"In 2016, the Development of Early Christian Theology SBL section hosted a review panel of two recent monographs about Epiphanius of Cyprus: Young Richard Kim's Epiphanius of Cyprus: Imagining an Orthodox World and Andrew Jacobs' Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity. Our forum on Epiphanius ends this week with a piece from Dr. Lewis Ayres."
I am grateful for the chance to consider the significance of these two new books on Epiphanius of Salamis. But while agreeing with the other commentators that both books provide much excellent reflection on a figure ripe for some reconsideration, I do not want to focus my time on the details of their portrayals of Epiphanius, but ask some wider questions that reading these books has provoked about the purpose and character of our intellectual activities in this field. I hope my questions will at least provoke a little conversation.
My first comment concerns the status of Epiphanius as intellectual, as thinker. Both authors seek to reclaim Epiphanius from customary rejection. Both authors tell us that scholars have tended to relegate Epiphanius to the second tier of fourth-century thinkers and have condemned his anti-heretical hyperbole. Or to put it into the words of a now retired colleague when I said that I was reading these two new books on Epiphanius, “what a twit.” Neither of our two authors this morning really wants to claim that Epiphanius was actually a nice guy, but both want to say that condemning him to obscurity because of his character lacks intellectual sophistication. Rather, they argue, we must consider how Epiphanius performs his nastiness and see through that performance some of the most basic dynamics of late antique self-fashioning. Here I simply agree: such an approach opens up fruitful and important avenues of research.
But we have here not only questions about how we react to the personal character of those we study, but also questions concerning how we assess their intellectual significance. Both Jacobs and Kim seem also to be saying that the treatment of Epiphanius as intellectually second-rate is inappropriate. Kim, far more than Jacobs, wants to claim that Epiphanius is a far more significant intellectual thinker than we thought; Jacobs largely seems to avoid the question of where we rank him. I suspect Andrew’s reticence actually hides an unhappiness with the very idea of such intellectual ranking – and in discussion Andrew was pretty clear that he is at least not much interested in such judgments.
This position deserves a little more probing. I note that both our authors are uncertain about the promotion they wish to award Epiphanius. Neither really attempts the argument that Epiphanius is actually a thinker of the first rank, although both are certainly attempting to show that he is not, in that memorable phrase, simply “a twit.” Both have the requisite chapter on his Trinitarian thought (and both are perhaps overly dependent on Oliver Kösters’s Die Trinitätslehre Des Epiphanius Von Salamis), and both show that he has some clever moves to make and a coherent vision to offer (Andrew in particular has some interesting things to say about the isomorphism between his account of the divine and his account of the human being – though I was not convinced we have here the prioritizing of the “moral” over the “metaphysical” (e.g. 272). But both also emphasize his greater importance by looking closely at the range of his activities as episcopal leader, ascetic and polemicists, promoting his place within particular social networks of his time.
This strategy certainly pays dividends, but I found the same question nagging at me: is it still OK for me to identify Epiphanius as intellectually of the second tier or not? Is there something fundamentally flawed or unhelpful about that intellectual judgment? By turning attention toward these other factors, are our authors actually seeking to problematize the style of intellectual history that does intrinsically judge who is the deeper, the more imaginative, the more coherent thinker? Of course, we need to be careful about an unquestioning assumption that intellectual significance is only judged by a Weberian understanding of independence and creative originality, but what judgements in this broad area do we consider possible and desirable? I am happy to say, for my own part, that while Epiphanius is interesting in many ways, he simply isn’t one of the great thinkers of the fourth century! (It is worth noting that I do not make my point because of a belief in entirely fixed canons of the smart and the less smart. During the Q and A at the session Dr. Mark Edwards from Oxford quite rightly, in my view, raised Marius Victorinus as a comparison. I agree that here is someone whose intellectual qualities remain deeply underappreciated in most modern scholarship). This does not mean that Epiphanius is not an essential figure in understanding the period or its thought (rather as while I have championed the importance of a host of minor Latin thinkers if we are better to understand Augustine’s Trinitarian theology, I still think they are not his equal qua thinkers); it simply means that his thought is not of the first rank.
My concerns here are related to a set of questions I have about Andrew’s book in particular and specifically about its last few pages. It is here that Andrew reflects directly on how he envisions the study of late antiquity. Now, we all know that our field – the study of early Christianity - contains people not simply with different methodologies, but also very different ends in view. Andrew’s final few pages provide a good opportunity for a few reflections on the best way to conceive of these distinctions and on how we may most fruitfully envisage the conversation between us.
Andrew offers an argument in two steps. At the first step Andrew offers a vision of early Christian studies that finds its ultimate purpose in the sustaining and deepening of a modern liberal politics. I don’t mean in this to imply that Jacobs is not also doing good historical work, but the expressed telos of that work is clear. Some quotations will be helpful. Andrew comments first on the flowering of the study of late antiquity in recent decades:
Like post-Geertzian anthropologists, we are open to taking late antiquity culturally ‘on its own terms’… by making late antiquity culturally sensible, we also render it potentially compatible with our own cultural ideals. We are open to seeing ourselves reflected embryonically in the past laid out before us, and the canon of ‘late antique authors’ upon whom we tend to labor possesses a glint of cultural possibility (269-70).
So, we see ourselves reflected and somehow we see also “a glint of cultural possibility.” Jacobs goes on to take a particular example, Shenoute of Atripe:
It is fair to say that the scholars doing such innovative work on Shenoute do not particularly like him or identify with him. Rather, scholars of late antiquity can find in him some kind of cultural value that resonates with our own modern and postmodern concerns about personhood, gender, self-fashioning, communal care, and social justice (270).
There is an ambiguity here I find interesting. On the one hand, when Andrew speaks of “resonance” he seems to be saying (though these are not his words) that we find comfort in late antiquity. “Look,” we say, “these guys are like us; they are busy at their own projects of self-fashioning, ain’t that great?” Somehow we find our own projects validated and perhaps deepened when we see how much these activities are, if not constant in human history, at least typical of periods of imperial decline and thus particularly comforting at this point in late modernity. It’s worth noting in this respect that Andrew mentions Peter Brown’s old claim that he saw in late antiquity a political lesson: an imperial regime shaken by the rise of new political elites and new concerns, but shaken without disaster (274-5).
But, on the other hand, what of this “glint of cultural possibility”? In the case of Shenoute it seems there is only a “cultural value” that “resonates” – there is very little “possibility” in the rigors of his asceticism perhaps! The closer Andrew comes to suggesting what lessons we should actually learn when we look down the well of the past the more he seems to hesitate. Those invested in liberal politics might well be comforted, but how do they also learn from the past, and what do they learn? We are, of course, on dangerous territory here: not simply noting that we bring our own interests to historical work, but that we also might use this historical work for the purposes of advocacy. But what more may be said about the positive value of such engagement? Andrew seems to want to say that there is such positive value, but he is rather hesitant about defining it with precision.
I said there were two steps taken in the final pages of Andrew’s book. The second offers a qualification to his first. Andrew sees something extra apparent in our study of a figure like Epiphanius because of the excessive nature of the bishop’s desire to suppress otherness. We see in Epiphanius an “imperial desire” and because of this, “[his late antiquity,] a late antiquity invested in the promotion and stigmatization of difference does not cohere with the blossoming period of liberalism and expansiveness that has beckoned…” (274). In other words, if you study late antiquity because you see in it a parallel period of self-fashioning toward an increasingly open and expansive liberal society, then Epiphanius should make you pause. And, once again, Epiphanius’s supposed adoption of “imperial” rhetorics is a significant source of concern.
Epiphanius complicates our ideas about difference in society, forcing us to ask “to what extent does out own multi-cultural society make similarly twisted uses of ‘difference’ in the public sphere? … It may be that, at the end of the day, remembering Epiphanius will allow us not only to bring historiographic nuance to the field of late antiquity, but ethical nuance to our own consideration of the past, and the present” (277). Thus, in this second step, what we get from Epiphanius is a wake-up call to remember ways in which our own society is not as liberal as we would hope, that it also constructs outsiders in order to suppress difference.
So Andrew’s account begs all sorts of questions, especially about how one articulates the corrective force of historical study. But my goal is actually not to offer critique, especially the sort of critique that is in favor of a supposedly neutral historiography. I agree entirely with when he quotes Elizabeth Clark in aid of the position that we always bring our own concerns to the text and that we should simply acknowledge that this is so. Indeed, I think there is much to be saluted in Andrew’s willingness to reflect on the goals of his academic work, and would certainly want to make common cause with his concern for social justice.
I want to focus on one particularly important question that Andrew’s openness begs: how do we envisage the conversation in our field about the divisions that are apparent? Sometimes these divisions are approached in a rather simplistic manner: some people study the period as social historians, some are still somehow interested in questions of intellectual history, and particularly the history of theology. There is some truth in this, but it will not take us very deep. It does not do so, first, because the line it draws is far too simplistic, because it assumes that what separates us is primarily a matter of the theoretical tools we bring. Now, most of us from our different perspectives, make use of related modes of investigation that owe to the development of modern historicisms and social theoretical perspectives on the functioning of groups, institutions and societies, for instance. Andrew and I certainly use some methods and ask some questions that the other does not, but we also draw in common on methods and questions honed during the development of modern historical research.
I suspect that we only penetrate more deeply into what is at issue here when we do own up more directly (as Andrew has somewhat hesitantly begun to do) to the different ends we have in view – and in our owning up recognize that the mere fact of having ends in view does not a priori make us bad historians. Just as Andrew’s commitments do not prevent him from being a good historian (and occasionally a bad one!), mine do not prevent me from offering both good and bad in my reconstruction and articulation of the past. We actually find ourselves drawing from a common well of modern historical tools and practices – but we do so in the context of different metaphysical contexts and with different ends in view. Some of these practices, of course, come with more or less metaphysical loading (techniques that assume particular visions of human power relations are more metaphysically loaded than man philological techniques. Emphases on understanding the particular questions that motivated texts that later become “canonical” come with a more or less heavily loaded “historicism”). In the midst of this complexity clarity about the ends we have in view, and attention to the assumptions that our techniques imply is all the more important.
I for instance, do not study early Christianity in aid of a liberal politics. And this is not because of my politics at all, but because my study of these figures is ultimately motivated by theological commitments. I study this past because I believe that through it God has acted to reveal and save. This is, of course, a stark statement that begs a host of questions about how I envisage revelation, providence, and double agency (that is, how might we conceive of fallenhuman beings acting, even as we also see the Spirit at work through their actions). Without some thought about each of these philosophical and theological problems it would rather difficult for me to engage well with modern historical investigation. There is no space here for much comment on these themes, but it is worth noting that the making of certain forms of intellectual judgement is intrinsic to the practice of studying the past with these ends in view. I would argue that this is so because, founded on a belief that God draws us into a restoration of the intellect, scholars with Christian ends in view should seek to nurture the most truthful, expansive and beautiful of human thought – and centrally including human thought that responds to divine revelation. And yet, for such scholars, this should not be simply a matter of valuing only the most creative or original of thought; many forms of faithfulness in interpretation are also qualities that we are called to value. Ultimately, the intellect is not restored by its own creative power, and there is no salvation by PhD alone, nor even by the production of post-tenure monographs.
Even these few sentences reveal the Christian intellectual tradition’s complex and continual engagement with the western intellectual tradition and thus with matters of intellectual judgement. Andrew himself is not immune from these engagements: he has a fairly critical eye for which theoretical resources he finds most insightful, and he is fairly clear which particular cultural values he upholds and which he judges wanting. So despite his lack of interest in the sorts of distinctions I think it worth drawing (and this became helpfully clearer during the Q and A at the session), Andrew is also involved in a complex engagement with traditions of intellectual judgement and evaluation (and his willingness to do so while also expressing a lack of interest in intellectual judgements about the qualities of an ancient thinker’s thought surely opens up avenues of possible critique!). It behooves us both, I think, to own up to the complex manner of our own engagements if a deeper understanding of the disputes that mark our field is to emerge. At the same time, such clarity should also force us all to be a little more open (in part to ourselves) about the weight that our historical methodologies carry.
Dr. Lewis Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University