Book chapters will be unavailable on Saturday 24th August between 8am-12pm BST. This is for essential maintenance which will provide improved performance going forwards. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused.
To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure firstname.lastname@example.org
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
By the late fourth century, many Christian beliefs and practices were already well established among the laity. But the increasingly precise definition of orthodoxy called some of them into question and created conflicts that varied from region to region. The distinction between correct practice and so-called pagan survivals, heresy, and Judaizing depended on one's point of view. This matter was at the heart of the differences between the world-views of church authorities and the laity. Those who encouraged unity and orthodoxy faced a problem larger than an issue of cleaning up a few inconsistent rituals. Instead, they were faced with disparate perceptions of the religious importance attributed to one's actions and thoughts and to particular times and places. For example, after the conversion of Constantine, widespread reverence for martyrs' tombs and the sites of Jesus' life in Palestine led to the proliferation of new Christian holy places and more holidays in the liturgical year. Eusebius considered holy places to be important for pagans and Jews, but not for Christians. Although Gregory of Nyssa and Jerome agreed with this view, Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem in the mid-fourth century, prized the holy places in his see, while Augustine changed his mind on these matters over time.
Chrysostom agreed with the view that did not distinguish certain times and places as more holy than others.
In the Roman Empire, as in most societies, a formal education was almost always a clear sign of privilege. Schools of grammar and rhetoric provided elite men with basic skills, not least of which was the ability to differentiate themselves from people of lower standing. But this does not mean that people outside these circles were not, in some less recognized way, educated. Some pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity had a wider conception of what counted as education and who could be considered educated. As we have seen, Themistius hoped that his speeches would disseminate philosophical learning to as many people as possible. In the tradition of the Second Sophistic, he used rhetorical skill to make the moral lessons of philosophy more appealing to his audiences in the theaters. Likewise, Libanius could see how ordinary people might learn outside the classroom. He was prepared to argue that watching dance performances was an educational experience, because both rich and poor could watch historical events being acted out. The great tragic poets had once been universal teachers for all the people, but after them, when only the rich had access to education, the gods introduced forms of theatrical dance as a means of instruction for the masses. The result was that “now a goldsmith will competently discuss the houses of Priam and Laius with someone from the schools.”
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.
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.
No sin was too small for Chrysostom to notice and then rebuke, but his ideal was not for all Christians to become ascetics. He insisted that people could live in the city, with jobs and families, and lead perfectly acceptable Christian lives. In order to do this, however, catechumens and baptized Christians required a great deal of instruction before they could sort out the non-Christian and/or sinful habits from their daily lives. Because of the difference between Chrysostom's view of the world and that of the majority of his congregation, there was no basis of common sense or inherited values that could assume the burden of coordinating the laity's reality with the clergy's expectations. Even though a gap between ideals and practice is present in any society, in the late fourth century innumerable behaviors reflected ancient traditions while ambitious church leaders aimed to change them as thoroughly as possible.
Chrysostom knew what he was up against when he took on what he called the “tyranny of ancient custom.” He knew that the unconscious repetition of actions and thoughts ingrained into daily activities was a powerful force to reckon with, especially when it involved religion: “When the custom is related to doctrines, it becomes even more established. For one would change anything more willingly than matters of religion.” Chrysostom was also aware that this had always been a difficult problem.
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.
In Late Antiquity, Christian preachers attempted to shape entire communities according to moral ideals traditionally associated with philosophers and their circles. They hoped to persuade the laity to reject worldly pleasures and honors in order to embrace the spiritual life prescribed by their sacred texts. Many of their ethical precepts were not new, but through frequent sermons Christians developed a systematic approach to instructing the laity in proper thinking and living. People listened: the widespread acclaim of many Christian leaders as popular speakers demonstrates that their sermons were well received. The rapid rise of Christians in this role requires an explanation, part of which can be found in the preexisting social framework for this type of contact between educated speakers and mass audiences.
The impact of pagan thought on the development of Christian theology is well known. Vocabulary and fundamental concepts of Greek thinkers, especially Platonists, helped many Christian apologists and exegetes interpret their Scriptures. Scholars have also observed the resemblance between sophists, rhetors, and Christian writers, focusing primarily on the connections of paideia and class. Their approach to the public, though, was another element of their common ground. Christian leaders, largely from aristocratic backgrounds, expressed concern for ordinary laypeople and self-consciously promoted the use of a “low style” to communicate with them. They drew on traditions of “popular philosophy” in the Roman Empire, which had played a role in shaping both pagan and Christian audiences' expectations of public preachers.