Dialogue and Debate in Late Antiquity

Justinian and his court, mosaic / Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

By Dr. Averil Cameron / 05.05.2014
Professor of Classics
Chair, Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research
University of Oxford

If, in the words of the late Keith Hopkins, the Roman empire was a world full of gods, [1] late antiquity was a world full of talk. The known religious debates and discussions ranged from the discussions in major church councils and local synods, through public debates between Chalcedonians and Syrian Orthodox, against Manichaeans, pagans or heterodox Christians to the debating of individuals like Paul the Persian in the sixth century. Debate was the stuff of life. Witness John of Ephesus’s account of the travelling Miaphysite holy man Symeon beth Arsham, who argued against heresy and debated with “Nestorians” in the lands beyond the Roman border in the east in the reign of Anastasius and later, and became known as “Simeon the Persian debater”; so great was his debating skill that early in his career Simeon allegedly won a contest with the east Syrian catholicos Babai. [2] We are here in a context in which Aristotelian logic was more to the point than Plato, as part of what has been called “an escalating philosophical ‘arms-race.’” [3] This is an example of debate whose purpose was deadly serious, and whose techniques were greatly assisted by the scholastic formation now available in the east Syrian philosophical and theological schools. That relationship also worked in more than one direction: both east and west Syrians taught prospective debaters the tools of debate. The students of the School of Nisibis, for example, produced disputation texts against a variety of opponents—astrologers, Jews, magi, Miaphysites, and “heretics.” Literally hundreds of students, to follow Joel Walker’s account, learned Aristotelian logic in the School, and composed questions-and-answers as a preparation for writing disputations. [4] Barhadbešabba, a prominent member of the School, wrote disputes and refutations of “all religions,” the other side of which were the “defenses” or apologies which he also composed.[5]

Daniel King has recently mounted the argument that the level of logical expertise was in fact low, and challenged the picture of scholastic activity painted by Jack Tannous for the monastic center at Qenneshre, on the west bank of the Euphrates, and elsewhere. [6] When employed, he maintains, the syllogistic reasoning was not at a genuinely philosophical level; moreover, he claims, many of these debates were politically sensitive and “usually a matter of making the right connections.” [7] But the evidence for learned culture, of which the logical works of Aristotle were part, is too widespread to ignore or denigrate. Nor should the focus be directed only towards the east.

Title page of Ammonius / Public Domain

Richard Sorabji may claim of Zacharias Scholasticus’s Ammonius that it reads “like a cabaret act designed to impress his fellow Christian students, with a catalogue of arguments that are mostly naïve and compressed”; [8] yet such judgments suggest in fact that the question of Aristotelianism in relation to Christian authors needs more exploration than it has so far received. Sorabji takes the use of Christian florilegia as a sign of poor argumentation on Zacharias’s part, and John Philoponus is indeed exempted from his criticisms. However no one would deny that sixth-century Alexandria maintained a high level of philosophical learning; moreover, as the Neoplatonist Simplicius’s commentaries on the Categories and other works make clear, Aristotelian elements had also been admitted into late Neoplatonism, [9] while the extent to which Aristotle could be harmonized with Plato was already an issue in this period, just as it was in late Byzantium. It would be surprising if Christian authors were completely outside these trends. [10] Despite previous doubts about the patristic period and the “dark ages,” it seems highly likely that basic Aristotelian logic continued to be taught in the Byzantine empire and in Constantinople, and it certainly formed an educational staple for the Byzantine period as a whole. The philosophical quality of the argument in Christian dialogues from the late antique period to the end of Byzantium is a complex issue which in most specific cases still remains to be investigated; but it remains striking that the teaching of Aristotle’s logical works becomes a more and more prominent feature.

In relation to the real public debates that took place in the sixth and seventh centuries, King also maintains that “victory” had little to do with the quality of the argument, and that those sponsored by Justinian in Constantinople were “mostly for show.” [11] We may of course allow for a high degree of manipulation or attempted manipulation of the events and the records (as in many instances in modern political life) but recent work on the preparation for and argumentation at the many synods and councils in this period suggests otherwise. [12] Such dismissive judgments simply fail to ask the basic question of why there were so many debates of so many different types and at so many different levels.

The literary sources also describe the debates in which famous schoolmen engaged on their travels, like that of Mar Aba in the sixth century with “Sergius” in Alexandria or with Zoroastrians in Seleucia/Ctesiphon, after which he is said to have founded the School of Seleucia. [13] While the latter story may well rank as a foundation myth, each kind of public debate had its counterpart in written debates and dialogues, which sometimes related to actual discussions (debates that “really took place”), but were also often composed independently. The relationship, if any, between these two types is not easy to establish, nor is it a simple matter.
Sixth-century Alexandria was also a center where, as we see from John Philoponus, Aristotelian syllogisms could be put to the service of Christian debate. [14] The twenty or more classrooms now exposed in the late antique complex in the Kom el-Dikka area in the city—perhaps the very site of Ammonius’s teaching—show just how lively and active was the educational activity that went on there, [15] and some of this energy found expression in the production of Christian doctrinal and philosophical dialogues. One who composed dialogues on a variety of topics was Zacharias Scholasticus, author of a philosophical dialogue on the eternity of the world known as the Ammonius, [16] partly set in the lecture room of Ammonius himself during sessions about Aristotle’s Physics and Ethics. The Ammonius contains three reported dialogues within a framing dialogue which is set in Beirut (Berytus), also a center of lively student life, as is famously described in Zacharias’s Life of Severus of Antioch. [17] Zacharias also wrote dialogues on Manichaeanism, and against the “sophists,” [18] and is one of the figures who can give us glimpses of the intense intellectual atmosphere of Alexandria, with its heady mix of pagan and Christian students, literary debates.

The Prophet Mani / Wikimedia Commons

Manichaeanism provides a further background for this debating culture. [19] At the end of the fourth century, a story told in the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto lets us see the extent to which the practice and utility of public debate was taken for granted: a certain Copres met at Hermopolis a Manichaean, “who had been leading the people astray.” He engaged the Manichaean in a public trial by fire (in which Copres was successful), but only after he had “been unable to make him change his mind by debating with him in public.” [20] A few years later Augustine debated against Felix the Manichaean in two sessions recorded by stenographers; this episode resulted in a formal abjuration (recantation) by Felix, in a formulaic statement of a kind that had a long life in subsequent centuries and into the Byzantine period. [21] This was not the first time that Augustine had taken on a Manichaean in public debate: in 392, both Catholics and Donatists in Hippo “urged” him to hold a public debate with the Manichaean Fortunatus, which took place over two days in the public baths and attracted a large crowd. [22]

Our surviving literature is full of set-pieces of debate (on that we can agree with King). Disputation features in the late fourth-century Acta Archelai. [23] According to this account, Mani debated with a bishop called Archelaus in Mesopotamia in the house of Marcellus, with four learned pagans as judges. Mani was defeated, and driven out of the town of “Carchar” by the crowd who had gathered to listen; here too the debate was recorded by stenographers and carefully written out. [24] At the end of the fourth century the controversial bishop Porphyry of Gaza is also said to have found himself debating with a Manichaean, this time a mature and confident woman called Julia, who came surrounded by four young and handsome supporters; [25] yet again, the proceedings were recorded by others. Ousted in the argument, Porphyry called on God to intervene, Julia was struck speechless and paralyzed, and quickly died. However sensational, this story tells us that such public argument was accepted and even expected in religious matters. It was assumed that the superiority of one faith over another was demonstrable by reason, and the holding of such contests in public was an important part of religious rivalry in late antiquity.

Clearly the level and style of arguments like these would vary from setting to setting and from place to place. Augustine recognized the excitement and intellectual stimulus he had gained from such contests (certamina), just as he recognized the importance of having the right record-taker. Augustine’s enjoyment of the challenge has been dismissed as attributable to youthful enthusiasm, [26] but his debates in Hippo against Fortunatus, Faustus and Felix required careful preparation and regard for his audience, which contained some who could well appreciate a reasonably sophisticated level of reasoning. In view of the tendency of Christians to resort to scriptural and patristic proof texts, it is interesting to find Augustine claiming that the audience in his debate with Fortunatus in AD 392 demanded rational argument, not lists of Scriptural precedents. [27] Again, the relationship between such actual debates and Christian polemical refutations of Manichaeism is complex, [28] involving questions both of the types of argument and the content, but it certainly existed. Both “real” and literary debates drew on the same background of expectation, even if not always to the same degree or in the same way. They have, admittedly, moved a long way away from the technique of Socratic questioning that Simon Goldhill takes as normative for dialogue.

Maijastina Kahlos connects this move, which we may characterize as taking us away from dialogue and towards dialectic, to the desire to set boundaries, part both of the effort of mission and conversion and the effort to achieve orthodoxy. [29] She asks whether actual dialogue was possible, when the object seems always to have been to win the argument; [30] sometimes, certainly, and for the sake of mission, a Christian would need to make an accommodation towards his opponents—to concede that they had some right on their side—or to descend to their level in order to move the argument forward, but the “exclusivist” model was the prevailing one. [31] Whether genuine “interreligious dialogue” took place, or was even possible, is a real question. Many of those who have studied the later Christian-Muslim debates have done so from the standpoint of modern ecumenism (“inter-faith dialogue”), and sometimes with a conscious desire to find some kind of harmonization. [32] The question of accommodation may apply more to the more philosophical dialogues and those than engage at a high literary level with pagan culture, and it is a question to which I will need to return; I would suggest, however, that it is best to leave doing so until after we have surveyed more of the very broad field of real and literary debates themselves.

Both Justinian and his contemporary and rival, the sixth-century Persian shah Chosroes I, were patrons of public debates. There were large numbers of Christians in Sasanian empire and in the sixth century they occupied important places at court and in high circles. Many pre-Islamic disputation texts by Christians are known, even if few have survived, [33] and the late sixth to early-seventh century Persian shah Chosroes II was a patron of the shrine of St. Sergius at Resafa and had a Christian wife. In an important recent study Joel Walker, following Antoine Guillaumont, has emphasized the fact that under Chosroes’s father and predecessor Chosroes I many individuals from the Sasanian empire participated in religious debates held in Constantinople under the patronage of the Emperor Justinian. [34] One of them was a certain Paul the Persian, who debated with Photinus the Manichaean in Constantinople in 527. [35] The text of this debate survives (if it does indeed record what was said); it took place over several days, at the orders of the Emperors Justin and Justinian, and under the supervision of the illustrious praeses Theodorus. The cut and thrust of the debate itself is followed in the text printed in the Patrologia Graeca, which is all that is currently available, by formal statements from each side, reminiscent of the way in which Christian treatises against heresy, or synodical letters by bishops like the one issued by Sophronius as patriarch of Jerusalem in 634, [36] were followed by statements of orthodox doctrine. Justinian also invited east Syrians to debate in Constantinople, just as he had invited Syrian Miaphysites in the early years of his reign. [37] In the last years of Justinian, after the great peace treaty with the Sasanians in AD 562, a group from the Sasanian empire, who included the future catholicos Isho‘yahb I and were led by a certain Paul of Nisibis, debated at the emperor’s invitation in Constantinople; Paul left a record of their discussion (which does not survive but is discussed in a later text), known as the Disputation with Caesar. [38]

Nestorius as envisioned by the 17th century dutch printmaker Romeyn de Hooghe, in the book History of the church and heretics / Wikimedia Commons

The Sassanian empire is also the context for the activities of “Symeon the Persian debater,” whom we have already met, and the east Syrian theologian Babai the Great (d. c. 628) also records an intense level of debate between rival Christian groups continuing in the later sixth century. [39] As Walker describes, the Syriac church historian John of Ephesus, in his Ecclesiastical History, tells us that Chosroes I had instigated debates between Nestorians and Jacobites (that is, Miaphysites or Syrian Orthodox), whose numbers were increasing in the Persian empire. John claims that the king was himself convinced by the arguments of the Jacobite Ahudemmeh, and guaranteed the Jacobites protection. I quote the words John ascribes to him: “These men know what they say, and can establish and prove their words, and their arguments seem to me very true.” [40] There are indeed some suspicious elements in the story, which suit John’s own Miaphysite agenda, but the mise-en-scène and the debate itself ring true enough. And in AD 612, in the next reign, a series of debates between Nestorians and Jacobites was organized for Chosroes II by his Jacobite doctor. [41]

This context of genuine religious debate also lies behind the text of an imaginary “conference” set at the Persian court edited in 1899 by Eduard Bratke. [42] The subject is a debate between a pagan philosopher and two groups of Jews, Zoroastrians and a Christian bishop, over the status of Greek oracles. It was allegedly summoned by the Persian king, who appointed Aphroditian to settle the matter. This text may well be a “historicizing romance,” as Cancik would have it, but we cannot doubt the existence of real debates in the Sassanian and east Mediterranean world, or the knowledge and practice of Aristotelian logic that was promoted in the schools. [43] Tannous is right to locate both major public debates and “small-time theological debates” in the context of intense religious rivalry and competition for adherents, which was accompanied by frequent “code-switching,” changes or changing expressions of allegiance. [44] The circumstances of the sixth and seventh centuries, including the lengthy process of the “separation” of the Syrian Orthodox, [45] thus played into an existing trend in Christian practice and Christian writing.

It was therefore entirely explicable, given this evidence for public theological debate, that the legendary text that is the subject of Walker’s book should itself contain a scene of debate in which the hero engages in similar discussion. Its subject is one we have already encountered—the eternity of the heavenly bodies. This was a much-debated topic, whether by the so-called astrologers who are said to have debated with the late-sixth century stylite, Symeon the Younger, [46] or in the critique directed by John Philoponus in sixth-century Alexandria against Simplicius’ argument for the eternity of the heavenly bodies, which had raised issues around the harmonization of Plato and Aristotle, [47] or the Theophrastus by Aeneas of Gaza and Zacharias Scholasticus’s Ammonius. It also resonates with the dialogues we have already met which dealt with the question of whether God had foreordained how long each individual would live.

The seventh century was a key period for Christian debate. In the early 640s Maximus Confessor was living in a monastery at Carthage, North Africa, and on an earlier stay had responded in his correspondence to the distant news of the emergence of a new prophet in Arabia. Pyrrhus, the patriarch of Constantinople, was ousted from his seat in 641 after the death of the Emperor Heraclius in circumstances that are still imperfectly understood. [48] He left Constantinople for North Africa and in AD 645, very shortly before a coup was launched in the name of Gregory, the Byzantine exarch of Africa, Pyrrhus took part in a formal debate with Maximus in Gregory’s presence in Carthage. The subject was the doctrine of Monothelitism, which Maximus opposed. [49] Maximus prevailed, and Pyrrhus departed for Rome to confess his recantation to the pope (though his “conversion” did not last very long and he briefly became patriarch again in 654). The Greek text survives at some length, and is clearly a justification of Maximus’s position. Most students of Maximus have assumed that the debate actually took place and that this is its record, [50] although according to J. Noret the text derives from the period of Maximus’s exile in Thrace, in AD 655 or later, as part of Maximus’s defense. [51] However we do not need to doubt the reality of the debate itself; Maximus is questioned about it in the Record of the Trial, one of the documents in the dossier relating to his exile and trial, and refers to recalling it from memory. [52] The debate consists in the main of Maximus’s responses to questions and arguments offered by Pyrrhus, and includes detailed exegesis of citations from Cyril and others, including Ps. Dionysius. [53] The exarch Gregory, who very soon launched his own rebellion against Constantinople, arranged the debate, but did not intervene himself, except to agree with Maximus in conclusion about the need for Pyrrhus to profess his orthodoxy before the pope. [54] As it stands, the debate is an important theological document, part of a highly complex developing situation. It is remarkable, in the words of Phil Booth, that “despite holding no clerical position, Maximus debates the faith in open, reasoned dialogue with a (deposed) patriarch.” [55]

The affair was also highly political: it was assumed by Maximus and Gregory that Pyrrhus’s recantation required the ratification of Rome, and he and Maximus went there together. [56] Maximus’s position challenged the status and ecclesiastical policies of Constantinople as surely as Gregory’s “rebellion.” If the text of the debate was indeed a later production, it nevertheless envisaged a situation in which it was possible to contemplate just such a public debate in Greek being held in mid-seventh century Carthage in the tense and highly charged atmosphere before Gregory’s revolt and immediately before Maximus’s departure for Rome and the Lateran Synod of 649. It is impossible now to know whether the debate really happened as reported; but perhaps after all this is not the point.

Medieval manuscript illumination of Maximus the Confessor / Wikimedia Commons

There is another seeming dialogue among the documents relating to the trials and exile of Maximus, presented as the record of a lengthy debate held in formal circumstances at Bizya during his exile in Thrace in AD 656 between Maximus and Theodosius, a local bishop. [57] After the first episode both speakers pray and kiss the Gospel, the cross and the icon of the Virgin and Child in order to seal their discussion. [58] The text defends Maximus by emphasizing his willingness to be reconciled with the imperial authorities, and we are told that the consul Theodosius goes away imagining that this is possible. [59] But Maximus is then moved to another monastery, and two patricians with imperial orders arrive and reopen the discussion. Although the dilemma of the bishop Theodosius, Maximus’ earlier interlocutor, is depicted with some nuance, this time Maximus provokes the officials to anger and physical abuse, and he is moved again, first to an army camp at Selymbria and then to be tried in Constantinople and eventually mutilated. What we have here is a complex series of debates embedded in an apologetic account of the sufferings of Maximus and his disciples. [60] Like the earlier debate with Pyrrhus, that between Maximus and Theodosius also deploys patristic citations in its argumentation, a feature central to Christian debate since the fifth century.

How far we should consider this to be a dialogue is questionable, although “disputation” (from its Latin title) does not seem to fit it very well either. It is more like a forensic questioning, and is embedded within the pro-Maximus dossier since it took place in the context of an official delegation sent to him in his place of exile. We also meet here an imperial reaction to a level of debate that was clearly considered out of control—an order to stop any discussion. Such an order was included in the Typos (decree) issued by the patriarch Paul in AD 647 or 648; it followed earlier precedents and it was equally unsuccessful. [61] But in such an atmosphere of disagreement and emotion, debate and religious argument were simply impossible to control. In any case such orders were designed for symbolic rather than actual effect.

By the seventh century the practice and habit of debate, or dialogue, was thoroughly embedded in religious interchanges. But it received another enormous extra impetus as a result of the Monenergist (one energy) and Monothelite (one will) doctrines pushed by Constantinople under the Emperor Heraclius and his grandson and successor Constans II. [62] The collection of sources for the controversy compiled in 1987 by Friedhelm Winkelmann indicates the level of debate, which in its earlier stages had also involved Sophronius, the eventual patriarch of Jerusalem. [63] Debates, dialogues and disputations appear under varying descriptions and titles, and the sheer overall quantity of argument and discussion is striking—no wonder the emperors tried to silence it. Though it is impossible to cover them here for reasons of space, I believe that we must also read the dialogues between Christians and Jews from this period and others, which are usually treated in isolation, against this context, as well as the incipient genre of debates between Christians and Muslims. A benefit of the broader approach advocated here is that it would challenge the over-simplified view that draws a line of intellectual transmission from Alexandria through Syria to Baghdad, while ignoring Constantinople. [64]
Dialogue and debate were features of the whole eastern Christian world, and the wealth of such material in Syriac should, certainly in the seventh century, be read in the whole east Mediterranean context. With the move to Sicily and Italy of Greek-speaking monks and clergy under pressure of the invasions of Palestine in the early seventh century, and the arrival in Rome of Maximus and his companions after his debate with Pyrrhus in Carthage, the Greek debating culture also reached Rome, [65] where a series of Greek popes carried on opposition to Monothelitism, and later to Byzantine iconoclasm. We are here genuinely in a world of disputation and debate.

Maximus’s debate at Bizya in Thrace has a further dimension. In the dossier it precedes an account of his trial and punishment and is reminiscent, if in a more concrete form, of the debates in martyr accounts and hagiography. At the same time this blurring of boundaries brings us into the sphere of legal process and proof. During the period from the fifth century onwards we see a steadily increasing reliance in theological debates on proof texts, florilegia from the Fathers or from Scripture, specially compiled, and indeed eventually often manipulated or even faked. [66] Theological treatises, of which there are countless numbers, very often came with their own florilegium appended; other florilegia circulated separately, and were used, added to and adapted by others; [67] the same phenomenon is found in Syriac, drawing on translated Greek citations. [68] In general, the resort to proof texts, the choice of the proof texts to be used, and the crystallization of accepted lists of approved patristic writers to support this or that side in the argument, are striking developments of this period. This was all the more necessary as the stakes were set higher and higher for individuals in the period after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, involving for bishops a real possibility of deposition, exile, and anathemas, and indeed leading to the separation of the Miaphysites during the sixth century and later. As we saw, Tannous has drawn attention to the competitive religious environment in the Syrian context, and an equivalent situation is readily apparent from the seventh and eighth-century Greek question-and-answer literature by Anastasius of Sinai and others.

St. Anastasius in his Monastery, Rembrandt, 1631 / National Museum, Stockholm

A key development in the scholarship of the last few years has been an upsurge of interest in the church councils of this period, and their argumentation and their proceedings. This has been greatly assisted by the publication in 2005 of a complete English translation of all the materials pertaining to the Council of Chalcedon, and another in 2009 on the council of AD 553 in Constantinople. [69] Also important are the critical editions of the Lateran Council of AD 649 and the Sixth Council of AD 680–681 by Rudolf Riedinger in the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum; together they mark a very distinct step forward in awareness of the technicalities and complexities of all this material, as well as its potential for the historian. [70] In the sixth century, the Council of Constantinople, held in 553, was conspicuous for its reliance on such proof-texts and on the enormous effort that went into prior systematic preparation, and the example was followed in the succeeding ones. [71] The questions to ask about our dialogues and debates, therefore, concern the nature of their relation not merely to social reality, but also very importantly, to the formal proceedings of councils and synods and the argumentation and techniques used there. Not only was a considerable production of technical record-keeping required, as well as translation and the dissemination of copies, but also a high degree of technical knowledge and scholastic and legal argument. [72] The many dialogues and debates of the sixth and seventh centuries need to be placed against the background of a whole industry of technical argument and recording which these councils required and encouraged.

Christian dialogues embrace an enormously wide range of types, from the literary and philosophical to the technical, and their purposes and immediate aims, like the reasons for their composition, are equally wide-ranging. In the case of the question and answer literature and related texts, scholars have emphasized the motive of instruction, including catechesis. [73] Christian dialogues have also been seen as apologetic or polemical vehicles for sectarian agendas, or simply as “instrumental” texts. [74] These characterizations have truth in them, though they fail to acknowledge the actual variety of what we are dealing with. We can however accept that as the Christian dialogue form developed it became more and more closely embedded in the effort that went into the attempt to establish a single orthodoxy. Christian dialogues did have an object, and that object was to assert the author’s conception of orthodox belief. Exegesis and selective citation were paramount. Inevitably such dialogues also tended to adopt the techniques of polemic or apologetic, and thus they became part of a vast and tangled array of textual practices designed to combat heresy and assert Christian truth. They were, I would argue, part of a much wider systematization of Christian knowledge. The rhetoric that many of them used was designed to abuse, attack and pour scorn on their targets. [75] In this sense such dialogues were as important as theological treatises or council decisions in the formation of opinion on doctrinal matters.

The question must be asked, therefore, how much such writings contributed to a growth of religious intolerance—leading at times to actual religious violence—in late antiquity. Reacting against such assumptions, several scholars recently have been seeking examples of religious tolerance in late antiquity, or if not that, then what at least we might call religious neutrality. [76] Richard Lim, again, has asked the reasonable question whether the often harsh debates between Christians in late antiquity contributed to the actual religious violence which is also a feature of the period; he points to several contemporary expressions of disapproval of dialectic which seem to indicate a similar anxiety. [77] Indeed, faced with the shrill rhetoric of late antique Christian texts, in which I include those written in dialogue form, it is hard not to conclude that even if they were not always successful in achieving their ostensible aims their objective was indeed usually aggressive. I have had occasion to part company with Lim earlier, but his work is important because it takes religious debate seriously and on its own terms, without reducing it to a mere social or cultural manifestation. I agree entirely with him when he says that Christian debates introduced a new level of “verbal cognitive disagreement,” or dissonance, into late antique cities (and not only cities). [78] I disagree with him in that whereas he would put a chronological terminus on it, in my view this cognitive disagreement intensified in the very period when Lim suggests that it was silenced; [79] it continued, moreover, not only through the turmoil of the seventh century and the rise of the new religion of Islam, but for many centuries to come.

In her study already cited, Maijastina Kahlos has focused on issues of Christian rhetoric and Christian intolerance in relation to late fourth- and early fifth-century writing, not considering dialogue forms as such but rather, Christian writing and debate in general. [80] Her main concern is also with Christian-pagan debate rather than doctrinal dialogue or Christian-Jewish texts. But she addresses in particular the rhetorical strategies used by Christian authors, and asks the question, “is genuine dialogue possible?” I quote: “Because mission was an essential part of ancient Christianity, Christians had to aim at a dialogue with non-Christians. A mere debate was not enough.” [81] She is careful to define her terms, and as I said, she is not writing about the dialogue as a literary form; for her, “true” dialogue, though, as defined by sociologists of religion, or by practitioners of “dialogue analysis,” and by contemporary advocates of pluralistic theology, exists when the two sides exchange views and arrive at a mutually agreed conclusion, incorporating modifications on both sides. This is, of course, the aim of modern consensual dialogue. It has indeed been argued that there can be such a thing as genuinely pluralistic theology, an idea to which responses have been sharp and negative. [82] On this basis, however, the “missionary dialogue” of ancient Christian writers is not dialogue, but pedagogy.

Some at any rate of the dialogues I am considering thus come nearer to monologue, and a patronizing or hostile monologue at that, and justify Kahlos’s subtitle, “Dialogue and otherness”; they act to set and confirm boundaries, to impose distinctions. [83] In her two recent books [84] Kahlos deals with a stage (late fourth to early fifth centuries) when it was still an urgent necessity for Christians to engage with pagans; the apologetic need had not yet subsided. She has also analyzed some of the typical rhetorical ploys used even in more “moderate” Christian writings in order to denigrate their opponents, an approach on which much more can be done. It would be a mistake however to assume a steady chronological development towards a more stereotyped and harsher tone as the subject matter moved towards doctrinal issues.

Two rather different issues have emerged. First, I have tried to bring out both the intense level of actual debate during late antiquity, including many examples of public formal debate, and the very wide range of types and subjects it covered, from philosophical to religious. Second, as well as considering the issue of intolerance, I have continued to emphasize the huge number of surviving dialogue texts, some much more literary than others, many of them yet to be critically edited and studied. Third, I will draw on some specific examples in order to bring out the variety of literary types existing in this corpus. How do the literary dialogues relate to “real” debates? This is a natural question, and one that has been asked many times in relation to the Christian-Jewish dialogues, not least by scholars who are interested in the actual relations between Christians and Jews in late antiquity. I am tempted to say that the question is misguided: we rarely have evidence outside the dialogue in question that would allow us to know the answer, and arguments drawn from the supposed plausibility of an internal scenario are dangerous indeed.

We have also seen an increasing technologization of dialogues, and some would say, a marked level of intolerance at least in certain examples, represented in the selective use of supporting materials and indicative of the high stakes affecting both intellectual and religious competition. Whether or not there was a connection between this expressed intolerance and the religious violence common in late antique cities is a much deeper question, as is the extent to which late antique culture was itself agonistic.
These remarks suggest by way of conclusion a brief further consideration of the principles behind my contention that it is important to study the Christian texts composed in dialogue form. I approach them neither as a theologian nor as a conventional patristic scholar, but as a historian who, I hope, is also sensitive to literary issues. As a historian, I am not seeking useful historical information from them, nor am I trying to write a social history. Nor, though I have been termed a “cultural historian,” do I think I am simply doing cultural history, if that means considering Christian texts without their theological component. [85] These compositions are as much part of late antique and Byzantine literature as any secular texts, and they deserve a literary approach. But they also belong to the field of the history of religion. In terms of the formalization of a Christian knowledge system, and in order to understand the development of Christianity and the process of Christianization in late antiquity, as well as the workings of “Orthodoxy” in the later centuries of Byzantium, the study of these dialogues belongs within the striking move in the study of late antiquity in recent decades towards awareness of Christian texts as shaping historical development.

My focus here is on texts and their context, but in broader terms, dialogue, argument and debate were indispensable in the early Christian world. The need was philosophical, cultural and theological, and it intensified as time went on: debates produced other debates. This chapter has explored certain kinds of dialogue texts and the historical context from which they came, as well as some of the factors that led to their production. The context for others in the long history of Christian dialogues was quite different, as were the dialogues themselves. But the “literary” or “linguistic” turn can no longer be ignored in late antique studies. How Christians wrote, why they wrote as they did, and why they continued to do so over so many centuries and with such passion are crucial questions for historians, literary scholars and students of religion alike. [86]


1. Hopkins 1999; for similar comments, closer to our subject here, see Sizgorich 2009: chaps. 1 and 2, pointing out that written dialogues belong in a context of action.

2. Brooks 1923–1925:1.138–139; see Becker 2006:47–48; Wood 2010:228–229; King 2012:69.

3. Becker 2006:130; Lössl and Watt 2011.

4. Walker 2006:187.

5. Walker 2006:91–92; cf. the “Disputation with Caesar” attributed to Paul of Nisibis (Walker 2006:92, and see below).

6. King 2012; Tannous 2013; compare Lössl and Watt 2011.

7. King 2012:70–78, cf. 70n44, citing Reinink 1999.

8. Sorabji, preface, in Gertz et al. 2012:xxiii–xxiv.

9. See also O’Meara 2002:206-7.

10. Though brief, Saïd and Trédé 1999:171–179 contains useful suggestions for contextualizing common features in pagan philosophical and Christian works.

11. King 2012:68–69.

12. For instance, see the two synods of 536 in Constantinople, discussed by Millar 2008 and 2009, and see below.

13. See Becker 2006:157.

14. See for instance Uthemann 1981a.

15. Derda et al. 2007.

16. Minniti Colonna 1973; Colonna 1958; Gertz et al. 2012; see Watts 2005a; 2005b; 2006:227–230; 2006–2007.

17. Brock and Fitzgerald 2013.

18. PG 85.1011–1044.

19. Lim 1995a:70–108; see also Stroumsa and Stroumsa 1988.

20. Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 10.30–35 (191–225), Festugière 1961:87–88; translation in S. N. C. Lieu 1992:185.

21. Augustine Against Felix, cf. S. N. C. Lieu 1992:196–197.

22. Augustine Against Fortunatus, CSEL XXV.I, 83–112; cf. also Baker-Brian 2009.

23. S. N. C Lieu 1988:69–88.

24. Acta Archelai 68.5, Beeson 1906:98.

25. Grégoire and Kugener 1930:88; see Lim 1995a:84–87.

26. Lim 1995a:90–91.

27. Augustine Against Fortunatus 19, CSEL XXV, 97.

28. For examples and discussion, see Stroumsa and Stroumsa 1988.

29. Kahlos 2007:58–92; see also Sizgorich 2009:21–45.

30. Kahlos 2007:75.

31. Kahlos 2007:78–79.

32. In the case of Christian-Jewish dialogues, the publisher of a recent work (Varner 2005) suggests that its “comprehensive spiritual index” will help to foster greater study of the place of these texts in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

33. Excellent discussion in Walker 2006:169–180.

34. See Guillaumont 1970 and 1969–1970.

35. PG 88.529–552; a critical edition and English translation are in preparation: see Byard Bennett, “Paul the Persian,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. (www.iranicaonline.org, accessed November 10, 2013). See also Morbe 2011. Bennett argues that Paul the Persian cannot be the same as the later author of an introduction to the logic of Aristotle composed for Chosroes I, and points out that there is no evidence that Theodorus was still prefect in 527. Junillus, author of a set of didactic questions and answers in Latin on Scriptural exegesis and Christian cosmology written under Justinian in the 540s, presents his work as inspired by the teachings and writings of Paul, a Persian from the School of Nisibis: see Maas 2003, who argues that Junillus was not merely reproducing Paul. Junillus explains his format in his prologue as representing the questions and answers between pupils and master, in which the master will be designated by the Greek letter M and the pupils by ∆ (Maas 2003:120.13–18).

36. Allen 2009.

37. Brock 1981 (1992:XIII).

38. Walker 2006:174n36; Maas 2003:18; Wood 2013a:53.

39. Walker 2006:178.

40. Ecclesiastical History 3, 6.20.

41. Walker 2006:179.

42. Bratke 1899; cf. Cancik 2008:7, and see Heyden 2009 and the doctoral thesis of P. Bringel, Paris, 2007.

43. Walker 2006:187–188.

44. Tannous 2013:93.

45. Which tends to obscure the equally crucial role of the east Syrian Church of the East in the same period.

46. Van den Ven 1962–1970:138–139.

47. Discussion: Walker 2006:189–194, especially 191–194, with bibliography.

48. Interventions from Rome combined here with imperial succession politics in Constantinople: see Booth 2013:262, 282–283. I am very grateful to Phil Booth for discussion and for generously allowing me to see his book in advance of publication.

49. PG 91.288–353; Booth 2013:285–287; German translation and notes in Bausenhart 1992; unpublished text and French translation, Doucet 1972. Jankowiak 2013 argues that Dyothelitism, formulated in response to assertions of one will in Christ (Monothelitism), did not take shape until the early 640s, and that Monothelitism was not an “imperial doctrine” imposed by the Ekthesis; he also argues for 636 as the date of the Ekthesis against the usual 638. See Booth 2013 for a more gradualist view.

50. That such a public debate should have taken place in Greek in Carthage is striking, though Greek had indeed come into use alongside Latin in the course of the Byzantine reconquest in 534; eastern saints were venerated and refugees from the Persian invasion of the eastern Mediterranean in the early seventh century had led to an increase in the presence of Greek-speakers like Maximus in monastic communities in North Africa. For Maximus’s own associates, see Booth 2013:153–154.

51. Discussion in Allen and Neil 2002:15–18, Jankowiak 2013:342, Noret 1999; see Van Deun 2009:101–104.

52. Allen and Neil 2002:61; for critical editions of the Record and the debate with Theodosius, see Allen and Neil 1999.

53. For the use of patristic authorities in the debate over Monothelitism, see Bausenhart 1992:182–192, with 192–193 on the debate with Pyrrhus; several florilegia are attributed to Maximus.

54. PG 91.353A.

55. Booth 2013:286.

56. PG 91.352D–353B.

57. Allen and Neil 2002:77–119. A variety of terms are in use in the manuscript tradition of dialogues, including dialogos and dialexis, and in Latin, disputatio.

58. Allen and Neil 2002:100.

59. Allen and Neil 2002:104.

60. The trial of 662: Allen and Neil 2002:25.

61. Earlier attempts to shut down argument: Lim 1995a:219, 227.

62. So Cubitt 2009:133–147; see now Booth 2013.

63. Winkelmann 1987, 2001 and see Allen 2009. Sophronius is defended by Maximus in the debate with Pyrrhus: PG 91.333B–C, with Bausenhart 1992:273–274, 276.

64. See Lössl and Watt 2011.

65. Booth 2013:290n51. Rome and the Lateran Synod of 649: Cubitt 2009; Greek émigrés in Italy and Sicily: Sansterre 1983; see Johnson, forthcoming for the inclusion of ‘Nestorians’ in this move to Rome from North Africa.

66. The fundamental study is Richard 1951 (2011); see below, chapter 3 on Theodoret Eranistes.

67. See Richard 1951 (2011), and cf. Alexakis 1996.

68. See Rucker 1933: introduction. I will return to the subject of florilegia in chapter 3.

69. Price and Gaddis 2005; Price, 2009.

70. For the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), see Lamberz 2008. Annotated translations of the Lateran Synod (649), the Sixth Council (680–681) and II Nicaea (787) are in train in the TTH series.

71. Cubitt 2009 discusses their technical management, in particular in relation to the controversial Lateran Synod of 649.

72. See Humfress 2007 and Engels and Van Nuffelen 2014.

73. Cf. Munitiz 1988.

74. Lim 1991; Garzya 1981.

75. For late antique invective, see Kahlos 2009; Flower 2013.

76. See Kahlos 2009; tolerance on the part of Constantine, intolerance on that of his bishops: Drake 2000; see also Averil Cameron 2002a; Ando 1996; Athanassiadi 2010 and some of the essays in Gwynn and Bangert 2010. A recent research project led by Kate Cooper asks whether monotheism must inevitably lead to violence.

77. Lim 1995b.

78. Lim 1995b:229.

79. For the debates and rivalries of this period, see Blaudeau 2006.

80. Kahlos 2007.

81. Kahlos 2007:75.

82. See Hick and Knitter 1987, with D’Costa 1990, which contains critical papers by more conservative authors including A. McGrath and J. Milbank.

83. On which, see Kahlos 2007:58–75.

84. See also Kahlos 2012.

85. Cf. E. A. Clark 2008a, especially 25–26.

86. See especially E. A. Clark 2004, with review-discussion by Burrus et al. 2005.

From Dialoguing in Late Antiquity, by Averil Cameron (2014)