Bishops in Flight

Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity

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Jennifer Barry
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the 3rd century, two North African bishops held opposing perspectives on Christian flight in the face of persecution. Tertullian, the earlier of the two, asserted that persecution was a test from God and that to flee would be unfaithful. Cyprian, on the other hand, reckoned that some flights were permissible, since even Christ fled into the desert. The different historical situation of each bishop, and therefore their different interpretations of the same behavior, exemplify early Christians’ discursive manipulation of flight during persecution. Jennifer Barry’s monograph Bishops in Flight: Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity explores such discursive constructions of flight and exile in 4th- and 5th-century sources surrounding the displacement of Athanasius and Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and several other bishops. She argues that, after the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), “The discourse of exile served as a new rhetorical and discursive mode in heresiological discourse—and a notably fluid and flexible one at that, as Christians looked to earlier literary sources to help them understand and articulate their own experiences” (11).

Barry’s work has several methodological and theoretical underpinnings. First and foremost, she conducts a literary study of a particular discourse, noting the various meanings and interpretations given to situations of displacement in antiquity. Authors rhetorically constructed “exile” in accordance with their personal situations and positionalities. Second, whereas most scholars have claimed that bishops were exiled for either political or theological reasons, Barry argues that politics and theology were inseparable and mutually reinforcing within the imperially supported church. Third, she incorporates theories of space and place to demonstrate the rhetorical construction and meaning-making which Christian authors used to endow their landscapes with meaning pertinent to exilic identity.

Chapter 1 analyzes Athanasius of Alexandria’s self-representation of his own exilic identity amid post-Nicene trinitarian controversy. Exiled five times, he depicted his removal as persecution in the face of Arian infiltration of Alexandria. But as his relationship with the emperor deteriorated, he increasingly prized the desert to which he fled as a heterotopic mirror of Alexandria—a place of ascetic withdrawal where he could legitimize his claim to orthodoxy. Chapter 2 shows how Gregory of Nazianzus built on Athanasius’ self-constructed exilic legacy to characterize his own and his friend Basil’s withdrawals from their episcopal sees. Gregory claims that Basil, like Athanasius, returned from exile, which in itself is a mark of orthodoxy. Exiled himself from Constantinople, he interprets his own and Basil’s withdrawal as an opportunity for temporary ascetic practice to prepare them for future struggles, simultaneously shaping the Athanasian exilic identity.

In chapter 3, Barry turns to John Chrysostom’s exile from Constantinople, tracing the developments in his attitude toward flight, return, and his episcopal see as his exilic situation evolved. Before his removal, John saw flight as proof of persecution and return as a sign of orthodoxy. He adopts various classical exilic tropes to describe his situation in letters to clients in Constantinople, consistently demonstrating his intent to return. But when John realized this homecoming will not happen, he changed his tone, claiming that suffering and displacement marked the true Christian. Chapter 4 then elaborates the rhetorical construction of John’s exile by two of his biographers: Pseudo-Martyrius and Palladius. Pseudo-Martyrius depicts John as a martyr persecuted by the empress Eudoxia, while Palladius describes Constantinople as an orthodox utopia that is under threat when Theophilus of Alexandria invades and removes John. Although John’s failure to return made his orthodox status questionable to many, these two biographers affirmed his legitimacy by drawing connections with Athanasius’ exilic legacy: infiltration of the orthodox city by violent heretics.

Chapter 5 discusses exilic discourses surrounding Eusebius of Nicomedia from three 5th-century church historians. Philostorgius, an anti-Nicene author, presents Eusebius as an orthodox bishop forced into exile, his orthodoxy demonstrated by his return to Nicomedia and his confidence with Constantine. Socrates of Constantinople, on the other hand, saw Nicomedia as a heretical city, a center of persecution to which Eusebius returned only by seducing the emperor’s sister into assisting him. Furthermore, Theodoret depicts Eusebius as an antitype of Athanasius, spending his exile inciting trouble in Antioch.

Last, chapter 6 deals with the exilic legacy of Meletius of Antioch. Ousted several times because of his Nicene sympathies, he constructed for himself a heterotopia on Antioch’s outskirts, placing Saint Babylas’ relics in a new church and thus connecting himself with the martyr. Sozomen accepted Meletius’ orthodox status because of his connection with Chrysostom; Socrates, on the other hand, was more critical of the bishop because of his physical position outside Antioch. These two perspectives thus demonstrate how space and orthodoxy intertwine within the discourse of exile.

Barry’s work is an excellent analysis of the discursive manipulation of people, places, and legacies in an effort to establish the boundaries of orthodoxy. Whereas Nicene church historians typically paint Athanasius, Chrysostom, and other exiles as obvious heroes of an orthodox cause, persecuted by obviously heretical villains, her book shows the rhetorical construction of such narratives, as well as the discursive competition for orthodoxy among various Nicene and non-Nicene authors. Just as in heresiological discourse, a person’s categorization depends on the context and attitudes of those writing.

Furthermore, not only does the relativity of these descriptions apply to people and places, but it extends to the idea of exile itself. Barry offers a wide range of Greek and Latin terms on which she centers her analysis (7), noting the variety of vocabulary that ancient people deployed to rhetorically mold situations of displacement in accordance with their goals. Her refusal to restrict her study to a single term that denotes “exile” highlights the fluidity of the notion itself. Barry takes on wide range of sources that convey a dense web of ecclesiastical dispute and expertly elucidates multiple discursive strands that mold the legacies of various people and situations. It is an excellent contribution to our understanding of a period rife with theologico-political competition that resulted in numerous, complex situations of episcopal displacement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michelle Sdao is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Barry is associate professor of religion at University of Mary Washington.


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