural context.

Theodoret’s Therapeutikê draws interest as the last entry in three centuries of pro-Christian apologetics aimed at countering ancient “Hellenism.” Building on prior work, especially by Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodoret wrote these twelve discourses defending Christian teaching by deploying excerpts from hundreds of non-Christian philosophers. Theodoret penned the Therapeutikê before 431, likely as a monk in Nikertai, near Syrian Apamea, before he served as bishop (423-460s). A few twentieth-century scholars wrote detailed studies of this text. Pierre Canivet prepared a Greek edition and French translation for Sources chrétiennes in 1958.3 He also penned a monograph, stressing the context of pagan-Christian interaction, the ongoing influence of philosophy, and the degree to which Theodoret “perfected” apologetic discourse though reuse of texts.4 Since then, the Therapeutikê has played bit parts in scholarship on apologetic and the Christian reception of Hellenic philosophy.5 The most recent focused study, Niketas Siniossoglou’s Plato and Theodoret, distinguished between Theodoret’s (mis)use of philosophic texts to support ascetic Christianity, and Neo-Platonists’ efforts to establish Plato’s own coherent teaching.6 But no scholar since Canivet has really explored Theodoret’s aims and methods in this work in its fifth-century, Syrian context.

Papadogiannakis’ preface declares his purpose to fill scholarly gaps surrounding the Therapeutikê. After swiftly surveying Theodoret’s life and writings (pp. 1-5), he introduces the main topics and features of the Therapeutikê, including its explicit goal to counter persistent criticisms of Christian teaching and practice (pp. 5-9). He points to Theodoret’s continuation of this project in other works (especially the History of the Friends of God and the Ten Orations on Divine Providence). While some scholars have dismissed Theodoret’s apologetic as fossilized, Papadogiannakis demonstrates its deep influence upon medieval Byzantine and renaissance scholars (pp. 9-11). Thus he notes the icon of Theodoret commissioned by Bishop John Marapous (Michael Psellos’ teacher) – a contrast to the suspicions of heresy that followed Theodoret in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Papadogiannakis’ introductory chapter sketches the cultural context that inspired Theodoret’s Therapeutikê and shaped its initial audience. Updating Canivet’s views, Papadogiannakis talks about Christianization as a slow process of cultural transformation. Many, in his view, remained fully non-Christian. Even for the growing Christian population, there persisted intermixed “pagan” traditions (pp. 13-14). Papadogiannakis stresses the challenge that Hellenic Neo-Platonism presented to Christianization, especially in learned circles (pp. 14-21). I would hesitate to find evidence of broad pagan influence in Zachariah of Mitylene’s Life of Severus of Antioch, whose verisimilitude is debated.7 But Papadogiannakis suggests a more specific audience: wavering people (many officially Christian) with multivalent intellectual loyalties. Thus he introduces another fifth-century text, Pseudo-Justin’s Questions and Answers for the Orthodox. For him, no source better illustrates semi-learned people’s confusion, due to clashing texts and authority figures, on matters from how to explain successful predictions of pagan oracles, to how to understand why the corpses of martyrs were not polluting (pp. 19-25). Answering such questions meant telling fifth-century elites how to build a new coherent sense of learnedness. And that, along with producing Christian eloquence, marked the main work of crafting a Christian paideia (pp. 26-29).8

Chapter one examines Theodoret’s use of classical medical terms and concepts as a guiding metaphor for his apologetic activity. For Theodoret, therapeia was not just a catchphrase, but a thoroughly planned moral and intellectual framework, which he carried throughout the Therapeutikê and other writings (pp. 30-39). Medical metaphors had seen long use in philosophic argumentation, and a much broader reception in elite Hellenic society. Prior apologists had borrowed medical terms, but Papadogiannakis highlights Theodoret’s more systematic deployment, which cast his words as a carefully prepared “homeopathic” treatment, using elements within Hellenic culture pharmacologically to restore the emotional balance tied to Christian truth (pp. 40-47). In Papadogiannakis’ view, Theodoret thus cast himself as a healer following God’s example (pp. 48-51). Given the deep knowledge of Hellenic medicine that Theodoret displayed here, debates about how accurately he quoted philosophers seem less significant.

Chapter two discusses Theodoret’s assertions about God, spiritual beings, and mediation between the mundane and divine. Like many philosophers, Theodoret defined God as impassible. So any connections to human life had to come via mediating figures. One of Theodoret’s basic claims was that Hellenic gods were actually demons who had tricked people into worshipping them. The Therapeutikê argued this point by selectively reusing text from Neo-platonic disputes about the nature of daimones (pp. 53-62). Not only could Theodoret match these demonic characteristics to traits of divine characters in myth; he could also claim anti-Christian writers, such as Porphyry, as witnesses to the “confusion” of polytheism. Yet Theodoret went further, seeking to replace Hellenic Neo-platonic visions of human-divine mediation with a Christianized vision. This meant articulating roles for Christ, angels, ascetics who lived “angelic lives,” and all who aspired to be part of a future spiritual community (pp. 62-70). Papadogiannakis could have said more about these competing visions of mediation. But his interest follows the larger context: an audience that requested answers about how Christians could explain away the power of pagan oracles, sacrifice systems, and objects of worship.

Chapter three adds to this study of competing visions of mediation, focusing on Theodoret’s defense of martyr cults. No Christian practice, notes Papadogiannakis, struck men of Hellenic learning as more repugnant than the “polluting” hands-on veneration of corpses of criminals, led often by unlearned monks (pp. 71-77). Theodoret sought to “normalize” this practice, and defend its main leaders, by comparing it to the worship of heroes. Hellenes, he argued, had their own favorite corpses, and philosophers had even cast them as divine mediators. Except to Theodoret these heroes were often immoral, or at best merely famous men, unlike those past humble Christians who had given up their lives to God, and those present Christians who did so under Persian rule (pp. 78-90). Papadogiannakis admits that Theodoret never directly equated martyrs to Christian heroes. Yet he plausibly asserts that the author’s comparison “imbued [martyrs] with qualities reminiscent of Greek heroes,” (p. 91) to effectively defend martyr cults.

Chapter four tackles Theodoret’s closing argument, that Christian teachings supported practical virtue better than Hellenic philosophy. Philosophers had long boasted that their wisdom could refine people’s character. Prior apologists had touted Christianity as a more effective civilizing force.(8) Theodoret, however, was writing from a Syrian monastery. And the extreme asceticism of some Syrian monks had inspired withering criticism from learned elites, which sometimes proved effective (pp. 93-97). Yet Theodoret met this criticism, using carefully excerpted Platonic texts to claim ascetics as essential exemplars of virtue. Theodoret saw none of the bickering Greek philosophers able to fulfill the virtuous ideal of askesis—not even Socrates (pp. 98-105). Extreme ascetics, however, demonstrated the capacity of devout Christians of any ethnicity to reach this pinnacle of virtue, which provided hope and guidance to the non-ascetic masses. For Siniossoglou, Theodoret’s defense of asceticism signaled his narrow interests and his misunderstanding of Platonism.10 But most late Roman intellectuals tried to claim (and recast) Plato; Theodoret deployed him primarily as a prefiguration of what he called the true (monastic) philosophy. Here Papadogiannakis offers a clearer explanation of Theodoret’s aims: to enroll ascetics as a key part of a wider moral unity.

Chapter five turns to the Therapeutikê’s literary style and structures of argument, which Papadogiannakis sees as central to Theodoret’s project. The twelve chapters of the Therapeutikê were written as dialexeis, a flexible genre featuring conversational language and abrupt redirections. Theodoret employed the dialexis to anticipate audience reactions and simulate debate (122-126). Rhetorically, he took decontextualized excerpts, allusions, and opinions, and assembled an overwhelming chorus of voices and arguments. Meanwhile, Theodoret always wrote in controlled, elegant Greek, which authorized him to represent past learning and mark its safe Christian use (127-139). This chapter solidifies the book’s main assertion. The eloquence, encyclopedism and multiangular argument noted here (which can be found in Theodoret’s other works, such as the Eranistes), Papadogiannakis presents as the best illustration of Theodoret’s aim, to assemble past learning in ways that would support those people left wavering (pp. 139-140, and continued in his Conclusion, pp. 141-143).

Hellenism and Christianity has some minor shortcomings. The book retains several copy-editing errors.11 More substantively, Papadogiannakis’ short work raises questions that it lacks the space to address. I was left wondering about the author’s response to some studies (especially Siniossoglou’s). I would like more detail on how Papadogiannakis’s sees the link between cultural debates simulated in text and the social interactions of Theodoret and his audience. And I would like to hear more about how Theodoret’s project was affected by the multilingual, multiliterate environment of Syria’s clergy and monasteries.

Yet the strengths of Papadogiannakis’ book make it compelling. In 150 pages, it sweeps across a wide range of context and scholarly work. It features lengthy but well-chosen Greek quotations, paired with fine translations, that convey Theodoret’s rhetorical aims, and his powerful eloquence. The result is not just a balanced (affordable) introduction for students and scholars to the Therapeutikê, to augment Halton’s translation, but also an important scholarly statement about what it meant to Christianize paideia. ​


Notes:


1.   Theodoret of Cyrus, A Cure of Pagan Maladies, translated by Thomas Halton, Ancient Christian Writers (Mahwah, NJ, 2013)
2.   A revision of his PhD Dissertation, “Christian Therapeia and Politeia: The Apologetics of Theodoret of Cyrrhus against the Greeks” (Princeton Univ., 2004).
3.   Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Thérapeutique des maladies Helléniques, edited and translated by Pierre Canivet, 2 vols., Sources chrétiennes 57.1 and 2 (Paris, 1958).
4.   Pierre Canivet, Histoire d’une enterprise apologétique au Ve siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957). The only other comprehensive study of the Therapeutikê is Karl J. Schulte, Theodoret von Cyrus als Apologet; Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Apologetik (Vienna, 1904).
5.   See, for instance, Daniel Ridings, The Attic Moses, the Dependency Theme in Some Early Christian Writers (Göteburg, 1995); Jeremy M. Schott, Christianity, Empire and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, 2008).
6.   Niketas Siniossoglou, Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance (Cambridge, 2008).
7.   p. 19, drawing on Frank M. Trombley, Hellenic Religion and Christianization, 370-529 (Leiden, 1993- 1994), part 2 chap. 1. For an alternate reading of the Life of Severus, see Edward J. Watts, Riot in Alexandria: Tradition and Group Dynamics in Late Antique Pagan and Christian Communities, (Berkeley, 2010), esp. chap. 5.
8.   On paideia, Papadogiannakis augments the summaries of Robert Kaster (e.g. “Education,” in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World, edite by Glen F. Bowersock et al. [Cambridge, MA, 1999]: 421-423); Philip Rousseau (e.g. “ Late Roman Christianities,” The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 3, Early Medieval Christianities, ca. 600-1100, edited by Thomas F. X. Noble and J. M. H. Smith [Cambridge, 2008]: 21-45.)
9.   See Schott, Christianity, Empire and the Making of Religion.
10.   Siniossoglou, Plato and Theodoret, chap. 3.
11.   Small mistakes that survived copy-editing include an inaccurate counting of Theodoret’s letters (p. 3), an incorrect list of people linked to the Three Chapters Controversy (p. 3), misstated dates for Trinitarian controversy (p. 22), and cited works missing from the bibliography (e.g., Kaldellis 2008, Kahlos, 2007) or printed incorrectly (Susan Ashbrook Harvey, listed as Ashbrook, H. S.). None of these slips cloud Papadogiannakis’ argument. ​

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