Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History. By Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. 2 vols. (Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2005. Pp. xxiv, 455; xxvi, 734. $99.95.)
Two questions are especially raised by this weighty but finely translated survey. First, what does one mean by "Christian Literature"? second, what should one make of the new subtitle, "A Literary History"? (The original title, Storia delta letteratura, is equally problematic; and comparable difficulty arises with titles like Histoire littéraire or Literaturgeschichte.) The authors suggest (1, xi) that "literatures" are defined by their languages, whereas Christian literature is defined by its content. They admit that the languages used have their own histories and therefore their own effects; but they would not divide Christian literature in the first instance according to language.
One should note at once the authors' deliberate omission of material in Syriac and other languages of the Oriens christianus. It is true that the earliest Christian texts have to be placed within the context of (predominantly Greek) Hellenistic culture, which they modified by their particular approach to sacred texts and sacred rituals, to the Hebrew Bible, and the sacramental life. Yet the impact of languages further east, not to mention Hebrew itself and Aramaic, had become apparent by the second century at the latest, and continued to grow in importance. It also has to be borne in mind that several elements of early Christian literature survive only in their "eastern" translations and recensions-which raises the immediate question of whether the survivals mirror accurately the originals. In short, it is no longer acceptable to fly the Greek-and-Latin flag and still lay claim to an inclusive "Christianity."
I also think an opportunity was lost when the authors turned to the Latin tradition, in which "the importance of the Bible . . . was utterly decisive" (I, 318). Here a new thread could have been identified and pursued; but that does not happen, and in particular there is never an attempt to set down in one place a comparison between the Greek biblical tradition, so conscious (with time) of both the Hebrew and the Septuagint texts, and the Latin tradition, based essentiaEy (until Jerome) on a translation or translations. How odd, also, to confine to a chapter on "The First Christian Literature of the West" the observation that Christians "tried to find in the Bible elements that could be matched to standards by which secular texts were usually judged" (1, 323)-hardly a peculiarity of the West.
A real attempt is, however, made to define a literary history. "Literary forms and genres were adapted to the needs of the new faith," and "literary history focuses on the development of literary forms in relation to the development of institutions and ideas" (I, xiii). In other words, needs, institutions, and ideas have a certain priority, an explanatory force in relation to the texts themselves (even though the needs are betrayed to us only in texts). These are brave avowals, but the temptation to rest content with textual forms alone is never quite resisted. "In literature," the authors declare, "it is not possible to reach the same certainty-or probability-as in the interpretation of historical or economic facts" (whatever they are, I, 317), which is to overlook their earlier suggestion that the two have to go hand in hand: if one lacks security, then so does the other. When we come, in the second volume, to the period after Constantine,we find amore explicit emphasis on "rhetoric," which encourages or demands "a reading that includes formal structures as part of the linkage of literature with its times"-which must consist in part, one assumes, in "needs, institutions, and ideas." "In late antiquity," we learn, "reality and rhetoric were closely connected in an indissoluble symbiosis" (II, 9). Is this a new phenomenon? Why do we not hear more about it?
Let us take a particular example, relating to gnosticizing gospels. (One has to admire, by the way, the analysis of "canonical" and "apocryphal" gospels as a single phenomenon, I, 30 f.) The "Gnostic" gospels, like their canonical confrères, are preoccupied among other things with competing claims to authority. They display a confidence of their own in their predominantly dialogue style, which contrasts with the more historical and developmental emphases of the canonical narratives. There is a choice of leadership and instruction hidden here, which provokes a particular curiosity about the competing claims of teachers and presbyters and a general curiosity about the relationship between text and power. Not enough is made of this, either as an identifiable theme or as a theoretical issue (which comes first: the text that supports the leadership, or the leadership that is reflected in the text?).There is, indeed, little on the development of episcopacy, in spite of an early chapter on "ecclesiastical discipline and homilies" (1,126 f.); and the papacy in particular merits a mere snippet (I, 318).
One is led to ask, therefore, how chapters function in the book as a whole. Gospels are treated, as I say, in one chapter; but then we have a separate account of "The Johannine Tradition" (1,75 f.), and other New Testament texts are separated according to category-apocalypse (I, 85 f.), letter (I, 101 f.), treatise (I, 112). What methodological policy lies behind such groupings (and overlaps)?
There are chapters and lengthy sections devoted to writers of major significance, and they often seem to mark what are perceived as moments of major development or change. Clement of Alexandria, for example, exemplified (he did not originate) a crucial transition from an essentially post-Jewish to a neoclassical tradition: "he takes his place on the border between a Christianity that adopts secular literary forms and a Christianity wholly focused on its own oral tradition and concerned essentially with an intense labor on its own Scriptures and sacred traditions, still substantially using the tools of Judaism" (I, 266). Origen gets a chapter entirely to himself (I, 268 ff.), and is pleasingly presented as both venturesome and loyal: "faithful not only to the Scriptures but to the church," and anxious "to offer not a close, rigid system but an open-ended study, which he urges all to pursue on their own" (I, 289). The chapter on "The Christian Literature of Africa" (I, 329 ff.)-devoted for the most part, naturaEy to Tertullian and Cyprian-introduces the arresting notion that Africa's prominence in the Christian tradition merely matches its importance as the native land of Pronto and Apuleius (I, 329). As we could expect, Augustine is another figure treated separately at length (II, 362-409).
These self-contained analyses are not, however, typical of the work as a whole. It is more common to find elements oddly scattered, with corresponding breakages in sequence. I have mentioned the separation of "The Johannine Tradition" from both gospels and later apocryphal and Gnostic developments. Irenaeus is set apart from Apologists, especially Justin, which interrupts any coherent treatment of, for example, Logos theology. The formation of the New Testament canon is presented in the first volume, but in a diffuse form; and we have to wait until II, 200-235 for a fuller treatment of apocrypha and their gradual exclusion.
The difficulty is accentuated in the second volume, which makes in some ways a fresh start, and reflects the heavier influence of Moreschini. There is a more forceful definition of "literature": it does not include "documents," but represents rather "something that does not have a purely practical purpose" (II, xvii). The writers congratulate themselves here on a "disarming simplicity"; but it proves in the end only a recipe for vagueness. How does one decide whether a document is not literary? And in what sense is literature never purely practical? Poetry fares well in this work, albeit in fits and starts; but hagiographical texts, sadly, are regarded as only "marginally" literary (II, xviii), even though they merit a later treatment in at least their Latin guise (II, 348 f.). The Life of Antony makes no appearance as a text (except as translated by Evagrius, II, 325), even in an earlier chapter devoted in part to "Ascetics" (II, 57 ff.)-although Antony's Letters are mentioned briefly (II, 62-63).
The historical framework, meanwhile, is presented in familiar but now debatable form. Continuity (especially of "forms") is less evident in the West than in the East (even though, apparently, "late antiquity was marked by an evolution of literary forms," II, 11). We begin to detect, we are told, "clearer divisions" (although the implied lack of earlier clarity is not described), divisions that "herald the new (medieval) culture" (II, xvii). The differences are then explained simply by the presence or absence of barbarians-"the break in literary traditions that was caused by the barbarian invasions" (II, 236). No sector of the West, therefore, was exempt from "barbarism," and there were no barbarians in the East.
The authors' touch here is less certain. Therefore on the one hand, late antique Christianity is set firmly in an era of "decadence" marked by the "exhaustion of pagan thought" (II, 1-3). The Church, at least in the West, begins to separate itself from the state, and in that sense separates religion from the state's control-an important novelty. We observe the development of a "new social reality" (II, 2). So is Gibbon deftly overlaid with more recent depictions. Then, on the other hand, we are made to veer away from decadence and exhaustion. Exhaustion was not, apparently, a sign of decadence, but "signified a transformation and at the same time a continuity" (II, 6). We now have to believe in "basic cultural elements shared by all these writers without exception," and in a species of "social conditioning, which yielded a shared esthetic outlook"; a conditioning (or an outlook) imposed "by a fixed set of social conditions coming from the culture they received prior to and independently of any and every literary activity and creation" (all in II, 7).The interior contradictions and the changed senses (compared with the first volume) of both "literature" and "continuity" are evident enough.
So, one is saddened by a loss, in this second volume, of any attempt to trace development and textual relations. The most telling (and weary) symptom of indifference is the readiness to make heresy and controversy the governing frame. "Western Christian Culture," for example, is subsumed under Arianism (II, 236 ff.).This is the context provided for Ambrose (II, 268 ff.)-even though he is eventually characterized in a way that belies his implied significance in a chapter of such a sort: he disclosed "a Christian spirituality that was warm and welcoming"; his sermons were "sensitive, reflective, and carefully thought out" (echoing Christine Mohrmann);"his art ... embraces everything in a kind of psalmic garb, halfway between prose and poetry"; and "for him ideas were never separable, or separated, from the echoes they could awaken in the hearts of the listeners" (II, 287). Jerome is comparably squeezed within a broader chapter (II, 298-320)-albeit devoted to "Science and Biblical Philology"-along with Rufinus and Pelagius. How he would have loved that! Indeed, further conjunctions are even more bizarre."As happens," we read,"in periods of great cultural fervor a happy homogeneity unites the major figures among themselves and the minor figures with the major" (II, 299)-the happy homogeneity aligning Jerome with Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine! Only the Cappadocians are allowed to escape into a chapter of their own (II, 81-135).
What might one suggest instead? Surely, the development of the homily alongside the related but distinct skill of the commentary, dominates the Christian literary scene in this period. There are dispersed treatments of homily-relating to Basil, for example (II, 96-99), and Chrysostom (II, 149-155)-and there is an interesting section on stenography (II, 236-237). Commentary one has to rummage for-in the section, for example, on Didymus (II, 70-80)-but the emphasis is on the senses of Scripture (yes, we have a chapter on The Antiochene School," II, 136-177, which is where Chrysostom is forced to find his literary niche).There is little on the "needs" or the "institutions and ideas" so confidently appealed to earlier; on the "indissoluble symbiosis" of reality and rhetoric. The social circumstances of homily, the purposes of commentary, are left aside. To take only one example, Averil Cameron's Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire, published years before Moreschini and Norelli's original Italian Storia, showed how we should now harmonize the varied elements of "discourse," including literary discourse, in this turbulent and inventive age. In that connection, by the way, it is difficult to understand why, on the subject of "Christianity and Ancient Education," we are limited to a study of Synesius and Nonnus (II, 178 ff.); rather than of Basil and Augustine (although De doctrina Christiana eventually gets its treatment, II, 377-381).
From this point, we descend quickly into mere miscellany. The chapter on "The Age of the Barbarian Invasions in the West" (II, 410 ff.) does nothing to bring together in any unified way the more than thirty writers mentioned. In particular, it gives no vivid impression of how western Christians reacted, at a literary level, to the barbarian event; this is no updated Histoire littéraire des grandes invasions. And look who is tightly squeezed into this assortment: Orosius (II, 413-415), Cassian (II, 432-436), Sidonius (II, 457-460), and Leo (II, 462-465). The authors then explicitly admit that they are not sure what distinguishes this chapter from the one following, "The Literature of the RomanoBarbarian Kingdoms of the West" (II, 470 ff). Here we come up hard against their uncertainty as to how to create an integrated account. Kingdoms in the fifth century were apparently "still in flux," but in the sixth century "solidly established." Yet, in the very next sentence, it becomes clear that they were nothing of the kind (II, 470). At one moment, older forms were "gradually vanishing," but then we lurch into "fragmentation," seen as "a characteristic of sixthcentury literature" (II, 470). Again, nearly thirty writers are treated individually in some sixty pages; and Boethius, Ennodius, Cassiodorus, Gregory of Tours, Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville are lumped together under a catch-all heading. Benedict gets one smaË paragraph (II, 498); compare the space devoted earlier to Cassian, Eucherius, and the Lérins writers (II, 432-439).
The final section on the East is equally disappointing. We start with an emphasis on Ephesus and Chalcedon as unifying factors; the resulting sense of inadequacy echoing that induced by the Arian focus earlier. There is a chapter on "Asceticism and spirituality in the Greek World" (II, 631 ff.); but we are not told why we should happily separate the writers concerned from their western counterparts and from the earlier treatment of "monasticism" as a distinct category (II, 61-64). Views of the past, we learn, were now predominantly ecclesiastical-a view that might have surprised Jordanes or Gregory of Tours. Analysis of the chronicle as a distinguishable genre is first applied to Prosper: "with him the chronicle henceforth replaces aE history in the narrower sense of the term" (II, 421). One assumes that the authors mean in the West: Malalas is tacked onto the end of the chapter on "Greek Christian Historiography" (II, 685 f.).
What starts out as a "literary history," therefore, ends in the realm of the encyclopedia. A brave attempt has been abandoned. The work will have to compete, therefore, with other studies more honest about their aspirations. One thinks, for example, of Siegmar Dopp and Wilhelm Geerlings' excellent Dictionary of Early Christian Literature (also translated by Matthew O'Connell). It bears saying also that, while the English translation may naturally continue to favor an Italian bibliography and scholarly antecedents, it seems odd that several works originally in English are cited in their Italian translations, as is also the case with primary texts.
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