Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and his Congregation in Antioch

Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and his Congregation in Antioch

by Jaclyn L. Maxwell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521117715
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 07/30/2009
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jaclyn Maxwell is Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and Classics and World Religions at Ohio University. She studied at Princeton University and in 2002/3 held an Andrew J. Mellon Research Fellowship for Junior Faculty from the American Council of Learned Societies.

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Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-86040-6 - Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity - John Chrysostom and his congregation in Antioch - by Jaclyn L. Maxwell


Sermons were popular in Late Antiquity – a number of priests and bishops became famous for their rhetorical skill and charisma as speakers. The importance of rhetoric in ancient higher education meant that many of the men who took on leadership roles in the clergy, especially after the conversion of Constantine, were trained for public speaking. On the same note, frequent rhetorical displays in cities taught the crowds to be listeners, and these people made up the urban Christian congregations. Communication across social and economic boundaries and the widespread appeal of rhetorical eloquence had long been an important part of urban life, and this played a part in the spread of Christianity and the formation of orthodoxy in Late Antiquity. By integrating this broader cultural context into the study of early sermons, we can better understand the relationship between the authors and the audiences of these important – and abundant – texts. In many cases, the needs and concerns of ordinary Christians shaped the style of sermons, as well as the questions they returned to again and again. Because of this element of interaction, it is possible to observe aspects of the world-views and daily lives of the preachers’ congregations reflected in the subjects and presentation of theirsermons. Therefore, sermons can provide information about the process of Christianization, the variety of religious beliefs and practices coexisting at one time, and about the ways in which laypeople interacted with church authorities.1

   The ability and inclination of preachers and congregations to communicate with each other, however, is not always obvious. Church leaders in Late Antiquity often claimed to be proud of the simplicity of their faith and its followers but at other times made elitist comments at the expense of the uneducated. Theological problems became more complex while the status and privileges of the clergy steadily rose, presumably creating more and more distance between preachers and their congregations. But Christian leaders in Late Antiquity could not afford to be indifferent to their followers. While competition with other sects was always a factor, a sincere belief in the necessity to instruct people inspired many priests and bishops. In addition to concerns about salvation, the prestige and popularity of public speaking helped to bridge the gap between the concerns and experiences of the church authorities and ordinary laypeople by equipping both sides with the tools and the incentives to understand each other.

   John Chrysostom, perhaps more so than any other figure of the period, epitomizes the popularity of sermons and the ability of church leaders to capture the public’s attention. Trained in rhetoric by the pagan rhetorician Libanius, this preacher became famous for his talent as a speaker, which inspired later admirers to add “Chrysostom” – Greek for “Goldenmouth” – to his name. He preached during the time when Christian emperors gradually outlawed pagan worship, closed ancient temples, and boosted the authority of Christian leaders. Both the quality and quantity of Christian sermons surged in this period, which became known as the Golden Age for this genre. This burst of activity was fostered by rivalry with other religious groups, including different sects of Christians, and also by a generation of particularly productive and skilled churchmen, whose sermons would form the handbooks for future generations of preachers in both the Latin and Greek traditions.2


Chrysostom’s success as a preacher in Antioch (386–98) attracted the attention of other Christian leaders, who chose him to become the bishop of Constantinople in 398, where he continued to preach with enthusiasm. The mid-fifth-century church historian Sozomen commented on his popularity there: “He won over the masses, especially by refuting sinners in public frequently, even in the churches, and he freely expressed his anger at the wrongdoers as if he himself had been injured. This, naturally, was agreeable to the masses, but it was distressing to the wealthy and powerful, who committed most of the sins.”3 According to this account, the crowds tended to press close to Chrysostom in order to ask questions and listen to his responses, forcing him to stand on a platform above them. Even the pagan historian Zosimus noted this preacher’s effect on his congregation and remarked dryly: “That man was clever at gaining the support of the irrational crowd.”4 Famous events of his career support these impressions of Chrysostom’s widespread popularity. When he was chosen as bishop of Constantinople, he was taken away from Antioch secretly, so as not to upset the citizens of Antioch. In the capital, his sermons solidified his relationship with the laity, so that they did not abandon him when his enemies spread rumors that questioned his orthodoxy. Later, when he was sent into exile from Constantinople after a falling out with the imperial family, riots ensued.5

   Although he is best known for events related to his career in Constantinople, several factors concerning the nature and quantity of the sources make Chrysostom’s sermons in Antioch particularly fitting for this study. Chrysostom spent the major part of his career and preached most of his sermons in Antioch.6 During roughly the same period in this city, Libanius wrote numerous orations and letters, which provide another perspective on the contemporary world outside Chrysostom’s church. Most important, perhaps, is the preacher’s congregation in Antioch. Since the intention of this study is to learn about the Christianization of late antique society, the congregation at Antioch, a thoroughly Hellenistic city, offers a more appropriate case-study than Constantinople, the newly built Christian capital dominated by the imperial court.7

   In this period, Antioch was one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire: an occasional imperial residence, a city of merchants, administrators, and scholars, and the place where Christians were first called Christians. Vibrant Jewishand pagan communities lived alongside Chrysostom’s followers – orthodox Christianity was far from being without rivals.8 While Libanius carried on ancient cultural traditions with a school full of rhetoric students, Christian holy men began to retreat to the mountains surrounding the city. The tensions of contemporary urban life influenced the content of Chrysostom’s sermons, leading him to concentrate on the problems of poverty and wealth in particular. At the same time, the diversity of the population in Antioch intensified the danger, from the preacher’s point of view, of blurring the lines between Christian and non-Christian, or, perhaps worse, between orthodoxy and heresy. Every social interaction, every conversation in the marketplace could lead people astray. So Chrysostom made it his mission to explain carefully exactly what was and was not proper Christian belief and behavior, and attempted to persuade or intimidate his congregation into agreeing with him.

   In such an environment, the urban preacher was faced with the job of explaining to his fellow Christians why they were not allowed to attend horse races with the pagans or celebrate Passover with the Jews. No orthodox “common sense” yet existed to guide people’s actions, and so Chrysostom attempted to provide these basic guidelines. Discussions of such issues in the sermons illustrate how church authorities and lay Christians interacted: their points of confusion and conflict as well as instances of successful communication and compromise. Understanding this relationship more fully is particularly important for this crucial period in Christianity’s development, when orthodoxy was being defined against the various alternatives. By examining the interaction of church authorities with their congregations, we can see the influence of ordinary people in this process.


Although it is difficult to tell the extent to which the congregation accepted or rejected advice from sermons, the preacher’s instructions can give us an idea of basic elements of lay piety. These texts should not always be taken at face value because of their rhetorical and prescriptive nature: much of the behavior that was condemned or promoted served as stock subjects in Christian texts as well as pagan moral treatises. Moreover, sermons reflect first and foremost the preacher’s point of view, which may or may not have corresponded to contemporary standards of lay Christians. But awareness of this last point allows us to look for indications of divergence and conflict between the preacher’s views and those of his listeners. Although biblical and classical tropes make sermons challenging to read as historical texts, rhetorical technique did not overshadow the impact of the world that Chrysostom lived in. The purpose of the sermons was to provide spiritual guidance for laypeople living in a world with many alternatives to orthodox Christianity. This required the preacher to speak with the needs of his audience in mind. Indeed, dialogues emerge from the sermons in many instances, which allow us to examine beliefs and behaviors that people refused to accept, the condemned traditions that many Christians continued to observe, and the elements of orthodox Christian piety that people cherished.9

   The importance of sermons in the liturgy and the care with which they were recorded contribute to our understanding of their social context and impact. In late antique Syrian churches, for instance, the centrality of preaching is reflected in the design of the buildings. Sermons were preached in the middle of the service, after the reading from the Scriptures and before communion.10 Unbaptized Christians as well as outsiders were allowed to listen to sermons, but were required to leave the church before the communion ceremony. Sermons were given on Sundays and holidays throughout most of the year and more frequently during Lent.11 Explicit references occasionally indicate at what point in the liturgical year a particular sermon was delivered. In other instances, the subject matter may provide the same information. The dating and chronology of individual sermons by Chrysostom, however, is often uncertain. Scholars are now giving careful attention to systematic dating, organization into series, and the identification of the city in which each sermon was preached.12 Because of these issues, as well as the likelihood that his congregation did not always consist of the same groups of people, this study will focus on sermons attributed to Antioch in order to examine the interaction between the preacher and laity in general, but cannot claim to study the developments of a particular group of people over time.

   The exact relationship between the surviving texts and the original sermons preached in Antioch is impossible to know for certain, but the connection between oral and literate culture of the time, as well as the structure of the sermons themselves, points toward a close correlation between the spoken and the written versions. To begin with, verbatim records of public orations were widely used in antiquity. Court transcriptions, including some of Christian martyr trials, demonstrate the skills of stenographers.13 In Antioch, Libanius complained that stenography had become such a popular profession that it threatened the prestige and livelihood of his rhetoric students.14 Churches used the same methods. The church historian Socrates appears to have had access to Chrysostom’s sermons, some of which had been published by the preacher, while others had been taken down in shorthand in church during their delivery.15 In another revealing anecdote, Socrates reports that Atticus, Chrysostom’s successor in Constantinople, did not receive applause, nor did anyone write down his sermons, regardless of whether he memorized them or spoke extempore.16

   Chrysostom’s sermons may have been polished after they were written down, but the structure, language, and tone of the texts indicate that they were presented, and probably even composed, orally. The texts contain all of the marks of impromptu speeches: repetitions, tangents, incomplete thoughts, and references to the audience’s applause or evident boredom. They could end abruptly. Occasionally, Chrysostom observed that he had been talking for a long time and then wrapped up his sermon. The frequent references to interlocutors, who disagreed with him and refused to obey him, or else applauded and paid close attention, suggest exchanges between the preacher and audience.17 In other words, we can perceive that these sermons were tailor-made for their audiences. Indications of this will appear throughout this study.


The motivations, sincerity, and awareness behind individual conversions to Christianity in Late Antiquity are difficult to guess at and impossible to know. Although we know of a few individuals, such as Augustine, who were convinced by texts, arguments, and philosophical introspection to convert to Christianity, miracles, exorcisms, and worldly benefits undoubtedly influenced many people.18 Whatever the initial inspiration that led converts into the church, in Chrysostom’s time most people who stood in preachers’ audiences in the Greek East were already converted, often from families that had long been Christian.19 The primary purpose of these sermons, therefore, was to deepen the laity’s grasp of Christian doctrine and behavior.

   In Late Antiquity, the chasm that separated Christians and non-Christians and the dramatic changes that came with conversion existed above all in the minds of churchmen such as Chrysostom and Augustine. Although they claimed that many of the beliefs and practices of ordinary people were inconsistent with Christianity, these same customs had been carried on by Christians for generations and were deemed acceptable by their practitioners. This was precisely the problem fourth- and fifth-century preachers faced as they spent many hours addressing laypeople, trying to explain why and how they needed to transform their lives. In reaction to their congregations, preachers were compelled to formulate strong statements and clear definitions to counter those who disagreed. But the fact that preachers considered this necessary does not mean that their congregations consisted of lukewarm Christians, or even crypto-pagans, who were attracted into the church solely by the social and economic aspects of the institution. Rather, their disagreements point to multiple views in the Christian community about acceptable beliefs and behaviors.

   By focusing on sermons as points of contact between elites and masses, this study will examine aspects of cultural change and social communication brought about by the rise of Christianity.20 The two parties (in this case, a famous, educated preacher and assemblies of otherwise obscure Antiochene Christians) did not encounter each other with the same views about correct beliefs and behaviors. The preacher’s education and orthodox views did not make him entirely dominant; his listeners were neither meek nor indifferent Christians. Such a premise is quite different from the traditional approach of reading patristic literature disembodied from its social context, of assuming that the value of these works would have been lost on ordinary, uneducated listeners, whose very ignorance makes their religious sincerity suspect. Instead, my underlying assumption is that a lack of formal literary training does not preclude intelligence, spirituality, or an interest in listening to speeches.


The particular value of sermons as sources of information about the general population hinges on the fact that they were presented aloud to congregations. Much of their audience and their inspiration, if not the rhetorical skill with which they were presented, originated outside the circles of literate men. This point is often neglected because of the close identification of rhetorical skill with upper-class leisure and privilege. But the tradition of learned men using their positions and rhetorical skill to communicate with common people had its roots in a long past. The first chapter looks at this issue, focusing on Second Sophistic authors from the first to fourth centuries who either commented on or exemplified the figure of the philosopher who presented moralizing speeches to the crowds. Remarks by both pagan and Christian authors demonstrate that preachers had precedents among the philosophers, and that urban people would have had experience with such speakers and their topics. The second chapter examines occasions of public speaking more broadly, such as panegyrics, theatrical performances, and forensic speeches, but with a closer focus on Antioch in Late Antiquity. I argue that the frequency of public speaking contributed to the speakers’ awareness of less educated listeners while providing opportunities for the general population to become familiar with listening to rhetoric. An awareness of the importance and accessibility of public speaking in Roman cities is vital to understanding the relationship between authorities and the general public, including the interaction between preachers and lay Christians that underlies the texts of sermons. The urban culture of the time affected the way preachers and their listeners responded to each other. The interactions between eloquent speakers and crowds of listeners indicate that this type of communication was not new, but, like many other elements of Christian culture, it was a transformation of an existing form rather than invented ex nihilo.

   Subsequent chapters rely much more on Chrysostom’s sermons, concentrating first on the composition of his congregation. The presence of workers as well as the wealthy, and women as well as men is examined through the direct addresses to various groups in the congregation and the preacher’s care for their particular concerns. But does the presence of less educated people in the congregation necessarily mean that they were the target audience of Chrysostom’s discourse? Although some have doubted that uneducated people would have been able to understand rhetorical speaking such as Chrysostom’s, it is clear from the sermons themselves and accounts by contemporary observers that the preacher consciously attempted to communicate with different types of people. Moreover, his listeners responded to him and at times even adjusted their behavior according to his instructions. In this context, the fourth chapter examines the preacher’s pedagogical strategies for a diverse audience and also provides a more general look at the related issues of literacy and memory.

   After establishing the composition of the preacher’s audience and his ability to communicate with diverse listeners, it is possible to discern dialogues in the sermons between his instructions and his congregation’s views. Distinctive elements of lay piety emerge, differing in some ways from the preacher’s lessons but still clearly Christian, which challenge the general depiction of lay Christians of this period as unenthusiastic and uninformed. Chapter 5 looks at disagreements over the definition of sins and virtues and the different levels of value placed upon various religious practices. Surprisingly, perhaps, the laypeople took a stricter stance in some matters. The last chapter is devoted to the religious transformation of life outside the church: what the preacher wanted the laity to change in their daily lives, how they reacted to this, and what types of Christian practices they developed on their own. In the discussion of daily habits, it becomes clear that the preacher and the laity had different ideas about which activities could be actively Christianized and which could be left alone as traditional or simply necessary parts of life.

   Because texts providing direct evidence about the lives of ordinary people are scarce, we must try to detect their influence on the sources that do survive. Ultimately, this book illustrates the activity of a learned man speaking to ordinary people, addressing their concerns, questions, arguments, and behavior, and shaping both the style and the content of his sermons in response to them. From this, much can be learned about the people who listened to what Chrysostom said. At the same time, we find out that the preacher, too, heard his audience, revealing that the process of Christianization was gradual, interactive, and communicative.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; List of abbreviations; Introduction; 1. Philosophical preaching in the Roman world; 2. Rhetoric and society: contexts of public speaking in late antique Antioch; 3. John Chrysostom's congregation in Antioch; 4. Teaching to the converted: John Chrysostom's pedagogy; 5. Practical knowledge and religious life; 6. Habits and the Christianization of daily life; Conclusions; Bibliography; Index.

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