Thursday, December 8, 2011


Adam M. Schor, Theodoret's People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria. Transformation of the classical heritage, 48. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 342. ISBN 9780520268623. $49.95.

Reviewed by Joshua Congrove, Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) (

Version at BMCR home site


To both scholar and neophyte alike, the religious conflict and dialog that characterized mid fifth-century Syria can seem perplexing. From the first sparks of controversy lit by Nestorius in 428 to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which brought definition, but not finality, to the dispute, the conflagration over how to understand the natures of Christ split much of the Eastern Roman world. No less perplexing, however, is how the division between dyophysites and miaphysites engulfed men from far beyond the clerical world. Monks, civic leaders, and even imperial officials all found themselves rallying for or against leaders tied to them by not just doctrinal, but also social and cultural bonds.

It is this complex realm that Adam Schor enters and addresses with his new book Theodoret's People: Social Networks and Religious Conflict in Late Roman Syria. In explaining how a doctrinal controversy came to envelop even laymen and led to the development of self-conscious theological communities, Schor notes that theologians and historians have tended to pursue the Christological controversy with "contrasting assumptions" (9). Thus the former have often assumed that clerics pursued theological truth; the latter that they sought social authority. Instead of these, Schor follows "an integrative approach." Treating "theology as a key factor in social relations" (9) Schor's work explores how social complexities and communities among Syrian clerics interacted with the doctrinal formulations they championed or repudiated. Theodoret, the dyophysite bishop on whom Schor focuses, thus becomes emblematic of how social performance could promote doctrinal certainty among those close to him (in a number of senses), but consternation and conflict in those more distant. Schor's combined social/cultural analysis, and the strengths it brings, becomes perhaps the greatest virtue of his work.

Equally characteristic of Schor's methodology is his use of social network theory as a means of analyzing personal interactions. Such an approach, as Schor notes, is far from unknown in ancient historical studies (see, e.g., Elizabeth Clark, Origenist Controversy and Giovanni Ruffini, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt); for Schor's topic, however, it proves invaluable. As he notes in his introduction, network theory "offers a framework for combining social concepts (such as patronage) with cultural concepts (such as performance)" (9). It offers the possibility of cutting through, as it were, the social performances in order to uncover what forces created, nourished, or destroyed communities such as Theodoret's. And, despite obvious limitations, it reveals how socially resonant cues can help identify "meaningful networks" (13). These and other benefits of network theory are outlined and defended persuasively by Schor in his introductory chapter.

Theodoret's People falls easily into two parts. In Part I (chapters one to five), Schor examines the "Antiochene doctrinal network" (13) and how social performance aided Theodoret in promoting and maintaining this network through the complex events of 428–451. In these five chapters, Schor's purpose is first to reveal the Antiochene doctrinal network through the exchange of social cues, as well as to show how Theodoret "related to fellow clerics and active disputants" (13). In Part II (chapters six to eight), Schor expands his inquiry to include patronage relations, showing how the reality of late Roman patronage influenced the lives and theology of Theodoret and his fellow bishops. Patronage not only affected the social landscape in which theology was developed and shared, but it also provided ways of understanding that theology which would prove more or less resonant among groups that shared a common frame of reference with Theodoret.

Schor's first chapter provides the philological basis for his remaining inquiries and as such it stands as one of his most compelling. Here Schor examines conciliar transcripts of the time (the acta) as well as Theodoret's epistolary corpus to show how Theodoret signals "social attachments" (13) with members of his doctrinal network. Such social performance occurs not, as might be thought, by simply exchanging doctrinal language that is explicitly Antiochene, but rather by trading social cues that are less obvious, but just as defining. Among the verbal cues Schor emphasizes are standard Scriptural expressions of love (agape and philia), "exactness" (akribeia), and "condescension" (synkatabasis). These verbal cues, moreover, could be enhanced by symbolic, nonverbal, or relational cues: church councils, episcopal visits, and communication through envoys all helped cement relations among the network. Schor treats all of this with argument that both intrigues and convinces. My only hesitation concerns Schor's assertion that the mass of Antiochene cues cannot be seen elsewhere (38), a contention that seems insufficiently defended in the text. While I grant that the assemblage of social cues may indeed be a defining feature of Antiochene relations, one can at least imagine such cues working in a similar manner in other communities of the time (Augustine's circle of contacts, for instance).

His foundation in place, the remainder of Schor's inquiries proceed mostly without perturbation. In his second chapter, Schor builds upon his set of characteristic Antiochene social cues to develop a map of Theodoret's doctrinal network. As one who has wrestled with the difficulty of creating parameters for this kind of network analysis, I find Schor's methodology commendable here: relationships that are to be considered Antiochene must show a sender and recipient sharing "at least three different cues or habits … on more than one occasion, including at least one specifically doctrinal cue" (42). Applying this threshold yields not only maps of Theodoret's networks (which appear, with successive changes, throughout remaining chapters), but also the crucial conclusion that Theodoret's network is best characterized as modular and scale free (45). In successive chapters, Schor rightly emphasizes how such a typology contributes to the social dynamics we observe in Theodoret's network.

The next three chapters move from strict network analysis to a diachronic investigation of the origins, apex, and eventually decline of the Antiochene network. In chapter three, Schor turns his attention to Theodoret's Historia ecclesiastica, in which the bishop extols his Nicene predecessors and their achievements in winning over the churches of Syria. Theodoret's adulation reveals more than just ancestral pride, in that his recounting of church history also allows him to idealize a "cue-trading network" already in existence in his own day. Schor continues his analysis of the network in his fourth chapter, where he employs micro-history to examine the roots of the Nestorian controversy in Ephesus, as well as the effects it exerted upon the Antiochene network. Torn over whether to reconcile with the miaphysite party of Cyril, the Antiochenes in fact faced a division over who would lead the network—a competition, Schor argues, brought to a close by Theodoret's decision to prioritize pastoral concerns for the laity over strict purity of orthodoxy. In chapter five, the leadership and capital gained by Theodoret in this process take center stage, as Schor shows how Theodoret attempts to maintain his network through new challenges. Despite writings that "celebrated Antiochene theological discourse" (121), attempts to expand his community through recruiting, and narratives that promoted Antiochene community, Theodoret saw his network collapse by the 450s. Schor's argument here is particularly strong, demonstrating how a seemingly strong network could in fact collapse if its hubs were attacked and removed.

Schor's final three chapters (Part II) turn attention to the effect of patronage relations upon the Antiochene network. Chapter six examines how bishops might fit into the transactional web of patronage that typified late Roman society. Favors and loyalties could serve as social cues and the broad web of patronage relations sought by Theodoret could also promote his "partisan network" (155). In chapter seven, Schor continues this line of inquiry by showing how Theodoret strove to fulfill the expectations of patronage. In this, establishing common ground among different audiences was crucial and methods involving appeals to (1) social hierarchy, (2) cultural, (3) doctrinal or (4) Scriptural commonalities, (5) classical culture, and (6) civic identity all provided ways of ensuring that Theodoret would be included in vital patronage networks. Chapter eight continues and climaxes this line of thought, as Schor argues that the concept of patronage can help illuminate Theodoret's Christology. Concepts of mediation drawn from human patronage could help explain why Christ needed two natures to mediate between God and man; this metaphorical explanation, moreover, might resonate with those who had already seen how it operated in social relations. Such resonance, Schor argues, could provide "reinforcement of doctrinal certainties and reaffirmation of partisan bonds" (15).

Schor's arguments in chapter eight are likely to be his most controversial and, by his own admission, the most speculative. That doctrinal formulations resonated with a late-Roman conception of patronage seems reasonable; that such formulations owed their origin to the latter seems to me far less clear. As someone not intimately acquainted with Theodoret, I find Schor's argument interesting, but not conclusive; others will likely share some apprehension on this point.

A brief epilogue closes the book, restating and contextualizing its main conclusions; there is also a substantial section of notes, a bibliography, and an index. In sum, Adam Schor has done remarkable work here with an approach that nicely implements the integration it seeks, and successfully applies network theory to Theodoret's world. His language is, for the most part, clear—with only occasional (and, given the complex topic, perhaps inevitable) moments of abstractness that make it less lucid than is ideal. The text is polished and no typographical errors were apparent. I learned a great deal from this book and if not every conclusion is indisputable, each one is nonetheless engaging and intriguing. It is an obvious reading choice for anyone studying late-antique social history or (especially) the Christological controversies of the fifth century, but it will also be of great interest to those who have used, or wish to use, network theory in their work. And in our age of social networking, might this not be all of us?

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