BMCR 2021.04.38

Intertextualität in den Mönchsviten des Athanasios und des Hieronymus: Eremiten zum Dialog bestellt

, Intertextualität in den Mönchsviten des Athanasios und des Hieronymus: Eremiten zum Dialog bestellt. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Band 390. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. ix, 174. ISBN 9783110699746 $103.99.

The emerging monastic movement of the fourth century was accompanied by the development of a new literary genre, the saint’s “life” (βίος, vita). As is well known, the first example of this kind of text was Athanasius’ Life of Antony, written shortly after the latter’s death in 356. It would seem that this new genre was immediately successful: within two decades, his Life had been translated into Latin twice, and a young and ambitious author had seized the occasion to complement Antony with the biography of another saint, Paul of Thebes. This author was, of course, Jerome, who later added the Livesof two other holy men, Hilarion of Gaza and Malchus. Therefore, Christian hagiography started with a tightly woven group of texts which were interrelated in many respects.

The present book—originally a PhD thesis in the field of Classical Philology submitted to the University of Göttingen in 2018—investigates the mechanisms of these interrelations by employing the hermeneutical lens and analytical tools of intertextuality. On the one hand, this is an obvious choice, since Antony himself appears in the Life of Paul as well as the Life of Hilarion, which suggests that Jerome was eager to highlight the interconnectedness of both saintly figures with Antony. On the other hand, the concrete representation of the respective ascetical ideals and achievements merit a closer look: references to Antony are used in different ways in Jerome’s three texts. Prädicow aims at distinguishing Jerome’s techniques of imitatio (or aemulatio, which is more competitive than simply repetitive) and of variatio with regard to the Athanasian pretext (in the intertextual sense of a “pre-text”). The German sub-title “Eremiten zum Dialog bestellt” could be translated as “hermits asked (or ordered) to come for dialogue”, p. 23); it implies that Jerome (as author) consciously arranges for these meetings, notwithstanding the question of the historical accuracy of his narratives (neither Paul nor Hilarion is mentioned in the Life of Antony or in any other contemporary sources pertaining to Antony). The book focuses exclusively on the literary creation of ascetic models or “heroes”[1] by construing intertextual relationships, and this strict focus is its strength but also its weakness (see below).

The argument develops in four major steps: after dealing with introductory questions (Chapter I), Prädicow analyzes the Life of Antony as an “imitated pretext” (Chapter II) and as a “varied pretext” (Chapter III) before offering her conclusions (Chapter IV). This structure mirrors the methodological approach (pp. 21–25): intertextuality is based on similarities and differences; the recognition of the pretext is as important as the legitimacy of the new text, and it is highly interesting how Prädicow spells out this intertextual interplay. She employs a concept of intertextuality that stems from modern English philology[2] and offers six aspects under which texts can be compared: the mode of reference to the pretext (“Referentialität”), the interrelation between author, reader and subject (“Kommunikativität”), the self-reference of the author to his reworking of the pretext (“Autoreflexivität”), the shape and argumentation of the texts (“Strukturalität”), the intentional selection or omission of topics (“Selektivität”), and the way in which the author engages with the meaning of the pretext (“Dialogizität”). These are fitting categories for a fruitful engagement with Athanasius’ and Jerome’s Lives, as the author shows through detailed comparisons of the Greek and Latin texts (which are always quoted in the original language with a German translation).

Concerning the imitatio, Prädicow underlines that Jerome’s monks, like Antony, follow Jesus in every respect of their life (p. 41) and thus incorporate “alle relevanten Gesichtspunkte einer musterhaften Mönchsexistenz” (p. 42, which presupposes that Athanasius had created an authoritative pattern of monastic life, but did not the Pachomian community provide an alternative model?). Jerome clearly draws upon the Athanasian Antony (p. 46) and employs many elements and motives that reveal his dependence on this pretext. In this context, Prädicow identifies three defining elements of asceticism—concealment, a new beginning, and chastity (p. 49)—each one of which she later identifies as crucial to at least one of Jerome’s Lives (p. 136): Paul’s anchoritic life is virtually unknown to the world until immediately before his death; Hilarion tries again and again to achieve such concealment but fails, as a result of his ever-increasing fame; and Malchus takes many detours before finding how to lead a life without being tempted by sexual desire. Viewed from this perspective, Jerome’s monks appear as eager (and successful) imitators of an overarching model of ascetic life.

As to variatio, the author notes that the Live of Paul does not narrate much of the hermit’s life and may have been modeled upon martyr acts (pp. 58, 61–62), and so she terms it a “para-vita” (p. 66). Jerome corrects Athanasius in several respects in order to show himself as a narrator of the true story of the first hermit (pp. 75, 135). While Paul is acknowledged by Antony as a (spiritual) father, the Life of Hilarion depicts Antony as a teacher of Hilarion, but the latter is eager to “make better” what Antony had begun (p. 82), with overwhelming success and increasing emancipation from the “father” (p. 98). The greatest differences appear in the Life of Malchus, which is a historia castitatis (p. 102) but resembles ancient romances and is characterized by a narrative framework: Malchus himself, as an old man, narrates his story and Jerome himself appears in the framing narrative (p. 105). This is very interesting, but one might ask whether ancient readers would have thought of the Life of Antony as intertext? There is a reference which the author correctly identifies (pp. 107–8), but the topic of chastity is presented without any explicit or (in my view) implicit reference to Antony. It seems probable that Jerome consciously parallels Malchus’ life and his own (pp. 114-22, 130–31), but then we would have to conclude that there is yet another intertext, the author’s own biography, not Antony’s (as the author herself suggests, p. 126). Consequently, the triptych of monastic biographies seems to fall apart with regard to intertextual links to the Life of Antony (which is a telling result as such). But viewed as a joint hagiographical project of Jerome, they form an illuminating triad of ascetic foci: Paul lives beyond (“abseits”) the world, Hilarion before (“vor”) the world, and Malchus in (“in”) the world (p. 147). And it is a nice experiment to let Antony detect certain shortcomings of Jerome’s saints, e.g., does Paul’s concealment not imply a dramatic loss of possibilities to help and teach other people, which is essential in the Life of Antony? The author concludes that Jerome, despite perhaps not presenting the perfect saint, offers his readership ample opportunities for imitating and varying ascetic models in their own way and therefore enters into dialogue with the hermits (p. 154).

In sum, Prädicow argues her case well. But questions remain. First of all, she does not allot much space to introductory questions: the monastic movement as such, Athanasius and the Life of Antony, and Jerome’s profile as author are dealt with in twenty-six pages altogether. Also the bibliography (four pages) is quite selective, given how much has been written on the origins on Christian hagiography. She states that Athanasius created a new genre (“Mönchsvita”) but then in a footnote refers to Van Uytfanghe, who introduced the notion of a hagiographical discourse (p. 7 n. 31) that comprises much more than only vitae. It should also be noted that Athanasius presents his text as a letter, so it is not really accurate for Prädicow to refer to it throughout her book as Βίος Ἀντωνίου. I agree with her that it is not necessary to reiterate the debate on Athanasius’ authorship of the Life of Antony (p. 7 n. 30), but one might have expected her to explain why she opts for the Greek text as Jerome’s pretext and not Evagrius’ Latin translation, which Jerome knew (pp. 8–9 n. 40). Intertextuality presupposes that readers can decipher intertextual relations, even if they are only alluded to, and thus it matters whether the imagined (Latin-speaking) readership would have had the Greek text in mind (which is a possible but not the most probable assumption). Secondly, I miss an awareness of historical issues. While this is clearly a literary study, Prädicow reckons with Athanasius and Jerome as well-known authors. Thus, I wonder whether she could have delineated the hagiographers’ profile more neatly (on one side the exiled bishop, deeply involved in the ecclesiastical struggles of his time; on the other side the young scholar without office or profession, searching for his place in church and society). Prädicow often refers to Jerome as “the Church Father”, but the author of the Life of Paul certainly did not yet deserve this name, and the notion of “Father” implies an authority that Jerome with his ever-disputed utterances and writings would gain only after his death. Thirdly, because this is a literary study, it comes as a surprise that the author refers to other intertexts only in passing, e.g., the preface of the Life of Probus within the Historia Augusta (pp. 87–88 n. 296) or the biographies of philosophers such as Pythagoras (pp. 148–49 n. 472), a figure who has often been claimed as model for Antony.[3] One could also point to Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina or the Lives of Pachomius to argue that there may have been even more intertextuality than just that between Athanasius and Jerome. Finally, while employing intertextuality as a hermeneutical tool is highly welcome as a complement to sociocultural and religious studies of late antiquity, it has already been applied to ancient and biblical texts[4] and even to saints’ Lives.[5] While the author succeeds in analyzing the dialogue between hermits (or, rather, their hagiographers), the task remains to contextualize her methodical approach within the burgeoning field of linguistic approaches to ancient texts.[6] It is certainly worthwhile to include Christian hagiography in these debates, and Prädicow’s book opens up interesting perspectives for future research.


[1] The author speaks only in passing of “Helden” and “Heroen” (p. 151; cf. pp. 89, 97) without referring to the question whether antique heroes may have served as prototypes of Christian saints; see Jan N. Bremmer, ‘From Heroes to Saints and from Martyrological to Hagiographical Discourse,’ in Sakralität und Heldentum, ed. Felix Heinzer et al. (Helden – Heroisierungen – Heroismen 6; Würzburg: Ergon, 2017) 35–66.

[2] Manfred Pfister‚ Konzepte der Intertextualität,‘ in Intertextualität. Formen, Funktionen, anglistische Fallstudien, ed. Ulrich Broich and Manfred Pfister (Konzepte der Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft 35; Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1985) 1–30.

[3] The debate is summarized by Jan N. Bremmer and Richard Reitzenstein, ‘Pythagoras and the Life of Antony,’ in Pythagorean Knowledge from the Ancient to the Modern World: Askesis, Religion, Science, ed. Almut-Barbara Renger and Alessandro Stavru (Episteme 4; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2016) 227–245.

[4] See, e.g., Craig Evans and H. Daniel Zacharias (eds.), Early Christian Literature and Intertextuality, 2 vols. (Library of New Testament Studies 391–392; London: T&T Clark, 2009), and Koen de Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen (eds.), Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[5] Unfortunately, the author could not take into account the following volume (and vice versa): Christoph Brunhorn, Peter Gemeinhardt, and Maria Munkholt Christensen (eds.), Narratologie und Intertextualität: Zugänge zu spätantiken Text-Welten (SERAPHIM 7; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020).

[6] Cf., e.g., Irene De Jong, Narratology and Classics. A Practical Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).