Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition

Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition

Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition

Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition


Between 300 and 600, Christianity experienced a momentous change from persecuted cult to state religion. One of the consequences of this shift was the evolution of the role of the bishop--as the highest Church official in his city--from model Christian to model citizen. Claudia Rapp's exceptionally learned, innovative, and groundbreaking work traces this transition with a twofold aim: to deemphasize the reign of the emperor Constantine, which has traditionally been regarded as a watershed in the development of the Church as an institution, and to bring to the fore the continued importance of the religious underpinnings of the bishop's role as civic leader.

Rapp rejects Max Weber's categories of "charismatic" versus "institutional" authority that have traditionally been used to distinguish the nature of episcopal authority from that of the ascetic and holy man. Instead she proposes a model of spiritual authority, ascetic authority and pragmatic authority, in which a bishop's visible asceticism is taken as evidence of his spiritual powers and at the same time provides the justification for his public role. In clear and graceful prose, Rapp provides a wholly fresh analysis of the changing dynamics of social mobility as played out in episcopal appointments.


The emperor, the holy man, and the bishop. These were the most powerful and evocative figures in late antiquity. They provided practical leadership, moral guidance, and the dispensation of favors. Their important position in society is illustrated by artistic representations such as the seventh-century mosaic from St. Demetrius in Thessalonike on the frontispiece of this book, which shows the youthful saint flanked by the bishop of the city and a civic dignitary as representative of the emperor. Emperors, bishops, and holy men also occupy center stage in the literary production of late antiquity. the ancient genre of panegyric in praise of emperors flourished on an unprecedented scale, the writing of church history where bishops were the protagonists was a new, pioneering effort, and various forms of hagiographical writing, especially saints’ Lives, were created to extol the virtues of holy men and women.

The interaction of emperor, holy man, and bishop can be seen in the Life of Daniel the Stylite. Inspired by the example of Symeon the Stylite, whose reputation as an exceptional ascetic and miracle worker attracted large crowds to his pillar near Antioch, Daniel established himself in a suburb of Constantinople in the mid-fifth century. the local priests reacted with resentment and jealousy to the presence of this stranger from Syria, whose decision to take up residence in an abandoned temple, and later on top of a pillar, seemed to generate a great deal of interest and admiration among the local population. in response to their complaints, the archbishop of Constantinople looked into the matter. in a personal meeting, he recognized Daniel’s spiritual strength and then convinced the clergy that their suspicions were groundless. the popular local cult of the holy man thus received the stamp of approval from the highest ecclesiastical authority.

Over the following years, the Life explains, Daniel became something like . . .

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