Mucking about in one of history’s black holes

Professor Patrick Gray describes himself as one of those rare historians who like to muck about in history’s neglected black holes. Gray, recently retired from his role as a professor of religious studies in the School of Arts & Letters in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, has just published a new book about one of those black holes. Titled Leontius of Jerusalem (Oxford University Press, 2006), it presents Gray’s translations of the writings produced by a sixth-century monk during one of the least studied periods of religious history, and a full introduction to them. 

Right: Patrick Gray. Photo by Cathy Carlyle

The sixth century is a unique period in the history of the Christian church, says Gray, because it radically transformed the church. And yet, surprisingly little research has been done by academics on the period. Traditionally, the work of religious historians has focused on the preceding era of the church fathers, a formative period in the Christian church, says Gray. 

The church fathers, particularly those of the first five centuries of Christian history, were the early and influential theologians and writers. Other academics, explains Gray, have focused their efforts on the Byzantium world that followed in the East, and others have researched the religious history of the Middle Ages in the West.

Researching the historical and religious influences of the sixth century has relevance, says Gray, because the knowledge gained explains the bridge from the major religious and historical events of the fourth and fifth, and seventh centuries. “Leontius of Jerusalem is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, he’s something of an ecumenical theologian, a rarity in an age more likely to condemn people who disagreed with you on doctrine as heretics than to enter into dialogue with them,” explains Gray.

During this period in the history of the Christian church, significant disagreements took place which resulted in the splitting of the church between those who believed that Jesus Christ was one incarnate divine nature (the Monophysites) and those who believed that Christ was a divine and human nature united in a single person.

The church had been divided along this belief since 451CE when an ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, was convened by Marcian, the Roman emperor in the East. The council was created to settle significant and divisive theological disputes about the person of Jesus Christ. Rulings by a previous council were passed without papal approval. The new council struck by Marcian took a midline approach which described Christ as having two natures, divine and human, that were united in a single person. The resulting division eventually resulted in the splitting off of the Monophysite churches of Rome and Constantinople. The decisive moment came, after Leontius’ time, when the dissidents ordained a separate hierarchy of bishops. This meant that the rebel churches had given up on convincing the official church that there should be a return to what they viewed as a more orthodox mandate.

Eighty years into the divide that resulted from the Council of Chalcedon, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, in the year 532, attempted once again to repair the rift. “Justinian sponsored discussions in 532 between representatives of the two groups in the hope that they would find a compromise,” explains Gray, “but the discussions broke down after two of the projected three days, and the emperor’s personal proposal at the end, which was along the lines of ‘What if we [the official church] were to agree that …’, fell on deaf ears.”

Right: The Byzantine emperor Justinian, depicted in the famous Byzantine mosaics of the St. Vitale Church in Ravenna, Italy

“It seems to have fallen to Leontius of Jerusalem, a monk and perhaps an observer at the discussions, to make the next overtures. The short collection of 63 aporiae (clever arguments designed to show the logical “dead end” or “impasse” an opponent’s position leads to) takes an aggressive stance: the dissidents are claiming Christ is “out of two natures” but, inconsistently, that he is “one incarnate nature”. Reconciliation was hardly likely to result from such arguments.

“In his writings, titled Testimonies of the Saints, however, Leontius took a more conciliatory attitude. Mindful, it seems, of what had not succeeded in the 532 discussions, he avoided attacking the reputations of figures from the past whom the dissidents revered and he avoided making a lot of the fact that some of the texts they rested their case on were forgeries fathered upon respectable church fathers by earlier heretics,” said Gray. “Instead, Leontius proposed looking at the ‘testimonies of the saints’ [the church fathers] with a new eye, one that looked for what their underlying meaning was, rather than the formulaic words used to express them. He suggested that the dissidents would find that they actually agreed, despite their quarrels about formulae, on one substantial faith, in which case they had no reason to remain in schism.

“To admit that Leontius’ mission failed — the Monophysites became even more convinced that what was to become the Eastern Orthodox Church was committed to heretical ideas, and divided from it shortly afterwards — does not mean that this champion of what, in our time, is known as ecumenism, is lacking in interest. Indeed, for an age when aggressive attacks on dissidents as perverse heretics were the rule, his ecumenical approach is quite remarkable,” explains Gray.

Leontius of Jerusalem presents the monk’s writings, published for the first time in a proper edition and with a readable English translation by Gray.

Gray decided to do the book on Leontius of Jerusalem after speaking with American scholar David Evans, author of Leontius of Byzantium (1970).  “David convinced me I was the perfect candidate to take on editing the works of the other important Leontius of the period, Leontius of Jerusalem,” said Gray. 

Gray did not suspect what he was letting himself in for and says that he blithely agreed to Evans’ suggestion. He began, what he thought would be a two-year project which, in reality, ended up taking 30 years to complete.

“At the end of those 30 years, my Greek is a lot better, the project was cut down to two out of three (and the shorter two at that!) of Leontius’ works, and I’ve changed publishers. But the book is out, there are actually people I know who have bought it of their own free will. Slowly, people will start to mention Leontius of Jerusalem. They may even cite him in Greek (but I’ll know that they found it from reading my English translation).”

Visit the Oxford University Press Web site for more information about the book Leontius of Jerusalem.