BMCR 2009.05.20

John Rufus: The Lives of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus. Writings from the Greco-Roman World 24

, , John Rufus: The Lives of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus. Writings from the Greco-Roman World 24. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008. xcii, 370. ISBN 9781589832008. $51.95 (pb).

In their recent edition and translation of two important writings of the fifth-century hagiographer John Rufus, Cornelia Horn and Robert Phenix Jr. have added to the growing collection of scholarly literature relating to Palestinian monasticism. By providing the first published English translations of Vita Petri Iberi, and De obitu Theodosii, as well as an edition of the Syriac texts, Horn and Phenix present us with a major contribution to studies of Christian asceticism in fifth-century Gaza.

While studies of early Christian monasticism, and hagiography in particular, have tended to focus primarily on Egyptian and Syrian movements, since the early nineties there has been a growing interest in monasticism as it developed in the Judean desert and the Gaza region. This volume follows Horn’s own Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth-Century Palestine, the product of her doctoral dissertation.1 In addition to making first-hand knowledge of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius, and their connections to the Egyptian monastic world more readily accessible to those with an interest in late antique social history, this collection also highlights John Rufus’s significance both as a hagiographer and as a representative of anti-Chalcedonian Christianity. As Horn and Phenix point out, De obitu Theodosii in particular seems to distance itself not only from Chalcedonian Christology but from the more strictly Monophysite beliefs of Eutyches, indicating that those who rejected the developments of Chalcedon in Palestine were not limited to the Monophysite camp and so suggesting that there may be a richer story concerning the role of doctrine in shaping monastic communal identity during this period than is frequently told. Scholars working on the fifth-century Christological disputes, and their relation to the development of monastic communities, should therefore especially welcome this volume.

The introduction provides a broad overview of the intellectual, ecclesiological, and cultural milieu of Peter and John Rufus. Horn and Phenix begin with a brief summary of the relationship between Iberia and the Persian empire and the impact of the Roman empire’s relationship with Christians on Persia’s treatment of its own Christian population. They then lay out the major debates and players surrounding the Christological controversies that led up to Chalcedon. Despite the introduction’s usefulness, there could have been more discussion about the relevance of either Rufus or Peter for contextualizing the writings of Cyril of Scythopolis, the Chalcedonian author whose various hagiographies have hitherto provided most of the material for studies of Palestinian asceticism during the Monophysite and Origenist controversies. Given that the book’s back summary speaks of it as a “valuable counterbalance from a minority perspective to the biographic and historical writings” of Cyril, a few pages sketching out what exactly that counterbalance consists of would have welcome.

The introduction and timeline are followed by the critical edition and translation of Vita Petri Iberi, a lengthy hagiography detailing Peter’s relations with other church and imperial figures, his pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and his missionary work among the monastic communities of Gaza, and the much shorter De obitu Theodosii. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography of studies related to Palestinian asceticism and monasticism more generally. The translators also provide extremely detailed footnotes, including remarks on the philology of the Syriac versions of the texts—which were originally written in Greek, but which survive now only in Syriac—as well as historical commentary and abundant references to related secondary literature. Occasionally, these remarks about the texts portray a perhaps too-ready inclination to take Rufus’s reports at face value. One wonders whether, for instance, Rufus’ depiction of the village-wide grief at Peter’s death should be taken as historical fact, as the translators do. On the whole, however, the notes provide a helpful context for those approaching these works for the first time.

As I have said, this volume will no doubt prove invaluable for those working in the history of the Christological controversies and of asceticism in late antique Gaza. Aside from these topics, however, the material made available in this edition also can contribute to a number of long-standing discussions in the secondary literature on early Christian monasticism. The Vita Petri Iberi in particular offers material that engages several current studies on early monastic spirituality and psychology. As Horn and Phenix themselves note, Rufus’s depiction of spiritual pilgrimage, both internal and external, as a kind of xenitia resonates with Daniel Caner’s recent work on the theme of exile in monastic writings.2 Rufus’s frequent portrayal of representatives of Chalcedonian Christology as associated with demonic agents may likewise offer scholars further opportunity to expand upon David Brakke’s recent work on the significance of demonology for ascetic identity. Brakke has argued that the presence of demons in ascetic literature is indicative of an anxiety with a “divided self.”3 While Brakke’s study treats mostly sources that explore the internal psychology of the individual ascetic, the treatments of demonology in Rufus’s writings suggest the social dimension of this monastic trope. Here, Horn and Phenix have provided students of this period with an occasion to consider how the preoccupation with the demonic powers evident in so many ascetic writings from this period reflects not only a concern with personal moral progress, but with the relationship between doctrinal and moral purity among the larger religious community.

In this vein, Vita Petri Iberi also offers a window into Peter’s various interactions with institutional authority figures, both ecclesiastical and imperial. Popular figures from monastic literature such as Melania the Younger and her companions Pinianus and Gerontius make an appearance, as does the Chalcedonian bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem. Peter’s ambiguous relationship with the Roman empire is also reflected in his interactions with Theodosius II and Empress Eudocia. The complicated relationship between imperial power, ecclesiastical authority, and asceticism, and the bearing of that relationship on doctrinal disputes, has been explored in connection with Origenism4 and Arianism.5 Here, Rufus provides ample material for further reflection on how the relationship between the young Christian empire and its various monastic movements and communities shaped, and was shaped by, the Christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Horn and Phenix, following for the most part the German edition of Richard Raabe in their Syriac text, have marked his pagination in both the English and the Syriac renditions and refer to the reader to his critical apparatus. The translation itself is clearly designed to serve as a pedagogical tool for those new to Syriac. Horn and Phenix have rendered their English version as transparently as one could ask, marking in brackets places where coherent translation requires the supplementation of a word or phrase. While their literal approach does occasionally lead to some awkward English prose—Melania the Younger is in one place referred to as the “later Melania,” for instance—the translators’ choice to err on the side of transparency rather than lyricism makes this a valuable learning tool for those still developing a foundation in the Syriac language. Particularly given the pedagogical focus of the edition, however, there are a few surprising omissions from the bibliography. John Binns’ monograph Asceticism and Ambassadors of Christ, one of the more significant recent studies of Cyril of Scythopolis, has been left out.6 Derwas Chitty’s The Desert a City, now an older study but nevertheless still frequently referenced in current literature on Palestinian monasticism, is also rather peculiarly absent.7

Quibbling aside, this edition is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on fifth- and sixth-century Palestinian monasticism in general, and anti-Chalcedonian asceticism in particular. Horn and Phenix here have made a rich and understudied corpus more readily accessible to scholars in a manner that should foster further work. We may eagerly look forward to their forthcoming translations of the Life of Rabbula of Edessa and Rufus’s Plerophoriae.


1. Horn, Cornelia B. Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth-Century Palestine: The Career of Peter the Iberian. Oxford University Press: 2006.

2. Caner, Daniel. Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press: 2002.

3. Brakke, David. Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press: 2006.

4. Clark, Elizabeth. The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate. Princeton University Press: 1992.

5. Brakke, David. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism. Oxford University Press: 1996.

6. Binns, John. Asceticism and Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine 314-631. Oxford University Press: 1996.

7. Chitty, Derwas. The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire. Oxford University Press: 1966.