Richard E. Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity. University of California Press. 2015.
In A State of Mixture, Richard Payne re-calibrates the way that scholars should read late antique Syriac hagiographical literature. In so doing he also fills a significant gap in scholarship regarding the history of Christianity in the Sasanian Empire. Scholars have long taken interest in the history and literature of Christianity to the east of the Roman Empire, namely under the Persian Sasanian Empire, but a significant portion of the scholarly assessment of Christianity in the Persian Empire has separated Christianity as an entity from its political and religious setting. Indeed, previous scholarship on Syriac Christianity in the Persian Empire tended to polarize Christian and Persian identity, assuming that the vast corpus of martyrdom literature (the so-called Persian Martyr Acts) produced—or at least set—within the Sasanian Empire was the product of a Christian population unassimilated to its Iranian surroundings. With careful attention to detail and broad usage of a wealth of sources, Payne systematically deconstructs this idealistic bifurcation between Christianity and Sasanian culture. However, Payne dismantles this historiographical narrative, while simultaneously offering a completely new perspective on Persian Christianity by examining the various ways that Christians participated in, transformed, and even claimed Iranian culture as part of Christian identity.
In the Introduction, Payne provides the framework that undergirds his project. Most significantly, Payne introduces readers to the ways that Zoroastrians developed an ideology of Ērānšahr (the Middle Persian word for the Iranian Empire) that wove Iranian political, social, economic, and cultural practices into an unmistakably Zoroastrian tapestry. This step is crucial, because only by understanding the interwoven nature of Zoroastrian thought and Sasanian administration can we come to appreciate the ways that Christians made space for themselves within Iranian culture. For example, in Chapter One, Payne re-frames the persecution narrative of Christianity within the Sasanian Empire by examining Sasanian administration regarding religious minorities through the lens of Zoroastrian cosmology. Within this context, Payne understands the violence depicted in the Persian Martyr Acts not as a general persecution based on religious beliefs, but as a by-product of Christians gradually attaining positions of status within Sasanian culture in the fourth and fifth centuries. Christian ascendance in social rank offered a challenge to Zoroastrian conceptions of the status of “outsiders” with respect to Zoroastrian elites, and this challenge to social hierarchy was a recipe for violence.
Over the next four chapters, Payne demonstrates how Christian literature produced within the Sasanian Empire reflects the methods by which Christians adopted and adapted Iranian culture. In Chapter Two, Payne focuses on the topographical imagination of the author of the Martyrdom of Pethion, Adurohrmazd, and Anahid, arguing that this text intentionally marks a significant socio-political site in Sasanian imperial ideology (Mount Bisutun) as a site of Christian veneration. In so doing, Payne argues that the Christians of the Iranian highlands, who were likely originally political captives from the conquest of the early Sasanian kings, came to view “the land” of Iran as their own. In Chapter Three, Payne examines the life and career of the sixth-century Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Aba, who was ultimately exiled from the Persian Empire because of the stringency of his reforms. However, Payne’s contribution in this chapter is a rejection of the simple narrative that Mar Aba’s reforms reflected Christian norms at odds with Zoroastrian ideology. In place of this narrative, Payne reads the controversy over Mar Aba’s reforms as an intra-Christian dispute because Mar Aba’s reforms placed undue burdens on Christian elites who were reliant upon the social practices that Aba sought to restrict (specifically marriage and alimentary practices).
The argument of Chapter Four also highlights the increasingly significant role that Christian social status played in the literary representation of Christians in the Persian Empire. Focusing primarily on the History of Karka d-Beit Slok and Its Martyrs and the History of Mar Qardagh, Payne demonstrates that Persian Christians were more than happy to claim the ancient history of Persian cities like Karka d-Beit Slok as part of their own history, insofar as such a claim advanced their own purposes of highlighting local martyr shrines and enmeshing Christian bishops and elite lay leaders within the social fabric of Sasanian elite families. Finally, in Chapter Five, Payne offers a re-evaluation of the dispute over the legacy of the Sasanian King Husraw II and his supposed conversion to Christianity. Ultimately, Payne argues that Christian claims regarding Husraw’s conversion misunderstood patronage of various Christian practices and symbols as evidence of conversion because of their exclusive understanding of religious participation. In contrast with Christian exclusivism, Zoroastrian ideology did not exclude supporting other religious groups, so long as such actions also contributed toward the ends of Zoroastrian cosmology.
The research and analysis brought together in this book represent a significant, substantive contribution to our understanding of the history of Christianity within the Sasanian Empire. Indeed, the significance of this achievement has already been recognized by a number of awards that this book has received. Payne’s use of a wide array of sources in Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Middle Persian, and New Persian is impressive, and the expertise necessary to cover such a linguistic span demonstrates why a comprehensive study of this topic has remained a desideratum for so long. As such, Payne’s work is a service to the field, opening up new lines of inquiry and making possible new questions and new answers to old questions. As a final observation, one of Payne’s most significant methodological contributions in this book is a masterclass in how to read hagiographical works as historical sources. Without taking any of the late antique literary productions at face value, Payne reads hagiography not for the “facts” that the authors wished us to believe, but for the worldview that such texts presuppose. Such a reading breathes new life into ancient texts and provides a way through the morass of late antique historiography.
Dr. J. Edward Walters is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Rochester College