Dissidence and Persecution in Byzantium: Keynote Speakers

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Professor David Olster (University of Kentucky)

The Idolatry of the Jews and the Anti-Judaizing Roots of Seventh- and Early Eighth-Century Iconoclasm

K. Schwarzlose’s seminal, nineteenth-century study of the Iconoclast controversy identified Jewish and Moslem aniconism as directly influencing Leo III’s decision to ban (or partially ban) icons.  And while modern scholars no longer accept direct Jewish influence on Leo III, the subtler socio-cultural interchange between Jews, Moslems and Christians might have had the same effect.  As L. Brubaker/J. Haldon recently explained, “Influences which in one sense might have been seen as ‘external’ were … part of a [social] continuum that did not respect political boundaries.”  In both cases, the logic behind “Judaizing” assumes that seventh-century eastern, Roman Christians understood the Jews as aniconic and that at some level, Christian iconoclasm was in part a defensive reaction.

But was this in fact the case?  When Patriarch Germanus defended the use of icons, he asserted that Christian veneration of icons should be contrasted to the idolatry of Jews and Moslems.  Germanus’s construction of the Jews was not aniconic, but rather was based on the numerous Old Testament texts that blamed their idolatry for the fall of the Jewish kingdoms.  Indeed, the idolatry of the Jews was a long-standing trope in Christian rhetoric that went as far back as the Epistle of Barnabus.  In succeeding centuries, charges of idolatry and the murder of prophets and Christ were rhetorical mainstays of Christian, anti-Jewish polemic.  As G. Dagron succinctly explained, “The Jews are condemned:  that is their function.”  And idolatry was one of the primary causes of their condemnation.

In the seventh century, the theme of sin and divine retribution became dominant in Christian literature because, as Walter Kaegi explained, “Obviously such a major historical event as the loss of Egypt, Palestine and Syria would greatly have impressed the Byzantines and would have caused them to ponder its significance.”  Seventh-century Romans saw the hand of God behind the Persian and Arab victories and sought for new rhetorical models with which to explain them since the triumphalist rhetoric based on traditional Greco-Roman models would no longer serve.  They found them in the Old Testament.

The sudden surge of Old Testament, apocalyptic tropes across literary genres was part of a far broader shift in Roman imperial rhetoric as eastern Romans sought to redefine their relationship as a Christian people and Empire to God.  Old Testament models came to the fore in the areas of rulership, empire and the empire’s enemies.  New Rome became New Jerusalem, barbarians became Amalekites and Assyrians, and emperorship became ever more associated with the priesthood.

The debate over icons needs to be understood in the light of this broader, seventh-century cultural discourse.  Leo III’s iconoclasm was not simply a continuation of the debate over icons that had gone on since Clement of Alexandria; seventh-century imperial collapse gave that debate a critical importance in contemporary attempts to redefine Romanity.  Whatever the role of the cult of the saints, the “propaganda war” between the Empire and the Caliphate, and the social intercourse between Christians, Jews and Moslems in the development of seventh- and early eighth-century attitudes toward icons, I would suggest that the seventh-century debate over icons was part of the evolution of what H.-G. Beck has called Byzantium’s “political theology,” and that the iconoclasts, at least in part, sought to reject the Old Israel and its idolatry once and for all.

Associate Professor Jitse H. F. Dijkstra (University of Ottawa)

The Avenging Sword?  Imperial Legislation Against Temples in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries

Late Antiquity is often seen as a period rife with religious violence. This is not least because our literary sources are full of bloody conflicts between Christians and violent actions by zealous Christians against temples, statues and even ‘pagans’.  In recent years, however, scholars have begun to realize that religious violence is a much more complex phenomenon than previously thought that involves various (not just religious) factors and needs to studied in its particular local and historical circumstances.  Moreover, scholars have become more and more sceptical of the sources describing these events, which are often biased and have a tendency to exaggerate.  This is confirmed by the rich archaeological material that is now available, showing for instance that the destruction of temples and their conversion into churches were exceptional rather than routine events, and usually only happened from the second half of the fifth century onwards.

One type of source that is often adduced to back up the picture of widespread religious violence in the fourth and fifth centuries is the imperial legislation collected in book 16 of the Codex Theodosianus.  Yet significant progress in the study of the law codes has demonstrated that this legislation should be seen as mostly normative and cannot be taken to reflect what was happening ‘on the ground’.  In this paper, I will argue that imperial legislation against temples was uneven and not aimed at the destruction of temples, at least not until 435 CE, when most temples were already abandoned.  At the same time, these measures could, indirectly, have a significant impact on local constellations, as can be demonstrated by the ‘destruction’ of the Serapeum at Alexandria in 391/392 CE.


Image: Martyrdom of the iconophile Euthymios of Sardis, from the 12th-century Madrid Skylitzes manuscript, Wikimedia Commons.