Author Archives: laparvis

The Third British Patristics Conference 1-3 September

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While New Testament scholars have been gathering in Bangor, a very successful Third British Patristics Conference has been taking place in Durham. Edinburgh and Cambridge held the first and second, in 2005 and 2009 respectively. The next two are planned for the University of Exeter in 2012, and King’s College, London in 2013 or 14, depending on the demand. In the interim (August 8-12 2011), the XVIth International Patristics conference will meet at Oxford.

The ‘Patristic Olympics’, as it is popularly known, meets every four years, always in Oxford, and attracts scholars from all over the world. The numbers are capped at about 800, and fill up well in advance. It is exhilerating to see so many Patristic scholars in one place (many in beards, dog collars or religious habits), and to hear Evagrius Ponticus or Gregory Nazianzen discussed in every pub and tea-shop in the city, but it’s far too big a conference to keep abreast of all the topics in which one is interested- all you can do is pick a series of papers that look attractive from the twelve parallel sessions of 18-minute papers each morning, and hope you get a low percentage of duds. (In that regard, it’s not unlike seeing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

The British Patristics Conference, meanwhile, gets about 60-80 attending. You lose the adrenalin rush of seeing hundreds of patrists of every nation scampering off to the different offerings every twenty minutes, but the compensation is the sense of community which is now clearly emerging at the Britain-wide conference.

The main emphasis of the papers, as at Oxford, is on fourth and fifth-century topics, but the second and third centuries continue to have their afficionados. A couple of papers by former and current Edinburgh students I might mention here as of particular interest to New Testament scholars. Sebastian Moll, of the University of Mainz, presented his work dismantling Harnack’s portrait of Marcion. (We’ll ask Sebastian to write something on this here in due course.) Scott Manor, a third-year PhD student here, meanwhile presented a paper arguing that Epiphanius’ Alogi (a group beloved of scholars who want to argue that John’s gospel was a disputed text right up to the end of the second century and beyond) never existed.

Technical terms in early Christian texts 1: episcopos

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Helen’s comments on the reality behind the term ‘sanhedrin’ can be extended to a lot of early Christian terms as well. Early Christian historiography is dogged by the tendency of later historians, both ancient and modern, to read later well-established technical meanings of words into the use of those words in early Christian texts which were written long before the words acquired their later precision.

I want to write separately at some point on the terms ‘martus’ , ‘marturion’ and ‘marturia’ , and the process whereby they acquire their later technical meanings. But many organisational terms also come into this category. When does an ‘episcopos’ become something every city-based Christian community would expect to have, and have only one of? What exactly does the office encompass at different points? What, precisely, is an ecclesiastical kleros when it first emerges? And when does a ‘presbuteros’ change from a lay office into a clerical one?

These terms existed as both technical and general terms before Christianity, with often a range of meanings. ‘Episcopos’ in ordinary Greek means ‘overseer’ or ‘watcher’, but also ‘guardian’. It is used for various organisational offices, but also for the guardian gods of a city. Its ordinary range of meaning would cover security guards on a ship, the officers of fair trading at a market, or the older woman who acts as chaperone over a young couple. What is watched over can be property, people’s welfare, or their behaviour. Built into the term is the implication that the guarding from harm being provided might be welcome or unwelcome to those who receive it.

How do we tell which of these meanings sprang first to mind to the readers of Philippians 1.1, Acts 20.28, 1 Clement or the letters of Ignatius? Are we talking of a recognised quasi-legal office or a charismatic one? Is the episcopos the good steward who looks after his master’s goods and makes sure there is food on the table of his fellow-servants, in other words the purse-holder? Or the warden who looks after their morals? Is he their protector in the face of outside threats? Or the refuge of those in distress? How does he fit in with the other charismatic leaders and office-bearers (apostles, prophets, teachers, elders, deacons) referred to in the same or contemporary texts?

And could he ever have been a she?

Patristics and Christian Origins

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[Sara Parvis writes]  A few thoughts on the interface between New Testament studies and Patristics. 

All of us in CSCO are (perhaps more by accident than by design, perhaps not) historians. We love poking around in the details of early Christianity. Where, when and by whom (and on what) were texts written and read, copied and circulated, stored or thrown away? Who met whom, what fights did they have, and what did their Christianity mean to them? How fast did Christianity grow, whom did it attract, how was it organised? How seriously was it taken in wider Late Antique society? And what did its early leaders think they were doing?

For Patrists, at least, such historical questions quickly begin to include also theological ones. You can’t really study Christian origins without having at least a view on where you expect to end up, even if you are prepared to be proved wrong by the evidence. That key question, for example: was there an ‘orthodox’ Christianity before Constantine?

There are at least two ways of answering ‘yes’ to that question (I’ll leave it to others to consider how many ways there are of answering ‘no’). One is to say that it was always clear what Christians should rightly teach about Christ. The task is then to scrutinise all the evidence (writings, frescoes, tombstones etc.), congratulate all those who have come up with the right answers, patronise those who were nearly right but were over-optimistic about the Second Coming or something, and excoriate everyone else.

The other way of saying yes is to say that it was not always entirely clear at the time what should rightly be taught- that the broad outlines became clear fairly quickly in the light of the Resurrection, but that the implications continued to be fought out over a long period of time, with certain positions now and then being ruled out of order by the worldwide community as partial or not compatible with what earlier generations of Christians had collectively taught and believed.

Of course, historians will want to answer that history is messier than that- that chaos and diversity were the order of the day in the period before Constantine. Others will point out that history is written by the winners, and whether we think they stamped out all traces of alternative views or that the latter simply withered for lack of elite, literate sponsorship, the ‘orthodoxy’ peddled by the likes of Irenaeus was a minority view that it suited the state-sponsored bishops of the fourth century to endorse.

If we might define Patrists, very broadly, as those who believe that the post-New Testament church did come to some important conclusions about the nature of orthodoxy, and that we are here to teach and argue over what those conclusions actually were, it has often been the New Testament scholars who remind us just how perilous this enterprise usually is.