Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.24

Renate Dekker, Episcopal Networks and Authority in Late Antique Egypt: Bishops of the Theban Region at Work. Orientalia lovaniensia analecta, 264.   Leuven:  Peeters, 2018.  Pp. xvi, 350.  ISBN 9789042935600.  €96,00.  


Reviewed by Ariel López, Rhodes College, Memphis (lopeza@rhodes.edu)

The late sixth and early seventh centuries were a momentous time for the history of Christianity in Egypt and the Near East. It was in this period that a separate, non-imperial church emerged that has survived until today. This new church was based in rural monasteries; its bishops were monks; its clientele were above all villagers; its major languages were Syriac and Coptic, rather than Greek. In many ways, this is the end of ancient Christianity and the beginning of a new, medieval world. The book under review (the product of a 2017 dissertation) examines the emergence of this new church in a small region of Egypt, the area between Coptos and Hermonthis in Upper Egypt. Virtually all the evidence used comes from what is known today as Western Thebes. Western Thebes was the spectacular necropolis of New Kingdom Thebes. It contained hundreds of large tombs dug into the stone-cliffs and dozens of massive stone-temples. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, this ancient necropolis became one of the major monastic centers of Egypt. Holy men and monks now lived among the mummies. Christian villagers lived in ancient temples that gained a new life.

No area of Egypt is better documented in this period. Villagers, monks and bishops used writing unsparingly and thousands of their ostraca have survived. Dekker has created several datasets (contained in a CD included with the book) to analyze this massive corpus of evidence. The period that interests her is the late sixth and early seventh centuries. The analysis centers on two bishops of this period, Abraham of Hermonthis and Pesynthius of Coptos. Both bishops—we are told— were non-Chalcedonian monk-bishops who ruled their congregations from a monastery. Letter writing was therefore not a cultural choice for them but a fundamental means to perform their duties. These are the only two late antique Egyptian bishops whose day-to-day activities can be approximately reconstructed. Were they typical? Dekker argues that they performed all the activities expected from bishops in Late Antiquity. Yet could a late antique bishop be a true bishop without having contact with the civic and imperial governments? She also claims—unconvincingly in this reviewer’s opinion —that their authority was not limited to villages in the countryside, but reached into the towns that were nominally their sees. We have to imagine, therefore, that the towns of Egypt had rival church buildings occupied, respectively, by imperial and non-imperial clergy. This is certainly possible, as the example of Ostrogothic Italy shows. Yet, if rival bishops had been competing with each other, would we not have evidence for conflicts in the letters of Abraham and Pesynthius? In fact, where is the evidence for the Chalcedonian, imperially-backed bishops? Is it possible that they have vanished without leaving any trace in the correspondence of their rivals?

In order to analyze her vast corpus of evidence, Dekker uses two methodologies. First, she tries to reconstruct the ancient social networks through “social network analysis”. Second, she adapts Claudia Rapp’s typology of the duties of the late antique bishop and applies it to the documentary and literary sources related to Abraham and Pesynthius. The second approach is useful; the first one is not. Too much of this book is occupied with long, jargon-filled descriptions of network properties and software analysis. In the end, they lead nowhere. So much work with so little payoff. As so often, network analysis ends up becoming an end in itself, a scholarly conceit. It neither raises new, interesting questions nor does it answer old ones. One only needs to look at the graphs at the end of the book to see this. What are they supposed to show? The good news is that in order to create these datasets, Dekker had to conduct detailed investigations into the topography and prosopography of the region of Thebes. These investigations (Chapters 2 and 3) lead to many interesting conclusions, which are summed up on the maps on pages 309-310 and in the chronology on page 335. According to Dekker, the area under analysis contained two government districts (nomes), but four bishoprics: Coptos, Qus (Diocletianopolis), Hermonthis and Ape/Thebes. She sees Ape as the name for the whole Luxor-Karnak settlement (but was this a single settlement?). This was an independent bishopric and not under the control of the bishop of Hermonthis. This settlement contained two churches with baptismal fonts only ca. 100 meters from each other. This indicates, according to the author, the coexistence of imperial and non-imperial churches in this town, side by side. The “silver treasure of Luxor” was found in the older of these two churches. According to the author, it was probably a Chalcedonian church and the treasure has nothing to do with Abraham of Hermonthis (even though a certain Abraham is mentioned in a plate). The second church was then built in the late sixth century when the new non-imperial church was emerging. The author claims that the coexistence of rival churches—as at Luxor—was probably a phenomenon that could be encountered elsewhere. Even in western Thebes itself: the hermit Cyriacus lived surrounded by non-Chalcedonian monks and bishops, yet he is not part of their social networks. Dekker sees in this possible evidence that he was a non-Chalcedonian monk.

Chapters 6 and 8 analyze the nature of both bishops’ authority over their flock using, as mentioned above, a typology developed by Claudia Rapp. The goal is to “nuance Wipszycka’s observation that Abraham [and Pesynthius] did not experience the full weight of his office” in other words, to show that they did what every bishop was expected to do even if they lived far away in a monastery in western Thebes. Abraham and Pesynthius certainly did many things: they appointed clergymen and controlled them with regular inspections, they cared for the poor (but how exactly?), they disciplined their flocks by excluding transgressors (and sometimes entire villages) from communion, they reconciled opponents, solved marital problems, protected raped or abducted women, and much more. One letter, for example, shows us Pesynthius reassuring a baker that baking is useful work! (p. 256) Yet I cannot avoid the impression that these “bishops” were something very different from the traditional bishops of Late Antiquity, who had been quasi-state officials for almost three centuries and were so closely identified with their cities. Note, also, that the author admits (p. 183) that we have no evidence that bishop Abraham administered the sacraments at all (other than ordaining clergy).

This book is aimed at a narrow group of specialists. It will be useful to those interested in the region of Thebes in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, and in the emergence of a separate non-imperial church in Egypt. It should be read together with the works of Wipszycka which it seeks to nuance or correct.

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