Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.03.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.03.35

Bronwen Neil, Pauline Allen (ed.), Collecting Early Christian Letters: From the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 260.  ISBN 9781107091863.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Riehle, University of Vienna (


Ancient and medieval letters and letter-collections have long attracted scholarly attention as sources from which to draw not only historical data in the strict sense, but also to learn about the writers’ views and personalities. Historians noted from early on that there are specific problems of analysis that come with the epistolary genre and particularly the (edited) letter- collection―one might recall, for instance, Adolf Deissmann’s influential distinction between “letter” (Brief) and “epistle”. It was not until quite recently, however, that Classicists and Medievalists started asking more profound questions about the formation and intrinsic properties of letter-collections, rationales and methods of compilation, and concomitant problems of interpretation.

The collective volume presently under review seeks to address such issues with regard to Christian letter-collections dating from the first to the sixth century. It comprises two introductory chapters, in which the editors raise general questions pertaining to the subject at hand (Part I), followed by cases studies on New Testament and early monastic (Part II), episcopal (Part III) and papal (Part IV) letters. While reading through these chapters, a set of thematic clusters, questions and methodological problems emerged for me, some of which are well covered and looked at in interesting ways in the individual contributions, while others would have perhaps deserved further elaboration. For some of these questions, a closer look at recent research in Medieval Studies (both Eastern and Western) could have proved fruitful. After all, most of the collections discussed in this volume survive in medieval manuscripts, and in recent years medievalists’ scholarship on issues related to letter-collections has grown considerably.1

To start with the question of the historical development of Greco-Roman epistolography, the reasons for the proliferation of (edited) letter-collections in the period under consideration do not seem to be fully understood yet. The first major Greek collections come from the Imperial Period, while the Latin tradition sets in with Cicero (pp. 4-8). These and the later, late antique collections were for the most part produced by highly-educated men (including popes, patriarchs, bishops and monastic leaders) with access to the necessary resources, and one could thus argue that letter-writing―at least as it appears to us in the surviving record―became more elitist in the first six centuries of our era rather than “democratised” as claimed by Bronwen Neil in her opening essay (3). Malcolm Choat (80-81) suggests that the rise of the codex may have facilitated the production and dissemination of large epistolary corpora, but this is evidently not the whole story. A fuller understanding of the pervasiveness of epistolography in this period would undoubtedly require a holistic look at all types of letter-collections, encompassing also the simultaneous “pagan” collections―and the case of Synesios, whose letters are (deliberately?) not discussed in the volume, shows how arbitrary and problematic a strict distinction between “Christian” and “pagan” may be.2 Such a full-scale investigation would have to include not only collections of important intellectual figures like Libanios, who, despite their different religious beliefs, often shared the same educational background and were connected to Christian elites, but also the contemporary “ethopoietical” (that is, pseudo-historical, rustic, erotic) collections and “epistolary novels” that point to the popularity of the letter-collection as a genre in this period.3

Another issue that deserves attention is that of terminology and, particularly, the question of what a letter-collection actually is (cf. Samuel Rubenson’s remarks on 76-77). There is considerable variance in the usage of this term in scholarly publications: It is sometimes used to designate the sum of all surviving letters by one or more authors4 as presented to us in modern editions, sometimes to signify a particular selection of letters of one or several authors in one or more manuscripts (or papyri). In her instructive introductory chapter to the present volume (ch. 2), Pauline Allen carefully differentiates between authorial and posthumous “intentional” collections, ‘collections’ with mixed transmission and ‘collections’ compiled by modern editors, but throughout the various contributions usage varies greatly. For instance, J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz (ch. 7) distinguishes between “the collection” of Ambrose in 10 books, which probably originates with the author himself, and other minor corpora transmitted outside this collection, while Wendy Mayer (ch. 9) speaks of “the collection” of John Chrysostom, although none of the preserved manuscripts transmits all of John’s letters and there is no consistency in the arrangement of the letters in the manuscripts. Similarly, Bronwen Neil (ch. 12) makes reference to “the collection” of Pelagius I and its “collator”, despite having explained that eleven of his letters derive from the Liber auctoritatum Arelatensis ecclesiae, while 84 are preserved in the Collectio Britannica (208-211). On the other hand, Pauline Allen (28) and Adam Schor (ch. 10) both use the plural “collections” with regard to the various assemblages of Theodoret of Kyrrhos’ letters in the manuscripts. Such differing and conflicting usage carries the risk of conceptual confusion, and we would thus be well advised to establish and agree on a consistent terminology.

The particular form of collection as a medium of textual transmission―as opposed to, for instance, the chance survival of original letters in the sand of Egypt―entails specific issues of interpretation. First of all, the surviving collections present usually a (very) small fraction of original correspondence (cf. 32-35 for general remarks drawing on several cases; 99 on Ambrose; 133 and 139-43 on John Chryosostom; 156-57 on Theodoret; 175 on the papal letters in the Collectio Corbeiensis and the Collectio Pithouensis). In some of the preserved collections there are conspicuous gaps, for example, the near-to- complete absence of surviving letters of Basil of Caesarea addressed to his brother Gregory of Nyssa (121, 123). Such lacunae may sometimes be accounted for by the contingencies of textual transmission (cf. 123-26 on Gregory of Nyssa), but often we may assume that they were deliberate omissions (cf. 143-45 on John Chrysostom). This raises the questions of the compilers’ access to copies (or originals) of letters and of the rationale behind each collection.

Regularly, the arrangement of letters in the manuscripts gives us decisive clues as to the origins, function and (intended) audience of a collection. The contributions to this volume confirm the observation previously made by scholars that chronological arrangement in ancient and medieval collections seems to be the exception rather than the rule and that ordering by thematic units and/or addressees is more common (cf., e.g., 7, 61-65, 104, 117-18). This is an important observation, as it points to conscious methods of arrangement of letters in collections and specific agendas behind such methods―rather than lack of information on the dating of letters on the compilers’ side, as implied by Neil (8). The chronological order of letters in fictional collections such as Chion of Heraclea and Themistokles is most likely grounded in their “novelistic” nature and not in their more obvious chronology (ibid.). However, non-chronological arrangement does not preclude an (auto)biographical rationale behind a given collection, as contended by Liebeschuetz (100-01), as the (auto)biographical mode does not necessarily require a strictly linear chronological sequence of narrative units.5 Moreover, the assumption that the Christian ideal of humility did not allow for biographical narrative in Christian letter-collections, “which would seem to privilege the identity of the author as an individual, rather than a servant of God” (Neil, 8), seems rather naïve. Neil McLynn’s reconstruction and compelling reading of Gregory of Nazianzos’ “edition” of his correspondence with Basil of Caesarea―which is, curiously, cited neither by Neil nor by Silvas in her chapter on Basil’s collections (ch. 8), but briefly referenced by Allen (20)―shows quite the opposite (cf. also 110-12 on Book X of Ambrose’s collection). Clusters of letters appearing in the manuscripts consistently together may point to the inference that these letters were kept together in batches of loose sheets, quires or rolls in the archive that the compiler of a collection used (cf. 117-18 on Basil, 131 on John Chrysostom; for material evidence see 59-65), and a careful examination of such clusters with regard to their content, addressee(s) and dating―but which may also include codicological and paleographical evidence―can lead us to conclusions about the formation and subsequent transformation of collections (see, e.g., Geoffrey D. Dunn’s meticulous analysis of the Collectio Corbeiensis: ch. 11).

Associated with this problem is the issue of the revision of letters for the purposes of “publication” within a collection—a process that in the case of early collections can most often only be established by means of conjecture.6 Thus, Ian J. Elmer (ch. 3) argues on the basis of internal evidence and manuscript variants that the Pauline epistles are in fact “community documents”, which were co-authored by Paul and his collaborators and subsequently edited and augmented, for example by fusing various fragments into one single piece, and 2 Corinthians is probably the result of such patchwork. Brent Nongbri (ch. 4) provides further evidence for “composite letters” by drawing on early parchment and papyrus rolls that paste together originals of received letters or copies of sent letters. Moreover, Liebeschuetz argues conclusively that Ambrose “heavily edited” his letter to Emperor Theodosios I of 388/9 “for the record and to guide posterity” (111). Such observations evidently have ramifications of our understanding of “letters”: Should we regard every piece that survives within a (self-designated) letter-collection as a letter―even if it was not dispatched (in the surviving form) from a sender to a recipient and/or does not exhibit typical epistolary patterns? Any attempt to answer this question will necessarily raise issues of genre (cf., e.g., 14, 30, 104, 124, 140) and fictionalization, including pseudepigraphy (cf. 14-15).

From all these problems of selection, revision, (self-)representation and genre two conclusions emerge: First, that we should be very careful in our historical analyses of letters preserved in collections, be it with regard to historical data (events, dates, prosopography, etc.) or the “personality” of the authors as presented in their epistolary writing (cf. Liebeschuetz’s, problematic in this respect, conclusions on Ambrose: 112). Second, the consideration of letter-collections as a particular type of transmission, or even as a genre of its own, has implications for editorial approaches to such collections. Modern editions regularly break up the historical collections as preserved in the manuscripts and arrange the letters in arbitrary ways, most often in an assumed chronological order (cf. ch. 8 on Basil; 23 and 131-33 on John Chrysostom; 208 n. 165 on Pelagius I). This tendency reflects the traditional approach to letter-collections as haphazard assemblages of discrete documents, rather than (more or less) coherent entities that may be regarded as forming a genre with distinctive (yet not unchanging) functional and formal features, such as the division into 10 books, which enjoyed some popularity in late antiquity (6, 19-20, 100). Epistolary oeuvres that survive in a great number of manuscripts and present considerable variance in the amount and arrangement of letters in the different branches of their transmission (such as those of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzos and Augustine) pose serious challenges in this regard, and future editors will have to explore and test ways in which the complex manuscript tradition may best be presented to the modern reader so as to exhibit the various appearances and rationales of the given collections (cf. 128, Silvas’ remarks on a new edition of Basil’s letters).

In my view, one of the greatest merits of this volume is that it turns our attention precisely to this fluidity and constructedness of early Christian and late antique letter-collections and ensuing problems of historical interpretation. Moreover, it adds insightful case studies and considerations of general nature to increasing scholarly interest in ancient and medieval collections of various kinds, including, among others, monastic florilegia (cf. 78-79), miracle collections, and poetic anthologies.


1.   See W. Ysebaert, “Letter Collections (Latin West and Byzantium),“ in Handbook of Medieval Studies. Terms – Methods – Trends, ed. A. Classen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 3:1898-1904 (with ample references).
2.   Another regrettable exclusion is that of Isidore of Pelousion, the formation of whose enormous collection(s) is relatively well documented. See P. Evieux, Isidore de Péluse: Lettres. Tome I: Lettres 1214-1413 (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1997), 95-110.
3.   See P.A. Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions. The Letter in Greek Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 133-346.
4.   An example of a multi-author corpus is that of Barsanouphios and John the Prophet, which is also conspicuously absent from the volume.
5.   See, e.g., my “Epistolography as Autobiography. Remarks on the Letter-Collections of Nikephoros Choumnos,” Parekbolai 2 (2012) 1-22.
6.   From the Byzantine period there is one case in which fundamental editing of letters can be seen at work in an autograph manuscript: P. Hatlie, “Life and Artistry in the ‛Publication’ of Demetrios Kydones’ Letter Collection,“ Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 37 (1996) 75-102.

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