Monday, September 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Richard Price, Mary Whitby (ed.), Chalcedon in Context: Church Councils 400-700. Translated Texts for Historians, Contexts 1. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 205. ISBN 9781846311772. £65.00.
Reviewed by Hagith Sivan

Chalcedon in Context is a result of a workshop gathered to mark the publication, in 2005, of the first full English translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis.1 By now Price has also added to the list a translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Constantinople in the same series of Translated Texts for Historians. It is a feat worthy of a celebration in the shape of the volume under review. Until 2005 the acts of the council of Chalcedon, available only in the superb edition of Eduard Schwartz, were either often ignored by historians or more often mined solely for nuggets of information to be used in a variety of contexts.

It is perhaps appropriate to quote the words of the emperor Justinian, himself no stranger to ecclesiastical councils, as a preliminary assessment of the nature of church councils in late antiquity:

Those in search of the truth ought to attend to the fact that often at councils some things are said by some of those found at them out of partiality or disagreement or ignorance, but no one attends to what is said individually by a few, but only to what is decreed by all by common consent; for if one were to choose to attend to such disagreement in the way they do, each council will be found refuting itself.2

The imperial couple, Marcian and Pulcheria, who summoned the council in 451, was greeted by the assembled bishops with acclamations hailing them as the new Constantine and the new Helena. The imperial appearance provides one highlight of the lengthy and contentious gathering whose history Richard Price, one of the two translators of the Acts of Chalcedon, recaptures ("The Council of Chalcedon: A Narrative", 70-91). As Price notes, almost all the public sessions at Chalcedon were chaired by a group of high government officials, reflecting the court's ongoing interest in the proceedings as well as its need to control the aggression so often displayed by God's servers (73).

Price, whose recent translation work on church councils has reached monumental dimensions, contributed in addition two more articles to the present collection: reflections on facts and factoids in the edited Acts ("Truth, Omission, and Fiction in the Acts of Chalcedon", 92-106); and an overview of the vicissitudes of fifth century dogmatic debates in the sixth century, specifically during the second council of Constantinople of 553 ("The Second Council of Constantinople and the Malleable Past", 117-132).

When the Theodosian Code was presented at Rome to the senate in 438, the senators accompanied the ceremony with acclamations extolling the emperors, the Code and top officials of the realm. These were duly recorded in the gesta senatus that, in Mommsen's edition, precedes the Code itself. Acclamations had become a monotonous feature of public events and their recording provided a testimony of general consensus. Thus at the council of Chalcedon acclamations, according to Charlotte Roueché, had a significant role to play in the authentication of authority, ecclesiastical as well as secular ("Acclamations at the Council of Chalcedon", 169-77). The level of loudness of these acclamations is further reflected in the unruly behavior that appears to characterize, unusually, the conduct of prelates at Chalcedon, as Michael Whitby shows in an entertaining survey of instances of "poor behavior" ("An Unholy Crew? Bishops Behaving Badly at Church Councils", 178-196).

Like the Theodosian Code, conceived by Theodosius II as the definitive text intended to settle once and for all the mess of imperial laws, Chalcedon aspired to provide a definitive dogma, a universal endorsement of Nicaea as immutable source of Christian tradition. Nothing of the sort happened; but in the process, as highlighted by David Gwynn ("The Council of Chalcedon and the Definition of Christian Tradition", 7-26), the bishops assembled at Chalcedon debated the meaning of an authentic Christian tradition, invariably beginning with the Constantinian council at Nicaea in 325. Gwynn poses an important question—what constituted an authoritative reading of an authentic Christian "tradition"? Otherwise stated, how did conciliar resolutions acquire canonic status? As Gwynn points out, it was simpler to reach a negative rather than a positive conclusion—to compile a corpus of heresy or heretics rather than a corpus of "orthodox" interpretation. If the status of the Nicene creed as a statement of the traditional faith of the church had been established already by the end of the fourth century, this was hardly the case with the formulae produced by other ecumenical councils (Constantinople 381; Ephesos 431), not to mention the decisions of a score of regional councils. As a result, constant appeals to the Nicene council, garnished with the appellant's individual interpretation, became a major frontier in the battles waged at Chalcedon.

How one such "tradition", namely the acts of the first Ephesian council of 431, was "read" at the council of Chalcedon in 451 is the subject of Thomas Graumann's article ("'Reading' the First Council of Ephesos", 27-44). The fact that reading and rereading the protocols of earlier councils constituted a crucial component of ecclesiastical councils confirms Graumann's observation (30) that these were not intended merely to provide information but rather to construct a case, or a "tradition", to use Gwynn's term. In this light, the acts need to be examined as products of a deliberate editing process aimed at self-justification (35) for a secondary audience, and primarily the imperial court (43).

This approach is borne out by the Syriac version of the second council of Ephesos of 449, composed a century later "exactly at the moment when the miaphysite side had gained influence in both Constantinople and Alexandria", and when Severus of Antioch was at the court in 535, as Fergus Millar argues in an article that offers a great deal more than its title suggests ("The Syriac Acts of the Second Council of Ephesos 449", 45-69). In a fascinating narrative Millar traces the Syriac codex of the Acts through dated Syriac inscriptions and manuscripts of the fifth and sixth centuries and within the chronological context of both the councils of 431-451 and of christological disputes under Justinian. A list of the contents of the Acts reflects the ubiquity of the imperial imprint with cited letters of Theodosius II and Valentinian III.

The search for a universal "truth", whether legal or theological, in the Greek Roman empire (to cite the title of Millar's recent book3), explains why scholars have often positioned the "school" of Alexandria in constant conflict with the "school" of Antioch, an opposition to which Louth objects in an article that explains a scholarly misunderstanding ("Why did the Syrians Reject the Council of Chalcedon?", 107-116). Louth proposes to view the Syrian ideology not as a "school" but as a stand shaped by the ideas of several theologians who espoused Cyrillan Christology, paradoxically the very same dogmatic views that Athanasius of Alexandria propounded and that Cyril of Alexandria adopted or claimed to represent. With this understanding, the Syrian standoff was not an expression of its "school" but of their belief that Chalcedon betrayed Cyril.

Catherine Cubitt and Judith Herrin bring the discussion to the seventh century with two major councils, the 649 Lateran and the 692 Quinisext (or in Trullo). Cubitt ("The Lateran Council of 649 as an Ecumenical Council", 133-147) examines the repercussions of Chalcedon for both doctrinal questions and religious politics, with the monothelite doctrine as the prompter of the Lateran council, itself a key moment in relations between the Byzantine emperors and the papacy. Herrin ("The Quinisext Council as a Continuation of Chalcedon", 148-168) examines the fate of canon 28 of Chalcedon which confirmed the standing of Constantinople as the leading patriarchal see in the east. It also addressed concerns about particular features of clerical life. Among the phenomena discussed and addressed in 692 were inappropriate activities that Christians should avoid. These included the celebration of the New Year with public dancing, cross dressing and wearing ancient theatrical masks, and pressing grapes while invoking the name of Dionysus. Other activities targeted for condemnation were braiding hair in a seductive manner or giving worn-out Bibles to perfume dealers. Such concerns provide salutary reminders that not all conciliar discussions revolved around dogma.

On the whole, this slim and somewhat expensive volume is an appropriate complement to a complicated translation endeavor.


1.   R. Price and M. Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, translated with introduction and notes, 3 vols., TTH 45 (Liverpool 2005).
2.   De recta fide, Eng. trans. Price, Chalcedon in Context, 88 = The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, 150-1.
3.   Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408–450), Sather Classical Lectures (Berkeley/Los Angeles 2007).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.