BMCR 2018.02.07

The New Testament in Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine symposia and colloquia

, , The New Testament in Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine symposia and colloquia. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2016. 334. ISBN 9780884024149. $65.00.

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Uncontroversial as it might seem, the decision to dedicate two Dumbarton Oaks conferences and their associated volumes to the Bible in Byzantium was a bold move. Its aim was to restore the centrality of the sacred books for the study of a culture where Christianity was the dominant religion by presenting them as material evidence, while allowing them to reverberate across disciplinary boundaries in as many directions as needed, including texts, images, ideas, and various types of reception. This aim has been successful thanks to the guidance of expert and well-respected editors, both as an overall project and in the specific incarnation of the book under review. The result is a rich panoply of contributions from many different angles, each opening a window onto a world of research that still offers large scope for originality. I have learnt much from it in terms of the specific texts evoked, significant manuscripts, and recent bibliography that attests to a vibrant field.

Rather than review the single essays or a selection thereof (for the table of contents, see below), I would like to point out some strands that seem to me significant in understanding this collection of essays as a challenge for future Byzantine studies. Among other evidence of material culture, manuscripts are used by a number of the contributors as witnesses to the importance, but also the varied treatments, of the Gospel texts across time. As more Greek manuscripts are digitized and become available for easy scrutiny on the web, it is important to reflect on how to use such resources for the advancement of scholarship. On the one hand, these studies bring codices out of the closet, so to speak, by combining technical knowledge of paleography and decoration with a broader understanding of manuscript production and use. On the other, they posit a number of methodological questions about how to bring ‘big data’ tools, such as the Münster digital archive of NT manuscripts, to bear on issues such as provenance and dating (Maxwell, Kavrus-Hoffmann). If lamenting old-fashioned approaches reveals how much we are indebted to pioneers who worked with extremely limited resources and in difficult conditions (for example in Lamb’s study of catenae), it is urgent to ask how new methods can best respond to new requirements. It cannot be assumed that our digital tools can, by themselves, bear fruit in exponentially increasing our knowledge about, in this case, the reading and interpretation of the NT.

The extensive manuscript index (pp. 321-325) reveals the impact of the material world of books on this volume. Yet it is apparent that there is no cross-over in the consideration of individual manuscripts between articles, so that only one aspect of each manuscript is considered at a time. Thus, illuminated manuscripts feature in art-historical studies only. But each codex could benefit from being studied by the whole range of disciplines contemplated in the volume. For example, fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus of the Bible (London, BL, Royal 1.D.V-VIII) receives only one mention in the book’s introduction, when we might have expected it to resurface within the discussion of the canonical status of the Apocalypse in Byzantium (esp. pp. 303-304). In other words, the choice of an interdisciplinary approach that ‘gels’ the contributions into relevant thematic research is not yet full-fledged, but remains at the level of juxtaposition of contributions from different disciplines. In designing this volume, the editors clearly did pursue this aim of integration, but the full realization of such an aspiration may ultimately require a more comprehensive approach to each field of knowledge. Interdisciplinarity should entail not only looking at one’s own field from different perspectives, but also the capacity to look beyond one’s field for relevant comparative material. This volume particularly lacks an informed comparison with the Western middle ages, beyond the occasional, standardized remark about Byzantium’s difference.

Another strand in the methodology adopted is the question of what counts as ‘Byzantine’. Although the introduction expresses a focus on the Middle Ages, the span of centuries covered by the material begins very early – for example, Origen’s contribution is considered in detail by Constas in his survey of commentators on Paul – and ends well into the fifteenth or even sixteenth century. Clearly the language of the texts, Greek, though obviously a significant element in considering the NT in particular, is rightly considered definitive of Byzantine practice or spirituality, though the inclusion of Syriac sources such as Ephrem (Ashbrook-Harvey) is a welcome enrichment of the panoramic view. But surely one needs to refine the perspective from which each source, each period, contributes to the landscape of Byzantine Christianity. I appreciated the attempts at diachronic analysis of an evolution of Passion imagery in the art-historical essays (Barber and Zarras), each proposing a trajectory and looking for clues in textual sources that characterize their period. Of course, surveys about what can be found across the centuries are helpful, and the mix of generic and specific examples makes some of these essays suitable for teaching specific topics. For example, Cunningham gives a helpful overview of exegetical methods before delving into the specifics of preaching, something not obvious from the title; she also covers more fundamental material than her placing in mid-volume suggests at first. Looking at future challenges, it is the more precise articulation of the patterns of evolution of certain positions and practices that can give us a better sense of how medieval Byzantium interacted with the patristic heritage and used it to actualize its relationship to the Christ of the Gospels.

The book is beautifully produced with large colour illustrations, some of which were previously unpublished, and has been made very reader-friendly through a mise-en-page in two columns of text and footnotes. It is as readable as a Gospel Lectionary. There are very few typographical mistakes (particularly affecting Italian-language titles) and a detailed index (which includes, perhaps unnecessarily, the entry ‘New Testament in Byzantium’). I would have liked to find the dates of manuscripts in the captions, but this omission forces the curious reader to delve into the text. It is more than worthwhile.

Authors and titles

1. New Testaments of Byzantium: Seen, Heard, Written, Excerpted, Interpreted, Derek Krueger and Robert S. Nelson
2. New Testament Textual Traditions in Byzantium, David Parker
3. The Textual Affiliation of Deluxe Byzantine Gospel Books, Kathleen Maxwell
4. Patriarchal Lectionaries of Constantinople: History, Attributions, and Prospects, Robert S. Nelson
5. Producing New Testament Manuscripts in Byzantium: Scribes, Scriptoria, and Patrons, Nadezhda Kavrus-Hoffman
6. The Reception of Paul and of Pauline Theology in the Byzantine Period, Fr. Maximos Constas
7. The Hagiographers’ Bible: Intertexuality and Scriptural Culture in the Late Sixth and the First Half of the Seventh Century, Derek Krueger
8. The Interpretation of the New Testament in Byzantine Preaching: Mediating an Encounter with the Word, Mary B. Cunningham
9. Bearing Witness: New Testament Women in Early Byzantine Hymnography, Susan Ashbrook Harvey
10. Contemplating the Life of Christ in the Icons of the Twelve Feasts of Our Lord, Charles Barber
11. Narrating the Sacred Story: New Testament Cycles in Middle and Late Byzantine Church Decoration, Nektarios Zarras
12. Conservation and Conversation: New Testament Catenae in Byzantium, William Lamb
13. The Afterlife of the Apocalypse of John in Byzantium, Stephen J. Shoemaker