Two generations ago, most scholars of late Roman religion shared several core, if usually implicit, assumptions: first, the imperial cult, that is to say, the veneration of the sovereign, was a decadent “oriental” practice. Next, Christianity had existed in its purest form before becoming entangled with state power. And, finally, once bishops and emperors had baptized the state, the stain of power and money had steadily corrupted the church and the “Caesaropapist state” (another decadent “oriental” regime) until the Reformation. One generation ago, J. Z. Smith helped us see these assumptions as the lingering effects of Protestant culture. More recently, Elizabeth Clark's Founding the Fathers explained how these assumptions—including their orientalism—formed through the ambitious and intentional efforts of prominent US and European academics to build the nation, develop the university, and combat Catholicism.1 Paradoxically, church historians such as Adolf von Harnack and Philip Schaff argued for a view of the pristine early church untainted by contact with Greek philosophy or political power even as they worked to see that men, formed in this tradition, would govern their nations, educate their children, and preach from their pulpits.
Like its descendants, the late Roman state was a religious institution—a fusion that the Reformation itself did little to upend. And indeed, late ancient bishops did embrace or oppose imperial power as they strove to shape the communities under—and beyond—their jurisdiction. Yaniv Fox's article in this issue, for example, shows how such political calculations could motivate charges of heresy. In sixth-century Gaul, the sudden appearance of “Bonosiacs,” putative followers of Bonosus, a fourth-century bishop of Naissus (Niš, Serbia) has long seemed strange. According to Fox in “‘Sent from the Confines of Hell’,” however, bishops such as Avitus of Vienne branded as Bonosiac heretics those Christians unwilling to conform to newly imposed political power.
Although this Gallic heresy discourse seems to confirm later Protestant fears about the corrupting influence of late ancient politics, late ancient Christians across the Mediterranean did discuss whether public service was appropriate for a man of faith and, if so, what principles should guide his conduct. Robin Whelan's article, “An Ascetic State? Fashioning Christian Political Service across the Early Sixth-Century Mediterranean,” draws these concerns clearly from the letters of Cassiodorus, Severus of Antioch, and Ferrandus of Carthage. Where Averil Cameron saw this period as marking the end of the secular state in the face of religious orthodoxy and uniformity, Whelan argues that these figures drew on a discourse of self-control in order to serve earthly regimes in a way that might reach toward good government—“at least for some people, some of the time.”
The tension that Whelan finds between Christian identity and public service is unsurprising, given that Jesus, by promoting the spirit rather than the letter of the Law, pushed against both Jewish teaching and Roman jurisprudence. And even though von Harnack and others wanted to reach back to this original resistance, early Christianity never existed outside of a Greco-Roman-Jewish context and, equally significant, continues to bear its traces. Mira Balberg and Ellen Muehlberger highlight a sobering example of such persistence in “The Will of Others: Coercion, Captivity, and Choice in Late Antiquity.” Here, tracing certain “habits of thought” (for example, that sexual assault occurs only when a woman can be shown to have done everything possible to resist it) reveals, they argue, “fundamental problems at the heart of the theories of the will embraced within late ancient Judaism and Christianity.”
Given this cultural continuity, the moments when late ancient Christians used their original value system to confront Greco-Roman norms are all the more significant. In “Medicine, Money, and Christian Rhetoric: The Socio-Economic Dimensions of Healthcare in Late Antiquity,” Norman Underwood shows that Christian doctors were not necessarily more charitable. Nevertheless, Christian leaders used traditional rhetoric against “greedy doctors” to establish hospitals from their congregants' donations so that the poor would have access to healthcare.
Taken together, these four articles seek better to understand late ancient Christians, not by comparing their words or behavior against specific New Testament passages, but by steadfastly and carefully excavating their texts within a broad and diverse cultural, political, and ethical topography. In so doing, they take a step toward the kind of scholarship that Blossom Stefaniw's Viewpoints essay, “Knowledge in Late Antiquity,” advocates. If we want to understand late ancient Christians, she argues, we must see “how they orient themselves to the common themes of religious life in that era.” Rather than reading ancient texts by religious sect or by genre, she urges, categorizing them by function shows that producers of knowledge during this period of profound transformation drew deeply upon their patrimony to form ethical subjects aware of their proper role in the cosmos.
Late ancient Christians linked religion with ethics; thus, their sovereign as the source of law was, ideally, part of that system. The gap that always yawned between the ideal and the real, however, was where Christians constructed themselves as ethical subjects—or not—in the public sphere.