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Palestine under the Arabs 650-750: the Crucible of Byzantine Orthodoxy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Andrew Louth
University of Durham


The period from the beginning of the seventh century to the middle of the ninth was decisive for the history of the Byzantine empire. At the beginning of the seventh century, the idea of the Roman, or Byzantine, empire as the political configuration of the Mediterranean world - something that the Emperor Justinian had done his best to restore - still seemed valid, though there were already significant cracks in the edifice. By the end of the seventh century - let alone the middle of the ninth - that was a dream, though a dream to which the Byzantines obstinately clung. For the early years of the seventh century had seen the temporary Persian conquest of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire, soon followed by the Arab conquest which the Byzantines were to prove unable to overturn. The impact on the Byzantine empire of these events and the infiltration into the Balkan peninsula by the Slavs, was profound - politically, economically, culturally, and theologically. But the story of this impact is generally presented, both in the sources and in scholarly accounts, from the point of view of the centre, the Queen City, Constantinople. Central to the Byzantine world view, as it emerged with renewed confidence in the middle of the ninth century, was the idea of the empire, and the Emperor, as the guardian of Christian Orthodoxy, which was symbolized in the proclamation of the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ with the final overthrow of iconoclasm in 843, a proclamation that became part of the normal ecclesiastical calendar, celebrated thereafter each year on the first Sunday of Lent. But that Orthodoxy, in its final form, had not been nurtured in Constantinople, nor had the wealth of liturgical poetry that came to celebrate it. Constantinople had reacted to the catastrophe of the early seventh century by plunging into heresy: first, the Christological heresy of monenergism, with its refinement, monothelitism, and then the heresy of iconoclasm, also believed - by both iconoclasts and their opponents - to be ultimately a matter of Christology. The Orthodoxy whose triumph was celebrated from 843 onwards had been defined, and celebrated, in Palestine, the province that had been lost for good to the Byzantines in the 630s. Orthodoxy, in fact, achieved its final definition at the periphery - and defeated periphery at that - and from there took over the centre. In this paper, we are not concerned with Christians who visited the Holy Land as pilgrims, but rather with those who belonged there: mainly monks, both natives and those who came to the Holy Land to live in the complex of monasteries in and around Jerusalem. How and why did these Palestinian monks come to play this role in the wider history of the Christian œcumene?

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2000

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1 For a recent expression of doubts about the tendency to view the middle Byzantine period from the centre, see Cormack, Robin, ‘Lessons from “The Glory of Byzantium”’, Diálogos: Hellenic Studies Review, 5 (1998), pp. 2739.Google Scholar

2 See V. Déroche, ‘La polémique anti-judaïque au Vie et Vile siècle, Un mémoire inédit: Les Kephalaia’, Travaux et Mémoires, 11 (1991), pp. 275-311, and Averil Cameron, ‘Byzantines and Jews: some recent work on early Byzantium’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 20 (1996), pp. 249-74.

3 Flusin, Bernard, Saint Anastase le Perse et l’histoire de la Palestine au début du Vlle siècle, tome 2, commentaire (Paris, 1992), p. 59.Google Scholar

4 For details of John Damascene’s life, see Gerhard Richter’s introduction to his annotated translation, Damaskos, Johannes von, Philosophische Kapitel, Bibliothek der Griechischen Literatur, 15 (Stuttgart, 1982), pp. 262 Google Scholar. See also: Jean Damascène, Écrits sur ¡slam, ed. Raymond Le Coz, SC, 383 (Paris, 1992), pp. 43-9; Marie-France Auzépy, ‘De la Palestine à Constantinople (Vllle-IXe siècles): Etienne le Saba’ite et Jean Damascène’, Travaux et Mémoires, 12 (1994), pp. 183-218.

5 This tradition has been called in question by Auzépy, ‘Palestine’, and 1 have drawn attention to evidence that his monastery was the Old Lavra in my article, ‘St John Damascene: preacher and poet’, in Preacher and Audience: Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homiletics, ed. Pauline Allen and Mary Cunningham (Leiden, 1998), p. 249.

6 See Theophanes, Chronographia, AM. 6221, 6245 (ed. C. de Boor, 2 vols [Leipzig, 1883], 1, pp. 408, 428).

7 The critical edition of John Damascene’s prose works is Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, ed. Bonifatius Kotter, 5 vols, Patristische Texte und Studien, 7, 12, 17, 22, 29 (Berlin, 1969-88).

8 Kotter, Schriften, 1.

9 Ibid., 4, pp. 1-67.

10 Ibid., 2.

11 Mossman Roueché, ‘Byzantine philosophical texts of the seventh century’, Jahrbuch der õsterreichischen Byzantinistik, 23 (1974), pp. 61-76; idem, ‘A Middle Byzantine handbook of logic terminology’, ibid., 29 (1980), pp. 71-98; see also idem, The definitions of philosophy and a new fragment of Stephanus the Philosopher’, ibid., 40 (1990), pp. 107-28.

12 Roueché, ‘Byzantine philosophical texts’, p. 62.

13 On that revival, see Lemerle, Paul, Le Premier humanisme byzantin (Paris, 1971), esp. chs 57.Google Scholar

14 Roueché, ‘Middle Byzantine handbook’, p. 73.

15 Critical edn by Holl, Karl: Epiphanius, Ancoratus und Panarion, 3 vols, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte, 25, 31, 37 (Leipzig, 191533)Google Scholar.

16 Theodore the Studite, Ep. 40, II.22-3, ed. Fatouros, G., Corpus Fontium Byzantinae Historiae, 31 (Berlin, 1992), p. 115 Google Scholar.

17 He seems to quote from it in Ep. 48,1.232 (ed. Fatouros, p. 137).

18 Kotter, Schriften, 2, pp. XXVIII-XXIX, and in detail in his notes.

19 See Chadwick, H., ‘Florilegium’, in Klauser, T., Dassmann, E., et al., eds, Reallexikon fur Antike una Christentum, 7 (Stuttgart, 1969), cols 113160.Google Scholar

20 See my translation of Amhiguum 10 in Louth, Andrew, Maximus the Confessor (London, 1996), pp. 20412, nn. 5, 6, 94, 95, 99, 100, no, 112, 120, 121 Google Scholar; and my article, ‘A Christian theologian at the court of the Caliph: some cross-cultural reflections’, Diálogos: Hellenic Studies Review, 3 (1996), pp. 11-12.

21 See Kotter, Schrifien, 2, pp. XLIII-XLIV.

22 On the question of the date, see Milton V. Anastos, ‘Leo Ill’s edict against the images in the year 726-27 and Italo-Byzantine relations between 726 and 730’, Byzantinische Forschungen, 3 (1968), pp. 3-41. Anastos argues that there was an edict in 726, a view which seems to me to make much more sense of the development of John’s arguments in his treatises on the divine images.

23 Kotter, Schrifien, 3, pp. 5-7. Kotter does not take account of Anastos’ article cited above (n.22), which is the reason why I allow for the possibility of the first treatise predating 730.

24 Damascene, John, Contra imaginutn calumniatores, I.56/II.52Google Scholar (Leontios), III.72-3 (Ste phen), III.84-9 (Leontios again), III.125 0erome): Kotter, Schriften, 3, pp. 156-9, 174, 178-83, 194.

25 Ibid., III.73 (Kotter, Schriften, 3, p. 174).

26 Ibid., II. 19 (Kotter, Schriften, 3, p. 118).

27 Ibid., I.4 (Kotter, Schriften, 3, p. 77).

28 There are frequent references to John Damascene, which all turn out to be references to the Paraklitiki, in the works by Peter of Damascus included in the Philokalia: Philokalia ton hieran nêptikõn (Venice, 1782), pp. 555–695; English trans, by Palmer, G. E. H., Sherrard, Philip, Ware, Kallistos, The Philokalia, 4 vols (London, 1979-95), 3, pp. 74281 Google Scholar, where the citations from John Damascene are identified in the notes. See also ibid., pp. 70-3 for what little we know about Peter of Damascus.

29 See n.6.

30 As a glance at Kotter’s list of manuscripts reveals: Kotter, Schriften, 5, pp. 3-55.

31 See n.21.

32 For these, see most recently, The Life of Michael the Synkellos, text, translation and commentary by Cunningham, Mary B., Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations, 1 (Belfast, 1991)Google Scholar.

33 See my ‘St Denys the Areopagite and the Iconoclast Controversy’, in Andia, Ysabel de, ed., Denys l’Aréopagite et sa postérité en orient et en occident (Paris, 1997), pp. 32939, esp. 3378 Google Scholar.

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