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The Bishop versus the Emperor

Posted On December 05, 2019 | 11:53 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Matthew Crawford works on the first English translation of a surprising treatise from late antique Alexandria

Matthew Crawford, an associate professor in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “The Bishop versus the Emperor: Social Imagination and Intellectual Formation in Late Antique Alexandria,” used the treatise Against Julian as a window into intellectual and social interaction among Christians and pagans.


Q&A with Matthew Crawford

What is a common narrative about the late antique Christian response to pagan ideas? How does your research complicate that narrative?

There are variations, but one common way of telling this story boils down to the idea that classical education and learning came to an end around the beginning of the fifth century, particularly in Alexandria—the foremost intellectual center in the Roman Empire at the time. This happened because Christians were bigots who didn’t care about antiquity and simply wanted to subjugate everything and everyone to their authority and control. A popular example of this narrative is the 2009 film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, but it also appears on occasion in more scholarly works.

Elements of this narrative are true. I don’t intend to whitewash history. What I’m trying to say is it’s more complicated. With regard to certain details, that story is completely unsubstantiated. For example, there is no historical evidence that the Christians destroyed the great library at Alexandria.

But even setting aside individual historical inaccuracies, I’m trying to show that Christian authors did in fact engage with the classical intellectual tradition. Still in a polemical form—they are using that intellectual tradition against itself. Nevertheless, Christians are at least tacitly admitting that something in those pagan texts is useful for the argument they want to make and valuable for the kind of world they want to live in. That is, they didn’t simply reject the classical past—burning what came before. They attempted to appropriate that past to make something new to meet current needs. That kind of engagement is what I’m hoping to bring to light by translating Against Julian.


Who was Julian, and why would someone want to write against him?

Julian is one of the most famous Roman emperors, an enduringly fascinating character partly for the audacity of what he attempted. Raised a Christian, he secretly converted to paganism, or as he preferred to call it, “Hellenism,” which for him included devotion to the traditional deities. Once he came to power in 361, he attempted to turn back the clock half a century by removing Christianity’s privileged place and reviving the ancient religious practices of the Mediterranean world.

He attempted this on a scale and with a unified vision never seen before. He refurbished temples and reappointed priests, even planning to give the Jews funds to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. It never came to pass because Julian died in battle on the Persian frontier in 363. Authors like playwright Henrik Ibsen and novelist Gore Vidal have used Julian as a tragic figure—a way of thinking about what troubled them about Christianity in their own day.

But Julian had a more polemical side. He clearly thought Christianity was absurd and had contributed significantly to the dissolution of social order and morality in the empire. Several months before he died, he wrote a three-book treatise called Against the Galileans (“Galileans” being his derogatory term for Christians). The complete text is lost, but many fragments were preserved in the 20-book apologetic treatise titled Against Julian composed half a century later by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. 

I think if you had been sitting in the classrooms of Alexandria in the early fifth century you would have heard Julian’s legacy being debated, with Christians and pagans either idolizing or condemning him. Even Cyril admitted that pagans were boasting no one had ever effectively responded to his arguments, which was unsettling the confidence of some Christians.


Why haven’t scholars paid much attention to Against Julian?

In some respects, scholars have given a lot of attention to the question of Christian engagement with pagan ideas. For example, mountains of books have been written on Augustine’s City of God, a comparable text written at the same time. But other sites of encounter have been almost entirely overlooked. Only a single book has been written about Against Julian. I think there are two connected pragmatic reasons for this comparative neglect: the complete text has never been translated into any modern language, and even in the original it’s very opaque. Cyril’s style of Greek has been described as one of the most difficult of the late antique period.

The barrier to entry is, therefore, high. That’s why my priority is translating the text—getting Against Julian out there so people can access it. Junior fellow Brad Boswell studies this text too. Because so few people in the world work on this, it’s thrilling to find a partner and friend in the enterprise. Brad has pushed me to think more about how philosophically we should conceptualize polemical treatises like Against Julian.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.