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7-08-2015, 20:46

Religion and the church

It is generally recognised that from the later sixth century onwards there was an increasing desire to have direct access to the power of the holy. Again, this cannot be demonstrated beyond peradventure, since the means of access – cults of saints and their relics, and perhaps even the veneration of icons – were already well established by the sixth century. Traditionally, imperial authority had been justified by the divinely protected status of the emperor, expressed through an imperial cult. The Christianisation of the imperial cult tended rather to enhance its authority than to diminish it, since the representative of the only God was hardly reduced in status in comparison with a divine emperor holding a relatively lowly position in the divine pantheon.23 It seems to be demonstrable that this Christian imperial authority and that of the hierarchy of the Christian church, which was closely bound up with it, were reinforced by holy men and holy images claiming immediate access to supernatural power. It seems, too, that even traditional imperial authority was increasingly expressed through images that spoke of a more immediate sacred authority. This becomes evident at the beginning of the seventh century fromthe use of icons of Christian saints as military banners, especially of theMother ofGod; from the way in which Christian armies are seen as fighting for the Virgin, with her protection and even her assistance; and from the role claimed for the Virgin as protector of the city of Constantinople. A sacralisation of authority is also manifest in the increasing significance attached to coronation by the patriarch in the making of an emperor; this was always conducted in a church from the beginning of the seventh century, and in theGreat Church of St Sophia from 641. The institutional church, indeed, may well have felt itself threatened by the proliferation of the holy in the seventh century: the church in the Byzantine east certainly failed to establish the kind of control over the holiness present in saints, their images and their relics, that the popes and bishops had won in the western church.24 But if there is little evidence of tension between the proliferation of the holy and the church hierarchy in the Byzantine east in the seventh century, 25 there is certainly evidence of tension between the centre and the periphery in geographical terms. Despite the wealth of theological literature that survives from the seventh century, we know little about theology at the capital, for the simple reason that by the ninth century no one in Constantinople wanted to be reminded of it. Theology in Constantinople was subservient to the emperor, and to the politically inspired doctrines of monenergism, monothelitism and, in the next century, iconoclasm. Resistance to all of these – a resistance that was finally recognised as ‘orthodoxy’ – came from the periphery, and in the long term especially from the monks of Palestine, who had long been known for their commitment to Chalcedonian orthodoxy. This fact had curious long-term consequences for orthodox Byzantium, and is worth pursuing briefly here. Resistance to monenergism began with Sophronius, who had been a monk in Palestine and later became patriarch of Jerusalem; resistance to monothelitism was led by Sophronius’ disciple Maximus, whose impact on the orthodox in Palestine was such that they were called Maximians by the monothelites in Syria and Palestine. 26 In the second half of the seventh century dyothelite (‘orthodox’) Christians in Palestine found themselves in a new situation. Previously they had been adherents of an imperial orthodoxy that had been backed up, in the last resort, by force. Now they found themselves in a situation where their religious position was opposed by other Christian groups – monophysite, monothelite and even Nestorian – and by non-Christians like Jews, Samaritans, Manichees and, eventually, by Muslims. They had both to defend what they believed in and to work out exactly what their faith amounted to. In order to do this, they had to pay attention to matters of logic and definition, for the only way to defend and commend their position was by convincing others; they could no longer appeal to the secular arm. One element in this refining of the presentation and understanding of the Christianity of the ecumenical councils was dialogue with – or polemic against – the Jews. After a long period when there was scarcely any dialogue with Jews, or even simple refutation of Judaism, the second half of the seventh century witnessed an extraordinary burgeoning of such works. Most come from the provinces seized by the Arabs: Syria, Palestine, the Sinai peninsula and Cyprus. It is clear from some of these works that Jews themselves took the initiative, forcing Christians to produce fresh defences of doctrines such as the Trinity and practices such as veneration of saints, relics and icons.27 Alongside such doctrinal clarification there was also celebration of the doctrines of Christianity in liturgical poetry, which came to form the backbone of monastic worship and again stemmed principally from Palestine. This eventually became the worship of the orthodox – that is Byzantine – church, and of those churches which learnt their Christianity from Byzantium. The crucial century for this definition, defence and celebration of orthodoxy was the period from 650 to 750. It is epitomised in the works of JohnDamascene, an Umayyad civil servant turned Palestinian monk, who thought of himself as a Byzantine Christian. Its first test was the iconoclasm of Byzantine emperors, beyond whose political reach these Christians lived.28 As we have seen, this form of Christianity was called Maximianism by its enemies, but it owed more to Maximus than simply its attachment to dyothelite Chalcedonianism, as declared at the Lateran synod of 649 and vindicated at the sixth ecumenical council of 680–1 (see above, pp. 231, 235). For Maximus’ genius as a theologian was to draw together the several strands of Greek theological reflection into an imposing synthesis. One strand in this synthesis was the dogmatic theology of the great patriarchs of Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril, which formed the basis for the dogmas endorsed by the ecumenical councils from the fourth to the sixth centuries. Another strand was the Christian Hellenism of the fourthcentury Cappadocian fathers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. A further strand was constituted by the ascetic wisdom of the fourth-century Egyptian desert fathers; and of their successors in the Judaean desert to the east of Jerusalem, in the coastal desert of Gaza and the barren mountains of the Sinai peninsula. These three strandsMaximus wove together, the final tapestry being shot through with the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, believed to be in reality an early sixth-century Syrian monk (see above, pp. 111–12). It was this theological vision ofMaximus which inspired the more soberly expressed, even dry doctrinal synthesis that we find in John Damascene. Maximus’ vision, in which humankind, the cosmos and the scriptures themselves were all interrelated, was reflected in the domed interior of the Byzantine church. In that space, asMaximus explained in his reflections on the divine liturgy called the Mystagogia, the liturgical ceremonies involving the clergy and the people celebrated the whole unfolding of the Christian mystery, from creation to Christ’s second coming, in a way that probed the depths of the human heart and illuminated the mysteries of the cosmos.29 But to turn from what may seem giddy heights – albeit expressed in such gesture, movement, melody and colour as to impress the simplest of Byzantine Christians – we see a more detailed picture of the life of the Byzantine church in the seventh century emerging from the 102 canons of the quinisext council, called by Justinian II in 692.30 Like his predecessor and namesake, Justinian II wished to mark his reign and manifest his exercise of imperial power by calling an ecumenical council. Hitherto, all councils regarded as ecumenical had been called to deal with some pressing doctrinal issue, but with the monenergist/monothelite controversy now settled, there was no doctrinal issue to provide occasion for an ecumenical council. However, the previous two ecumenical councils, the second and third of Constantinople, had issued only doctrinal canons, whereas all the earlier ones had dealt with both doctrinal and disciplinary issues. Thus the council Justinian eventually called, which issued only disciplinary canons, was regarded as finishing off the work of the previous two councils (the fifth and the sixth ecumenical councils) and was therefore called the quinisext council. It is also known as the Trullan council (in Trullo) from the domed chamber (troullos) in the palace where proceedings took place. The 102 canons issued by the council cover many aspects of the life of Christians, both their religious duties and their behaviour in secular life. The first two canons affirm and define the existing tradition, of which the rest of the canons constitute a kind of completion: canon 1 affirms the unchanging faith defined at the previous six ecumenical councils; and canon 2 confirms the body of disciplinary canons already accepted by the church.31 The rest of the canons complete this body of canonical material, and the whole body of legislation constituted by this council can be compared in some ways to Justinian’s code, in that it is intended as the final statement of an ideal of Christian life, expressed through much quite detailed legislation. It remains the foundation of the canon law of the orthodox church. In this context it is worth drawing attention to the last canon, which affirms that the administration of penalties in accordance with the canons must take account of the quality of the sin and the disposition of the sinner, for the ultimate purpose of canon law is to heal, not simply to punish. This canon reaffirms a principle already expressed in earlier canons,32 usually called the principle of ‘economy’ (oikonomia). It is not unlike the way in which in seventh-century secular law used Justinian’s code as an ideal, trying to fit the ideal to concrete issues rather than promulgating fresh legislation (see above, p. 241). One guiding principle of the canons of the quinisext council was to define the practices of the Byzantine church in conscious opposition to the developing customs of the Latin west. For instance, canon 55 forbids fasting on Saturdays and Sundays, except for Holy Saturday, and is explicitly directed against the practice of fasting on Saturdays during Lent found in the city of Rome. More important are the canons that allowed for a married pastoral clergy. Although restricted to priests and deacons – since on appointment to the rank of bishop, a married man had to separate from his wife, who took the veil (canons 12 and 48) – this too is in conscious opposition to the Roman canons; it would be some centuries, however, before a celibate priesthood was strictly enforced in the western church. A similar independence of Rome is manifest in canon 36. This prescribed the order of the patriarchates and, following the canons of the first ecumenical council of Constantinople (canon 3) and the ecumenical council of Chalcedon (canon 28, which had been repudiated by Rome), ranked Constantinople second after Rome, with equal privileges. Although the papal legates accepted the canons, Pope Sergius I (687–701) refused to sign them and Justinian’s furious attempt to enforce papal consent only exposed the limits of his power in Italy. Sergius’ introduction of the singing of the Agnus Dei into the mass at Rome is perhaps to be seen as a snub to the council (see canon 82, discussed below).33 Although Pope John VII (705–7) seems to have accepted the canons of the council in 705, when Justinian was restored to the imperial throne, this represented no lasting endorsement of them by the western church. Other canons regulated the life of the local church, still understood as essentially an urban church ruled by a bishop although, as we have seen, the reality of the city was fading fast. Urban churches were grouped into provinces, under the leadership of a metropolitan bishop, and these provinces were to convene once a year (canon 8). Bishops were to live in their sees, and must return to them as soon as possible if they fled during ‘barbarian’ raids (canon 18). This anxiety that the bishop should stick to his city was partly to ensure his continuing pastoral care, but also his control of the church’s financial interests; the local churches were frequently considerable landowners with their estates being administered by the bishop. The requirement that bishops reside in their own sees was taken seriously, as is evident from the more abundant later evidence, especially from the Komnenian period, when the empire was even more focused on Constantinople and provincial sees were regarded as exile by their bishops.34 There are also canons against selling the sacraments and purchasing church office (what the west later called simony: canons 22–3). Legislation concerning monasticism, like much earlier legislation, attempted to confine monks to their monasteries and control the power of holy men (canons 40–9). Legislation concerning the laity forbade various entertainments, such as playing dice (canon 50); watching mimes, animal fights or dancing on stage (canon 51); the observance of civic ceremonies such as the Calends, Vota or Brumalia, which had pagan associations, as well as female dancing in public, dancing associated with pagan rites, cross-dressing, the use of comic, satyr or tragic masks, and the invocation of Dionysus during the pressing of grapes for wine (canon 62). All of this the church regarded as ‘paganising’, though such practices should probably not be thought of as the survival of paganism outright, but rather the continuance of traditional forms of worship involving the laity.35 Canons also forbade the confusion of traditional liturgies with the Christian sacraments – for example canon 57 forbidding the offering of milk and honey on Christian altars – and others regulated the institution of marriage and the circumstances of divorce (canons 53, 54, 72, 87, 92 and 93). Several canons dealt with relations between Christians and Jews. Canon 11 forbade eating unleavened bread with Jews, making friends with them, consulting Jewish doctors or mixing with Jews in the baths; canon 33 forbade the ‘Jewish’ practice of ordaining only those of priestly descent. Both these canons illustrate the way in which Jews were permitted to exist, but separately from the orthodox society of the empire. In fact, the seventh century had seen the beginning of a more radical policy towards the Jews: forced baptism on pain of death. Maximus the Confessor expressly objected to such a policy introduced by Heraclius in 632,36 and the policy was introduced again in the eighth and tenth centuries, by Leo III (717–41) and Romanos I Lekapenos (920–44) respectively. But the more normal Byzantine attitude to the Jews, to be preserved as a standing witness to the truth of Christianity with limited civil rights, is that envisaged by the canons of the Trullan council.37 Two canons bear witness to the place of religious art in the Byzantine world. Canon 100 forbids pictures that excite immoral pleasure, and emphasises how easily the bodily senses move the soul. Canon 82 is concerned with religious paintings and forbids the depiction of Christ as a lamb, a popular form of religious art that picked up the words of John the Baptist about Jesus as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1: 36). However, the canon argues, such symbolism has been fulfilled since God has come in human form; now the reality of the Incarnation is to be expressed by depicting the Incarnate Word as a man. Such concern for the content of religious images, expressed in theological terms, prefigures the controversies of the next two centuries caused by iconoclasm. The comparatively settled picture of Christian life in the Byzantine empire presented by the canons of the quinisext council is not, however, the whole story. The second half of the seventh century saw the production of apocalyptic texts, composed in Syriac. One of these, soon translated into Greek and subsequently into Latin, was ascribed to the early fourthcentury bishop Methodius (of Olympus, according to the Syriac original; of Patara, according to the Greek translation).38 The Apocalypse of Pseudo- Methodius responds to the loss of the eastern provinces to the Arabs – termed Ishmaelites or ‘wild ass of the desert’ – by recounting the history of the Middle East since biblical times. It predicts the final overthrow of the Ishmaelites at Jerusalem by the king of the ‘Greeks’ (so the Syriac; ‘Romans’ in the Greek version), whose victory will usher in the end of the world.39 The emergence of such apocalyptic hopes and fears at the end of the seventh century contrasts sharply with the spirit of the early sixth-century Chronicle of JohnMalalas, written partly to demonstrate that the world had survived the transition from the sixth to the seventh millennium from the creation (i.e., c. ad 500) without disaster. The end of the seventh century saw the Byzantine empire still in a process of transition and redefinition: the Arab threat to Constantinople would continue well into the eighth century, and iconoclasm is probably to be seen as a further stage in the empire’s search for its identity and ways of expressing this in the aftermath of the crisis of the seventh century.40 But there were scarcely any signs of incipient iconoclasm at the end of that century. The quinisext council invested a clearly articulated theological significance in religious art, and the process observed since the end of the sixth century of authenticating political authority by imagery invoking the supernatural was taken a stage further at the end of the seventh century: Christ’s image appeared on the obverse of imperial coinage, the imperial image being consigned to the reverse (see fig. 10 above, p. 236). But the structures of the society that would eventually emerge from this period of crisis can already be seen, albeit in inchoate form; so too can some of its limitations, when compared with Justinian’s vision of the Roman empire which it claimed to embody. Already there is a sense in the legislation of the quinisext council that the customs of those Christians who looked to Constantinople were different from those who looked to Rome: a gap that would widen as Rome moved from the Byzantine emperor’s sphere of influence to that of the Franks. The Mediterranean Sea was no longer to unite the territories that bordered it, but would come to separate the several societies which claimed the heritage of that lost unity.

 

 

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