New Publication: Hymns, Homilies and Hermeneutics in Byzantium

Hymns, Homilies and Hermeneutics in Byzantium, ed. Sarah Gador-Whyte and Andrew Mellas (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

Byzantina Australiensia volume 25

The collection of papers in Hymns, Homilies and Hermeneutics explores the literature of Byzantine liturgical communities and provides a window into lived Christianity in this period. The papers reflect a growing interest in the social aspects of the liturgy, begun by pioneering scholars like Mary Cunningham, Pauline Allen, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, and Wendy Mayer. The research questions addressed within are vital for understanding the impacts of the liturgy on the lives and religious understandings of ordinary people, as well as the theologians and clerics of the Byzantine church.

Many of the papers in this book identify hymns and homilies as a means of moral formation in Byzantium. These liturgical texts are a way of shaping listeners’ responses to scripture and encouraging introspection and repentance. In John Chrysostom’s sermons, there is an intriguing connection between the golden-mouthed preacher’s hermeneutics and the moral exhortations with which he tends to end his homilies. The two come together in Chrysostom’s desire to transform his listener into a “living embodied hermeneutic exemplar”. Scriptural exegesis becomes a form of soul therapy, a way to guide listeners into the right way to live virtuous, Christ-like lives. Chrysostom was not alone in treating preaching this way—other contemporary preachers likewise saw their role as “trainers of souls concerned with the virtuous life, spiritual happiness, and soul-therapy”. Nor was Chrysostom alone in bringing together scriptural exegesis and moral formation—he and his contemporaries were inspired by Greco-Roman philosophical and rhetorical traditions and Jewish midrash traditions “in which instruction in the truths or wisdom collected in scripture and their application to the moral formation of the human being are indivisibly entwined”.

The final chapter of the volume travels to antiquity in search of the roots of Hesychasm. While Hesychasm is often associated with the fourteenth-century theology of Gregory Palamas and the controversy it sparked, the importance of the Macarian Homilies and Clement of Alexandria’s writings for the hesychastic tradition has been neglected. These texts draw on Plato’s Republic and Phaedo, cultivating “the concept of quiet meditation which nourishes the eye of the soul” and follow the Aristotelian tradition of “placing the intellect in the heart”, which is “the seat of God, the seat of faith.” By engaging with Plato and Aristotle, and bringing philosophy into dialogue with Christianity, early church fathers sought to grasp eternal realities through “the hesychastic practice of constant prayer in search of spiritual illumination.” This understanding of reality informed a Christian approach to Scripture, which was read with the eyes of the soul.

Hymns, Homilies and Hermeneutics in Byzantium is the 25th volume of Byzantina Australiensia and has just been published by Brill:

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