On Authors, Fathers, and Holy Men – By Ellen Muehlberger

Ellen Muehlberger in the Late Antiquity and the New Humanities Forum

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Ambition created the field of late antiquity. Those trained in classics decided to take new approaches to new materials, to investigate a period that had been characterized as insignificant or in decline. Specialists who worked on subfields of late ancient materials — early Byzantinists, experts in rabbinics and patristics — sought to surpass the boundaries that constituted their fields. So, the new strain of scholar, the late antique scholar, strived to link the materials of these more traditional disciplines to one another and to other disciplines, like art history, literary studies, and anthropology. The point of identifying with a new field called “late antiquity” was to expand the range not only of what one could study, but how one could study it.

The ambitions of the field of late antiquity, fifty years on, are still palpable. They are not, however, without limit. Late ancient historians have productively investigated and redefined many things over the last several decades — it’s an exciting field in which to work — but we as a group are still hampered in one important respect. The architecture of the knowledge we have inherited remains a significant and persistent constraint on what we think about and write about. Put succinctly: we have an archive problem.

I can describe this problem best if I stick with the part of the field that I know best, namely, the history of early Christianity. It could be the case that my little corner of late antiquity is the only part of the field that faces the problem I’m about to analyze, but I suspect that what I have to say here could also be said of other specialities covered under the umbrella of “late antiquity.”

The architecture of the knowledge we have inherited constrains what we think and write about. Put succinctly: we have an archive problem.

The evidence specialists in early Christian history use, the texts that we draw upon for our arguments and even for our basic understanding of the tradition, have the quality of an archive. By that I mean they are a selective representation, according to certain categories, of the knowledge that might be had about Christianity in late antiquity. The work that went into building this archive was not a formal process, like what would take place when a national government decides to establish a state archive. Instead, a line of largely unseen actors created the archive of early Christian materials over a long period of time; they selected, included, eliminated, or ignored information based on their judgments about what subjects, persons, and types of material were important.

What this long-term, informal archival process has given us is a collection, not of evidence, but of authors. That is, our archive represents to us a selection of the fraction of the people from the past who happened to be in a social position to produce texts and to have their names permanently associated with what they produced. Practically speaking, we are already lacking any way to understand an overwhelming amount of late ancient Christianity: the ideas, motivations, habits, creative products, and innovations of those who were not authors are just not available to us.

I know this is an obvious thing, but I don’t want to dismiss it too quickly. Naturalizing it with a glib, “well, that’s just how the field is” obscures the deep effects the nature of our evidence of the past has had on how we work.

I first got a sense of how tightly the archive constrains us when I was starting some basic research on a new project last summer. I am working on a book about what early Christians anticipated when they imagined their own deaths, and I had already done most of what we might call the literature review: reading other scholars’ work about death in late antiquity, looking through their footnotes and bibliographies to get a sense of existing scholarship about my topic. But I usually try, when I’m starting something new, to avoid Single Tree Syndrome — the situation that happens when a dog follows other dogs into a forest with hundreds of trees, but they all end up using the same tree because that’s what the first dog used and they all follow the trail. So, on top of looking at what other scholars had already written about death, I combed through all the primary source collections I knew about in order to see what might be germane to my topic but had been understudied.

This is how I found myself sitting in the library one morning, the green volumes of the Clavis Patrum Graecorum spread out in front of me. I was working through the known Christian texts written in Greek, century by century, to see whether there might be things relevant to my work about death that other historians of death had overlooked. The Clavis, as its name makes clear, is a key, but not to early Christianity, exactly; it’s a “key to the Greek Fathers.” It, like so many other tools for research in early Christianity, is organized by author. The arbitrariness of this arrangement struck me when I arrived at the entries in the Clavis for Pseudo-Ephrem.

Real Ephrem was a fourth-century Syriac writer, a stylist of language whose poetry and form shaped much of later Syriac literature. Pseudo-Ephrem, though, is nothing: it is a hodge-podge, a header that works like a receptacle for more than one hundred texts in Greek that are otherwise unidentified. As I combed through that receptacle, I realized: we are so keyed to the author that when there is no author, we make one in order to have an organizing container. It is not as if we misrecognize what we are doing. There aren’t panels at conferences about Pseudo-Ephrem like there are for other authors. There aren’t special issues of journals about Pseudo-Ephrem’s theology, poetics, or view on the world. That is because we have all agreed to see Pseudo-Ephrem as a placeholder. It is an artifact of the system that prioritizes the author, a rough edge that can’t be smoothed with the tools we have chosen to use.

It is not the only one. As I continued to read through the Clavis, I was struck by another artifact of our system: the dubia and spuria sections that exist under many authors’ names. For a writer like the fourth-century preacher and politician John Chrysostom, the Clavis has a long list of his confirmed works; then, near the end of the entry, there is a shorter, but still long, list of the works once attributed to Chrysostom but for which the attribution is now doubtful.

This long-term, informal archival process has given us a collection, not of evidence, but of authors.

When a work has traditionally been associated with an author, yet becomes discredited, it enters a strange limbo: we don’t remove it from the author’s listing (unless we can identify it with another author, like in the case of the reclamation of Evagrian works from Basil of Caesarea and Nilus of Ancyra). But we usually don’t engage the discredited work, either. Instead, it goes in the dubia pile and stays there. It is as if we are all on the maintenance crew of a sprawling building, and one of us has taken a tool from a central tool locker in the building, carried it out to the end of one of many blind hallways, and once we are there and realize that the tool does not fit the precise specifications of that hallway, we drop it and leave it on the floor instead of returning it to the locker. When we make the judgment that something is dubious or spurious, we have taken a half-step: we are willing to do the basic amount of text criticism required to answer a question about authorship, but we are not generally willing to do more. This, too, is an artifact created by our author-centered archive: texts without a secure association to a known author stay dropped at the end of the hallway, unused.

So, it seems that while in the transition from “patristics” to “Christianity in late antiquity” we have learned and adopted other scholarly methods and critical approaches — close reading, to question intentionality, to read for political, social, gender cues, to deconstruct — we never quite let the question of the author sink all the way in. It is commonplace in other fields to see the author not as a self-determining, intentional agent existing outside the text, but as an image created by the survival of texts. It’s so commonplace that a review of American poet Terrence Hayes’s work in the New Yorker a few weeks ago tosses in the following line: “Authors, after all, aren’t causes; they’re effects produced by their own language.” But that sort of insight — which seems to be already known and even passé (“authors, after all, aren’t causes”) — is not yet a part of our field. I suggest that we have not taken this step because the author as an operative category in the study of early Christianity is, in fact, much larger than the author that once inhabited literary studies. The author in our field is almost always also two other things: a father and a holy man.

To think of the authors we study as “fathers” is to acknowledge the influence of previous generations of scholars who have worked with the same materials we use and the disciplines they founded. As Elizabeth Clark’s recent work has pointed out, “the fathers” have a history; long the object of study in Catholic and Anglican traditions under the field named “patristics,” the early Christian writers were brought into the curriculum of Protestant seminaries in North America in the nineteenth century as part of “early church history.”

The idea that the authors we study are fathers also poses a relationship that claims us, whether we know the history of the discipline or not: it makes us theirs and it make them ours. If an author is a father, then we are children who can be judged by our esteem for and fidelity to him. His being a father legitimizes us, that is to say, our scholarship. If an author is a father, then the first question that matters is his relationship to us, meaning, his relationship to the present. Questions about his significance to his own time fall to the side. In this way, if an author is a father, then a minor figure from late antiquity — say, a regional teacher who comes to Christianity later in life and leads a minority congregation of Christians in a small town — can be major to us, his works worthy of entire books, journals and conferences dedicated only to him. The author as father is a different evidentiary creation than the author alone: his works are preserved because he is a father, and he is a father because so much of his work is preserved.

In addition to being fathers, the authors we study are also “holy men.” I mean that the authors archivists tended to preserve and to represent were concerned with holy topics. They are not usually Christians who happen to be mathematicians, or politicians, or natural scientists. There are many, many treatises surviving from late ancient Christians on the soul, or on the Holy Spirit, or on prayer; there are fewer on categories, on logic, or on physics, though it is clear that writers who were Christian thought about such topics. This feature — one selection in the informal process that produced the collection of evidence about early Christianity — gives us a false view of the past, as it suggests that religious concerns were the only concerns of the people we study. They were holy men, the archive says, so why would they write or think about other topics?

This false view can produce rather strange illusions in scholarship. Illusion One: doubled authors. There must be two third-century authors named Origen from Alexandria, lest we think of a single person both receiving a traditional education alongside non-Christians and writing treatises on prayer. There must be two poets in fifth-century Panopolis — one who recounts the life and times of Dionysius, another who paraphrases the Gospel of John — lest a single person display both a substantial interest in Christian theology and a deep knowledge of the god of wine.

Our skewed view of the past suggests that religious concerns were the only concerns of the people we study. They were holy men, the archive says, so why would they write or think about other topics?

Illusion Two: truncated output. It must be the case that Augustine (long a successful teacher of rhetoric and composition) only began writing his own works when he retreated to Cassiaciacum; before he became interested in Christianity, he did not write a thing. The author as holy man is, too, a different evidentiary creation than the author alone: his works are preserved because and only if they treat holy topics, while he is holy because we have the proof of his exclusive focus on holy topics.

Such considerations, created by the informal process of selection and curation, make the author of Christian late antiquity a more robust and lasting structure than the author of literary studies, but so do the research and writing practices we continue to use. Let me offer two observations about how we accommodate ourselves to the author-centered archive. First, there is a visible tendency to contain a research project’s inquiry to a single author. There are definite advantages to an author-bounded project, the biggest being that it has bounds. If you are doing a dissertation or a book on Prudentius, you are unlikely to waste six months of unproductive research investigating fourth-century shipping routes (I think).

Or, even if the project is not organized according to an author, the chapters often are. How many times do you start to read a book about a topic, say, basket making in late antiquity, only to see that it is not an organically-unfolding argument about basket making, but in fact, a collection of author-bounded chapters: an introduction, then Chapter One: basket making in Origen; Chapter Two: basketmaking in Athanasius; Chapter Three: basket making in John Chrysostom, and a final chapter on basket making in Augustine? Our structures of doing research and our results cluster around the author. It serves us, but that clustering also creates a deficit of attention: an inability to see things that are not represented by or through an author.

The archive we have inherited even influences our own estimations of the reach of our research. Here I am speaking of the titles that we give to our work that claim a whole subject as our topic when our evidence is limited to a single author. We say “Antioch” when we mean “John Chrysostom”; we say “north African Christianity” when we mean “Augustine”; we say “Hellenism” or “Syrian asceticism” when we mean “Theodoret.”

I am not blameless here. I could point out paragraph after paragraph in my own work in which I have used this sleight of hand. My topic sentences often say “late ancient Christians” when my evidence is “Evagrius of Pontus” or “Jacob of Edessa.” By the time I’ve transitioned to the next paragraph, I’ve usually returned to the very high-altitude statements about late ancient Christians. Of course, historians have to generalize from discrete evidence; tracing trajectories from a few points is what we do. But, doing it often and by habit hides the scaffolding of our work, which rests ultimately on the idea of the author.

There are many exceptions to the situation I am describing: research projects that avoid the pitfalls of the author-centered system, or that successfully determine their own interest and categories of research without centering the author. But for every Christ Circumcised or The Corporeal Imagination there are multiple works on such-and-such an author, taken as independently important because he is an author, a father, a holy man. And thus we are socialized to think that we have grasped something about Christianity in late antiquity when what we truly know are the contents of the archive. By allowing the archive this unspoken authority, we elide the fact that the very large majority of late ancient Christians are entirely invisible to us. By allowing the archive this authority, we also subtly shape our field, in that it comes to seem natural, even inevitable that we are almost always talking about elite powerful men from antiquity when we say “late ancient Christians.”

Like other fields with limited archives, the fact that we cannot see or visualize most of the past should worry us. It should stay at the front of our minds. We could keep it there if, say, for a year — 2016 — we all write in a certain format: substituting “the Christian writers whose works were selected and curated by intervening historical actors and thus survive in the literary record” for every time we want to write “late ancient Christians.” Such a workaround is clunky. It’s not even really a workaround — it’s just work. But being explicit about what we have can remind us precisely of where we are: not on the receiving end of an archive of early Christianity, but rather on the receiving end of an archive of early Christian authors.