Neil B. McLynn’s book on politics and culture in late antiquity is an invaluable resource tool, offering a rare glimpse of Christian history during the fourth century. The book is a collection of thirteen previously published essays, organized into three sections. The essays retain their original pagination of publication, and this may be burdensome at times. The first section, Religious/Christian Politics, contains essays on Christian violence, Theodosius and Augustine’s Rome. The second section is dedicated to Gregory Nazianzen, and contains essays regarding cultural politics in Christian Cappadocia. Gregory Nazianzen, the great Cappadocian Father, is given a fresh perspective and, as McLynn rightfully states, “Gregory no longer seems the eccentric outsider that he did twelve years ago. Gregory’s thinking and writing makes a compelling case for taking the self-presentation of ‘this most subtle of ancient rhetoricians’ seriously” (vii). The final section, Religious Culture, contains various essays on discipleship and such figures as Origen and Paulinus the Impenitent.
In the essay entitled “The Transformation of Imperial Churchgoing in the Fourth Century,” McLynn ponders the contents of a lost page from Eusebius’ Life of Constantine. McLynn speculates that the missing page contains information regarding the Roman Emperor’s first visit to a church service on Easter eve in 337, when Constantine “spent the night together with the people” (I.236). This event is significant, in that it would have occurred six weeks before the Emperor’s death. In the essay entitled “A Self-Made Holy Man: The Case of Gregory Nazianzen,” one learns that although the wealthy Cappadocian Father was far more comfortable than the average Syrian ascetic, there were marked similarities. McLynn relates that “Gregory is presented to us pursuing his ascetic goals alone, by himself; and we are allowed to follow him doing so over the course of a life full of struggle” (V.463). This contrast becomes important when one considers that Gregory “defeated his father’s and Basil’s [the Great] concerted efforts to shackle him to ecclesiastical responsibilities, to reemerge eventually at the head of the Nicene community at Constantinople” (V.474). Gregory followed his own vision, considering himself more a humble shepherd than a bishop.
In the essay “What was the ‘Philocalia of Origen?’” McLynn first examines the true authorship of the Philocalia. Many believe that the document was written by Basil of Caesarea or Gregory Nazianzen, and not the author of De Principiis. However, McLynn clarifies the issue with a mention of “a single letter in which Gregory thanks a certain Theodore for sending Easter wishes, and sends him in return a copy of ‘the Philocalia of Origen,’ containing ‘extracts of things useful for philolgoi,’ students or scholars’” (X.32). The document, a collection of forty-six extracts organized into twenty-seven chapters, is believed to have been edited by Basil and Gregory, hence its preservation from destruction “after the 6th-century condemnation of Origen” (X.36). In “Paulinus the Impenitent: A Study of the Eucharisticos,” one learns of Paulinus of Pella, the fifth century poet from Gaul who lived through the barbarian invasions. His Eucharisticos, which has been portrayed as a failed hymn of thanksgiving, was really intended to be a “confessional meditation addressed to God” (XIII.462). However, McLynn points out that “Paulinus nowhere suggests that he had originally written it as a private devotional exercise, declaring instead his wish to ‘exhibit’ certain facets of his life” (XIII.462). This contrast in viewpoints is more than fitting, given the paradoxical nature of the Eucharisticos. This is evident in the following passage: “Because, while both continuing to avail myself of the species of a house of my own and being content to cede rich sons all that can even now seem to be mine, I suffer myself to be supported by the expenses of others…” (XIII.480). As McLynn suggests, Paulinus is not advocating for Christian communism, he is merely commenting upon the impediment that wealth can sometime bring to holiness.
Author Neil B. McLynn has done a masterful job of presenting often thought-provoking issues. Despite the hefty price tag, his book belongs on the shelf of both the scholar and the serious student of Patristic Church history. His work is well researched, amply cited, and should be viewed as a treasure trove of information regarding an often misunderstood period of early Christianity.