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.

Introduction. Theodoret and the Fifth Century

Earth and sea are freed from their ancient ignorance; the error of idols is no longer to be seen; the darkness of ignorance has been dispersed, and the light of knowledge fills with its rays the whole inhabited world. Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians recognize the divinity of the crucified and venerate the sign of the cross. The Trinity is worshipped in place of a multitude of false gods. [1]

Therapeutikê 6.87

Theodoret chose to describe his times in terms that expressed more his aspirations than contemporary reality. However, the defining features of fifth-century society under the Byzantine Empire were transition and transformation. While the bulk of this book will focus on specific topics, the stage needs to be set with the discussion of a range of contextual issues: the state of Christianity at the time, the state of paganism, and the issues surrounding Hellenic culture’s most exalted good, paideia, and its relationship with late Roman elites.


Challenges …

How much distance Christianity had still to travel in the fifth century can also be seen in the world of education, as vividly conjured in the Life of Severus by Zacharias of Mytilênê from the 480s. [29] His account offers glimpses of students in Alexandria and Beirut, eagerly devoted to Hellenic paganism. [30] It has been called a “vigorous agitated academic world that was cut off neither from the provinces {17|18} from which its members originated, nor from the major cities that received them.” [31] In the midst of such a climate of religious antagonism and debate, Zacharias’ protagonist Severus is presented in his preparation for becoming a Christian as feeling the lure of pagan literature. He is therefore counseled “to set the orations of Basil and Gregory, the illustrious bishops, in opposition to the orations of Libanius the Sophist, by whom, with the ancient rhetoricians, he was dazzled.” [32] While the reader is left with no doubt as to who finally wins Severus’ heart, his biographer later mentions that Severus “still needed to read even more of the orations of the rhetoricians and philosophers, because the pagans even now excessively consider themselves superior and glorify themselves in these studies, and they should be freely debated from these writings.” [33] Describing the readings of Christian students on Sundays, Zacharias writes:

Erôtapokriseis: Ps.-Justin’s Quaestiones et responsiones ad orthodoxos

Hellenism = Paganism?

If Theodoret inveighs against this religious aspect of Hellenism (viz. paganism) in his work, he nevertheless considered other aspects too important to be rejected. By exploiting what common ground existed (as well as what ground could be seen to exist) between Hellenic literary culture and philosophy and Christianity, he sought to redefine the way his readers related to a corpus of classical texts and ideas. To accomplish this—and to help his readers across what was made to look like a firm divide—Theodoret incorporated a broad array of Greek texts in a manner integral to his apologetics. In the same vein he elucidated the title of the work Therapeutikê of Hellenic Maladies by adding: “Proof-recognition (epignôsis) of the Gospel from Greek philosophy.” These strategies reiterate an idea found in earlier apologists that paganism may have been based on misguided thinking. In the process of refuting this thinking, apologists could {23|24} highlight intimations of Christian truth, which helped to confirm the correctness of their theology. Theodoret’s entire apologetic enterprise, then, could be regarded by readers, not only as a refutation of paganism, but as both a justification and a guideline for the Christian use of classical texts.

There were other areas too, where the appeal of Hellenic paganism found expression, particularly biography and historiography. Biography ensured that models of pagan piety remained highly visible and that the bearers of the true Hellenic paideia were properly praised. Biographies of the time abounded in miracles, signs, and oracles and such practices as fasting, sexual abstinence, miraculous healing, and divinatory practices, [64] but also in covert polemic against Christianity. [65] In line with predecessors Porphyry (Life of Plotinus, Life of Pythagoras) and Iamblichus (Life of Pythagoras), Eunapius, composing portraits of holy men in the later fourth century, advertised the spiritual values of a community threatened by the rise of Christianity; [66] Marinus (Life of Proclus) in the fifth century and Damascius (Life of Isidore) in the sixth century continued this tradition. Philosophers were presented as accomplished religious figures who, having progressed in a graded system of virtues through their discipline and piety, had achieved a divine status. The underlying values of these philosophers were oriented toward a union with God. Collectively, the real heroes of these biographies were Hellenic education and religion. Despite the bleak view these authors took of the fate of the ideals they propounded, their texts also carried a very potent message: divine power still abides in the people who choose to adhere to the time-honored religious traditions of Hellenism and to the ideals that it fosters. At the same time, the histories of Eunapius and Zosimus (the {24|25} former only partially preserved in the latter) were motivated by the view that the abandonment of time-honored religious practices and traditions would bring about the decline of the Empire. [67]

Hellenism and Christianity

The complex interplay between these two traditions in the work of Theodoret was inevitable given his family background, education, his vocation. Theodoret realized, as did many a classically educated bishop, that he could neither fully concede the elite’s belief in paideia as the locus of highest worth nor entirely shake free of it.

Paideia and the formation of elites

Following the efforts of numerous Christian authors in the preceding generations, the fourth and fifth centuries saw Christianity consolidating its position {26|27} as a pervasive element in Roman elite culture. This period was thus crucial for the formation and maintenance of Christian elites. [74] Theodoret’s focus on the formation of a Christian paideia bears directly upon this process, as Christian elites sought to maintain and redefine their place within late Roman society and its traditions. [75] Classical paideia was tied to social esteem, and it conferred status on its holders. In the absence of a Christian educational system, young men had to acquire an education through the study of Homer and other pagan authors. This meant that they had to immerse themselves in pagan literary and religious values, as Robert Kaster explains:

As the evidence suggests, the Christianization of the empire during Theodoret’s time was still very much in progress. In the context of continuous fluidity, there remained a continual need for new syntheses and responses. As {28|29} the rest of this study will illustrate, the methods Theodoret uses to articulate his apologetic enterprise have yet to be fully understood in light of the above considerations. While an exhaustive study is too large in scope to address here, the subsequent chapters will highlight cumulatively the following interlocking key themes.

Chapter One surveys the notion of therapeia and its role in the apology. Drawing on a number of texts it will show how medical/philosophical notions are employed in the refutation of pagan polemic and how Greco-Roman theories of the role of the emotions provide a framework for persuading Theodoret’s readers.

Chapter Two considers the polemic against the conceptualization of Greek gods and other intermediaries (angels, heroes, daemons) and how Theodoret replaces them with angels. A major part of Theodoret’s polemical intent is to cast pagan Gods and intermediaries into the category of demons. The role of demons in divination and sacrifice requires Theodoret to engage both aspects of Greek religion.

Chapter Three focuses on the cult of martyrs. It examines the criticisms underlying Theodoret’s defense of the cult and how this is played against the background of the hero cult.

Chapter Four examines the presentation of Christianity as a practical universal philosophy. It shows how Greek philosophy is used to articulate a contrast between Christianity and paganism. This contrast also informs the opposition of local versus universal and that of Greek philosophers and the true philosophers, the Christian ascetics.

Finally, Chapter Five is a study of Theodoret’s rhetoric, style, and argumentation and their integral role in the articulation of his apologetic program. Particular attention is given to the literary form of dialexis and its significance for the format of the Therapeutikê. In light of the surrounding literary activity, this chapter also advances a new suggestion for the intended role of the work.

The following analyses will enable us to see Theodoret as a creative apologist—not just adding a new inflection to old themes but creating his own unique perspective—by closely examining the polemical literary context that shaped his views and the emergence of ideas born from his experience contending with pagan criticism. {29|}


[ back ] 1. Translations of Theodoret’s Therapeutikê are from a draft translation by Thomas Halton, often with my own adaptations.

[ back ] 2. For the full dossier, see Trombley 1993–1994(I):1–97.

[ back ] 3. Rordorf 1962.

[ back ] 4. Elsner 1998.

[ back ] 5. On asceticism and the developments that took place, see Brown 1998:601–634 and Rousseau 1998:745–780.

[ back ] 6. Caseau 1999:21–59; Bitton-Ashkelony 2005; Elsner and Rutherford 2005.

[ back ] 7. Leppin 2004:59–81; Caseau 2011:111–134. By using the term paganism I am aware of the fact that the term lumps into one category an array of practices and beliefs of various religious systems. I am not assuming, however, a unitary category or understanding of paganism. Despite its pejorative connotations the term has recognizability and is still useful if employed with an awareness of its shortcomings. See the most recent discussion by North 2005:125–143 and Van Nuffelen 2011:89–109; for a defense of the term, see Cameron 2011:14–32. For arguments for the use of the term ‘polytheism’ instead, see Fowden 2005:521–522.

[ back ] 8. Saffrey 1992:35–50.

[ back ] 9. Hadot 1987:13–34.

[ back ] 10. Edwards 2006.

[ back ] 11. Buffière 1956:392–558; Brisson 2004.

[ back ] 12. Morlet 2011b; Levieils 2007.

[ back ] 13. Sallustius Concerning the Gods and the Universe, ed. Nock 1926. Melsbach 2007.

[ back ] 14. Fowden 1999:82–106 at 86.

[ back ] 15. Fowden 1998: “there were long-term resistances offered by educated elites concerned with the preservation of something less tangible, a tradition of thought and personal conduct as well as of cult” (555). Caseau 2004:105–144, esp. 137: “The issue of pagan temples and of pagan practices should not be confused.” On the destruction of temples, see Hahn 2011, Lavan 2011:15–65. and Saradi 2011:263–309.

[ back ] 16. North 2005:137. North continues by rightly observing that “[t]he conception of the history of pagan-ism … is that the crucial factor is not some internal change or transformation, still less an evolution according to some pre-determined process, but rather the necessary effects of confrontation and co-existence with the new types of religious groups, Jewish, Christian, and others, with which pagans in all the cities of the empire had to deal from the first century onwards. The effect was to create a self-consciousness about their own position and a need to define and justify themselves, which had simply not existed before, when there were no alternative systems against which they had to measure themselves. It is in this context that they themselves have to produce a doctrine and an identity, and it is their response that justifies the use of the word ‘pagan-ism’. It is not necessary for this view that there should have been much, if any, violent conflict between pagans and others; what we have to believe is that there was a steady drift of pagans away from their traditional attachments and a great deal of peaceful co-existence and discussion; but that the survival of pagan practice depended on their success in retaining numbers, generation by generation. It remains, of course, a serious question why pagans did so drift away from traditional attachments.” See also Van Nuffelen 2011:89–109.

[ back ] 17. Some examples of these approaches are De Labriolle 1934, Momigliano 1963, and recently Siniossoglou 2008 and Schäfer 2008. For a critique of the “conflict” model, see Lizzi Testa 2009 and Brown 2009:277–285. Cameron 2011 has delivered the coup de grâce.

[ back ] 18. Saffrey 2008:489–511.

[ back ] 19. The nature and extent of the work have been the subject of prolonged and intense debate among scholars. Its very existence as an independent work has been doubted by Beatrice 1994:221–235, but forcefully argued by Goulet 2004:61–109. For several attempts to reconstruct the work by collecting (and discussing) the fragments, see Berchman 2005, Ramos Jurado et al. 2006, and Muscolino 2009. For a recent discussion of the nature of the work, see Edwards 2007a:111–126 and Morlet 2011b:11–49.

[ back ] 20. Sarefield 2006:287–296; Herrin 2008:205–222.

[ back ] 21. Against the Galileans, ed. Masaracchia 1990.

[ back ] 22. Bouffartigue 2007:25–38.

[ back ] 23. On this see Chapter Five. See also Elm 2003:493–515.

[ back ] 24. Wilken 2000:70–84, esp. 81.

[ back ] 25. Macarios de Magnésie. Monogénès, ed. Goulet 2003.

[ back ] 26. Isidore Lettres, ed. Evieux 1997. Isidore, in a letter to Olympiodorus, conjures up pagan reactions thus: “θαυμάζω, ὅπως οὐ μόνον οἱ παιδεύσεως ἄμοιροι τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἐπαγγελόμενοι, καὶ οἱ ἐπὶ εὐγλωττίᾳ ἐναβρυνόμενοι, ἐπὶ διαλεκτικῇ τε αὐχοῦντες, καὶ συλλογισμοῖς ἐπερειδόμενοι, καὶ τὰς μὲν ἐναντιώσεις τῶν λογισμῶν ὁρῶντες, τὰς δὲ τῶν πραγμάτων μὴ καθορῶντες, οὐκ αἰσθάνονται, δι’ὧν τὸ κήρυγμα τὸ θεῖον κατατοξεύουσι, διὰ τούτων μᾶλλον ἑαυτοὺς καταισχύνοντες. Φέρει γάρ τινα φιλοτιμίαν τοῖς κεκρατημένοις, ἡ τῶν κεκρατηκότων ὑπεροχή, Αὐτοὶ δὲ φάσκουσι νεκρὸν τὸν Ἰησοῦν, ἵνα νεκροῦ ἀποφανθῇ τῶν παρ’αὐτοῖς θεῶν ὁ δῆμος ἀδρανέστερος. Κωμῳδοῦσι τὸν σταυρὸν, ἵνα κωμῳδηθῶσι σφοδρότερον, ἀτίμως πεπορθημένοι καὶ νενικημένοι σταυρῷ. Σκώπτουσι τὴν τῶν ἀποστόλων ἀμαθίαν, ἵνα λαμπρότερον οἱ θρυλλούμενοι παρ’αὐτῶν στηλιτευθῶσι σοφοί, ἰδιωτῶν ἀνδρῶν διδασκαλία ἡττηθέντες. Τὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ προσκυνούμενον χλευάζουσι τάφον, ἵν’ οἱ παρ’αὐτοῖς περιφανεῖς ναοί, γέλωτα ὀφλείωσι μείζονα, χλευαζομένῳ παραχωρήσαντες τάφῳ. Παντὸς ἐπιλαμβάνονται ὡς εὐτελοῦς τοῦ κηρύγματος, ἵνα τὰ παρ’αὐτοῖς περιφανῆ πλέον ὀφθῇ καταγελαστότερα, τῇ τῶν εὐτελῶν ὑποκύψαντα φύσει” (Ep. 27, PG 78:1080). See also the study by Evieux 1995.

[ back ] 27. Zacharias of Mytilênê Life of Severus, ed. Kugener 1907; rev. edition, Turnhout 1971:207–264. The Greek text has been lost but is preserved in Syriac and has been translated into French and, partially, into English by Young 1990:312–328. For a full more recent translation, see now Zacharias Bishop of Mytilênê The Life of Severus, ed. Ambjörn 2008.

[ back ] 28. For the caution with which Nilus’ correspondence (still not available in a critical edition) should be approached, see Cameron 1976:181–196.

[ back ] 29. Probably retouched by Zacharias in Constantinople in the years between 510 and 520 according to Watts 2005:437–464, esp. 439.

[ back ] 30. Discussed by Chuvin 1991:108–117, Trombley 1993–1994(II):1–51, Hall 2004:192–217, and Watts 2005:437–464.

[ back ] 31. Chuvin 1991:105; Nesselrath 2006:179–192; Poggi 1986:57–71; Watts 2010:123–154 For the activities of sophists, grammarians, and teachers and a prosopography, see Szabat 2007:177–345. For a more skeptical approach to the claims of these texts and an emphasis on the caution with which these accounts must be read, see now Chuvin 2004:15–31.

[ back ] 32. Zacharias of Mytilênê Life of Severus 317.

[ back ] 33. Zacharias of Mytilênê Life of Severus 319.

[ back ] 34. Trombley 1993–1994(II):32.

[ back ] 35. See the section on Theodoret’s reception, Zacharias Ammonius, ed. Minniti Colonna 1973:112n34.

[ back ] 36. Passage in Trombley 1993–1994(II):5.

[ back ] 37. This will be discussed more fully in Chapter Five.

[ back ] 38. Brown 2003:46.

[ back ] 39. Lizzi Testa 2010:77–113.

[ back ] 40. Brown 1998a:617.

[ back ] 41. Drake 2005:4. Fowden 1998 writes: “in communities but recently thrown into disarray by attacks on their sanctuaries, and in individuals too, conversion might be a purely external conformity, an either more or less self-conscious cryptopolytheism from which stress easily provoked return to old, well-tried gods” (557). On the problem of apostasy from Christianity, see now Schöllgen 2004:58–80.

[ back ] 42. On coercion and conflict, see Brown 1998a:632–664 and Gaddis 2005.

[ back ] 43. Libanius Orations 30.28, trans. A. F. Norman. For a discussion of the context, see Trombley 1993–1994(II):134–204.

[ back ] 44. Markus 1990:32.

[ back ] 45. Scourfield 2007:4; Sandwell 2010:523–542. For a questioning of the pagan vs. Christian divide and a nuanced model of assessing pagan and Christian investment in religion, see Cameron 2011:175–177.

[ back ] 46. For a nuanced discussion, see Brown 2004:103–117. For a recent reappraisal of conversion, see Mills and Grafton 2003.

[ back ] 47. Soler 2010:281–291.

[ back ] 48. While the issue of its dating is not settled yet and while, as a compilation, the QRO may contain materials from both an earlier and a later period, what is not in doubt is that the central core of the collection is from the fifth century.

[ back ] 49. On the authorship, see Harnack 1901:33–44; Funk 1907(III):323–350. Recently, Riedweg 1998:848–873, esp. 868–869. For the purposes of this study I use the edition of Papadopoulos-Kerameus 1895, reprinted 1976, Leipzig. All translations of the QRO are my own.

[ back ] 50. Dagron 1981: “Le ps.-Justin des Quaestiones ad orthodoxos, qui est peut-être Théodoret de Cyr lui même, en toute cas l’un des ses contemporaines; Il nous place, comme les vies du Ve siècle, au carrefour de deux mondes, entre un paganisme qui n’est plus un rival, mais une composante culturelle encore mal assimilée, et une fois nouvelle qui explore un autre coprus de textes et a découvert la voie parallèle d’une histoire vétérotestamentaire” (144).

[ back ] 51. On the problem and challenge, see Piepenbrink 2005 and Sandwell 2007; Gemeinhardt 2008:453–476.

[ back ] 52. See for further details Papadoyannakis 2008:115–127.

[ back ] 53. Papadoyannakis 2006:91–105.

[ back ] 54. Millar 2004:1–24, esp. 15–16.

[ back ] 55. Wilken 1983; Soler 2006; Sandwell 2007.

[ back ] 56. On this, see Guinot 1997:153–178; McCollough 1984 and 1989(II):157–174.

[ back ] 57. See Ep. 81, ed. Azema, where Theodoret refers to eight villages of Marcionites, one village of Eunomians, and one village of Arians. Also Hutter 2002:287–294. For Marcionites, see Tardieu 1997–1998:596–605.

[ back ] 58. See Chapter Five. See also Dignas 2007:223–255.

[ back ] 59. See Chapter Three.

[ back ] 60. Whitmarsh 2001: “Greek cultural identity, at least in the highly energized world of elite literary production, was manipulated strategically in order to serve the interests of the speaker or the writer. Each literary articulation of Greekness, then, needs to be interpreted in context, in the light of the aims and ambitions of the actor in question, and not simply taken for granted as an expression of ethnic unrest” (305). See also Konstan and Saïd 2006; Johnson 2011:165–181.

[ back ] 61. Bowersock 1990; Rapp 2008:127–147. Recently, Kaldellis 2007:120–187, though there is a tendency to overstate the conflict and overlook significant points of convergence.

[ back ] 62. Johnson 2006:55–93; Kahlos 2007:1–112; McLynn 2009:572–587; Cameron 2007:21–46; Bagnall 2008:23–41.

[ back ] 63. Breitenbach 2003.

[ back ] 64. See Goulet 1981:161–208 and 1998:217–265; Edwards 2000.

[ back ] 65. Clerc 1994:294–313; Saffrey 1975:553–563 and 1992b:421–431.

[ back ] 66. Penella 1990.

[ back ] 67. Leven 1988:177–197; Green 1974. For the historiography of this period, see Winkelmann 1998:123–159. But see recently the critique and qualifications offered by Cameron 2011:644–654, 668–678.

[ back ] 68. See Millar 2006.

[ back ] 69. See QRO Q. 16, Q. 34, Q. 55, Q. 86.

[ back ] 70. See Chapter Five. Millar 2007:105–125.

[ back ] 71. Rousseau 2008:36–37.

[ back ] 72. Sandnes 2007:124–195.

[ back ] 73. Julian summed up this supreme confidence in the intrinsic value of Greek paideia by taunting Christians thus: “But you yourselves know, it seems to me, the very different effect of your writings as compared with ours; and that from studying yours no man could attain to excellence or even to ordinary goodness, whereas from studying ours everyone would become better than before, even though he were altogether without natural fitness. But when a person is well endowed, and moreover receives the education of our literature, he becomes actually a gift of the gods to humankind, either by kindling the light of knowledge, or by founding some kind of political constitution, or by routing numbers of his country’s foes, or even by traveling far over the earth and far by the sea, and thus proving himself a person of heroic mold. Now this would be a clear proof: choose out children from among you all and train and educate them in your scriptures, and if when they come to manhood they prove they have nobler qualities than slaves, then you may believe that I am talking nonsense and am suffering from spleen. Yet you are so misguided and foolish that you regard those chronicles of yours as divinely inspired, though by their help no man could ever become wiser or braver or better than he was before; while, on the other hand, writings by whose aid men can acquire courage, wisdom and justice, these you ascribe to Satan and to those who serve Satan!” (Against the Galileans fr. 55, trans. Wright LCL). While Julian’s attitude cannot be taken as representative of all those classically educated non-Christians, it certainly had considerable resonance among the literati and highlighted the challenge that Christians had to be prepared to meet on the role of classical education in a Christian empire.

[ back ] 74. See the contributions in Rapp and Salzman 2000; also Salzman 2002.

[ back ] 75. Cameron 2004:91–107.

[ back ] 76. Kaster 1999:421–423, at 423. On paideia and education in late antiquity, see Watts 2006.

[ back ] 77. Sandnes 2009; on the varying ways in which Christians dealt with Greek myths, see recent contributions in Von Haehling 2005.

[ back ] 78. McLynn 2009:585 argues similarly.

[ back ] 79. Brown 2011:69.

[ back ] 80. Bevegni 2006:389–405.

[ back ] 81. On this literary phenomenon, see Whitby 2007:195–231, Nesselrath 2005–2006:43–53, Johnson 2006, and Nazzaro 1998:69–106.

[ back ] 82. Brown 1998:656.

[ back ] 83. Pace Leppin 1996b:212–230.

[ back ] 84. Cameron 1982:217–289 at 280.