J. Maxwell: Simplicity and humility in late antique Christian thought

Simplicity and Humility in Late Antique Christian Thought. Elites and the Challenges of Apostolic Life

Maxwell, Jaclyn L.
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193 S.
£ 25.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Maria Munkholt Christensen, Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät, Universität Bonn

The cover of this book is beautifully illustrated with a sixth century mosaic from the Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. It depicts Jesus’ calling of Peter and Andrew. This motive of Jesus and the two fishermen captures one of the main themes of the book: the reception of the apostles’ professions in late antique theology. Although the book is not particularly long – five chapters on 163 pages – it tackles a broad variety of topics. Apart from the reception of the apostles and their professions, the main themes include: the social set-up of the late antique Greco-Roman society where Christianity first spread; early Christian views on poverty and almsgiving; Christian ideals related to social standing and education; and the social and symbolic meaning of humility. What binds these topics together is the book’s overall focus on the encounter between religious belief and social and economic structures. The source material discussed in the book derives mainly from the second half of the fourth century to the first decades of the fifth century. The most discussed theologians in the book are the Cappadocian fathers and John Chrysostom, which means that the geographical foci are Antioch, Constantinople and Cappadocia. Maxwell summarizes her intention with the book on the first page: the aim of the book is to examine “the friction between the traditional social values of the Roman elite and the potential social radicalism of Christian teachings.“ (p. 1).

The book opens with the paradox posed by the fact that in the New Testament and early church we find, on the one hand, a high esteem for people from the lower social classes and for ideals such as humility and simplicity, while, on the other hand, the bishops were frequently well-educated men drawn from the elite of society. In the Introduction and Conclusion of her book, Maxwell makes use of different modern concepts to describe this situation of conflicting stances towards humility and simplicity in late antique Christianity. For instance, Maxwell refers to the social “common sense” that was changing in Late Antiquity when a particular Christian “common sense” came into being. Maxwell makes use of “the sociology of elites” in order to explain why elites act as they do, and how elites maintain their influence. Maxwell mentions the concept of “confirmation bias” to describe why people continue to act and think in a certain way even if it is not aligned with new and otherwise convincing ideals; and Maxwell refers to the “social imagination” that developed in Late Antiquity under influence of Christian theology. By using these and other concepts from modern social sciences, Maxwell underlines the relevance of the study and the social criticism at its root. She ponders briefly on the question: how social elites today legitimize their own privileges (p. 7–8).

The first two chapters of the book give an overview of Roman as well as early and Late Antique Christian attitudes toward social and economic divisions. In this chapter we find rather brief discussions of several sources that are not geographically limited, and it is not quite clear according to which methodology Maxwell has selected these sources. In any case, they give a broad overview. Maxwell mentions the fundamental distinction in Roman society between honestiores and humiliores (p. 12–13). Although Maxwell returns to the virtue of humility in Chapter 5, these social concepts seem to me so fundamental for the subject matter of the entire book that I would have expected an even more detailed description of their meaning and development. In Chapter 1, Maxwell makes the point that the dichotomy of humiliores and honestiores in Greco-Roman society, makes it difficult to acknowledge the existence of a huge “middle class”. The apostle Paul, for instance, must be considered as belonging to the “middling economic group” of Roman society (p. 23), and the earliest followers of Jesus included a cross section of society. Maxwell also concludes that there was social mobility by way of education in Roman society. In a discussion of the radical potential in the New Testament writings, Maxwell underlines that the early Christian writings introduced egalitarianism among the baptised. However, this egalitarianism could be understood either concretely, metaphorically or eschatologically. By the second century, the revolutionary tendencies in Christianity were already toned down, and a “domestication of socially disruptive Christian teachings” took place (p. 34).

In the second chapter, Maxwell describes the social and economic backgrounds of some of the most prominent, late antique theologians, such as the Cappadocian fathers. All three of them came from very wealthy, well-connected provincial families and had received an education. As such they are examples of Christian theologians who were embedded in traditional social norms, according to which classical paideia remained valuable. Although these theologians took part in challenging some aspects of society and contributed to new attitudes to poverty and proper use of wealth, there was no call for a complete transformation of society. Maxwell notes that the most radical consequences of Christian social teachings can be found in the monasteries. Among ascetics, manual labour was compulsory and seen as a virtue in itself. Here, it would have been interesting with an even more thorough consideration about the ascetic influence on social and economic factors in Late Antiquity, and a discussion about the influence of the church on the monastic movement. I get the impression that Maxwell points to the ascetic movement as a part of the church where certain radical attitudes could be contained.

In Chapter 3 „Tentmakers and fishermen. The Apostles’ Social Status in Late Antiquity“, Maxwell describes how the low status of the apostles had an impact on the model of the ideal bishop. There was not a uniform reception of the apostles and their social status, and different genres display different attitudes, depending on their audience. For instance, in his sermons John Chrysostom gives sympathetic statements about workers, while in treatises to wealthy Christians he makes concessions to the rich about education.

Chapter 4 “Apostolic Simplicity and Elite Education in Late Antique Theological Controversies“ investigates the value ascribed to education in the context of theological controversies. Traditional education continued to be a quality for Christian leaders, however Orthodox faith was often emphasised because of its simplicity. Throughout the book, a significant body of secondary literature is listed in the footnotes. In Chapter 4 where the topic is education, it could have been relevant to go even more into detail and evoke more relevant literature, since it is a huge field of study in itself that has had quite a surge in the last decades. One could have included e.g. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995); or Samuel Rubenson and Lillian Larsen (eds.), Monastic Education in Late Antiquity: The Transformation of Classical Paideia (2018) etc.

The final chapter of the book, Chapter 5: „The Virtue of Humilty in Late Antiquity“, deals with the virtue of humility, “the mother of all virtue” according to John Chrysostom. A (rather arrogant) question posed by late antique theologians was, if humility was still a virtue if the humble attitude was not chosen voluntarily? As such, from an upper-class perspective, nobility could seem to be a pre-requisite for true humility. John Chrysostom did expect Christians to adopt a humble attitude, but he did not envision a radical new social order. The Cappadocian fathers showed an even lower expectation to the social effects of Christian humility, as they imagined that humility could coexist with elite worldviews and lifestyles. In conclusion, Maxwell notes that upper-class Christian leaders in Late Antiquity tended to accommodate the Bible’s most radical social critiques and proclamations into something that was less threatening to existing social, economic, and cultural hierarchies.

As already hinted at above, this is a comprehensive and thought-provoking volume. The author has chosen to paint a broad picture and include several sources to draw conclusions about the social consequences of late antique Christian theology. The broad nature of the study inevitably occurs at the expense of very detailed discussions of the individual sources. Some of the quoted sources in the book are translated by the author herself, while she in other cases rely only on translations. These choices regarding the use of translations and editions are not explained to the reader, and the original Greek text is only included in a handful of footnotes. Most often the wording of the sources is not cited or dealt with in any detail. This means that the original terminology is not very clear to the reader; some concepts reappear, such as humility, lowliness, simplicity, poverty and almsgiving, but are they uniform concepts in Greek? For certain, there is a lot to gain from this fine volume which educates modern readers on both late antique Christian theology and how the Greco-Roman society was changed by encountering this theology.

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