BMCR 2021.03.31

Christians in conversation: a guide to late antique dialogues in Greek and Syriac

, Christians in conversation: a guide to late antique dialogues in Greek and Syriac. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 297. ISBN 9780190915452 £55.00.

This book provides a survey of some sixty free-standing dialogues produced in Christian contexts in the second to sixth centuries. Rigolio draws on recent scholarship on textual transmission, chronology, and authorship to provide a comprehensive list. Many of these texts deal with complex theological questions: the nature of the soul and the resurrection; fate and free will; and Christology. Some of these texts show awareness of Platonic precedents for the dialogue form, but many do not (and some only reference the classical past in order to show how they will depart from it).

This book is the first systematic overview of dialogue literature in Greek and Syriac (Latin has been relatively well-covered by Schmidt and others).[1] The juxtaposition of Syriac to other traditions is particularly important. Its rich corpus of controversial literature has been little explored and an awareness of Syriac dialogues in this period will provide an important basis for the study of the later development of dialogue literature under Muslim rule.

An important strand of twentieth century scholarship was inclined to present Christian late antiquity as a period of intellectual closure. But Rigolio persuasively observes that this judgement was rooted in part in classicists’ idealization of Platonic models, in a sense that the catechetical or apologetic elements of these texts were opposed to true dialogue or the notion that theological and philosophical approaches to dialogue were incompatible. Rigolio’s point here is reminiscent of Peter Brown’s rehabilitation of the era of late antiquity as a whole, namely that we should judge it on its own terms, rather than those of previous centuries.[2] There was certainly a tendency towards formalism in argument in this period, such as the use of patristic florilegia, but there was also a broader rejection of the elitism of classical dialogue. Neither point should imply the end of dialogue in late antiquity, which is characterized by great diversity and vibrancy.

For Rigolio, questions of the reality of individual dialogues are likely to be misplaced. What we can ask instead is how far different dialogues aspire to verisimilitude. Nevertheless, even fictional or fantastical accounts may be intended as didactic devices that could provide interlocutors in real debates with appropriate ammunition, in the form of answers to common questions. This is not only true of adversarial dialogues but also applies to question and answer literature (erotapokriseis), such as the responses attributed to Jesus or to Bardaisan of Edessa to the questions of their disciples.

The book wisely avoids trying to categorise dialogues into different classes: they are simply too varied and different forms blur into one another so much as to make this task a highly subjective judgement, especially since the nomenclature of the texts themselves is inconsistent. That said, a useful table summarises the formal features of dialogues (authorial preface, number of speakers, scene setting, an attendant audience and the presence of religious conversion). For each dialogue, Rigolio gives a summary of the contents of the dialogue and a survey of the secondary literature. Below I give examples to give the reader a sense of the volume’s coverage.

The entry on the Book of the Laws of the Countries attributes the work to Bardaisan’s disciple Philip. The summary tells us about Bardaisan’s interlocutors and the involvement of the narrator’s voice. Rigolio usefully highlights the text’s attitude towards the master-disciple relationship: Bardaisan tells his disciple Awida that you should not learn from one’s peers but from a master and that teachers’ instruction should proceed from their disciples’ questions. The purpose of this teaching is not just to present information, but to allow disciples to ask the right kinds of questions in the future. Bardaisan explicitly sees the kind of teaching dialogue that he espouses as superior to agonistic debate.

Key issues in the Book of the Laws of the Countries are the relationship between God’s creation; human free will and the potential to sin; and the existence of fate and nature as factors that constrain human action. Bardaisan’s answer is to stress human freedom: Christians, he argues, have the same customs wherever they live and are not constrained by the customs of neighbouring peoples or by the stars under which they were born. I find it striking how far these interlocutors emphasise persuasion: the disciple Awida states that he is not able to believe by faith alone and that he must be persuaded. This level of openness is, perhaps, unusual across the dialogues collected here and may be an unusual feature of third century Edessa, a city in which, as Walter Bauer famously argued, there was little sense of a single Christian orthodoxy until the fifth century.[3] Rigolio concludes the section by summarizing the approaches of previous scholarship, such as the search for parallels to Plato, the influence of other texts on the Laws of the Countries and the reproduction of ideas from the Laws in later works.

A number of the texts treated here are attributed to key players in Christological debates, such as Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius and Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Theodoret’s Eranistes is a particularly rich example, where three linked dialogues argue that the divine nature of Christ is immutable; that the two natures of Christ are unmixed and that the Godhead is impassible. All of these positions would become Leitmotifs of Dyophysite thought in the centuries that followed. There are two speakers in the text, the Orthodox, who is Theodoret’s own mouthpiece, and Eranistes, who reproduces ideas attributed to the monophysite intellectual Eutyches and eventually acknowledges the success of the Orthodox’s arguments.

Interestingly, Theodoret explicitly signals his desire to depart from classical models in his dialogue. His aim, he says, is to make his ideas widely intelligible. He even highlights his innovative structure, where he places the names of the interlocutors in the margins, rather than the body of the text, in order to highlight the changes in speaker. The text also shows the widespread use of patristic florilegia, which play an important part in convincing Eranistes of his error. Remarkably, Theodoret even uses authors he viewed as heterodox in his florilegia, such as Apollinaris of Laodicea. It may be that this decision shows that Theodoret was truly hopeful of the possibility of winning over moderate Miaphysites to his cause, and that the discourse was not simply a work of polemic intended to be read by other committed Dyophysites.

One of the latest works in Rigolio’s collection is the disputation with a Manichee attributed to Paul the Persian. The preface situates the text as a report of four formal debates held before the prefect Theodore on the orders of the emperors Justin I and Justinian (which would date the event to 527, if it really occurred). Occasional asides reveal that the Manichean Photinus is tied up during the first debates, which reminds us that the genre of disputation can blur into accounts of show trials and public mockery.

The debates deal with the origin of the soul; Manichean dualism and the substance of the soul; and the alleged agreement between the Christian Scriptures, especially Paul, and the Manicheans. The final dialogue deals with Manichean criticism of the God of the Old Testament. Rigolio concludes by summarizing the arguments around the historicity of the key participants or the possible role of anti-Manichaean dialogues in providing rhetorical training for theologians.

This is a comprehensive and meticulous guide to a fascinating literary genre: Rigolio has done scholarship a great service by opening up the field by allowing the easy comparison of a wide range of texts.


[1] P. Schmidt, ‘Zur Typologie und Literariserung der frühchristlichen lateinischen Dialogs’, in Alan Cameron et al., Christianisme et forms littéraires de l’Antiquite Tardive en Occident (Geneva, 1977), 101-80.

[2] P. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (London, 1971).

[3] W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, tr. R. Kraft (Philadelphia, 1971).