Melania and Melania: Two Vexing Icons of Early Christianity

By Caroline T. Schroeder, co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017

If you say the name Melania to your friends and family, what words come to their minds?  Wealth, fame for sure.  And perhaps recluse, devoted mother, though perhaps not devoted wife.

Tell them if they really want to read about a controversial and vexing Melania, they have two even more intense icons to choose from. Melania the Elder and her granddaughter Melania the Younger had wealth and fame to spare. Despite their ascetic commitments — even because of them — they were no recluses.  As two of the richest and most influential Christians in late antiquity, they traveled the Mediterranean, building institutions (monasteries and churches), patronizing important early Christian writers, and lobbying the imperial family.  True, Melania the Elder was once imprisoned, and Melania the Younger once sequestered herself in a tiny cell in her monastery.  Yet these moments of confinement, while telling, were not defining. Neither locked themselves behind the gates of their estates.  Instead both women were praised by late antique authors for their roles as architects of an emerging church.

Such influence did not put the Melanias beyond controversy, ancient or modern.  Although spiritual mothers to many of their fellow ascetics, neither dedicated their lives to the physical care of biological children.  Melania the Younger’s children died young, and her grandmother famously left her son behind in Rome to pursue her ascetic career.  Melania the Elder also ruffled the feathers of none other than the famous Jerome.  As several contributors to this book (Luckritz Marquis, Doerfler, Krawiec, and Darling Young) show us, this conflict with Jerome helped shape definitions of heresy and orthodoxy during the Origenist controversy and most certainly affected later Christian tradition’s memory of her.  Melania the Younger, her hagiographer tells us, went even so far as to interrupt and challenge Augustine, in what Susanna Drake calls a “curious case of scriptus interruptus” (171).  Jumping to the twentieth century, Melania the Younger “went viral” (as the kids say) when Cardinal Rampolla published her vita in 1905.  As Michael Penn recounts in the book, the story of the “richest woman in history” rebounded in the popular press. I find myself frequently returning to Elizabeth Castelli’s reading of the Melanias and “The Future of Sainthood.”  Castelli reminds us that these women’s ancient virtues remain provocations for modern readers.  For example, their status as slaveholders was an unquestioned part of their “birthright” in their own time, but one that disturbs the sensibilities of ours.

The work of my co-authors reminds me that we often see in the Melanias what we want to see.  They become ciphers for each interpreter’s own struggles with power and resistance.  Did Melania the Elder abandon her maternal duty or embrace a higher calling?  Was the patronage of Evagrius a dangerous slide into heresy or a courageous display of intellectual and political strength?  Is the swat of a hand a reminder of protocol or a refusal to perform on someone else’s terms?  Reading and writing about the Melanias in ways that reckon with these women as individual agents while simultaneously illuminating the social and discursive networks in which they operate requires tenacity, finesse, and scholarly self-reflection.  One of the privileges of editing this book was witnessing my co-authors write with such qualities, unearthing the many Melanias of history and legacy.  Many of us have learned (or, speaking for myself, have tried to learn) this kind of scholarship from the woman whose work inspires this volume:  Elizabeth A. Clark.  Clark was of course President of the North American Patristics Society and a founding editor of its journal,  the Journal of Early Christian Studies.  As Randall Styers writes in the afterword to the book, Clark’s scholarship has been “in the vanguard” of the field, “exerting enormous energy, creativity, and methodological innovation as she worked to remake the craft of late ancient history” and religion. (284)   Clark, too, is an architect of the field we have become. 

Early Christian studies is now a field that takes seriously theology and history while producing new critical theories of religion and gender, and one that does not shy away from examining its own history and politics.  And thus, we are thrilled that Melania, which wrestles with all of these theoretical threads, appears in our Society’s book series.

Caroline T. Schroeder is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific and author of Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe. She is co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family with Catherine M. Chin, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of California, Davis and author of Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World.

Why Late Antiquity (and All History) Needs Twits

By Andrew S. Jacobs, author of Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017

“What a twit.” So a wise colleague recently described Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), the oft-maligned subject of my recent book.

At a conference in March, another prominent historian described Epiphanius as “the stupidest of all Church Fathers.”

In conversations with friends and fellow scholars while writing Epiphanius of Cyprus, I heard him called “horrible” and “a liar.”

To be sure, Epiphanius — monk, bishop, controversialist, and author of a massive, multi-volume encyclopedia of heresies characterized by invective, mendacity, and intolerance — was probably not a nice person. But the pages of history books are not populated by “nice guys”: so why the persistent distaste for Epiphanius? This scholarly aversion to Epiphanius is a puzzle I return to in the concluding chapter of Epiphanius of Cyprus, a puzzle compounded by Epiphanius’s undeniable prominence in his own day and time: a celebrity among monks and bishops, dismissed (or, at the least, marginalized) as a liar and twit by scholars today.

I have no interest in promoting Epiphanius’s intellect (although he probably wasn’t so much stupid as he was unphilosophical) and I have no interest in making us like him (he certainly wouldn’t care for me). But I do believe that history-writing is always to some extent an exercise in answering pressing issues in the present by reimagining traces of the past. We find certain persons, texts, and events “interesting” precisely because of our own interests (meaning both our engagements and our stakes). If Epiphanius seems not to fit into our histories, it is because he works against those interests.

What kind of past are we determined to create that has no room for Epiphanius? Why doesn’t our late antiquity have room for twits?

The writing of history, like any cultural production, is a story we want to tell about ourselves. Late antiquity — born in the colonial 19th century, nourished in the postcolonial 1950s, and matured in the multicultural 1970s — was a period of intellectual ferment, transformation, and rebirth, a Eurasian renaissance from which emerged new thinking, new arts, and new religions. It reversed the sneering disdain of Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon. It claimed as its mascots the great thinkers and idea men (and, in more recent years, idea women), impresarios of change and authors of new worlds. It is entirely understandable that we would want to produce a late antiquity from which we might imagine a better present and future for ourselves.

History-writing, like all culture-making, is about inclusions and exclusions, about viewing our world with certain blinders. Epiphanius was perhaps a twit, certainly intolerant, absolutely dedicated to finding and rooting out “the other” from his orthodox empire. To exclude him from our culture-making forays into the past, however, is to leave ourselves open to all sorts of unpleasant surprises about the world we inhabit in the present. Epiphanius’s prominence in late antiquity was not, I argue, a fluke but rather the dark side of a new, transformative, diverse world being born. I am not calling for a return to Gibbon’s sneering condemnation of late antiquity, but rather a more clear-eyed appreciation of all of its shadows and nuances.

We may not like the twits of history, but without facing them head on we are disarming ourselves against them in the present and the future.

Andrew S. Jacobs is Professor of Religious Studies and Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity and Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference.

Are Contemporary Political Movements Ancient “Heresies” in Disguise?

By Yonatan Moss, author of Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017

In 1959 the British historian of the Roman Empire, A. H. M. Jones, published an influential article entitled “Were Ancient Heresies Political or Social Movements in Disguise?”. Despite the interrogatory pose assumed in its title, Jones’s essay was more of a response than a question. It responded to the then regnant understanding among historians that the series of “heretical” movements that rocked the late ancient Roman imperial church were motivated by national aspirations and social grievances. Jones effectively showed that this was not at all the case. National and social concerns were, Jones argued, predominantly modern categories which the historians of his day had anachronistically imposed upon the theologically-minded inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

My recent book, Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society and Authority in Late Antiquity, studies one of those late ancient “heresies” examined by Jones: the group now commonly referred to as the Miaphysite movement. The Miaphysites (from Greek mia-one, physis-nature) disputed the definition reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, according to which there are two natures, one human and one divine, in Christ. Contrary to the imperial administration’s enforcement of Chalcedon as official policy, millions of Christians from Egypt to Eastern Turkey continued to adhere to one-nature theology. They gradually established churches of their own, separate from the ecclesiastical structures of the Empire. Although these churches ultimately came to be known under the names of Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox, each with its own distinctive language of liturgy and theological expression, Jones was right to point out that initially, in the fifth-and-sixth centuries, these were not “national” movements. Several of the foundational figures of the Syrian Orthodox church, such as Severus of Antioch, one of the main actors in my book, spoke and wrote in Greek, rather than in Syriac. Contrary to a narrative popular in earlier scholarship, according to which Severus of Antioch strove to separate from the official, Chalcedonian church of the Empire, Incorruptible Bodies shows that he actually did everything he could to remain within the imperial church, seeking to win it over to his anti-Chalcedonian stance.

The lesson learned from Jones’s article, one which we historians find ourselves relearning time and again, is how not to project contemporary categories back onto the past. Yet, does this mean that no connections exist between the past and the present? Having published my book last year, as I now witness the political events unfolding in Washington, I see deep similarities between the two. I have come to realize how, rather than viewing the past through the prism of the present, we can do the reverse.

While contemporary American political controversies deal with very different concerns than those that plagued the churches of the later Roman Empire, both revolve around disagreements over the proper route to what may be called individual and collective “salvation,” whether that salvation is spiritual, moral or material. The dilemma that now plagues the Democratic Party (and which similarly occupied Republicans during the Obama administration), is structurally equivalent to the key question underlying the disputes among the sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian bishops analyzed in my book: how must one implement one’s vision of salvation when power lays in the hands of those whose views one considers “heretical” and obstacles to salvation? Does one insist on ideological purity, or does one try to change the system from within, either in the name of social unity or in the name of shorter-term gains? The range of answers offered within the Democratic Party mirrors the array of positions defended by the late ancient Miaphysites. But whereas the end of the current political debate is still open, we do know what course of action the Miaphysite movement ultimately decided on. What was this course of action? Readers of Incorruptible Bodies, whether or not they happen to be Democratic policy-makers, can find out for themselves.

Yonatan Moss is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion.

Q & A with the Editor of Christianity in Late Antiquity

The Official Book Series of the North American Patristics Society

This Q & A is the first post in a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity and published in conjunction with the conference of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago. Stay tuned for more guest contributions from authors in the series. #NAPS2017

Christianity in Late Antiquity presents outstanding new scholarship on late-ancient Christianity in its various cultural contexts. The series represents the full range of approaches to early Christianity practiced by scholars in North America and internationally, combining the best of theological analysis and institutional history with newer approaches in social history, material culture, liturgical studies, and gender studies. Its geographical and linguistic purview includes the Mediterranean world, North Africa, Northern Europe, Arabia, and the Levant.

As the North American Patristics Society convenes this week in Chicago, we asked editor Christopher Beeley to discuss the series, his own research, and how these titles will contribute to the field of early Christian studies.

What inspired you to develop the Christianity in Late Antiquity series?

Several years ago I noticed that something important was missing. The field of early Christian studies was growing in very creative ways in North America, both numerically and in terms of new perspectives, but there was no standard, general series at an American press that one would immediately think of. So I proposed to the North American Patristics Society—our main academic association—that we recreate the Society’s official book series, which once played a vital role, to reflect the full range of methodological approaches being practiced by North American scholars, and to launch a new initiative with a major American university press. That led to the conversion of the Patristic Monograph Series to the new Christianity in Late Antiquity (CLA) series with the University of California Press. There was much energy among the senior membership of NAPS as well as younger scholars, and we have since seen a great deal of interest in the series.

Can you tell us more about your research interests and areas of expertise?

My favorite thing about the early Christian studies scene in North America is that, while we certainly have our squabbles and debates, people of different and often overlapping methodological approaches work alongside one another in what are usually creative and mutually-beneficial ways. This has not always been the case in other academic associations, regrettably. The interdisciplinarity of NAPS and the conversation we enjoy is an incredible asset, and the new series reflects that. As the series editor I work with authors with very different interests.

I have studied and taught early Christianity for over twenty years, and I am interested in numerous aspects of the period. Thus far I have concentrated on the development of early Christian theology, spirituality, and biblical interpretation, and I pay close attention to the construction of authority by theologians and church councils, the way early Christian writers position themselves rhetorically, and their nearly constant concern for practical matters of individual and social ethics. I have learned a great deal from my colleagues working in similar and different areas, and I am glad to have received their responses to my work as well.

What sets the titles in Christianity in Late Antiquity apart from other books in the field?

What distinguishes CLA from the other outlets is the broad and integrative quality of the work it represents. We don’t simply publish works that represent a wide range of perspectives individually, but we aim to present books that integrate them in new and creative ways. The first two volumes do this in spades.

Yonatan Moss’ Incorruptible Bodies examines the sixth-century debate over the nature of Christ’s human body—in particular, whether is was incorruptible prior to the resurrection or not—but it does so by examining how that question gets played out in the social and political configurations surrounding the major players. There are both old-school historical dividends and new-school theoretical perspectives involved. Moss shows not only that Bishop Severus of Antioch, the great patriarch of the non-Chalcedonian church in Syria, preferred to remain in alliance with the emerging Byzantine empire, despite his opposition to the fractious Council of Chalcedon—a fact that has eluded previous scholars—but Moss also sheds light on how the ecclesial bodies of the rival communities around Severus show different social dynamics in relation to their stance on Christ’s body. It’s fascinating.

Andrew Jacobs’ brilliant new study of the fourth-century bishop and heresy-hunter Epiphanius of Cyprus likewise gives us new details of Epiphanius’ life and works along with a very contemporary new perspective on the phenomenon of his wide influence. By attending to ecclesiastical power structures and making use of modern celebrity studies, Jacobs accounts for Epiphanius’ amazing success at network-building while also giving serious attention to his biblical interpretation and dogmatic theology. The result is a whole new picture of an important early Christian bishop who is typically overlooked as a person in preference for the otherwise lost sources by other authors that he transmits.

Our third volume, Melania, a collection of studies of the influential aristocratic ascetics Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger and their family and friends, opens new doors in the study of late-ancient Christian spirituality and social history. And we have several new books currently in production of equal promise: on early Christian Syriac poetry, fourth-century Greek ascetical theology, early Christian historiography, and Latin inscriptions.

How do you see the series influencing scholarship in your field?

I expect CLA is going to influence the field of early Christian studies—in North America and internationally—by presenting the sort of pioneering integrative scholarship that North American scholars have come to be known for. While we continue to practice the more traditional modes of study, such as historical theology and institutional history, we bring to these subjects new questions and new forms of inquiry that will yield insight in multiple directions. As the largest society among our international peers, the North American Patristics Society and our associates are poised to give new shape to the field of early Christian studies, and to make important contributions in several others fields as well, from late-ancient history to systematic theology to cultural studies.

Christopher Beeley is Professor of Christian theology and history and modern Anglican tradition at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition, and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, which was the winner of a John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. An Episcopal priest, he has served parishes in Connecticut, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia, and he contributes to Berkeley Divinity School’s Anglican formation program.

3 Must-Read Journals at #SBLAAR16

To celebrate the 2016 joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, commencing in San Antonio, TX from November 19-22, we’re offering free access to special content from our religion and ancient history journals. For those attending #sblaar16 in person, don’t forget to visit UC Press at booth #710 to see our wide selection of books and journals in religious studies!

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.18.30 PMMulti-discilpnary and international in scope, Nova Religio is a premier source of scholarship on alternative and emergent religions, religous groups, and religious movements. The journal is pleased offer a free sample issue that includes original research, literature reviews, and conference updates.

#sblaar16 attendees: Don’t miss a special reception hosted by the New Religious Movements Group and Nova Religio on Saturday, November 19, 7:00-9:00pm (Marriott Rivercenter, Conference Room 11, Level 3).



Religion & American Culture

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.17.52 PMReligion & American Culture is devoted to promoting the ongoing scholarly discussion of the nature, terms, and dynamics of religion in America. Understanding religious and social dynamics in American life has never been so important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election. To contribute to undertsandings of a particular facet of American history and contemporary life—immigration—RAC offers free access to a virtual issue on Religion & Immigration in America

#sblaar16 attendees: The editors of RAC invite you join them at reception on Sunday, November 20, 8:00-10:00pm (Hyatt Regency-Rio Grande East, Ballroom Level).


Studies in Late Antiquity – Launching in February 2017!

unnamedStudies in Late Antiquity is the latest online, quarterly journal from UC Press launching in February 2017. The journal will publish scholarship on a wide range of topics pertaining to the world of Late Antiquity (150 – 750 CE), and a defining focus of the journal will be fostering multi- and interdisciplinary research that emphasizes the interconnectedness of the Mediterranean with other parts of the late ancient world.

Read Q&A’s with SLA‘s strong team of editors (and keep your eye out for them at the conference!):

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Editor, UC Santa Barbara
Emily Albu, Associate Editor, UC Davis
Ra’anan Boustan, Associate Editor, UC Los Angeles
Susanna Elm, Associate Editor, UC Berkeley
Michele Salzman, Associate Editor, UC Riverside
Edward Watts, Associate Editor, UC San Diego
Ryan Abrecht, Book Reviews Editor, University of San Diego