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The social values of upper-class Christians in Late Antiquity often contrasted with the modest backgrounds of their religion's founders – the apostles – and the virtues they exemplified. Drawing on examples from the Cappadocian Fathers, John Chrysostom, and other late antique authors, this book examines attitudes toward the apostles' status as manual workers and their virtues of simplicity and humility. Due to the strong connection between these traits and low socioeconomic status, late antique bishops often allowed their own high standing to influence how they understood these matters. The virtues of simplicity and humility had been a natural fit for tentmakers and fishermen, but posed a significant challenge to Christians born into the elite and trained in prestigious schools. This volume examines the socioeconomic implications of Christianity in the Roman Empire by considering how the first wave of powerful, upper-class church leaders interpreted the socially radical elements of their religion.
When John Chrysostom preached to his congregation, he addressed men and women, rich and poor, and also artisans and laborers. But the question of the social and economic backgrounds of those who listened to his sermons is more difficult to answer than this, for when Chrysostom referred to the “artisans,” “laborers,” and “the poor” in his audience, some of his terms are misleading, at least some of the time. Similarly, the presence of women in the congregation does not inevitably mean that the preacher spoke to them. A closer look at the sermons' language and its implications, as well as other contemporary sources, is necessary in order to gain a better understanding of who was in the preacher's audience.
Since the study of late antique sermons has grown rapidly in recent years, it is necessary to summarize and assess this scholarship before examining Chrysostom's congregation here. Scholars have interpreted the composition of the preacher's audience in Late Antiquity with vastly different results. In some cases, the listeners are pictured as social and cultural peers of their well-educated preachers; in other studies, the diverse congregation includes men and women from various social and economic backgrounds. Since quotations can be found in late antique sermons to support either view, assumptions about late antique society and the role of rhetorical speaking in this culture have guided scholars to privilege certain passages over others.
The chief difficulty of combining social with intellectual history is not the lack of ideas among regular people, but the lack of sources that survive to tell us about these ideas. Surely all communities have consisted of ordinary individuals with their own theories about cosmology and morality, but few have left written records of their thoughts. The ideal historical sources for social history almost never survive, at least not from pre-modern eras. We would like to have daily journals of late antique Christians who jotted down their responses to sermons, as well as statistical surveys allowing us to chart the demographics of the congregations and to poll their reactions. Given what we are left with, however, texts written by elites who came into contact with the general population are extremely valuable sources for learning about the world-views and experiences of ordinary people. The late fourth and fifth centuries – the Golden Age of Christian preaching – have left us with an abundance of such texts that provide insight into the changes of this period.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Late Antiquity is the prominence of theological debates. Public discussions and fights over such “intellectual” concerns point to the obvious fact that all people think about the nature of the world and the fate of their souls. In addition to theological controversies, quieter debates took place in Christian communities over the definition of orthodox behavior.
Sermons were popular in Late Antiquity – a number of priests and bishops became famous for their rhetorical skill and charisma as speakers. The importance of rhetoric in ancient higher education meant that many of the men who took on leadership roles in the clergy, especially after the conversion of Constantine, were trained for public speaking. On the same note, frequent rhetorical displays in cities taught the crowds to be listeners, and these people made up the urban Christian congregations. Communication across social and economic boundaries and the widespread appeal of rhetorical eloquence had long been an important part of urban life, and this played a part in the spread of Christianity and the formation of orthodoxy in Late Antiquity. By integrating this broader cultural context into the study of early sermons, we can better understand the relationship between the authors and the audiences of these important – and abundant – texts. In many cases, the needs and concerns of ordinary Christians shaped the style of sermons, as well as the questions they returned to again and again. Because of this element of interaction, it is possible to observe aspects of the world-views and daily lives of the preachers' congregations reflected in the subjects and presentation of their sermons. Therefore, sermons can provide information about the process of Christianization, the variety of religious beliefs and practices coexisting at one time, and about the ways in which laypeople interacted with church authorities.
How did ordinary people and Church authorities communicate with each other in late antiquity and how did this interaction affect the processes of Christianization in the Roman Empire? By studying the relationship between the preacher and his congregation within the context of classical, urban traditions of public speaking, this book explains some of the reasons for the popularity of Christian sermons during the period. Its focus on John Chrysostom's sermons allows us to see how an educated church leader responded to and was influenced by a congregation of ordinary Christians. As a preacher in Antioch, Chrysostom took great care to convey his lessons to his congregation, which included a broad cross-section of society. Because of this, his sermons provide a fascinating view into the variety of beliefs held by the laity, demonstrating that many people could be actively engaged in their religion while disagreeing with their preacher.
Christians in Antioch were well acquainted with public speaking outside of their churches. In addition to moralizing speeches by Cynics and other philosophers, other types of oratory such as political discourse and entertainment shaped the social milieu in which Christian preachers flourished. This culture of public speaking helps to explain how and why ordinary people listened to sermons such as John Chrysostom's. Although most of Chrysostom's listeners were less educated than their preacher, they lived in one of the most vibrant cities of the late Roman Empire, where numerous civic events featured rhetorical speaking. The world outside the church affected the interactions within it: the urban setting was where the laypeople developed their taste for eloquence, where preachers acquired rhetorical skills, and where these skills acquired prestige.
Ordinary people talked about politics. Chrysostom compared the calm, spiritual conversations held by monks to the constant political discussions carried on by members of his congregation. These conversations seemed like pointless trivia to Chrysostom, but ordinary people were interested in facts about the failures, successes, and scandals of public figures. Likewise, they also memorized lyrics they heard in the theaters. In order to have these discussions and sing the songs in the barbershops and marketplace, they had to listen to political announcements and attend theatrical performances. Although Chrysostom dismissed these concerns as distractions from the Christian life, experiences in political and theatrical contexts helped to prepare laypeople to listen to and understand rhetorically crafted speeches such as his own sermons.