Johannes Hahn and Volker Menze (eds.), The Wandering Holy Man: The Life of Barsauma, Christian Asceticism, and Religious Conflict in Late Antique Palestine (California University Press, Oakland 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Johannes Hahn and Volker Menze (JH & VM): The Life of Barsauma belongs to the genre of Christian hagiography, that is saints’ lives—a genre that flourished during Late Antiquity (circa 300-600 CE). With Emperor Constantine (306-337), Christianity became a licit, and later in the fourth century also the dominating religion in the Later Roman Empire. Discrimination against non-Christian religions through imperial legislation started in and became more common during the fifth and sixth centuries. However, texts like the Life of Barsauma involuntarily show that non-Christian cults and religions nevertheless still flourished during these centuries. Barsauma was an acclaimed fifth-century Syrian ascetic, archimandrite, and leader of monks who supposedly worked numerous miracles as recorded in his very long Life. The nickname “the Roasted” he earned himself through a rather peculiar ascetic practice: “Now Barsauma wore an iron tunic next to his skin. He used to keep his face and his chest turned toward the sun as it traveled across the sky, so that his body became roasted by its rays, resembling a fish that is fried in a pan. It was scorched by the heat of the iron, like the skin of a lamb when it blisters in a fiery oven.
Barsauma was a rather “nasty” saint: he was not only violent against his own body but also and foremost against others, particularly Jews, pagans, and Christian “heretics,” as well as co-religionists if necessary. The hagiographer does not just depict a saint whose beliefs and virtues were opposed to those of heretics and Jews, for example, but also a hero who destroyed synagogues and temples and sought to subdue his enemies completely, even to kill them. The most prominent story of this kind in the Life is Barsauma’s famous “reconquest” of Jerusalem. According to the hagiographer, 103,000 Jews who had been allowed by the empress Eudocia to convene in the city for the Feast of Tabernacles attempted to take over Jerusalem assisted by imperial officials, clergy, and even the empress. Only Barsauma and his disciples resisted, and with the help of God—who killed many of the Jews—they ensured that Jerusalem would remain a Christian city. This dramatic episode covers almost one-tenth of the Life, and you find this story mentioned in every scholarly book on Late Antique Palestine or Judaism.
However, no scholar mentioning this episode was ever able to read the whole Life because only bits and pieces had been edited and translated into French by Francois Nau in 1913/14. Therefore, now around fifteen years ago, the idea was born that we wanted to make the whole text of this fascinating Life available to a broader audience and analyze the Life in its proper context.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JH & VM: As the title “The Wandering Holy Man” indicates, Barsauma was not subject to stabilitas loci: that is, in contrast to the monastic ideal in the Middle Ages, he was not bound to his monastery but vagabonded together with his disciples throughout the Near East, particularly through Palestine. This was a particular late antique type of “monasticism” that the Church soon afterwards attempted to suppress. The Life makes it impossible to estimate how much of his life he stayed in his monastery (probably around Melitene, today Malatya in eastern Turkey—to which he always returned and where he also died) and how much time he spent on the road. However, the focus of the Life is clearly on Barsauma’s travels, and several of our contributors have analyzed his journeys. This applies foremost, of course, to his several “pilgrimages” to Jerusalem, but he also travelled to the emperor in Constantinople. Considering that he was the only non-bishop in history who has ever been invited to sit in an ecumenical council (the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, later annulled at the Council of Chalcedon in 451), his influence at court should not be underestimated.
The contributions that analyze Barsauma’s pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the “Holy Land” also address the question of his violent anti-Judaism. Anti-Judaism is a common feature, particularly in Syriac texts from Late Antiquity, and it shows the fierce competition between established Judaism and the emerging Christian state religion. However, the offensive violence in the Life of Barsauma is unparalleled. In the second half of the Life, the focus switches from Jews, pagans, and Samaritans as Barsauma’s opponents, to Christian “heretics.” Here, the issue is the Christological controversy in Late Antiquity: since Cyril of Alexandria’s (bishop 412-444) clash with Nestorius of Constantinople (bishop 428-431) over the question of theotokos (is Mary the mother of God? Or should she be simply called Christotokos, mother of Christ?) and the question of the divine and human natures in Christ, theological controversies dominated domestic politics in the Later Roman Empire. Barsauma and his monks sided with the Christian groups from which later the Coptic and the Syrian Orthodox Churches would emerge, and which still exist today.
The edited book is the result of a conference we had organized in 2013 in Münster/Germany. We had invited scholars from different fields and provided them with the text of the Life of Barsauma.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JH & VM: In many ways, both of us had worked on topics that are related to several of the issues in the Wandering Holy Man. Johannes Hahn has extensively worked on religious violence before, particularly in his Gewalt und religöser Konflikt: Studien zu den Auseinandersetzungen zwischen Christen, Heiden und Juden im Osten des Römischen Reiches (von Konstantin bis Theodosius II) (Berlin 2004). Volker Menze has studied the Christological controversies in the fifth and sixth centuries in his Justinian and the Making of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Oxford 2008 and The Legacy of a Syrian Orthodox Bishop: John of Tella and his Profession of Faith (Piscataway 2009). The many facets of the Life of Barsauma nevertheless offered more options to us than we could possibly explore, and we collaborated with several scholars in the preparation of this volume. We particularly struggled with the questions of dating and historicity, as the Life is in many ways unique and not much is known about the protagonist Barsauma outside of his Life.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JH & VM: The volume presents the text of the Life in translation and through seven contributions by specialists (plus introduction and conclusion). It thereby offers an introduction to the Life of Barsauma, and it may even be considered as a first handbook to the archimandrite Barsauma and his vita. We hope to provide other scholars a solid basis to work with the newly available text and incorporate it for their own work and studies.
Barsauma and his Life are certainly of interests to students and scholars working on Late Antique religious history, in particular Church History and Conciliar Studies, as well as Jewish Studies. As it is a Syriac hagiography, it will be of interest to Syriacists and literary scholars as well. However, we hope that the book sparks interest with anyone who is intrigued by the fascinating world of Late Antiquity.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JH & VM: Volker Menze is writing a monograph on The Last Pharaoh of Alexandria: Patriarch Dioscorus and Later Roman Ecclesiastical Politics. Dioscorus, bishop of Alexandria (444-451), was deposed by the Council of Chalcedon (451) and became a villain and arch-heretic in western Church tradition, while the Coptic Church reveres him as a saint. Sources on him are therefore extremely biased, and Volker intends to offer a nuanced reading of the historical Dioscorus within the framework of late Roman ecclesiastical politics.
Johannes Hahn is presently editing a volume on the expropriation and destruction of synagogues in Late Antiquity and preparing a monograph on challenges to Christian identities in the fourth century CE.
Excerpt from the book (Chapter 6: Johannes Hahn, “It is not lawful for Samaritans to have dealings with Christians!” Samaritans in the Life of Barsauma, pp.131-34)
It is helpful to take another, closer look at the Life and its treatment of Samaritans again. As mentioned above, the Samaritans are named in two programmatic entries in the course of the Life (§ 4.2 and § 34.1) as one of the three major religious groups competing with Christianity in Palestine and the Near East. And in the same context it is crisply expressed that the sacred infrastructure of these three groups was at the heart of Barsauma’s zeal when travelling the region. His agenda is outlined in § 34.1: “… he began to demolish the Sabbath houses of the Jews, destroy the Synagogues of the Samaritans, and to burn down the temples of the pagans.”
However, contrary to this programmatic declaration, one looks in vain for an account of the destruction of a Samaritan synagogue in the Life. Has the author forgotten to narrate it, has it been lost, or has it been removed later? Not at all. On the contrary, it appears that Barsauma’s dealings with the Samaritans are indeed different. The level of conflict between the saint and this religious group is not to be compared with the polarization and anti-pagan and anti-Jewish fervour we encounter elsewhere. The destruction of a Samaritan synagogue or any other form of violence would not have been in accord with Barsauma’s or his hagiographer’s perception of Samaritanism.
The very first episode, the healing of the Samaritan woman, already makes this quite clear: Although one could take the story as evidence for resistance – or rather initial resistance – against Barsauma’s missionary efforts, the reader is struck by the generally peaceful, almost dignified circumstances of Barsauma’s appearance and involvement with members of the Samaritan local population and their religion. The evidence of the other Samaritan episode is not different. Here, on a Sabbath day, “On his way home Barsauma again passed through Samaria. He happened to be in a certain village on the Sabbath Day and all the inhabitants came to see him. They disputed with him about the resurrection of the dead and the Son of God, both of which they denied, as they denied the existence of the Holy Spirit and the angels. Barsauma disputed with them on the basis of the Law of Moses, because the Samaritans do not accept any other scripture. He went through the Law word by word, from the beginning to the end, proving his point to them.” (§ 84. 2-3). All in all, the profile of these Samaritans and of Barsauma’s dealings with them in the Life is markedly moderate, the level of conflict spelled out limited, the dispute focused on theological matters, and hostility entirely lacking. Is it, then, perhaps possible to question the hagiographer’s initial programmatic claim in the light of other observations and more general considerations? Indeed, it can be shown that the Samaritans, unlike their Jewish and pagan neighbours in the Holy Land, apparently were not seen as the same kind of opposition or straightforward enemies by Barsauma (or by his hagiographer) as the pagans in general and the Jews in particular.
The image of the Samaritans in the Life lacks any negative connotation beyond their initial resistance and disbelief. This is, cum grano salis, also true of their depiction in the remaining passages in the Life. The worst Barsauma’s hagiographer has to say about them is to be found in § 4.2 in a remark which shows strong signs of being a later addition since it tries to introduce a retrospective and abbreviated historical overview of the general situation, and the unhappy living conditions of Christians, in Palestine in former days. Here it says: “Now at that time pagans abounded in Palestine, Phoenicia and Arabia. Christians were as yet few in number in those countries. The Jews and the Samaritans, on the other hand, were rich. They persecuted the Christians of that region.” Otherwise, no bad word is wasted on the Samaritans by the hagiographer or a later editor. On the contrary, the Samaritans are described as serious believers, knowledgeable in their Bible, keen on debating and understanding their holy text – and eager to learn a better argument and message. Any stubbornness is alien to them.
This observation is important because it stands in stark contrast to the image the Life draws of the other religious groups Barsauma and the Christians are confronted with in Palestine. The pagans fare relatively well, still: When Barsauma turns up they are filled with fear; they take to arms to battle the saint (§ 34.2); their priests are pretty stupid, obstinate and stubborn in their resistance (§ 35.4). When Barsauma tries to teach them he has to talk to them with “powerful and terrible words” (§ 34.9), but cannot take to subtle theological or philosophical arguments. They start jeering at him when a miracle he promised does not immediately materialize: “At this the pagans loudly vented their blasphemous contempt. There was laughter on all sides, when someone mocked, ‘Christians, your god is a liar, it would seem. He has no power to make it rain for us.’” (§ 34.15). Despite the eventual rich rainfall the chief priest refuses to give in. He has to be threatened and blackmailed by his fellows first. Furthermore, he needs an extra portion of terror – his two daughters are instantly befallen by demons – before in the end he breaks down and pleads for mercy (§ 35.4–36.5). Only after such strenuous efforts on the part of Barsauma do all the city’s inhabitants become Christians.
Even darker is the image the Jews earn in the Life. They also confront Barsauma hostilely but do in fact physically battle him, allegedly with 15,000 men (§ 38.3), shooting arrows and throwing stones at the saint (§ 39.1). Later, in their vain attempt to win official admission to visit and mourn their desolate temple in Jerusalem “the spirit of arrogance entered them” (§ 91.3). They write deceitful letters (§ 91.5), they scream in terror when a sudden celestial thunder is heard (§ 92.3), they try to stone Barsauma’s disciples (§ 93), they accuse the monks of murder, they oppress and persecute the Christians (§ 95.6), etc. Remarkably, and quite in contrast to his dealings with Samaritans, nowhere does Barsauma enter into any theological discussion with Jewish counterparts.
The anti-Judaic fervour of the narrative of the events in Jerusalem is all too evident. And it is equally clear that this rejection of and fury against Jews, which was familiar and popular in the fifth century, is owed to the Christian reproach that they were responsible for Jesus’ death, and indeed had to be regarded as the ultimate murderers of God’s son. The fervour had been fuelled only a few decades earlier by the emperor Julian and his abortive attempt to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem in order to restore the traditional Jewish cult and its sacrifices there. The plan, and the resulting wave of Jewish eschatological enthusiasm, meant a lasting traumatic experience for the Church as the temple’s permanent destruction had always been propagated as irrefutable proof of the New Covenant and the transfer of God’s grace to the Christian Church.
One aspect of the two Samaritan episodes should strike the reader from the outset: Barsauma’s remarkable success in converting his Samaritan counterparts. Everywhere in the Life the saint works miracles but only a small number is said to have openly aimed at or actually accomplished conversions – much less than one would expect in a hagiographical text of that kind, filled with signs and miracles. The traditions regarding Symeon or Daniel Stylites are striking examples here. Compared to the low conversion rate Barsauma achieves in his dealings with pagans and, in particular, with Jews in the Life, his success in teaching and literally missionizing his Samaritan audience stands out. This is not a coincidence, but instead relates to historical reality, at least in the fifth century.
The readiness of Samaritans to submit to the prevailing political and religious conditions and pressures is repeatedly reported in our period. Samaritans entered, despite legal restrictions, the imperial administration, served for instance in large numbers in the office of the provincial governor in Caesarea, and in some cases acquired, with the embrace of Christianity, senatorial dignity. Procopius, a native of Caesarea himself, speaks of crypto-Samaritans, of superficial conversions for opportunistic motives: “The Samaritans, regarding it as a foolish thing to undergo any suffering in defence of a senseless dogma, adopted the name Christian in place of that which they bore.” One also finds considerable numbers of Samaritans serving in the Late Roman army, but no Jews.
Rabbinic sources claim that Samaritans in the cities were willing to convert rather than risk their lives when put under pressure by the Christian government. Unlike in much of the Samaritan rural population, in these urban circles adaptability, so it seems, was not an empty word but rather often a strategy of compromise, advancement or well-chosen assimilation. The episodes in the Life of Barsauma thus mirror a specific contemporary phenomenon in some local Samaritan communities in Palestine. This phenomenon is characteristic for the dynamics of the province’s development under late Roman rule prior to the outbreak of the great Samaritan revolts which brutally ended this increasing assimilation of parts of the Samaritan population. The reality of Barsauma’s active ‘involvement’ in this process may be debatable and impossible to assess but the episodes’ compatibility with the historical back-ground lends them an authentic ring.