BMCR 2019.11.20

Revisioning John Chrysostom: New Approaches, New Perspectives. Critical Approaches to Early Christianity, 1

Chris L. de Wet, Wendy Mayer, Revisioning John Chrysostom: New Approaches, New Perspectives. Critical Approaches to Early Christianity, 1. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xxvi, 840. ISBN 9789004390034 $299.00.

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[Contributors and titles listed below.]

John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) was a prolific Greek-speaking Christian thinker, who preached in two of the eastern Mediterranean’s most religiously and economically diverse cities of the fourth century: Antioch and Constantinople. His corpus consists of some 800 sermons, which scholars have mined for their rich details about biblical interpretation, as well as social and religious life, including matters of gender, class, poverty, asceticism, anti-Judaism, religious competition, Roman culture, and the cult of saints. Revisioning John Chrysostom expands that list considerably. The collection is a thrilling dive into some of the most innovative and recent interdisciplinary approaches to this vast body of sermons. Curated by two leading specialists in John Chrysostom’s oeuvre, Wendy Mayer and Chris de Wet, the volume showcases a wide range of perspectives on this prolific preacher, including cognitive science, queer theory, critical race theory, and rhetoric.

Some key editorial decisions shape this volume. Less focused on standard approaches to John Chrysostom, such as critical editions, biblical commentary, or theological controversies, Revisioning John Chrysostom calls attention instead to newer critical methods. The volume’s contributors explore how theories of ethnicity, cognition, medicine, and mass communication bring fresh perspectives or disrupt earlier assumptions. Almost half the contributors are newer scholars, whose work is among the ninety or so doctoral and masters’ dissertations focused on John Chrysostom to have appeared since 2000. (That a dozen of them have appeared since 2016 suggests a renaissance in Chrysostom studies.) Revisioning John Chrysostom seeks to capture that synergy of emerging and more seasoned scholars. Along with its focus on newer theoretical interventions and reshaping traditional approaches, the editors dispensed with some conventions of scholarly essay collections. No particular conference or seminar series launched this project. Nor were contributors confined to any word limit: most essays range anywhere between 25 and 50 pages, with one succinct essay at a hefty 79 pages! The editors’ flexibility (and the publisher’s generosity) allows contributors the liberty to delve into a single sermon or a set of sermons, as well as equip the interested non-expert with a solid primer in the theoretical or methodological lens employed. Finally, the editors avoid dividing the essays according to specific chronologies, methodologies, themes, or sermons. Even so, nothing feels haphazard, as the patient reader can detect fascinating pairs and clusters. Much as the collection celebrates freedom and serendipity, it also encourages and rewards a continuous reading. Any given essay may echo or anticipate ideas found in adjacent or other essays. Like an urban stroll on a balmy summer’s eve, sounds from dwellings blend richly with those from the streets below, all to give a better feel for a neighborhood.

Much of the volume concentrates on the relation between the preacher and the audience. Several essays explore how cognitive sciences provide useful tools for understanding of John’s relationship to his audiences and his pedagogy. Wendy Mayer’s “Preaching Hatred?” examines how sustained violent rhetoric shapes moral cognition in a series of six anti-Jewish homilies John preached over the span of four weeks. She provides a lucid overview of recent research in neuroscience, particularly how intense emotional rhetoric restricts cognitive capacity and can bind social groups. As Mayer argues, hearing weekly doses of violent rhetoric over the course of a month, would have solidified his audience’s social contempt for Jewish practices. Likewise, Isabella Sandwell draws from cognitive sciences and mass communication to explore how ancient homilies transmitted complex ideas. Her epistemological focus centers mainly on the transmission of doctrinal ideas in his first two homilies on Matthew. Continuing the theme of learned behaviors, Courtney Wilson VanVeller examines how Chrysostom’s violent rhetoric is mimetic in nature. His self-portrayal as a savvy physician of souls derives from his selective portrayal of the Apostle Paul, as a counter-Judaizer and physician of the soul.

Metaphors dominate much of John’s ethical agenda and are at the center of several investigations. Jan R. Stenger applies insights from cognitive poetics to examine John’s use of spatial metaphors, or, as he calls it, John’s “scenic rhetoric.” Combining metaphors drawn from civic life and imagined spaces, John awakened the audience’s capacity to instill new behaviors. Such “text worlds” transformed audiences into embodied enactors engaging protagonists, including, in one case, a personified earthquake! James Cook explores the Hellenistic philosophical roots of John’s medical metaphors, while underscoring the importance of the scriptures, particularly the prophets, as no less potent sources for these metaphors. Blake Leyerle offers a nuanced analysis of what wild animals signify for Chrysostom’s ethical agenda. Wild animals, she argues persuasively, advanced John’s efforts to instill a deeper reverence for divine providence, human vulnerability and the promise of resurrection. And Jessica Wright examines how John’s invocation of the brain and the central nervous system as a political metaphor shored up his authority as a “physician of souls,” thereby shaping his vision of individual, community, and leadership in his congregations. No less, Chris de Wet portrays John Chrysostom as an iatrosophist, who adapted the Roman physician Galen’s therapeutic advice to promote a healthier (and demon-defying) lifestyle through medicalizing diet, gender norms, and the passions.

Emotions figure prominently in these studies. Chrysostom marshalled strategic emotions to shape social life, beliefs, and values among his congregations, as Yannis Papadogiannakis demonstrates. John’s homilies also fostered a set of desirable emotional habits that best characterized Christian life. Peter Moore highlights how Chrysostom’s rhetoric went beyond the individual to foster a “community of mutuality,” whether by sharing a common emotional experience or some common cause.

Chrysostom’s debts to Hellenistic philosophy are further examined in Samuel Pomeroy’s analysis of Chrysostom’s use of Plato’s Timaeus (via Eusebius of Caesarea’s apologetics) in polemics relating to virginity and the cult of relics. Constantine Bozinis analyzes how Stoic humanism shaped Chrysostom’s approach to natural law, as it pertained to slavery, family, wealth, and usury. Chrysostom’s admiration for monks as moral exemplars draws upon Cynic ideas of autarkeia (or self-sufficiency), according to Paschalis Gkortsilas. And as Demetrios Tonias claims, Abraham served as a multi-purpose exemplar. Like a Stoic sage, Abraham modeled for John’s congregations virtues of hospitality, philanthropy, and eschatological judgment. Pak-Wah Lai delves further into Chrysostom’s choice of exemplars to consider how angels exemplify his theology of “recapitulation,” or, how God became human and humans may become God. Turning from angels to demons, Samantha Miller considers demons and Satan as villains in Chrysostom’s pastoral efforts. Drawing on fieldwork in contemporary Pentecostal and charismatic Christian denominations, Miller draws a useful distinction between possession and oppression by demons. Unlike possession, where demons control their victims, oppression allows for the Holy Spirit to counteract demonic forces. Benjamin Dunning analyzes Chrysostom’s condemnation of same-sex eros in his Homilies on Romans through the lens of queer theory. He persuasively shows the persistence of Roman sexual economies and tortuous reasoning.

In addition to essays centered on language, medicine, and cognition, the final essays focus more on bodies, as they navigated urban space and time. Jonathan Stanfill examines the importance of nocturnal vigils and processions, with special attention to Chrysostom’s inclusion of Goths in his citywide liturgical procession. Drawing fruitfully on Judith Butler’s theory of public assemblies, Stanfill demonstrates how the procession of Gothic bodies constituted a “performative enactment” of Nicene Christianity’s global reach. Continuing the theme of Christians at night, Leslie Dossey offers a fascinating window on the temporal rhythms that shaped vigils and other nocturnal activities. Drawing on histories of time in pre-industrial Europe, Dossey examines how technology, social structure, and gender governed many daily schedules for John’s congregations.

Some contributors urge methodological caution. Mayer defends current cognitive sciences, yet, by the same token, cautions against anachronistic generalizations which may elide real historical differences. Likewise, Geert Roskam pleads for more nuanced case studies. He provides a close thematic reading of a single sermon in its ancient rhetorical context. And Justin Pigott turns the lens away from laity to consider historians’ interpretations of Chrysostom’s sweeping reforms of the clergy, in the years leading to the most tumultuous years of his episcopacy at Constantinople.

The volume is a valuable research tool, as it also provides detailed footnotes and bibliographies for each essay. And the appendices include a bibliography of ancient sources as well as of John Chrysostom’s works, followed by a useful index of ancient sources and a general index. The volume belongs in research libraries. Some readers might lament the absence of essays on material culture. And the absence of scholars from francophone centers might also be regretted. Yet, such lacunae do not undercut the quality of the contributions. The book’s steep cost (nearly $300) is likely to put it beyond reach for many researchers and institutions. One hopes that publishers will find ways to make this important resource more accessible to the wider readership it deserves.

Revisioning John Chrysostom sets a vast and abundant table before us. The breadth of generations, its remarkable scope, and diverse methodologies enrich this volume. The editors and contributors are to be commended for conveying so richly the relevance of Chrysostom’s works across disciplines, centuries, and continents.

Authors and titles

1. Approaching and Appreciating John Chrysostom in New Ways by Chris L. de Wet and Wendy Mayer
2. John Chrysostom and the Troubling Jewishness of Paul by Courtney Wilson VanVeller
3. Preaching Hatred? John Chrysostom, Neuroscience, and the Jews by Wendy Mayer
4. Preaching and Christianisation: Communication, Cognition and Audience Reception by Isabella Sandwell
5. Emancipatory Preaching: John Chrysostom’s Homily Peccata fratrum non evulganda (CPG 4389) by Geert Roskam
6. Text Worlds and Imagination in Chrysostom’s Pedagogy by Jan R. Stenger
7. “Hear and Shudder!”: John Chrysostom’s Therapy of the Soul by James Cook
8. Locating Animals in John Chrysostom’s Thought by Blake Leyerle
9. Homiletics and the History of Emotions: The Case of John Chrysostom by Yannis Papadogiannakis
10. Bound Together for Heaven: Mutual Emotions in Chrysostom’s Homilies on Matthew for Well-Ordered and Fruitful Community in Anxious Times by Peter C. Moore
11. Brain, Nerves, and Ecclesial Membership in John Chrysostom by Jessica Wright
12. The Preacher’s Diet: Gluttony, Regimen, and Psycho-Somatic Health in the Thought of John Chrysostom by Chris L. de Wet
13. Reading Plato Through the Eyes of Eusebius: John Chrysostom’s Timaeus Quotations in Rhetorical Context by Samuel Pomeroy
14. The Natural Law in John Chrysostom by Constantine A. Bozinis
15. “Dogs Priced at Three Obols”: The Reception of Cynicism in John Chrysostom by Paschalis Gkortsilas
16. The Iconic Abraham as John Chrysostom’s High Priest of Philanthropy by Demetrios E. Tonias
17. Exemplar Portraits and the Interpretation of John Chrysostom’s Doctrine of Recapitulation by Pak-Wah Lai
18. The Devil did not Make You do It: Chrysostom’s Refutation of Modern Deliverance Theology by Samantha L. Miller
19. John Chrysostom and Same-Sex Eros in the History of Sexuality by Benjamin H. Dunning
20. The Body of Christ’s Barbarian Limb: John Chrysostom’s Processions and the Embodied Performance of Nicene Christianity by Jonathan P. Stanfill
21. Night in the Big City: Temporal Patterns in Antioch and Constantinople as Revealed by Chrysostom’s Sermons by Leslie Dossey
22. Capital Crimes: Deconstructing John’s “Unnecessary Severity” in Managing the Clergy at Constantinople Justin M. Pigott