I’ve just returned from two days in Scotland, attending a symposium to mark the retirement of Professor Jill Harries, a brilliant historian who has changed how scholars understand the fall of the Roman empire. Jill is one of those indispensable people whose sense of humour is as sharp as her intellect. Over the years she has made wry and telling observations about how often historical events are the by-product of human frailty – the efforts of mortals to save face, gain the advantage over rivals, or evade the demands of both foes and friends.
Jill has written about terribly serious issues – law, political power, and the exercise of authority in institutions. These were particularly serious at the end of antiquity, when political circumstances were often not far short of desperate. Attempts to impose law and order tended to be tenuous, and shoring up the power of someone others felt they could trust was often a matter of real urgency. Jill’s eye for how people tend to improvise when faced with difficult circumstances, along with her keen instinct for how people sometimes massage the truth to put themselves in a stronger position, have changed our sense of how and why early Christianity became an ‘institutional’ religion.
By the end of antiquity, bishops were persons of considerable power. But as late as the year 312 (when the Emperor Constantine famously converted to Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge), they were private individuals with no legal standing. In the time before Constantine, bishops essentially had only the authority they could earn as individuals, by winning the trust of their communities (and by acting in a way that allowed the faithful to trust that the Holy Spirit was speaking through them).
Before Constantine, Christian writers often argued that the mere fact that a person was accepted by a Christian group as a ‘supervisor’ (the literal meaning of the Greek word episkopos) was a sign of being chosen by the Spirit. This could lead to problems, of course. Communities did not always agree – and sometimes they could not even agree to disagree – about who were the legitimate leaders of one community or the other. Many towns and cities had more than one Christian community, each with its own leader. This could result in rivalries and tensions (which are the root of the distinction that rival communities began to make between ‘orthodoxy’ – their own view – and ‘heresy’ – the view of the rival).
Sometimes, a community found someone who could provide real leadership in troubled times, and for generations afterward the memory of this person would become a point of reference. We see this already in the Gospels, where the disciples often argue over who best understands Jesus – this seems to reflect the need of later communities to negotiate about who was the most authentic carrier of his memory.
In an earlier post, I’ve talked about how vampire films can help us to think about how the early apostles were remembered by later generations. Early Christian literature often portrays an apostle as a mysterious man who appears in a town and starts provoking young women by talking about immortality. At one level, these encounters are spookily similar to the conversations between Bella and Edward in Twilight.
So if vampires help us to think about how the apostles were remembered, what about bishops and zombies?
Something happens to bishops toward the end of antiquity: they start coming back from the dead. They haunt people. From the fourth century onwards, they begin to be seen as personalities who linger on in the location where they had lived. Through their miracles, they create trouble for those who refuse to honour the great causes which they had championed during their lifetime.
In a fascinating post on the Pop Classics site, the classicist Juliette Harrison discusses the ancient concept of necromancy, and recommends Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy for those who want to know more. Harrison’s own observations on Lucan’s first-century epic poem The Civil War is worth citing here.
“Instead of sending his hero on a journey to the underworld, like Odysseus in The Odyssey or Aeneas in The Aeneid, Lucan takes a minor character (Sextus Pompey, Pompey’s son) and has him go to a witch to ask if he will survive the war. The witch, Erictho, goes to a nearby graveyard and raises a corpse to provide the answer – throughout Greco-Roman literature the dead, whether you call up their ghost, see them in a dream, go and visit them in the underworld or raise them as a zombie, have special knowledge of the future.”
According to Erik Butler’s The Rise of the Vampire (2013), zombies have a specific role to play in the modern landscape of the undead, too, but it is not linked specifically to carrying messages back and forth from the underworld in the same way. Butler suggests that every vampire is distinctive and unique, but zombies are all alike. Curiously, this is something they seem to have in common with early medieval bishops – there is a strong pattern for the lives of these figures as they were remembered by later communities. The pattern is so strong that the great Jesuit historian of saints’ lives, Hippolyte Delehaye, argued that the life of the saints is a single life, and the individual variations are insignificant.
One of the many valuable contributions Jill has made in her scholarship has been to give us a better understanding of why you would want to raise a bishop from the dead. The first whiff of this thinking is in her 1981 doctoral thesis, where she has a marvellous discussion of the ‘reinvention’ of the legendary bishop Trophimus of Arles by a later bishop of that city, at a time when the Church of Arles was competing with that of its neighbouring city of Marseille. (Harries 1981, p. 167) But this wasn’t only a matter of power politics. Christian communities at the end of antiquity were looking for ways to establish continuity through difficult times, a strategy that was going to serve them well across the middle ages. In this context, the idea of an early bishop who lived on in a city as its supernatural protector, was an idea that would prove to have staying power.
* NOTES *
Many of the issues here are discussed in greater depth (and in a more academic way) in my 2011 article,“Christianity, Private Power, and the Law from Decius to Constantine: The Minimalist View”, Journal of Early Christian Studies 19 (2011), 327-43.
A list of Jill Harries’s publications is kept on the website of the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. Her doctoral thesis, ‘Bishops, senators and their cities in southern and central Gaul, A.D. 407 to 476’ (Oxford Univ DPhil thesis, 1981), isn’t cited there, but it is important, too!