BMCR 2005.04.48

Erotapokriseis: Early Christian Question-and-Answer Literature in Context. Proceedings of the Utrecht Colloquium, 13-14 October 2003

, , Erotapokriseis : early Christian question-and-answer literature in context. Contributions to biblical exegesis & theology ; 37. Leuven: Peeters, 2004. 197 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9042914807 €30.00.

This volume is the result of a conference held in Utrecht with the aim of investigating early Christian (understood as 4th- and 5th-century) texts pertaining to the genre of erotapokriseis, or quaestiones literature. On the whole, it is a rather heterogeneous collection, which may seem strange given the narrow focus of the subject. It is, however, based on interests and points of view that differ so much that one wonders whether they really belong in the same volume. The variety of approaches (erudite, theological, theoretical etc) would certainly have brought interesting results had it been applied to the same corpus; but if different approaches are used for extremely different types of texts, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to draw any significant conclusions, and this is perhaps the greatest weakness of this volume.

The concluding remarks by Marie-Pierre Bussières (181-189) bring out the variety of forms, origins and aims of the literature studied. What one misses, both here and in the volume as a whole, is something on what — other than their use of questions and answers — brings all these texts together. Most contributions insist heavily on questions of form, especially the literary and contextual origins of what is only reluctantly seen as a genre, and on the ways of defining that genre. These are notoriously issues without real solutions; much circular reasoning could have been avoided by choosing a different vantage point from which to consider such texts.

The one essay that stands out is Christian Jacob’s brilliant piece titled “Questions sur les questions: archéologie d’une pratique intellectuelle et d’une forme discursive” (25-54). Jacob goes beyond the worn-out discussion concerning the definition and origin of the genre to analyse the discursive implications of the question-and-answer format, its relation to orality, and the ways in which a given body of knowledge was affected when presented in that way. Although questions and answers are a literary device meant to make a text look more informal, Jacob insists on the ritualised and formal contexts in which such exchanges would normally take place: oracles, schools, even symposia, where intellectual games such as griphoi were common. How an author would build up and express a body of knowledge in the form of questions and answers is a problem that has rarely been addressed, and Jacob here opens the way to such exploration. Breaking down a topic or body of knowledge into segments that can be introduced by questions has many implications for the content of a text as well as for its form. Compare, for example, a leaflet of instructions on how to work a new laptop with the set of FAQs one will find on the company’s website.

This is precisely the kind of questioning that the erotapokriseis should be subjected to if one wants to get any further in their understanding. The simplicity and apparent openness of the form was without doubt an effective means of persuasion in the hands of ancient authors, who were ultimately trying to convince their readers. The author’s selection of one answer among several possibilities, as well as the question itself, is perhaps the surest way to guide a reader towards an intended direction in a seemingly natural and effortless manner.

In “Ambrosiaster: Persuasive Powers in Progress” (99-125), Annelie Volgers presents a clear and thorough analysis of Ambrosiaster’s style, especially his use of conjunctions and strong adjectives, compared to that of his more famous near-contemporaries Jerome, Augustine and Eucherius. His more emphatic style, combined with a tendency, not present in the other three authors, to give the “one and only” solution to each question, gives a very personal flavour to his text and probably reveals a different — perhaps less confident — attitude towards Scripture. Two appendices with the passages referred to allow the reader to follow the argument with ease. Volgers also raises the question of Ambrosiaster’s audience, for she feels that much of the emphasis could be explained by the fact that his work was aimed at his own community rather than the community of learned Christian writers in general. It thus had the impetus of a pastoral text and, well beyond its exegetical aims, also worked to define communal identity.

Also useful are the last two articles, two surveys of the erotapokriseis genre in the Syriac and in the Byzantine domains. Bas ter Haar Romeny’s “Question-and-Answer Collections in Syriac Literature” (145-163) is a much needed overview of Syriac literature. The genre flourished especially among the East Syrians. The author analyses the different attitudes adopted towards erotapokriseis by the East and the West Syrians, and concludes that the former followed a clear and classical model of mainly textual questions on Scripture inspired by the exegetical school of Nisibis and promoted by the Antiochene school, while the latter preferred different forms of scriptural commentary, more in line with the Cappadocian Fathers and the Alexandrian tradition.

André-Louis Rey’s “Les Erotapokriseis dans le monde byzantin: tradition manuscrite des textes anciens et production de nouveaux textes” (165-180) is a survey of this type of literature in the Byzantine world, with some reflections on its transmission. Very usefully, he includes works written after Photius, who is chronologically the last author mentioned in the classic account of the genre found in the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum (s.v. Erotapokriseis, by Heinrich Dörrie and Hermann Dörries). Several of these neglected later works are by quite important authors, and some remain unedited to this day, a fact which reflects the stress that has been laid by scholars on the erotapokriseis of the seventh and eighth centuries, considered as the models for all subsequent production. However, a quick survey of the manuscripts in which such collections are found shows that the situation was much more complex. Earlier and later works could be present in the same volume, with the sequence of the questions rearranged or their number cut to adjust to available space to the point that there is sometimes only one erotapokrisis in a given manuscript. This is an article that opens up several possibilities for future research, and as such it is most welcome.

The rest of the papers are of less general interest, whatever their qualities in their individual specialised fields. The essay on “Philo and the Rabbis on Genesis: Similar Questions, Different Answers” by Pieter van der Horst (55-70), for instance, does not really focus on the nature of the texts, but rather on their contents, and thus has implications that are theological and philosophical rather than genre-related. His conclusion that, although Philo does cover much common ground with the Rabbis, he also introduces a number of Greek notions that were absent in Jewish exegesis before him is, despite its interest, hardly surprising, and does not say much about the erotapokriseis as literature. The same can be said of Camillo Neri’s essay “Le dialogue entre les Athéniens et les Méliens chez Thucydide: une Ur-Form du genre des questions et réponses?” (71-79). The author answers his own question in the negative, after having played at breaking down the whole dialogue into questions and answers. What this rhetorical game demonstrates is the convertibility of almost any body of knowledge, whatever the form in which it was initially put down, into a set of questions and answers.

Claudio Zamagni wrote two of the nine articles in the collection. The first, “Une introduction méthodologique à la littérature patristique des questions et réponses: le cas d’Eusèbe de Césarée” (1-24) is a rather unsatisfactory essay, with a line of argument that remains unclear in part because it is drowned in what often seem to be parallel discussions. He makes the interesting suggestion that one should distinguish between quaestiones as a genre and questions and answers as a literary technique, but does not develop it. His second paper, “Existe-t-il une terminologie technique dans les Questions d’Eusèbe de Césarée?” (81-98), is a detailed analysis of Eusebius’s vocabulary in the two-part Quaestiones evangelicae, which allows him to conclude that the first part was written much earlier than the second since it shows a tendency to use certain terms in an increasingly technical way.

Roland Teske, in a paper entitled “Augustine of Hippo and the Quaestiones et Responsiones Literature” (127-144), counts “ten or eleven works that clearly or arguably belong to the quaestiones genre,” among which he lists epistles 135, 136 and 137. These are two letters with questions by correspondents of Augustine, and one with the bishop’s answers. Teske feels that these are not “individual letters,” but form a work belonging to the quaestiones genre, although he hardly tries to justify this hypothesis. The same is true of the pair of epistles 198-199 which contain questions from Hesychius and Augustine’s answers respectively. Teske’s interpretation of these texts poses a real question both regarding the nature of Augustine’s correspondence and the limits of what one may call a “genre.” Can any set of questions and answers, even those that authentically stem from two different individuals, be called erotapokriseis ? Should one not reserve the term for made-up, single-author works? Or does Teske imply that the questions in the letters addressed to Augustine were somehow prompted by him? The author then considers three works which have been traditionally accepted as belonging to the quaestiones genre: the Ad Simplicianum, the De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus and the Quaestiones in Heptateuchum. His remarks remain descriptive, and in the conclusion, he comes back to the list of works he considers as erotapokriseis, so that one does not really know what to make of the analysis of the three works above.

If anything, this book demonstrates that there is much potential — and much material — still in the study of erotapokriseis, and some of its essays open up new ways of tackling the subject. It is a pity that others remain so traditional in their approach and often lack references to social, historical or cultural context.