Monday, May 30, 2016


Krastu Banev, Theophilus of Alexandria and the First Origenist Controversy: Rhetoric and Power. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 233. ISBN 9780198727545. $90.00.

Reviewed by Robert J. Morehouse, Evington, VA (

Version at BMCR home site


Krastu Banev reconsiders the place of Theophilus of Alexandria, specifically his Festal Letters, within the Origenist controversy. He aims to rectify the reception of Palladius of Helenopolis' negative depiction of the patriarch and instead properly to situate our understanding of Theophilus' actions and words within the forensic context of the controversy.

Banev's study needs to be understood in the context of recent research on the Origenist controversy. In a study published in 1992, Elizabeth Clark significantly advanced our understanding of the controversy through the analysis of its social dynamics. Her work demonstrates that there were distinct personal affiliations for each of the authors in the controversy, and these connections in large part determined the role they played within the debate.1 More recently, Norman Russell has argued that Theophilus' reputation needs to be rescued from the polemics of the likes of Palladius, largely by considering the forensic nature of Theophilus' approach to Origen.2 In his work on Palladius' Lausiac History and Dialogue concerning John Chrysostom, Demetrios Katos evaluates the legal nature of Palladius' treatment of both John Chrysostom and Theophilus.3 Banev intends to further Russell's rehabilitation of Theophilus, as it were, by doing for Theophilus what Katos does for Palladius. In doing so, Banev is attempting to corroborate Synesius of Ptolemais and Jerome's claims about the rhetorical prowess of Theophilus.

This volume makes two primary contributions. The first is to detail the rhetorical world in which Theophilus was operating. The second is to delineate the rhetorical expectations of his monastic audience and how Theophilus met them.

In the book's first chapter, Banev surveys the social world of the Origenist and Anthropomorphite controversies, focusing on the complexities of the context within which Theophilus was writing. Banev's stated aim is to show that Theophilus entered an ongoing theological dispute within which his own work could not possibly have remained objective. Chapter two addresses the theological background of these controversies. Here Banev highlights recent scholarship's demonstration that Theophilus' response to the anthropomorphite position was not against "simple" monks, but against a rich tradition of theological exegesis surrounding the issues of visionary and imageless prayer. In the third chapter, Banev analyzes the historical records, or lack thereof, regarding the Anti-Origenist Councils of 400. He focuses on the fact that Theophilus' opponents undermined his prominence as a skilled practitioner of canon law, more by what they omitted than by what they said. Banev concludes that the omission of these councils from the histories of Sozomen and Socrates is itself a clear indication of their efforts to downplay the influence of Theophilus' status.

The first section of the fourth chapter considers the place of rhetoric in the early church. Beginning with Paul, Banev outlines evidence of a positive disposition towards classical education and rhetoric among early Christian writings, and concludes that by Theophilus' day there was a "widespread rhetorical culture within the church." (65) The second section argues that Theophilus' Festal Letters ought to be seen as the equivalent of mass media, affording Theophilus considerable sway over popular opinion. In the third section, Banev defends the reliability of Jerome and Synesius' praise of the rhetorical accomplishment of Theophilus' Festal Letters.

In chapter five, Banev surveys Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric, the progymnasmata tradition, and the corpus of Hermogenic works to provide the reader with a theoretical rhetorical framework for understanding how Theophilus and his audience operated. He argues that the progymnasmata and the Hermogenic corpus, along with works well into the medieval period, show that the basic principles proposed by Aristotle remained the roots of rhetorical theory up to and well past Theophilus' day. He concludes that "there can be little doubt that these or very similar works were the basis of the school curricula in Egypt at Theophilus' time" (82-3).

The sixth chapter evaluates Theophilus' rhetorical merits in the setting of a late antique rhetor's classroom, by considering in particular his use of emotion (πάθος), authority (ἦθος), and reason (λόγος). Banev critiques Theophilus' arguments along theoretical lines, while acknowledging that Theophilus himself may have remained unaware of the theoretical underpinnings of his methods. Banev shows that whatever Theophilus' awareness of rhetorical theory, the invention and arrangement of his arguments are congruent with the traditions outlined in chapter five.

The aim of the seventh chapter is to illustrate the liturgical relevance of Theophilus' arguments. Banev is able to demonstrate that liturgy and scripture held significant places of authority in Theophilus' argumentation. However, this reader would like Banev to have more clearly outlined how these factors were unique to Theophilus' rhetoric or in what way they may have been effective for his particular context, as it is rather to be expected that both liturgical themes and scripture would have been authoritative sources for a bishop writing at the turn of the fifth century. Further, Banev's analysis of the bishop's arguments is at times anachronistic. He cites an eighth-century inscription (154), a twelfth-century synod (155), and refers to Theophilus' gauging the "doctrinal and devotional sensitivities of … the era of Chalcedon, [and] of later generations as well" (157).

In chapter eight, Banev asserts that monks were Theophilus' main intended audience. He argues that disobedience was tantamount to heresy in the Egyptian monastic literature of the time and that disobedience and heresy were nearly synonymous in the monastic rhetorical lexicon. In chapter nine, Banev discusses the treatment of Theophilus in the Apophthegmata Patrum. Working through several of the ten Apophthegmata concerning Theophilus, he convincingly demonstrates that the portraits of the patriarch in these sayings are congruent with the ethos Theophilus crafts of himself in his Letters.

The conclusions of these final two chapters bolster Banev's broader contention that Theophilus was effective not because of his demagoguery but primarily because he successfully cast Origen in an ethos unfavorable to his predominantly ascetic audience. By contrast, Theophilus presented himself as embodying the very dearest virtues of the monastic life (as exemplified in the thought of Antony): obedience, humility, and prayer with self-condemnation.

There are a few curious statements in this study. Banev argues that due to the polemic of Methodius of Olympus, Pamphilus, and Eusebius of Caesarea "it was no longer possible for future discussions to take place in a rhetorical vacuum" (12). This implies that, had the earlier anti-Origenist literature not existed, there might indeed have existed a rhetorical vacuum, which seems to fly in the face of Banev's efforts to show the thoroughgoing nature of the classical rhetorical tradition in late antique Christianity. Banev also at times over-problematizes his project. For example he remarks that "observations allow us to perceive an inherent difficulty in the way we somehow expect late antique bishops to be able to operate in a serene climate of cool intellectual objectivity" (18). This problematization is particularly peculiar because Banev goes on to explain how scholarship has already shown that such presuppositions are foolish.

Overall, Banev's case is compelling. He demonstrates the vibrancy of rhetoric in Alexandria at Theophilus' time and thus that the bishop and his audience were rhetorically trained and likely to have sophisticated rhetorical tastes. Banev also shows that Theophilus' arguments employ elements that were crafted along classical theoretical lines, and that they drew on themes selected for their importance to Theophilus' audience. Thus, Banev's claim that Jerome and Synesius had good cause to see Theophilus as an able rhetorician is convincing. There may be a fine line between pastoral polemic and vindictive slander, although there is no proof that such a line exists. Banev's contribution is to show how Theophilus' polemic was not reckless slander, but rather carefully crafted rhetoric designed to win the hearts and minds of his monastic and lay audiences within the forensic, conciliar context of the Origenist controversy.


1.   The Origenist controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
2.   Theophilus of Alexandria (London: Routledge, 2007); "Theophilus of Alexandria as a Forensic Practitioner," Studia Patristica, 50 (2011), 235-43.
3.   Palladius of Helenopolis: The Origenist Advocate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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