Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony, Derek Krueger (ed.), Prayer and Worship in Eastern Christianities, 5th to 11th Centuries. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xvii, 312. ISBN 9781472465689. $50.00 (hb). ISBN 9781315601977. ebook.

Reviewed by Laura Lieber, Duke University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below]

This volume originated from papers presented at a three-day workshop held at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University (now renamed the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies) in Jerusalem, in June 2014. The subject of the workshop, prayer and worship in eastern Christianities from the fifth to eleventh centuries, is reflected in the title of the book. The authors represent a cross-section of the field: junior and senior scholars from the US, Europe, and Israel, writing on topics that span from late antiquity to the medieval period. With the exception of one essay (that by Hillel Newman), the pieces share a focus on elements of Christian ritual that may reflect doctrinal differences but reveal, upon deeper examination, continuity across communal and creedal boundaries.

While these studies share a common interest in religious practice, they display a wide array of approaches to the study of ritual and treat a diversity of specific subjects. The editors of the volume state explicitly that these essays were not assembled in order to provide a comprehensive history of Christian liturgy in antiquity; rather, they illustrate new trends in the analysis of such works with a particular focus on performance, transformation, transmission, and flexibility. The specific approaches taken in the essays vary widely, ranging from basic collection of data to theory-informed analysis of well-established texts and traditions. The works do not share a common theoretical or methodological frame of reference but cohere around a fairly precisely defined topic, namely the adaptability of prayer performance traditions over time.

The volume contains eleven chapters. It is not divided into subsections, although the arrangement of the chapters displays a clear organizational sense along topical lines. A brief introduction by the editors (who are themselves contributors) lays out the general scope of the volume and articulates the links among the ten subsequent essays. The essays themselves address an array of topics. The first two essays (chapters one and two) address questions regarding the efficacy of prayer in late antiquity, both in terms of interior perceptions of prayer (Bitton-Ashkelony) and practices that translate interiority into physical practices (ChialĂ ). The next three essays (chapters three through five) address physical traces of prayer: the creation and transmission of prayer rubrics in the context of the Psalter (Stewart); epigraphic expressions of devotion and piety (Di Segni); and the transformations of such epigraphic evidence as forms not only of remembering but forgetting at a communal level (Yasin). The essay in chapter six turns from the monumental to the (potentially) mundane: the transformation of commonplace items, especially bread, into the Eucharist (Menze). In chapters six and seven, the volume's focus shifts to the liturgical components of ritual: how liturgy, consisting of specific words recited at a specific time in a specific context, can shape emotional experience (Krueger); and how liturgical preferences and sharing can reveal "pragmatic ecumenism" despite overt expressions of confessional dispute (Tannous). In the final three chapters, the scope continues to widen. Chapter nine addresses the phenomenon of "liturgical Byzantinization," in which the varied liturgies, lectionaries, and calendars that emerged in different areas and languages (here those practices surrounding the celebration of Christ's nativity) coalesced into a rough but lasting commonality (Galadza). The penultimate essay (chapter ten) explores the relationships between ritual and narrative in the context of "grief therapy." The author (Minov) draws comparisons not only with "pagan" mourning practices but also, at the end, with Zoroastrian materials as part of the larger societal context in which the Syriac writings took shape. The final chapter offers the only example of a paper in which differences—in this case, between Jews and Christians in regards to apocalyptic elements of liturgical poetry by Romanos and Qalir—are as thoroughly articulated as commonalities (Newman). Even in this case, however, the differences are regarded as reflective of a shared tradition that results in mutually- comprehensible "coherence."

As the above synopsis suggests, the volume offers an array of fairly technical essays that display the range of subjects and approaches currently being used to produce important scholarship in the study of early Christianity from late antiquity and the early Byzantine periods. Issues of philosophy, material culture, performance studies, affective studies, and intercultural penetration each find a voice here. The work is, without exception, firmly grounded in rigorous textual study. Three examples from the volume illustrate the technical yet sophisticated nature of the studies.

Leah Di Segni's contribution, "Expressions of Prayer in Late Antique Inscriptions in the Provinces of Palaestina and Arabia," treats the topic of "epigraphic prayer." Within this designation, Di Segni includes Greek-language inscriptions ranging from brief, rough graffiti to quotations from Scripture, which suggest more care and education. She treats inscribed petitions (e.g., "Lord [or Christ] remember" and "Lord, help!"—perhaps with a personal name included) as well as dedicatory and donor inscriptions. These brief texts are recovered within shrines, in venerated locations, or on the roads leading to such structures and places. Among the recovered epigraphic texts, Di Segni highlights those which include quotations from biblical texts (particularly associated with buildings of cultic significance). As she notes, most of these quotations come from Psalms, but she notes that the epigraphic quotations seem to serve a different function from those recited in a liturgical-devotional context. Within the essay, Di Segni conveys the diversity of this body of material in spatial, geographic, and functional terms. She includes a substantial table, ten pages in length, which lists inscriptions with scriptural quotations in Greek (including text quoted, location, nature of location [church, monastery, villa, etc.], bibliographic reference, and function) and provides English translations of the scriptural quotations referenced. The essay, while preliminary in nature and comparatively under-theorized, is thorough and gestures toward an important and under-utilized body of literature.

Volker Menze's essay, "The Power of the Eucharist in Early Medieval Syria," interprets prayer and ritual—specifically, the Eucharist—in a way that highlights easily overlooked class and economic elements of the performance. Menze draws attention to the fact that, in contrast to most other ritual objects, the Eucharist was intrinsically inexpensive and easily reproduced. Thus liturgical and material methods had to be applied to the bread in order to both imbue it with holiness and authenticate its manufacture. At the same time, the accessibility of Eucharistic bread meant that when it was taken out of the ritual world of the church, it could acquire unsanctioned magical and medical significance in the eyes (and lived realities) of the laity, despite the statements of ecclesiastical authorities. Menze's analysis brings together a variety of sources, both literary and material, in a sophisticated and elegant way.

Finally, Derek Krueger's chapter, "The Transmission of Liturgical Joy in Byzantine Hymns for Easter," retains a focus on literary works and their development—among the more conventional approaches to liturgical studies—but he attends carefully to easily overlooked, non-textual elements such as calendrical setting and performative context, and in doing so highlights "off the page" elements. He does so by being a sensitive, attentive reader and bringing current theoretical models to bear on them, notably affective and performative theory. In this essay, Krueger examines how liturgical poems created, shaped, and maintained an experiential atmosphere of joy as the congregation pivoted from the sorrow of the crucifixion to the wonder of resurrection, and how they similarly moderated the return to ordinary time—and ordinary emotion—as the holiday concluded. It is a technical piece, but thought-provoking in the best way.

This sampling of three essays—one on epigraphy, one on social class and material realia, and one on theory-informed literary analysis—suggests the rich if episodic nature of the volume. Its origins in a conference can be discerned in that the papers fit together somewhat loosely and address a wide variety of materials, topics, and concerns. The focus of each essay tends to be narrow, although many are framed in a way that indicates the larger significance of the project the author pursues. Furthermore, the editors have worked to revise the articles such that they read well and cohere in a larger sense. The volume does not offer definitive, sweeping understandings of prayer and worship in eastern Christian communities of late antiquity and the early Byzantine period, but it offers a kaleidoscopic sense of the variety of work being done in this field by some of the most notable scholars of the current moment. This is not a volume to read cover-to-cover; it does not offer a comprehensive state of the field nor does it muster a single strong argument. If, however, one wants a sense of some of the high level, solidly executed work being done in the field of early Christian liturgical studies by European and American academics, this is an excellent source.

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
List of Contributors
"Introduction: Prayer, Worship, and Ritual Practice" (Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony and Derek Krueger)
1. "Theories of Prayer in Late Antiquity: Doubts and Practices from Maximos of Tyre to Isaac of Nineveh" (Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony)
2. "Prayer and the Body according to Isaac of Nineveh" (Sabino ChialĂ )
3. "Psalms and Prayer in Syriac Monasticism: Clues from Psalter Prefaces and their Greek Sources" (Columba Stewart)
4. "Expressions of Prayer in Late Antique Inscriptions in the Provinces of Palaestina and Arabia" (Leah Di Segni)
5. "Renovation and the Early Byzantine Church: Staging Past and Prayer" (Ann Marie Yasin)
6. "The Power of the Eucharist in Early Medieval Syria: Grant for Salvation or Magical Medication?" (Volker Menze)
7. "The Transmission of Liturgical Joy in Byzantine Hymns for Easter" (Derek Krueger)
8. "Greek Kanons and the Syrian Orthodox Liturgy" (Jack Tannous)
9. "Various Orthodoxies: Feasts of the Incarnation of Christ in Jerusalem during the First Christian Millennium" (Daniel Galadza)
10. "The Therapy for Grief and the Practice of Incubation in Early Medieval Palestine: The Evidence of the Syriac Story of a Woman from Jerusalem" (Sergey Minov)
11. "Apocalyptic Poems in Christian and Jewish Liturgy in Late Antiquity" (Hillel I. Newman)

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