Tag Archives: Late Antiquity

Humphrey, ed., The Roman and Byzantine Near East, vol. 3

H. Humphrey, ed., The Roman and Byzantine Near East: Some Recent Archaeological Research, vol. 3 (2003).

1. Yoram Tsafrir and Boaz Zissu, “A Hiding Complex of the Second Temple Period and the Time of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt at ‘Ain-‘Arrub in the Hebron Hills”: Between the two Jewish revolts, Judeans dug tunnels between disused underground installations (like cisterns, columbaria, etc.) in order to use them as hiding places in the case of Roman assault. Bar Kokhba was possibly born about 2 km south of ‘Ain-‘Arrub, ‘Ain-‘Arrub may also be the Kiryat ‘Arbayyah mentioned in one of Bar Kokhba’s letters.

2. Alla Kushnir-Stein, “New Inscribed Lead Weights from Gaza”: An edition of 7 previously unpublished lead weights from Roman Gaza. Five bear the Phoenician mem (the first letter of the name of Marnas, who was the patron deity of Gaza).

3. Doron Bar, “Was There a 3rd-c. Economic Crisis in Palestine?”: Even though the Western Roman Empire saw an economic crisis between 235 and 284 CE, archaeological evidence shows that Palestine experienced a period of growth then. The rabbinic writings record nothing that unambiguously points to economic decline in the 3rd century.

4. Zeev Weiss and Rina Talgam, “The Nile Festival Building and Its Mosaics: Mythological Representations in Early Byzantine Sepphoris”: The two artists who created the mosaics were probably from Alexandria. The main mosaic shows scenes from the Nile Festival, which was still practiced in Egypt (although in a Christianized form) as late as the 7th century. The Nile scenes were chosen for the main mosaic “because of [the Nile’s] fertility, abundance, and prosperity, the exotic appeal of the theme, and the decorative value of the composition” (72). Similarly, another mosaic shows Amazons dancing, not as part of a ritual (as in Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis), but as part of a banquet. The mosaics are another example (along with the mosaics at Madaba, for instance) of Byzantine culture not being afraid of Classical themes.

4a. Leah Di Segni, “Appendix: Greek Inscriptions in the Nile Festival Building”: Editions of and commentaries on the Greek inscriptions from the mosaics at the Nile Festival building.

5. Douglas R. Edwards, “Khirbet Qana: From Jewish Village to a Christian Pilgrim Site”: Kh. Qana was inhabited off and on from the Neolithic through the Ottoman periods. Its population grew from the 1st century BCE through the Roman period, and it flourished during the Byzantine period, after Christian pilgrims identified it with Cana of Galilee in the 5th century. A shrine was built in a series of caves on the south slope of the hill, which “saw considerable foot traffic” (126), as evidenced by the high polish on the steps leading into the shrine and on the top of the altar inside one of the caves.

6. Cèsar Carreras Monfort and David F. Williams, “’Carrot’ Amphoras: A Syrian or Palestinian Connection?”: Opens the question whether carrot amphorae, which are only found at sites from the western Roman Empire, may have been produced in Syria or Palestine, owing to similarities in fabric between carrot amphorae and Syrian-Palestinian ceramics and that they typically contained dates of a type produced near Jericho.

7. Peter Fabian and Yuval Goren, “A New Type of Late Roman Storage Jar from the Negev”: Elusa jars were produced at a single site (Elusa) and used all over the Negev during the late Roman period.

8. Yizhar Hirschfeld, “Deir Qal’a and the Monasteries of Western Samaria”: “The monasteries of W Samaria have a number of common characteristics. They are all coenobia with walls generally enclosing a church, refectory, and living quarters. They are all built of large ashlars, usually with dressed margins, and decorated with crosses and classical motifs. It is a compact group, with a distance of no more than 2-3km between them” (187), founded near a Christian pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, probably after the Samaritan revolt (529/530) was put down and Christian sites were rebuilt with tax revenue.

9. Zbigniew T. Fiema, “Late-Antique Petra and Its Hinterland: Recent Research and New Interpretations”: “The most important conclusion derived from recent archaeological work and the Petra papyri is that Petra continued to exist through the 6th c.” (213). It was capital of Palaestina Tertia through the 6th century, and the Petra papyri attest to the administrative infrastructure there. The church (specifically the bishop) was an integral part of government in Byzantine Petra. However, Petra’s residents also held to traditional Nabataean practices. Residents of Petra spoke pre-Islamic Early Arabic, and Greek was the language of the administration. The settlement grew smaller from the 3rd century to the 6th century; an earthquake in 363 accelerated the process. During the same time, Petra “lost its importance as a major market for goods exchanged between regions” (225), though local trade still occurred. As in Palestine, Petra saw an economic downturn in the 5th century. Petra’s economy rallied briefly in the early 6th century, before a collapse in the mid-to-late 6th century. By the 6th century, major trade routes had shifted away from Petra. The population may have ruralized by the 7th century, since the Crusaders found the area inhabited by small villages.

10. David Stacey, “The Later Synagogues at Hammath Tiberias and Problems of Dating the Islamic Phases and Pottery”: A review of Moshe Dothan (ed. By Barbara L. Johnson), Hammath Tiberias vol. 2: The Late Synagogues.


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Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice (2009)

Guy G. Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (trans. Susan Emanuel; 2009).

Thesis: The religious landscape of Late Antiquity represented a radical change from the eras prior to it.

Chapter 1, “A New Care of the Self,” argues that the anthropological shifts in Late Antiquity had their basis in religious practices. The main religious change of Late Antiquity, of course, was the high status that Christianity attained. However, “it is with Jewish weapons”—like communal asceticism, conversion as repentance (metanoia) rather than a returning (epistrophe), and the prophet as the ideal person—“that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire” (11). Late Antique Judaism adapted the prophetic ideal into the figure of the sage, who occupies him/herself with studying Torah, while Christianity turned the prophet into the saint, the holy man who confronts the bishop from the margins of society, the same way that the biblical prophets confronted the priests. Moreover, Christianity made holiness, achieved through ascesis, available to everyone (unlike in pagan culture, where spiritual greatness was reserved for philosophers and other “intellectual elites” [25]).

Chapter 2, “The Rise of the Religions of the Book,” tracks how Late Antique religions developed their understandings of sacred texts. Stroumsa begins with Judaism, which developed a rich textual tradition during the Second-Temple period, but by Late Antiquity held the Torah as the only truly sacred book (supplemented by oral traditions). Next, he discusses the Quranic category of “people of the book” (ahl al-kitāb), noting that, in Quranic usage, the “Book” (kitāb) is an oral text related to heavenly revelation, independent of the codex (musḥaf). This concept was also already present in Manichaeism, which contained a strong theology of the book. Early Christians also were deeply devoted to sacred texts, almost all of which were codices (rather than scrolls, the dominant form of the book when Christianity developed). Codices were inexpensive and portable—qualities which allowed Christians to disseminate information quickly. The early Christians used Jewish sacred texts (i.e., the Septuagint), and they readily acknowledged the Jewishness of those scriptures (to the point of sparing Jewish books whenever they razed synagogues). Christians, of course, also developed their own canon (the New Testament), the core of which was finalized in the 180s, around the same time that the Mishnah was completed. Early Christianity, like Second-Temple Judaism, saw a proliferation of sacred texts. By Late Antiquity, however, Christianity—again like its contemporary Judaism—devoted itself to the study of a small selection of sacred literature (canonized, by that point, as the Bible).

Chapter 3, “Transformations of Ritual,” shows how Late Antiquity marked a turning point in religious practices. Before the second century (where Stroumsa idiosyncratically places the beginning of Late Antiquity), Mediterranean religious practice centered on blood sacrifice. With the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, Jewish worship became spiritualized and democratized, focusing on prayer and Torah study—which could be done anywhere, not just Jerusalem. By the rabbinic period, (elite) Jewish practice revolved around halakha, much in the same way contemporaneous elite Christian practice focused on askēsis. In contrast to post-70 Judaism, early Christianity defined itself as a sacrificial religion; however, it emphasized that only one sacrifice (Jesus’) was necessary to appease God, and that sacrifice was re-enacted in the Eucharist and in martyrdom. At the end of the chapter, Stroumsa includes two interesting asides: 1) the Docetic crucifixion story, where Christ laughs from Heaven while his stand-in is crucified, can be seen as a Christian reworking of the Akedah, and 2) Philo—a contemporary of Paul’s—argues that Isaac (the Jewish sacrificial hero par excellence, like Jesus was for the Christians) was the son of God, who miraculously made Sarah a virgin before she conceived Isaac.

Chapter 4, “From Civic Religion to Community Religion”: Before Late Antiquity, religion resided in the public domain; it required correct performance of rituals but did not require adherence to a certain set of beliefs, and the rituals were performed in public by all the residents of a city, or at least their representatives. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, and the subsequent interiorization of religion, it moved out of the public sphere and into the realm of individual groups. At the same time, religious groups began to require orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy. Stroumsa also treats inter-religious violence in this chapter, focusing on Christian anti-paganism and anti-Semitism (which developed out of a purely theological anti-Judaism in the fourth century), showing that the end of religious (pagan) pluralism led to these polemics.

Chapter 5, “From Wisdom Teacher to Spiritual Master,” compares pagan philosophy with Christian spirituality (which Stroumsa himself acknowledges as an artificial distinction). Stroumsa argues that Greek and Roman priests were not spiritual leaders, whereas Christian priests, like their Jewish predecessors, played such a role. Christian spiritual formation thus represents a “rupture with the past” (116). Pagan philosophical instruction took place among elites, who had the leisure to contemplate the good life, which Christian spiritual leaders evangelized members of all levels of society. By Late Antiquity, “the spiritual director is less a sage than a saint” (125)—that is, the spiritual master’s teachings do not bring wisdom, but abolish independent thought, thereby saving the disciple.

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Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

Thesis: “Athanasius’ embrace of ascetic Christians and their values strengthened his political position and helped him to build an Egyptian Church more dependent on the Alexandrian episcopate. . . . My goal . . . is to provide this oft-repeated picture of Athanasius and asceticism with a stronger historical foundation and a more precise understanding of how asceticism advanced Athanasius’ political programme” (13-14).

Ch. 1: “Chapter 1 studies Athanasius’ efforts to control the life of virgins [= female ascetics] in the city of Alexandria” (11) in order to isolate them from city life, and thus prevent them from associating with the Arians.[i] In fourth-century Alexandria, groups of Christian intellectuals attracted female ascetics, who, by eschewing sex (and, thus, marriage) had the leisure to study philosophy. Athanasius found this practice distasteful. He emphasized the female ascetics’ title of “brides of Christ,” arguing that, just like normal wives, they should remain cloistered in their homes, attending on their bridegroom (i.e., Christ) through prayer. Athanasius’ arguments about virgins fit in with his larger political program: he was attempting to refute the position of Hieracas, who said that marriage belonged to the era before Christ and that only sexual renunciants could truly be Christians. Athanasius, on the other hand, affirmed that both virgins and married people could be Christians. Likewise, Christian academies (the locus of Arian Christianity) had many women ascetics for members; in attempting to sequester virgins, Athanasius was trying to deprive the Arians of a large part of their support base while increasing the size of his own.

Ch. 2: “Chapter 2 turns to Athanasius’ dealings with the desert monks, the semi-eremitical monks of the Nitrian desert and the coenobitic monks of the Thebaid, and describes a strategy not of isolation, but of inclusion” (11-12), to win them over to his cause. In dealing with the Nitrian monks, Athanasius developed his idea that monastics and clergy should intersect—he argued that (the desert) monks should be subordinate to (the city-bound) clergy, and he appointed monks to clerical positions. He applied this framework in his dealings with the Pachomian monastic community: he brokered a truce between two Pachomian leaders, and he all but appointed a successor after another leader’s death. Finally, during his desert exile, he launched a literary campaign to rally the desert monks to his cause against the Arians—that is, arguing that they should stop being hospitable to everyone, regardless of theological commitments (a hallmark of monastic Christianity), and only recognize Athanasian Christians as real Christians. Broadly speaking, Athanasius believed that withdrawing into the desert (anachoresis) “did not sever [a monk’s] more basic tie to the wider Church” (139).

Ch. 3: “Chapter 3 outlines Athanasius’ spirituality and shows how it assimilates ascetic values into a vision that can also encompass ordinary Christians.” Where chapters 1 and 2 are social-historical in nature, this chapter is historical-theological.[ii] This chapter outlines how Athanasius de-emphasized philosophical meditation about God as a Christian spiritual practice, instead emphasizing (physical) asceticism. For Athanasius, asceticism was a virtue that all Christians—not just monks—should strive for. However, since Athanasius believed that the Church consisted of different kinds of people (e.g., monastics and non-monastics alike), this ascetic ideal found different practical outworkings; Athanasius believed all Christians could resist temptation and ward of the devil through prayers, vigils, renouncing some sex, food, and wealth, and studying the Scriptures—hallmarks of ascetic discipline. This limited ascetic program was an especially good fit for the wealthy Christians “whose allegiance to the Athanasian episcopate was the glue that held together the fragile earthly counterpart of the heavenly ‘single symphony in the faith’ that Athanasius so eloquently praised” (144).

Ch. 4: Deals with the Life of Antony, which “epitomizes Athanasius’ ascetic program in both its practical and theoretical aspects,” portraying Antony as “the perfect instance of human appropriation of the Word’s victory over sin and death,” as opposed to other fourth-century Egyptians, who cast Antony “as a spiritual patron, a teacher of wisdom, or a monastic party leader” (13). Athanasius claims to have met Antony several times; Brakke finds evidence that Athanasius’s claims to have been a student of Antony’s were exaggerated; Athanasius probably met Antony only once, and briefly, at that. Brakke then situates the Life of Antony within the broader fourth-century reception of Antony’s legacy, showing that Athanasius dramatically reworked the Antony tradition to paint a picture of his ideal monk (who was non-philosophical, anti-Arian, deeply ascetic, and loyal to the Athanasian episcopate), set up that ideal as a model to be imitated, and thereby consolidate support for his position over against those of his adversaries.



[i] Brakke uses Athanasius’ terminology of “virgin” to refer to “female ascetics,” though he acknowledges that it is unsatisfactory. I choose to refer to them, by and large, as “female ascetics” or “women ascetics.”

[ii] Richard Valantasis, review of Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, Journal of Religion 77 (1997): 293.

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Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” (1971)

Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), pp. 80-101.

This article is social functionalist examination of the role of the “holy man” (i.e., male ascetics; female ascetics were apparently excluded from the dominance of the ascetic) in Late Antiquity, arguing that the late antique holy man played the same social role as the patrons of classical antiquity—that is, the late antique holy man stood up for the rights of the oppressed, acted as mediator for village disputes, and interacted in the larger world on behalf of the village. It is worth noting, also, that Brown explicitly rejects the notion that the dominance of the holy man represents a decline from the ideals of Greek civilization (as argued by, e.g., Gibbon). Instead, he seeks to paint an empathetic portrait of holy man in his social environment.

Brown begins his article by tracing the rise of the ideal late antique holy man, who lived in and acted at the margins of society. He notes that, even though wilderness asceticism developed in Egypt, the environment shaped the Egyptian ascetics’ practices—because the Egyptian desert is so harsh and inhospitable, desert monks had to adopt civilized practices (like earning a living by manual labor in order to be able to afford food, or living together in order to share water); therefore, even though Egyptian wilderness ascetics lived on the margin of society, they could not afford—literally—to act at the margin of society.

Syrian holy men, on the other hand, had sources of food, water, and shelter readily available in the wilderness, so they did not need to cling to civilized practices in order to survive; therefore, they were completely marginal figures, living and acting outside the bounds of society—a status that gave them great authority within the social structure. Moreover, the social conditions in late antique Syria enabled the Syrian holy men to gain fame quickly—a large portion of the Syrian population were unemployed itinerant agricultural workers, so large numbers of them were able to flock to the holy man and live with him. For these unemployed workers, the holy man was a patron figure—he possessed δύναμις (on account of his special relationship with God), and he used that δύναμις “to smooth over the thorny issues of village life” (85), like distributing water among the villagers, cancelling debts, and settling disputes between villagers. Moreover, the miracle stories told about holy men often reflect the holy man using his δύναμις in order to keep a village society running smoothly.

In the second part of the paper, Brown examines the roles that the holy man played in the wider Byzantine world, outside the confines of the Syrian village. In Byzantine society, the holy man was an outsider—a stranger—largely because of his ascetic practices, through which he resisted being classified in the society’s terms. These ascetic practices resulted in παρρησία (intimacy [with God]), which gave them an intrinsic authority, not deriving from anywhere in the social structure. The late antique holy man was thus a liminal figure, who, because he operated outside the social structure, was able to enact change; for instance, by resolving disputes between the society’s insiders, be they villagers or patricians. Even into the Middle Ages, the holy men retained their liminal power, which was encapsulated in their relics and icons, and which had the power, for instance, to heal and kill people.

Therefore, holy men filled four specific roles in Byzantine society. First, they mediated between the people and God, who, like the emperor, “was at one and the same time remote and unflinching, and yet, ideally, the ever-loving Father of his people” (97). Second, they made a full-time profession of contrition for sin, whereas a normal Byzantine person only occasionally expected to feel contrite for their sins. Third, therefore, they allayed people’s anxieties, allowing people to manage their guilt through acts of penance. And thus, fourth, they were important decision-makers within society, settling questions of ethics, morals, medicine, and science.


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