Monday, October 21, 2019


Blossom Stefaniw, Christian Reading: Language, Ethics, and the Order of Things. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. Pp. 264. ISBN 9780520300613. $95.00.

Reviewed by Aaron Pelttari, University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site


Didymus the Βlind was a Christian author and teacher active in Alexandria during the second half of the fourth century. He was so marvellous, said Jerome (De viris illustribus 109), that he mastered dialectic and geometry even though he was blind from a young age. Jerome attributed to Didymus a number of commentaries on scripture and translated his treatise On the Holy Spirit. His treatises On the Trinity and Against the Manichees also survived and were published by Migne in Patrologia Graeca 39. But Didymus was hardly noticed until a number of his commentaries appeared in a large find of late antique papyri uncovered during World War II in Tura in Egypt; most of them were eventually published in the series Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen. After many centuries forgotten in a dusty cave, another late antique Christian exegete emerged to fill the shelves of research libraries, or at least that is how he has been treated by most scholars who bothered to pay him any heed.

In this book, Blossom Stefaniw argues that Didymus was a grammarian whose teaching should be understood in the same terms as any other ancient grammarian, say Helladius or Donatus. Her evidence derives from two texts, his so-called Commentaries on the Psalms and on Ecclesiastes. On the basis of their style and inclusion of real questions from students, Stefaniw concludes that they are stenographic records of teaching that actually took place over an extended period of time in Alexandria (61–67). Although the same conclusion had been reached previously by Anne Browning Nelson, Stefaniw deserves credit for drawing attention back to the classroom setting of these texts, because they are precious evidence of how one real classroom worked in antiquity.1

Stefaniw begins with a captivating prologue that positions her book as a deeply personal (albeit not less than scholarly) treatment of how a subject reading an authoritative text can transform the object at the same time as she is transformed. Stefaniw says that "reading is an act of love" (3) and explains as follows the goal of her first chapter, which is in short the goal of her entire book: "I integrate my own patrimony as the heir of the last six decades of philosophy and criticism around text, narrative, knowledge production, race, gender, and history to tell you the story of the Tura papyri as they move through time, from reader to reader, circulating through diverse forms of Christian reading" (3). To be sure, the archetypal European male philologist is slow to embrace such categories, because he construes himself as a direct descendant of Aristarchus and Didymus the sighted (a.k.a. Χαλκέντερος). However, such theoretical machinations make ancient grammatical practices meaningful to new classes of participants, who may be motivated to share this Greek textual patrimony; and that is how such a book can be received—not as the only way in, but as one way.

Besides her thesis about Didymus as a grammarian, the most innovative aspect of this book is the narrative history that takes up most of the first chapter. Stefaniw recreates the material history of the classroom transcripts that she will study, from the teaching of Didymus in Alexandria in the year 376 to Germany in 2016 (6–31). Quotations from ancient sources are interleaved in these pages with impressionistic scenes that stood out for me as the highlight of the book. For example, John Colobos is imagined as welcoming the Roman nobleman Arsenius to his monastery in Sketis, with more than a little impatience and suspicion (the latter might have brought the books of Didymus from Alexandria):

"He taught his disciples, as he would this fool Roman waiting outside his door, that you build a house from the bottom up (this man, from the look of his hands, had never so much as picked up a stone in his life). You take your time over the foundations. You stake a claim." (12)

Such, we are to understand, is the wider context in which Didymus taught his students how to use the tools of ancient grammar. In this place and time, distinguished Romans and astonishing hermits competed for authority to explain the Christian scriptures. Stefaniw follows her daring narrative history with an untitled twelve-page introduction that refers back to the same material in standard academic prose (31–42).

In each of the three central chapters of her book, Stefaniw offers translations of several pages of the transcripts of Didymus's teaching, which is one of the ways that she makes this material newly accessible to an English-reading audience. Chapters 2–4 treat the central topic of grammar: Chapter 2 ("Reading with a Grammarian") is a meandering explanation of why Stefaniw reads Didymus as a grammarian; Chapter 3 ("The Textual Patrimony: Knowledge, Language, and Reading") introduces grammatical topics in his teaching; and Chapter 4 ("The Intellectual Patrimony: Ethics, Logic, and the Order of Things") presents some mainly philosophical aspects of his teaching. Chapter 5 ("Christian Reading: Chronography, Cartography, and Genealogy") puts the grammatical work of Didymus in dialogue with recent critical work in the humanities around topics such as curation and imitation. A brief epilogue asks the reader to include Didymus in their mental map of late antique intellectual culture. Because all Greek in this book is translated, it will be accessible to students of all levels.

Stefaniw dismisses "The received story of Didymus," which presents him as "the head of 'the' catechetical school of Alexandria, an imagined institution oft saluted but never satisfactorily defined" (61). The criticism is apt, but it would have been useful to include that this story comes from Rufinus, who says that Didymus became so well known that he emerged as the (a?) scholae ecclesiasticae doctor (Rufin. Historia ecclesiastica 11.7). The question of what Rufinus meant by this formulation and why he would bother to claim such a thing is germane to Stefaniw's entire topic; and it is noteworthy that Richard Layton was careful in his previous chapter on Didymus as a teacher, starting which he says, "The existence and function of the famous 'catechetical school' of Alexandria during the lifetime of Didymus is notoriously obscure".2 Stefaniw is correct that Church historians are prone to imagine the ancient classroom as somehow like a modern university seminar and that ancient teachers were almost always freelance practitioners. She does not, however, explain precisely how Didymus might have negotiated his position amid a range of other Alexandrian teachers.

Because Didymus often uses grammatical categories in his teaching, the transcripts of his lessons offer a remarkable way to understand how late antique Christians interacted with the dominant intellectual framework of their time. Stefaniw considers his use of literary terms such as hyperbole and catachresis (113–15) but unfortunately misunderstands (76, 113) the reference in Dionysius Thrax to accurate reading in terms of prosody (ἀνάγνωσις ἐντριβὴς κατὰ προσῳδίαν, Ars grammatica1.1) as a reference to some kind of interpretation rather than accurate pronunciation. This does not inspire confidence. Presumably because she is concerned with grammar as a way of thinking rather than with Didymus's own understanding of his teaching, Stefaniw passes over without comment several cited passages in which he refers in general terms to grammarians (102, 105, 121, and 139). Nevertheless, the fact that Didymus three times contrasts the expressions "all men" and "all grammarians" might suggest that his students really did think of him as a grammarian.3 Indeed, it seems perfectly possible that some of Didymus's students or auditors might have continued their education with another more advanced teacher, studying law or medicine or other specialized topic, or that they might have proceeded directly to a career in some other field—which is to say that there is no reason to assume that all of Didymus's students were preparing themselves for a life of Christian service or that they were engaged in a merely devotional project. However, describing Didymus as a grammarian is problematic in the sense that his students would have been lost if they had gone on directly from his classroom to the school of a rhetor and the progymnasmata that assumed a thorough familiarity with Homer and Greek mythology.

The teaching of Didymus should be put into dialogue with the work of other teachers and interpreters around the ancient Mediterranean, and it would reward further exploration especially because he was well connected: beyond his wide reading of Christian texts, Didymus refers several times to the Stoics and also to a wide range of Greek writers including Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Philo, and Epicurus.4 In short, Stefaniw's vivid and lively study returns attention to the teaching of a learned Alexandrian whose texts remain understudied.


1.   Stefaniw prominently cites an important predecessor: Nelson, A. B. (1995) "The Classroom of Didymus the Blind," PhD Diss., University of Michigan. In contrast to Stefaniw, Nelson presented Didymus as working within "the fourth-century version of a Christian university" (8). However, some basic information is not provided by Stefaniw or is occluded by the theoretical discussion, and Nelson's work provides a more readable introduction to the material, for example in her explanation that over three hundred student questions are set off by επερ (= ἐπερώτησις or a cognate form) followed by a stroke (Nelson 1995, 9–10).
2.   Layton, R. (2004), Didymus the Blind and His Circle in Late-Antique Alexandria: Virtue and Narrative in Biblical Scholarship, Urbana, 15.
3.   Nelson (1995), 64n46. Didymus's forty references to teachers are collected at Nelson (1995), 184.
4.   Nelson 1995, 187–88.

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