BMCR 1996.01.07

1996.1.7, Kelly, Golden Mouth

, Golden mouth : the story of John Chrysostom--ascetic, preacher, bishop. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. x, 310 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801431890. $47.50.

One of the towering Christian figures of late antiquity, John Chrysostom (ca. 349-407) has commonly received his due through being studied piece-meal: as an ascetic wedded to his vocation, as an advocate of virginity, as a populist preacher, as an vocal opponent of “judaizers,” as a Christian counterpart and rival to his teacher Libanius of Antioch, the famous rhetor, and as a player in the dangerous and turbulent game of high ecclesiastical and imperial politics. This new biography of the rich and multi-layered man promises to fill a long-standing need for an up-to-date comprehensive treatment in English, if only to replace the old stand-by, the two-volume work of Chrysostomus Baur: John Chrysostomus and His Time (translated from the German original published in 1929-30).

Kelly’s treatment follows the contours of a traditional historical biography, taking the reader, as the sub-title suggests, on a journey from the world of Chrysostom’s childhood in Antioch, through his early ascetic training in the Syrian desert, his role as a preacher and author back in his native city, and finally to his years as the bishop of Constantinople.

The book is a rewarding, maybe sometimes deceptively straightforward, read as well as a rich mine of historical information. Kelly does not aim to create an overarching framework of unity beyond that which Chrysostom’s own life imposes, nor does he seek to use his subject’s experiences to speak to larger issues in the culture and society of the late Roman east. When faced with the question of why Chrysostom chose to retire to a cave and pursue a solitary life, for example, Kelly dismisses as “fanciful” scholarly theories that locate the context for Chrysostom’s action in an enthusiastic local community’s attempt to ordain a “reluctant” man of god to priestly or episcopal office, a well-known and much-studied late antique phenomenon, opting instead to fall back on a more “obvious” reason: “his yearning for a less distracted, richer, ever more continuous converse with God.” (p. 32) A preference for such a direct, “no-frills” approach characterizes the tone of the work throughout.

Even so, Golden Mouth is not just a smooth, linear narrative that spins a good yarn. While it may be open to the charge of positivism for its unquestioned faith in factual narrative and disregard of interpretive theories, Kelly’s book is far from being a synthetic work that presents no controversy or fresh interpretations. Instead, it is peppered with new, revisionist insights about the facts of Chrysostom’s life: these are usually offered with a sure economy of argument so that the narratival train is never derailed. An undesirable side-effect of this, however, is that fairly important points, such as the re-dating of Ep. 4 to Olympias to early 407 (p. 282), receive only one or two casual sentences in the text and a footnote, and are therefore far too easy to miss.

No life can be completely self-referential, let alone that of a public man who grappled with numerous current issues in important cities such as Antioch and Constantinople. What we find in the twenty chapters (counting the “Epilogue”) is a programmatic description of Chrysostom’s life and works into which learned information about changes in the political landscape, and late antique cultural, administrative and religious practices are introduced at appropriate moments in an unassuming and unobtrusive manner. There are no lengthy digressions, only concise, sensible paragraphs giving the reader what he or she needs to know about the late antique world to understand a particular episode in Chrysostom’s life. The author never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a biography.

More than half the book is devoted to the period after John Chrysostom had been consecrated bishop of Constantinople (398). His political activities in the capital, particularly his (often difficult) dealings with the empress Eudoxia, received and repaid Kelly’s careful scrutiny. The author untangles in a masterly and convincing way the complex manoeuvres surrounding the affair of the Long Brothers and the Synod of the Oak in 403.

The most enlightening and sympathetic chapters I find to be those which depict the priest or bishop at work (esp. Chs. 5, 10). John Chrysostom was the foremost late antique preacher, and it is only through understanding the context and concerns of his sermons that we can begin to appreciate his historical significance. Through close readings of particular sets of sermons, Kelly offers complex descriptions of the wide range of activities and contexts with which Chrysostom was associated. Here, the author depends in the main for the order in this narrative on the chronology of the sermons established by M. von Bonsdorf, Zur Predigtätigkeit des J. Chrysostomus (Heilsingsfors 1922), while remaining perfectly willing to depart from it as needed (see e.g., p. 166); it would be interesting to see whether the ongoing project by Pauline Allen and others in Australia to re-date Chrysostom’s (esp. his exegetical) sermons would eventually produce results that could materially affect Kelly’s arguments.

For many well-known public figures, their earlier, more obscure history often presents would-be biographers with thorny problems in that it can only be known through much later works composed with pronounced apologetic, polemical or hagiographic intent. John Chrysostom’s life offers no exceptions in this regard. Two main sources, Chrysostom’s own Dialogus de sacerdotio and Palladius of Helenopolis’Dialogus de vita S. Joannis Chrysostomi, offer ponderous hermeneutical obstacles to any who would mine them as sources for historical biography: the first cannot be securely dated before 392 when Jerome read it ( De viris inlustribus 129); the later was composed ca. 408 as a posthumous defense of Chrysostom’s reputation against the charges advanced by his enemy Theophilus of Alexandria.

While the occasional discussion of source problems in Kelly’s running text is neither too long nor too involved to distract a reader who has been given to expect narrative, such material may be relegated to an appendix, or better yet, to an introductory chapter that is devoted to the methodology and problems surrounding the use of such sources. Instead, Kelly sometimes places comments and arguments about the reliability and limits of particular documents in the text and at other times in an appendix (A: “Some Ancient Sources”). This creates in the reader a certain amount of completely avoidable confusion.

At one point Kelly brushes aside the prevailing skepticism regarding the usefulness of the De sacerdotio as a historical document of Chrysostom’s life: “It is difficult to believe that he could have written anything but the truth about himself in a work designed to be read by, and to convince, people among whom he had lived, and many of whom had known him personally, most of his life.” (p. 14) But it is only in the next chapter (III.2) that Kelly presents the necessary arguments against those—a majority it should be said—who would view the “autobiographical” segments of the work as not much more than “literary fiction.” (pp. 25-28). This reviewer is persuaded by the arguments which, Kelly maintains, show that these sections were unlikely to have been totally fabricated but would still like to see a more comprehensive and fundamental consideration of the work’s trustworthiness as a historical source, esp. when used to plug “gaps” in our knowledge. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, read also by contemporaries, might not be purely a work of “literary fiction” either, but scholars have wisely avoided taking its retrospective narratives of youth and adolescence as unproblematic descriptions. But such problems are too well-understood as a problem to require much treatment here.

Regarding Palladius’vita, Kelly pronounces it to be “generally … a trustworthy source.” (p. 292) While the author does enumerate areas where this account is likely to be biased or deficient, his basic tendency is to accept the authenticity of accounts that provide biographical knowledge about Chrysostom. This generally optimistic appraisal has something to do with the author’s desire to create, as much as possible, a complete portrait of his subject. Since a linear narrative abhors vacuums, it compensates by resorting to every possible means of offering information about each significant phase of Chrysostom’s life. The strain this tall order unfortunately but inevitably produces is evident in some of the prefatory remarks that precede Kelly’s attempts at “filling in the blanks.” For instance: “As a boy and teenager, John’s figure remains largely in the shadows, and we catch few if any reliable glimpses of his personality or activities. The picture changes strikingly when he reaches the end of his school days, and from this date we can follow his development in at any rate broad outline” (p. 14); or “So far as particular events or experiences are concerned, John’s life during these four critical years [372-6] remains a complete blank to us, but we can form a fairly clear, if general, picture of its patterns” (p. 30); and “It is … disappointing that, with one or two significant exceptions, we are completely in the dark about his personal life during the decade, and also about the major events in which he must have been involved from time to time. Fortunately, substantial portions of his work as an author and preacher have been preserved, and these enable us to form some idea of the issues which chiefly interested him as a pastor and, in much more shadowy outline, of his steadily growing stature in the community.” (p. 83)

Kelly finds human contradictions less worrisome than silences and does not try to present a “homogenized” Chrysostom. In this work, we encounter a complex character who might be capable at times of unbending heroism and yet remained able, “when the occasion seemed appropriate, to address the emperor and empress with fulsome flattery.” (p. 115) Though this may be by design, no clear, coherent portrait of Chrysostom the man, even as the author adopts the genre of narrative biography, emerges ultimately from these pages. The “ascetic, preacher, bishop” appears as an engaged actor, deeply involved with his world, but as an “individual” person, the “Golden-mouthed” remains opaque and elusive. A book that is built around the external circumstances of Chrysostom’s life is understandably ill-suited for a sensitive discovery of the latter. I find this unfortunate because, while we are continually challenged by this work in our understanding of specific details about Chrysostom’s life and thought, it leaves left fundamentally unchanged the prevailing assessment of the man as a stern, devoted and somewhat impractical moral crusader. To what extent this is the predictable result of trying to know someone mainly through his sermons and moralizing tracts is an inviting question that is regrettably left unexplored here. Yet even Kelly’s consideration of Chrysostom’s correspondence with Olympias and others during the final years of his life fails to break the mold.

In terms of apparatus, the book provides two useful maps of Antioch and Constantinople that can help the reader negotiate in topographical terms Chrysostom’s everyday world. The index is helpful but not as full in subject-headings and sub-headings as it can be given the fact that the table of contents is of little or no help to a reader who wishes to look something up in a hurry. What would have been most useful is a chronological synopsis of Chrysostom’s career that is correlated with his datable works; either presented as an appendix or a table, it would have served beautifully as a guide to the perplexed. All told, this is a book written for those who will sit down and read it through; it is much more difficult to use as a reference work, especially given the absence of a bibliography in the back. Those who take the time to do the former, however, will find between the covers a rich and compelling story.