BMCR 2008.05.30

Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity

, Christianization and communication in Late Antiquity : John Chrysostom and his congregation in Antioch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi, 198 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521860407. $85.00.

Table of Contents

John Chrysostom was one of the most significant Christian preachers during the period in which Christian orthodoxy was being established in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Despite the name attributed to him (the golden-mouthed), Chrysostom is more readily remembered for the controversies he encountered with the eastern bishops and the empress Eudoxia following his appointment as Bishop of Constantinople in AD 398. This increasingly troubled period for Chrysostom saw his deposition and recall on a number of occasions before his death in lonely exile in AD 407. These events have tended to overshadow Chrysostom’s career as a priest and preacher in Antioch where his considerable reputation as an eloquent preacher was forged.

Maxwell’s book provides a most welcome focus on Chrysostom as preacher in Antioch and makes a valuable contribution to understanding the interaction between the preacher and his diverse audience in the Syrian metropolis in the 380s and 390s. Her aim is to demonstrate from Chrysostom’s sermons how the preacher’s interaction with his audience at Antioch reflects the attitudes and concerns present in the lives of the Christian laity. It is largely through this method that Maxwell examines the process of Christianization in Antioch in the late fourth century AD and she succeeds well in doing so. The book is well organized and clearly written, fitting of the skill Chrysostom himself developed in communicating with a diverse audience.

The introduction establishes why sermons are a potentially important source for the beliefs and practices of the Christian laity as opposed to the more common investigations of sermons in modern scholarship for loftier, doctrinal purposes. It also argues why Chrysostom, his sermons and diverse audience at Antioch are the most appropriate means by which to investigate the interaction of preacher and audience as a means of illuminating the issues confronting lay Christians in Late Antiquity. Maxwell acknowledges the difficulties in undertaking such an investigation, as the audience clearly cannot speak for itself; however, she succeeds in making a case that “there are ways of gleaning useful information on beliefs and behaviours people refused to accept, condemned traditions which many people still observed and elements of orthodox Christian piety that people clung to” (p.5). For Maxwell, Chrysostom’s audience is not only diverse but lively, inquiring and, contrary to the assumptions in much patristic scholarship, capable of understanding and applying complex theological issues.

Chapter 1, “Philosophical Preaching in the Roman World”, provides a useful background analysis of developments in philosophical preaching during the first to fourth centuries AD, commonly referred to as the second sophistic. The focus in this chapter is on how developments in preaching in the second sophistic provided the milieu in which Christian preaching emerged in the fourth century AD. During the second sophistic, philosophers became increasingly concerned with active engagement in public life and their speeches were an important means by which they came to do this. Maxwell emphasizes the importance of the second century philosopher, Maximus of Tyre, in this development, and points out that the traditional withdrawal of philosophers from society to focus on philosophical contemplation came under increasing criticism. Speeches of philosophers became more popular to audiences as they paid increasing attention to “rhetorical adornment” as a way of making philosophy more palatable. Maxwell illustrates this development by using the example of Themistius, whose persuasiveness as a philosophical preacher in the fourth century AD was considerable. The chapter then investigates the impact that these developments had on the emergence of Christian preaching. The importance of a shared education experienced by both pagan rhetoricians and Christian preachers is clear here, as is the point that some Christian preachers in the fourth century went further in claiming that almost everyone, even fishermen, could be turned into philosophers. Significantly, leading Christian figures and preachers such as Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, and Augustine emphasized a plain style in Christian preaching as a way of communicating more effectively with diverse Christian congregations.

Chapter 2, “Rhetoric and Society: Contexts of Public Speaking in Late Antique Antioch”, focuses on the situation in Antioch itself in the fourth century AD. The vibrancy of Antioch is portrayed strongly and rhetoric is clearly demonstrated as permeating the culture of the city. The figure of Libanius looms large in this milieu and Maxwell points to the diversity of the population to which Libanius attempted to make his speeches relevant, bakers and peasants included. In this chapter, various levels of literacy in Antioch are investigated in an attempt to demonstrate that public speaking was aimed at a broad range of the population from the highly literate to the illiterate. This demonstrates that Christians in the city were exposed to a considerable amount of public speaking outside the churches. An important part of Maxwell’s portrayal of the significance and popularity of public speaking and rhetoric at Antioch is an investigation of the various contexts in which public speaking took place in the city. The importance of rhetoric and public speaking in the courts, theatres and festivals is investigated as part of portraying a society in which public speaking was pervasive and popular. Christian preachers are shown to have had much in common with public speakers generally in Antioch, and all public speakers in the city, Christian or Pagan, had a shared educational heritage. Libanius was a figure who exemplified this, counting both Christians and pagans among students with whom he retained ongoing connections. Maxwell is careful to note that while Christian preaching was influenced by, and was itself an important part of, the rhetorical landscape at Antioch, Christian preachers expressed concern about the attendance of members of their congregations at public speeches, particularly in the theatre. Maxwell’s point that Gregory Nazianzenus was concerned that Christians might be persuaded by orators instead of priests demonstrates another of the concerns Christian preachers had. In all, this chapter demonstrates well the broad interest that almost all levels of Antiochene society had in public speaking, and shows that this is one important account of the audience to whom Chrysostom pitched his sermons.

Chapter 3, “John Chrysostom’s Congregation in Antioch”, brings into sharper focus the interaction of Chrysostom with his congregation primarily by examining its composition. Maxwell points to the growing scholarly opinion that Christian congregations in the fourth and fifth centuries were broad socially and that Chrysostom’s sermons demonstrate this at Antioch late in the fourth century AD. Scholarship has been more focused on the rich or the very poor but the so-called “middling classes”, according to Maxwell, have been neglected. By analyzing Chrysostom’s sermons in detail, Maxwell discusses the various individual groups identifiable in the preacher’s congregation to show that many of them were not from the elite. Artisans and workers, slaves, women, children, catechumens, wealthy men, and the occasional Syriac-speaking farmer all appear to have been present as well as while crowds of beggars could be found at the front door of the church. While Chrysostom’s sermons demonstrate that these groups were present, Maxwell argues that he consistently encouraged his congregation not to let these distinctions stand in the way of the fact that they were all religious equals.

Chapter 4, “Teaching to the Converted: John Chrysostom’s Pedagogy”, portrays Chrysostom as an instructor using the skills he acquired as a student of Libanius to preach to a congregation which largely did not come from his own educational tradition. Maxwell rightly emphasizes that sermons have been neglected as sources for the study of education in antiquity and the value of Chrysostom’s Antioch sermons is that they indicate varying levels of education among his congregation. Chrysostom is shown to have had high expectations of ordinary Christians which is indicative of his hope for a Christianized society. Maxwell consistently emphasizes how careful Chrysostom was to make his sermons accessible to his congregation but that he expected his congregation to actively apply his teaching. In this chapter we also see examples of ongoing practices that members of Chrysostom’s congregation were involved in that he saw as harmful. The pervasive practice of swearing oaths is the most prominent example. This chapter also considers some of the techniques employed by Chrysostom to communicate with his congregation considering the various levels of literacy that its members possessed. There were those who were illiterate, those whose knowledge was advanced and those somewhere in between. Chrysostom’s use of memory and imagination as an important means of communication is covered well. This chapter provides a strong indication of the difficult balancing act faced by Chrysostom in communicating with his congregation.

Chapter 5, “Practical Knowledge and Religious Life”, addresses the key issue of a developing Christian orthodoxy late in the fourth century AD and how concerned Chrysostom was with the “reorienting of his followers’ practices and beliefs to align better with his own conception of orthodoxy”. Essentially, for Chrysostom, belief was not enough in itself and needed to be accompanied by knowledge, particularly with regard to heresy. This chapter is concerned, therefore, with belief and practice and how this was “contested in the interaction between preacher and laity”. Maxwell discusses a variety of sins and virtues which Chrysostom was concerned to deal with in his sermons. These included prayer, almsgiving and chastity. She observes again that Chrysostom was very much aware of the varying levels of knowledge and literacy in his congregation and that he identified this in his sermons as a way of exhorting the learned and encouraging those with less opportunity to acquire knowledge. This is reflected in Chrysostom’s claim that priest and monks would be judged more harshly because they had greater knowledge. There appears to have been some resentment of the monks among the laity as the latter did not have the luxury of seclusion, contemplation and learning that the former enjoyed. This observation is a good example of how Maxwell achieves the important task of illuminating the diversity of the audience Chrysostom addressed.

Chapter 6, “Habits and the Christianization of Daily Life”, fittingly addresses the most practical issues dealt with by Chrysostom in his sermons. This chapter demonstrates that Chrysostom was very much concerned with how the members of his congregation led lives as Christians in an acceptable manner in a day-to-day urban environment. Of particular concern to Chrysostom was the problem of ongoing bad habits which the members of his congregation practiced. These included swearing oaths, putting marks on their foreheads to ward off evil spirits and naming their children after the pagan gods. In contrast to this, Chrysostom sought to encourage good habits and good habits should extend to every aspect of daily life and in more less common events such as the celebration of weddings, funerals and the New Year. In short, it is at these most practical levels that the Christianization of late antique society began to take form and shape.

This book contributes admirably to providing an alternative and practical portrait of Christian life in the late fourth century, particularly when it is compared with traditional theological approaches to analyzing Chrysostom’s sermons. One of the book’s strengths is its consideration of Chrysostom’s sermons and his congregation without allowing the tumultuous period of his bishopric in Constantinople to dominate. The regular use of the term “masses” to describe the “ordinary” person in antiquity requires some reconsideration given the obvious modern connotations of that term and more on how Chrysostom’s sermons might (or might not) indicate attempts to encourage the daily practice of his parishioners’ application of the increasingly uncompromising imperial line on heresy would be welcome. Some will question the ability of modern scholarship to successfully interpret the eloquent sermons of one of Late Antiquity’s greatest and most learned preachers in terms of the laity and its daily concerns. However, Maxwell presents a strong case for the capacity to do so.