Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.41
Michael W. Champion, Explaining the Cosmos: Creation and Cultural Interaction in Late-Antique Gaza. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 241. ISBN 9780199337484. $74.00.
Reviewed by M. Shane Bjornlie, Claremont McKenna College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In 529, Justinian enacted legislation expelling non-Christian “Hellenes” from civil service and from state-funded teaching positions and withdrawing funding from the Academy in Athens, thereby closing the doors to a source of traditional “higher education” that had enjoyed the support of the Roman state since the time of Marcus Aurelius. Thus, the early sixth century marked the culmination of a long and incremental process in Late Antiquity by which Roman emperors detached themselves from associations with the more overtly “pagan” elements of Roman political culture. This disarticulation of the state from what had been the legitimating language of traditional religion paralleled a process by which educated Christians of the Mediterranean world grappled with the mercurial and potentially volatile substance of classical paideia. For educated Christians, distancing their own thought world from the deeply entrenched vocabulary of the classical tradition was about as easy as separating glitter from fine sand. The Christian response to Neoplatonic philosophy was equally fraught. Augustine’s tormented perambulations through the gardens of his Confessions represents one Christian response to the attractions of Neoplatonic thought; the closure of the Academy at Athens represents another, albeit extreme reaction. Other Christians preferred a more mediated approach. In Explaining the Cosmos, Michael Champion explores the responses of three Christians from Gaza in the period of the late-fifth and early-sixth centuries. Champion’s book illustrates how Aeneas, Procopius and Zacharias of Gaza assimilated Neoplatonic discourse while at the same time rejecting Neoplatonic claims concerning creation and the relationship of divine will to the created world. Champion’s analysis is detailed and perceptive and reveals how three thinkers from the same cultural setting of a middling but prosperous eastern Mediterranean city arrived at individualized responses to the intellectual authority of Neoplatonic thought.
Champion divides the work into seven chapters. The first chapter introduces the three authors and the primary texts examined throughout the book: the Theophrastus of Aeneas, the Commentary on Genesis by Procopius, and Zacharias’ Ammonius. Each text represents a different response to the Neoplatonic explanation for the creation and eternity of the world, which developed, in particular, out of Proclus’ exposition of Plato earlier in the fifth century. Champion argues that what made each text distinctive in its approach to the common problem of a particularly Neoplatonic conception for creation was the extent to which each author was influenced by the different “cultures” comprising Gazan society. The local background informing these authors’ responses to Neoplatonism was a heterogeneous composite of intellectual cultures from schools of rhetoric, monastic communities, philosophical and doctrinal traditions and networks of connectivity to other leading centers of intellectual activity such as Athens and Alexandria. According to Champion, although the authors responded to trends in Neoplatonic thought that were current throughout the wider eastern Mediterranean, each text represents the participation of its author in discrete segments of local Gazan culture. Champion attributes the varied degrees to which each author appropriated and resisted aspects of Neoplatonic thought to these differing levels of participation in particular elements of Gazan culture.
Champion develops a profile of these “multiple, often partially overlapping local cultures” over the next two chapters. Chapter Two sketches the basic social contours of Gazan society, the prominence of rhetorical schools, interaction between Gazan monasteries and schools of rhetoric and the influence eastern Mediterranean elite networks on Gazan monks and sophists. Chapter Three posits the levels of participation of each author in various segments of Gazan society in order to explain the distinctive manners by which each text accommodated Neoplatonic thought to Christian expectations. The chapter also offers some nuanced insights into the use of fictive dialogue (Aeneas and Zacharias) and formal commentary (Procopius) as a means of appropriating the literary technologies of classical philosophy for Christian purposes (pp. 58-66). According to Champion, the authors were chiefly interested in instructing learned pagan sophists and in promoting the ascendance of Christian teaching in the rhetorical and philosophical schools of Gaza.
The next three chapters comprise the heart of the book in which Champion illustrates the intimate choreography with which each author moved between Neoplatonic and Christian teaching. Chapter Four elaborates the main problem of the difference between Neoplatonic and Christian explanations for creation. The Neoplatonic monist notion of creation held that created matter (the universe) was an expression of the personality of God, which naturally shared in God’s immortality. For Christians, however, the universe was creatio ex nihilo which could not share in God’s immortality because an eternal world would conflict with the Christian eschatological narrative for the end of time and for spiritual salvation. The chapter outlines the development of Christian explanations for creation from Origen, the parallel refinement of the Neoplatonic position from Plotinus and an introduction to the more characteristic ways by which the Gazan authors differ from earlier Christian explanations. As Champion shows, the Gazan authors move to biblical explanations only after treating the problems of Neoplatonic interpretations on philosophical grounds and, in general, they avoid biblical exegesis. Chapter Five focuses on Procopius’ Commentary on Genesis and discusses how Procopius explained differences between formal philosophy and divine revelation, between the coeval matter of Neoplatonic thought and created matter of Christian doctrine, the soteriological role of the Christian conception of creation, and the relation of creation to the will and temporal nature of God. In Chapter Six, Champion examines the concepts of creation and eternity with equal detail in the works of Aeneas and Zacharias, noting first where Aeneas and Zacharias share Procopius’ departure from a static, Neoplatonic cosmos in favor of one that awaits physical and ethical perfection in eschatological time. Champion also explores the relationship of creation to the soul according to Aeneas and Zacharias. More importantly, he is also able to trace some of the responses to Neoplatonic thought to the Trinitarian controversies that animated the local monastic culture of Gaza (pp. 160-82).
A short conclusion (Chapter Seven) expands consideration of contemporary interactions between Neoplatonic and Christian thought to include John Philoponus of Alexandria, Simplicius of Athens and Cosmas Indicopleustes. In conclusion, in light of their engagement with and use of the formal philosophical discourse of Neoplatonists to explain the Christian position on creation, Champion compellingly suggests that modern scholarship should consider Aeneas, Procopius and Zacharias not as Christians conversant with the rhetoric of sophists, but as Christian philosophers.
In the final assessment, Champion contributes a great deal to an understanding of the confluence of Christian and non-Christian thought worlds, particularly in terms of the selectivity of the Christian appropriation and rejection of classical and Neoplatonic ideas. The book adds thoughtful dimension to the intellectual coming-of-age of Christianity in the Mediterranean. Similarly, Champion’s frequent inclusion of translations from the works of the Gazan authors brings to life the variety with which Christians could formulate ideas about eternity, creation, the cosmos and providence, all in a language that was consistent with the rich philosophical tradition of the day.
For all that there is to praise in this book, readers may find that the book does not deliver everything as promised. Champion explicitly sets out to demonstrate the methodological synergy that is possible when intellectual and cultural historical perspectives combine to reconstruct a local community (pp. 2-8). This method, argues Champion, allows the creation debates evident in the texts of the three authors to “illumine Gazan society by revealing creative, productive and violent tensions between diverse, overlapping and heterogeneous local cultures” (p. 192). In other words, each text represents a particular confluence of local Gazan cultures. Reminders of this basic premise appear throughout the book: “Overlap between Christian and Neoplatonic problems again points to the intertwined, heterogeneous, and shifting cultures of late-antique Gaza” (p. 115). Unfortunately, the book does not develop the “cultures” of Gaza to an extent that makes the connection between text and local context as compelling (or necessary) as Champion suggests. Champion regularly punctuates chapters with statements attesting that the peculiarities of a given text represent dynamic social and intellectual exchanges in Gazan society, but those connections often seem more hypothetical than demonstrated. At times, the book does refer to the prominent letter collections of local actors (John and Barsanuphius, Aeneas and Procopius) in the service of reproducing Gazan cultures, but the attention these and other sources receive is never as detailed and thorough as the three philosophical works that form the focus of the book. This is not to suggest that Champion is incorrect to claim that the philosophical positions taken in these three works correspond to local Gazan society, but Champion’s book has more in common with a formal philosophical study than cultural history. For a cultural-historical perspective on Gaza, one might instead consult the work of Jennifer Hevelone-Harper.1
It also seems that other explanations may be available for understanding the authorial intent of the three Gazans. Champion variously acknowledges the firm connections that each author had in the wider eastern Mediterranean (Alexandria, Caesarea, Antioch and Constantinople), although the book fixes upon the Neoplatonic schools in Gaza as the target audience. Unfortunately, these Neoplatonic schools, their masters and pupils, remain invisible in the book. One could equally posit that the Theophrastus, the Commentary on Genesis and the Ammonius were each corollary to their authors’ involvement in lively debates generated on farther Mediterranean shores. In the absence of firmly attested Neoplatonic interlocutors at Gaza, it is equally possible to suggest that the three authors imported debates of cosmopolitan importance to enhance their positions among local Christians. At various points (p. 116, 133), Champion indicates that the authors may not have reported Neoplatonic principles as accurately as they should, which seems somewhat out of place, given that someone attempting to refute the claims of local Neoplatonic schools would probably anticipate that Neoplatonist readers in Gaza would immediately catch misrepresentations of their beliefs. Thus, it may be the case that these authors wrote for a Christian audience that was aware of the cultural capital of Neoplatonic thought, but not precisely aware of its features as a philosophical system. Of course, other studies have indicated that Aeneas’ engagement in intellectual discourse seems to have been located in Alexandria.2 It is also highly probable that Zacharias wrote his Ammonius at Berytus, not Gaza.3
Other contexts might have been explored to attach the philosophical activities of the three Gazan authors to a cultural setting. For example, all three authors have clear interests in eschatological narrative and one could reasonably posit that the contemporary apocalyptic discourse that was current throughout the Mediterranean at this time might have played a role in their literary endeavors. 4 Unfortunately, this topic is muted in the book. Similarly, the authors had demonstrable ties to the imperial court. Aeneas seems to have been at least a high-profile visitor to Constantinople, while Procopius composed a panegyric for the emperor Anastasius and Zacharias served as an advocatus of the praetorian prefect in Constantinople.5 Imperial politics, however, receives scant attention as one of the cultures potentially influencing their works.
Champion’s monograph nevertheless serves as an excellent case study for the intellectual history of the eastern Mediterranean in the late-fifth and early-sixth centuries. The clarity with which Champion teases apart strands of Neoplatonic and Christian thought will prove highly useful to students and scholars of late-antique philosophy, religion and intellectual history.
1. Jennifer Hevelone-Harper, Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza (Johns Hopkins UP, 2005).
2. Edward Watts, “An Alexandrian Christian response to fifth-century Neoplatonic influence”, in A. Smith, Philosophy and Society in Late Antiquity (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2005), pp. 215-29.
3. PLRE II, “Zacharias (the Rhetor) 4”, pp. 1194-95.
4. On the influence of apocalyptic thought, Edward Watts, “Winning the Intracommunal Dialogues: Zacharias Scholasticus’ Life of Severus”, Journal of Early Christian Studies 13.4 (2005), pp. 437-64; and “Creating the ascetic and sophistic mélange”, ARAM 19 (2007), pp. 153-64.
5. PLRE II, “Aeneas of Gaza 3”, p. 17; “Procopius of Gaza 8”, pp. 921-22.