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Arms and the Blogger

Almost daily I receive requests for photos of myself in the armor of a Roman centurion.

OK, maybe not that often … maybe I’ve never received such a request. But since I have the photo, I’m posting it, along with a shot of me with Barbara Bell (author of Minimus) and the illustrious Zee Poerio of Excellence Through Classics. I don’t know the name of the other armored man.

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Dig It and Dive It

It was a big week for archeological discoveries and announcements. We’ll skip over Berlusconi’s boasts to his mistress about owning thirty Phoenician tombs.

These, however, are significant for patristics nerds. Read up:

An ancient mosaic of an angel’s face has been uncovered at Istanbul’s Haghia Sophia.

Divers have found ruins of Cassiodorus’s birthplace.

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Indiana Jones in the Catacombs

CNS’s Cindy Wooden filed a cute story on Fabrizio Bisconti’s new Vatican appointment:

Indiana Jones and the Christian catacombs? Not quite

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Sometimes a job is just a job, even when from the outside it looks like it involves the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie.

Fabrizio Bisconti is the newly named archaeological superintendent of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, which oversees the upkeep and preservation of 140 Christian catacombs from the third and fourth centuries scattered all over Italy.

Most of the time, he said, the job is just work and study.

Staff members can spend a full month with surgical tools and cotton balls cleaning a third-century sarcophagus, but then there are those stunning, shocking, awe-inspiring moments of discovery.

Mid-June brought one of those “wow” moments when restorers cleaning a ceiling in the Catacombs of St. Thecla found what turned out to be the oldest known image of the apostle Paul. The fresco was hidden under a limestone crust.

Bisconti said treasure hunting and exploring were not his passions as a youth; he was into literature. But as a university literature student, he took an archaeology course “and fell in love.”

“Certainly, there is great emotion when you find something new, but for us archaeology is our job, the subject of our studies,” he said.

Bisconti said most of what he and his fellow archaeologists do all day involves very slow, painstaking precision care of the oldest intact Christian monuments and artwork.

Very little remains of any Christian church built before the fifth century, but the 140 catacombs in Italy offer clear evidence of how early Christians worshipped, how they lived and, especially, what they hoped and believed about death.

Because the catacombs are underground and were filled in with dirt in the fifth century — when people began burying their dead in cemeteries within the city walls — the catacombs remained remarkably intact, Bisconti said.

Deciding which catacombs to excavate and whether or not to open them to the public is a process that takes years and tries to balance the values of preservation, scholarship, education and Christian devotion, he said.

“Opening a catacomb means allowing its degradation,” he said.

As soon as the dirt in a catacomb is removed, the frescoes and inscriptions start fading and decaying. Human visitors, who sweat and breathe, add moisture to the air, which speeds up the growth of mold and the flaking of any painted surface, he said.

The catacombs are technically the property of the Italian government, which under the terms of the 1929 Lateran Pacts with the Vatican, entrusted their care and oversight to the Vatican.

Most of the 140 Christian catacombs in Italy are in Rome, and only five of those are open to the public: the catacombs of St. Sebastian, St. Callixtus, Priscilla, St. Agnes and Domitilla.

“There are many, many other catacombs,” he said.

For Bisconti, the most interesting of the closed catacombs is one on Via Latina in Rome. “It was discovered in 1955 and we have found more than 100 frescoes of scenes of the Old and New Testaments, but also of pagan myths,” he said.

The most popular Old Testament stories are Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Jonah in the belly of the whale, the story from the Book of Daniel about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace — “all of these gave support and comfort to Christians because they are examples of salvation,” Bisconti said.

Most of the catacombs were built around the tomb of a martyr because other Christians wanted to be buried near a hero of the faith. Even after the catacombs were no longer used for burial and were filled in, paths leading pilgrims to the martyr’s tomb were left open for several hundred years.

Most of the catacombs demonstrate the early Christian preoccupation with the equality of all believers, he said. The bodies were sealed into niches carved out of the earth, usually with very simple inscriptions.

Slowly, however, decorations were added and wealthier Christians were buried in sarcophagi or thick marble caskets.

Bisconti said his office is two or three years away from allowing the public to visit the Catacombs of Pretestato, located near the Catacombs of Domitilla. Never before opened to the public, the Pretestato burial grounds are the site of more than 1,000 sarcophagi, many still intact.

“It was very snobbish, very chic” to be buried there, Bisconti said.

The superintendent added that, whether dealing with a sarcophagus or with a simple niche in a catacomb, if a sealed tomb is found, Vatican workers leave it closed out of respect for the deceased.

Bisconti said it is true that the art and symbols found in the catacombs repeat the same things, “but that is because it was catechetical art. They were advertisements to convince people to convert. They were a way to repeat a message and demonstrate the conviction that it was true.”

I love Bisconti’s The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions. I have reviewed it in several places, most notably here.

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Heard on High

The Catholic Review, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, ran a very cool review of my book Angels of God: The Bible, the Church and the Heavenly Hosts. It’s by Nancy Roberts, professor of journalism and communication at the University of Albany, State University of New York, and the author of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.

In an engaging, succinct style, Aquilina presents a synthesis of angels’ spiritual ecology, drawing mainly from respected scriptural accounts as well as the church’s teachings and occasionally, individuals’ case histories.

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Song of Songs: Earliest Commentary

The earliest Christian commentary on the Song of Songs is, at long last, available in English. Yancy Smith embedded a translation in his doctoral dissertation, Hippolytus’ Commentary on the Song of Songs in Social and Critical Context, which is available free online. You can also get to it by going to the TCU website, Then input either the author name or title.

(I should credit Roger Pearse for putting me on to this. I discovered it through one of Yancy’s comments on a long-ago post of Roger’s.)

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Census Fidelium

It’s fabulously expensive, but looks fascinating: Fasti Sacerdotum: A Prosopography of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian Religious Officials in the City of Rome, 300 BC to AD 499. You’ll find it reviewed in BMCR.

Scholars of ancient Rome will be delighted that Rüpke’s monumental work, Fasti Sacerdotum, has been translated into English and thus become accessible to a wider readership … For those unfamiliar with the German edition, its aim was to construct annual lists for the city of Rome of attested priests, cult officials and followers from 300 BCE to 499 CE, lists that included not just pagan priests but also the officials from Jewish and Christian groups. The work falls into two main parts: a compilation of annual lists of priests and religious functionaries and a set of alphabetically arranged individual biographies. Understandably, the whole work was 14 years in the making and required a team of assistants.

The idea of the compiling the biographies is to personalize the religious history of the city of Rome through a biographical approach. Rüpke intends the work to be an instrument for researchers in the field of religious and cultural history. At all times he is aware of the limited nature of the source material at our disposal, which is derived largely from inscriptions.

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The Difference

A week or so ago, I wrote about Kenneth Howell’s new translation of Ignatius of Antioch (with theological commentary), commenter Kevin Scull asked: “I was wondering how Howell’s commentary compares to Schoedel’s Hermeneia volume. Although my specialty is Paul of Tarsus, I find Ignatius to be of tremendous importance and have been looking for an update to Schoedel’s great volume as 1985 is starting to be a bit dated. (Yikes that’s a hard pill to swallow!) I would appreciate any comparisons you could provide.”

I asked Dr. Howell himself, and he replied:

Bill Schoedel, who was a professor here in my department for many years, did a lot of fine work on the earliest fathers of the church. His commentary on Ignatius in the Hermeneia series sought to address a different audience from my book.  The Hermeneia series was designed to address the thorniest historical and hermeneutical issues known to scholars. As scholar who loves detailed questions, I have profitably  used many commentaries in the Hermeneia series.

But there are two major differences between Schoedel’s commentary and my own. One is simply audience. I sought to make the theology of Ignatius more accessible to a wider audience i.e. the educated non-specialist. I did address some disputed points but I was not trying to address the concerns of scholars. Therefore, I had to be selective about what issues I chose to address. Secondly, Schoedel’s commentary does not always portray Ignatius as a representative of the wider faith of the church in the 2nd century. This is characteristic, as I explained in my preface and at several points in my five introductory chapters, of professional historians of early Christianity who often treat particular fathers as individuals without seeing them as representatives of a mainstream faith handed on from the apostles. I, on the other hand, translated and commented on Ignatius by explicating the underlying theology of the Antiochean bishop and especially his connections with Paul and other NT writers.

BTW, we are soon to have a second, expanded edition with the addition of Polycarp (his Letter to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp) as well as an introductory chapter on him.

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Toward Greater Under-Standing

“Benedict XVI has created and filled the post of archeological superintendent of the catacombs, in a move that will bring the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology to function more like other Vatican dicasteries.”

Um, I think that’s good news! I’m reminded of Pope John XXIII’s response to the journalist who asked how many people work in the Vatican: “About half.”

Still, Zenit’s report promises that “great discoveries” are waiting in the catacombs. That’s exciting.

This part is certainly good news: “Fabrizio Bisconti, the outgoing secretary of the archeology commission, has been named the archeological superintendent of the catacombs, a post that did not previously exist.” Bisconti is the author of the mind-blowing book The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, which I reviewed here.

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Electile Dysfunction?

BMCR reviews another book that chips away at the myth of the “Constantinian Revolution.”

Peter Norton, Episcopal Elections 250-600: Hierarchy and Popular Will in Late Antiquity. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 271. ISBN 978-0-19-920747-3. $99.00.

According to church historians who subscribe to the theories of Max Weber, the early church’s spiritual power became routinized into a form of hierarchical authority represented by office-holding bishops who were more bureaucratic functionaries than charismatic leaders. With the growing involvement of the Roman state in church affairs after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the process further accelerated with the result that local Christian communities more or less lost their ability to shape their own destinies, squeezed as it were between interventionist Christian Roman emperors and equally imposing metropolitan bishops who single-mindedly pursued their own agenda. Thus most historical narratives of late antique Christianity focus upon the interactions between these two groups of powerful actors, with local communities outside the metropolitan cities frequently relegated to a secondary or tertiary role. The result is that, for moderns who regard the effective autonomy of local communities and democratic practices on a grassroots level as signposts of societal health, the converging authoritarian trends in the late Roman state and church serve to indicate a deeply-set malaise.

Against such an image of a society that was moving inexorably towards greater autocracy in respect of both imperial power and ecclesiastical authority, Norton offers his fruitful book as a riposte as well as a cause for hope. Episcopal Elections closely examines the specific circumstances by which bishops came into office as well as the types of interventions and obstructions that continued to threaten or undermine the ability of local communities to elect their own religious leaders. While the scope of the study appears at first sight to be quite narrowly circumscribed, this project has direct relevance for our broader understanding of the evolving relationship between local Christian communities, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and the late Roman imperial state. Through an appraisal of the forms of agency that determined the (s)election of late antique bishops and their efficacy, Norton presents a well-crafted argument against a set of widely-shared assumptions regarding the extent to which the rise of imperial Christianity in the later fourth century onwards repressed the effective autonomy of local Christian communities.

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Igniting an Ignatius Explosion

Not a week after my close encounter with Kenneth Howell’s fine new translation (with theological commentary) of Ignatius of Antioch’s letters, I find myself curled up with another book on this eloquent and theologically profound bishop of the first century, who died at the beginning of the second. A reader of Ignatius can’t help but marvel at the richness of Christian thought, so early in Christian history. Already in 107 A.D. we find an integrated theology of the Church and the sacraments, of martyrdom and morals, of authority and discipline. The theology is there in its complexity, though the martyr-bishop’s language is lovely in its simplicity and passion. He is a pastor and a preacher. He is above all a father of the family that is his church. So he’s not lecturing his recipients, not explaining or defending, so much as laying out the Gospel in terms he assumes they already know.

Well, the book that’s renewing last week’s renewal of my appreciation of Ignatius is Thomas A. Robinson’s Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. It’s just out from Hendrickson, and I’m just today dipping into it, but I’m finding it hard to put down.

A biography of Ignatius is, alas, an impossibility. We know nothing about his manner of exercising his office. We know nothing with certainty about his time in Antioch. The (much) later historians drop a few anecdotes here and there, but they’re not much to go on. We know his letters, and they are rare, warm, vital witnesses to the Church’s life in 107 A.D. But they’re hardly autobiographical.

So how to draw closer to this attractive Christian life?

Robinson does it the only way possible, this side of heaven. He gives us guided tours of the cultural contexts that would influence a man like Ignatius. He leads us through Antioch, a bustling commercial and military center, multicultural and multi-religious. He guides us through the varieties of Jewish religious experience during the first century — the sects, the migrations, the wars and the riots, the literature, the proselytes and God-fearers and God-worshippers. He does all of this in clear, concise, lively prose. The book is encyclopedic, but it never reads like an encyclopedia. It’s a sustained argument. It’s just colorful, picturesque, engaging, dramatic, riveting — like the first century.

Robinson is most concerned with Ignatius’s relations with the Jews. What do his letters tell us about Christianity’s relationship with Judaism in those crucial first decades after the passion of the Christ and the destruction of the Temple? Modern scholars tend toward two extremes: they either vilify the early Christians as anti-Semites or they explain away Christian rhetoric so that it’s toothless and practically senseless. Both approaches err in refusing to understand early Christianity on its own terms. Robinson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Lethbridge, helps us to see the first-century Jews and Christians as they established and defended their distinctive identities. Their positions are fairly well marked out, even then. I won’t spoil the ending, but I can’t help but believe that this clear, clean window on the first century will also help us catch a reflection of the state of our arguments in the twenty-first.

Along the way, Robinson takes aim at current fashions in early Christian studies, exposing them with rare common sense. Take, for example, his take on the charge that Ignatius “invented” the office of bishop.

Ignatius supplies the earliest evidence of what appears to be a fairly clearly defined three-part structure of authority: a bishop, with a subordinate presbytery, assisted by a group of deacons. This structure is referred to as a “monarchical episcopate,” or perhaps more precisely, the “monepiscopate,” so named after the nature of its highest office. Since Ignatius is the earliest witness to this structure, some scholars have suggested that he was either the creator of this ecclesiastical framework of authority or the primary promoter of it and the reason for its success.

The problem with this thesis is that Ignatius is able to use the term “bishop” in its rather full-blown form in letters addressed to churches far removed from Antioch. Ignatius assumes that the churches in the province of Asia have a three-fold division of leadership and that the members  there understand the terms of office in roughly the same way as he uses them. Indeed, the terms for the offices prominently dot the pages of Ignatius’s correspondence.

He’s just as good when he deals with the tiresome terminology of “Christianities” and “Judaisms.”

In recent years it has become fashionable to speak of Judaisms and Christianities and to discount any meaningful use of the singular forms of these terms. To complicate the debate even further, some scholars have challenged the adequacy of other “monolithic” terms, such as “early Christianity,” “Jewish,” “Gentile,” “pagan,” and “Greco-Oriental.”

Added to this is an overly careful policing of terms to prevent any anachronistic employment. What is inadequately appreciated is the fact that monolithic terms, by their nature, include ambiguities on the edges, whether of subject or of time. Such terms may well have a proper “anachronistic” use, in that the terms, by their nature as monolithic terms, can identify movements from their early stages, before the time a formal label was coined and applied.

… But such nuancing of the debate often fails to appreciate that the larger world in which Jews and Christians lived commonly employed such general and sweeping terms to identify Jews and Christians. The ancients almost entirely missed the diversity that many modern reconstructions see as the most distinctive aspect of these movements.

Those passages aren’t at the core of his argument. But they do touch upon my pet peeves, and I own this property. So there.

There’s so much more — not to mention excellent notes, bibliography, and indices. I hope you’ll buy Robinson’s Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations (along with Howell’s Ignatius of Antioch), and talk about them here!

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Merton on the Fathers

I haven’t read these books or heard the audio tapes they were based on, but I’ll bet they’re fascinating. Cistercian Publications has brought out multiple volumes of edited transcriptions of Thomas Merton’s conferences for Trappist novices. Several volumes deal exclusively or mostly with the Church Fathers: Cassian and the FathersAn Introduction to Christian Mysticism: (from the Apostolic Fathers to the Council of Trent), Pre-Benedictine Monasticism, and The Rule of Saint Benedict. Merton could be maddening and often controversial. He certainly sinned grievously against his vows. But he was brilliant and gifted with remarkable insight. I hope to peruse these conferences some day. The original audio sources are for sale here.

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Free Latin Lesson Near Pittsburgh

Barbara Bell, author of the children’s book Minimus (Cambridge University Press) is visiting Pittsburgh and offering a FREE Latin lesson to kids and adults on Thursday, July 23, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at St. Louise de Marillac Parish Center, 312 McMurray Road Pittsburgh, PA 15241. Bell is director of the Primary Latin Project and a member of the Order of the British Empire. Since Minimus the Mouse is ten years old this year, there will be cake and cookies to celebrate. The event is free, but registration is required. To register, please call 412-833-1010.

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Wedded Bliss

For Catholics, the calendar is the hermeneutical key to the Scriptures. At every Mass we hear an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, and a New Testament reading, often following a pattern of promise and fulfillment, and usually relevant in some way to the time of the season.

My beloved wife and I went to noon Mass today, as is our custom, but today we went to celebrate our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. If I could remember the periodic table, I’d know what element is almost silver. But I don’t. In any event, I found the readings of the day thought-provoking (and funny) in light of the occasion — children of Israel becoming alarmingly numerous, enemies in one’s own household. Good thing our help is in the name of the Lord.

Today’s as good a day as any to re-publish the words of St. John Chrysostom that I used to dedicate my book The Fathers of the Church to Terri.

An intelligent, discreet, and pious young woman is worth more than all the money in the world. Tell her that you love her more than your own life, because this present life is nothing, and that your only hope is that the two of you pass through this life in such a way that, in the world to come, you will be united in perfect love.