Category Archives: Church History

The Liturgical Contexts of Julian of Norwich

The Liturgical Contexts of Julian of Norwich

Things have been quiet here, and this is one of the big reasons why. In addition to the Prayer Book Studies project, I’ve been putting together a talk for Julianfest, the gathering of Associates, Oblates, and Affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich. It took place this week and was a thoroughly delightful time—I finally met Fr. John-Julian in the flesh, as well as Marguerite and other long-time readers!

Here is the prepared section of my talk. It doesn’t contain the great questions during it or the musings that occurred as we looked through picture at the end. Before you read through this, you’ll also want to make reference to:

The Handout

and

The Slides with All of the Pictures

So, once you have those, here’s the talk…


The Liturgical Contexts of Dame Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love

1 Introduction

The Anglican turned Roman Catholic priest Ronald Knox is responsible for the quip that Mysticism begins with “mist” and ends with “schism.” And, indeed, the modern encounter with much medieval mysticism tends to treat it this way. God is a warm fuzzy ball of light—it says so right here in Meister Eckhardt or Mechtild of Madgeburg—or Julian of Norwich. As a result, our writers and thinkers get coopted by a syncretistic New Age mélange that draws on spiritual authorities of the ages in order to say, “I’m ok, you’re ok—or at least you will be once you’re as enlightened as I am…”

What modern people usually forget about the medieval mystics is that the majority of them were liturgical professionals. The order of their days was shaped by the appointed liturgies of the Church—the Mass and the Offices—and, that’s the correct context for understanding them. So, yes, they might write something that sounds like God is a big fuzzy ball of light, but you have to remember that they’ve already said or sung the Creed at least four times by that point in the day, and they’d likely say or sing it another four by the time they went to bed. And thus we read the mystics best when we read them through and in relation to the liturgies that they experienced on an almost constant basis.

2  The liturgical context of the anchoritic experience

2.1 Psalters and, later, books of hours as the premiere devotional materials for well-off Northwest European devotion

When we look at the lay spirituality of medieval England, we’ll notice that it takes part in a broader tradition that we see across northern France, Burgundy, and the Low Countries and, indeed, many of the resources for English spirituality were produced in artistic centers like Paris, Flanders, and Bruges.

Lay spirituality largely followed patterns laid down in monastic practice. As the mendicant movements took off, their forms of spirituality would be passed on to the laity as well, but at the heart of medieval spirituality lay the Psalter. We see psalters being translated in English for the use of the laity as early as the Anglo-Saxon period as part of Alfred’s flowering of English as a literary language, we see monastic style prayer services being adopted in the households of lay nobles in the writings of ælfric in the 10th century.

2.2 Psalters generally

Liturgical psalters, originally the same versions used in monastic liturgies, were either gifted to or created for lay nobles. We see liturgical psalters fusing with devotional psalters by the time we begin heading into the High Middle Ages. Now, a liturgical psalter is more than just a collection of the 150 psalms. Certainly it has those, but it also includes a liturgical calendar, it includes the canticles and hymns used in the full Daily Office, the litany, suffrages to saints, and it also includes the shorter devotional offices that developed following the model of the regular offices.

The earliest of these is the little Office of the Blessed Virgin which developed in Benedictine circles in the mid eighth century and filtered out into broader monastic and lay use by the 10th century. The basic format was copied for a variety of other supplementary offices like the Hours of the Passion, the Hours of the Trinity, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. These had the traditional seven plus one hours (sometimes fewer) for use at specific times of the day. Also dating from the 7th or 8th century is the Office of the Dead which consisted of only three hours in two blocks, Matins and Lauds of the Dead (which were often said together) and a Vespers of the Dead.

There’s a distinction I want to draw your attention to here: there are two kinds of these cut-down Daily Office “things.” There are “Offices”: These contain psalms and other parts and are longer. The “Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and the “Offices of the Dead” are the two most common of these. Then there are “Hours”; these don’t have Psalms and tend to be said either in place of or after a full-on Office which don’t have Psalms and are usually just Opening Versicles, a stanza of a hymn, then a Memorial which is a little liturgical packet composed of an antiphon/versicle & response/collect packet. Usually the materials for the Trinity, The Passion and the Holy Spirit are just Hours with no psalms, but you will also find some books from some periods that will have full-on offices for these devotions as well.

2.3 The Carrow Psalter, Specifically

The book that kicked off this whole topic is a Psalter that lives in the Walters Art Museum which is a mile away from my house in Baltimore. If you’re an expert in all things Julian, you may well recognize the first part of the name. Carrow Abbey is a Benedictine priory in southeast Norwich founded in the year 1145. According to some theories, Julian may have been trained at Carrow Abbey; of course, that’s not Fr. John-Julian’s take on it, and I’m not about to dispute his expertise! However, he does note that Carrow Abbey played a role in Julian’s life as they were had some authority over the parish.

The Carrow Psalter was created in East Anglia in the middle of the thirteenth century. At some point thereafter it arrived at Carrow Abbey from which it gets its name. In all likelihood, it was there during Julian’s lifetime. Could she have seen it? Who knows… It’s a tantalizing thought. We’ll never know for sure, but there’s no doubt that even if she never held or looked at this particular book, she certainly would have seen others just like it. As a result, this is the perfect book from which to get a sense of the kind of liturgical manuscripts Julian would have known and used.

2.3.1  Overview of the Contents

This is a typical liturgical psalter of the period, meaning that it contains not only the psalms but a full complement of the liturgical extras needed to properly pray a high medieval cycle of offices and additional devotions.

It contains an initial section of saints with full-page images, devotions and collects; two cycles of biblical images; a Kalendar; the 150 Psalms; Canticles; the Litany, petitions and collects; the Office of the Dead; the Hours of the Virgin; and the Psalter of the Virgin. So—no Hours of the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, or even the Passion. But, it does have the two cycles of images which are quite interesting. Let’s take a look at some of these sections…

  • Quick look at the Image and prayers for Barnabas and John
  • Biblical Cycle
    • OT focuses exclusively on Adam & Eve, then directly to Christ
    • The handing of the shovel calls to mind the long chapter 51 of the Showings where Julian talks about the lord and the laborer; the Lord dressed in blue with brown hair sitting on the ground and the laborer in his dirty white tunic who is a gardener.
    • I’m not trying to say that there’s any direct connection between this picture and that showing. What I am pointing out is the visual connection and correspondence between Adam the laborer and Christ the Lord who is giving him direction. This picture is certainly representative of the kinds of pictures that would show up in these kinds of books.
    • The life of Christ moves through the Incarnation to the Temptation directly to Holy Week.
    • It’s a little hard to see some of the details so I’m blowing up the Arrest and Flogging, and also the Crucifixion itself.
    • This is definitely a Gothic crucifixion as opposed to an early medieval one, the central difference being that there’s no question that this is a dead Christ on the Cross
    • Then we have the Deposition, the Empty tomb, the Harrowing of Hell, then the moment of resurrection itself with Jesus actively stepping from the tomb.
    • Then we have the resurrection appearances: Thomas touching the side-wound of Christ, The Ascension, Pentecost and then a final image that we should look at more closely
    • Before we get there, here’s a detail of the Harrowing of Hell and the Moment of Resurrection. I want you to notice something here—that is, this is definitely a bloody Christ. Even as a resurrected body, the wounds of Christ are still conspicuously bleeding. And we’ll continue to see this as well.
    • On the left we have Pentecost with the dove descending; on the right we have an image known as the Throne of Grace. This is an image that you will see a lot when looking at depictions of the Trinity in this period and going forward. This is going to be one of the most dominant images of the Trinity. This is an early version as it just shows God the Father holding the Cross containing the crucified Son. In later periods, we’ll see the Spirit as a dove hovering right above the head of the Son—but that’s not in the picture quite yet.
    • The last image from this cycle is the Last Judgement.
    • That’s the end of the first cycle of images. Think about it for a minute: This is an attempt to convey the entire span of the biblical salvation narrative in 34 images. We have Adam—we have Christ. Of these, we have only two full page images where a single folio is devoted to one image—the first is the angel giving Adam the shovel and Eve the distaff; the second is the Last Judgment. This is biblical interpretation at work—this act of selection is a weighing and parsing of what events are the most fundamental, the most significant. Furthermore, the choices about layout and size are interpretive decisions. This framing of the narrative of salvation is going to have an impact on the people who are using these books, looking at these images day after day, week after week, decade after decade.
    • There’s a second cycle that follows the first—this is just scenes from the life of Christ which hit just the high points of Incarnation and Redemption: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, Carrying the Cross with a display of the instruments of the passion, the nails and the crown of thorns. We’ll just glance at these two images.
  • The Calendar
    • Then we’ve got the Calendar—this is a pretty standard one, that is localized to the East Anglia area. Folks like Botulph of Bury, Felix of Durwich, Withburga, Edmund, and Sexburga let us know that this manuscript is written in the general area. No real surprises here; there are a lot of English saints, so May has Dunstan and Aldhelm and Augustine of Canterbury; it’s also got the old Roman and North African saints, so all in all, what you’d expect from a native English calendar.
  • The Psalter
    • The bulk of the manuscript is occupied by the Psalms. This is the start of Psalm 27 (The Lord is my light and my salvation)—as is normal in historiated initials like this one, David indicates his eye referencing the “light” mentioned in the text. The text is clear and well written; verses are indicated by small initials that alternate between blue and gold. The mediant is indicated either by a point or by a punctuation mark that looks like an upside-down semi-colon. There are a few abbreviations but nothing too crazy. Psalms that don’t start with a historiated initial get a large gold one. Clear—easy to pray from.
  • After the initial color and decoration of the beginning of the manuscript, there’s not a whole lot of it in the later section. After the Psalms, the Canticles, Litany, and the Little Offices don’t have a whole lot of decoration to distinguish one from another.
  • The Canticles follow on immediately after the Psalms with no indication of a break. Just like the psalms, you have alternating marginal initials and each new Canticle is indicated by a large gold initial
  • The Litany of Saints
    • After the saints the litany moves into the abs, the pers, and the uts just as ours does
  • The Office of the Dead also contains no clear visual signals that it has started
  • When we finally get to the Little Office of the BVM, we do finally get some splashes of color but instead of the normal sequence of images, we just get some heraldic insignia representing a family who owned the book in the sixteenth century, likely modifying some original images.
  • Finally, the book concludes with the Psalter of the BVM, a Franciscan devotional creation attributed to St. Bonaventure and his circle. With that we do get one more image—and it’s a historiated initial with a man kneeling before the Virgin and child. This is likely the original owner of the manuscript, the guy who commissioned it.
    • This is something I want to comment on: we see this a lot—patrons included in a scene with Christ or Mary or—more normally, Christ and Mary. And, not in this case, but especially in later works, we see them holding the book itself.
    • What these images are getting across is the mentality of the prayer book—the book serves as a vehicle to bring the pray-er into the direct presence of Christ and his mother. This is a powerful and important claim.
  • So—the Carrow Psalter: This is a book that Julian might have seen and it certainly stands as representative of the kind of devotional psalters that were in favor amongst the nobility in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
  • Now, we can both compare and contrast that with another Psalter—this is the Burnet Psalter
    • If I had to remark on the differences, it’s that we see the entrance of three big pieces: Indulgenced prayers, Franciscan, and Brigittine affective spirituality.
  • After that we see a shift to a new kind of book which will take these themes and run with them.

2.4 Books of Hours generally

Now—the thing about these early psalters is that they’re big. In form factor, they’re large. The original ones had to be because they had to be big enough for a couple of monks to share them while they were singing in choir. They drop in size as they become books for lay use; so 10 inches by 7 inches is fairly standard for devotional psalters by the end of the thirteenth century but they’re still thick. We see a shift in the fourteenth century in lay spirituality from full Psalters to the Books of Hours which are the direct descendants of the liturgical psalters.

When it comes to contents, the Books of Hours—as the name implies—doubles down on the Little Hours and Little Offices as the primary locus for lay spirituality. Again—there’s lots of variation here, but here are some of the standard contents for a high medieval book of hours:

  • The Little Office of the BVM
  • the Gradual Psalms
  • the Penitential Psalms
  • Litany of the Saints
  • the Office of the Dead
  • additional prayers, devotions, and memorials

They’re certainly spiritually continuous with the Psalters but with three major differences. First, they only have some of the psalms instead of all of them. Second, they’re a lot smaller. These are books for individuals to pray from and with individually. Third, these tend to be highly decorated art objects with full page pictures of biblical events and saints with all manner of additional materials packed into the initials and borders of the pages. These are important devotional objects—but they’re also an important form of medieval bling. They could be hung off the belt in a cloth or a little mesh bag so they could be appreciated and a lady could casually take it out and page through it, showing off the beautiful artistry and fine borders, in a display of not just her piety but also her wealth and good taste. So—in addition to being spiritual texts they were also a form of conspicuous consumption.

2.5 The Loftie Hours, Specifically

Now, there are some really rich and sumptuous Books of Hours. Any owned by Jean, duc de berry qualify for that. I’ll probably sprinkle in some material from the Bedford Hours a little later and show you what that looks like. But not all of these were totally high-end manuscripts. There was some basic stuff too, so I’m going to show you a more simplistic version to start with called the Loftie Hours. This one was written in the mid-fifteenth century—so, probably within 25 years of Julian’s death or so. And it was written in the Netherlands. There are two main ways that we know that. The first is that the calendar is of the Use of Utrecht. The other way we know is because the book is written entirely in Dutch. There are a few reasons I want to show you this one. I’ll give you two right off. First, the artistic style is quite interesting. Second, the particular devotional material pulled together here is very pertinent to our topic and I think connects in some clear and interesting ways to what Julian is up to.

We’re not going to walk through everything here, rather I want us to hit the high points. Let’s start with a look at the contents…

  • Table of Contents
    • Pretty Basic for a Book of Hours
  • Calendar
    • Simple and clear, not nearly as embellished as what we see with others
  • Hours of the Cross
    • The grisaille style: drawn with lamp black then colored in. It’s not because they didn’t have colors, rather, it gives it a certain effect.
    • The first time I saw the deposition in this grisaille style, I immediately thought of Julian’s description of the drying out of the body of Christ
  • Imago Pietatis: The Image of Piety and the Man of Sorrows. We’re going to take this up as a major topic in just a little bit…
  • Last Judgement is in the midst of a set of prayers to Christ
  • The Vernacle—Julian specifically mentions this at the start of the description of the Second Showing in chapter 10
    • She didn’t have to go to Rome or have anyone else go—it’s a very common image in the Books of Hours.
  • The 5 wounds.
  • Office of the Dead
    • This one is pretty tame; there will be some much wilder and more colorful images associated with this later like the 3 living and the 3 dead. (What you are, we were/ What we are, you will be)
    • Reminds me of the Showing of the dead body in Chapter 64. There are many of these: dead bodies with souls coming out of them and also angels and demons fighting over souls that have just left their bodies.

Here’s why this is important. The prayer of the anchoresses, as far as contemporary sources show us, is grounded in the use of the Little Offices as we find them in both the psalters and the Books of Hours. These are their central liturgical texts that they’re praying day in and day out. In the Carrow Psalter the images petered out after the Psalter—with the books of Hours you’re going to see a lot more of images and they are going to be much more thoroughly integrated across the volume and within the text. The images that the anchoresses would have seen in these kinds of books would no doubt have shaped their devotional sense of the life and death of Jesus, specifically, the events of the passion.

2.6 The liturgical pattern as reflected in the Ancrene Wisse

One of the surviving sources that tells us about anchorite liturgical practice is the Ancrene Wisse. Written in Middle English sometime between 1200 and 1230 (so—a good 150 years before Julian), the initial chapter of the work lays out the liturgical work of the anchoress.

At the heart of it is the recitation of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, the Office of the Dead, and a set of devotions that draw from the Hours of the Trinity, the Hours of the Passion, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. The Penitential Psalms and the Gradual Psalms are interspersed with liturgical sections meditating on the Passion of Christ giving us, essentially, an Office directed to each of the 5 wounds of Jesus.  The Litany is included as well as the 5 Joys of Mary which is a long and substantial Office in and of itself as well. [See the slides for the layout…]

2.7 The liturgical pattern as reflected in the Myroure of Oure Layde

We see a similar—similar, not identical—set up in the Myroure of Oure Layde which was written for the Brigittine Sisters of Sion at Isleworth on the Thames established in 1415, within Julian’s lifetime. John Blunt, the 19th century liturgist and antiquarians who edited this work for the Early English Text Society in 1873, put its composition sometime between 1415 and 1450, most likely in the 1430’s but—again—around the same time period as Julian.

The Sisters of Sion prayed the Hours of the Blessed Virgin together in choir in Latin—but not all of them understood Latin. The Myroure was written to solve that particular problem. It goes line by line through the liturgy, explaining what it means in English and also giving a variety of liturgical and ritual directions complete with reasons why these things are done. Now—many of these are quite fanciful but their purpose is to explain and instruct so that the sisters can pray more profitably.

I’m not going to go into much detail on the Myroure at this point, but I do want to make a few points about it. First, Brigittine spirituality is a major strand of lay English spirituality, especially women’s spirituality. The Fifteen Oes of St. Brigit are going to become huge and they are an important means of affectively meditating on the Passion of Christ and seeing it from the perspective of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Second, note the emphasis on the presence of the vernacular for the understanding of the women. They wanted to make sure that the women understood the Latin texts they were praying so they put it into the vernacular.

I know this seems out of place, but let me jump back to the Loftie Hours for just a moment. When I was looking at this book, thinking about the kinds of images it had, and the liturgies it had, thinking about the fact that it was in Dutch—in the vernacular—I found myself wondering if it belonged to a woman… It really seemed to fit with what we see in the Ancrene Wisse and the Myroure so I approached it from that direction. Well, lo and behold, there’s a partially erased inscription that has been partially reconstructed…

“Hof” means “court” or “courtyard” in Dutch. Who knows if we’ll ever figure out exactly what that means. However—if we’re left free to speculate—might this women live in or by a courtyard because she’s enclosed there? Could this be an anchoress’s book of hours? It’s entirely possible…

3    The Julian Turn

At this point I want to transition into the directly Julian items which means that, I need to make a confession. I am not a Julian scholar. To be totally honest with you, I’ve never read the full Revelations of Divine Love, and the time that I’ve spent with it preparing for this talk is my longest sustained engagement with it ever. Prior to this I’ve read about it and have read a few short excerpts in college and seminary, but not an engagement of this length.

What this does mean, though, is that my encounter with Julian is thoroughly framed by this liturgical background. I’m only coming at it from the lay liturgical perspective. As a result, the major themes that I see coming out of Julian are very much in coherence with the main body of devotional materials I find in the books: A strong emphasis on the Passion of Christ and the way that is bound up with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The consistent emphasis on the Trinity. Things like the Hours of the Trinity and the Office of the Trinity really emphasize devotionally what we’re used to encountering doctrinally. The affective encounter with the Trinity is different from just thinking theological thoughts about it. The Presence and language around the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity that does not get left out in Medieval devotion. We’re kinda scared to talk about the Spirit too much now—I mean, we’re good Episcopalians, why would we ever talk about the Spirit? People who do that are weird, aren’t they?! And also intercession and intercessors and how those fit into the divine economy.

So the way I’d like to proceed is to just start throwing some pictures up here. I’ve got observations on some of them, I invite you to make observations and we’ll keep it fairly free-flowing…

[At this point, this is exactly what we did—looking through a set of images and commenting about them. Broadly speaking, the main topics we covered were the Imago Pietatis and Christ as the Man of Sorrows, Julian’s understanding of intercessors and ways that images in the Books of Hours communicate this concept, images of and devotion to the Wound of Christ and how that connects to Julian’s understanding of the Motherhood of Christ, and—finally—a discussion of the 3 showings of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Julian and how these are part of standard representations of the BVM in the Book of Hours tradition.]

The Business of Heterodoxy

Setting the Scene

The girls and I attend a home parish different from Mother M’s. That’s only because we wanted a stable location for the girls that had a strong youth program before M became a rector. It’s a very diverse parish ethnically, theologically, and liturgically; in many ways, I see it as the kind of parish that the current leadership of the Episcopal Church wants itself to be composed of. So, it’s a fascinating look into one direction that the church is moving in.

The Adult Forums are a mix of things from the parish family; many connect to some form of social justice work in our local community, but we did a series on the hard work of forgiveness in Lent and on the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in Easter. On occasion and as my schedule allows, I’ll speak on a subject myself.

One fellow from the parish did a presentation on a weekend seminar that he and two other parishioners had attended: a “Jesus on the Road” seminar from the Westar Institute. If you’re not familiar with Westar, they’re the official name of the group running the Jesus Seminar, the group founded by Robert Funk et al. that kicked off the popular writing careers of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and others. This was in the early/mid ’90s; when I was a senior in college (1996) I heard J. D. Crossan speak at an RC church in Minneapolis. My doktorvater wrote a blistering takedown of the Jesus Seminar and interest in them largely waned from the public eye.

But apparently they’re on the road now and trying to be relevant again…

Key Points

The presentation given by my fellow parishioner was accompanied by a very slick PowerPoint presentation, well-branded with Westar information, containing embedded videos. While the presenter is a computer science guy, I don’t think he put it together—it looked like part of a professional marketing package.

I’m not going to rehearse everything in it, but I do want to emphasize some key take-aways that I found particularly pertinent…

Insistence on a “late” date for Christianity

One of the talking heads made the claim which is now axiomatic in certain circles that “while Jesus may have lived in the first century, Christianity wasn’t invented until the 4th century.”

This is a core talking point for a lot of folks and is widely believed both inside and outside of the church. I call it the Dan Brown School of Christian Origins. Indeed, I’ve said before that the single most influential source of pop-culture knowledge of Early Church history is The Da Vinci Code: and that should scare us. There are a variety of flavors of this from statements like the one I heard to the notion that Constantine was the guy who declared Jesus a god.

Here’s the truth: Early Christianity (and, if you want to be completely comprehensive, Early Christianities [acknowledging those that were considered heretical later]) was first and foremost a social phenomenon. It was a community of people. This organic body began with the apostles (the twelve guys in the inner circle of Jesus) and the disciples (the wider group of folks including the family of Jesus and many others who followed him around and listened to his teachings). Like most movements of this sort, Christianity spread through social networks—people who knew people who knew people. These groups started with the Old Testament (usually in its best known form, the Greek translation of Hebrew called the Septuagint) and verbal teaching about who Jesus was, what he did, and what happened to him at the hands of the authorities—and at the hands of God his Father who raised him from the dead. And it was through and for these networks that we begin to have the writings that would become the New Testament.

The Bible did not create the Church, the Church created the Bible to better transmit the faith that the baptized body believed.

Let me underscore this in the best way I know how to do so…the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul had never been to Rome; the Letter to the Romans was essentially a letter of introduction laying out his credentials and the kind of things he taught so the Romans could judge if he was the kind of teacher they wanted to bring to town. The last chapter is one of Paul’s strongest arguments:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.  Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.  Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ.  Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.  Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.  Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.  Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys.  Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.  Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.  Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.  Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.  Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them.  Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Rom 16:1-15)

tl;dr: Paul knows people and they know him. At this point—we’re talking somewhere around the year 57 AD—there’s a significant set of people across Asia and in Rome that Paul is naming and demonstrating connections with.

People—this is Christianity! Christianity is not a drawn-up list of doctrines ratified by authorities but a collection of people who gather together to declare “the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…” (Rom 1:3-4).

Now—some folks will try to wiggle out of this by asserting that saying that Jesus was “Son of God” is different than saying he was divine and that no one thought he was divine until Constantine said so. Again, this only works if you ignore the evidence. The clearest evidence that this is not the case is the confession of Thomas—yes, that Thomas—who gives us the most thorough confession of how Jesus was seen and understood: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). It’s kinda hard to hedge that one away…

Early Christianity believed a lot of different things and there were other writings than those in the Bible. The notion of “Orthodoxy” was simply a power play by powerful men to shut down dissension and to seize and maintain power for themselves.

The argument here is an emphasis on the diversity of Early Christianity. The thought process suggests that if various people thought various things, those other works may have value, either historical value or spiritual value. And, if these works could be valuable, then as enlightened modern people free from the prejudices of the ancient Mediterranean world we can do a better job of judging what is valuable than they could.

The undercurrent of the argument taps into suspicion around authorities and especially into authorities tied into imperial systems of power. I don’t forget if it was said explicitly but it was certainly heavily implied that Christianity became an ideological tool of the state and its doctrines were shaped by the state for the purpose of asserting imperial control.

Here’s how I see it: The Early Church was a body of people who believed that there was something special about Jesus. Some believed that he was God and shared a common divinity with the God of Israel; this is the group that would become the community we know as the orthodox Church. There were others who believed that Jesus was a man who was declaring the God of Israel in a new way. Some saw him as a quasi-divine spirit who proclaimed the God of Israel in a new way. Some saw him as a divine or divinized messenger of a purely spirit-based god who was opposed to the God of Israel and any god who might have anything to do with creation or materiality. All of these things were in the mix and some more besides.

Just because they were in the mix does not mean that they were (or are) all equally edifying.

Yes—there was diversity in Early Christianity. We can speak of Early Christianities. But we can also talk about an emerging orthodoxy that we can trace in the formative documents of the New Testament that testify to a system of sorting out who this particular community who shared these books understood to be inside of it and outside of it. Second and Third John (which we just read in the Office) represent a sample of ephemeral correspondence—most of which didn’t come down to us—about which teachers to trust, which teachers to support financially, and what are the tests to determine which teachers are teaching the same message that the apostles taught: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (2 John 1:7). It’s not that the community who would become the church didn’t know that there was diversity; they were well aware of it. The question was what range of diversity was tolerable. What could you believe and still fall within the body’s beliefs structures? Let’s remember what’s at stake here… 1 John teaches Jesus Incarnate. It also teaches a God of love. It combines those two notions in stark declarations like this one: “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3:16-17). You see what’s going on here? The insistence on an incarnate Jesus leads to the truth of the real death of Jesus: this shows just how far our God is willing to go to demonstrate love! (Not a spirit who seemed to die but didn’t really, or a nice guy/dupe who followed God’s commands to a tragic end.) If this is how God operates, if this is what God expects, then we need to share our incarnate, material goods with the people who need them as an analogous demonstration that we are incarnating the same God who loved us in the incarnate Jesus.

The argument about materially helping others starts with an insistence on a material Jesus, an incarnate God. The social action is grounded in the belief about who and what Jesus is. Other christologies could not say this. If the real god is a spirit god and we’re all just trying to escape the material creation, then we don’t need to share material goods because these things don’t matter anyway and are simply the bars of our collective prisons. A gnostic spirit-focused christology is contrary to actually helping those in need.

Orthodoxy began organically as the community realized that it needed to create boundaries about what was true and false teaching because—as in the Johannine example—what the community believed had implications for how Christians acted.

Did this decision making process happen in an egalitarian way? No—it didn’t. Not all opinions were considered equally valid. An insistence on the apostolic faith—the set of teachings taught by the apostles and confirmed by the disciples (which included women)—carried more weight than other ideas. Again, 1 John:

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).

The key points here are about community (fellowship) and where the beliefs came from that characterize this community (what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands).

Did the decision-making structures in a Mediterranean society of Antiquity settle into the hands of men and eventually men with wealth and social standing? Yes. That’s part of the incarnate reality of a belief system that has social expression in the world. Should we be somewhat skeptical of the ways these people came to their decisions? Yes, actually—I have no problem with that. How can we possibly do that? We follow the threads of the creeds.

Creedal affirmations about God, Jesus, and their relationship are found in the writings of the New Testament. Creedal affirmations  are found in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. Irenaeus connects the dots between the canon, the creed as a set of interpretive guidelines for the canon, and the apostolic succession as a means of knowing who the teachers are who are teaching the creedal interpretations of the canon.

If something is getting suppressed that isn’t related to or contrary to the creeds, then maybe we need to re-examine if we’re talking orthodoxy or patriarchy… (The Montanists may be an example here, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Did emerging orthodoxy suppress the power of women in the movement? It does look that way to me. The writings about Jesus and the letters of Paul do have women in important leadership roles, and we see less of this as we move in time away from the origins.Two things: First, some of this shift has to do with the kind of literature that survives. Second, another reason is because of the way that this surviving evidence has historically been read.

First, part of this has to do with who was writing to whom and for what purpose. As the church gained a more institutional structure, we see men in these roles and we see men writing to men about men. When we read narratives—acts of the early martyrs and such—we see a lot more women acting in important ways. This ties into the second piece.

Second, for the longest time we read church records assuming they were about men and that men were the important ones. We didn’t even look for women. In the last several decades, we’ve been doing  better job at this and learning more about how women were being active in the church. As I’ve written, the Church Father Jerome is only one of the doctors of the Church because Church Mothers told him what to write and paid him to do so. Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that women then didn’t understand how to influence the power structures of their day… In fact, I intentionally started off Honey of Souls with stories about some influential women precisely because of this.

Did the faith get tied into the imperial power structure and were some declarations of the shape of the faith tied to imperial power politics? Yes, actually. I believe that I see evidence of this in some of the later Ecumenical councils where orthodoxy and heterodoxy were decisions consciously made in negotiating the power dynamics between peripherally Roman spaces and Constantinople, the commercial and political power of the Roman East, and the spiritual power of bishops who took orders from a highly-placed, politically appointed, patriarch in Constantinople.

There is a reason why the early medieval West in particular talked about four Ecumenical councils (Aelfric is an example of this), and why the Reformers went with that number as well.

The Early Church fled Jerusalem with the destruction of the Temple and went to Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and buried their texts there when Imperial Christianity came and started oppressing them.

The contention made was that the documents buried at Nag Hammadi and discovered in 1945 represent an authentic form of apostolic Christianity which was suppressed by the state version of Christianity.

On the contrary: The Nag Hammadi Library contains a mix of materials with a strong core of Gnostic texts. Some of the documents are not inherently gnostic, but generally do have a world-view congenial to gnostic readings. There are also some Platonic and Hermetic which also hold materiality in rather low regard. These are not the teachings of apostolic Christianity which insists on the goodness of creation and the incarnation of Jesus

The presence of books labelled “Gospels” can lead people unfamiliar with the topic to assume that these are writings contemporaneous with the canonical gospels that could provide new historical details about Jesus. This is not the case. The majority of these documents are from the 3rd century and later and contain no new historical information. They can’t give us new access to independent information about Jesus, they can only tell us what people thought about Jesus at the time in which they were written.

The presentation spoke enthusiastically about social justice, progressive causes, and the rights of  indigenous peoples, contrasting these with video clips of Jerry Falwell.

The implication here is that progressive social beliefs go hand in hand with the attempt to topple religious orthodoxies; that all movements in favor of Christian orthodoxy are contiguous with social conservatism.

On the contrary: This is not the case at all. The rhetorical play here is to connect orthodoxy to conservatism; if you are against the Religious Right than you should also be against the orthodox construal of the faith.  One of my big issues here is that I don’t see the Religious Right as being particularly orthodox (and certainly not catholic) in either the proclamation of their brand of Christianity or in the political implications they draw from it. But by this point we should know that this isn’t about argument and facts—it’s an appeal to an anti-establishment ethos.

Neither major American political party and their accompanying ideological movements are in line with the social and political teachings of the Gospel. This should be readily apparent to anyone who can read a Bible and pay attention. Just note the number of politically conservative American Roman Catholics who celebrate papal teaching on Right to Life issues and then act with shock, dismay, and amazement whenever the Pope (even the ones they do like)  starts talking about social and economic issues

The Bottom Line: It’s About The Bottom Line

My main take-away from the slick presentation recapping the seminar is that it was about selling books. I don’t know if they sold tickets to the event as well, but several of the major talking points were plugging the most recent books of one of the speakers.

Now—living in a glass house compromises my ability to throw stones here to a certain degree. After all, I lead seminars on liturgical spirituality, and sell my books there! In a wide-open religious marketplace, how can I begrudge these folks an opportunity to make a living writing their stuff even if I don’t agree with it?

There’s a difference, though: I write my books based on historical facts that experts in the various fields would find non-controversial. These folks are peddling books based on a disingenuous construction of Christian history built on half-truths and untruths. Christianity was not “invented” by Constantine in the 4th century. Gnostic texts were not kicked out of the Bible—they were never in the Bible in the first place! (And there’s a whole discussion, too, of the simplistic notion and presentation of “Bible”—as if it were a book within covers—that was bandied about; if I get started on that, I’ll never get this post finished…) From what I’ve heard and seen, the writers proposing the reintroduction of these gnostic works don’t discuss the implications of this system of belief–why gnosticism was rejected by the church; why it is that gnosticism doesn’t live well.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen stuff like this, and it won’t be the last.  The key to addressing it is inoculation with facts. We need to be teaching people not just about the history of the Church, but why the heresies (especially Arianisms and Gnosticisms [plurals intentional; there were/are multiple stands of both]) were considered heresies. People need to know why these things don’t live well, how their logical implications compromise not just how we think but how we act.

My Take-Away

My final thought on the presentation was a sinking feeling of complicity by means of silence. Not because I teach or advocate for heresies, but because I’m one of the voices that knows better and ought to be part of the solution. More of our people in both pulpits and pews need to know why we teach what we teach, what the actual narrative of Christian origins is based on sound scholarship of the texts and archaeology and evolving social models. And the only way for this knowledge to get out there is to start producing it and circulating it.  Hopefully posts like this will do something in that direction.

And so, I’m going to end with a counter-sales pitch of my own… I’ve started a Patreon page. If you use the St. Bede’s Breviary, if you profit from the things that I write here, please consider supporting this endeavor. It will enable me to post better stuff more frequently, and expand the kind of teaching I can do. Because this stuff—authentic Christianity that lives well—is worth arguing about and fighting for.

Presentation on Trinitarian Theology

Back at the beginning of the year, the folks at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore asked me to give them a talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. I said, sure, I’d be happy to—but that Trinity Sunday wasn’t going to work due to a conflict with the Society of Scholar-Priests meeting that I’d already agreed to. So, we agreed that I’d do it on Pentecost instead.

As I was putting together a slide deck for it, it occurred to me that I could do a run-through beforehand, make sure my presentation and slides worked as they should and that it would fall within the forty-five/fifty minute time-slot that I was shooting for. Not only that, I could record my little run-through and be able to upload it to the YouTube channel. Due to life intervening (as it is wont to do…), the recording didn’t happen beforehand. But—I did make a recording of it, and it now up on the channel.

Let me warn you ahead of time: it is 46 minutes long (!).

Long-time readers of the blog may recognize that I recycled my now twelve-year-old (!!) post Revelations of Divine Algebra for the initial section.

So, if you have an interest in boning up on the Trinity ahead of the Feast of the Holy Trinity this coming Sunday, set aside a block of time and give it a view:

For Fear of Fundamentalists

There is a piece from Newsweek on the accuracy of Scripture that is making the rounds. I’ll not link to it here because it needs a bit of prefacing.

It’s quite inaccurate. As I commented on a Facebook link to it, “I find this a very biased article full of mischaracterizations and rhetorically augmented half-truths. And as a biblical scholar who’s focused on interpretation in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, I do know what I’m talking about.”

But here’s the problem—there are a lot of people in our churches who don’t have the benefit of the background, education, and research that I do. Furthermore, the article positions itself within an increasingly common and dangerous rhetorical dichotomy. That is, it starts off by portraying a stereotype of malicious and fraudulent Conservative Evangelicals (who are also political opponents) as people who take Scripture literally. What follows, then, is a take-down of Scripture performed as a strategy to undercut these political enemies.  The problem is that Christians who see themselves as neither Conservatives nor Evangelicals find themselves in the position of agreeing with the article because they know they are not the sort of Christians who do what those other people do.

It’s a totally false dichotomy: don’t fall for it.

I’m not a Conservative Evangelical, myself. My primary issue with them is not the base text they use (the Scriptures) but rather bad interpretive choices that are internally inconsistent and unmoored from the historical bases of the Scriptural text and the community norms by which the Church has read and wrestled with the text through the centuries. That’s what deserves a take-down, not the Scriptures.

In the author’s opposition to Conservative Evangelicals, however, a series of half-truths and falsehoods are liberally sprinkled about in such away that non-Conservative Evangelicals who have not been taught Church History can easily be swayed by them.

I do not have to time to conduct a point-by-point refutation—which I realize is kind of a shame because it desperately needs one. What I can do, though, is offer is a few basic guiding points that must be remembered when people spout off about Church History and the Scriptures:

  • The Church is an organic body that connects from the first followers of Jesus—the disciples and apostles—to the present day. Yes, there has been some drift across the centuries, but the organic continuity here of the Church catholic and orthodox is an important touchstone through time.
  • The Church existed before “the Bible” did. It was a community formed around the experience of God-in-our-midst: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowering of the community by the Spirit. Yes, they relied on the Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures typically encountered through the Greek Septuagint—but understood certain parts of that message to be superseded or clarified by what they had and were experiencing.
  • The Church produced the New Testament. Not the other way around.
  • Our methods for dating the books of the New Testament suck. Hard. There is little internal or external evidence to go on meaning that many of the dates you commonly see are well-established supposition.
    • There is external evidence putting Paul’s writings in the neighborhood of 51 AD. The slight differences between the Little Apocalypses in the Synoptic Gospels are used for dating them based on the assumption that they are not recording the actual words of Jesus but, instead, are narrating how the Roman advance on the Temple in 70 AD is going. Hence, Mark (the demonstrably earliest of the canonical Synoptics) is usually pegged at 70 (before the actual fall) and Matthew/Luke are after 70 (after the destruction).
  • However, Paul’s letters argue very strongly against the philosophical construct that anything with a High Christology (i.e., John, Hebrews) must be late and written at some point in the second century.
  • Quotations from the Apostolic Fathers—some of whom we can date internally and externally—make it far more likely that all of the books of the New Testament were written within the first century.
  •  By the year 200, there was general consensus across the Mediterranean Christian world that the Church recognized the four canonical gospels (and only these), the letters of Paul, and most of the General Epistles. Some books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, and 2-3 John would continue to be argued over into the fourth century.
  • Irenaeus, writing in the 160-70 range, who tells us that he saw Polycarp (not clear if Irenaeus learned from Polycarp or not…) whose teacher was John (i.e., Irenaeus was just one step away from the apostles) clarifies that the faith of the Church is built on three things: the canon (reading the books in church that the Church agrees on), the creed (the basic rule of faith by which and in accordance with the canon is read), and the apostolic succession (the organic continuity of teachers who know what the hell they’re talking about because they heard it from people who went back to the apostles).
    • canon: “Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law— all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father— are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. II.35.4. (He was arguing against folks who thought there were multiple gods; chiefly that the OT god was an evil demiurge…)
    • creed: “The Church, though dispersed through out the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, [Ephesians 1:10] and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess [Philippians 2:10-11] to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, [Ephesians 6:12] and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I.10.1.
    • apostolic succession: “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer III.3.3.
  • If you bothered to read that middle one it’ll be painfully clear that the notion that Constantine “created” the idea of Jesus as God is total BS as Irenaeus was writing this 150 or so years before the first Ecumenical Council.
  • Ditto on the notion that Constantine “created” the New Testament canon. Constantine did order 50 nice copies of the Scriptures to be made, but this neither created nor closed discussion on the content and order of the New Testament canon.
  • On the “errors” in the transmission of Scripture, yes, there are lots and lots of scribal errors. But most of them are errors like substituting “me” where it ought to be “I”—i.e., minor grammatical errors. Substantive content errors, not so much. We know this, because dozens of German scholars dedicated their scholarly lives to matching up thousands of fragments and manuscripts in order to see where the differences between them all were and it is from these that we get a critical eclectic text from which our modern Bibles are translated. So, yes, many scribes messed up, but since they all don’t mess up in the same way, we can compare the hundreds of ancient witnesses and figure out what the text ought to have been.
  • Similarly while some gleefully point out that the Trinitarian addition in 1 John is a  late addition to the text and extrapolate that to say that all such Trinitarian additions must be equally late totally gloss the fact that Matthew’s ending (Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) is thoroughly Trinitarian and is lacking in no textual witnesses.

In short, a living organic body—the Church—produced the New Testament, established agreements on how it ought to be read, and passed that knowledge along through teachers. Once the relatively disconnected Christian communities could openly talk together and gather after Constantine’s legalization of the faith, they did get together and Constantine had a vested interest in unity. However, that does not mean that he created or thought up the unity. The idea of the Trinity is found in the Scriptures; and early Christians talked about Jesus as God a long time before Constantine. Yes, the Bible was hand-copied, but that does not mean that its text—especially as reconstructed by scholars working with massive amounts of evidence—is corrupt and unreliable for the teaching and purposes of the Church.

Please—learn your Christian history and biblical basics from somewhere other than Newsweek!!

(And if you absolutely must, here’s the offending article…)

 

An Age goes Dark

It’s hard focusing on writing today.

Somehow I need to find the motivation to write about a Christian author, watching his society crumble around him into chaos and barbarism, as he tries t chart a course for the intellectual and spiritual development of those who would come after to kindle lights in the darkness.

If only this historical stuff were relevant to the modern situation…

In any case, here’s a historical section on the falling of a dark age from the start of chapter 3:


Historians like the term “Dark Ages” even less than they like the term “Middle Ages.” Both of these terms were invented as value judgments so that writers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could look down on the age that came before them and that separated them from the luster of Classical Antiquity. Conventionally speaking, the term “Dark Ages” usually gets applied to the general time period that we’re looking at. One end of the period is bounded by the loss of central authority in the Roman West at some point in the fifth century (usually referred to as the Fall of Rome); the other end is conveniently anchored by the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The term “Early Medieval” is a better way to refer to this span of time because, even though the word “medieval” is simply a Latin translation of “middle ages” it does not carry the same overt value judgment with it. Migration Period is another term for the fourth through the eight century that focuses on the mass movements of tribal peoples around and into Europe, basing the title on a description of events.

All that having been said, there are some times and places that have earned the label “Dark Age” due to the amount of destruction, devastation, and death focused in a particular place at a particular time. By any reckoning the Italian sixth century earns that label due to the amount of mayhem and human misery that occurred there. If the four horsemen of the apocalypse are rightly reckoned as War, Famine, Plague, and Death, all four were certainly present then.

The fifth century had opened with a massive influx of barbarians across the Rhine River, and an angry federate army led by Alaric sacking Rome as recompense for a slaughter of thousands of Gothic hostages—mostly women and children—by Roman mobs. The mobs had themselves been angered by the apparent inaction of the army against a large Gothic force lead by Radagaisus plundering Northern Italy. Thus, the barbarian sack of Rome in 410 was more about an epic failure of internal affairs than the usual conventional construction of barbarians hating civilization. By the mid-fifth century, the power of the Western Roman Empire was largely limited to Italy itself as migrating tribes took over Spain, Roman Gaul, and tribes clashed with the Eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans and Greece. The capital of the West had been moved out of Rome to the more defensible Ravenna and by the end of the fifth century Rome was but a pale shadow of itself; it had started the fifth century with a population around 800,000 souls and ended it with a count somewhere around 100,000. That’s the numerical equivalent of the population of San Francisco dropping to that of Billings, Montana over the course of a century.

A turning point that set up the horrors of the sixth century was the deposition of the last Emperor of the West in 476 by Odoacer. To call the deposed Romulus August the last Roman emperor of the West would be a little misleading if by “Roman” we mean born of Italian stock; that ship had sailed as early as ad 193 when the Lybian-born Septimius Severus had emerged victorious from the disaster of succession known to history as the Year of Five Emperors. From that point on, the emperors tended to be descended from North African or Syrian stock until the rise of powers in Pannonia and Moesia, the provinces on the Danube that were a hotbed of motion as tribes from Asia moved into Europe and North European tribes migrated into Southern Europe.

However, in 476 Odoacer did something different and proclaimed himself king (rex) rather than emperor. The Roman Senate at his behest sent the imperial regalia back to Zeno, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople, requesting that the Empire be unified and that Odoacer be formally recognized as the Empire’s regent in the West. Zeno, despite his Greek name, was himself a borderland barbarian of the Isuarian people; he recognized Odoacer, but never trusted him. Zeno had his own Gothic problem as two warlords named Theoderic warred against each other and him in the East. However, after Theoderic the Amal came out victorious, Zeno persuaded him that his true future lay in the West. Agreeing, Theoderic swept into Italy and in 493 personally killed Odoacer at a banquet that was supposed to have celebrated a peace treaty between the two.

Despite this rocky start, the rise of Theoderic the Amal was a bright spot in an otherwise troublesome time, and earned himself the name “Theoderic the Great.” Theoderic inherited an Italy that had suffered decades of invasion and depredation, but which still had a Roman bureaucratic system intact. As he settled into his new position, three different groups emerged as power players in the new order. The first group was, clearly, the barbarian might of the military. The Gothic nobility retained control of the military. Then there was the old aristocracy of Rome. Most of the senatorial families had either died out or fled and in the sixth century there were two great clans, the Decii and the Anici, who wielded the ancient authority of the Roman Senate. The third group were provincial nobles, large landholders outside of Rome some of whom who had come into Italy relatively recently and were disdained as nouveau riche newcomers by the ancient Roman clans. Theoderic gave these provincial nobles important places in his Ravenna-centered government, giving himself leverage against the old Roman aristocracy by playing the two off against one another and these two against the Gothic military.

The delicate balancing act was disrupted by events in the East. Zeno had died and on the death of his successor the imperial purple was seized by Justin, a career military man who had started life as a Thracian swineherd. But he was old and power quickly passed to his nephew Justinian. An ambitious man, Justinian—the last Latin-speaking Emperor of the East—proclaimed his presence on the world stage as a recovery of Romanitas. At his direction, his skillful generals Belisarius and Narses began great campaigns against the Persians and Vandal-held North Africa, seeking to recapture what Justinian considered the proper extent of the Roman Empire. The senators of Rome began casting hopeful eyes East and, whether warranted or not, two top Western administrative officials lost their heads when Theoderic suspected them of plotting with the East.

The final nail in the coffin was the Gothic succession. Theoderic’s only legitimate daughter Amalasuntha was married to the Visigoth Eutharic who was proclaimed Theoderic’s successor. But disaster struck with his death in 522. His young son was named heir in 526—the year of Theoderic’s death—and he ascended the throne with his mother as regent. However, Athalaric proved unfit and died young, prompting a traitorous cousin Theodahad to imprison the queen mother, murder her, and declare himself king in 535. These instabilities provided the perfect pretext for Justinian and he commanded his best general, Belisarius, to recapture Rome from the barbarians.

The stage was now set, and hell itself was unleashed upon Italy.

For the next five years, armies trampled the length of Italy, killing, burning, and pillaging. Two different Eastern armies were in the field against the Gothic forces while forces of Franks and Burgundians intermittently popped over the Alps to aid one side or the other, each time sating their own appetites for plunder. Several Gothic kings rose and fell over the course of the war until Ravenna, the Gothic capital in the north fell to Belisarius in 540. The Gothic king, Witiges, and his immediate court were sent to Constantinople where he died shortly thereafter.

Wars bring famine. Growing fields are trampled by marching boots and drenched in blood, supplies are horded, stolen, or burned as armies seek to feed themselves and deny food to their enemies. The peasantry is conscripted as cannon fodder and put to the sword. War on its own is bad enough. But a strange weather event—likely caused by the eruption of one or more volcanoes in the Americas—devastated harvests across the globe in 536. Procopius, the Eastern chronicler of the Gothic Wars, recounts that the sun’s brightness was dimmed and it seemed like a constant state of eclipse. Irish chronicles report failure of the harvests from 536 until 539. Chinese chronicles report not only crop failures but snow falling in August. In Italy, food already scarce thanks to continuing violence became ever more scarce. But worse even than the famine was a virulence somehow aided by the unseasonal weather.

As the Eastern reconquest of Italy seemed complete, the situation destabilized further. Plague swept across the known world in a toxic wave. Starting from rats in China, the first recorded transcontinental pandemic swept across the Eurasian continent initially killing somewhere around 25 million people, roughly 13% of the global population. Constantinople was hammered, and Justinian himself fell ill but recovered. The bacterial culprit, Yersina pestis, is the very same bug responsible for the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe and the English Plague Year of 1666. Just as the Black Death upended European society and set a new course for the Late Middle Ages, so the Plague of Justinian (as it came to be known) caused similar repercussions across the Early Medieval world.

The plague swept through Italy in 542; the Eastern armies were hit hard. This event, combined with renewed hostilities with Persians on their Eastern borders drawing off troops and generals, inspired a Gothic revolt. The war in Italy rekindled and would continue to burn for another twelve years. Eastern armies returned to tramp the length of Italy, devastation reigned unchecked, and the Italian aristocracy largely fled to Constantinople for safety. Finally, in 554 Justinian issued his Pragmatic Sanction restoring lands in Italy to the Roman aristocracy displacing barbarian landholders, and in 555 the final fighting force of Goths surrendered.

At one point in the renewed fighting, during a Gothic recapture of the city, Procopius gives us another glimpse of the population of Rome: “Among the common people, however, it so fell out that only five hundred men were left in the whole city, and these with difficulty found refuge in sanctuaries. The rest of the population was gone, some having departed to other lands and some having been carried off by the famine, as I explained” (Procopius, Wars 7.20.19-20). That’s a drop from 800,000 people in the fourth century to 500 in the middle of the sixth century.

Italy was once again in Roman hands. The Empire, though now securely centered in the East, once more claimed Rome, its ancestral home. But at what a cost! The death toll has been estimated to be as high as five million souls. In terms of resources, one estimate puts the cost of the war on the Eastern treasury at 300,000 pounds of gold. James O’Donnell offers a look at the financial cost from another direction: Justinian inherited a treasury containing 28 million solidi; his wars cost about 36 million solidi with 21.5 million of that going to the war in Italy. Indeed, the final two years cost roughly half of the full amount. And this account doesn’t even factor in his spending on building campaigns back in Constantinople. Since, in a good year the Empire would bring in 5 million solidi, his warlike pretensions left the East deeply in debt. A veritable fortune in finances but even more so in human lives was squandered in this largely symbolic recapturing of the Roman homeland. And the last indignity was yet to be suffered.

Only three years after the death of Justinian, in 568, the Germanic Lombards moved south en masse and stripped Italy from its nominally Roman masters. A new flood of pillaging and killing undid any reconstruction since the end of the Gothic War. While Eastern control would linger in some regions for hundreds of years, the Lombard conquest permanently finished the Eastern dream of a renewed Roman Empire around the Mediterranean basin. Weakened by fighting in Italy and by ravages on its northern and eastern borders by barbarians and Persians alike, the Eastern Empire never attempted to retake Italy and focused on its own survival.

Truly, the Italian sixth century deserves the label of “Dark Age” as misery upon misery swept through the peninsula.

Radegund and the Psalter

I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on my Cassiodorus/Psalms book and not getting a whole lot else done… I’m hoping to post here more regularly, but at the moment, most of my thoughts are occupied in the early medieval psalter… So here’s something from that!

I’ve been pondering why non-fiction books like The Art of Fermentation and Salt: A World History can become NYT Best Sellers. It has to do with well-told stories and effective hooks.  Reflecting on this, the story that I want to tell here is about far more than a single late patristic commentary on a single book of the Bible. Thus, I’m doing some experimenting with a starting hook to draw readers is, suggesting why this topic might actually be interesting after all… Here’s a shot at it—let me know what you think!


Radegund was furious. Of this, there can be no doubt. Her husband had crossed her for the last time, and she set a plan in motion to free herself from him once and for all. Within a short time she had the two letters that she needed: the one giving her leverage and the one that confirmed her spiritual path.

Sixth-century France was a hard place to be a woman. The land was in turmoil, Franks, Burgundians, and Lombards struggled for power, and violence spilled out from Italy as the Roman Emperor in the East tired to reassert his authority over his lost lands in the West. In addition to the perennial dangers of sickness and death in childbirth, war brought increased threat of rape and violent death along with its constant companions, famine and pestilence; the Plague of Justinian, one of the first recorded worldwide pandemics, swept through the Mediterranean world in the 540’s devastating Constantinople, Italy, and ravaging Gaul. While war and its effects are always hardest upon the poor, nobility was no guarantee of safety: Radegund’s life was proof of that.

Born a Thuringian princess, her uncle betrayed and slaughtered her father and took her into his household while she was yet a small child. But her uncle’s betrayals bore bitter fruit as spurned allies, the four sons of the Frankish king Clovis, sacked Thuringia, and Radegund—now 11—was carried off, fated to be the wife of one of the victorious brothers, Chlothar. Imprisoned in a villa in the north of modern France, Radegund learned reading, writing, and religion before she was married to Chlothar as his sixth wife in the year 540 at the age of 20.

By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. And, indeed, why would it be? Chlothar had been part of the original alliance that had killed her father, and he was marrying her largely to legitimate his claim to Thuringia. While Clothar was an indifferent Christian at best, Radegund was fiercely devoted to her faith and ascetic ideals—including virginity. While Chlothar’s women bore him seven legitimate children and there were rumors of many more unacknowledged offspring, Radegund remained childless. The joke around the palace was that Chlothar’s latest wife was a nun, not a queen.

The last straw came right around the year 550. Chlothar’s men murdered the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal line: Radegund’s brother. Radegund was furious, and refused to put up with it any more. She fled the palace, triggering a set of events that she had apparently thought through beforehand and cultivated strategically as she suffered through her unhappy marriage. She wrote letters to the most influential bishops in the area—undoubtedly some of her almsgiving in the years before had predisposed them in her favor whether for pious motives or base ones—and shortly she had in hand a letter that history still possesses. She proposed the establishment of the first religious community for women in the Frankish Empire where she would live according to Rule of Caesarius of Arles. The letter, signed by a host of prelates, supported her plan. It included the most dire threats for any woman who took religious vows and then wished to forsake the community and return to the world and marriage. Conversely (and more to the point) it likewise threatened anathema and damnation to any man who would attempt to remove any of the women from the religious enclosure.

The other letter that Radegund had been looking for was the blessing of Caesaria II of Arles. Caesaria, abbess of a convent in the Visigothic city of Arles, was the successor of the the first Caesaria who had been the sister of the influential bishop and theologian Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius had written a rule of life for his sister’s community, and in this letter, Caesaria II not only sends her community’s rule to Radegund as the queen had commanded, but also gave her advice based on her experience. In commending the rule, Caesaria wrote this line which neatly captures three central themes, not just of Caesaria and Radegund’s lives and spirituality, but of the time and place that we will be considering. She wrote: “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters; let all hold the psalter in memory and, as I have said, be zealous to carry out in all things what you read in the gospel.”

The first key element here is the emphasis on the psalms. This phrasing here—“hold the psalter in memory”—could simply mean something like “don’t forget about the psalms” or “don’t forget to say the psalms,” but it doesn’t. Instead, it means “make sure that everybody has all of the psalms memorized.” Looking back over the rest of Caesaria’s letter it’s quite obvious that she was following her own advice. The letter is littered with Scripture quotations; over half of these come from one book of the Bible: the Psalms. Likewise, she wasn’t telling Radegund anything new, either. The brief “Life of Radegund” written by her friend and correspondent Venantius Fortunatus mentions the psalms early and often as a part of her spiritual life as well as her devotion to singing the “hours,” a form of liturgical prayer grounded in the recitation of the psalms. Fortunatus gives us glimpses of Radegund’s future describing how, as a child, she would organize the other children and lead them into the chapel in a procession singing the psalms. Later, she would duck out of royal banquets to attend the worship of the hours, singing psalms as she left and checking to make sure the leftovers would be given to the poor.

You can only imagine how the psalms would have spoken to Radegund and sustained her as she endured her situation, married to the man responsible for the deaths of her father, uncle (however traitorous), and brother. How many times might Psalm 94 (“O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance show yourself. Rise up, O Judge of the world; give the arrogant their just desserts…”) have passed through her head as she lay in bed next to her husband.

The second key element in Caesaria’s letter was the emphasis on literacy. While the phrasing sounds a bit odd in English, “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters,” the double negatives have an emphatic sense in Latin, underscoring the importance that everyone—no matter what their origin or social station—be taught how to read. As we continue, we’ll explore the close connection between the psalms and literacy in the early medieval world. Indeed, one of the terms for being literate was to be psalteratus: knowing your psalms. In a world where literacy was not common, and where women’s literacy in particular was not prized, the insistence on making sure that women of all classes within the community are able to read is a fascinating one.

The third key element is the mention of the gospels in relation to the psalms. Modern Protestants in particular may have a number of assumptions about the early medieval church, one of which is that the Bible was rarely read and even more rarely understood. Yet Caesaria makes it plain that she expects Radegund and all of the women to be reading the gospels as their most fundamental source for instruction:

Though it be holy and good and laudable that you desire to live by the Rule, there is no greater, better, more precious nor more splendid doctrine than the reading of the gospel. See this, hold this, which our Lord and master Christ taught by words and fulfilled by example, who made so many miracles in the world that they can not be counted, and sustained so many ills from his persecutors through patience, that can scarcely be believed.

The words and examples of Jesus are central to the ideal this holy woman lifts up.

Out of all of Scripture, these two sections—the psalms and the gospels—are given special attention. Coming from a liturgical perspective this is hardly surprising because in commending these texts to Radegund, Caesaria is highlighting the two central texts of the two central forms of worship in the church of that time. The Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) centered around the psalms; the Eucharist (or the Mass) centered around the gospels. But, coming from a spiritual perspective, Caesaria and Radegund would have both deeply believed that the two sections of Scripture were inextricably bound together: the heart and soul of Jesus was not just laid plain by the Gospels but was complemented and completed by the psalms. The Gospels made manifest his outward words and deeds; the psalms made manifest his inward thoughts and feelings. We will see exactly how this logic works as we go, but understanding and appreciating this link is crucial for grasping the medieval perspective on Jesus.

And Radegund? She got her community. In fact, her husband even donated the land the land for it. (After a friendly bishop had threatened him with excommunication if he wouldn’t come through!) Originally named the Abbey of St. Mary, you may have heard one of the songs celebrating its name change. In 567, Radegund and her abbey received a relic of the True Cross from the Byzantine Emperor. In honor of the event the name of the community was changed to the Abbey of the Holy Cross and Radegund’s friend Fortunatus wrote a hymn for the occasion, Vexilla regis prodeunt, translated in many hymnals as “The royal banners forward go.” When Radegund died in 587, she was buried in a chapel near the abbey. Soon venerated as a saint, the chapel was renamed the Church of St. Radegund and remains a parish church today in Poitiers.

Despite the hardships of her life—perhaps because of the hardships of her life—Radegund’s faith remained strong and powerful. Her life story recounts episode after episode focused on care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the neglected. She used her power to create a safe space for herself and other women—rigorous and not without its own challenges to be sure—but a place where learning and faith and female authority would be respected for centuries to come. And her experience of the psalms lies at the center of it all.

Floating along with St. Brendan

Now—in something completely unrelated to prayer book revision plans, I have a new post up at Godspace. This one is a musing around the concept of pilgrimage, and my way into it is a brief meditation on the Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. If you’ve not encuntered this text before, I’d urge you to do so. It’s quite fascinating. I have a feeling I will drill into it quite a bit deeper at some point in time.

But that time is not now.

Too many other plates in the air at the moment…

On Borg

I saw the news last night that Dr. Marcus Borg has died. May light perpetual shine upon him.

I have not actually read many of his books despite that fact that he generally falls into my New Testament (NT) specialty. I have heard him summarized, and have read those who argue with him and with whom he argued. This year I will make it a point to read more of his works.

At this point, my feelings toward him are rather ambiguous. I know that he is widely read within the Episcopal Church, and that he has helped many progressive Christians and Episcopalians to be able to read the Bible again. He presents a perspective and an entre into the Bible that allows it to be read critically and rationally over and against fundamentalistic reading strategies. That he has helped people pick up and return to the Scriptures is a good thing.

However, I have noticed distinctive interpretive trends in most of the people I know who cite him with approval. Modern biblical scholarship of the 20th century (and the latter half of the 19th) focused on Bible as history. Thus, the questions biblical scholars brought and solutions they offered were around sketching the history of the early Christian movement and in the development of its ideas as reflected in the various writings of the New Testament texts.  What I have heard of Borg and what I have read in those I consider his fellow travellers—Crossan, Funk, the Jesus Seminar crowd—is that they apply a hermeneutic of suspicion while they use the NT as a historical data mine. They’re certainly within their rights and privileges as NT scholars to do so; I think they go overboard and their results are skewed because they misconstrue the nature of their data-set.

When this approach passes out of scholarship into the lay realm it takes the form of this sort of narrative:  Jesus was a revolutionary (peasant or otherwise) and was both co-opted and misunderstood by the early church. Thus, to understand him and his message properly, the claims of the early church should be downplayed (or dismissed). Furthermore, potential seams or disagreements within the writings of the NT and in the apocryphal literature are extrapolated into full-blown incarnate communities. The narrative of the formation of the canon of the NT and the emergence of the early church into public view in the 4th century, therefore, is of a supressive and repressive faction that becomes “orthodoxy” by getting rid of all other claimants (particularly the more diverse sorts!). In some variants of this narrative, Constantine is invoked as the one who declares Jesus divine in a complete departure from the peasant revolutionary who kicked off the original Jesus movement.

When this narrative is imported into congregations as theology, the result is a semi- to fully-Arian christology (one that considers Jesus as an exemplary person and teacher, but not a divine being) and a generally anti-orthodox approach that sees the early church and its councils as repressive agents of Empire.

A central problem is that, in our churches, this narrative and its resulting theology is seen as the only alternative to fundamentalism.

And it’s not.

I’m not a fundamentalist; I don’t read the Bible like a fundamentalist. I read it as a poetry of God’s presence and, in doing so, I read it in the company of the early church. I don’t read the Bible as a dead historical site to be excavated for its ideas, but as a living city that invites us to both imagine and live the world that God imagines.

So—I need to read some more Borg. I realize that I tend to respond to something of a caricature of his thought; I’d like to be able to be more fair to him and to be able to speak to what he does say rather than what I hear others report him to have said.

Original Pronunciation and the Prayer Book

On Sunday at church we sang “Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” As is often the case, I was struck by the couplets of the fourth verse:

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The first two, “come/home” look good on paper but don’t rhyme in American mouths. Even worse is the second pair: “high/misery.” We have to conclude one of three things.

First, the twentieth century approach to classical hymnody being what it is, maybe somebody has fiddled with the words. Second, John Mason Neale didn’t know what he was doing and flubbed the rhyme. Third, there’s an entirely different way of pronouncing English from what your average Baltimore congregation sings, and this hymn assumes those sounds rather than what I was hearing.

In regard to the first, no—not this time. In regard to the second,  John Mason Neale won medals for his poetry at Cambridge and is one of the best translators of hymns of his day; incompetence is likely not the answer. That leaves us with the third and to the video presentation of the day… I ran across this a little bit ago and was greatly intrigued by it. It’s a short video on the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English. Clearly, this wasn’t the  tongue that Neale was writing in (as he was a couple of centuries later), but the mention of rhyme as a means for getting a feel of the language jumped to mind when we hit the fourth stanza yesterday.

What this does move me to consider is the pronunciation of the texts from the first English prayer books. What sort of rhymes and other forms of assonance do we miss because we read through it in our English rather than theirs? The same, of course, is true of the King James Bible of which we are told that Blessed Lancelot Andrewes and others read their work out loud to test the sound of it before making final decisions?

No point to make, just a shift in perception…

Benedictional of St Aethelwold up!

A couple of posts in the pipeline dealing with church politics stuff are sidelined for a most important announcement: the British Library has put on line the splendid Benedictional of St. Æthelwold!

Æthelwold was the teacher of Aelfric, the chief guy my dissertation was about, so this is a big deal for me. The manuscript illustrations are simply beautiful—they’re definitely worth the time to look through.