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

Article excerpt

Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition. By Claudia Rapp. [The Transformation of the Classical Heritage.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005. Pp. xii, 346.)

The European Enlightenment has proven remarkably successful in convincing later generations not only that religious matters can be separated from secular ones, but that such a distinction is natural. This has hampered scholarly efforts to understand societies in which that distinction is foreign. Claudia Rapp here successfully draws a systematic portrait of episcopal authority in late antiquity which consciously eschews the binary secular/religious model. Her model, based on late antique discussions of leadership, is that late antique bishops exercised leadership through three modes of authority: spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic. Spiritual authority is a divine gift of the Spirit, of which individuals are passive recipients. Ascetic authority is achieved through the personal efforts of individuals to improve and perfect themselves. Pragmatic authority arises from the deeds individuals do on behalf of others. Whereas anyone can gain ascetic authority through proper personal conduct, only those with the material resources to undertake actions benefiting others can gain pragmatic authority.

This model is an attempt to take seriously the contemporary terminology used to discuss the ideal characteristics of bishops. Ascetic authority is the lynch-pin in this system. Rapp's most forceful point is that bishops strove to practice asceticism and were praised by their contemporaries insofar as they succeeded. They endeavored to conform to the same ideals of behavior as monks and, like monks, gained authority through their ascetic achievements. Successful practice of asceticism was considered a sign that one possessed gifts of the spirit and hence had spiritual authority. Ascetic authority was also the "motivation and legitimation" of pragmatic authority (p. 18). Rapp successfully makes the case that "pragmatic authority never seems to exist on its own but is embedded in a larger context where spiritual and ascetic authority also play their part" (p. …


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