Christianity and Hellenism in the Fifth-Century Greek East: Theodoret’s Apologetics against the Greeks in Context

  Papadogiannakis, Yannis. 2013. Christianity and Hellenism in the Fifth-Century Greek East: Theodoret's Apologetics against the Greeks in Context. Hellenic Studies Series 49. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


This book has sought to study several aspects of Theodoret’s apologetics. By showing the number of methods that Theodoret employs to engage the larger problems of his period, his dynamism and the urgency of his project have become apparent. Rather than a “stale exercise,” [1] a new assessment of Theodoret’s apologetic program has emerged. This needs to be said in view of the fact that his is, in hindsight, the last apology, which has both led to its neglect and contributed to its perception as a “scholastic” exercise with no real recipients, especially given that the empire had already become Christian at the time of writing.

Insofar as Theodoret’s apologetics are based on his vision of Christianity and its role in the Roman Empire, works such as the Therapeutikê of the Greek Maladies, the Religious History, and the Ecclesiastical History lay out an important religious, literary, and, by implication, cultural program. In exalting the role of Christianity, Theodoret frames its growth and expansion in opposition to polytheist criticisms and accusations, addressing as well its internal divisions and theological controversies. More than an eclectic compilation of ideas, however, Theodoret’s arguments should be seen as part of an ongoing debate with paganism.

The case of Theodoret’s apologetic program allows us to gauge the challenges to Christianity that crystallized mostly—but not exclusively—in what appear to be objections and criticisms echoing the more well-known polemics of Porphyry and Julian, as well as some going all the way back to Celsus. It is a testimony to the Nachleben of these polemics that by Theodoret’s time they had been sufficiently intermingled and had gained momentum, a fact that is also supported by the concern—across a number of fifth-century texts—with refuting them (Cyril of Alexandria comes to mind as one of the most prominent examples).

In this respect, Theodoret’s declaration that paganism had become extinct goes a long way towards effecting a much needed closure, despite the more complex reality and the considerable ambiguity remaining for many crucial aspects of the Christianized world. Furthermore, Theodoret attempts to normalize a set of practices (i.e. the cult of the martyrs) and to (re)structure beliefs by shaping their inferential and interpretive possibilities for his readers.

It would be too narrow an approach, though, to regard the Therapeutikê solely as an attempt to refute accusations against Christianity. Theodoret’s overriding dual concern, manifested across a number of his writings, is not only defending Christianity but also strengthening the beliefs of those already converted. In its ambition to encompass the totality of human knowledge, his writing (especially the Therapeutikê) reveals a didactic aim.

If Theodoret stands at the end of an apologetic tradition, it is also true that he looks ahead to the beginning of a new era. The changed historical circumstances wherein Christianity had become an official state religion may inform Theodoret’s awareness, but they do not lead him to overlook Christianity’s continued (and spreading) persecution in Persia, which in turn leads him to assert that Christianity is not co-extensive with the Roman Empire. To be sure, this assertion is made in response to post-Constantinian criticisms that Christianity was established and thrived due to imperial support; however, it seems to reflect Theodoret’s convictions more generally.

But there is one last factor to consider. Theodoret’s literary persona and performance illustrate both the resources of the rhetorical and philosophical tradition available to fifth-century Christianity and the versatility with which philosophical and rhetorical schooling—so skillfully displayed by Theodoret—could be applied to a debate with the Greeks. In a sense, Theodoret performs an identity that he already possessed, that of a Christian pepaideumenos. Above all, Theodoret’s Therapeutikê is an important testimony to how deftly classical Greek literature and culture became entwined in Christianity by a variety of creative re-readings and reinterpretations in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

In the end, then, Theodoret’s apologetic project is as much or more about these broader themes of Christianity and Hellenism—of identity and the classical past, of a pagan past and a Christian future, of Greek and Christian paideia—as it is about the defense of Christianity or its normalization among intellectuals and educated Christians. {143|}


[ back ] 1. Runia 1997:106, referring to Theodoret’s use of the dependency theme, writes: “It is only when we reach Theodoret that the whole theme becomes a rather stale exercise—even the brief reign of Julian was two generations ago—and the aggressive tone begins to grate.”

[ back ] 2. See, for instance, Trombley 1993–1994, Whitby 1991:111–131, Hoffmann 1987:57–83, Flusin 2010:293–306, and Caseau 2011:541–571, which show the persistence of paganism well beyond the fifth century. See also Brown 1998:632–664, who writes: “In the period from the death of Constantine in 337 to the accession of Valentinian III at Ravenna in 425, a considerable section of the population of the Roman empire, at all social levels, remained largely unaffected by the claims of the Christian church. They were impenitently polytheistic, in that the religious common sense of their age, as of all previous centuries, led them to assume a spiritual landscape rustling with invisible presences—with countless divine beings and their ethereal ministers. Exclusive loyalty to the One God of the Christians, the dismissal of all ancient gods as maleficent (if not ineffectual) demons, and a redrawing of the map of Roman society in such a way as to see the world in terms of a single, all-embracing dichotomy between Christians and non-Christians; these views were already asserted, at this time, by some Christians; they would enjoy a long future in Byzantium and the medieval west; but in the year 425, they were not yet the views of the ‘cognitive majority’ of the Roman world” (632).

[ back ] 3. Soler 2010:281–291.

[ back ] 4. Inglebert 2001: “La méthode du filtre a donc comme principale finalité de montrer comment les chrétiens procédèrent pour convertir la culture antique. Ils intégrèrent la culture classique dans une nouvelle intertextualité, celle de la Bible et des autorités chrétiennes, ce qui créait de nouvelles significations et donc une autre culture, plus par une modification de la perspective que par l’apport de nouveaux savoirs; ces derniers furent le plus souvent complémentaires que concurrents des savoirs classiques. Il y eut donc plus transformation que remplacement” (557).

[ back ] 5. Chin 2008:171.