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‘Tis the (SBL/AAR-) Season!

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | November 19, 2015 | No Comment |

’tis the season for conference papers! In a week’s time, thousands of academics will be flooding into Atlanta, salmon returning to their birth place — albeit with fewer spawning opportunities.  This annual pilgrimage is known as the joint meeting of the Society for Biblical Studies and the American Academy of Religion.  I tend to be a fan of conferences as loci for trying out new ideas and testing scholarly hypotheses.  This year, however, my contribution tends to flow in waters I’ve explored decently well on earlier occasions throughout 2015, in the interest of both consolidating my research and continuing to invite feed-back on the project that occupies much of my spare time: the death of children, and late ancient responses thereto.

The latter was a pressing problem in late antiquity, and, in fact, in any period prior to the 19th century. Textual, epigraphal, and archaeological remnants attesting to childhood mortality and the grief it inspired are nevertheless relatively rare, owing in part to the vagaries of time and transmission. In other words, to have someone write about the death of a child — itself a considerable feat in a time of exceedingly limited literacy — was not enough; the writing had to be judged to be of sufficient importance to get passed down over the centuries from scribe to scribe to ensure its preservation.

Part of my work involves looking for children  in unexpected places: in late ancient homilies, hymns, commentaries, and letters that deal with biblical families, and particularly those that suffer from the death or anticipated loss of one of their own.  These texts can be — and were — read through any number of lenses: to create or support a particular doctrine, to elicit particular behaviors in one’s audience, to craft an engaging story.  With surprising frequency, however, these stories are read, even read “against the grain,” with an eye towards helping families make sense of the death of a child.

Should you find yourself in Atlanta this weekend, you can hear me talk a bit more about one small aspect of this project — and hear a number of more interesting scholars’ work on children in late antiquity — here:

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Here’s my paper’s abstract:

Good Grief: Parental Bereavement in Biblical Literature and Late Ancient Reception History.

Childhood mortality rates in the biblical — and, more generally, the pre-modern — world were notoriously high: as many as half of all children did not live to see their tenth birthday. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there is little explicit evidence of parental grief over such deaths: ancient burial grounds offer at best ambiguous evidence for children’s commemoration, and letters and speeches directed at those who had suffered bereavement encourage stoic self-possession in the face of tragedy. The latter was the case for ancient Christians as much as for their Jewish and Greco-Roman counterparts; indeed, the developing understanding of God as all-knowing and wholly just urged the further suppression of mourning in the face of divine wisdom, as sermons and treatises by, e.g., Gregory of Nyssa and Jacob of Serugh attest.

In sharp contrast to such discourses of parental equanimity, however, stood homilists’ treatment of bereavement or anticipated bereavement experienced by biblical characters. The stories of Eve and Adam, parents to the first prematurely deceased child as well as his murderer, of Job and David, and of the mothers of those infants killed by Herod in Matthew 2:16-18, reverberate through ancient Christian homily and hymn as the stories of parents’ grief, outrage, and wrestling with divine providence. In the process, the biblical characters in question served as vehicles for expressing and, at times, appeasing the affective experience of bereaved parents in their exponents’ communities. This paper examines one of the most productive and provocative accounts of the (near) death of a child: the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, and the concomitant experiences of Abraham and Sarah in anticipation thereof. Early Jewish and Christian interpreters midrashically expounded themes of parental grief only incipient, or, in Sarah’s case, entirely absent in the biblical text; in the process, their narratives came to legitimize and on occasionally liturgically subsume those of families confronting the death of a child in antiquity and subsequent eras.

under: Syriac

The Most Important Writings?

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | November 8, 2015 | No Comment |

To know me is to know that I’m an inveterate list-maker. One of the few topics on which I consider myself an authority, for example, is the strengths and weaknesses of online “to do” apps … and to find that my app-of-organizational-choice is down or buggy has been known to induce grave despair and vociferous complaints. This kind of “orderly mind” — ahem — tends to be a hallmark of historians, and so I’ve noted with great interest the Christian History Institute’s plans to publish an issue featuring the “25 best writings” of Christian history. The magazine’s blog even features a preview of the top ten, selected, apparently, by seventy Christian History scholars. The latter remain for the moment anonymous, but given the caliber of historians who regularly contribute to the site, this is indeed a list of which one ought to take notice.

Of course, historians are also … ornery. Sticklers. Overly fond of nuance. Incapable of answering a simple “yes or no” question with anything other than “yes and no.” Or at least, I suspect, that’s the way my students would describe me — and I do not disavow those qualities. The very things that make one a good reader of text make one a terrible reader of “Top Ten” lists. In this spirit of professional orneriness, I note just a small handful of challenges to what is, truly, an impressive list, the volumes on which I earnestly desire all my students to read — indeed, many of which I assign to my students each year.

First, there’s the question of “best.” As Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us, an adjective without referent is an unhelpful adjective. In other words, to know whether this is indeed a list of the best Christian writings, we ought to ask ourselves: the best — to what end? Even more simply put, we might ask ourselves what we mean by “best.” Are these the most influential writs? Those who have shaped history most directly? (And, we might ask: whose history? And whose history “counts”?) The ones who, throughout history, have expressed Christian theology most perfectly? (And, we might ask: whose Christian theology? And whose theology “counts”?) Are we identifying the writings read by (or: to) most Christians, the ones that most Christians count as foundational, whether or not they have ever read them, or the ones that one ought to earnestly desire Christians of some stripe to read, in order to be well-informed about their religious history?

The list we have before us appears as a bit of a bricolage of approaches; different writings — a carefully chosen term! — who made the list suggest different motives for their selection, with different levels of “fit.” For example, the Nicene creed (#7) — intended here, no doubt, in its amended format, dating to the Council of Ephesus –, while singularly ineffective for decades after the Nicene Council, is an important mover and shaker in Christian history; the same might be said of the Chalcedonian formula, foundational for the West, foundational for many Eastern churches, too, who defined and continue to define themselves in counter distinction to said creed. Whether either of these ought to be counted as “writings” remains an open question, however: originally written down, their primary familiarity and impact stems from oral culture, recitation by rote — as indeed creeds tend to function.

By contrast, the primarily literary nature of Augustine’s magnum opus, On the City of God, against the Pagans (#4) is hard to deny. Copied and re-copied from the days of Augustine’s initial frustration that friends of his kept carrying off and disseminating his still-unfinished work, City of God remains more admired than read. Most Christians throughout history were, no doubt, unfamiliar with the book, and even those who counted themselves avid connoisseurs did not necessarily conduct their affairs in keeping with its teachings (hat tip: Charlemagne!). Augustine’s response to his contemporaries’ responses to the sack of Rome at the beginning of the fifth century is a work of great beauty and impressive thought about how Christians might “do history,” but unlike the Nicene creed its immediate importance for ordinary Christians probably lies in its ability to prop up other, slimmer volumes on their shelves.

Perhaps most interesting among the list’s highly-ranked writings, however, are those of a more recent vintage. Keeping in mind that among Christians internationally, about half belong to the Roman Catholic camp, another quarter to the various Eastern Orthodox traditions, and that Protestants, including both the “mainline” and the evangelical and charismatic varieties, account for scarcely a quarter, we might wonder at the inclusion of, say, Luther (#5) and Calvin (#3), to say nothing of Lewis’ Mere Christianity (#8 … ought not the artful popularizer of Athanasius at least rank behind the original?) Might not Vatican II, the gesta of the Council of Trent, the Philokalia, the writings of Palamas, the hymns of Ephrem, to name just a very few outrank them … unless, that is, the audience for this list is indeed a Western Reformed one?

More pressing than what the list contains, however, is what it lacks. The absence of writings beyond the Western European realm on this list is grave. Athanasius (#9) is the sole Greek contributor, unless one wishes to count the Nicene creed. For the latter, the very writers who ensured that Nicaea remained something more than a footnote in the history of the Trinitarian controversy and that the Holy Spirit takes consubstantial place in the Godhead — the Cappadocians — do not appear in the Top Ten at all. That there are no women included is scarcely surprising, although I would venture to guess that the full list will include Teresa and Julian … somewhere. Yet what of, for example, the Acts of Judas Thomas, vital to Indian Christians, or, if we dare dip into the 20th century, the writings of liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez or James Cone or Mary Daly?

The writings I have suggested — a small subset of those I might wish to include — already well exceed the narrow frame of a Top Ten or even a Top 25. This might point us to aforementioned historian’s indecisiveness, but it might also point to the struggle surrounding the referents: important for whom? best, in what context? Religions deal in absolutes, but historians deal in the liminal spaces, the shades of gray, the qualifiers. In practice, this results in a great deal of handwringing for me every other year when I teach my survey course on ancient, medieval, and byzantine Christianity. If students, including each year a majority of Methodists preparing for ordination, can only read and discuss twelve or thirteen “writings” from the first thirteen centuries of the Common Era, which ought those to be?

My answer changes substantially between iterations of this course — this year, for the first time, I have added Basil and Nazianzen (on the Holy Spirit), readings on ancient liturgy, the Life of Antony of Egypt (an ascetic bestseller, if ever there was one!), and a new set of selections on Muslim/Christian relations. These readings are not far from being the perfect choice — indeed, every year on my final exam I ask students to reflect, for extra credit, on what books they would have liked to read for my course, and why — but they are my current best judgment for what I think my students need to learn about this slice of Christian history. My own, limited list, like all historical work, has many caveats and a telos. I still worry much about the omissions, less about the inclusions. If all goes well, in the long run, each of my students will, after all, develop her or his own “Top Ten.”

under: Syriac

Stuff and things: The Lives of Religious Books.

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | November 3, 2015 | No Comment |

One of my students recently wrote about what Augustine had said “in his Patrologia Latina.” The sentence was worth a chuckle, and a fond throw-back to the many laughs with which I have provided — and no doubt continue to provide — my own mentors. After the initial amusement had faded — which took a while: faculty lead far too boring lives! — however, the comment made me think, rather ruefully, about my own failures as a pedagogue. Somewhere along the way, I had encouraged my students to think about the writings of one particularly prolific late ancient author as an undifferentiated mass from which readers could pull quotations and anecdotes, arguments and points of dogma, but which had otherwise become detached from their original context, performative setting, and chain of transmission. We had drifted not only from the source’s initial setting — the church of Carthage, in which the work, a homily, had been preached — but from its progression from the scribbles of stenographers to its review, revision, dissemination, collection, and transmission from scribe to scribe, becoming by degrees the kind of text now before us, accessible with a click of the button a the opening of a PDF file.

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about such chains of transmissions and their instantiation in “stuff” over the past few months. In part, this is due to the fact that it’s It’s been a very “material” semester for the Center for Late Ancient Studies, for which I serve as director. By happenstance — or rather, one might argue, by our apt selection of speakers 😉 — all three of this semester’s lectures deal with things alongside texts: the modification (or lack thereof) of ancient temples and statues, the representation of Roman themes amidst Christian mausolea, or even the material instantiations of worship-gone-wrong as metaphor for philosophical argument. This is, I think, no coincidence: the intersection of material and textual is rapidly becoming one of late ancient studies “best practices.” Much of this are retrofitted skill-sets for me: a staunch textualist throughout my graduate work, I only started to read about spatial practices, study site plans for excavations, and begin to work with actual stuff towards the very end of my Ph.D. Happily, however, the questions once asked and visuals once captured are impossible to un-ask and un-see; to touch a manuscript, handle a coin, or step into an ancient baptistery are fascinating experiences for even the textual purist.

My own love-affair with “stuff” — the stuff of books, as it happens — spans from my first handling of the oldest dated Syriac manuscript, a lectionary, in the British Library to, just last year, turning the pages of a far more recent, 18th century, collection of funerary homilies from the Church of the East at Union Theological Seminary. Separated by more than a millennium, the two writings differ from one another in any number of ways; each is, however, more than merely a record of the text it transmits — by their very material existence, tarnished, ornamented, torn, doodled-upon and annotated, the manuscripts tell the story of their own histories, the histories of their scribes and readers, the communities that used them and the men and women that commissioned them.

This year, thanks to winning one of the Duke Provost Office’s Faculty Development Grants, a group of faculty, ranging from Classicists, to late ancient studies folks, to scholars working on the Medieval and Renaissance eras, are getting a chance to spend quality time with our respective questions about books, manuscripts, texts, and their physical manifestations, as part of a project titled “The Lives of Religious Books.” We’re still in the early stages of discerning where we’d like the grant to take us — individually and together — in our work, but it’s an exciting place to be: book and text as strange, mutually inhering realities, literary sacraments of which neither is all essence or all accidents. The trajectories, too, are nothing short of fascinating: what of the materiality of the internet, of the Patrologia Latina, of Augustine’s ill-attributed sermon? Brave new worlds for students and readers.


An afterthought: Stuck in the pages of the latter, a hefty book captured between solid pieces of wood, Hallwas an index card with beautiful, old-fashioned looking script: a note from Isaac H. Hall, the Syriac scholar and UTS librarian who had first acquired the manuscript. Like me, he had read from it, had become fascinated by it, and had sought to bring it to others’ attention, but in the intervening decades — in truth, more than a century — the manuscript had nevertheless languished: safe, secure, unused, seeing the light of day in 2015 only thanks to the attentions of Burke Library’s understaffed but heroic rare books team. The life of each book is, I think, the history of many false starts, thwarted attempts … new beginnings.

under: Syriac

The interminable “Ph.D. vs. Th.D.” post.

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | November 2, 2015 | No Comment |

Some time around mid-October, my life turns into a more than usually convoluted flurry of acronyms. ’Tis the season: before turkeys and dreidels an Advent wreaths, before even ghosts and scarily bargain-priced bags of candy, there’s the time academics both delight in and dread — application season.

Each year, this generates a baffling number of spontaneous self-introductions, queries about my work that a casual Google search could probably address, and requests for conference meetings with “prospective students.” I have tremendous sympathy for the phenomenon, in all its stiltedness, and its victims. Once upon a time, I wandered into the SBL reception of a rather well-known institution, kind introductory note from a mentor to a prospective mentor at the tip of my tongue, only to find the very senior academic beleaguered by a throng of students rather like myself, except, I felt, no doubt better qualified for the task.

Turning on my heel and wandering back to the hotel room I shared with half a dozen other “prospective students” was scarcely my proudest moment, but it has given me a great deal of regard for the courage particularly “non-traditional” students in my discipline require to make contact with faculty … and so I make a concerted effort to answer every e-mail in as much helpful detail as I can muster. I suspect that some variant of “treasure in heaven”/“paying it forward” has to be at work in these correspondences, especially since most students who write for advice on how to prepare themselves for admission to a doctoral program are, I gather, much less interested in learning about the need for research language development and a reasonably good fit of their topic with a putative mentor’s current scholarship than in being informed that they and only they are the student this program has long been anticipating — skip the application process entirely! But that, and the actual advice I have for students interested in such an application, is for a different post.

Much of the time, however, I find myself, along with student applicants lost in a maze of letters. Ph.D. or Th.D.? MTS or MA? M.Div or MACP? Th.M or D.Min? AARP or LASRG? The options are seemingly endless, and the questions are usually well-founded, particularly since a number of these programs — even the non-facetiously invented ones — are relatively recent additions to Duke’s offerings. The Th.D is just over a decade old, MACS and MACP, as well as D.Min are younger still. How to assess and how to choose?

In this vein, let me address here only one of the most common questions, one that a number of other blogger have already attempted, but that keeps coming up … and rightly so, given that Duke now offers two doctoral programs to which a student interested in dedicating their lives to the study of religion might reasonably apply: the Ph.D., on the one hand, and the Th.D. on the other. The latter is rather more straightforward in its “home institution,” dwelling as it does, in the Divinity School, staffed by Divinity faculty. The Ph.D., the rather older and more venerable of the degrees, belongs to the Graduate Program in Religion, the GPR. The latter is, confusingly, an almost entirely fictional entity, commanding exactly one staff member — its redoubtable administrator. It is staffed by all faculty members in Religious Studies as well as quite a few of my colleagues in Divinity; the latter’s addition to GPR faculty, however, requires the GPR’s vote — a matter more of getting enough of us to a meeting to constitute a quorum than exclusionary practices, I’m happy to say. This requirement reflects the fact that the Divinity School teaches a rather more varied curriculum than Religious Studies, including brilliant faculty who focus on topics that do not overlap with the GPR’s more narrowly defined list of foci, whereas every hire in Religious Studies corresponds to one or more of the GPR’s tracks.

Practically speaking, the two have their fair share of similarities. Some of my colleagues, for example, advise students in both programs*, and my own seminars tend to include students from Th.D. and Ph.D., as well as UNC’s Ph.D. program in Religious Studies — three cheer for inter-institutional collaboration! The Th.D. enjoys rather less funding than the Ph.D., which now offers five years of stipends, teaching- and research- assignments, as well as summer funding to its students. By the same token, the Th.D. is projected — but frequently not experienced — as a shorter program: four years to the Ph.D.’s five. The Th.D. brings together each entering class for a super-disciplinary weekly seminar; the PH.D. has no clear equivalent, other than the “Religion & Theory” course, which students interested in teaching in the department of Religious Studies are required to take … and which, to show my cards plainly, all students ought to take in any case.

On the philosophical level — the level of “ethos,” if you will — the differences loom somewhat larger. Each program has its own default constituency and point of reference; for the Ph.D., this tends to be the university, including, for example, university-wide programs on pedagogy, university-wide scholarship competitions and awards, and the call for an “external minor,” a couple of classes pursued in another department. For the Th.D. the focal point tends to be the Divinity School, its networks, and its own, Th.D-specific programs — by practical necessity as much as by ideal, inasmuch as the Divinity School, a professional school, does not and cannot participate in the Graduate School’s programs. Unlike the Ph.D., the Th.D. is, moreover, formulated in an explicitly interdisciplinary fashion, the common locus for all its programs being an element of theology, even practical theology. As such, while both Ph.D. and Th.D. can and occasionally do send their graduates to serve as faculty in seminaries, Divinity Schools, and confessional colleges of all stripes, the Th.D. prepares students more explicitly for such a track, while the Ph.D.’s ideal graduate still proceeds to labor in a research university or liberal arts college.

There’s a smidgen of disagreement among the faculty about whether students should be encouraged to apply to both programs or to only one or the other. My personal sense is that students who genuinely feel they would be a good fit for either program ought to apply to both without qualms or hesitation, secure in the knowledge that there are different selection committees at work in each program. For the most part, however, students with a clear sense of professional direction or vocation ought to be able to figure out which doctoral program will set them along the trajectory they wish to pursue. In this vein, I ask students who come to talk to me about their doctoral aspirations where they ultimately hope to work, whether their passion lies with research or teaching, who they consider or desire to have as their primary scholarly interlocutors, and how well their interests fit with one of the GPR’s defined tracks, and whether they have their hearts set on a particular mentor. A fine education can be had in either Th.D. or Ph.D., both programs have reliably produced employable graduates, both strive for academic rigor and professional acumen in their students, both draw upon eminently functional, smart, and kind faculties — and, by contrast, both programs present students with occasional frustrations, include students who remain “in program” for far longer than they or the university might have hoped, and both come with all the stressors and challenges that attend doctoral studies.

On a more personal note, let me say merely this: I am a product of the GPR, the Ph.D. program. I have never once regretted choosing this program, and loved almost every day in its pursuits, owing in large part to my ability to work with the world’s best advisor, not to mention a cadre of faculty and colleagues who were as brilliant as they were committed to research and pedagogy. And yet: I have numerous friends who found their time “in program” not only difficult but lonely and discouraging. What was the perfect program for me wasn’t for them, through no fault of theirs or merit of mine. For students intent on joining a doctoral program anywhere, my advise would be to weigh the data, do the research, ask the right questions, and know that while getting a doctorate is a quite brief exercise in the grand scheme of one’s life, five, eight, or ten years in a program can feel either interminable … or pass far too swiftly.


* Unlike the Ph.D., the Th.D. in theory permits supervision of a doctoral student by a non-tenured faculty member. In practice, however, this is rare, and, I think, rightly so: no student wants to face the prospect of her supervisor being told that her or his institution just isn’t that into them, no tenure, sorry. By the same token, a more senior faculty member has, at least in theory, more to offer as a supervisor to a student — especially but not exclusively when it comes to placing a student in the ever-dwindling job market.

under: Syriac

Canon, Fanon, and late antiquity.

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | October 27, 2015 | No Comment |

To know me even a teensy little bit is to know that I am a sci-fi enthusiast of the first order.

The author, last weekend. Star Wars kid has nothing on me!

The author, last weekend. Star Wars kid has nothing on me!

I did, in fact, own the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special … in German dub.  And one of these semesters, my comrade in late ancient geekery and I will, in fact, co-teach a seminar on religion and sci-fi, a course that looks to have more faculty attached to it than students.  Accordingly, I was pleased as punch to find the following piece on canon and ownership in New York Magazine.

In the realm of religious studies, of course, discussion about canon are difficult to avoid, even by those of us who try mightily to do so, in deference to our colleagues in Hebrew Bible, NT, and periphery.  The question of who “owns” a character — who gets to say what, for example, Paul or Muhammed would or would not do or say —  is at least as pressing in academia as it is among Game of Thrones devotees.  Did Jesus, in fact, engage in epistolary correspondence with a Sassanid king?  Were Paul and Seneca not only (rough) contemporaries but pen-pals, advising one another on appropriately philosophical decorum?  The scholarly consensus on both counts is no, but both were at least sufficiently plausible to get passed down by ancient scribes, and the former remains an essential myth-of-origin for Christian communities in Syria to the present day.  Certainly the realm of Christian apocrypha (but not just apocrypha, and not just Christian writings either!) aligns well with the sub-genres of fan-fiction: the expanded universe, the roman à clef, the efforts to liven up a plodding plot, the scandalous romance.

Moreover, what is one to make of competing “fandom” interpretations of a single character?  The Paul of the pastoral epistles, for example, and the Paul of the “Paul and Thecla” narratives take rather different approaches to the question of women in ministry.  One of these interpretations arguably won on the grounds of its official canonicity; on the other hand, the continued vitality of Thecla among particularly Eastern Christians, and the concomitant interest in limiting the sway the deuteron-pauline writings hold over such questions among scholarly audiences might tell a different story.  Among ancient Christian communities

certainly, Sternbergh’s assessment that “canon is best seen as a kind of symbiotic process between a story’s creators and its fans — one that, ideally, results in the richest possible narrative” holds qualified true.  There are limits to interpretation, of course, but those limits required considerable effort to enforce, as the minor fracas surrounding the Gospel of Peter suggests, and perhaps even then failed to sway their respective “fandoms.”

Who owns (George) Lucas’ legacy — or, for that matter, Paul’s?  On both counts, that remains to be seen.

under: Syriac

The Bad (?) Death of George Bell.

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | October 22, 2015 | No Comment |

Last weekend, the New York Times ran an illuminating story on The Lonely Death of George Bell.  The story generated a great deal of engagement from readers (… I note that, curiously, all quoted respondents appear to be well over the age of 40, presumably either because the younger crowd chooses to express itself by way of social media — ahem — or because the subject at hand was nearer and dearer to the hearts of the slightly more senior contingent.)

I read the article while on the road, in airports and on shuttle buses, with curiosity and appreciation: who knew, for example, that there were anonymous cemeteries for those who had died in solitary exile in overwhelmingly populous New York?  Because my research deals with death, and the vicissitudes of life (Exhibit A: two aging parents) keep my attention firmly fixed on the topic as well, much of my literary diet, both scholarly and belletristic (so as not to say: “for pleasure”) centers on dying: its anticipation, experience, effects on others.  My bookshelves are crammed with Julian Barnes and Joan Didion, my New Yorkers gutted of reports on assisted suicides and Colm Toibin essays.

Much of what I appreciate about them, as well as about the Times’ article, is the lens they provide into what contemporary readers consider good and bad deaths.  In late antiquity, with the benefit of hindsight, the categories emerge clearly, from the text as well as the soil — good and bad deaths marked by commemoration and excision, burial place and epitaph.  The “good deaths” of antiquity are readily intelligible in a contemporary setting too: the heroic death in battle, the death of the philosopher and, particularly but not exclusively among Christians, the valiant death of the martyr.  Just as distinct are the “bad deaths”: the death in childbirth, in exile, or before reaching adulthood and maturity.  These, too, resonate, albeit for Western audiences with curiously historicized horror in some cases; in their stead, we might add other “bad deaths” — the death of the innocent victim of prejudice, for example, or the “collateral damage” of ever more impersonal warfare.  The notion of self-determination, too, seems to loom large in determining the good and the bad death, if recent legislative developments are any indication.

A common thread through late antiquity and the present, however, is the desire to not die alone. The solitary death of even a completely unknown person, George Bell, seems to have pained readers, often no doubt in light of the nagging voice that suggests that one’s own death might look like his (… a fear all solitary, unmarried academics with or without cats know quite well!) In late antiquity, this anxiety coalesces around death in exile — one of the most paradigmatic “bad deaths.”  To die without having someone to bury one, without a way of notifying one’s loved ones (if any), without persons to offer prayers or sacrifices, without one to hold one’s hand … that is a bad death indeed, late ancient writers suggest.

A metrical homily attributed to Jacof of Serugh — but almost certainly neither by Jacob nor, indeed, a homily in its origins! — has such an exile lament his abandonment, imploring passing strangers to “[b]e kin to me, . . . lead me to the tomb and [in the process] take for me the place of father, of mother, of brothers! Oh, that someone might now render me the service of tears an mercy, because I am entirely without people who know me. Do not leave me without a proper burial in this exile, take the place of brothers, of friends and acquaintances for me.”

This is not the voice of George Bell, who may have been perfectly contented to pass in privacy, nor, for that matter, the voice of any one desperate ancient exile.  It is the voice of the cultural imperative to not die, and, if one truly must die, to not die alone.  As unpleasant an experience as mourning is (and was), for late ancient audiences it was a necessary ingredient in the safe passage of the person from the present to the future.  From the perspective of ancient audiences, the strange coterie of Bell’s mourners — his undertaker, the readers of the New York Times — become less odd and more intelligible, more commendable even, in their services to the now quite long-departed. The notion that “he who dies with the most toys wins” — a cynical remnant of the 80s — is a minority report, well and truly, when it comes to dying well.

under: Syriac

Earlier this year, the Duke Divinity Women’s Center posted a sign on its door declaring the space open to all “women identified women.”  This caused a measure of confusion to a (very smart, very feminist) colleague of mine, who pointed out that back in her day (which roughly equates to back in my day) “woman-identified woman” might have been taken as a statement of sexual orientation not gender-identity.  Somewhere between these minor mishaps and the very public slugfest about Caitlyn Jenner — she’s bad for women! she’s good for women! she’s not even a real “she”! etc. — the question of what it means to be a woman has rarely been more in the public eye.  I’m both pleased and bemused by this development, because it is heralded as so quintessentially (post-)modern: in what other era, after all, could the basic facts of what makes one a woman have been called into question?  Is it not a symptom of 21st century Western society’s having lost its marbles (or its basic moral compass) that these conversations are even, as my students would say, “a thing”?

Speaking as a student of late ancient history, well … no.

Conversations about the meaning of being a woman or being a man are both common throughout history and an important part of ideological and practical transition points.  Consider the evidence from the Roman province of North Africa at the turn of the third century C.E.  The meaning of womanhood and the process by which one achieved the latter were the subject of an apparently heated argument between Tertullian, a justly famous rhetorician and Christian polemicist, and some of the women of his community.  Gender, in Tertullian’s assessment, was far from morally neutral; to be a woman was to be identified with Eve, through whom sin entered the world, Tertullian famously argues, addressing all women as “the devil’s gateway.” (One of my favorite students confronted this piece of rhetoric with a somber question concerning Tertullian’s mother. Freud lives!)

Some of the young women in the churches of North Africa, however, sought to rid themselves both of their gender and the stigma it carried.  To this end, they renounced marriage and sexual intercourse, vowing themselves to live as virgins rather than women — virgines rather than mulieres, a Latin word that designates both women and wives. As a sign of their new status, they appeared in church without the veil customary for adult Roman women, instead showing off for their congregations the possibility of a new, shame-free way of being human. Their project seems to have been quite successful; Tertullian complains bitterly that the virgins were even inducted into places of honor in church.  His own assessment, however, was considerably bleaker: one could not simply choose to not become a woman and avoid bearing the accompanying stigma: once born female, the passage of time would *make* one a woman, regardless of whether one married or engaged in sexual intercourse.

There is more to Tertullian’s argument — and presumably more to that of the virgins as well, but, as is so often the case in antiquity, we must infer their reasons from the rather uncharitable representations presented by their opponents.  Indeed, the entire treatise is well worth reading.  But even in this brief sketch, we can easily hear the conversation over biology vs. socialization, nature vs. culture (or custom, in Tertullian’s terminology.)  Both sides admit to a combination of the two in that which makes up “woman” (and “man”), but the accents are placed differently — much as is the case in the debate over gender and “womanhood” today.  By the same token, Tertullian’s fight, much like contemporary conversations, is ultimately one over questions of privilege — even that odd bit of privilege that involves shedding one identity in favor of a more practically constricted but more experientially liberating one.

There’s real danger in trying to make these scenarios cohere with one another too closely, of course: writing history with an application in mind makes, generally speaking, for bad history.  But neither is the world of third-century North African Christians so remote from the questions that contemporary writers — feminist, trans-activists, readers of Scripture and Butler and Stryker — are posing as to make the latter wholly sui generis.

See?  Late antiquity: later than you think!


P.S.: Practically speaking, the conversations surrounding Jenner — and Laverne Cox, and the many other “public faces of trans” — are a good reminder that we cannot attend to gender (or sexual orientation, or gender identity) in isolation from other factors, including particularly race and class. A white, wealthy individual at the center of a media empire is likely to have a very different experience in both her gender and her transition than a person of a different demographic.  Jenner has drawn invective alongside accolades, but — and this in no way condones trans-phobia of any sort — her experience differs markedly from that of, say, Matthew Shepherd or the many men and women who are attacked or killed because of their trans identity each year.

under: In the News, Scholarship, Sometimes

October 15 is the International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, a day to commemorate miscarried and stillborn children, as well as children who died shortly after birth. While rather submerged among October’s many other monthly themes — including breast cancer awareness, “international walk-to-school month,” etc. — this occasion is near and dear to my scholarly heart.  Much of my current work focuses on examining how late ancient communities responded to the death of children.  Such deaths were, on the one hand, utterly ordinary; demographic estimates suggest that anywhere between 35 and 50% of children died before reaching their tenth year.  By the same token, however, the death of a child nevertheless constituted a familial and communal crisis.

In late antiquity, much like in the present era, women frequently served as the emotional foci of communities.  In Greco-Roman culture, for example,  women served as public mourners, wailing and lamenting for the departed.  This practice carried over well into the Christian era, if the bitter complaints of Chrysostom, Jacob of Serugh, and their peers are any indication.  Bishops might have wanted their communities to mourn decorously — “not like those who have no hope,” as the apostle Paul advised — but centuries of performing dramatic, extravagant grief carried with them their own social logic. Yet Christian sources, too, tend to foreground women’s grief, especially when the grieving parties were mothers and when the event that inspired grief was the death of a child.  (Grieving women could even serve as comparanda for men, as in the case of a [fragmentary but titillating] letter of consolation found among the Oxyrhynchus papyri, that compares a man’s suffering favorably to those of Eve and Mary — suggesting, presumably, that the man in question had lost not only one but two sons.)

By the same token, however, late ancient writers recognized that men and particularly fathers experienced grief at the loss of their children. Paulinus of Nola, a fifth century Gallic noble man, wrote movingly about his experience of losing a son, the little Celsus, just a few days after his birth: “[The boy] was summoned the moment he was bestowed.  He was a child long desired but not awarded to us, since we were unworthy to rejoice in the devotion of a progeny.” The infant’s birth had been a longed-for, prayed-for event for Paulinus’ household; his death, ordinary by demographic standards, had left the family bereft, even as they knew to seek out the cause for their loss in their own, unworthy dispositions.

Nor were ancient Christian readings of the Hebrew Scriptures entirely devoid of fatherly grief.  For late ancient exegetes, Jephthah, the Judge who unwittingly offers his own daughter as a sacrifice to God in exchange for victory in battle, was such a site of male mourning.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, Jephthah shows himself quite restrained, merely tearing his garments and remarking: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me!” (Judges 11:35)  This statement alone, the fourth century bishop John Chrysostom argued, ensured that Jephthah would indeed have to perform the gruesome sacrifice; had he remained stoic like Abraham in the face of Isaac’s killing, God would have spared Jephthah’s daughter as well!

Not all late ancient writers were as unsympathetic as Chrysostom, however. Jacob of Serugh, in fact, dedicated a moving verse homily to Jephthah’s story — available in English translation to even the Syriac-un-canny, thanks to the brilliant Susan Ashbrook Harvey.  I quote a small part of it here because in it, Jacob valorizes as positive the very sentiment that Chrysostom and some of his contemporaries indict: Jephthah’s grief at the recognition that his daughter must die, must even die at his own hand. “[I]f [Jephthah] had not wept,” Jacob writes “and rent his garments as you have heard,

then maybe he did not love his daughter.
One might say that if he had hastened to the deed,
it was because the eagerness for leadership seized him and he fulfilled his vow.
And since he was puffed up by the victory which had come with him,
he sacrificed the child and it did not grieve him when he killed her.
[Or,] because he was intoxicated with the blood of the slaughter of the Amonites,
he had cast down her corpse by his own fervor when he entered in.
[Or,] he had acquired a taste for blood and destroyed the thousands and became chief,
and because of this he killed his daughter and it did not grieve him.
[Or,] because he was puffed up with the reputation he took among the ranks,
he had met his daughter and in his pride made her into a sacrifice.
But there is no reason to say these things about the true man,
rather, in all things his truthfulness was seen.
Weeping for his daughter he proclaimed the love of fatherhood,
he rent his garments and gave to nature what belonged to it.”

Grief for a child lost, even a child lost to folly and tragedy, is a natural sentiment, Jacob concedes. More to the point, however, to accede to the demands of nature, to grief and mourn, is a good thing, and something that deserves the com-passion, the joining-in-suffering, of the whole community.  Jacob’s narration of Jephthah’s grief is spectacle, great drama, and, in the last instance, part of late ancient writers’ efforts to provide an ecclesial, liturgical locus for their congregations’ experience of grief.  Given the great, almost apotropaic silence that lingers around the death of children in much of the Western world today, however, these texts might still be, on occasion, “good to think with” — or even “good to mourn with.”

under: In the News, Scholarship, Sometimes, Syriac

In the aftermath of a lecture on gender and ministry in late antiquity, a number of my students were enthused to find this article, and about the prospect of a revival of women deacons in Roman Catholicism. Upon consideration, here’s my response to their effusions; it is, I hope, of a reasonably accessible quality.

Even after Francis’ return to Europe last week, the public eye seems to follow him. As a result, reports from the Synod of Bishops presently underway in the Vatican, are garnering considerably more interest in the mainstream media than might be expected of such a gathering. The synod’s theme, “the family,” admittedly lends itself to a number of titillating and, to Roman Catholics, potentially game-changing topics: sex, sexual orientation, interpersonal relations … as well as the role of women in the Church.

Finding new opportunities for women to contribute to the Church’s ministry is part of the Pope’s and the synod’s stated priorities. Yet sometimes, reports from the Catholic News Service suggest, discovering the new might simply mean recovering the old.  The Church in its efforts to include more women in a wider variety of positions, the Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher has suggested, ought to consider ordaining women deacons.

On the one hand, this is hardly a revolutionary proposal. Numerous Protestant and Anglican traditions already ordain women to such an office; perhaps more significantly for Roman Catholics, several Eastern Orthodox churches have revived the office in the past couple of decades.  From the vantage point of Christian history, however, Durocher’s suggestion is more radical than it appears at first. Women deacons make their first appearance at the fringes of the New Testament; the apostle Paul mentions a “woman deacon” by the name of Phoebe serving at a church in Greece in his epistle to the Romans, and 1 Timothy 3:11 arguably provides a litany of moral characteristics desirable for women deacons. Both passages have been a source of much quibbling among New Testament scholars.  For one thing, the same Greek word (diakonos, fem.: diakone) in Paul’s correspondence designates both ordinary servants and those holding the rank of a deacon; for another, the 1 Timothy passage speaks simply of “women,” albeit in the context of discussing (male) deacons. Did the author intend to address deacons’ wives — who, much like their husbands, ought to be serious, avoid slander, etc. — or was he referring to women ministers? Even contemporary bible translations remain in doubt. The New King James and New Living Translation opt for the former solution; most others leave the choice to the reader.

In the Early Church, by contrast, there can be little question that women deacons both existed and exercised considerable authority. The Didascalia Apostolorum, a so-called “Church Order” from the third or fourth century, for example, likens women deacons to the Holy Spirit: a comparatively exalted place, alongside bishops, who are said to rule in the place of God, and male deacons, whom Christians are supposed to love as they do Christ. (Presbyters — priests or elders — by contrast here appear “only” as analogues to the twelve apostles!) With great power, the Didascalia suggests, comes great responsibility: women deacons assist in the baptism of women, providing the full-body anointing with oil that many ancient churches practiced, and receiving and instructing the newly baptized women after they emerge from the water. More practically, ancient Christians recognized that women, then as now, could sometimes go where their male counterparts could not, and women deacons are said to visit the sick or to infiltrate otherwise non-Christian households for the benefit of those households’ Christian members.

These responsibilities do not strike contemporary readers as particularly empowering of women; in the context of the early Church they nevertheless constitute a remarkable grant of authority.  The latter seems to have discomfited Christian writers, and the same documents that give women power at the same time struggle to circumscribe that power.  While women deacons are, for example, depicted as assisting bishops in the baptism of women, they are also explicitly warned against themselves baptizing anyone. In the Latin-speaking West, the tradition upon which the Roman Catholic Church draws primarily, even these limited concessions proved transitory. The Council of Nicaea in the early fourth century knows of the existence of women deacons, but numbers them only among the laity.  Just over a century later, in 441 A.D.,  the first Council of Orange prohibits the ordination of further women deacons — a prohibition reiterated by subsequent Western councils .

This is, at best, a checkered history, and one that suggests at least two conclusions.  First, if the synod of bishops were to follow Durocher’s proposal, it would have to reconsider a number of synodal pronouncements from its own past.  This is, of course, entirely possible and may indeed be unavoidable if the Roman Catholic Church desires to reconsider the role of women in its midst in earnest.  Yet the Vatican, even Francis, are far more cognizant of the weight of history than many of their American contemporaries; the bishops are accordingly unlikely to undertake the rehabilitation of such an office swiftly or lightly.  The mere mention of a revival of the diaconate for women, in other words, is likely to be only the first step along a lengthy and hotly contested path — if indeed the Church chooses to pursue this path at all.

Second, if women deacons were to be reinstated, their responsibilities would not necessarily parallel those of male deacons.  The latter in contemporary Roman Catholic churches preach and are able to preside over baptisms, weddings, and funerals — albeit not the Eucharist.  Even in early Christianity, however, women deacons’ privileges and responsibilities did not extend to those of their male counterparts; the Apostolic Constitutions, a later church order, for example, demands that women deacons do or say nothing unless they are accompanied by a male deacon. Women deacons may well face similar limitations; indeed, Archbishop Durocher’s emphasis on the diaconate being ordered towards “ministry” rather than “the priesthood” already suggests the felt need to safeguard the boundaries of this still-hypothetical office in the contemporary Roman Catholic setting as well.

Is there then only bad news or no news for women in the workings of the synod? Not at all. The wheels of the Church move slowly, as is obvious to anyone who has observed the now several decades-long effort to identify more, more diverse, and more visible avenues for women’s contributions. The sustained focus on women’s inclusion is nevertheless heartening, and points to the Church’s willingness to reconsider a past that has frequently, intentionally or incidentally, marginalized women’s contributions to ministry.  The revival of the diaconate for women may not be the desired panacea, but the Vatican’s ability to remember and perhaps make use of parts of its history that gave somewhat greater scope to women’s vocations is a hopeful sign.

under: In the News, Scholarship, Sometimes

“Ad Fontes” and the Odd Experience of Writing for my Students.

Posted by: Maria E. Doerfler | October 5, 2015 | No Comment |

Some months ago, I agreed to join the “Ad Fontes” team over at Fortress Press to edit their “Church and State” volume. With the volume deadline fast approaching, I’ve been working on finalizing the introductory essay, a Procrustean task of fitting ca. 700 years of late ancient developments into about 10,000 words. Suffice it to say that the exercise has given me new appreciation for my students’ minor agonies over having to expound the entirety of a lengthy ancient text in five scant double-spaced pages!

Given that the “Ad Fontes” series seeks to breathe new life into the erstwhile, amusingly-acronym-ed Sources of Early Christian Thought, editors have the benefit of reading their counterpart’s introductory essay and perusing their selection of primary sources. In the case of my volume, however, the thirty-odd years between SECT and AF have brought with them a number of changes in the field of late ancient studies. No longer are Ambrose & Co the apex of Christian engagement with civil authority, nor the Roman Empire the lone contender for the title’s dubiously named “state” portion! No longer does late antiquity (“later than you think” [tm]) end before Muhammed set out for Medina, or Julian rouse the ire of only his Greek-speaking interlocutors!

All this is exciting and a bit overwhelming for scholars — to say nothing of students. To make these developments intelligible to even my own courses, all of them populated by smart and motivated students, is a persistent challenge. Four iterations of teaching some variant of an Early/Byzantine/Medieval Church history survey to audiences from undergraduates to seminarians has certainly provided me with a handful of false starts, points of bafflements, “a ha!” and “oh no!” moments. (I’m told to expect many more of all of the above in future years of teaching …) And so, my work on this volume is atypical among my writings, inasmuch as it is not for “the academy,” “the profession,” or even for indulging my own interests, but for my students.

My introduction accordingly seeks to double-down on the big issues and intellectual disconnects that make reading primary sources difficult: the differences between Roman and contemporary Western notions of “religion”; the puzzlement over the role of the pontifex maximus — and its staying power among both Christian emperors and their Christian constituencies; the relationship between the Sassanian and Roman realms; etc. I’ve not been able to tackle everything worth covering — not even everything essential to cover. The rise of Islam and Christian responses thereto, a staple in my survey course lectures and reading assignments, for example, is relegated to an appendix, pointing students to the smattering of exciting primary and secondary source collections that have sprung up in recent years. As always, the volume is bound to be far from perfect, but perhaps it’ll be an improvement, or at least a labor of pedagogical affection.

(P.S.: The oddest part of the experience? Doing “history without footnotes”! But more on that another day.)

under: Scholarship, Sometimes, Syriac

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