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  • Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition
  • Leonora Neville
Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition. By Claudia Rapp. [The Transformation of the Classical Heritage.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005. Pp. xii, 346.)

The European Enlightenment has proven remarkably successful in convincing later generations not only that religious matters can be separated from secular ones, but that such a distinction is natural. This has hampered scholarly efforts to understand societies in which that distinction is foreign. Claudia Rapp here successfully draws a systematic portrait of episcopal authority in late antiquity which consciously eschews the binary secular/religious model. Her model, based on late antique discussions of leadership, is that late antique bishops exercised leadership through three modes of authority: spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic. Spiritual authority is a divine gift of the Spirit, of which individuals are passive recipients. Ascetic authority is achieved through the personal efforts of individuals to improve and perfect themselves. Pragmatic authority arises from the deeds individuals do on behalf of others. Whereas anyone can gain ascetic authority through proper personal conduct, only those with the material resources to undertake actions benefiting others can gain pragmatic authority.

This model is an attempt to take seriously the contemporary terminology used to discuss the ideal characteristics of bishops. Ascetic authority is the lynch-pin in this system. Rapp's most forceful point is that bishops strove to practice asceticism and were praised by their contemporaries insofar as they succeeded. They endeavored to conform to the same ideals of behavior as monks and, like monks, gained authority through their ascetic achievements. Successful practice of asceticism was considered a sign that one possessed gifts of the spirit and hence had spiritual authority. Ascetic authority was also the "motivation and legitimation" of pragmatic authority (p. 18). Rapp successfully makes the case that "pragmatic authority never seems to exist on its own but is embedded in a larger context where spiritual and ascetic authority also play their part" (p. 131). Rapp's reminder that most major bishops went through a period of ascetic practice before taking up office is an important corrective to common perceptions.

Rapp takes on an extensive chronological sweep from the third to the sixth century. By thus straddling the reign of Constantine she undermines a second persistent scholarly dichotomy between the "primitive" Church and the post-Constantinian "imperial" church. Her analysis charts gradual evolutions within the ideals of episcopal authority. [End Page 374]

Much of the source material utilized discusses the nature of the priesthood and ideals of priestly behavior, with bishops entering the picture as an extension of that conversation. Through the theory of apostolic succession, ordination itself was seen as bestowing spiritual authority on priests. The authority which came through ordination is most often evident in absolution of penitents (p. 94). Rapp emphasizes the adoption of monastic values by priests. In part she is exposing the distinction in expected behavior between monks and priests as a medieval phenomenon. A key distinguishing feature of priestly as opposed to monastic holiness in late antiquity was the injunction of priests to preach and educate their communities. Rapp highlights the presumption that a priest was always a teacher.

Throughout, Rapp exhibits a stunning knowledge of the source material and scholarship. In addition to the finely crafted argument, Rapp provides an invaluable survey of information and sources describing the nature of episcopal authority in late antiquity. For this reason alone the book should be considered essential reading for anyone studying late antiquity or the development of Christianity. Her case that bishops were able to lead effectively through an intertwining of spiritual, ascetic, and pragmatic authority is made with sufficient force that it will likely set the agenda for scholarly discussions of late antique authority for some time to come.

Leonora Neville
The Catholic University of America


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pp. 374-375
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