Becoming Christian

Raymond Van Dam investigates the transformation of Cappadocia, a Roman province in central Asia Minor, into a Christian society. Through vivid accounts of Cappadocians as preachers, theologians, and historians, Becoming Christian highlights the disruptive social and cultural consequences of the formation of new orthodoxies in theology, history, language, and personal identity in the ancient world.

Becoming Christian
The Conversion of Roman Cappadocia

Raymond Van Dam

2003 | 264 pages | Cloth $59.95
Classics | Religion
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Table of Contents


1. "The Evil in Our Bosom": Eunomius as a Cappadocian Father

2. "Even Though Roman Laws Judge Differently": Christianity and Local Traditions
3. Remembering the Future: Christian Narratives of Conversion
4. "Everything in Ruins": Ancient Legends and Foundation Myths
5. The Founder of the Cappadocians

6. Listening to the Audience: The Six Days of Creation
7. Small Details: The Cult of the Forty Martyrs

8. "I Saw a Parrot": Philostorgius at Constantinople
9. A Blank Sheet of Paper: The Apocryphal Basil
10. "Trail of Sorrows": The Autobiographies of Gregory of Nazianzus

Epilogue: A Different Late Antiquity

Editions and Translations
1. The Cappadocian Fathers
2. Ancient Authors and Texts

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Cappadocians were there at the beginning of Christianity. At the first Pentecost in Jerusalem Cappadocians were among those amazed spectators who were startled to hear the apostles preaching in their own exotic languages. Cappadocians were also there at the end of imperial hostility toward Christianity in the eastern empire. During the final great persecutions under the emperor Maximinus some of the illustrious martyrs in Palestine were Cappadocians.

But despite the participation of Cappadocians at these critical moments of early Christian history, Christianity seems to have spread into most of central and eastern Asia Minor only comparatively late. Evidence for Christian communities in Pontus, Cappadocia, and northern Galatia under the early empire is scanty and scattered. Only during the mid- and later third century did communities of Christians, of different varieties, finally became more common. Even then these communities continued to endure hostility and sometimes outright persecution, both from Roman magistrates and from local opponents. The patronage of the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century finally accelerated the process of conversion. By then Christian communities were widespread in central and eastern Asia Minor. One ecclesiastical historian even complimented Galatia, Cappadocia, and neighboring regions for having taken the lead in the Christianization of the eastern provinces.

The three great Church Fathers from Cappadocia, Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were all born during the reign of Constantine. Basil's family had been Christian at least since the later third century, and his grandparents had suffered during the persecutions under the last pagan emperors. Gregory of Nazianzus' father had converted only recently, after Constantine's demonstration of his support for Christianity, but he quickly became bishop of his hometown. Because their ancestors had become Christians by different routes, their experiences already represented in miniature two contrasting perspectives on the relationship between Christianity and Roman rule, imperial hostility or imperial patronage. The Cappadocian Fathers themselves grew up in a Christian Roman empire and in Christian families. Their dististinguished careers as churchmen marked them as clear beneficiaries of the increasing significance of Christianity in Roman society.

During the later fourth century the Cappadocian Fathers were the most prominent churchmen in central and eastern Asia Minor. Basil became metropolitan bishop of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa served as bishop at both Nyssa and Sebasteia and often visited the new capital of Constantinople, and Gregory of Nazianzus helped his father in his episcopal duties at Nazianzus and served briefly as bishop of Constantinople. Through their writings and their activities they influenced the contours of Christianity, certainly in Cappadocia but also more widely throughout the eastern provinces. Basil's treatises on ascetic spirituality shaped the organization of monasticism, Gregory of Nazianzus provided a model for the synthesis of classical rhetoric and Christianity, and Gregory of Nyssa helped to expose Christian exegesis to the influence of both Greek philosophy and mystical speculation. All three Cappadocian Fathers were instrumental in defining the doctrine of the Trinity that was accepted as orthodox at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Along with Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria of a generation earlier, and John Chrysostom, the equally famous bishop of Constantinople of a generation later, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa became the most distinguished Greek theologians of the fourth century.

* * * * *

In modern scholarship their enormous reputation as theologians and ecclesiastical leaders has been both a blessing and a burden. Already in antiquity churchmen were scrutinizing the Cappadocian Fathers' doctrines in their innumerable treatises, commentaries, sermons, letters, and poems. To cope with so many texts one even acquired a special facility: he simply inhaled their writings like air! Modern specialists in patristic studies have obviously followed his inspirational example. Their meticulous research on Cappadocian theology is truly magnificent, and numerous detailed studies have culminated in the grand surveys of Karl Holl, Jean Daniélou, Thomas A. Kopecek, Hanns Christof Brennecke, R. P. C. Hanson, and Jaroslav Pelikan.

Yet the Cappadocian Fathers were always more than bishops, ascetics, and exegetes. Their extensive writings have made Cappadocia one of the best documented regions in the later Roman empire, and they have themselves become sterling exemplars of various social and cultural transformations. This volume is one in a trilogy of books about Cappadocia during the fourth century. Families and Friends investigates their roles as sons and brothers by analyzing their relationships with other members of their families, and it evaluates their differing ideas about friendship. Kingdom of Snow considers the impact of Roman rule and Greek culture in late antique Cappadocia. It discusses the roles of the Cappadocian Fathers as local brokers negotiating with emperors and imperial magistrates and as learned clerics coming to terms with the classical culture they had once studied so avidly.

This book examines the social impact of Christianity in a Roman and Greek society. If the reputation of the Cappadocian Fathers as theologians has overshadowed their other roles as familymen and local patrons, then some aspects of the modern scholarship about their theology have distorted our understanding of the religious transformation of a traditional society. In particular, a deep sense of piety and reverence still inspires many studies of Church Fathers. Somehow the study of theology and theologians, or at least of orthodox theology and orthodox theologians, frequently seems to rise above the need for historical criticism.

Studies of the making of orthodox doctrines, of the effectiveness of preaching, and of conversion to Christianity are especially susceptible to this sort of retrospective deference. Accounts of the development of orthodox theology often project a misleading sense of inevitability about the outcome of ongoing disputes that were in fact repeatedly close to veering off in different directions. Accounts of preaching likewise often ignore the precipitous obstacles to communicating with ordinary people. Educated theologians used the techniques of formal logic, the jargon of classical philosophy, and the vocabulary of an archaic, literary Greek, and still struggled to articulate their ideas. In contrast, their audiences typically included illiterate countryfolk who spoke only common Greek or some local language, and whose overriding obsessions were their poverty stricken agrarian livelihoods and their backbreaking efforts to survive from week to week. Bishops were offering the crumbs of erudition to ordinary people who were more concerned with obtaining their daily bread. Fundamental differences in language, learning, and preoccupations divided preachers from their audiences. Accounts of conversion to Christianity furthermore often overlook the difficulties of trying to impose the new lifestyle that came along with a new religion. Older customs, older ceremonies and rituals, older myths and histories, were now all swept aside. As historians we should mourn the loss of these ancient traditions and legends, rather than tacitly conniving in a triumphalist perspective on the success of Christianity.

Only in retrospect does a single dominant vector appear in the rise of Christianity. At the time the success of Christianity was certainly not a foregone conclusion. The single-mindedness that modern scholars often count as one of its more compellingly attractive features was in fact one of its most intrusive aspects. Not only did Christianity eventually create an orthodox theology. It also highlighted the notion of an orthodoxy in many other aspects of society and culture. Now there was to be an orthodox speech, an orthodox lifestyle, an orthodox history. Some churchmen even started looking for an orthodox self, that one consistent trajectory of beliefs, commitments, and values that would link their past, present, and future in a single unwavering arc. The imposition of these new orthodoxies came with a price, however, that was exacted in the belittling of traditional lifestyles, the forgetting of older legends, and the condemnation of some theologians as heretics. In Roman Cappadocia the impact of Christianity was thoroughly constricting and disruptive.

* * * * *

Like the other books in this trilogy, this book too consists of a series of interlocking chapters with complementary interpretations. Even though its main topic is the rise of Christianity in late Roman Cappadocia, it essentially ignores theology, asceticism, monasticism, and spirituality. Since these were certainly important concerns for the Cappadocian Fathers, modern scholarship has already investigated them with exemplary thoroughness. Instead, this book focuses on more practical and more immediate aspects of conversion to Christianity.

The first chapter discusses the social implications of the making of doctrinal orthodoxy and heresy. The Cappadocian Fathers were not the only influential theologians from Cappadocia. One of their contemporaries was Eunomius, who for much of his career was more prominent as an ecclesiastical leader and more important as a theologian. Then Basil and Gregory of Nyssa demolished him and his doctrines through a combination of intellectual erudition and tasteless ridicule. Both were as much concerned about their personal reputations as about the search for the Christian doctrine of God. They both went on to greater fame and glory as churchmen. Eunomius ended up as a broken down reminder of the penalties for failed ambition.

The next section of chapters discusses new histories. Christianity introduced new regulations about behavior and imposed a new hierarchy of clerics and bishops with lifetime tenure. To legitimate these new standards, to justify their own prominence, to ensure that the present seemed to stay in synch with the past, churchmen created new historical legends for both communities and families. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, rewrote the history of Pontus and Cappadocia to highlight the antiquity of Christianity and its regional founders. The success of these new histories then drove older histories and legends off the market. By the early fifth century the Cappadocian historian Philostorgius could barely make sense of some of these old legends about cities and their original founders.

The next section of chapters analyses preachers and their audiences. The common idiom that learned bishops shared with their audiences consisted of biblical stories and legends about local saints. This new common language was very flexible, even if sometimes difficult to use. When preaching a series of sermons about the six days of creation described in the first chapter of Genesis, Basil had to learn how to reach his audience by responding to their reactions and interests. When preaching about the cult of the Forty Martyrs both he and Gregory of Nyssa modified the incidental details in the legends about their martyrdom in order to fit with the expectations of their audiences. In the ongoing dialogue between preachers and their audiences, the listeners had essentially put the words into the speakers' mouths.

The final section of chapters looks at attempts to create legacies and afterlives. Christianity offered new ways of defining self and finding a personal identity. Philostorgius looked to the past and composed an ecclesiastical history that justified his and Eunomius' heterodox Christianity. Basil ignored the past. Once he became a cleric, he rather oddly never mentioned his earlier life. As an adult, he essentially remade himself into a foundling, a man with no family and no memories. Because he had no past to speak of, subsequent authors created various apocryphal lives to fill in the blanks. In contrast, Gregory of Nazianzus incessantly rewrote the story of his life in a series of autobiographical poems. These poems represented successive drafts of his life's story. Finding an orthodox theology had been simple compared with finding an orthodox version of his life.

In ancient society Christianity was more than beliefs, doctrines, liturgical practices, moral strictures, and ascetic lifestyles. Christianity also offered an arena within which local notables could go on competing for prestige and standing. It offered a history that communities and families could use to distinguish themselves from rivals. It offered a common language of biblical stories and legends about martyrs that allowed highly educated bishops to communicate with the ordinary believers in their congregations. And it offered autobiographies, as men made sense of the vicissitudes of their lives in terms of their enduring piety. This book focuses on the consequences of various attempts to create new orthodoxies in theology, history, language, and personal identity.