Revisioning John Chrysostom

New Approaches, New Perspectives

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Editor(s): 
Chris L. de Wet, Wendy Mayer
Critical Approaches to Early Christianity
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill Publishers
    , March
     2019.
     868 pages.
     $299.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9789004390034.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Chris de Wet and Wendy Mayer’s edited volume Revisioning John Chrysostom: New Approaches, New Perspectives succeeds in its mission “to generate an increased appreciation of the value of Chrysostom research that will sustain it into the future, while at the same time pointing out to the curious scholar the sheer abundance of fruitful directions” (26). With over 800 pages containing twenty-two essays from a group of international contributors, whose expertise ranges from historical theology to late ancient sociocultural history to homiletics, this volume offers “fresh, unexpected visions” of the 4th-century Church father and “rework[s] older images,” demonstrating the nascent vitality of Chrysostom studies (3).

In their introductory essay, de Wet and Mayer point out that, despite late 20th-century stagnancy in perspectives on Chrysostom’s 800-work corpus, the 21st century has seen a plethora of doctoral dissertations, a series of conferences, and various articles in major journals that focus on Chrysostom’s preaching and theology. Chrysostom studies has successfully followed several paradigm shifts in the field, including reappraisals of late ancient Christianity in light of discursive strategies, manuscript reception history, and interdisciplinary “deep history” approaches that engage social theory, materiality, and cognitive science. The latter has been especially useful to scholars who examine the strategies and effects of Chrysostom’s extensive preaching, as well as those who study his engagement with ancient medical and psychological theories.

Many contributions to this volume deal with the rhetorical and cognitive aspects of Chrysostom’s preaching. Courtney Wilson VanVeller examines Chrysostom’s portrayal of Paul as a psychical therapist who transforms Jewish souls into Christian ones in his Homilies Against the Judaizers, whereas Mayer’s essay engages cognitive science to demonstrate the hate-inducing and potentially violent effects of the anti-Jewish rhetoric in these homilies. Isabella Sandwell deploys the claims of cognitive science that argue for human information processing as an assimilation of new to old ideas, showing that Chrysostom used simple images, even those of pagan Homeric myth, to explain complex theological ideas to his audiences. Geert Roskam’s in-depth analysis of the rhetorical, moral, and thematic design and coherence of a single homily shows the benefits of detailed examinations of individual works. Jan Stenger, Yannis Papadokiannakis, and Peter Moore, on the other hand, examine specific rhetorical techniques observed throughout Chrysostom’s homilies, namely metaphorical imagery and emotional interaction, as a means of affecting his listeners. These essays exhibit the wide scope of research to be pursued regarding the rhetorical and discursive strategies of Chrysostom’s homiletic corpus.

Several essays also build on a prominent trend in Chrysostom research, namely the preacher’s deployment of medico-philosophical themes. James Cook engages Wendy Mayer’s work on Chrysostom’s use of philosophical methods of healing the soul’s passions, demonstrating that he combines this philosophical scheme with biblical conceptions of suffering as divine judgement and healing as repentance. Jessica Wright delineates Chrysostom’s use of Galen’s cerebral and neural theory as a model for ecclesial membership and communal behavior. De Wet similarly engages medico-philosophical theories of diet and bodily regimen to understand how they inform Chrysostom’s efforts to regulate his listener’s embodied souls. These authors demonstrate the fascinating and extensive research that can be done on Chrysostom’s appropriation of classical medical and philosophical ideas.

Other contributors use Chrysostom to understand late ancient sociocultural structures. Benjamin Dunning reassesses the placement of Chrysostom as a watershed figure in the history of sexuality; he argues that, rather than foreshadowing modern notions of homosexuality as qualitatively aberrant, Chrysostom offers a combination of reason, distorted desire, and traditional disdain for disruption of the gendered social hierarchy in his critique of homosexual activity. Jonathan Stanfill’s essay examines the social context of liturgical processions to understand Chrysostom’s inclusion of Gothic Christians in processions to promote their Christianization and Nicene Orthodoxy. Leslie Dossey uses Chrysostom’s homilies to shed light on Antiochene and Constantinopolitan evening and nighttime activities—religious or otherwise—and shows the temporal effects of social and economic acceleration in these urban centers, as well as Chrysostom’s attitudes toward such changes. These authors use Chrysostom to reevaluate traditional assumptions about late ancient Christian culture, as well as put him in conversation with new social historical questions.

Finally, this volume gives due attention to Chrysostom’s theology, from both historical and modern practical perspectives. Samuel Pomeroy examines Chrysostom’s citation of Plato’s Timaeus as received through Eusebius in order to explain common human origins and the proper mode of returning to the creator’s original order through Christian ethics. Pak-Wah Lai argues that Chrysostom’s angelic, Adamic, monastic, and Pauline rhetorical exemplars aid in his doctrine of recapitulation, participation in restored human nature through grace. Samantha Miller, putting Chrysostom in conversation with modern Christian theology, compares Chrysostom’s demonology to modern deliverance theology. She shows that the former places ultimate responsibility for sin upon the human, who is capable of resisting the devil, whereas the latter places it upon external diabolical forces, which can control human circumstances and actions.

Overall, this volume treats a range of issues in Chrysostom research, such as anti-Judaism, preacher-audience interaction, and philosophical engagement, with new perspectives that incorporate literary theory, cognitive science, and theories of the body in order to illuminate Chrysostom’s clerical activity. Perhaps what best highlights the utility of this book are the extensive bibliographies at the end of each chapter, dense footnotes, and broad coverage of Chrysostom’s works. These resources are valuable both for Chrysostom experts and for those interested in research trajectories in late ancient Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris L. de Wet is Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the University of South Africa.

Wendy Mayer is Associate Dean of Research at the Australian Lutheran College.

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