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Introduction: John's World
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Introduction: John's World

Language and Culture

Syriac began as a dialect of Aramaic, spoken in the region of Edessa early in the first century of the Christian Era.[1] It grew quickly as both the primary vernacular and literary language of the Syrian Orient: the Roman provinces of Mesopotamia, Syria, Osrhoene, and their neighboring Persian provinces. But it became, too, the lingua franca over a much wider area of the eastern Roman frontier. It was used by traders throughout the East, in Persia and into India, and as far into the Latin West as Gaul.[2] Over time, Syriac built an impressive cultural and literary strength in its own right.[3] Its survival to this day in southeastern Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of India has been largely due to its hold as a religious force in the liturgies of the Syriac-speaking churches. Although the Middle Ages under Islamic domination brought a serious decline in Syriac literature, apart from that for liturgical or ecclesiastical use, recent generations have brought a renewal of it once again.[4]

Throughout its existence, Syriac has been a language in tension with other, more influential languages. Perhaps more than any other factor, this has shaped its history. It may have been spurred to full development as a reaction against its religious setting in the first century: the Jewish and pagan connotations of Aramaic and Greek facilitated Syriac's adoption as a cultural vehicle for Christianity, particularly in a geographical area where the population prided itself on the primacy of an early affirmation of the Christian faith, in contrast (or so Edessans claimed) to the


Greco-Latin realm.[5] Indeed, Syriac has remained for the most part a Christian language, producing a primarily religious literature. Furthermore, unlike Greek, which struggled in late antiquity to reconcile Hellenic tradition and Christian context in its literary forms, Syriac developed as a Christian medium; relatively young as a literary language, it was free of the archaizing pressure exerted on Hellenic literature. Once begun, its development came quickly.[6]

The Syrian Orient was less submissive to the ascendency of Hellenic aesthetics than the provinces of Asia Minor, in part because after the Roman conquests this area had maintained a degree of political autonomy longer than had the western provinces. Its culture represented the inheritance of the ancient Near East—Babylon, Assyria, Palestine, and influence from the Arab peninsula.[7] During the early Christian period, Hellenism was present as a strand within this sophisticated matrix, and our earliest Christian texts from this region circulated in both Greek and Syriac versions.[8] Hellenic philosophy appears in the theological speculations of Bardaisan of Edessa (d. 222) and in some of the heretical movements, especially Marcionism and, later, Arianism (causing Ephrem Syrus to rail against the "poison . . . of the Greeks").[9] But it does not emerge as a dominant force until the fifth and sixth centuries. The Syrian Orient was Christianized mainly through semitic Judaism rather than pagan religion or philosophy; its religious culture continued to reflect that heritage and differed from those of the Greco-Latin churches accordingly.[10] There was, too, a further cultural factor involved: the Syrian Orient was the trading crossroad that brought East and West together. The wealth of artistic and religious influences that mingled in this area generated a literary fertility evident in the Greek as well as in the Syriac writing produced in the eastern Roman provinces.[11]

Thus in the syncretism of the late antique Greco-Roman world, Syriac language and culture were in a position to give as well as to take—unlike, for example, their Coptic counterparts in Egypt or the Armenians to the north.[12] The position of Syriac was strengthened further by the growth of its own academies during the second half of the fourth century. Edessa was the first city of the Syrian Orient to gain recognition as a center of scholarship, though the school in Edessa had been transferred from its original location at Nisibis. In the fifth century, religious persecutions against the Nestorians led to the spread of Syriac schools into Persia, where they flourished perhaps most illustriously again at Nisibis.[13] The existence of the Syriac academies was to some degree responsible for the way in which Hellenism infiltrated Syriac culture. The use of Syriac as the teaching language and the consequent task of trans-


lating Greek literature, particularly under pressure for theological dialogue, caused a gradual impact, one in which Greek gained the greater privilege in the eyes of the Syriac literati during the fifth and sixth centuries.[14]

Despite the antipathy of Greek culture to outside ("barbarian") influences, Syriac succeeded in creating a two-way interaction. Although translations of Syriac texts into Greek are minimal compared with those in reverse, what was chosen to be translated from Syriac is important.[15] Syriac hymnography made an early and lasting impression on Greek literature. The fourth-century hymns of Ephrem Syrus were translated into Greek during the poet's own lifetime; the form and imagery he developed probably provided the inspiration for the later Greek kontakion, especially as crafted by Romanos Melodos.[16] Not unrelated, perhaps, was the attraction felt toward certain Syriac mystical writings, a tradition culminating with Isaac of Nineveh in the seventh century and John the Solitary in the eighth. These were translated and used in Byzantine monasteries, deeply affecting Byzantine spirituality.[17]

But hagiography was undoubtedly the sphere in which Syriac made its greatest contribution because its legends and themes were more important than its literary forms. Influence could be exerted not through translations or aesthetic issues—both areas in which Greek was grudgingly receptive—but through the stories themselves. The legends of Euphemia and the Goth, Alexius the Man of God, Sergius and Bacchus, Cosmas and Damian, Pelagia the Penitent, to name but the obvious ones, are all examples of stories originating in the Syrian Orient (Cosmas and Damian may in fact have been Arabs),[18] which were told and retold in a variety of versions, in numerous languages, and which sparked related motifs that flourished too.[19]

During the fifth century, the influence of Hellenism increased in Syriac culture, language, and literature, fueled above all by the Christological disputes that broke out over the course of that century.[20] The ensuing pressure for dialogue with the Greek theologians and with the imperial government at Constantinople led to a change in translation techniques that mirrored a larger cultural shift: the translation of Greek into Syriac became increasingly precise, with the emphasis (and thus the prestige) placed on faithfulness to the Greek text, whatever the result in Syriac. The need to interact effectively with Greek leaders and theologians created a need for Greek-educated Syrian scholars; indeed, the majority of Syriac writers and translators between the fifth and seventh centuries acquired their academic training in Greek-speaking centers.[21]

However, the theological controversies led to more than linguistic


change. In the effort to make dialogue more effective, Syrian theologians had to gain skills in Greek intellectual disciplines. By the sixth century, many Syrians reveal marked Hellenic influence on their thought and theological dialectic; significantly, despite the continuing development of Syriac thought,[22] the learned Greek theologian Severus of Antioch provided the "Monophysite" system on which Syrian Orthodoxy has rested ever since.[23]

The full impact of Hellenism on the Syrian Orient can be seen during the sixth century, but the shift was not in itself destructive. The decline of Syriac language and literature came later, under Arab rule, when the linguistic similarity of the two languages surely aided the rapid adoption of the rulers' tongue.[24] The sixth century, instead, witnessed a creative integration of Hellenic and Semitic thought: a situation that briefly shone with promise. This was the cultural juncture at which John of Ephesus wrote his Lives of the Eastern Saints , and in which his stories are set.

Culture and Religion: Early Groups and Features

The most striking feature of early Syrian Christianity, and the most difficult to assess, is its inherent asceticism. For the early church of the Syrian Orient, asceticism was not a marginal phenomenon, an activity of extremists hovering at the fringes of the mainstream Christian church; nor was it an external element, arriving from the "exotic" religions of the East and assimilated into the budding Christian ethos. Extremists there were, and external influences there were. But for the early Christian communities of the Syrian Orient, asceticism was at the heart of Christian understanding and Christian life.[25]

During the fourth century, a common movement prevailed throughout the Christian communities of the Roman Empire: to bring the various forms of Christianity as a whole into conformity, in essence following the characteristics of the "mainstream" Greco-Latin churches. This movement brought a number of changes to the texture of Syriac spirituality. One such change was the idea that asceticism could be a separate vocation within Christianity, distinct from the practices of the laity and from the requirements of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.[26] But in earliest Syrian Christianity, asceticism held a fundamental place. It was basic to the Syrian understanding of the Bible, both in model and in precept; it was essential sacramentally; and it was devotional, practiced to various


degrees by the laity as well as by the consecrated. Moreover this ascetically toned spirituality is found in almost all forms of early Christianity in the Syrian Orient, whatever the particular perspective—"orthodox," Gnostic, Marcionite, or Manichean.[27]

Syrian Christianity inherited from Judaism[28] a religious tradition that stressed the importance of behavior. Both the Old and the New Testaments gave ample witness that devotion to God meant pursuing God's purpose with body as well as with soul, starting with the abandonment of society's comforts—family, home, and community. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and Paul, as well as Christ, were favorite models for the Syrians. Here as elsewhere, the Syrian Orient displayed the tendency to literalize symbols; that is, the literal and figurative aspects of interpretation were seen to be the same, and so too were one's actions and their symbolic meanings.[29] Asceticism as symbolic behavior provided the believer the means for enacting biblical images of salvation. The significance of asceticism was enhanced by the particular Bible in use: Tatian's Diatessaron was until the fifth century the most popular version of the Gospels in the Syrian Orient, and often the only one. Tatian not only edited the Gospels into a harmony but further made clear by his editing and manner of translation (sometimes close to paraphrase) that renunciation was the model presented in the Gospels and was indeed demanded of the Christian believer in all circumstances.[30]

The influence of the Diatessaron encouraged those who saw the Christian ideal of renunciation in terms of a dualist understanding: the material world and the physical body were inferior to those of the spiritual realm, if not outright channels for evil. There were, however, further Biblical models developed in early Christian writings that were not grounded in a dualist perspective but led nonetheless to an ascetic basis for Christian life; and these, in the ethos of Syrian spirituality, were seen to present models for literal, physical translation into the life of the believer.

In the earliest Christian sources from the Syrian Orient (as elsewhere in the Christian realm), a favorite epithet for Christ was the Heavenly Bridegroom.[31] The marriage feast parables in the Gospels produced an imagery through which Christian believers understood themselves as betrothed to Christ, an image developed early on in Syrian baptismal tradition.[32] By this image, the believer was declared wholly given to God, body and soul. Celibacy was an ubiquitous value in early Syrian Christianity. But celibacy was not necessarily a matter of refusing to participate in the imperfection of the physical world. It was a matter of being utterly devoted to God. Body and soul were in this view inseparable.


Thus into the third century, and perhaps longer, celibacy was often a vow taken at baptism, or later after having one or two children.[33] Two categories of celibacy were recognized: the bthuile, "virgins," and the qaddishe, "holy ones," the married who practiced continence. Spiritual marriage, the way of the qaddishe , was commonly followed as a means of combining the social functions of marriage with the life of faith.[34] Indeed, when the mainstream church attempted to curtail the practice of spiritual marriage in Christian communities during the late third century and thereafter, the Syrian Orient proved the most difficult to change in this respect. The idea of celibacy was, for Syrian spirituality, more than an ideal; it was fundamental. Hence, in earliest Syrian Christianity, the word bthula , "virgin," could also mean "Christian," whether male or female, lay or religious.[35]

The growth of the bnay and bnath qyama , consecrated lay offices for both men and women, was also important. Well-established as a part of Syriac Christianity by the third century, these "Covenanters," or "Sons and Daughters of the Covenant," lived a celibate and regulated life—by the fifth century, canonically ruled—and served the Church while living in the Christian community. They functioned together with the normative ecclesiastical structure and were a feature of the Syriac churches that survived into the Islamic period. The Sons and Daughters of the Covenant were organized as a kind of elite congregation within the church, offering a vocational form of Christian life available to the laity.[36] Emphasis on celibacy and service to the church, then, were widely found in Syriac Christianity before the growth of a separate ascetic movement.

The eschatological settings of the marriage feast parables in the New Testament also encouraged the ascetic nature of Syriac Christianity.[37] To engage in activities that furthered the existence of this earthly life only delayed the inevitable—and desired—arrival of the eschaton.[38] Christ as Second Adam had opened the gates of Paradise anew for those who were saved and promised their return to that state of grace lived by the First Adam and Eve before the Fall.[39] To hasten the fulfillment of this event, the believer lived in its expectation and sought in every way possible not to contribute to the continuing existence of this earthly realm, for example, by the procreation of children.

But even further, the Syrian understanding brought a literal living out of life in the eschatological Paradise, as prefigured by Adam and Eve. More than a matter of celibacy, this understanding sometimes led the believer to adopt a life of stark symbolism: living naked in the wilderness exposed to the elements, eating only raw fruit and herbs, dwelling among the wild beasts, and leading an unbroken life of prayer. These


precursors of the monastic movement understood the Christian life in its absolute sense; the believer was saved and so no longer part of the fallen world.[40] The believer lived what the true eschatological reality promised. To live as if it had already come was to hasten its actual coming; but there was, too, a palpable sense that to live as if it had already come was to accomplish its actuality.

Early Syrian Christianity evoked extreme action through a spirituality that called for lived symbols. Such action pointed to one more characteristic intensifying the sense that Christianity without asceticism was incomplete (perhaps even unthinkable):[41] that is, the idea of "singleness."[42] A notion rooted in Judeo-Christianity's emphasis on single-minded devotion to God, "singleness" gave particular meaning to the ideal of celibacy. The believer was to be single-mindedly focused on the divine; the believer lived a single, unmarried life to enable that focus. Christ himself had lived such a "single" life of devotion to God's purpose. In Syriac, the word meaning "single one," ihidaya, was also used to connote Christ as the "only begotten" ("single") one of God; it became a word commonly used for and interchangeable with other technical terms for the ascetic or the monk. Just as in earliest Syrian Christian terminology the word meaning "virgin," bthula, could also mean "Christian," so too the word for "single one" (and indeed, for "only begotten") could also mean an ascetic and later a monk.

Thus from various sources Syriac spirituality nourished the conviction that to be a Christian was to be single-minded, and to be celibate, and to live a life of renunciation. The roots of Syrian asceticism, then, surpassed those of dualism. Traditionally, scholars have sought to understand the phenomenon of early Syrian asceticism in terms of a dualistic ethos, which was in fact distinctly bred into the popular religious culture of late antiquity, particularly in the Christian East.[43] The major heretical groups present in the Syrian Orient shared an understanding that separated the spiritual and physical realms and from various angles glorified celibacy. The Marcionites sought to fulfill literally the apostolic injunction that in Christ there is neither male nor female; the Manicheans and some Gnostics understood matter to be evil and so encouraged dissociation from it; baptism was interpreted in some groups as betrothal to Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom, and thus reduced earthly marriage to adultery.[44]

The presence of such a strongly dualistic mind-set could not but affect the wider popular attitudes of the Syrian Orient during the early Christian centuries. The ideas discussed earlier here—renunciation, celibacy, Paradise fulfilled, and singleness—all lend themselves easily to


dualistic developments. Certainly, such developments did take place and are to some extent responsible for the direction that Syrian asceticism took when it emerged during the course of the fourth century as an autonomous and defined movement within the orthodox Christian culture.[45] But it would be misleading to regard heterodox dualism as the only source of Syrian asceticism. On the contrary, the most influential and enduring aspect of early Syrian Christianity was the concept of the essential "oneness" of the believer's self, a "oneness" of body and soul. The importance of religious behavior is here placed in context: what one does with one's body is indistinguishable from what one believes.

Culture and Religion: Early Ascetic Forms

The clearest early expression of this oneness in relation to the divine is seen in the Odes of Solomon , perhaps our oldest nonbiblical Syriac text.[46] Scholars have reached no consensus on the original language of these hymns—Greek or Syriac—or on their date: theories range from the late first to the third century, with the late second century being the most likely.[47] But there is no doubt that they are Syrian in provenance, and they illustrate this aspect of Syrian spirituality particularly well. The Odes reflect an all-consuming love of God, with the imagery of betrothal as much a bodily experience as a spiritual understanding.[48] There is a sensuousness, an intense physicality to the expression of worship in these hymns, devoid of sexuality despite the bridal imagery that underlies it.[49] So, for example, Ode 40:

2. As a fountain bursts forth its water,
so my heart bursts forth the praise of the Lord,
and my lips bring forth praises to Him.

3. And my tongue becomes sweet by His anthems,
and my limbs are anointed by His odes.

4. My face rejoices in His exultation,
and my spirit exults in His love,
and my soul shines in Him.[50]

The act of self-giving is such that the believer is borne into the presence, and even into the very being of God;[51] one of the greatest difficulties a scholar has with these Odes is to separate (in some of them) the voice of Christ from that of the believer—to such a degree is the act of union absolute. This union is played out in another image, both physical and spiritual: the believer prays in the form (position) of a cross and in


that stance is mystically lifted into the presence of God as was Christ himself.[52] But the image is qualified: it is the cross that leads to resurrection, to the throne of glory, rather than the crucifixion that the believer symbolically becomes in the act of prayer. The distinction is crucial. Nowhere in the Odes do we hear of the suffering of Christ, an omission that contributed to the questionable orthodoxy of these hymns. Here the cross holds the symbol of Christ's exaltation, and of supplication; no more, but also no less.[53]

In the fourth century, the imagery of betrothal remained primary. At the same time, the fourth century brought the first real encounter with persecution and martyrdom that the Syrian Orient had known. For the Greco-Latin churches, persecution was a recurrent if sporadic event from Christianity's beginnings. But to the east of Antioch, matters transpired differently. Apart from a brief but contained outbreak in Persia in the 270s,[54] the earliest Syriac Christian martyrdoms occurred between 306 and 310, in the instance of the Edessan martyrs Shmona, Guria, and Habib.[55] Legend later added the prestige of earlier occurrences: during the fifth century, the literary cycle of the Edessan martyrs was expanded to include the Doctrina Addai , recounting the martyrdom of Aggai late in the first century;[56] and the Acts of Sharbil, Babai, and Barsamya , whose deaths were set in Edessa in 105 (though the events described would better place them in the persecutions of Decius).[57] But we have no evidence that these earlier martyrdoms took place, and the accounts as we have them are clearly part of the literary flowering that fifth-century Edessa engendered.

Thus the Syrian Orient was able to develop its Christianity largely without the threat of martyrdom and its particular framing of devotion to God.[58] Moreover, persecution was less severe when it did come. The final persecution campaigns at the turn of the fourth century witnessed the martyrdom of several Christians in Edessa and other major cities.[59] In the 340s, the Christian communities of Persia suffered more, in widespread campaigns conducted under Shapur II and coinciding with the Roman Empire's change to a favorable policy for Christianity.[60] A result of this chronology is that Syriac martyr passions draw on the ascetic imagery of Syriac spirituality rather than the reverse—as, for example, in the Life of Antony of Egypt , where asceticism is named living martyrdom.[61]

Shmona and Curia were two Christian laymen put to death in Edessa around the year 306. An account of their martyrdoms was written soon after.[62] In it, the two men speak without artifice: as Christians, they belong to God. Shmona says, "Our belief is our life in Christ."[63] Such conviction effectively transmutes the meaning of life and death. With words


heard in other Christian martyrdoms, Shmona says, "We are not dying . . . but living according to what we believe."[64] What is death is life; to live would mean to be dead. Indeed, Guria recalls the scripture, "He who loses his life for my sake shall find it."[65] They draw comfort from the stories they have heard of martyrs in other times and other places.[66] In sharp contrast to the contemporary accounts of martyrs by Eusebius of Caesarea, they are in no way "prepared" or "trained" to meet this event, as Eusebius' philosopher martyrs had been.[67] Equally striking is the absence of Satan's presence in these stories and in those of the other Edessan martyrs. The officials involved are portrayed as horrid enough but are never identified with the Adversary, as so often happens in Greek and Latin martyrs' passions.[68]

Shortly after these two deaths, the deacon Habib met a similar fate in Edessa. His story, by the same author, is even more emphatic.[69] When Habib refuses to make sacrifice even after severe torture, the governor exclaims in exasperation, "Does your doctrine teach you to hate your bodies?"[70] The governor implies either that Habib can utterly disregard his body or that he delights in the demise of his physical existence to the greater glory of his spiritual one—both ideas dear to Eusebius, as others.[71] But Habib responds with the simplicity of his Syrian predecessors: "We do not hate our bodies. We are taught that he who loses his life shall find it."[72] Rather than distinguishing between his body and his soul, Habib questions what true life and true death are, the question raised by the action of Christ in the resurrection.[73] Both the governor's question and Habib's response were repeated in the later account of the martyrdom of Sharbil, written contemporaneously with Simeon the Stylite's ascent on his pillar and the outcry of similar protest that his action provoked.[74]

Together these texts make no body/soul distinction but rather speak of life and death as matters for which the physical and spiritual meanings are inseparable. And in that statement we have a reasonable summary of what asceticism means, a meaning held equally by both Western and Eastern Christians: to be dead to the world as it is and alive to existence in the kingdom of God, an existence actualized by the ascetic's practice. Here we see life and death each understood as a state of existence in its own right, and each continuous both here and in the hereafter. They are mutually exclusive of one another, both in this world and the next.

In addition to martyrdom, the fourth century brought a shift in the Syrian Orient from Christianity as an ascetic religion to Christianity as a religion with asceticism as a possible vocation. The shift is marked in the


writings of Aphrahat the Persian (fl. 336–345) and Ephrem Syrus (d. 373), both "proto-monks" in the movement towards monastic communities.

Aphrahat is primarily concerned with celibacy as the starting point of Christian vocation.[75] It is the mark not only of betrothal to Christ, a joyful gift freely given and freely received,[76] but also of the call to participate in the holy cosmic war against the Adversary.[77] In his Demonstration 6, "On the Bnay Qyama," Aphrahat interweaves the concepts of betrothal to Christ, renunciation, service, holy war, and eschatology in a rich tapestry of biblical imagery and models representing a tradition he has inherited, the roots of which may well stem from Qumran and early sectarian Judaism.[78] He does not speak of the body as something to be subjugated to the soul—language pervading the roughly contemporary Life of Antony . Rather, body and soul are God's, as one; both are for His use and His work.

It is Ephrem who extols the exquisite beauty of betrothal as an image, addressing Christ the Heavenly Bridegroom, "The soul is your bride / the body your bridal chamber."[79] Or again, "O Lord, may the body be a temple for its builder / may the soul be a palace of praise for its architect."[80] For Ephrem, alienation of body and soul is the result of the Fall. In his Hymns on Nisibis 69, he writes:

3. . . . for you had joined them together in love, but they had parted and separated in pain.

4. The body was fashioned in wisdom, the soul was breathed in through grace, love was infused in perfection—but the serpent separated it in wickedness.

5. Body and soul go to court to see which caused the other to sin; but the wrong belongs to both, for free will belongs to both.

Now, however, the work of the incarnation has reconciled them once again:

14. Make glad the body with the soul; return the soul to the body; Let them have joy at each other, for they were separated but are returned and joined once more.[81]

Thus Ephrem can rejoice, "We love our bodies, which are akin to us, of the same origin."[82] And he can write this way at the same time that others are describing the startling Syrian ascetics living naked in the wilderness, their hair like eagles' feathers, physically enacting the image of life before the Fall, the true life of the saved believer.[83] It was Ephrem, too, who could exhort that virginity alone without acts of service was an insufficient offering to God, and that chaste marriage combined with


good works could be a better way: "their conduct having filled the place of virginity. For . . . their spirit was bound in the love of their Lord . . . with the desire for Him permeating all their limbs."[84]

The common thread that ties the early varieties of Syrian Christianity to an orthodox tradition is the understanding that body and soul must be united in the act of devotion. What changes over time are the context and circumstances in which the thread is found. In Syriac martyr passions, one finds a commentary on the meaning of asceticism: suffering, or hatred of the body, is neither the goal nor the purpose, but devotion of the whole self is. Aphrahat and Ephrem write about the meaning of devotion to God at a time when Syrian asceticism is shifting toward a defined movement. The extremity that came to characterize Syrian asceticism during the fifth and sixth centuries is well known. It may be that its harshness reflects the impact of the earlier dualistic ethos, or indeed the incorporation of the martyr experience into a spirituality that had come to bloom without that threat. Yet Aphrahat and Ephrem offer witness that the increasing extremity was not born only out of influence from a dualistic ethos but also could come from the search to live out, with one's whole self, betrothal (self-giving) to God.[85]

The two figureheads for Syrian ascetic tradition, praised in the hymns of their own day as well as in later legend, were Jacob of Nisibis (d. 338) in Persia and Julian Saba (d. 366/367) in Mesopotamia.[86] Each took to the wilderness to focus solely on the divine.

Jacob was a solitary in the mountains outside Nisibis.[87] During the spring, summer, and autumn seasons he lived exposed in the brush with the sky for his roof. In winter, he stayed in a cave. He ate only wild plants and denied himself the comfort of fire (for warmth or for cooking) and of clothing, having only his hair for a tunic. His spiritual excellence brought rewards: whatever he asked, God granted, blessing him further with the gift of prophecy. Not surprisingly, Jacob's virtue was discovered by others, and he was ordained bishop of Nisibis. He left his mountains but did not change his way of life. As bishop, he pursued a career of public good works and private asceticism. During the Arian crisis, Jacob traveled to the Council of Nicea to battle for orthodoxy. During the Persian siege of Nisibis he worked among the populace, strengthening their defense and sabotaging the efforts of the Persian soldiers. In the eyes of his public, his effective leadership was the result of his effective asceticism.

Julian Saba's life followed a parallel but contrasting course.[88] Julian, too, was an anchorite. He lived in a cave in the desert of Osrhoene and ate once a week, restricting his diet to meager quantities of barley bread, salt, and spring water. Prayer and psalmody were his primary activities. Julian's way of life brought him growing fame and soon a growing band


of disciples. They settled in nearby caves, ate as he did, and under his leadership practiced an asceticism of prayer, psalmody, and labor. Over time Julian's renown spread, and so too did testimonies to the deeds wrought by his prayers. Like Jacob, Julian returned for a time to society to work in opposition to the Arian challenge. Once he was taken seriously ill but worked his own cure by prayer as he had done for many others. Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote that the illness was a reminder of Julian's humanity.[89] Appropriately, Julian died in the quiet of his desert home.

Both Jacob and Julian found that the course of their ascetic withdrawal led them back to human society: for Jacob, by ordination to the see of Nisibis, and for Julian, by the growth around him of an ascetic community. Both worked to express divine purpose through action. Both saw fit to reenter worldly affairs by intervening in the crises of war and religious controversy. Neither claimed that his holy resolution absolved him of such commitments. Above all, neither softened his private way of life. The example they set terrified their enemies. It was said that armies were turned and dragons slain by their act of prayer.[90]

Jacob and Julian represent the archetypal Syrian saint, and their stories can be seen as blueprints for the hagiographies to follow. Within their mold, the Syrian Orient developed its ascetic tradition, centering on the individual whose life of devotion gained authority in both the divine and human realms. Yet the earlier features of Syriac Christianity were not supplanted. A separate ascetic institution began to arise during the fourth century, but its demarcation was not always clear. The tradition of the lay ascetic remained, the individual who lived a regulated life of chastity and prayer within society and who served the needs of the local congregation. Ephrem Syrus was himself one such individual, working tirelessly for the bishops of Nisibis and Edessa and known for his exceptional efforts on behalf of the needy when Edessa suffered a famine.[91] There continued in Syrian Christianity the understanding that faith required vocational activity and commitment from its adherents. At the same time, the growth of asceticism as an institution raised other issues for the Syrian Christian community.

Ascetism and Society

During the fourth century monasticism flowered across the Christian realm, and with it a critical role for the ascetic—the holy man or woman—to play in society. By their discipline and their conscious imitation of biblical models, especially from the Gospels, the ascetics enacted


the image of Christ. To the public this was more than imitation: in the image of Christ, the holy one could do what Christ had done. The ascetics could intercede for divine mercy, and they could be instruments of divine grace in this world; they were a channel between humanity and God that worked in both directions. The ascetic was the point at which the human and the holy met.[92]

Moreover, the ascetics blurred the lines separating the temporal and spiritual realms. Just as they could intercede effectively with the divine, so too could they intercede with the worldly powers below. It did not take long for the Christian community, great and small, to turn to the holy men or women for cures, exorcisms, advice, justice, and judgments in affairs private and public, personal and civil. Often seen as an attempt to leave the worldly for the spiritual, asceticism in fact carried heavy responsibilities in relation to the larger Christian society.[93]

The wider empire showed developments that paralleled the basic models of Syrian asceticism.[94] In the late third and early fourth centuries Antony had paved the route out to the Egyptian desert as anchorite, and back into the temporal world when he reentered Alexandria on behalf of the Bishop Athanasius.[95] In so doing, he sharpened the task of the ascetic vocation. There had been others before him of devotional practice, recluses who lived the life of prayer. In the desert Antony redefined the ascetic as one who fought the Adversary face-to-face, in the desolate and un-Christianized wilderness. Antony made "the desert a city," sanctifying a place where God had not been present. And he did more: he brought that strength back into Christian society. Indeed, as the prophets of old—Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist—and as Christ himself, Antony faced the wilderness as prelude to a career that involved much public ministry.[96] Soon after, in Cappadocia, Basil of Caesarea both established a form of devotional community dependent on corporate discipline—his monastery / hospice / hospital complex—and caused his friend Gregory of Nazianzus to leave his retreat and enter the church's battlegrounds.[97] It was not a far step from either position to that of the monastic forces utilized by Cyril of Alexandria early in the fifth century.[98]

The Syrian terrain and its vulnerable position as border country between the Roman and Persian Empires made it necessary for the early Syrian anchorites either to remain near to fortified towns or villages, as Jacob of Nisibis had done, or to bond together as a community, however loosely, as in the case of Julian Saba.[99] These factors marked Syrian asceticism with its own distinctive style. In Egypt, clear distance from the outside world was the desert's claim. Although sources indicate continual contact between the ascetics and society, both sides upheld the


ideal of that distance as a crucial element for the ascetic's vocation. In the Syrian Orient, proximity to the temporal society was a given. Even in texts describing anchorites, the dramatic isolation eulogized in Egyptian (as well as Palestinian) hagiography is rarely to be found. Furthermore, unlike Cappadocia, the structural patterns of different communities were rarely coordinated and their arrangements with the ecclesiastical organization were less elaborate.

The fifth century brought the full articulation of Syrian asceticism and established its place in relation to Christian society. Again, two figures mark the key developments: Simeon the Stylite (c. 386–459) outside Antioch, and the legendary Man of God in Edessa at about the same time. These two represent the poles of traditional asceticism, the wilderness and the city; and they represent the range of relationships possible for asceticism and society, in the huge cult following of Simeon and its antithesis in the anonymity of the Man of God.

Simeon was the unparalleled star of Syrian asceticism, known in his own day (and perhaps ever after) as the great wonder of the inhabited world.[100] Born in Syria of Christian parents and baptized as a child, Simeon grew up tending his father's flocks. A chance encounter led to his conversion to the ascetic life, and he left his home at once. Simeon passed through two monasteries in Syria, at Tel'ada and Telneshe, in his search for his true vocation, but his propensity for severe and eccentric practice led him into conflict with the developing Syrian monastic structure. Eventually he went his own way, first as a recluse and then, around 412, as stylite, mounting the first of three pillars, each higher than the one before. On the pillar he took up his stasis , his stance of continual prayer. The final pillar, on which he spent roughly the last forty years of his life, was about forty cubits high (sixty feet?). It had a platform on top about six-feet square, with a railing to keep him from falling off. Exposed on the mountain with no shelter of any kind, Simeon stood on his pillar midway between heaven and earth until his death at the age of more than seventy years. His career as holy man was spectacular. During his life, his fame had spread from Britain to Persia; the pilgrims who flocked to see him crossed the spectrum of late antique society from peasant to emperor, bringing him problems as mundane as cucumber crops and as complex as foreign policy.

On top of his pillar, Simeon lived exposed to heat, sun, ice, rain, and snow. Once he nearly died from a gangrenous ulcer on his foot. He followed a rigid schedule of stationary prayer, genuflexion, and attention to the pilgrims below. He was tended by disciples who climbed the pillar by ladder to bring him the sparse food he ate once each week when he


was not fasting. A monastic community grew up around the pillar base, which served not only the stylite but also the pilgrims who came. Twice a day Simeon would interrupt his prayer routine to hear problems and address exhortations to the crowds below. He judged disputes, addressed the affairs of the Church, proclaimed against heresy, and sent advice to the emperor, foreign kings, and other high officials; he preached, healed, exorcised, prophesied, and blessed the endless crowds.[101]

We possess three contemporary vitae for Simeon. Although we have nothing from his own words that explains why he climbed the pillar, these three sources offer different perspectives on what he was doing and why. Their differences are instructive. Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote about Simeon in his Historia religiosa while the saint was still alive (c. 444), when he had been on the pillar twenty-eight years and his cult was in full glory.[102] Theodoret uses the frame of Hellenic tradition to present Simeon as one for whom body and soul are mutually antagonistic in a battle of wills that forms the central focus for Simeon's career. To seek the resolution of the conflict, Simeon adopted a life of discipline and virtue in order to subjugate his body to his will. He represents the true philosopher, one who seeks the life of virtue by turning his mind wholly to the spiritual world above. In subduing his body to his soul, Simeon achieves an inward harmony through which he can turn the whole of his heart to God. Theodoret calls this the "angelic life"; for him, Simeon's ascent on the pillar represented his search for escape from the physical world. It was the "fatigue," the "unbearable toil"[103] from the weight of the world that drove him to be apart up on his pillar: he sought to "fly heavenward."[104]

Theodoret also takes the time to draw from an apologia apparently prepared by Simeon's monastic community and utilized also by the writers of Simeon's Syriac vita.[105] From this he defends Simeon's career as one that follows the Old Testament prophets: in seeking to reveal the will of God, the prophets often resorted to shocking behavior, which was as essential for their work as the message they spoke. But this is not where Theodoret finds the real key to Simeon's vocation; he focuses instead on the achieved discipline of the virtuous life.

In another vein altogether is the Syriac vita composed by the saint's disciples soon after his death.[106] It represents the saint's official story, the "authorized" version put out either by the community that continued to tend his shrine in its context as a major pilgrimage site or by those close to this community. Here there is no division of body and soul. Here, Simeon's conversion to the religious life is an act of love, the giving of himself into the very hands of God. "[He] cared for nothing except how


he might please his Lord. . . . [And] he loved his Lord with all his heart."[107] In Theodoret's story, the capacity to work miracles was something that Simeon gained over time; it accrued to him gradually, as he attained an ever purer discipline. By contrast, in the Syriac vita Simeon was capable of miracles from the moment he gave himself over to God. This was not a grace symbolically earned or achieved; it was the mark of his unity with God.

In the Syriac text, much more space is given to the apologia for Simeon's vocation on the pillar. Major prophets whose actions had shocked their communities—Isaiah walking naked, Hosea marrying the harlot, Jeremiah wearing yoke and thongs—are cited as so many precursors to Simeon's action, and his work is presented specifically as prophetic behavior.[108] Moses and Elijah figure most prominently in this presentation, both as models and as spiritual guides for the stylite.[109] The pillar is climbed because this is what God calls him to do.[110] Here Simeon becomes a stylite not in penitence, not to deny his body nor to discipline it, but because God requires it to fulfill his purpose.

The Syriac text places much emphasis on Simeon's cruciform prayer. But as earlier in the Odes of Solomon , this image is not likened to Christ's suffering on the cross. It is used to connote Christ's victorious stance in his triumph over Satan, a victory displayed again through the activity of Simeon on the pillar. The pillar itself is likened to a number of images. It is the high place from which the prophet speaks the word of God; it is the new Mount Sinai from which the new Law is dispensed; it is the crucible that purifies Simeon as gold through fire; it is the altar upon which Simeon is the incense rising heavenward as prayer; it is the mountain on which Simeon is transfigured as Christ himself was once transfigured; but Calvary it is not.[111]

It is only in our third text, the Greek vita written by Antony, an alleged disciple of Simeon, that we hear of Simeon's vocation as one of penance.[112] For Antony, the extremity of Simeon's practice represents his response to his sinful nature as fallen man, and it is sin that holds the focus of this text. Here even the saint's capacity to work miracles does not indicate his victory over sin; it is rather a grace despite Simeon's humanity. In this text Simeon's actions are only the search to achieve adequate repentance through ceaseless abasement and punishment. Unlike the other two sources, this one presents the ugliness of the saint's vocation as exactly that, with no attempt to mitigate its brutality.

The variations in these texts reveal that even the most extreme ascesis did not represent a clear religious stance; the notion of a dualism fundamental to Christian culture can neither account for Simeon's voca-


tion nor convey its meaning.[113] Rather, we are presented with a kaleidoscope of imagery, one that carries echoes from the entire spectrum of early Syrian Christianity, heterodox or orthodox.

Simeon's story illustrates another feature of the cult of saints. When he died, his body was moved to Antioch in an extraordinary procession. Seven bishops, the military governor of Syria, and an escort of six hundred soldiers accompanied the body to its resting place in the cathedral. The crowds en route were enormous. The procession took five days to reach Antioch, a distance of roughly forty miles. After his death, his cult continued to grow, with particular glory accruing to his shrine at Qal'at Sim'an housing the relic of his pillar, but figuring also at religious sites across Christendom, as far away as Gaul.[114] There came, too, the glory of those who followed Simeon's model: stylites became an important feature of Byzantine spirituality; imitators can be found as late as the mid-nineteenth century.[115]

Contemporaneously with Simeon's life and cult, the story of the Man of God appeared in Edessa.[116] The story itself is set in the years when Rabbula was Edessa's bishop (411–435) and was written perhaps between 470 and 475, the dates for the composition of the Syriac Life of Simeon . The two stories appear antithetical.

The story of the Man of God is a simple one. We do not know his name, nor the names of his parents, a noble Roman family. Born to a childless couple after many years, this son was from the beginning "an instrument chosen by God." His humility, even as a youth, was unsettling; in an effort to help him conform to the ways of the world, his parents finally arranged a marriage for him. But the Man of God fled, and making his way to Syria, he settled in Edessa as a beggar. The way of life he took on as his vocation was as simple as it was severe. He lived among the poor in the vicinity of the church, fasting and praying. He would accept a little money from the almsgivers, from which he purchased a very little food and gave the rest to others in need. At night he staved among the poor, standing in cruciform prayer all night while they slept.

Eventually the caretaker (paramonarius ) of the church discovered his practice, and one night begged, "Who are you and what is your work?" The saint gestured to the poor who lay sleeping around them, "Ask those in front of you, and from them you will learn who I am and whence I am, for I am one of them."[117] It was only with the greatest difficulty that the caretaker learned the saint's story, and only after the holy man had bound him to secrecy and refused when the caretaker asked to become his disciple. But the caretaker began to imitate the Man of God, secretly


following an austere prayer practice of his own and watching over the holy man. One day while the caretaker was away, the saint died; anonymous in death as in life, he was buried in the cemetery of the poor. In great distress, the caretaker poured out the story to Bishop Rabbula, begging that the body be taken back from the graveyard and with proper burial laid "in a known place,"[118] to be granted due veneration. But the saint's body could not be found, only the rags in which he had lain.

We have no way of knowing whether or not there is a historical basis to this story. It may have been inspired by such an ascetic, or it may have been a simple didactic tale; either way, the message remains the same. In the story we are shown two responses to the life of this saint. First, the Bishop Rabbula is spurred by the meaning of the saint's presence in the city to undertake service to the poor and destitute, in honor of the saint's identity with them (and indeed, Rabbula was famed for his work with the needy).[119] As for the paramonarius, he undertook the continuation of the saint's prayer practice and the telling of the saint's story. But so well did he understand it that he preserved the humility of his master even then. Himself anonymous, he wrote a story that gives us a saint with no teachings, no miracles, no body, no tomb, and no name.[120]

A greater contrast to Simeon would be hard to imagine. On his pillar, Simeon was both in the world and above it. Further, he lived in a space well separated from the urban world; up in the mountains, the world came out to Simeon to seek his aid. As his cult grew, the enclosure built around him and his attendant monastic community created a buffer between the saint and his suppliants that was far more efficient than the height of his pillar. Simeon's practice made him visible to all and thus gave the sense that he was accessible to all.[121] But despite the generosity of his works, Simeon could be reached only by his chosen few. One obtained intercession from Simeon through the intercession of his disciples. The separation was sharp enough to confuse his pilgrims as to whether he was human.[122]

A clear-cut relationship between ascetics and society in the Syrian Orient was emerging, along with a fusion of the eremitic and cenobitic vocations, as the individual virtuosi found their practices increasingly conducted within monastic communities. Rabbula himself published canonical literature for monks and for the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant, dealing with situations both inside the religious community and out in the public sphere.[123] For both groups, in both spheres, he demanded a life of strict separation. There was to be little if any contact with the laity, and no contact between sexes; monastic garments and chaperones helped to demarcate the boundaries of religious life in an ur-


ban context. In the monasteries themselves, structures became clear. Both seclusion as a hermit and the use of chains or other "spiritual aids" were restricted to the most worthy in a monastery. Rabbula's legislation was strengthened by civil laws such as those exempting stylites from court appearances, which served to reinforce the practical order of religious and societal interaction.[124]

The Man of God's life would seem to undermine this entire picture. He does not withdraw from the world: he goes to it. He enters the harsh reality of the destitute in a major urban center, "For I am one of them." He lives among men and women, unmarked by clothing, company, or conduct. Without even a name, he has no identity as a holy man. Where the physical separation of the holy was an essential ingredient in the work that Simeon and others like him performed for society, and where the cult of such a saint flourished both during life and after death, the Man of God was invisible in life and death, indistinguishable from the poor in the streets or in the cemetery. Alive he was no one in particular; he could have been anyone, and thus he became everyone. When his body disappeared in death, he was nowhere; he could have been anywhere, and so he was everywhere. The Man of God had just this task as his work: to reveal the presence of the holy in the midst of human life. This he did by the power of his presence alone, sanctifying the world itself and causing good works to be done by those around him—not miracles, but actions of concrete import in human society and possible for any person to perform.

In this text, too, the image of cruciform prayer is crucial. Here again, our saint is given no images of trial, testing, or punishment.[125] Rather, we are once more presented with images of transformation: from the greatness of his noble birth, to the humbleness of the poor, to the holiness of the empty tomb. The holy was where the Man of God was—in the world.

Thus at a time when popular spirituality evoked fervent followings for holy men and women and accorded their monasteries great power and influence, the Man of God provided a balancing voice. Where could the life of true devotion be lived? Where could the holy be found? And who was truly free from the cares of the world? In his story, the Man of God showed no disrespect for either city or monastery. For him, they were one and the same; life itself was vocational. This is in fact the consequence of the story. Simeon presented the holy one as sharply marked out from the general Christian community, by space, behavior, food, and intercessory activity. The Man of God took this division and forged an integration between society and the holy, for the holy could operate anywhere.


The career of Simeon and the story of the Man of God articulate the paradigm of Syrian asceticism as both an external expression and an internal reality. They reflect the variety of earlier ascetic activity in the Syrian Orient, presenting different aspects of its behavior and offering its meaning anew. Directly in their wake came John of Ephesus and the ascetics he celebrates in his Lives of the Eastern Saints .

Religion and History

The Syrian Orient, like the larger Christian world, never contained one overarching "church" identity. During the fourth century the Council of Nicea (325) had helped to spur the general ecclesiastical movement towards conformity, though the Christian realm remained diverse as a body. By the sixth century, Christendom faced the issue of conformity with renewed intensity, and the Syrian Orient was itself a major battlefield for the conflict at hand. When John of Ephesus was born at the turn of the sixth century, the dispute over the Council of Chalcedon (451) continued heatedly, and the anti-Chalcedonian movement was reaching its peak. By the time of John's death in 589, all this had changed. Formally divided into separate church bodies, the Chalcedonian church of the Byzantine Empire and the non-Chalcedonian "Monophysite" church of the Christian Orient now stood autonomously.[126]

The key issue behind the Council of Chalcedon was that of Christological definition: what exactly was the relationship between Christ's divine and human natures?[127] The Monophysites followed Cyril of Alexandria's track in asserting the continuity of the divine subject—in Jesus Christ, the divine Logos really was present in the flesh, in the world. Through the tradition of Alexandrian thought, Cyril posited what were in effect two states for the Logos, the preexistent Logos and the Logos enfleshed. His concentration on the fact that it was the Logos incarnate who suffered left him with the paradox of how Christ could "suffer without suffering." The difficulty in Cyril's way of uniting the human and the divine in Christ lay in how to maintain the full humanity of Christ without being forced to the heterodox position that the Godhead could suffer human weakness and pain.

The Chalcedonians ironically followed the route Nestorius had paved through the tradition of Antiochene thought: protection of the full divinity of the Logos by asserting the full integrity of Christ's humanity. Christ's suffering was here experienced by the man Jesus, fully human in body and soul, devised as the "temple" that the Logos had fashioned for Himself and in which He dwelt. But here the Logos was held intact at


the risk of dividing Christ into two separate beings, two natures complete and whole, one divine and one human.

The Council was also concerned with maintaining the theological alliance between East and West, and to some extent it was the concessions to Western thought that created the furor following the Council.[128] The greatest stumbling block to the resolution of theological differences seemed to be the Latin Tome of Pope Leo , the papal contribution to the Chalcedonian definition of faith. In order to accommodate the Tome , the Council had compromised its theological language, making it more specific. Thus the Chalcedonian definition affirms Christ "in two natures" rather than "out of two natures." Advocates of the Counciliar decision saw the compromise as a matter of sharpening the Creed laid down at Nicea; dissenters saw it as sanctioning innovation by straying from holy tradition into heresy.

The Monophysites accused the Chalcedonians of having divided Christ in two, the error of "Nestorianism" proper, in order to affirm more precisely his humanity; and thus of worshipping a quaternity (as John of Ephesus' subjects refer to it) of Father, Spirit, Christ, and Jesus. In turn, those supporting the Council accused their antagonists of Eutychianism, uniting the two natures into one nature divine, a heresy the Monophysites themselves denounced. The Chalcedonians were concerned to protect the Logos from the blasphemy of asserting that the divine could suffer pain and the weakness of human fallibility. The differences lay in language rather than in concept.[129]

The fact that both sides in the dispute shared the same claims scripturally, patristically, and traditionally—and, above all, that both rightly claimed the authority of Cyril of Alexandria—is critical. In fact, both sides believed the same faith, that declared at the Council of Nicea.[130] But certain key terms shared by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of thought did have different connotations for their respective systems,[131] and the deep-seated fear that faith, must be absolutely correct, or "orthodox," in order to save, led to a rigid conservatism on both sides. Furthermore, the political interests involved bred a simplistic reductionism from the content of the language to its literal meaning. The arguments became so hardened that the essential points of agreement were obscured.[132]

In the course of the dispute following Chalcedon, considerable movement was made theologically by both sides toward a solution incorporating both the Alexandrian and the Antiochene schools of thought. The efforts of the neo-Chalcedonian theologians, under the sponsorship of Justinian in particular, show how far the work of fusion could progress between the two traditions.[133]


Ironically, Justinian was the emperor who sought a genuine theological resolution to the conflict, rather than a compromise. He saw the problem as one of reconciling the language of the Council with that of Cyril of Alexandria, that is, keeping Chalcedon's authority intact while resolving the knots of the theological discourse. The Council of Constantinople in 553 represented the fruits of his labors. Yet it was also Justinian who forced the political situation to polarize irrevocably and thus to render his theological work ineffectual for the Christian Orient.[134]

The dispute peaked during the sixth century, both theologically and politically. But it is the daily reality of the presence of this dispute that we will find in John of Ephesus' writing. The circumstances in which the battle was fought mediated its meaning for Christian society. Matters did not stand in isolation.

The relative political stability of Anastasius' reign (491–518) seems to have been deceptive. Troubles that had seemed controllable—for example, the flare-up of the Persian campaigns between 502 and 505—began to show themselves as too deeply seated for straightforward solutions. Further complications came from a series of natural disasters occurring throughout the empire at that time: earthquakes, famine, and plague. These put strains on the empire's finances and morale, preventing an amenable context for Anastasius' policies.

The pro- and anti-Chalcedonian factions were not yet completely polarized, but relations worsened as Anastasius proved unable to achieve an equilibrium during his reign; his sympathies for the Monophysite cause forced him gradually into a stronger stance of support than he himself judged wise.[135] The measures he took showed how explosive the situation could be. The Monophysite leader Severus attained the patriarchal seat at Antioch in 512; but in Constantinople, at the same time, riots against the anti-Chalcedonians forced the emperor, without his diadem, to beg for peace in the Hippodrome and to offer abdication. Anastasius' pitiful appearance dampened the violence. But the point had been made: a hapless Syrian monk, taken to be Severus himself, had been beheaded by the rioting mob.[136]

The continuation of these varied problems made a smooth route for Justin's changes in imperial policies, but they also added a sinister tone where it might not otherwise have been felt.[137] Perhaps most decisively in the course of his reign, Justin worked closely with his enigmatic nephew Justinian, who was to succeed him in 527. For some ancient historians (and for some modern ones), these two men comprised one reign.[138]

During Justin's term of office, imperial interests shifted irreparably away from the eastern provinces, for years a stable source of goods,


trade, and labor, and focused on the West, a policy that culminated in Justinian's effort to reconquer Italy and North Africa. The policy was initiated on a diplomatic level. Justin and Justinian began to woo the Pope and the Roman people by taking up the Chalcedonian cause. The extent of their commitment was shown in the persecutions against the Monophysites that began in 519 soon after Justin attained office.

The commencement of the persecutions provoked instant reaction on both sides of the theological divide over Chalcedon. Severus' patriarchal reign from 512 to 518 had seen the Monophysite movement at its height, but even to contemporaries the fragility of its hold was clear.[139] Yet Justin's change in religious policy could not have appeared as decisive as it would later prove. First, the Monophysites themselves knew their ascendency had been tenuous, and they expected further battles. And second, the persecutions were conducted against church officials and monastic communities only, leaving the body of the faithful untouched.

By imperial design, the persecutions struck hardest in the Syrian Orient, and particularly in John of Ephesus' home province of Mesopotamia. However, the new measures favoring Chalcedon by force did allow a significant loophole for the dissenters. Egypt was exempted from the persecutions, enabling Monophysites to seek refuge there. Perhaps this exemption was undertaken on economic grounds, since Egypt was Constantinople's bread basket.[140] But Egypt was also the territory of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril and his successor Dioscurus had drawn profoundly on the authority of their monastic comrades; the Egyptian monks had responded to the Christological crisis with a passionate involvement. Indeed, since the days of Athanasius and Antony, the Alexandrian patriarchate had fostered a heritage of close interaction with the desert ascetics. The people of Alexandria, furthermore, were famed for their volatile religious sentiments; it was a place where controversy thrived.[141]

The Alexandrian heritage suited well the conditions of persecution. The refugee patriarchs, bishops, priests, and ascetics that came together in Egypt's sanctuary of asylum found themselves in a situation that encouraged the spiritual momentum of their cause, combining fears of oppression with the recognition of Egypt's authoritative position among Christians.[142] Thus the persecuted not only fled to Egypt for safety but looked to it to maintain their legitimacy. Egypt, as elsewhere in the East, had not represented a unanimous anti-Chalcedonian faith and had not long before provoked disciplinary measures from Severus;[143] but these differences were now put aside. Egypt, as befitted Cyril's homeland, be-


came the hallmark of orthodox communion for those professing Cyril's "Monophysite" faith.[144]

To a large degree, practical reasons caused the division to harden along geographical and cultural lines. It was essential to the imperial ideology of Byzantium, as developed by Justinian, that the alliance with Rome be upheld and thus that the Latin elements of Chalcedonian theology be supported. It was also of import to the throne, again for ideological reasons, that the patriarchate rankings sanctioned at Chalcedon (Canon 28), giving Constantinople primacy over the eastern sees, be maintained. These two factors were crucial to the emperor's claim to be God's representative, the image of Christ on earth, and also to his claim that the empire was the Christian Empire, the image of the heavenly kingdom. The imperial policies that Justinian brought to the dispute demanded that Chalcedon be affirmed on a par with the three great councils before it, at Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Chalcedon gave divine sanction to the kind of authority Justinian was claiming and bequeathing to the Byzantine Empire.

On the other hand, the Roman West was of little interest or concern to the eastern provinces. It was remote geographically and culturally, and imperial investment in the West meant economic drain on the East, which had to finance the cost. Moreover, the eastern provinces were far enough away from Constantinople to escape the full brunt of its policies; furthermore, their languages and cultures were sufficiently autonomous to allow a separate activity. They were physically apart and possessed the cultural tools needed for remaining religiously distinct. Finally, their own suffering of calamities during the sixth century of necessity turned their interests inward to their own local situations. These factors made dissent easier, more deep seated, and more self-righteous.

For unforeseeable calamity interfered with Justinian's plans for a revitalized and Chalcedonian empire. A sequence of earthquakes, floods, and famine had nagged the empire from the turn of the sixth century, hitting the eastern provinces particularly hard. The situation came to a head in 542 when the Great Bubonic Plague broke out, bringing an incomprehensible level of disaster. Wherever it struck, production and business halted altogether for the duration of its presence. The survivors were left to restore "normality," while imperial demands continued unabated. But the plague recurred, in Justinian's reign four more times, and it deepened its toll on each occasion. When Evagrius Scholasticus wrote an account of this blight in his Ecclesiastical History , he stated with resignation that he wrote in the fifty-second year of the plague. The cu-


mulative effect on population, morale, and economy was as insidious as it was disastrous.[145]

Even so, Justinian's military conquests over the course of his reign might have seemed impressive. But at his death in 565, little concrete gain for his efforts remained, apart from a crippled state. His failures were huge. The wars with Persia had continued, occurring intermittently for the duration of the reign, and their cost was threefold: campaigns had continually to be financed, and fortifications built and strengthened; efforts to end the animosities by diplomatic means involved huge tributary payments; and the opulence of the eastern cities was freely ransacked by the Persians. Moreover, in the West not one of the military victories was to be decisive for any length of time, and the gains proved more costly to hold than they had been to acquire; financially debilitating excursions were launched and relaunched for years. Finally, of least concern to Justinian but of considerable consequence to the empire, his various neighbors to the north required large tributary payments to stay indecisively under control.

Matters disintegrated rapidly on all fronts in the years following Justinian's death. The empire's resources had been drained; his tax collectors had been notoriously efficient. The eastern provinces, for example, already locked in their own plight, were crippled still more by the constant needs of the imperial treasury.[146] To be fair, the economic problems of the empire were already great when Justinian came to power; but he showed no acknowledgment of the delicate situation in his own policies, then or later.[147]

Despite Justinian's lasting accomplishments, notably in art and in law, the glimpse of an empire regained did not conceal its own demise. So violent were the fluctuations between brilliance and obstinacy during Justinian's reign that they evoked an otherwise puzzling incongruity in the writings of his commentators. The apparently unaccountable, even self-defeating, opposite viewpoints in the writings of Procopius, or the complexities in the relationship between Justinian and John of Ephesus, make sense only insofar as they bear witness to the actual contemporary impact of Justinian's reign. Matters were not simply black or white; they were both at once, with no tinge of gray.[148]

With this larger context as their backdrop, the accounts of Amida and its ascetics in John of Ephesus' Lives of the Eastern Saints provide considerable supplement to the chronicles of the sixth century. Lists of facts, events, and odd occurrences are translated by John's stories into cohesive parts of real and ongoing life in the eastern empire. Similarly, the people he follows through the wider empire establish for us a sensitivity


to the time and space of Justinian's era. Here matters were not just affected by imperial policies but actually take on the imprint of the imperial personalities themselves—not the remote king and queen perceived from Amida's territory, but Justinian and Theodora at work. Thus John opens for us the world in which he lived; it is to that opening we now turn.


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