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  • Christians in Conversation: A Guide to Late Antique Dialogues in Greek and Syriac by Alberto Rigolio
Alberto Rigolio
Christians in Conversation: A Guide to Late Antique Dialogues in Greek and Syriac
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019 Pp. xii + 297. $85.00.

This book represents a significant advance in scholarship on prose dialogues written by Christians between the second century and 600 c.e. The author rightly notes that until recently early Christians' use of the dialogue format has not received the attention that it properly deserves. This relative neglect arose from the negative contrasts drawn between classical dialogues and early Christian [End Page 161] dialogues in older scholarship and from the lack of a comprehensive survey of scholarship on early Christian dialogues. Rigolio's book responds to these limitations by providing a detailed summary of scholarly research and showing that dialogues played an important role in early Christian opinion formation.

As Rigolio notes, older German scholarship tended to assume that classical dialogue was characterized by an intellectual openness that was subverted and lost during the rise of Christianity, with tolerance and open discussion being replaced by dogmatic, didactic discourse. Rudolf Hirzel's Der Dialog: Ein literarhistorischer Versuch (Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel, 1895) was particularly influential in promoting this view. Hirzel had argued that philosophical dialogue was the primary form of dialogue. Drawing on Diogenes Laertius's description of Platonic dialogue (Vitae philosophorum 3.48), Hirzel defined dialogue as an unhindered exchange between speakers of roughly equal status who feel free in turn to both ask and answer questions about philosophical and political matters. Hirzel's assumptions have in various ways shaped subsequent major studies such as Manfred Hoffmann's Der Dialog bei den christlichen Schriftstellern der ersten vier Jahrhunderte (Heidelberg: Akademie Verlag, 1966), Bernd Reiner Voss's Der Dialog in der frühchristlichen Literatur (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1970), and some of the papers included in Simon Goldhill, ed., The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Recent scholarship in classical studies has questioned these assumptions. Rather than privileging philosophical dialogues, it is important to examine the full range of dialogues that are known to have existed and to analyze how they functioned in different contexts. Furthermore, rather than viewing religious content as problematic, Christian dialogues and disputations provide an opportunity to see how early Christians tried to understand and negotiate their relationships with other religious groups (Jews, Manichaeans, pagans, Zoroastrians, and Christians perceived to be heretical).

In studying dialogues, one of the challenges is to identify what should count as a dialogue. Dialogue is often embedded within texts which have a narrative frame that provides scene setting and characterization of the speakers; that broader frame may invite one to identify the work with a different genre of literature, e.g., hagiography (1, 5 with n19, 54–55, 227), historiography (219), or a letter (5, 104). Rigolio focuses on texts where dialogue is both extensive and central to the purpose of the work. This seems a prudent choice, excluding works like the pseudo-Clementine literature (which includes dialogue although this dialogue is not central to the purpose of the work), but including didactic dialogues which have much in common with contemporary question-and-answer (erotapokrisis) literature (24, 164, 197). For each of the sixty early Christian dialogues which Rigolio discusses, he lists the author, title, original language, and date of composition; he then provides a detailed survey of research on that dialogue from the late nineteenth century to the present day and concludes with a bibliography.

One must commend Rigolio for the thoroughness of his research, which includes not only monographs and unpublished dissertations that are not easily obtained, but even forthcoming publications. One minor omission might be noted. The [End Page 162] Dialexis Montanistae et Orthodoxi (125–127) has been translated into French by Pierre de Labriolle, Les sources de l'histoire du Montanisme (Fribourg, Switzerland: Librairie de l'Université, 1913), 93–108, and into English by Ronald E. Heine, The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 113–27.

Rigolio's book has been carefully proofread and has only a few minor errors. I noticed only "ordinained" (121), "Erotaporiseis" (254), and the elimination of spaces between words in a bibliographical entry (176, 255; Pohlkamp 2008). In another bibliography (180), a single book is listed twice, once under the name of the editor (Pennacini), once incorrectly listing a contributor (Celantano) as the editor.

Rigolio's argument that dialogues played an important role in early Christian opinion formation is sound and merits further discussion. For example, would one wish to nuance the argument by saying that dialogue shaped opinion formation among literate elites in the early Christian world? Although a few examples can be given of dialogues being read aloud (15 with n48, 133, 145–46) or perhaps being used for catechetical purposes (15, 217), it is difficult to see how dialogues could have had the kind of influence on the non-literate that the homily had. The distinction between the literate and non-literate might be mitigated if one could show that written dialogues mirrored the conventions of public disputations, reflecting a broadly shared understanding in contemporary society of how religious arguments should be conducted in public settings. This appears to be the approach taken by Rigolio (13–14, 38), drawing on some interesting recent work by Peter Van Nuffelen.

If written dialogues can be connected with a broader framework of assumptions by comparing them with transcripts of public disputations, what kind of texts would fit into this latter category? As Rigolio himself notes, there are opposing views as to whether texts like the Disputation with a Heretic (attributed to Didymus the Blind) or the Disputation of Paul the Persian are based on actual historical debates (114–15, 199–203). Rigolio therefore proposes various criteria that might be used to distinguish fictional dialogues from dialogues that are based on historical debates. These criteria include the reuse of pre-existing texts to create the dialogue (5, 94, 108, 133, 135, 151, 208), explanatory remarks that seem to be directed to the reader rather than the opponent (211), references to the act of writing (193), and characterization or conversations that are not plausible (130, 151).

In conclusion, Rigolio's book represents a significant advance in the study of early Christian dialogues and opinion formation in late antiquity. The comprehensiveness of Rigolio's bibliographies and his detailed summaries of prior scholarship will provide an important foundation for all future research on early Christian dialogues. One would hope that this new resource will also encourage the formation of a network of scholars working on early Christian dialogues. [End Page 163]

Byard Bennett
Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

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