- Theodoret’s People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria by Adam M. Schor
In Theodoret’s People, Adam Schor examines the complexities of the doctrinal and social authority of Roman Syria’s bishops amid the Christological controversies of the 420s–450s. These decades of controversy were punctuated by the council of Chalcedon (451), which spawned three separate Middle Eastern churches with distinct theological views on the nature(s) of Christ. But they also represent the floruit (with some hiccups) of Theodoret’s career as bishop of the suffragan see Cyrrhus and as a leading “Antiochene” theologian, historian, and disputant of his day. As such, the book is divided into two interrelated parts. In part 1, Schor harnesses the heuristic advantages of social network theory to explore the consolidation and transformations of the “Antiochene network” and its shifting manifestations as a doctrinal faction during this period, with specific emphasis on bonds among bishops, monks, Roman administrators, and their proxies or gobetweens. In part 2, he shifts focus to bishops’ patronage of clients and the web of horizontal, diagonal, or vertical relationships that bishops mobilized to mediate the exchange of favors. The two parts therefore cohere to provide a multidimensional perspective on the social and religious authority that bishops exercised in late Roman Syria.
At the center of Schor’s analysis is of course Theodoret, a key player in the Antiochene network. Records and letters from the ecumenical councils of the 420s–450s illuminate contemporary social relations, but Theodoret in addition produced a copious collection of surviving letters to various peers and clients that both illustrate his efforts to build social networks and constitute some of the instruments through which he did so. Along with such vital documents, Theodoret also produced an ecclesiastical history, a history of Syrian monasticism, and defenses of proper Christian doctrine and practice. These too reflect Theodoret’s mental mapping of an Antiochene network and his efforts to persuade peers to recognize and affiliate with it. Accordingly, Schor provides a vision of Syria’s social landscape as perceived, experienced, and even shaped by Theodoret, whose works he qualifies and measures against the rich documentation of the period.
In his introduction and the chapters of part 1, Schor vaunts the virtues of embracing network theory to analyze the consolidation of doctrinal factions during the period of Christological debates. His approach resolves an impasse in the preceding scholarly tradition, as Schor himself observes (p. 9). Some scholars have viewed the debates [End Page 182] from a purely theological or intellectual angle. They have therefore treated the fissures between doctrinal factions of the 420s–450s as the product of ineffable differences in beliefs regarding the single or dual nature of Christ. Others, by contrast, have examined the controversies from a social or cultural perspective and have therefore linked doctrinal factionalism to the efforts of bishops to consolidate regional authority, maintain clients, define Christian identities, and otherwise wield social power over discrete groups. In response to these distinct trends, Schor analyzes such formations within the framework of network theory, which “pictures society as a web of relationships” whose participants exchange “cultural cues” (p. 10). These relationships in fact “give context to people’s performances,” inform metaphorical reasoning, and stabilize narratives that enable communities to cohere (p. 13). In regard to network type, Schor explores the utility of modeling episcopal relations on the modular scale-free network, the survival or destruction of whose hubs, or core nodes with multiple and substantial connections to other core members and outliers, determine the survival or disintegration of the network as it expands. In this light, Schor stresses that networks foremost represent a cognitive configuration; diverse forms of interaction permeate social landscapes, but their recognition as meaningful social relationships and the basis for collective activity or identification constitute a mental mapping (of both ancient players and modern scholars). All told, the strength of Schor’s approach is multiform. It dovetails with current theories of religion as a symbolic system or discourse generating social...