Forthcoming Book (April, 2019) with UCPress Bishops in Flight: Exilic Discourse in Late Antiquity
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Flight during times of persecution has a long and fraught history in early Christianity. Writing in the third century, Tertullian of Carthage argued that bishops who flee are cowards or, worse yet, heretics. By the fourth century, the terms of persecution changed as Christianity became the favored cult of the Roman Empire. This transition was by no means a smooth one, and bishops often found themselves in exile when they fell out of favor with the dominant political party. Bishops in Flight
examines the various ways episcopal leaders both appealed to and altered the discourse of Christian flight to defend their status as purveyors of Christian truth even when the fact of their exiles appeared to condemn them. This book shows how episcopal exile took on new discursive meanings at the turn of the fourth century that helped to define what would later be deemed Christian orthodoxy. Two figures in particular stand out: Athanasius of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. Although each bishop was initially cast as a heretic and sent into exile, both live on as champions of orthodoxy within the pro-Nicene memory.
Rather than reassert a triumphal narrative of Christianity, I consistently show how episcopal exile undercuts the orthodox as it simultaneously seeks to reinforce its claims. Both Eusebius of Nicomedia and Meletius of Antioch, for instance, serve as counter-cases that demonstrate this point. Unlike Athanasius and John, these two exiles do not live on in the orthodox memory. As the chief episcopal opponent of Athanasius, Eusebius’s exile is overshadowed by his villainous activities. And Meletius of Antioch’s exilic legacy is marred by his questionable election by the non-Nicene community. It quickly becomes clear that not all stories of Christian flight are created equal.
The discourse of exile was carefully constructed within heresiological discourse to present a pro-Nicene orthodoxy that appeared to have been already realized. By pointing out the various rhetorical strategies used to define and defend exile, we see a much more complicated picture. Most scholars have looked at episcopal exile strictly as a social phenomenon, but this book argues that we must also pay attention to exile as a discursive strategy. This shift in approach makes us aware of how the theological discourse and rhetoric of orthodoxy and heresy deployed by Christian authors was adapted to respond to the phenomenal instability of this historical moment. The story of fleeing bishops continued to play a significant role in how Christianity would be defined — just not in the ways we might expect.