Reading S. Elm’s “Sons of Hellenism…” (1)

On the continual raving of my friend Ryan, I picked up Susanna Elm’s book, “Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome”, and I thought I’d offer my thoughts as I read through it.

The introduction opens with this:

This is a book about two powerful, enduring, and competing visions of universalism in the fourth century: Christianity and the Roman Empire. Yet, I will argue that these visions were in fact one, since Christianity was essentially Roman. Christianity’s universalism lasted because it was, from the beginning, deeply enmeshed in the foundational ideologies granting Rome’s supremacy.

This is an intriguing thesis, and one I’m inclined to agree with and interested to see it argued-out in the course of the book. It also contains a fundamental flaw in the way it’s constituted. “Christianity was essentially Roman” is a false statement. While I’m very invested in understanding and articulating the Christianity that was mostly co-terminous with the Roman Empire, I’m very aware and sensitive that this was not all Christianity, and that Christianity spread earlywidely, and successfully beyond the bounds of that empire. Most notably, Christianity made its way, and its home, into the Syriac sphere very early, and thus into the Sasanian Empire, and the Church of the East existed as a successful, autonomous, and missionary enterprise from very early on. The integration of Christianity into Roman identity had, on the whole, a negative effect on Christianity outwith the Empire, because by tying Christian-identity to Roman Imperialism, it became more difficult for Christians outside the Empire to protest their non-allegiance to the ‘Roman’ religio. That is a big caveat that I would stamp on the introductory and dominant thesis of Elm’s work.

Nonetheless, insofar as Roman (in the Imperial, not the Papal sense) Christianity goes, it did indeed come to consitute its self-awareness of universalism in terms of that Imperium, thus giving rise to a very Greco-Roman ideal of Christianitas as Romanitas.

Elm’s method is to bring into conversation the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian (aka the Apostate). I think this is a novel idea and a good one. Particularly, I appreciate the way Elm rejects the notion that Gregory was a failed ecclesiarch and personally lackluster figure. Such a person does not become bishop of Constantinople, nor the most influential Greek theological writer of his age. By understanding Gregory’s writings as rhetorical perfomance that instantiates prestige, and by aligning the ‘true philosophical life’ as a performance of civic engagement for the social elites, Elm helpfully brings Gregory out from the purely ‘theological’ sphere and places him appropriately in the socio-cultural context of late-antique bishops as 4th century urban elites.

However, I have a second criticism of Elm here, when she writes, “Focusing on what unites rather than divides Julian the emperor and Gregory the Theologian reveals that the boundary between pagan and Christian was so porous that theses terms lose their analytical value.” In my mind this is a tautological statement that is also misleading, because it appears to mean, “Disregarding the distinctions between pagans and Christians and highlighting their similarities reveals that they are actually much more similar than they are different.” This is, ratione ipsa, true: abolishing their distinctions abolishes their distinctness. Does it have an analytic value to flatten some of those differences to highlight for us their similarities? Oh yes, certainly. And that is well-needed in this case, because Gregory and Julian are not figures brought into conversation and their similarities do need to be highlighted. To do so, however, and suggest that their differences are thus almost irrelevant is to do a disservice, I think, to those real differences.


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