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Constructing Ideas of Christian Life: The Strategies of Interpretation of the Biblical Texts by Palladius of Hellenopolis

Yuliya Minets, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Junior Fellow 2008–2009

The main research question of my dissertation is the use of biblical texts to construct ideals of exemplary Christian lives in late antique writings. I pay particular attention to the different purposes and the target audiences of the texts analyzed. I investigate the narrative structures where the biblical quotations, references, and allusions to Scripture were used as well as their understanding and interpretation by late antique Christian authors, that is, the meanings which were read into the sacred texts and used for developing ideas and ideal images of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. The main sources for the study are two texts of Palladius, bishop of Helenopolis: the Lausiac History and the Dialogue on the Life of John Chrysostom.

My goal this year at Dumbarton Oaks was to complete the main stages of research for my dissertation and to write the first draft of the text. I was able to finish all three main parts of my work. The first chapter contextualizes Palladius as a late antique Christian author and his works in the historical and intellectual situation of the fourth and fifth centuries. I investigated Palladius’s biography, his educational and social background, and his intellectual circle and teachers. I carried out the source study of the Lausiac History and Dialogue and prepared an overview of secondary literature. The Lausiac History and the Dialogue are particularly interesting because they were written by a single author but differ considerably both from a linguistic point of view and in their contents. The texts differ in features of style and rhetorical organization, in the level of theological understanding and elaboration of ideas, and in the use of well-known patterns and examples from the Bible, early Christian writings, and Classical literature.

In the second chapter, I focused, firstly, on textual studies of the biblical quotations and references in the Lausiac History and Dialogue, paying attention to the sources of citation, and to any literal alterations that the text of the Bible underwent due to Palladius’s intentional or unconscious changes because of the methods of a late antique author's work and the influence of other authors. Second, I investigated the narrative strategies and rhetorical construction that Palladius used to involve the biblical texts in his own narratives.

In the third chapter, I considered the different interpretations of the biblical texts in Palladius’s two works, which result from different attitudes to certain issues, such as wisdom, eschatology, pride, the appearance of the Holy Man, mixed male and female communities of ascetics, etc. These issues were important in late antique Christian discourse, and were variously evaluated and interpreted in different kinds of texts. Therefore, they work as a litmus test for a problem: to define the level of the particular text in its contemporary discourse. Correspondingly, they reflect the expectations, ideas, and worldview of the potential audience, and thus help us to define the place of Palladius’s works in the different intellectual trends of Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries.

In the Lausiac History, Palladius tends to present ideas associated with the communities of monks in the Egyptian desert and, probably, with the lower layer of laypeople who sometimes were not so sophisticated in their understanding of biblical words. I do not mean that Palladius expressed simple ideas, rather he presented them in a form comprehensible to his audience. The Dialogue, on the other hand, is polemical narrative which delivers ideas appropriate for high-level and educated church authorities and secular officials. Its potential audience might be the members of John Chrysostom’s party who in 400–410 needed to “create” their own hero, prove their heroism in supporting him, and justify their suffering for truth.