BMCR 2009.05.17

Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne, 1. Introduction. Initiations aux Pères de l’Église

, , Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne, 1. Introduction. Initiations aux Pères de l'Église. Paris: Cerf, 2008. 333. ISBN 9782204082280. €32.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review is the first of a planned six-volume series that will cover Greek Christian literature from the writings of Paul to the council of Chalcedon (451 CE). This first volume is, in the words of the editors (8), a methodological introduction to the series. The following volumes are planned to be divided chronologically (2: Paul to Irenaeus; 3: Clement of Alexandria to Eusebius of Caesarea), and further divided geographically for what the editors consider the “golden age” of the patristic period (4: Alexandria-Egypt; 5: Asia Minor-Constantinople; 6: Syria-Antioch). The explicit purpose of the collection is to replace Quaesten’s Patrology 1 for a French-speaking audience, described as “aussi large que possible” (8). This introductory volume presents seven narrative contributions from different scholars of an international team, in addition to a very brief preface (7-9), and a bibliographical section on research tools relevant to the topic at hands. In what follows, I will describe each chapter as briefly as possible, before making general comments about the book as a whole, including specific examples from different chapters.

Norelli’s contribution (“Histoire de la littérature et histoire des institutions chrétiennes. Quelques considérations de méthode au seuil d’une histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne ancienne”) is a solid methodological introduction to the overall topic covered in this work. As co-editor of the similar Storia della letteratura cristiana antica,2 Norelli is on familiar ground. Starting from the observation that there is no unified concept of “ancient Christian literature” (9), the author discusses what each central concept of the topic at hand implies, starting with the absence of a distinction between written and oral forms of communication (11-18). Examination of the notion of “literature” itself leads to a historiographical review of past approaches, notably the tendency of older German scholarship to start the study of Christian literature with the apologetic movement of the second century because its authors adopted an acknowledged genre (23). By contrast, Norelli wants to be open to a wider array of written forms (25), not limited to “high” literature (27). The author then reviews the debate on whether or not a history of Christian literature should include heretics, a question that clearly indicates that this work is written from the point of view of orthodox (i.e. Nicene) Christianity (32-34). For Norelli, the criteria for inclusion ought to be self-ascription, and reference to Jesus and his teachings (35). In regard to genres and forms of writing, he insists that the synthesis of existing forms into original works is most important. This leads to a discussion of the evolution of literary genres which, Norelli argues, paralleled the development of institutions and power relations (47). This is by far the most interesting and thought-provoking section of the chapter. Norelli asserts the normative function of early Christian literature, against which later writings presented themselves as explanations, commentaries, and actualization. As this canon established itself, so did the institutions c. 200-350, and both processes were linked in the formation of Christian “orthodoxy” (50). The remaining part of the chapter presents an apology for the writing of a specifically Greek Christian literary history, which seems unnecessary (51-54), and brief comments about the self-referential nature of Christian writings (55-59), the notion of authorship (59-64), and the chronological limits of the period (64-66).

Siniscalco’s contribution (“De l’ Histoire ecclésiastique à l’ Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne : une tradition millénaire”) presents a history of the sort of project reviewed here. In this attempt to review twenty centuries of ecclesiastical history, only the main names are reviewed (67), including the usual suspects: Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, Evagrius, etc. But the author never presents his selection criteria, which leads to the inclusion of Photius, the Suda, along with sixteenth century humanists and later patrologies.

The following chapter by Gounelle (“La transmission des écrits littéraires chrétiens”) covers the transmission of Christian texts. The author starts with the obvious discussion of lost texts and the main causes of these losses: ideological (heretics, for example), and material (palimpsests, codex, manuscripts, rodents, and disasters). Among the texts that survived, Gounelle focuses on direct traditions, translations (Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian, Old Church Slavonic), and mediations (the role of Koine Greek, florilegia, encyclopaedias, epitomes). Among some of the fascinating details included in this contribution, the reader will find (124, n. 2) interesting data on the cost of manuscripts compared to the salary of a government official in the ninth century. While this might be obvious material to the specialist, the wider public and younger researchers are likely to learn a great deal from this stimulating chapter. Gounelle presents a concise and very clear overview of the transmission process of ancient texts. The examples are varied, well chosen and include less well known authors and texts. The references cite the most recent editions, and the chapter includes a good bibliography (132-138).

Dorival (“Les formes et modèles littéraires”) proceeds from an interesting question: how original and how dependent on older forms were early Christian writings? Dorival starts with Werner Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (London, 1961), in which he argued that the oldest Christian works depended on existing Hellenic traditions, with the exception of Jesus’ sayings and the Gospels (139). For the author, Jaeger’s thesis focused so much on the parallels between Christian literature and Hellenic thought and writing forms that it neglected the importance of Hebrew and Judeo-Hellenistic literature as another major influence on Christian authors (140). To give but one example, Dorival points out the importance of the Septuagint as antecedent to the New Testament and martyrological literature, rather than the ‘Acts of the pagan martyrs’ (141). While this is the chapter’s main theme, it is somewhat ironic that Dorival devotes the rest of his text mainly to showing the importance of earlier Greek literature on Christian authors, thereby supporting Jaeger’s thesis. What follows is a very thorough review of the different genres of Christian writings discussing the origins of both the genres and the influence of earlier models. Although this will undoubtedly be helpful to readers looking for the antecedents of a specific genre of writing or with a specific author in mind, Dorival’s chapter quickly becomes a mere (and long) list of writing forms. That being said, looking at familiar sources from a different perspective typically brings a fresh view, and his discussion of ecclesiastical histories is a case in point. For Dorival, Eusebius and his followers followed their Greco-Roman historiographical models by describing wars as the main events of their narrative. The main difference was that they conceived of Christians as a new people (genos), and their wars took the form of persecutions and heresies (173-4).

Vannier’s chapter (“L’évolution dogmatique et son expression”) focuses on the theological aspect of early Christian writings up to John Damascene (an oddity since the chronological limits of the collection is Chalcedon). This is a good overview of the main authors, well supported by adequate references to the original texts (albeit heavily favoring French editions and translations, Sources Chrétiennes in particular).

Calvet-Sebasti (“L’esthétique”) analyzes the literary aspects of early Christian writings by focusing on aesthetics. This preoccupation with literary forms, rhetoric, and composition, as the author aptly points out, is not without contradictions, as Christians authors often professed simplicity, rusticity, and even ignorance (221). The novelty of Christian literature emerges out of this apparent paradox, Calvet-Sebasti argues, because Christian authors fought ancient traditions yet followed them in many ways (226).

The last narrative chapter of the volume, by Wallraff (“Les éditions des textes patristiques”), is divided in two main parts. The first surveys the main editors of early Greek Christian texts until the 19th century, while the second looks at the large-scale editing projects of patristic texts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only is it a great read, it is also informative, and supported by an excellent and recent bibliography not limited to French scholarship. Wallraff thus presents the works of the Benedictine monks of St.Maur (244), Jean Mabillon (245), Bernard de Montfaucon (245-6), and especially Jacques-Paul Migne (246-249) among the pioneers of Greek patristic editions. Readers will most likely be more familiar with the large collections presented next, such as the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL; 250), the work of Theodor Mommsen, Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller (GCS; 252-257), Sources Chrétiennes (258-261), and finally Corpus Christianorum (261-264), including the Clavis Patrum Latinorum. The last two pages even include a discussion of the transformation brought by the accessibility of early Christian sources in translation through the web (265-266), now a necessary update.

Finally, Gain presents an annotated bibliography of the main early Christian research tools (“Instruments de travail pour l’étude de la littérature grecque chrétienne ancienne”). Following the model of classics like Poucet-Hannick’s Aux Sources de l’antiquité gréco-romaine, almost exclusively devoted to pre-Christian texts and topics, Gain surveys the “incontournables” of early Christian scholarship in eight different categories: Dictionaries and encyclopedias, repertories of texts, collections of texts, the Fathers and the Bible, the Fathers and liturgy, History and auxiliary sciences, Journals and bibliographies, and Computerized tools. A list of abbreviations for collections and journals, as well as a short list of good patristic libraries in French-speaking countries follow. This is an immensely useful research guide, and most readers are likely to learn from Gain’s list.

As is often the case with collections of essays, it is of uneven quality and interest. But the main weakness of the volume is its lack of unity and overall direction. The absence of an introduction is most likely the cause of this problem. Bernard Pouderon’s two-page “avant-propos” describes the overall project and Norelli’s contribution introduces the topic at hand, but without any presentation of the diverse contributions of this volume. Most contributions jump right into a discussion of their topic, which may explain why the present reader was often left wondering what the purpose of each chapter was, how they related to each other, and what the collective significance of the work might be. Pouderon writes in the preface that one of the main goals of the collection is to make “erudition” accessible to a wide audience (8). This emphasis on erudition is certainly felt throughout the text, but sadly not always to good effect. The chapters by Siniscalco and Dorival, in particular, resemble a catalogue of authors and titles in narrative form. The combined result is a very traditional approach to the topic, perhaps unsurprising given the publisher. Scholars looking for a survey of the way Late Antiquity as a field has changed the traditional approach of Church history will be disappointed. Additionally, ignoring the most recent developments of scholarship in this increasingly wider field of study will not be helpful to young researchers, one of the targeted audiences for this collection.

A case in point is Dorival’s claim that Eusebius’ Vita Constantini was such a contradictory project (to present the emperor as a saint) that it should be considered a failure (177). Although not directly acknowledged, this seems to follow Momigliano’s argument of 1963 (mentioned in the bibliography that follows Dorival’s chapter). This is problematic because so much has appeared since then on Eusebius’ VC, and especially the works of Barnes, Cameron, and Drake, to name only a few.3 Another example is Vannier’s discussion of the ‘homoousios’ formula adopted at Nicaea, which is extremely short (196-197) and puzzling at best. She writes that we do not know why the term was adopted at Nicaea and are reduced to guesswork from the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria, referring to Stead’s 1974 article.4 Such a crucial topic for early Christian studies demands fuller treatment, incorporating important scholarship on the question.5 At the most basic level, as Vannier systematically relates each author’s theological views to their scriptural basis, it would be important to point out that the formula did not originate from Scripture, and that this partly explains the hostile reception the Nicene creed received in certain episcopal circles.

Intertextuality is another topic mentioned in numerous chapters without taking account of recent scholarship in the field. In Calvet-Sebasti’s contribution, for instance, the section devoted to this topic (230-232) is superficial—the author presents no definition of the term and does not attempt to integrate any of the recent scholarship discussing literary approaches to historical sources developed in the past decades.6 Likewise, the absence of the notion of intertextuality from Norelli’s chapter, especially when discussing the self-referencing aspect of Christian literature, is problematic.

Hagiography is a surprising omission from Wallraff’s chapter on the main editions of patristic texts. The Acta Sanctorum, which first appeared in 1643, Analecta Bollandiana, founded in 1882, and the more recent Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca deserved to be discussed in this otherwise useful chapter.

The lack of editorial guidance in the work as a whole might explain contradictions, overlap, and repetitions found in many of the chapters. Norelli, for example, insists on the fluidity of the concept of literature and argues for inclusion of a wider variety of texts than usually found in studies of early Christian literature (25-27). While this is a valid point, it also illustrates the lack of unity within the book, as most chapters implicitly go against this principle by focusing on the list of “great” names in their specific field. It will be interesting to see if the editors of future volumes apply this principle. Similarly, Norelli’s important point regarding the parallel development of institutions and power relations within the Christian communities of the third and fourth centuries (47-50) gets lost in other chapters, an oddity that could have been smoothed out by the editors. Siniscalco’s text also present some overlap with Wallraff’s chapter’s topic, as well as contradictions to the boundaries of the project as outlined by Norelli. A case in point, Siniscalco argues that the importance of bilingualism in this period justifies discussion of both Latin and Greek traditions (68), whereas Norelli insisted on the specific characteristics of Greek Christian literature. In addition, Siniscalco’s discussion of the definition of “literature,” after the long introduction of Norelli, seems superfluous; two oddities that a diligent editor could have corrected.

Overall, this is an odd book. It is uneven in quality and interest, and it is doubtful that many will read it from cover to cover. Gounelle, Dorival, Calvet-Sebasti, and Wallraff are likely to be the most read essays in the long run. And Gain is unmistakably destined to become a mandatory research guide for most beginning researchers. In the end, it might be best to hold judgment on the professed aim of the collection to update Quasten until subsequent volumes are published. But the omission of important recent scholarship in the fields covered in this first volume is not a good omen for the collection as a whole.

Table of Contents:

Bernard Pouderon, “Avant-propos”
Enrico Norelli, “Histoire de la littérature et histoire des institutions chrétiennes. Quelques considérations de méthode au seuil d’une histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne ancienne”
Paolo Siniscalco, “De l’ Histoire ecclésiastique à l’ Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne : une tradition millénaire”
Rémi Gounelle, “La transmission des écrits littéraires chrétiens”
Gilles Dorival, “Les formes et modèles littéraires”
Marie-Anne Vannier, “L’évolution dogmatique et son expression”
Marie-Ange Calvet-Sebasti, “L’esthétique”
Martin Wallraff, “Les éditions des textes patristiques”
Benoît Gain, “Instruments de travail pour l’étude de la littérature grecque chrétienne ancienne”


1. J. Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, MD., Newman Press, 1950-1986). 4 vols.

2. C. Moreschini and E. Norelli (eds.), Storia della letteratura cristiana antica greca e latina (Brescia, Morcelliana, 1995-1996).

3. A. Cameron and S.G. Hall, Eusebius. Life of Constantine (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999), is a good place to start. Cf. T.D. Barnes, “Panegyric, History, and Historiography in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine,” in R. Williams (ed.) The Making of Orthodoxy: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick (Cambridge, CUP, 1989), 94-123; A. Cameron, “Eusebius’ Vita Constantini and the Construction of Constantine,” in M.J. Edwards and S. Swain (eds.), Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997), 145-174; H.A. Drake, “What Eusebius Knew: The Genesis of the Vita Constantini, CP 83 (1988), 20-38.

4. G.C. Stead, ” Homoousios dans la pensée de S. Athanase,” in Politique et théologie chez Athanase d’Alexandrie (Paris, Beauchesne, 1974), 233-242.

5. L. Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford, OUP, 2004); and D.M. Gwynn, The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the ‘Arian Controversy’ (Oxford, OUP, 2007).

6. E.g. J. Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (New York, Columbia University Press, 1980); S. Hinds, Allusions and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge, CUP, 1998); E.A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA, HUP, 2004); see now G. Kelly, Ammianus Marcellinus. The Allusive Historian (Cambridge, CUP, 2008).