Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Byzantine heretics & Jews
in the 7th cent. /

Βυζαντινοί αιρετικοί & Ιουδαίοι
κατά τον 7ο αιώνα




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More important for the state, politically and also ideologically, were the various heretical groups which existed within the empire, important because they posed a more immediate and coherent challenge to neo-Chalcedonian orthodoxy, and thereby to the authority of the emperors. But the most dangerous of these, monophysitism, became ever less relevant during the course of the seventh century. True, the imperial government and Church probably never wrote off entirely the possibility of reconquering the lost Eastern provinces in which monophysitism was the dominant creed. But by the 640s imperial attempts to find and impose a compromise - in the event, monotheletism - reflected rather the perceptions of those in power that the imperial authority was endangered, than the real desire to win over the populations of Syria and Egypt. Armenia remained a problem, of course, but again, a distant imperial power, even with the occasional use of force, could not seriously hope to compel a monophysite population to accept imperial and Chalcedonian authority. And in the event, the alienation of the non-Byzantine Armenian nobility and the much cleverer politics of the caliphate lost this region, too. No doubt monophysitism remained among elements of the population of Asia Minor - according to John of Ephesus, Cilicia, Isauria, Asia and Cappadocia all possessed strong and flourishing monophysite communities. Other well-known monophysites, such as Jacob Baradaeus, had also been active in converting pagans to monophysitism in Asia Minor. Jacob travelled in Cappadocia, Cilicia, lsauria, Pamphylia, Lycaonia, Lycia, Phrygia, Caria, Asia, as well as on Chios, Rhodes and Lesbos. Monophysite bishops were consecrated for many of the cities of these regions. And it is most unlikely that these communities did not survive well into the seventh century and beyond. But the effects of the Arab invasions and attacks and, in particular, the loss of the monophysite provinces, cut such communities off from the wider world which had nourished them hitherto. They can only have survived -where they were not destroyed or fragmented through hostile military activity - in relative isolation, and the pressing insistence of the state on orthodoxy within its own apparatus, at least for the vast mass of the bureaucracy, cannot have contributed to the maintenance of their ideological integrity. At any rate, while monophysite sentiment continued to exist within the empire, the canons of the Quinisext suggest that it played only a minor role. Only two canons, 81 and 82, reflect a clearly anti-monophysite tendency, the first prohibiting the addition of the phrase 'who was crucified for us' to the creed, a theopaschite formulation which reflected a monophysite theology; the second prohibiting the depiction of Christ as a lamb, a practice which, it was argued, jeopardised the assumption of two natures, human and divine, of Christ. Canon 95 also implies the continued existence of a variety of monophysite sects and tendencies, although the list must be treated with caution. In listing the process whereby heretics who wish to join or rejoin the true faith might be admitted to the Church, the canon notes that for certain groups, Severus of Antioch and the archimandrite Eutyches, two of the best-known monophysite polemicists, were to be first condemned (along with the patriarch Nestorius) before they could be accepted. It is probable that various minor sects, which still held views that might be characterised as either monophysite or Nestorian, were intended here. On the whole, however, monophysites do not seem to be a serious concern, and indeed the fact that the canon stipulates the requirements for admission may well suggest that such monophysites as remained within the empire were being gradually assimilated into the Chalcedonian fold.

The hostile activity of the Arabs may well have played a central role here, for the devastation they brought about seems to have dislodged large numbers of the rural populace in many areas, forcing them to seek refuge in less exposed districts. Interestingly, canon 95 notes that numbers of heretics - including Eunomians, Sabellians and Montanists - had left the region of Galatia and sought baptism: and it is highly likely that this movement was a result of the economic and physical dislocation caused by raiding Muslim forces. More importantly, it forced hitherto isolated rural communities, who had probably been able to practise their form of Christianity with little interference, into the 'outside' world of neo-Chalcedonian orthodoxy, where the differences and divergences were more apparent, attracting the attention of the authorities. This general phenomenon must surely have applied to other non-Chalcedonian or heretical groups. On at least one occasion, and possibly more often, we know that considerable numbers of refugees from a famine in Syria entered the empire (in 686, according to Theophanes), and this was yet another source of potential difference or disruption which the Church had to handle.

It seems not unreasonable to suppose, therefore, that it was in fact the disruption of the seventh century which produced a greater uniformity of belief within Byzantine Asia Minor.

Other heresies and schismatic sects existed across the empire, of course. In North Africa, Donatism - which had come to represent local cultural-political feeling as well as religious dogmatic differences of opinion - seems to have experienced a very limited revival during the later years of the sixth century, if the letters of Pope Gregory are to be given credence: although their numbers seem to have been small, and their influence limited. But whether the people in question are really Donatists, or whether the term is simply used of non-Chalcedonian heretics generally, is uncertain. Even so, a reference to Donatists in North Africa in a letter of Pope Gregory II for the year 722 suggests that it may have survived, albeit in isolation and on a very limited scale, throughout the period with which we are dealing.

Arianism likewise survived on a limited scale, chiefly among Germanic mercenaries in the imperial armies in the later sixth and early seventh centuries. John of Εphesus reports the presence of an Arian church for the German community ιn Constantinople, and the popular hostility to it. But this was an isolated incident: and while Arianism may have persisted in the West, particularly in North Africa after the defeat of the Vandals, and in Italy among the Lombards until 680, it seems to have disappeared from within the empire, including its Spanish territories (held until c. 625: the final conversion of the Visigothic Church to Chalcedonian orthodoxy took place at the council of Toledo in 589) by the time of the accession of Heraclius.

The Montanist heresy, which had its centre in Phrygia, may have lingered on into the seventh and early eighth centuries, although the evidence is inconclusive: it is difficult to ascertain whether a source such as Theophanes means the real Montanists or merely uses the term as a convenient and well-known element in a list. Later legislation- notably the condemnation of Montanists and Manichaeans in the Ecloga - seems to rely on the Justinianic codification for its inspiration, and the term is used once more as a convenient 'catch-all', as may also be the case with the 95th canon of the Quinisext. Montanism certainly seems to have existed into the late sixth century, however, as John of Ephesus, who led a major drive against their cult centres and converted many to orthodoxy (i.e. monophysitism), reports in detail. But his missionary activities, together with the fierce persecutions under Tiberius Constantine, may well have dealt the fatal blow to the Montanist communities.

Similar considerations apply to the Messalians, sometimes called Marcianists, both terms used in the sixth and seventh centuries for defamatory purposes, rather than signifying actual practices or beliefs. Messalianism originated as an ascetic heresy in Syria during the fourth century: but by the later sixth century the term seems to have lost its real significance. And the fact that it occurs in the scholia of Maximus Confessor to the Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite - 'Lampetianoi, that is, Messalianoi or Adelphianoi, which is to say, Markianistai'- is no evidence for the existence of Messalian heretics or communities. Part of the difficulty in identifying such groups lies in the fact that orthodox critics of aberrant beliefs and heresies tended to use the descriptive terms of earlier writers and of an earlier period in their lists and classifications of heretics and heretical beliefs, and it is difficult to know to what extent these lists represent a contemporary situation, or merely reflect an antiquarian and condemnatory topos. Older terms were often applied, with little or no theological justification, to quite new groups of heretics. The term 'Messalian' was thus used also of Bogomils in the later period, while terms such as Montanist or Arian occur similarly alongside other names of actual, living, heresies from the seventh century on. Thus references to the Meletians, Paulianists, Marcionists, Sabbatians, Novatians, Quartodecimans (Tessarakaidekatitai), Eunomians, Sabellians and many other sects must be treated cautiously. In the early seventh-century handbook of the presbyter Timothy of Constantinople, De receptione haereticorum, and in the 95th canon of the Quinisext, such sects are mentioned without any real evidence that they actually survived. What both texts represent is a catalogue of traditional heresies, subdivided into three categories according to their degree of difference from orthodox Christianity and the mode in which their adherents are to be readmitted to the Church. Similarly, in the anti-heretical compilation of Anastasius of Sinai and in a (probably) seventh-century text on the Messalians by the monk and presbyter George, lists of heretics also occur, and it is clear that in part, at least, the polemical tradition and the intention of the authors of such works have determined the composition of the lists themselves.

While it is quite probable that much of the rural population of Asia Minor - where these heresies had mainly had their roots in the period from the second to the fifth centuries - did express their beliefs through ideas and liturgical practices which might have seemed heretical or aberrant to the strictly orthodox observer (and to the official Church position), and while such groups may even have referred to themselves by such sectarian names, it seems unlikely that any organised movements or sect Churches existed. Many may have seen their differences from the orthodox establishment as a symbol of their own cultural traditions - and even at times of their opposition to aspects of state rule as vehicles for the expression of their cultural and social solidarity. The occurrence of these terms in later commentators, therefore, especially when used in connection with a known heretical movement or unorthodox activity, must be viewed with especial suspicion. On the whole, with the exception of the Marcionist sect, which may have contributed to the development of the Paulician Church, the great majority of these sects seems to have vanished by the later sixth century. The use of their names in later sources reflects either the age-old practice of using old names for new heresies where a connection, spurious or real, could be found; or their application to regional customary usages for which the observer may have felt little sympathy.

If the great majority of the older heresies had disappeared in all but name by the later sixth or early seventh centuries, two groups seem to have their origins in this period. In the first, that of the Paulicians, the question of dualism in its Manichaean forms was encountered once more. The confrontation with dualism begins much earlier, of course, in the early Christian centuries: Manichaeism, with its systematised and sophisticated theology, gave dualism a new strength and provided later dualist heresies with a valuable arsenal of arguments.

The beginnings of Paulicianism are shrouded in obscurity, and the question of when and where the sect was first established remains a subject of debate. It was a dualist and egalitarian sect, which based its beliefs on an interpretation of the New Testament, regarding the Old Testament as irrelevant. Its rejection of baptism and of any formal ecclesiastical hierarchy brought it into conflict with the established Church and thus with the state: and in the second half of the seventh century it was heavily persecuted - the later evidence, at least, suggests that it already had at this time a considerable popular following in the still limited areas of the provinces Armenia I and II where it is first encountered. It was, of course, to become a major threat to imperial territorial and administrative integrity in the ninth century: but at this period although persecutions took place under Constantine IV and Justinian II, it remained a minor problem.

The second heretical sect whose origins have been traced to the later seventh or early eighth centuries is that of the Athigganoi. They are first mentioned in the writings on heresy usually ascribed to the patriarch Germanus (715-30) between 727 and 733. The nature of their beliefs is unclear, and they have been connected with both the Novatians, Montanists and Paulicians, and with the Jews. They were associated in Byzantine times with Phrygia and Lycaonia especially, and the Montanist connection is suggested by the fact that they were sometimes referred to as 'Phrygians', a term applied also to the older sect. But they seem to have been few in number and relatively insignificant until the middle and later eighth century. From our point of view, their significance, as that of the Paulicians, lies in their possible connection with some of the earlier sects, which may have been reshaped during the seventh century, or may indeed have attracted new followers and adherents as the remnants of the majority of the older sects were dispersed or died out. It is at least likely, therefore, that while the Paulician and athigganoi movements developed their own independent and dynamic traditions, they were rooted in, and owed their beginnings to, the conditions which signalled the end of most of the other Christian sects of Anatolia.

The one group of believers who presented a real problem for both Christian theologians and the Christian state throughout the period dealt with here, and indeed throughout the history of the state itself, a group which, in spite of more or less constant persecution, occupying always a subordinate position within Eastern Christian society and culture, does survive and is able even to prosper, is represented, of course, by the Jews. Judaism presented a number of difficulties to Christian thinkers.

But it also presented difficulties for the state and for society at large, for the structure of Jewish beliefs and kinship gave Jewish communities a stubborn resilience which was able to weather the fiercest storms of persecution, forced baptism and so on. Up to the sixth century, the Jews had been tolerated, with only minor and occasional persecutions directed specifically against them. But they, along with certain other groups within Roman society, had fewer rights than orthodox subjects. From Justinian's reign, however, begins a long period of persecution: Justinian himself deprived Jews, and Samaritans, of their few remaining rights within the state with regard to public office or state service in general. Under Justin they had already been deprived of the right to make wills and to receive inheritances, being also debarred from carrying out any legal act, such as being a witness in a law court. Justin and Justinian both began to apply the laws against heretics and pagans to Jews and Samaritans as well: and although forcible baptism had been applied to Jewish communities in the fifth century on occasion, such measures were enacted increasingly from Justinian's reign on in the East, and from the later sixth century in the West also. Under Tiberius Constantine, Maurice and Heraclius, similar persecutions took place, and the Jews were increasingly reduced to the position of a very marginalised social and cultural element within a predominantly Christian society.

Under Heraclius, a series of forced baptisms of Jews culminated in 634 in the first general edict to compel all Jews within the empire to accept baptism. While it seems to have met with very little success, and to have been only half-heartedly imposed, it is nevertheless symptomatic of a change in the situation of Jews. The days when Jews were accorded a privileged status, enshrined in the legal codifications of the emperors -including Justinian's- and based on both Roman legal theory and Christian notions of the Jews as a living testimony to the Christian interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, were gone. Even though Jews lost their 'civil rights' under Justin and Justinian, they were still, in general, set apart from pagans and heretics alike. Judaism was both permitted and protected. By the time of Heraclius, this situation had begun to change; and although there now existed a constant tension between the traditional approach on the one hand, enshrined in the Codex Theodosianus and the Codex Iustinianus, and on the other the exclusivism of emperors like Heraclius, or Leo III (who is reported to have issued a similar edict to that of Heraclius), the attempts to force the conversion of Jews to Christianity, repeated sporadically throughout Byzantine history, were on the whole a failure: the older Christian tradition, which set Jews apart from other marginal groups, retained its hold on Eastern Christian attitudes and beliefs.

Accusations of Judaism began to be used increasingly from the later sixth century to denigrate heretical tendencies, or those suspected of deviating from the proper orthodox path - notably in the canons of the Quinisext, in the introductory declaration of which the assembly addressed the emperor and noted the survival of 'pagan and Jewish perversity'. But already the increasing persecution of Jews within the empire in the sixth century - possibly, if not probably, an imperial response to popular pressure - had encouraged Jews to re-examine their position and their role within the state. Their resentment expressed itself in terms of civil disturbances, and in particular in the collaboration of some Jewish communities with the Persians in the early seventh century. The consequent Christian outrage merely exacerbated a vicious circle. By the time of the Quinisext, Jews were explicitly as bad as pagans and heretics in terms of the danger they posed to the state, and especially of the challenge they presented to the universalist claims of neo-Chalcedonian imperial orthodoxy. Anti-Jewish tracts now became a standard element of Christian polemic. Regular persecution of Jews becomes a commonplace in Byzantine political history: and the regular use of the term 'Jew' to demean or insult becomes a topos of some genres of Byzantine literature. Judaism itself becomes synonymous with a drift away from orthodoxy and with potential political-ideological subversion. Whether there were, in fact, any substantial communities of Jews in the territories remaining to the empire after about 650 is difficult to say. Individuals and their families there must certainly have been; but (and ignoring the numerous literary topoi referred to) there is no evidence for organised communities of Jews in the empire until a much later date. Jews, nevertheless, became scapegoats for Christian apologists, as Byzantine society became more and more exclusivist and introverted. I will return to this below.


[Το Βυζάντιο κατά τον Έβδομο Αιώνα: Η Μεταμόρφωση μιας Κουλτούρας],
Cambridge University Press 1997,
pp./σσ. 337-348.


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