previous chapter
I "These Holy Images"': John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints
next chapter

I
"These Holy Images"': John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints

John Himself

John of Ephesus, sometimes known as John of Asia, was born in the early sixth century around the year 507. He was from the territory of Ingilene in north Mesopotamia, which fell under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan city of Amida. The local population was a mixture of Syrians and Armenians. What we know of John's life is drawn from scattered references he makes in his writings; the time and place of major events, at least, can be arranged with fair certainty.[1]

John's many-sided career had a propitious start. Ingila's local stylite had been for some years a monk called Abraham, at the monastery of Ar'a Rabtha. When Abraham died, his brother Maro ascended the vacant pillar. The first miracle of Maro's new career was the saving of John's life.

John's parents had lost all their sons before the age of two, apparently because of a congenital problem. When John succumbed as well, they brought the dying child to Maro. Maro was new to the practice of holy medicine, and the ensuing interchange between stylite, attendants, and parents involved much confusion. The child appeared dead, and Maro's prescription of lentils inspired no confidence in his audience. But when finally the monks were persuaded to place the food in John's mouth, he suddenly revived. The stylite then commanded that the boy


29

be fed as many lentils as he could eat and be brought back to him in two years' time as his own son.[2] Thus by the age of four, John found himself received into the monastic vocation, under the tutelage of a great spiritual father.

Maro died when John was about fifteen years old. The young monk soon left Ar'a Rabtha "because of the proximity of family" and joined Amida's ascetic community, becoming a member of the monastery of Mar John Urtaya in the early 520s.[3] By this time, persecutions against the Monophysites had begun, and the Amidan ascetics were in fact living as a combined group in exile. John's move to their community marked the beginning of his many years of travel and activity as a Monophysite. This was not a matter of conversion to a cause; reflecting the hardened religious positions of his times, John seems never to have considered any other confession. Until the early 540s, John journeyed with his fellow Amidans, much of the time fleeing persecutors and living in makeshift conditions, but also, during periods of relative peace, visiting other monasteries and noted hermits. His travels took him throughout the East, down into Egypt, and across to Constantinople. It was during this period, in the year 529, that John was ordained deacon by John of Tella, himself in exile at the time, as part of an underground program of ordinations meant to replenish the depleted Monophysite clergy.[4]

John of Ephesus first came to Constantinople around the year 540. A large number of Monophysite refugees had settled in the imperial city under the protection of the religiously sympathetic empress Theodora. Upon his arrival, John seems soon to have become known at the court as well as among the Monophysite communities in and around the capital. In 542 the emperor Justinian, champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, enigmatically chose John to undertake a campaign of conversion among the pagans and heretics still flourishing in Asia Minor.[5] John's zeal for the task can hardly have served the Chalcedonian interests of the government, for it was while occupied in this way that he was consecrated titular bishop of Ephesus by Jacob Burd'aya, possibly in 558.[6] Still, his efforts on Justinian's behalf earned him the title Converter of Pagans. On missions through Asia, Lydia, Caria, and Phrygia, John claimed to have converted eighty thousand pagans and schismatics (notably Montanists) and received government aid to found ninety-eight churches and twelve monasteries.[7]

We have no evidence that John ever resided in Ephesus; instead, his base of operation remained at Constantinople. In the 540s he was given a villa by the chamberlain Callinicus just outside the capital, at Sycae, and there he founded a monastery with himself as archimandrite.[8] It


30

served as his home base until its confiscation by the Chalcedonians in 578. By 566, at the death of the Alexandrian patriarch Theodosius, John had become the official leader of the Constantinopolitan Monophysites. But the Monophysites themselves were now beset by internal quarrels, and John was caught in the effort to mediate between factions so opposed that their overriding cause was hopelessly weakened.

The accession of Justin II in 565 brought renewed vigor to imperial Chalcedonian commitment. In 571 the patriarch of Constantinople, John Scholasticus, initiated a new persecution, in which John of Ephesus was an obvious target.[9] From this time until he died, the Monophysite leader suffered imprisonment and exile. Age as well as despair over the state of the church—both within Monophysite ranks and in the wider theological negotiations—left John's health and spirit broken. Nonetheless, he worked on his Ecclesiastical History , smuggling the chapters out of prison,[10] until his death, probably in 589.[11]

John's Writings

Amidst his many activities, John was also an important writer. Most of his two major works, the Ecclesiastical History and the Lives of the Eastern Saints , remain extant, but large parts of the Ecclesiastical History , as well as other pieces, have been lost.

John's earliest work appears to have been a description of the first Monophysite persecutions, perhaps in particular those conducted in the 530s by the patriarch Ephrem of Antioch and Abraham bar Kaili, bishop of Amida.[12] He may also have written a few years later an account of the Great Bubonic Plague that struck the empire in 542, but whether he left this as an independent work is unclear. A further work that has not survived seems to have dealt with theological negotiations in the early 570s, focusing on the general formula of unity discussed by Chalcedonian and Monophysite authorities in 571.[13]

Scholars have long held John's Ecclesiastical History as a work of major import for the sixth century. It consists of three parts, the first covering the period from Julius Caesar until the death of Theodosius II, the second spans the period to 571, and the third to 588–589.[14] A few citations from part 1 are incorporated by Michael the Syrian in his Chronicle ; considerably more of part 2 is quoted in large sections by pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahre in his Chronicle, as well as by Michael, and these segments have been supplemented by further scattered references.[15] Part 3 has survived intact.[16]


31

John's early writings on the persecutions and Great Plague doubtless provided much of the material about those events in part 2 of his Ecclesiastical History . For these matters, his accounts of natural disasters, his intimate knowledge of the imperial court under both Justinian and Justin II, his provincial ties, and his detailed rendering of the internal Monophysite disputes, we are most indebted to his History .

A careless writer at the best of times, John's enthusiasm outweighed his patience. In the parts of his History composed while he was in prison or in exile, this tendency was aggravated by the circumstances. But John shows little regard for the discipline evidenced by fellow Syriac historians of the same time. Both the meticulous concern for detail (of prices and dates in particular) shown by "Joshua the Stylite" in his Chronicle and the careful preservation of documents found in pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History are missing in John's History .[17]

Yet by virtue of their fervor, John's writings provide an honest record that counterbalances the official (and Chalcedonian) histories, whether "secular" or "ecclesiastical," left by his Greek contemporaries.[18] Perhaps best exemplified by those of Procopius, Agathias, and Evagrius Scholasticus, these formal histories by Greeks constitute works in which literary protocol was at times more important than what was being reported.[19] Despite its many inaccuracies, John's History proves true to the nature and experience of his times in a way not possible for those writers more officially or literarily minded.[20]

In the late 560s John wrote and then expanded the Lives of the Eastern Saints , a collection of fifty-eight stories of Mesopotamian and Syrian ascetics whom he himself had known or met during his life, and whose religious careers were particularly inspiring.[21] The stories are told as vignettes interspersed with hearsay; their presentation resembles those of the Historia Lausiaca by Palladius, the Historia religiosa of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and the later Pratum spirituale of John Moschus. E. W. Brooks has called the Lives John's "most characteristic" work;[22] it is certainly a personal one.

The major focus of the collection falls between the 520s and 560s. John anchors the chapters primarily by references to each subject's life before and after the commencement of the Monophysite persecutions, his pivotal landmark.[23] The order of the chapters follows the chronology of John's own life, and the shape of the whole reflects the influences at work on John in the development of his career. John's stories, then, are in part his own story.

The fifty-eight chapters of the Lives can be divided into two basic clusters: the first revolves around John's experiences as a youth in the


32

monastic communities of Amida's regions (chaps. 1–23), and the second concerns his experiences after leaving Mesopotamia, primarily in Egypt and Constantinople (chaps. 24–57). The final chapter (58) is devoted to the history of the Amidan monastery of Mar John Urtaya, to which he felt his greatest bond throughout his career. Odd chapters are out of sequence with this arrangement but probably indicate John's own lack of organization rather than mishandling in transmission.[24]

The first twenty-three chapters are set mainly in Mesopotamia. They are, by and large, longer, more detailed, and more personal than the subsequent chapters. These accounts describe the monastic setting in which John grew up, the kind of ascetic practices that provided his models, and the individuals who particularly influenced his vocation.

This portion of the Lives includes the following:

Habib (chap. 1), an efficacious monk whose career fits well the pattern that characterized the holy man of late antiquity;

Z'ura (chap. 2), Habib's disciple who became a stylite but went on, because of the persecutions, to provide an influential presence in Constantinople;

Abraham and Maro (chap. 4), two brothers whose careers as stylites dominated the religious life of northern Mesopotamia for many years;

John the Nazirite (chap. 3), Paul the Anchorite (chap. 6), Harfat (chap. 11), and Simeon the Solitary (chap. 23), whose anchoretic careers forcibly came to accommodate the altered context of persecutions;

Abraham the Recluse (chap. 7) and Mare of Beth Urtaye (chap. 9), who came to the ascetic vocation late in life;

Simeon the Hermit and Sergius (chap. 5), a solitary and his disciple who served as vigilanti of Mesopotamia's villages;

Some who undertook the solitary life only to find it leading to involvement in the affairs of the outside world—Addai the Chorepiscopus, who instituted a profitable wine industry (chap. 8); two monks who could not avoid their callings as exorcists (chap. 15); Simeon the Mountaineer, who inadvertently became a missionary (chap. 16); Thomas the Armenian (chap. 21) and Abraham and Addai (chap. 22), who discovered their true vocation in founding monasteries;

Virtuosi of private labors in the tradition of Syrian asceticism, who visited Amida's monastic communities to pay them homage (the traveling monks in chaps. 14, 17, 18, 19, and 20);

Mary and Euphemia (chap. 12) and Thomas and Stephen (chap. 13), accounts of paired careers that integrate the life of contemplation and the life of service; and


33

Simeon the Persian Debater (chap. 10), notorious bishop of Beth Arsham in Persia.

In the second cluster John expands his setting. Like himself, most of these subjects have their roots in Mesopotamia and were forced out into the larger Roman Empire because of persecution. This section includes a number of Monophysite leaders; in the first section, only Z'ura and Simeon of Beth Arsham fit this mold. Yet John does not allot these two the same detail that he gives to his "local" celebrities, such as Maro, Euphemia, or Simeon the Mountaineer. This second section is approximately the same length as the first, but where the first section dealt with twenty-nine holy men and women, the second treats more than fifty. These chapters reflect too John's own altered position. He writes with more assertiveness, appropriate to his increasing authority in Monophysite circles during the years covered by these chapters.

This second section comprises the following:

Eminent Monophysite bishops—John of Tella (chap. 24), John of Hephaestopolis (chap. 25), Thomas of Damascus (chap. 26), the Five Patriarchs (chap. 48), Jacob Burd'aya (chap. 49), who is again treated with his comissionary Theodore (chap. 50), and Kashish (chap. 51);

Accounts of the ascetic community in Egypt, and particularly of the Monophysite refugees who fled there—the spiritual leader Susan (chap. 27), Mary the Anchorite (chap. 28), a hapless monk who stole and was rehabilitated by John of Ephesus (chap. 32), the wealthy patrician Caesaria (chap. 54) and the members of her household who followed her model John and Sosiana (chap. 55), and Peter and Photius (chap. 56);

Laymen who practiced asceticism in their "worldly" careers—Elijah of Dara (chap. 30), a second Elijah and Theodore (chap. 31), Tribunus (chap. 44), and Theodore the Castrensis (chap. 57);

Monophysite refugees who came to Constantinople and performed the ministry of service among its needy populace—Hala (chap. 33), Simeon the Scribe (chap. 34), Mare the Solitary (chap. 36), Aaron (chap. 38), Leontius (chap. 39), Abraham the Presbyter (chap. 40), Bassian and Romanus (chap. 41), Mari, Sergius, and Daniel (chap. 42), four deacons (chap. 43), and Isaac (chap. 45); some of these individuals assisted John on his missions to Asia Minor;

Accounts of what happened to the Amidan monasteries during their exile in the eastern provinces (chaps. 29 and 35), and to those monks who fled to the Monophysite monastic communities in Constantinople (chap. 47);


34

Paul of Antioch (chap. 46), who established a sizeable network of social services in a number of Byzantine cities; and

Two accounts, one set in Amida and one in Constantinople, of holy fools (chaps. 52 and 53).

John did not intend to use his Lives , as he did his History , to record the Monophysite story, but there is necessarily much overlap between the two works. Both for him and for his subjects, the persecution of the Monophysites marked an irrevocable turn in their lives. Further, the persecution was fundamental to the vision of asceticism John propagated, for his purpose was to show how this drastic change had impact on the ascetic vocation as he knew it.

In his collection John writes of holy men and women whose ascetic activities give evidence of power in the temporal as well as spiritual realms. Often, their capacity for power has been gained in the testing of abstinence and withdrawal. But it is brought to fullness, as John presents it, only in the context of others: in the congregation of the ascetic community and, above all, in the needs of the lay society. What we find in John's Lives is a situation that belies an other-worldly focus for asceticism, and indeed the fundamentally timeless, ahistorical concerns of the hagiographer. Thus the Lives must be seen in their context, both literary and historical. John of Ephesus as author offers important clues.

Genre: Characteristics and Choices

Syriac hagiography was a well-developed genre long before John of Ephesus wrote. The passion narratives of the Edessan martyrs Shmona, Guria, and Habib; the Life of Simeon the Stylite ; the Life of the Man of God ; the Acts of Sharbil ; and the Life of John of Tella by the monk Elias are examples, exemplary for both content and style. Moreover, the increasing Hellenization of the fifth and sixth centuries did not diminish the standard. Elias' Life of John of Tella , written barely twenty years before John of Ephesus wrote his Lives , is a masterpiece of Syriac literature, with a prose of elegant simplicity. But Elias' account was above all a product of the cultural fusion that marked the early sixth century in the Syrian Orient. Excellent Syriac translations of Greek hagiography were also easily at hand.

John of Ephesus chose for his subjects a free-ranging style of cameo portraits, the most informal of hagiographical genres and best represented by the earlier Historia Lausiaca of Palladius and the Historia religiosa


35

of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. This genre took the form of collections of stories,[25] which might or might not be concerned with a biographical approach; a single incident would often suffice for the author's purpose. The style of these collections tends to be more informal than that of full-length vitae, but sometimes only by way of content; Theodoret's Greek surpasses what we find in many Greek Lives as far as language and style are concerned. The collections are notable for their roots in specific monastic communities; what they record are the traditions (often oral) of that community and the author's experiences within it.

John of Ephesus' Lives of the Eastern Saints share the main features of this collection genre, although his work is noticeably less serene than the collections of Palladius, of Theodoret, the Pratum spirituale of John Moschus, or the Historia monastica of the ninth-century Syriac writer Thomas of Marga. Religious controversy of one kind or another was present as a backdrop for each of these authors, but John alone integrates the religious and political upheavals of his time into the foreground of his collection. Nonetheless, John's Lives remain a monastic work, like the others of this kind.[26]

Thus John includes discourses on the ascetic life by solitaries and preachings on the temptations a monk or nun must expect to face.[27] He provides an exposition on "the basis of sound training," in which he describes the lengthy process through which a novice must pass before receiving the full habit in an Amidan monastery.[28] And, the final chapter of the Lives narrates the history of his own monastery of Mar John Urtaya, from its fourth-century foundation to his present time.[29] Again, his own experiences as a monk in quest of spiritual edification provide the loose (and familiar, in this genre) framework around which the Lives are set.

John's literary predecessors (so far as we know) were, however, men who wrote in Greek and not in Syriac; thus questions about John's bilingualism must be raised. What influence, if any, did these earlier works exert on John's collection? Is any cross-cultural borrowing apparent in John's choice of genre? Since John does not tell us anything specific in this regard, we can only assess circumstantial factors.

John was educated in a Syriac-speaking monastery known for its scholarly training.[30] At some stage he acquired a reasonable fluency in Greek, making possible his activities both as a Monophysite spokesman in the imperial court at Constantinople and as a missionary in Asia Minor where Syriac would not have been a language in use. Both Palladius' Historia Lausiaca and Theodoret's Historia religiosa would have been available to him on his travels in their original Greek.[31] Furthermore, at least parts of both of these collections were also available in Syr-


36

iac translation during John's lifetime.[32] But the question of heretical associations damaged the reputations of both these works during John's day and may have determined whether or not John was acquainted with either of them.

Palladius was hardly free of controversy during his career, and his Evagrianism, in particular, led the Greek church to suspect his work of harboring improper elements.[33] Nonetheless, these issues did not affect the general popularity of the Historia Lausiaca , although tamperings at the level of manuscript transmission reveal conflict between the love accorded this work and the anxiety caused to the church by its author's spiritual loyalties.[34] But Evagrius was highly thought of in Syrian tradition; much of his teaching survives only in Syriac.[35] To a Syrian monk such as John of Ephesus, Palladius' Evagrian spirit would have presented no problem.

About Theodoret, issues were sharper. Controversy concerning him had been more extreme than for Palladius: the Second Council of Ephesus (the "Robber Synod") in 449 deposed him from his see at Cyrrhus. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 reinstated him, but the vindication of Theodoret's faith proved a major obstacle for the Monophysites as far as the decisions of this council were concerned. To the Monophysites, Theodoret remained categorically the enemy of Cyril of Alexandria. Their obstinacy on this point enabled Justinian to resurrect the issue of Theodoret's teachings during the Three Chapters controversy of 544–554, and the Council of Constantinople in 553 reversed the reprieve of Chalcedon, condemning Theodoret's anti-Cyrillian writings.[36] His very name would have been anathema to the Monophysites, particularly during the years of John's novitiate and priesthood, as sentiments over Chalcedon hardened.[37] Moreover, a number of Theodoret's more important subjects—Jacob of Nisibis, Julian Saba, and Simeon Stylites, for example—would have been known in the Syrian Orient through Syriac writings about them. By John's time, a Syrian monk did not have to read Theodoret's collection to study Syrian ascetic tradition.

But if John was familiar with either or both of these predecessors (which seems likely at least in the case of Palladius), their works appear to have exerted little influence on his Lives except, perhaps, by suggestion of genre. In contrast, Thomas of Marga in the mid-ninth century made his imitation of Palladius both explicit, by frequent references to him, and implicit, through an intentional parallelism in his stories with those by the earlier Greek writer.[38] No such modeling is evident in John's Lives . The astringent didacticism of Palladius' vignettes and the classicism of Theodoret's accounts offer no parallel for John's rambling nar-


37

ratives. Similarly, their contents, both in emphases and in ascetic vision, differ distinctly from John's. The presence of a similar literary format does not seem to indicate a decision by John to follow precise models but rather to choose the hagiographical mode most comfortable for him.

John's literary choices, then, tell us certain things about him. His purpose here is found in story more than in history; his interest lies in what people experienced in the context of the events they lived through. So in this instance he writes hagiography and not a historical chronicle (as in his Ecclesiastical History ), anecdotal portraits and not biography. Moreover, John's concern as hagiographer is not with the specific impact of a key individual on the world (e.g., the Lives of Severus of Antioch and John of Tella), but with the shared witness and experience of a given community, the Amidan ascetics, and with the meaning of that community's presence in the world of its time.

Hagiographic Style: Issues of Language and Content

The inhabitants of the Syrian Orient lived through a harrowing series of natural and political calamities during John's lifetime; at the same time they were caught in severe religious persecution. It is in fact the conditions of his day that prompt John to set these lives and events down in writing. He writes a collection because he has encountered many men and women who acted through devotion to the divine. The simplicity of that fact belies its profundity in this particular work and its particular historical setting. Again, he includes accounts of the great Monophysite leaders of his day—subjects for formal vitae by others[39] —but the majority of his chapters deal with a localized, geographically remote area and with people otherwise unknown to us.

With these choices, John declares his own understanding of the events of his times. The holy is not restricted to certain persons (nobles, leaders) nor to certain places (cities). It is found in the people and places of daily lives; it is found in the midst of the same events that would seem to deny God's presence. The Lives of the Eastern Saints are a restatement of one kind of world as another. So John's purpose determines his genre, hagiography, and also his hagiographical style, his use of the standard conventions of this literary form.

For John, action is the most important element of devotion to God. Hence writing is for him a functional task, an action he takes in response to an urgent situation. He sets for himself certain guidelines: the


38

appearance of familiar hagiographical themes, the use of material of specifically monastic intent, and the occasional pause to preach to his audience. But, unlike Theodoret, he is not mindful of his labors as a craft in themselves. When John uses the tools of the hagiographer's trade, he is simply being practical by using a language common to Christendom in order to make his point.

John's hagiographical style, his use of standard themes and images, is also subordinated to his purpose of re-presenting the events of his times through the lives of his subjects. In the context of hagiography, the tragedy, the calamity, the apparent defeat of the Monophysites all become the means by which God's grace is revealed. Hagiography as a literary form and the language of its conventions enables John to accomplish his task succinctly.[40] But at a practical level, this also means that John makes no distinction between literary conventions and his own perceptions.

John's lack of artistic concern blurs the boundaries in his accounts between the topos as a literary device and the motifs common in a historical sense because they represent traits of the ascetic as a figure in religious and societal life. That is, John employs standard literary images to express the common understanding of a holy man or woman as a religious persona.

Thus, for example, John employs the topos of a hostile assailant suddenly frozen in midair,[41] or likewise blinded[42] or struck fatally ill,[43] by the power of a holy man or woman—the standard means of presenting a saint's spiritual authority in tangible fashion.[44] Elsewhere, John's solitaries do physical battle with demonic forces,[45] in scenes reminiscent of similar ones from the Lives of Antony, Simeon the Stylite, and Daniel the Stylite.[46] The scene is a common personification of the saint's battle against temptation and the test of fortitude that marks initiation into the ranks of God's chosen. However, John also enjoys telling us about the idiosyncracies of his subjects. He is committed, too, to portraying the cost in human terms of the tragedies around him. These interests conflict with the standardized nature of hagiographical formulae. Indeed, John seems unaware of the disjuncture in his narratives when a familiar formula clashes with the sensitivity of his portraits—as, for instance, in his chapters about holy women, where his stereotypic statements are at odds with the actual accounts he gives.[47]

Thus John uses common themes not to make his stories fit popular tastes but to present a particular understanding of the lives lived by his subjects. When the holy woman Euphemia dies, exhausted after a career of service to the needy, the reader cannot fail to see her story in terms of


39

an imitatio Christi .[48] But John has not molded her portrait to fit this typology; he tells us about so many quirks of Euphemia's personality that her individuality dominates the chapter throughout. Nor does Euphemia herself choose to present her dying in this light: her determination with regard to her vocation does not negate her humility. The parallel of Euphemia's life with that of the Gospels arises because John intends his audience to see what he himself has seen: Euphemia's life, and those like hers, can only be understood in relation to the work of Christ.

Similarly, John's two accounts of holy fools remind us that motifs might become popular, even standardized, and yet maintain their capacity to affect people's choices in their own lives.[49] His first story on this theme is presented in terms familiar to hagiographic romance, so much so that some have questioned the reliability of this chapter.[50] But the second story is clearly about a personal encounter that John has experienced. The text itself is awkward owing to John's memory of the incident. It is the task of the scholar to separate formulae from historic elements in a saint's life, but in John of Ephesus we see the reverse process: a formula or formulaic theme could help the Christian community to understand religious activity by expressing its meaning, and thematic legends could inspire genuine emulation (imitation) by real people.

In fact, the motifs that occur most frequently in John's Lives are not of a hagiographical character. They are traits that characterize the asceticism of the Syrian Orient. So John presents his ascetics as strangers in this world, an image that rests at the core of the Syrian ascetic vocation.[51] He draws out, too, the concern for hospitality within the ascetic's works.[52] Again, those monks or nuns truly blessed in John's eyes have the gift of tears[53] and of foreseeing their own deaths.[54] These and other features of the ascetic's activities have less to do with hagiographic portrayal than with describing what had become the trademarks of actual asceticism in this area.[55]

In this vein, too, we can understand the repetitive features in John's accounts of healings. In his stories barren women do conceive,[56] and sick persons are cured,[57] in standard fashion: the vehicle for the miracle may be a relic, such as a holy man's toenail (as in the case of Maro), or the commonly employed hnana , a mixture of consecrated oil, dust from a holy place, and water used for liturgical as well as private devotional purposes. The possessed are exorcised by the sign of the cross or by a rebuke of the demon by the holy person.[58] But these methods are those that the holy man or woman generally used in society and are not drawn from hagiography alone.[59]

The use of familiar hagiographical language and tone provided John


40

with a convenient shortcut. The unmistakable literary conventions placed his subjects in the company of saints. John does not have to justify, as Theodoret did, the religious choices his subjects made; by John's time, hagiography had grown to be so much a part of popular piety that its language alone was sufficient to justify its content. John writes without contrivance; if his style includes hagiographical clichés, the earnestness of his effort fills them with fresh meaning. They represent the language in which he thinks and sees the world; they are the means by which he can enable his audience to share the same perception.[60]

Literary Style: Clue to the Cultural Setting

True to his word,[61] John is no artist as a writer. The careless haste so prevalent in his Ecclesiastical History is seen more frequently in the Lives . The History , to be sure, was written in such adverse circumstances that John can easily be forgiven his lack of polish. But he wrote the collection of saints in considerably more comfort.[62]

Here John writes in a prose pompous, laborious, and enthusiastic. His bilingualism creates further problems. Lacing his sentences with frequent Greek words or phrases, he often uses syntax more Greek than Syriac. He tacks lines of participial clauses together, forming sentences of interminable length. Greek syntax can sustain a complex load such as this, but Syriac with its subtler syntactic structure does so with difficulty: the awkwardness comes through in translation. In fact, John is as careless in his thinking as he is in his use of language. He himself (like his readers) often forgets the point he is making, and he frequently changes subjects in midsentence.

The constant presence of Greek language in the Lives clearly indicates bilingual thinking rather than poor translation on the part of an intermediary. We might well presume that John could have written in Greek had he wished, though bilingual speakers tend to have a preferred writing language.[63] But John would have had no reason to use Greek for written work. From the time of Justin I's accession in 519, Chalcedonian orthodoxy had been the only imperially sanctioned Christian confession. Although persecution against the Monophysites was intermittent thereafter (but most serious in the eastern provinces), by the time that John of Ephesus was writing any serious possibility of reconciliation had long passed.[64] It was not John's intent to disseminate Monophysitism to a wider audience through hagiography: such an activity was neither practical in the given political climate, nor, by the


41

560s, a concern for the dissenters against Chalcedon. The work is written for a specifically Monophysite audience; John's use of Syriac, aside from being his natural choice of language (or so we must presume), also specified his chosen readership.[65]

The awkward use of Greek in John's written language also points to the cultural condition of his time, and so to the significance of his chosen hagiographic form. Greek language and culture had been intruding with increasing force into the world of the Syrian Orient. In John's day, however, Syriac literature still maintained its autonomous standards; a writer such as Elias in his Life of John of Tella could mold bilingualism into a creative literary form. John of Ephesus was not a craftsman. Nonetheless, he represents a kind of cultural syncretism that was at its peak in the sixth century: a fusion of the Hellenic and oriental thought-worlds and experience that still allowed an independent position for Syriac culture within the Roman Empire.

When John was writing, Syriac stood at a considerable distance from its later decline. To some degree, it held a higher position in terms of cultural respect than it had had at any earlier time, despite the fame, for example, of Ephrem Syrus. Learned Syrians were still not necessarily educated in Greek, as we know from the references to schooling in Mesopotamia that John makes in the Lives ;[66] and the Syriac academies were thriving in Persia, though John would not report on these because of their Nestorian position.[67] Moreover, John's subjects reveal a genuine concern for the Syriac education of children, at least rudimentarily in the reading of Scripture and more strictly for those entering the monastic life; this determination for literacy, even if only at a basic level, is shown in John's Lives to be present in villages as well as in the more sophisticated cities.[68]

To be sure, the ethos of the later Roman Empire laid certain constraints on cultural interchange. The responsibility for bilingualism lay on the non-Greek; translations in both directions were invariably done by those who were native Syriac speakers.[69] Yet Syriac seems to have gained some respect from the elite world of Greek culture. For in the fifth century, sources tend to represent Syriac as a problem for the mainstream empire and those Syrians who could not speak Greek were cause for ridicule.[70] But by the sixth century, sources seem to be more judicious: for the Armenians, Syriac ranked with Greek in scholarly status,[71] and, indeed, respect was accorded even by Greeks to the educated person who was trained in Latin, Greek, and Syriac.[72] For the Greek cultural elite, Armenian was a language quite outside their interests;[73] but the serious Greek historian followed the example of Eusebius of Caesarea and


42

employed a Syriac assistant who could provide access to Syriac archives and documents.[74] Again, the Syrian continuator who produced the Syriac version of Zachariah Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History showed enough initiative to epitomize rather than translate, and to continue the work, adding a significant and solid piece of historical writing to the original and producing in effect a "new" History in the process of re-rendering the old.[75] Despite the cultural imperialism of Greek, Syrians were proud of their language. John of Ephesus records the relief shown by a group of Amidan ascetics in Egypt who stumbled across one of their own kind: "and the blessed men . . . saw that he was an educated man and spoke their language."[76]

Although John of Ephesus writes of asceticism in a geographically remote area of the Roman Empire, the villages of Mesopotamia were not isolated from the context of the empire as a whole, any more than Syriac was an insulated provincial language. John's linguistically hybrid style in fact conveys his setting: a synthesis of cultural experience that characterized the world of late antiquity.[77]

John's Lives of the Eastern Saints are not a Syriac work in a Greek literary genre; they are part of a larger context. But they resemble the collections of his literary predecessors in form only, and it is in the concrete differences of content, both narrative and perceptual, that we can understand John's independence from what preceded him and, indeed, that we can find his worth as a hagiographer.[78]


43

previous chapter
I "These Holy Images"': John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints
next chapter