Assembling Early Christianity: Trade, Networks, and the Letters of Dionysios of Corinth by Cavan W. Concannon. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2017.
Cavan Concannon’s Assembling Early Christianity: Trade, Networks, and the Letters of Dionysios of Corinth examines the traces of an understudied bishop to draw larger conclusions about how early Christianities effloresced and dissolved over time. The project makes significant methodological interventions across a range of live questions in early Christian studies, showing how scholars of antiquity can use archaeological and digital data to create more detailed, accurate, and nuanced social reconstructions.
Dionysios, bishop of Corinth in the late second century, is attested primarily in Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Eusebius excerpts Dionysios’s letters to the collectives in Lacedaimonia, Athens, Nicomedia, Gortyna and Crete, Amastris, Knossos, and Rome, as well as a reply from Bishop Pinytus of Knossos (all provided in this volume’s appendix).Concannon reads these texts closely to assess what issues and conflicts prompted Dionysios’s occasional letters to the ekklesiai. With this analytical dexterity, Concannon thereby revivifies the bishop as well as the communities with whom he interacted.
Chapter one situates Dionysios within early Christian studies by assessing the motivations, contributions, and drawbacks of existing models of inter-Christian difference. He asks a somewhat different question. How might a model based on connectivity and locality challenge and enrich these explanations? To this end, he sets out his methodology, structured by assemblages in three modes: archaeology, Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, and Giles Deleuze’s rhizomatic ontology. I will consider these contributions at more length toward the end of this note.
Chapter two orients readers to Dionysios’s immediate context: second-century Corinth. Concannon’s reconstruction of Dionysios’ social world uses ORBIS to map the routes Dionysios’ letters took, then layering ORBIS’s data with archaeological evidence of ceramic markets to provide a measure of viscosity: “a measurement of the ways in which costs and velocity can index the economic and emotional resistance that piles up the longer and further one travels” (p. 80). Over time, viscosity can lessen if a route becomes more frequented. Concannon identifies more and less “furrowed” routes by comparing the itineraries of Dionysios’ letters with those of the ceramics trade (p. 81). If there was heavy traffic in ceramics on a particular sea route, Concannon reasons, the letters could more easily hitch rides on those vessels. For a letter to cross a more viscous, less furrowed route, would cost more and may therefore have been particularly urgent or necessary. Concannon’s integration of digital tools and material culture into his methodology is so clearly elucidated that it is almost a tutorial. As instructors consider how to incorporate a universally accessible tool like ORBIS within the classroom, parts of Chapter two could work as a supplementary reading to show how scholars use digital tools and archaeological data for purposes beyond the merely illustrative.
Chapters three and four set out Dionysios’s involvement in debates over communal boundaries, clerical authority, and celibacy in regions near and far (Achaia, Pontus-Bithynia, and Crete). Concannon considers how the viscosities between collectivesaffected Dionysios’s rhetorical efforts to create and extend his authority within each different context. In Achaia, Dionysios worked to consolidate and strengthen orderly boundaries in the communities geographically closest to him. In contrast, “the specter of Marcion,” as Concannon dubs him, figures in Pontus-Bithynia as a useful rhetorical foil. Here, Dionysios concedes more porous boundaries to signal his own affiliations and to recruit from Marcion’s allies. In chapter four, Dionysios’s negotiations with Cretan bishops Philip and Pinytos over marriage and celibacy show an already existing, vibrant connectivity between Crete and Corinth – and demonstrate anew how relationships among early Christian collectives were improvised and brokered. Conflict itself is evidence of social connection.
Chapters five and six consider how crisis and benefaction operated in Corinth’s relationship with Rome. In chapter five, Concannon proposes an experimental use of historical imagination. Dionysios’ letter to the Romans evinces a particular interaction: a donation given to the Corinthian collective from Rome. What might have necessitated this donation? To move his analysis from the abstract or hypothetical to the concrete and material, Concannon posits the Antonine plague ca. 166 CE. There is suggestive evidence to support his conjecture: a reduction in imported goods in Corinth around the second century, and an increase in visual and epigraphic attestations of the medical profession, including Asklepios and Hygeia. Moreover, it is quite reasonable that a major port city would be heavily affected by the epidemic. He calls such a reconstruction “vitalist” – setting a viable though unprovable historical possibility into motion to see how it plays, and to follow its consequences and potentialities (p. 156). The effort allows him to trace out the strategies Corinthians may have used to cope with crisis while remaining grounded in materially evinced historical possibilities. Chapter 6 reads Dionysios’s letter to Rome as evidence of the difficulty and care involved in maintaining the connectivity of trans-spatial relationships.
Concannon’s strategy unveils the mechanisms of historiographical work. It is indebted to feminist methodologies that acknowledge and seek to rectify silences in the historical record, often through a rigorous imagination that confesses its own limitations while reveling in the possibilities it opens. In Concannon, I see a model for conjecture as a productive mode, but more importantly, conjecture as showing the precarity of historiography in general. We are, after all, only ever working with traces.
But I suspect that the contribution which will linger longest with most readers is Concannon’s use of two models of connectivity to re-assess early Christian social history, clearly and engagingly presented in chapter one. Concannon’s research intertwines two theoretical models of connectivity: Deleuze’s rhizomatic assemblages and Latour’s social actor-networks. Deleuze offers the notion of rhizomatic assemblages as opposed to linear cause-and-effect. In this schema, nothing exists purely as itself: instead of arborescent or genealogical histories, a rhizomatic assemblage-based historiography insists that everything hangs together at once, giving rise to one other and never existing without each other. Rather than a line of single dominoes, Deleuze’s reality (and Concannon’s) is a raucous tangle. Using such a model has immediate ramifications for heresiology. According to this model, when Dionysios spars with other bishops, he is not guarding the boundaries of something called Christianity. He only thinks that he is. Rather, together with his interlocutors and the material circumstances which provoked their responses, he bears pluriform Christianities into being. Concannon’s questions, then, never concern Dionysios’ classification as sufficiently orthodox – though his contemporaries indeed may have asked this question. Concannon uses Deleuze to offer instead an assemblage approach to the study of intra-Christian difference.
Simultaneously, Concannon draws on one of Latour’s key insights – “There are more of us than we thought” – to more precisely describe the social world from which early Christianity emerged (p. 45, citing Latour 1988: 35). This world includes not only Dionysios, his interlocutors, and their letters, but also “the people, boats, and wind patterns that facilitated the movement of Dionysios’ ‘ideas’ from one place to another,” considering “how these letters moved through complicated physical landscapes with a much longer history and a much more subtle agency” (p. 47). The landscape, the ceramics market, human transience, money, the plague – no factor can be merely backdrop to the drama of Dionysios. Rather, all of these things flow together: they make each other possible, they preclude certain possibilities from materializing, and they come apart. Moreover, Concannon uses Latour to render vivid the precarity, contingency, and vitalism of emergent Christianities. As Concannon notes, the maintenance of social networks incurs costs, both monetary and temporal – but this means they lack stability. Concannon attends simultaneously to the construction of Dionysios’ social world – through benefaction, teaching, emissaries, and letters – and to its dissolution.
Concannon’s use of connectivity and assemblage is a model for scholars who hope to eradicate the binaries, labels, and categories that have stagnated and misdirected the field of early Christian studies. But that minor key of dissolution also tantalized me, embracing disintegrated relationships and faded traces as phenomena that demand attention. The life of the historian is a reckoning with estrangement. Concannon shows how disintegration and traces are themselves points of connection between the past and the desirous historian. Noticing distance becomes a way of drawing closer to things which have fallen apart. Noticing how much a relationship costs becomes a way of tabulating old intimacies. In a guild that often focuses on historical successes, how can the difficulties, starts, and stutters of early Christian connectivity be assessed? And what can they teach us?
Sarah F. Porter is a Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University. Find her on Twitter @portersf or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.