BMCR 2005.08.09

Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East

, Writing and holiness : the practice of authorship in the early Christian East. Divinations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 298 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780812221473 $59.95.

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In Writing and Holiness, Derek Krueger explores the complex representations of Christian authorship in hagiographical works written between the fourth and seventh centuries, primarily in Greek. Authorship, Krueger notes, is a performative act that depends upon implicit and explicit assumptions regarding the meaning and significance of writing, reading, and narration. Moreover, the development of a genre and accompanying rules of composition appropriate to that genre involves the formation of an identity that reaches beyond the text. Indeed, genre, which, after all, endeavors to make writings “generic,” defines the possibilities — and limitations — of written words while simultaneously producing and defending the authority of the author who composes the work. With this in mind, Krueger traces the development of theories of Christian authorship as put forward, explicitly and implicitly, in works now identified with hagiography. For Christians, Krueger observes, writing was a theological and ritual enterprise: the copying of books was envisioned as an act of piety, narration of the lives of the ascetic saints was itself viewed as ascetic practice, and the inscription of words onto the flesh of text was interpreted as an imitation of the Logos-made-flesh. Thus, applying their particular religious and theological perspectives to the act of writing, Christians articulated “new styles of authorial self presentation” that brought “acts of writing into conformity with Christian patterns of virtue and devotion” (3).

Krueger begins his study with an introductory discussion of theories of authorship. The spread of Christianity among the upper classes and the concomitant emergence of highly literate Christian orators and bishops led to new ideas about authorship and how it should be performed. Adapting Platonic conceptions regarding the relationship between the sign and the essence, Greek theologians argued that narrating the lives of the saints rendered saints present such that they “functioned analogously to visual images or icons, containing the real presence of their subject” and inspired hearers to produce further images of holiness in themselves (6-7). Warrant for this view of authorship and texts was found in the Gospels, where the history of salvation was figured as a series of scribal acts: God “writes” salvation by becoming the Logos incarnate (John) and God blots out “the handwritten decree against us” by dying on the cross (Colossians 2:14). From the fourth to the seventh centuries, Christian authors turned to these and other biblical themes as they developed their theories of properly Christian representation.

Christians, Krueger observes, marked their writings as distinct from other literatures, in part, by repeatedly describing their subjects in terms of biblical types. Theodoret of Cyrrus, the subject of Chapter Two, was especially remarkable in this regard. Whereas earlier authors often linked the saints with biblical models only implicitly, Theodoret was explicit. His description of Symeon the Stylite offers a striking example: Symeon began his life as a shepherd, as did Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Micah. Symeon stood on a pillar — strange behavior, to be sure, but no more striking than Isaiah walking naked or Jeremiah wearing a loin cloth or Ezekiel lying on his right side for 40 days and his left for 150. Symeon cured a paralytic, a lame man, and a blind man, and he also expelled demons, all activities engaged in by Jesus as well. Theodoret’s typology linked the Old Testament with the New — both were mined for examples to be imitated by present-day saints. In the process, he fashioned one long salvation history where, as Krueger puts it, “the biblical age became at once past, present, and timeless” (27). Theodoret then placed himself within this scheme: He writes “profitable narratives” that retell the stories of virtuous men, like Moses and the evangelists before him. In this way, Theodoret produced a world in which text and author were identified with the texts and authors of the biblical books in a seemingly endless cycle of repetition and replication, an issue explored in greater depth in Chapter Three.

In Byzantine hagiography, the holy author was envisioned as a particular type of holy man, with the evangelists serving as the model for the idealized Christian author. Though the Gospels were composed anonymously, by the fourth and fifth centuries the Gospel authors had gained not only an identity but also elaborate legends describing their activities as authors and saints. Krueger selects the Acts of John by Prochoros and the cult of Saint John at Ephesus as particularly compelling examples of this phenomenon. These Acts of John — distinct from the earlier “heretical” Acts of John — portrayed the inspired evangelist dictating his Gospel to an amanuensis following a period of fasting and prayer. John’s inspired authorship had already been established in cult and ritual. From the late fourth century onward, pilgrims visiting Ephesus venerated the evangelist at an oratory identified as the location where the Gospel had been written. In art and in literary works, the evangelists were represented as unlettered and unskilled, yet inspired; they were reluctant writers who spoke with divine power rather than elegant words. With the interesting exception of the Acts of John by Prochoros, evangelists were also commonly depicted as writing with their own hands, an act that was interpreted as a proof of their humility. Having developed this model of a humble, obedient, and simple author, hagiographers could then invoke that ideal to describe their own authorial activity. They, too, sought inspiration from the Holy Spirit; they, too, adopted ascetic practices, including the practice of writing; they, too, performed their humility by writing and copying holy books.

In Chapter Four, Krueger describes self-conscious attempts to integrate text and cult. Beginning with the example of Stephen, a deacon of the church of Hagia Sophia whose miraculous cure was described in the Miracles of Artemios, Krueger notes that narration was integral to the ritual of receiving healing. Stephen’s diseased testicles were miraculously healed, but the healing was not complete without the telling. A call to “glorify” the saint and God was a call to narrate the miracle, a call that “both encodes and deploys a theology of narration” (70). Similar ideas are put forward in the Religious History of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, the writings of Cyril of Scythopolis and the fifth-century Life and Miracles of Thecla. Narration, and, by extension, writing, was understood as a form of devotion that could confer blessing upon author and audience alike.

For many authors, hagiography was interpreted as a form of self-imposed humility. Chapter Five notes the importance of humility to the celebration of ascetic saints, a form of hagiography that emerged simultaneously with the development of ascetic practice in the Christian east. As Krueger shows, narratives of the lives of the saints promulgated ascetic beliefs and practices; reading and copying were portrayed as central to the monastic life, and the production of hagiography was described as itself an ascetic practice. By relating their inadequacies as narrators, refusing to reveal or extol their own contribution to the narration, and, in some cases, denigrating their own rhetorical style, these authors, like the ascetic saints they described, engaged in self-conscious exercises of disciplined humility. As Athanasius put it, saints do their work in secret (they are too humble to glorify themselves) but “the Lord shows them forth as lamps,” in part by inspiring an author to narrate their saintliness (103). Authors then follow their example by debasing and effacing themselves in their acts of narration. Still, God brings the virtue of the saint and — by extension, of the hagiographer — to light.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina, the subject of Chapter Six, offers a further example of the Christian emphasis on the humility of saint and author. In this case, Krueger focuses on the liturgical aspects of Gregory’s Life, exploring the intersection of hagiography and ritual practice. Gregory recounts the daily recitation of prayers, participation in the eucharist, and the singing of psalms at his sister’s house/convent; he also describes her own life as a prayer, sacrifice, and song. Inserting himself as a character in the life he narrates, he reports that he was shamed by his sister’s superior example into recounting her biography with thanksgiving rather than mourning his loss. He encourages his audience to imitate him as he, in turn, seeks to imitate Macrina who, in her suffering, humility, and joy, imitated Christ.

Chapter Seven takes a different tack, offering a pagan example, Porphyry’s On the Life of Plotinus, as a contrast to two Christian works, the Life of Syncletica and the Teaching of Addai. Here we see the full impact of the doctrine of the incarnation on theories of authorship. Whereas the Neo-Platonist Porphyry self-consciously recorded his anxiety at the taint of representation — his hero Plotinus “resisted being represented on the grounds that it would produce ‘a longer-lasting-image of the image, as if it was something genuinely worth looking at'” (139) — the authors of the Life of Syncletica and the Teaching of Addai registered no shame at embodying their subjects in a text. Indeed, Syncletica describes the putrefaction of its heroine’s body in vivid terms even as it elevates her example for all to see; Addai imagines resurrected bodies at the end of time rising with their flesh covered in script. God writes in flesh by becoming incarnate; Christian authors write on flesh — their own and the flesh of books — by the deeds they perform and the words they narrate.

The Hymns of Romanos the Melodist, the subject of Chapter Eight, are offered as a final example of developing ideas about Christian authorship, and, once again, the theme of humility predominates. Writing in the sixth century during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, Romanos composed dramatic verse homilies keyed to events in the liturgical calendar. By means of creative exegesis and expansion, he re-imagined redemption as an act of inscription, inserting acts of writing, authorship and composition where before there were none. Thus, Jesus writes a pardon for humanity, using his flesh as parchment and his blood as ink; seeking forgiveness and healing, a leper presents a petition written on his soul to Jesus; and Thomas’ hand, touching the resurrected Christ, becomes a pen “writing for believers the place from where faith springs up” (197). Romanos’s poetic and rhetorical achievement is obvious, yet even he continues to display humility and authorial effacement, this time by recording his identity in acrostics provided by the first letters of each line of the hymn. BY THE HUMBLE ROMANOS was the usual form, though other acrostics were also employed.

The final chapter of Writing and Holiness reviews the multiple ways that Christian authors theorized their activity as authors, exploring the implications of this investigation for our understanding of the formation of Christian identity. Krueger observes that authorship always involves power. Producing and constraining categories of authorial subjectivity, constructing models for emulation, and developing rules of representation, hagiography set boundaries, established patterns, and shaped the contours of both authorship and text. As such, hagiographers both described and prescribed the patterns of monastic life, gendered authorship as a male activity, and fashioned a Christian literary identity that reshaped earlier habits of literary composition. Christian literary practice and Christian identity formation, Krueger shows, always went hand in hand.

Writing and Holiness succeeds in offering a complex, subtle treatment of a host of early Christian texts, some well known, many less so, demonstrating the manifold ways that Christian theology and practice interacted with literary production. My only complaint is that these theories of authorship were only rarely placed within detailed historical-political contexts, leaving the effect of authorial circumstance largely unexplored. As was clear from the discussions of Romanos the Melodist and the Life and Miracles of Thecla, two instances in which historical-political context was considered at some length, performances of authorship were shaped by practical as well as theological and religious concerns. Still, Krueger announced at the outset that his project would be literary. The fact that this reader was left wanting more — more examples of the interaction of authorship, authority, and power, further discussion of the gendering of hagiographer and hagiography, and additional consideration of the impact of incarnational theology on early Christians practice — attests to the success rather than to the shortcomings of this ambitious book. Writing and Holiness is not intended for a beginning student of early Christian history or literary theory. Nevertheless, the book would be a welcome addition to any graduate seminar addressing questions of authorship, identity, and the development of Byzantine Christianity.

[[For a response to this review by A. Alcock, please see BMCR 2005.08.28.]]