Biography 26.3 (2003) 463-466
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At the age of thirty, Theodoret (b. ca. AD 393, d. ca. 457/466) was consecrated bishop of Cyrrhus, a modest town of no great distinction in northern Syria. Yet in the decades that followed he became very much a man of his world and actively participated in the momentous ecclesiastical and theological disputes that ultimately served to define orthodoxy and heresy among Christians of the Later Roman Empire. Theodoret was furthermore a prolific writer who left behind a plethora of doctrinal treatises, apologetic works, a history of the church, numerous letters and an account of the colorful lives of Christian ascetics in the Syrian countryside. Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Theresa Urbainczyk's second book, directs our attention to the man and his outlook as revealed in this last work, which is often called in English A History of the Monks of Syria, although a better title for it might be Lives of the Ascetics of Syria. The genre of collective biographies of holy figures was taking shape in the fifth century. Around 440, an Egyptian Christian writer produced A History of the Monks of Egypt, which in form and substance closely resembles [End Page 463] Theodoret's work. Lives of philosophers and sophists are known from an even earlier time. Biographies of particular Christian ascetics were still more numerous, the most famous example being the Egyptian Life of Antony.
Thanks in no small measure to Theodoret's Lives, Syria came to be thought of as a land populated by eccentric ascetics in late antiquity. Although perhaps not as numerous as the desert solitaries of Egypt, Syrian holy men and women astonished contemporaries by their display of extreme bodily askesis. The elder Symeon Stylites who, after an earlier career spent in monasteries, placed himself alone on a column that he gradually increased in height to forty cubits, was one such widely emulated figure. Nor were dramatic pillar saints the only ascetics whose presence sanctified the Syrian countryside. Yet while these ascetics appeared to capture the imagination of those around them, the reader of Theodoret's collective biography often comes away disappointed by the thinness of his characterization. R. M. Price, a modern translator of the work, notes that the lack of individualization renders Theodoret's gallery of these ascetics a rather bland, indistinct group portrait (90-91). Dr. Urbainczyk cleverly offers us a compelling explanation for this odd feature by suggesting that it is not occasioned by literary ineptitude but by Theodoret's overriding agenda in creating the work in the first instance.
The broader setting of the bishop's career is therefore important to her overall presentation and argument. At once intellectual, church leader, and writer, Theodoret was not only a valuable historical observer of fifth-century church affairs but played a not insignificant role in their development. At the time, the Christological controversies pitting powerful bishops of sees such as Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople against each other literally tore the eastern church asunder. The ecclesiastical politicking that took place between the Councils of Ephesus in 431 and 449 (the latter known to its detractors as the Latrocinium, the "Robbers' Synod") and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 involved the participation of monks in large numbers. Theodoret inserted himself in the middle of these quarrels as a would-be mediator, and marshaled all resources at his disposal to bring about reconciliation. Yet, despite his best efforts, the disputants warred on, creating winners and losers. A friend of Nestorius, a fellow Antiochene, Theodoret found himself generally on the losing side of the conflict. He was even deposed by one council of bishops, only to be reinstated later by another. It must have been quite a shock to him when his opponents managed to mobilize against him three well-known Syrian ascetics: Symeon the Stylite, Baradatus, and Jacob.
Written some time during the critical years between 431 and 449, Theodoret'...