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