Q&A with Scott Fitzgerald Johnson

We are pleased to share the following interview with Scott Fitzgerald Johnson. Johnson is the author or coauthor of several works on late antiquity and the cult of saints including the newly released Miracle Tales from Byzantium. This volume, which is part of the recently launched Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, includes Johnson’s English translation of the fifth-century Miracles of Saint Thekla (alongside two Byzantine miracle collections translated by Dr. Alice-Mary Talbot). He is also the author of The Life and Miracles of Thekla, A Literary Study published by CHS and available in print via HUP. This busy scholar recently took the time to speak with us about his research, the relationship between ancient Greek hero cult and the early Christian cult of saints, and the “less acknowledged trends in Late Antiquity.”
miracle tales cover CHS: You’ve now published two works dealing with Thekla. Who is this saint and what drew you to study and translate the literature associated with her cult?
SFJ: Thekla is a legendary female companion of St. Paul during his travels in Asia Minor (50s CE). I say legendary because there is no contemporary historical evidence for her life. Her fame arose during the late second century, as shown by a famous piece of Christian apocrypha called the Acts of Paul and Thekla (c.180 CE).
The fifth-century Life and Miracles of Thekla rewrites this original Acts of Paul and Thekla into a high Greek style and adds a new text of forty-six miracles contemporary to the fifth-century that Thekla worked posthumously. I was attracted to this work because it encapsulates to me what was happening to literature in eastern Late Antiquity: Greek writers were looking back for inspiration to classical and early Christian models, but were also engaging new forms of literature like the saint’s life and the miracle collection. It was for me the best of both worlds, classical/early Christian and late antique/Byzantine.
My translation of the Miracles half of this text is available in the new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series (the “medieval Loeb”). I worked with Alice-Mary Talbot, former director of Byzantine studies at Dumbarton Oaks, who translated two later miracle collections (Pege and Gregory Palamas). All three translations (with accompanying Greek text) appear together in Miracle Tales from Byzantium.
Thekla coverCHS: Your Life and Miracles of Thekla, A Literary Study offers readers both literary history and literary analysis of the tales related to this saint. Why was it important to combine these approaches?
SFJ: The literary analysis was fundamental to the literary history: chapters 1 and 3 are analysis, which set the stage for chapters 2 and 4, which are literary history. As I always tell my students, the most important first step is to explain “how the text works”, and only then can you begin to place it in relation to a larger history of literature. Synchrony precedes diachrony, though both should ideally be done together. I was very interested in the two genres represented by the two halves of the text — the metaphrasis or literary paraphrase, and the miracle collection — so after explaining the work itself, I looked at other texts before and after that connected to these genres. For the metaphrasis I looked at Homeric and biblical paraphrases, and for the miracle collection I looked at late classical miscellanies and paradoxography, the collection of natural wonders and portents. Further, I wanted the combination of literary analysis and literary history to show two things: 1. that late antique Greek literature is an exciting field of study, with many new things to discover; and 2. that there is an important continuity between the classical, early Christian, and late antique worlds that is often unknown or undervalued by scholars.
CHS: In your fourth chapter titled “Greek Wonders,” you argue that scholars seeing cultural continuity between the ancient and early Christian traditions “confuse the form and content” of Christian miracle collections. What do you mean by that?
SFJ: Picking up on my last answer, I would say that, while the Mediterranean shift from classical paganism (or even second-temple Judaism) to Christianity, had enormous implications for society, culture, and the arts, the Christian authors did not simply throw away the literary forms that were used in earlier periods. The use and reuse of classical genres was a widespread phenomenon by late antique Christians, Jews, and pagans alike. This is not a surprise when one considers that classical education — particularly the Roman version of Greek education, which we known in some detail from Egyptian school papyri — continued right through Late Antiquity and Byzantium. Of course, there were new genres too. The canonical gospels themselves proved to be a very compelling form for later authors, and one which has no direct parallel in the classical world. Saints Lives, which were so dominant in the literary history of Byzantium, arose out of a combination of the canonical gospel, the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, the Greek novel, and the classical biography. From a literary historical point of view, saints’ Lives are complex texts.
CHS: Many works by CHS Director Gregory Nagy deal with ancient Greek hero cult, but your text deals with the cult of saints. How would you describe the relationship between these two traditions? How do the signs of heroes relate to the wonders and miracles of saints? One detail you discuss in your book is the alternative story to Thekla’s death in which she doesn’t die but sinks into the ground. In Best of the Achaeans, Nagy argues that being engulfed by the Earth is one method of immortalization for heroes. (10§41) You note a few other parallels in your book. Can you elaborate on the use of this theme in an early Christian context? Is this another case where we need to be cautious in seeing continuity between traditions?
SFJ: A complete analysis of the re-purposing of the cult of heroes in the Christian world is truly a Holy Grail for my field. No one has done this at a comprehensive level. Peter Brown’s deceptively slim book The Cult of the Saints (Chicago, 1981) is probably the closest, but even that mainly deals with the Latin West. Most studies (like mine) are confined to a single saint.
The phenomenon of being engulfed into the earth as a kind of apotheosis for the hero/saint is a topic I did not address at length in the book. I believe I said “I hope to write something on this elsewhere”… In an article that has just appeared in Dumbarton Oaks Papers (vol. 64, 2010), I was finally able to say what I intended to say on this idea. The article is called “Apostolic Geography: The Rise and Continuity of a Hagiographic Habit.”
In sum, the fifth-century version of Thekla is by no means the first Christian saint to make use of this literary device: the infant John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth miraculously disappear into a rocky mountain in the very early Protoevangelion of James (probably the most unique text of the early Christian apocrypha). I try to connect these Christian disappearances to similar classical scenes, such as Oedipus at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, but I also try to connect it to the larger (cognitive? imperial?) process of claiming certain territory for a given hero/saint. In particular, I argue that the tradition of lot casting for claiming territory — which is present in Homer and throughout the Old Testament — is an important literary precedent that gets fused in Late Antiquity with the image of the hero being swallowed up by the earth. The classic Christian scene is at the end of Acts 1, where the apostles cast lots for the vacant place of Judas Iscariot among the twelve.
CHS: You also study geography and travel literature in late antiquity. How does this relate to the cult of saints? What are you working on now?
SFJ: The general lines of inquiry are apparent in the DOP article, but I hope to try to explain in greater detail how multiple ways of viewing geography are available to late antique authors, in Greek, Latin, and Syriac alike. This is, after all, the age in which Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land first appears (333 CE), seemingly out of no where. Connected is the imperial monumentalization of Jerusalem, which derives from Constantine’s mother Helena’s visit to the Holy Land in c.327 and continues right up to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. I am interested in this refocusing on Jerusalem, yet alongside the continuity (again) of classical forms of expression, despite the very different nature of the religious content. New wine in old bottles.
In parallel to this work I am writing a book on the role of Greek among eastern Christians for whom Greek may not have been their mother tongue. It is a cultural history of Greek as a lingua franca in the eastern Roman empire. This is both daunting and exciting because is requires direct interaction with a host of languages and literatures I was not originally trained to work with. But I really feel this is where late antique studies is going in the future. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool classicist, I can admit that some of the most interesting things in late antique literature are happening on the fringes of the traditional Greco-Roman world. As much as possible, I hope to encourage young classicists to learn languages like Syriac and Coptic and make that a part of their research. Eventually it won’t be optional anymore.
And finally, a big book I edited, the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, will be out this summer. This takes some of the less acknowledged trends in Late Antiquity and puts them at the forefront: the broadened geographical and chronological scope, the engagement with multiple eastern Christian languages, and new models of economy and society. I feel very proud of this book and the hard work our contributors put into it. I hope it will be an important step forward for the field.
Scott Fitzgerald Johnson is currently the Dumbarton Oaks Teaching Fellow in Postclassical Greek at Georgetown University. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Early Christianity, Catholic University of America. He is also on the Editorial Board for Publications at our own Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. His research interests include, Byzantine literary history, late antique and Byzantine history of science/intellectual history, medieval encyclopedism, travel, pilgrimage, cartography, and Syriac language and literature. Scott’s publications also include the collected volume Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism. You can find a complete list of his research here.