- Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition
The nexus of asceticism, authority, and episcopal leadership in late antiquity has received well-deserved attention in the past decade. Claudia Rapp's study of the holy bishop, which treats this theme with a rare combination of chronological and geographic breadth, is a welcome addition to scholarship in this area. After explaining the inadequacy of the modern secular-religious distinction that has clouded our understanding of the nature of leadership in the later Roman Empire, the author proposes "a new interpretive model of three kinds of authority": spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic (17–18). She examines the distinctive nature of these forms of authority in Part I and considers their convergence in Part II as she traces the emergence of the holy bishop as a public figure from the third to the sixth century.
Unlike many studies of ecclesiastical authority in late antiquity, Rapp's treatment of the bishop bridges the pre- and post-Constantinian Roman world. Chapter 2 surveys the earliest Christian texts on the idea of the bishop from the New Testament, early church orders, and patristic commentaries to later treatises on ecclesiastical leadership, ending with Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care. Central to her findings is the notion that the bishop's tasks and office were originally administrative, viewed by contemporaries as a work, function, or service rather than an honor. Describing the "dialectic of episcopal leadership" (41), Rapp explains that the bishop had to earn recognition of his authority through his exemplary conduct, primarily the demonstration of ascetic virtues; at the same time he was selected for episcopal office in the first place precisely because he possessed those personal virtues. Chapter 3 differentiates the spiritual from the ascetic authority of the bishop through a careful study of the terminology for spiritual authority in the writings of the Greek fathers. It also introduces the connection between martyrs, holy men, and bishops, all of whom possessed special efficacy in intercessory prayer as a result of their personal conduct. Central to the book, chapter 4 is devoted to the theme of ascetic authority. Starting with Moses and the Old Testament background, Rapp surveys the motif of the desert and its importance in Judeo-Christian texts. She traces the tradition by which withdrawal from the world and the monastic way of life became fused with the expectations of clerical office. She also highlights divergent attitudes toward the world which would increasingly distinguish Latin from Greek models of episcopal leadership.
Focusing on pragmatic authority, Part II compares the public activities of the bishop with those of holy men and prominent citizens. Here we see bishops as men of action in their cities (chapter 5) and as the products of a stratified society with increasingly permeable boundaries between civic and ecclesiastical office (chapter 6). Chapters 7 and 8 continue this investigation of the bishop as an [End Page 249] urban elite, examining his residence, his access to wealth, his expenditures, and his broader roles within the empire in manumitting slaves, granting ecclesiastical asylum, and acting as an arbiter in episcopal courts. Rapp shows that Constantine's policy toward bishops and clergy was not the pivotal factor it has sometimes been assumed since fourth-century legislation accorded imperial recognition to roles and functions that bishops had already performed within the church. The final chapter on the bishop as a new urban functionary offers fresh insight into an older discussion regarding the decline of the curial class. Drawing largely from legal evidence, Rapp exposes a process of economic polarization within the curiae and a concomitant restructuring of city councils in late antiquity. Bishops did not replace curiales but rather stood alongside these prominent citizens in providing leadership in civic affairs.
Throughout these chapters on administrative and civic duties Rapp does not lose sight of the ascetic base of the bishop's influence. The efficacy of his activities in...