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Family Rural Churches in Late Antique Palestine and the Competition in the ‘Field of Religious Goods’: A Socio-Historical View

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2018

Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, Jordan Valley 15132, Israel; e-mail:


An intriguing phenomenon of late antique Palestine is the abundance of rural churches located outside village boundaries yet obviously in close contact with them, having been constructed by wealthy local patrons. What led to the establishment of such churches and how did they differ from similar building initiatives within the village boundaries? In answering these questions, this article takes a sociological stance, using Pierre Bourdieu's ‘theory of fields’ (‘champs’) to suggest that such construction was the product of symbolic and economic competition in the ‘field of religious goods’ between the rural ‘lay’ elite and the provincial ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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15 I would like to thank Leah Di Segni for reading the inscriptions and for her important and illuminating comments. Of course, the analysis of, and conclusions concerning the inscriptions presented in this article are my sole responsibility.

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20 Rudolph Cohen believes that the church was a monastery church and that Theodoros was its abbot: ‘A Byzantine church and its mosaic floors at Kissufim’, in Y. Tsafrir (ed.), Ancient churches revealed, Jerusalem 1993, 277–82. In contrast, Di Segni stresses that the church was a rural church and that Theodoros was an abbot of a nearby monastery. According to Di Segni, this was a small village church headed by a deacon, and the priest, who conducted prayer services there, arrived from a nearby community or from the bishopric to which the village church belonged: ‘Dated Greek inscriptions from Palestine from the Roman and Byzantine periods’, unpubl. PhD diss. Jerusalem 1997, 678–9.

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28 There are no saints commemorated on the mosaic flours of the community churches at Suhmata (M. Avi-Yonah, ‘The Byzantine church at Suhmata: the inscriptions’, Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine iii [1934], 92–105), Ḥorbat Bata (Tzaferis, ‘Greek inscriptions from Carmiel’), Anab el Kabir (Magen, Y., ‘A Byzantine church at ‘Anab el-Kabir’, in Carmin, N., Christians and Christianity, IV: Churches and monasteries in Judea, Jerusalem 2012, 331–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar) or at Evron (Tzaferis, V., ‘The Greek inscriptions from the early Christian church at Evron’, Eretz-Israel xix [1987], 3653Google Scholar).

29 For example, see the church in Anab el-Kabir, where a tomb was hewn in the southern end of the narthex: Magen, ‘A Byzantine Church at ‘Anab el–Kabir’.

30 Like the church at Kissufim: Di Segni, ‘Dated Greek inscriptions’, 678–9.

31 This is demonstrated in the inscriptions discovered in the excavated village churches at Suhmata, Horbat Bata, Anab el Kabir and Evron (see n. 28 above). A similar example outside Palestine can be found in the church at Hass in the Idlib region in north-west Syria: Donceel-Voûte, Les Pavements des églises byzantines, 117–19.

32 Tzaferis, ‘Greek inscriptions from Carmiel’, 133–7.

33 There were no such installations in the sample of village community churches (Bata, Anab el Kabir and Suhmata).

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37 Y. Magen, ‘The northern church at Beit Ἀnun’, ibid. iv. 177–84.

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41 Bowes, Private worship, 158.

42 Thomas, Private religious foundations, 37–41.

43 An example of a landowner who built a church on his land, although it is difficult to know whether the church was constructed in the built area of the village or nearby, is the church at Khirbet Tawas, where an inscription mentions one Orestes the γεοῦχος (landowner) indicating the latter's involvement in the construction of the church: Leah Di Segni, ‘Greek inscriptions from the church at Khirbet Tawas’, in Carmin, Christians and Christianity, iv. 241–6.

44 Thomas, Private religious foundations, 41–2.

45 Bar, D., ‘The Christianisation of rural Palestine during late antiquity’, this Journal liv (2003), 410–11Google Scholar.

46 Gatier, P. L., ‘Villages en proche-orient proto-byzantin (4e–7e siècle): étude régionale’, in King, G. R. D. and Cameron, A. (eds), The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East, ii, Princeton, NJ 1994, 1748Google Scholar. The rural aristocracy, or the rural leadership (πρωτοκωμῆται), in Byzantine Palestine is mentioned in a number of texts and inscriptions: Di Segni, ‘Dated Greek inscriptions’, 120. Despite the information that we have about city-dwellers who owned extensive estates, and sometimes even entire villages (Ashkenazi, J. and Aviam, M., ‘Monasteries and villages: rural economy and religious interdependency in late antique Palestine’, Vigiliae Christianae lxxi [2017], 130–2Google Scholar), most of the land in the hinterland of the provinces in the Oriens in late antiquity was owned by free farmers, from whom the rural aristocracy emerged: Wickham, C., Framing the early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800, Oxford 2005, 454–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This issue has recently been discussed by I. Taxel, who examined social stratification based on the finds from the excavation at Ḥorvat Zikhrin in western Samaria: Identifying social hierarchy through house planning in the villages of late antique Palestine: the case of Ḥorvat Zikhrin’, Antiquité tardive xxi (2013), 149–66Google Scholar.

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49 Di Segni, ‘Dated Greek inscriptions’, 581–4.

50 Avi-Yonah, ‘The Byzantine church at Suhmata’.

51 An example for such initiative, though in a city, can be found in the private monastery built by the Lady Mary in Scythopolis: G. M. Fitzgerald, A sixth century monastery at Beit-Shan (Scythopolis), Philadelphia 1939.

52 Segni, L. Di, ‘The territory of Gaza: notes of historical geography’, in Bitton-Ashkeloni, B. and Kofsky, A. (eds), Christian Gaza in late antiquity, Leiden 2004, 56–8Google Scholar.

53 On church-owned lands in Palestine in general and in the Gaza area in particular see Avi-Yonah, M., ‘The economics of Byzantine Palestine’, Israel Exploration Journal viii (1958), 3951Google Scholar. A parallel case may be the church dedicated to St Christopher that was discovered by Ernest Renan in the mid-19th century in Kabr Hiram near Tyre. The magnificent mosaic of the church, now on display at the Musée du Louvre, contained a dedication inscription that mentions the chorepiscopos and archdeacon George, the deacon Cyrus and the priest Zachary in whose time the church was built for the farmers and the labourers of an estate – probably an ecclesiastical estate. See Renan, É, Mission de Phénicie, Paris 1864, 613Google Scholar.

54 Banaji, J., Agrarian change in late antiquity: gold, labour, and aristocratic dominance, Oxford 2001, 98Google Scholar.

55 Bourdieu, ‘Symbolic capital’, 300.

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