Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (review)
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Anna M. Silvas Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters Introduction, Translation, and Commentary Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83 Boston: Brill, 2007 Pp. xx + 283. $159.

Very few of Gregory of Nyssa's letters have survived though it appears that he was no less an active a letter writer than his brother, Basil of Caesarea, or Gregory of Nazianzus. Silvas has translated the letters collected by Georgius Pasquali in GNO 8.2 (the "Pasquali Collection") and supplemented them with translations of others. The latter include ones always acknowledged as Gregory's, others now reassigned to Gregory, and one which Silvas proposes for such reassignment. She has prefaced them with excerpts about Gregory from the letters of Basil and Nazianzen.

Much of the letters' value is biographical, and in her excellent introduction Silvas mines them to the very limit of their wealth. The context of Gregory's family and the influence of his remarkable sister upon its commitment to asceticism are well summarized, and the importance of the family's early and cordial relations with Eustathius of Sebasteia is brought out. Gregory famously turned away from the beginnings of an ascetic life for a secular career in rhetoric and, it seems, for marriage, in reference to which Silvas deals deftly with the evidence. A close reading of Nyssen's On Virginity 3 clearly implies that he forsook celibacy for marriage, but Nazianzen's ep. 197 is best understood as consoling Gregory on the loss not of his wife but his sister Theosebeia, his "yolk-fellow" in the philosophical life at Nyssa. More boldly, Silvas interprets Gregory's account of the sorrows of marriage in On Virginity 9 and 14, i.e., the loss of a wife and the regrets of the surviving spouse, as implicit testimony to his own experience and to the early death of his wife, perhaps in childbirth around the time of writing (c. 370–71).

On Virginity marks a crucial transition in Silvas's analysis. It expresses Gregory's regret at having once abandoned the ascetic ideal being lived out by his siblings and his turning under their considerable influence towards a life of service of Christian causes, not least through his ordination and appointment as bishop of Nyssa. Silvas accepts without question the family's own view of Gregory's secular career as spiritual decline and of his subsequent re-conversion both as a growth in maturity and an embracing of service in the church. Drawing on the letters, she carefully documents Gregory's ecclesiastical career from his earlier naïve interventions through the highpoint of his activity and responsibility in the mid 380s to his concentration on mystical writings in the 390s. Silvas sees Gregory as assuming the mantle of Basil in promoting the pro-Nicene cause by word and political intervention and in guiding the ascetic movement.

It would help the reader appreciate the doctrinal issues covered in the letters and their spiritual import if Silvas had sketched the pattern of Gregory's intellectual development and the context of the doctrinal controversies in which he took part. It must be admitted, however, that the notes to the letters compensate [End Page 110] for these omissions to some extent. There are also good descriptions of Gregory's style and his use of rhetoric in the letters as well as of the personality revealed in them. Silvas here covers ground similar to that of Maravel's comments in his Grégoire de Nysse: Lettres (1990).

For most of the letters Silvas has relied on Pasquali's 1925 edition checked against Maravel's revision of it; for the rest she has depended on the best available editions. On the evidence of spot checks, the translations, which read very well, seem accurate; some freedom has been taken to render the spirit of some of Gregory's prose (in ep. 10.1, for example). Each letter is prefaced by a thorough discussion of questions related to paleography, authorship, context, and content, and each is accompanied by usually accurate and useful notes (though n360 on 192 misconstrues her accurate rendering of ep. 24.4. Gregory's meaning here is not that the reader's understanding is led from...