Book Review: Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity

51jsyfzry6l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xii + 346.

Though as heirs of the Enlightenment we are accustomed to taking for granted the dichotomy between the secular and the religious, the world of Late Antiquity was not familiar with such a clear bifurcation, particularly as it related to the notion of authority. Claudia Rapp’s Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition aims to analyze the nature of episcopal leadership from the third to the sixth century, and sets out to challenge how much of previous scholarship has operated with this binary of the bishops’ religious and secular power.

The book is divided into two parts. The first (chapters 1–4) considers the nature of episcopal leadership in late antiquity. Rapp, in the first chapter of her book, introduces three categories of authority which were combined to varying extents by late antique bishops: spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic. Using this model, she is able to set forth her book’s specific thesis, which is to identify “the importance of ascetic authority as the focal point at the intersection between spiritual and pragmatic authority” for late antique bishops (18). As such, the theme of holiness carries across each of the following chapters.

Starting with pragmatic authority (chapter 2), Rapp contends that the bishop’s ability to carry out his public pastoral ministry (that is, his pragmatic authority) was in fact dependent on him “set[ting] an example of moral and virtuous conduct to his congregation,” that is, his ascetic authority (24). Rapp traces the linking of the bishop’s pragmatic and ascetic authority back to Ignatius of Antioch, and then through various church orders and patristic writers, with particular attention to how 1 Timothy 3 is interpreted in each. The point is simply that a congregation “will accept a bishop’s guidance in spiritual and moral issues only if he shows himself to be of outstanding moral integrity” (41). The bishop’s ascetic authority thus justifies his pragmatic authority, as more explicitly presented in works such as John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood.

Spiritual authority (chapter 3), which Rapp describes as “the authority that comes from the possession of the Holy Spirit,” is what is passively “received as a divine gift,” thus differentiating it from ascetic authority, which emphasizes “the individual’s active contribution” in preparing to receive and enhancing this gift (56). Rapp finds justification for making this distinction in some early Christians’ use of the terms pneumatophoroi to describe the former and christophoroi for the latter. Focusing here on the “spirit-bearers” as those who hold spiritual authority, Rapp identifies Spirit-inspired teaching and preaching as marks of this form of authority (60). Rapp focuses on the holy men of late antiquity as most clearly possessing spiritual authority, setting the stage for “a potential competition between monks and clergy over the possession and administration of the Spirit” (65). In light of the Spirit’s presence, those with spiritual authority were particularly noteworthy for their intercessory prayer (67), rooted in their spiritual perfection (84). As for the bishop, his spiritual authority lay primarily in his administration of penance (95). There was debate, however, on the issue of whether the bishop’s spiritual authority was grounded on the basis of his ascetic authority or his pragmatic authority, as seen, for instance, in the Donatist controversy, though “orthodoxy” would decide in favor of the latter, with ordination representing the irrevocable bestowal of the Spirit (98).

Those who held ascetic authority (chapter 4), characterized by “individual physical effort and its public recognition” (102), may be termed christophoroi on account of their following of Christ’s example, whether in life or in death. Their claim to spiritual authority rested not on their ordination, but rather came about as they “prepared themselves through a lifetime of asceticism and deprivation to become vessels of the Holy Spirit” (103). After an extensive survey of the role of the desert in early Christian monasticism, Rapp discusses how the figure of Moses became a prototype of the saintly bishop, with “the three phases in Moses’s life – education, contemplation, and ministry – provid[ing] a biographical pattern with which many bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries could identify” (133). Thus, for men such as Basil of Caesarea, a period of ascetic formation was seen as a “precondition” for ecclesiastical office” (136). Rapp thus sees a much greater overlap between monastic lifestyle and episcopal office than is often recognized.

The second part of the book (chapters 5–9) focuses on the bishop’s pramatic authority with respect to his urban context. First examining “Bishops in Action” (chapter 5), Rapp argues that “the bishop’s role in practical matters was analogous to that of the patronus or public benefactor, whether he was a holy man or a prominent benefactor” (156). That is, the bishop could be an advocate or intercessor for others like a holy man, but worked on a scale and with means more like those of a very wealthy citizen. Turning next to “Social Contexts” (Chapter 6), Rapp examines “the patterns of episcopal recruitment from the various levels of society in order to show the increasing dependence of episcopal appointments on the social criteria of family background, education, and wealth” (173). The result was that “the social stratification of the episcopate thus corresponded to the social stratification of church membership, and eventually […] to the stratification of society as a whole” (195).

Turning next to “Cities” (chapter 7), Rapp considers how the bishop’s role within an urban context might be thought of as the intersection between pragmatic authority and ascetic authority. On the one hand, “the greatest distinction that separated the bishop from the holy man and placed him in proximity to the prominent citizen was his access to wealth,” which could be either his own or that of his church (211). On the other, though, it is noteworthy that “most of the bishop’s expenditures were motivated by the same spirit of charity that also moved holy men to intervene on behalf of the needy” (220). Expanding her horizons next to “Empire” (chapter 8), Rapp considers the figure of Constantine in some detail. Contrary to those who argue that the bishops’ pragmatic authority derived from an “imperial dispensation” of Constantine, Rapp concludes that “even those episcopal tasks that are regulated by imperial law […] have their origin in the pastoral care and spiritual leadership inherent in the ideal of the episcopate” (239). Constantine, in other words, was merely validating existing episcopal practices. Finally, in considering “The Bishop as a New Urban Functionary” (chapter 9), Rapp argues that “in the two centuries after Constantine, a new understanding of the episcopate developed that privileged the bishop’s pragmatic authority over his ascetic authority,” with matters of church and state finding their full union in the legal code of Justinian (274). In sum, “as the cities were increasingly Christianized, the roles of highest representative of the Christian community and of prominent leader of civic life fell into one” (289). A concluding epilogue then briefly ties together the major themes of the book by considering how bishops were commemorated after death.

Claudia Rapp’s Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity successfully demonstrates that a bishop’s pragmatic authority was rooted in both his spiritual and ascetic authority, and that the bishop could often, on the one hand, look a lot like a late antique holy man, and, on the other, at times also look very much like a model citizen. The three categories of authority are a helpful lens for thinking about episcopal authority, especially as we can measure the relative weight of each as it shifts over time. In particular, the notion that the bishop’s ascetic reputation was a foundational source of legitimating his authority throughout late antiquity is a helpful corrective to any view which seeks to divorce the secular and the sacred elements of the episcopal ministry.

Still, this book is not without a few shortcomings. In particular, I wonder about the extent of Rapp’s reliance on hagiographical accounts of bishops’ lives; rather than take these at face value, as she seems to often do, perhaps these are in some way an extension of how a bishop’s authority was constructed in Late Antiquity. Though not addressed in this book, a comparison with the rabbis of Late Antiquity might have proved to be an illuminating topic worthy of further exploration. Nevertheless, Rapp’s book is an extremely thorough, erudite contribution to the subject of episcopal authority in Late Antiquity, and would be most helpful for anyone else embarking on further research in this area.

About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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