Posts Tagged ‘Early Christianity’

What Year Is It? On women, authority, and the roots of Christian tradition

Monday, October 27th, 2014

by Jenny Collins-Elliott

“Did I just wander into the 17th century?” reddit user “Zrk2” asked in response to a discussion thread on the subreddit /r/TrueChristian (1) entitled: “Christian woman culture thoughts?” [sic] The poster, “SpecialU,” wanted to know what fellow, anonymous users of /r/TrueChristian—an online message board for “Bible-believing Christians” to discuss their religion and to answer questions from non-believers—thought about female Christian preachers like Joyce Meyer and women’s retreats, and if these pro-women messages didn’t constitute or lead to idolatry. In response to “Zrk2’s” 17th century comment, user “PetevonPete” wanted to push their ignorance even further into the past, saying, “Worse. /r/TrueChristian, more like 2nd century. BC. Don’t ask how that’s possible, they found a way.” Though writing in jest, I think “PetevonPete” was on to something.

The concerns raised in response to this question about heresy and women’s Bible study were interesting in that they were so predictable. One reddit user said that women lapse more easily into heresy because they aren’t as theologically educated as men. Some suggested that this was a result of institutional sexism, while others cited the oft repeated paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:13-14, “Eve was deceived, not Adam.” This kind of verbal shrug points to an essentialist understanding of the spiritual capabilities and limitations faced by Christian women—at least according to the Pastoral Epistles. But, as “PetevonPete” so wisely suggested, this idea—that women are naturally more prone to wild excesses, to making poor decisions, to being fooled, to creating chaos when challenging their natural role as submissive to men—does not start nor end with Christianity.

Suspicion of women and women’s religion is scattered throughout the annals of classical Greek and Latin literature, with the fingerprints of these cultural attitudes being found later in early Christian writings. Euripides’ play Bacchae (405 BCE), to take but one example, warns of the deadly and unnatural consequences of letting women run free in the wild, worshipping the god Dionysus (aka, Bacchus). In the play, the worship of Dionysus was troubling because it was new, and it encouraged women of all ages and social stations to leave behind their responsibilities to their families and city in order to head into the woods and hills to engage in women’s-only worship of this new god. The play’s anxiety around women-only worship is not unlike the one voiced by reddit user “injoy,” who suggested that women-only church groups can foster an attitude in which it is permissible and even exciting to “ditch” ones husband and children to have a ladies night, which she deems idolatrous behavior. At the root of both the play and many of the comments on the reddit thread is a fear of instability, of the disruption of the standard order as having been put in place by (the) god(s). In the case of the Bacchae, traditional Greek religion helped to maintain a well-order polis (city-state), one in which good women and wives stayed at home, tending to the loom (which represented more than mere weaving, as being at or leaving the loom are topoi in Greek literature that can signal order and disorder, respectively). The arrival of the god Dionysus and his brand of worship to the city of Thebes immediately causes this traditional order of life to become disrupted, with the Theban women having been driven from their homes in a craze.

Reddit users in the /r/TrueChristian thread displayed skepticism of “you-go-girl” theologies, led by break-out female ministers and expressed concern over the creation of a “church within a church” for the same reasons—these are subversive messages that are contrary to the order that God has already laid out. But the behavior of women is of special concern because women are believed to be (naturally) more prone to being deceived, misled, or corrupted than men. Euripides pointed to the unnatural sway that Dionysus exerted over women. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira (2), the author warns that fathers should not let their daughters spend time with married women “for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness” (Ben Sira 42:13). “Paul,” writing in the 1st century CE, pointed to the example of Eve’s being fooled by the serpent in the Garden of Eden in 1 Timothy as explanation for why women cannot teach men. Celsus, a 2nd century CE “pagan” (3), argued that the early success of Christianity was a result of their converting “the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children,” whereas men of sound-mind were not so easy to win-over (Origen, Cels. 3.44).

Users commenting on this thread about women’s heresy weren’t merely harkening back to the 17th century, as “Zrk2”suggested, or even the 2nd century BCE, as “PetevonPete” suggested. Rather, those expressing concern over women-only religious groups and calling for (male) leadership to provide oversight are engaged in a much older, much wider-ranging anxiety over the disruption of familial and social order believed to have been put into place by god(s) and enforced by male leaders and other female followers, an order naturalized by its sense of timelessness.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.


(1) reddit is, according their faqs, “ a source for what’s new and popular on the web.” It is a free, user-driven website, in that individuals who have reddit accounts can submit content (links from other sites or original content, like text,  images, and videos) and other users vote (either up or down) on those posts. Material that is highly “up-voted” is more visible on the site. reddit itself is actually composed of thousands of “subreddits”—discussion boards centered around specific topics or interests. For this post I’m drawing from two subreddits, /r/SubredditDrama and /r/TrueChristian. /r/SubredditDrama is a meta-reddit, meaning that it is a board in which people link to other posts on reddit in which there is “drama” unfolding. These are sometimes silly disputes between users, other times they are heated debates about racism or sexism. I discovered the /r/TrueChristian discussion covered in this post via /r/SubredditDrama, which is where the comments from users “Zrk2” and “PetevonPete” come from. /r/TrueChristian, which currently has 5,916 subscribers, is a relatively new subreddit. Its creation was driven by users who were unhappy with what /r/Christianity, with 88,540 current subscribers, had to offer. /r/Christianity is a larger, less ideologically driven community than /r/TrueChristian, which is more conservative and whose stated goal is to create a “safe-haven” for Bible-believing Christians to discuss their faith. While /r/TrueChristian doesn’t describe itself as being in direct competition with /r/Christianity, they are making a claim to authority over what it means to be Christian in their title. Moreover, this is in the face of other denominationally differentiated Christian subreddits, such as /r/Catholicism or /r/Anglicanism, while /r/TrueChristian is more ecumenical in its membership.

 (2) Ben Sira (aka, Sirach) is a 2nd century BCE book of Jewish wisdom literature that is canonical for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not Protestants.

 (3) Celsus’ writings come to us only indirectly, as portions of his work were perserved by Origen (185-232 CE) in Contra Celsum

Award Winning Research Essays

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

The Journal of Ecclesiastical History has announced the winner of its first annual Eusebius Prize, which goes to the best submitted essay on any topic in early Christian history. This year’s winning paper is entitled “On the Diversity and Influence of the Eusebian Alliance: The Case of Theodore of Heraciea,” by Matthew J Crawford of the University of Durham. Cambridge University Press has made the prize-winning paper available online for free through September 30. You can read it here.

Also in prize-related news: the deadline for the Sidney Mead Prize has passed, but there is still time to submit nominations for the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize. The Douglass Prize goes to the author of the best essay published during the previous calendar year on any aspect of the role of women in the history of Christianity. Nominations must be in by August 1.

To nominate an essay for the Douglass Prize, send a letter or an email to our Executive Secretary, Keith Francis ( with

1) The author’s name
2) The author’s affiliation
3) The author’s contact information, and
4) The title of the essay

Last year’s winner was Sarah Adelman, whose essay “Empowerment and Submission: The Political Culture of Catholic Women’s Religious Communities in Nineteenth-Century America” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Women’s History.

The Church of the Red Monastery in Egypt: A Late Ancient Church Comes to Life

Friday, January 18th, 2013

by David Brakke

On a Saturday in December 2012, as Egyptians went to the polls to approve or reject a proposed new constitution, I arrived in Cairo to meet my colleagues Eugene Rogers, who teaches Christian thought at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Caroline Schroeder, a fellow early church historian at the University of the Pacific. The next day we traveled south to Sohag, where we met up with Malcolm Choat, a papyrologist at Macquarie University. The four of us had traveled to this bustling city north of Luxor to visit one of the most significant surviving monuments from late ancient Christianity, the church of the Red Monastery. Thanks to a conservation project led by the art historian Elizabeth Bolman of Temple University as overall director, we were able to admire the most extensive painted church interior to survive from late ancient and early Byzantine Christianity. It is, simply put, a revelation.

© David Brakke

A door to the church on the northern side, with some surviving ornamentation from late antiquity.

In late antiquity the Red Monastery was part of a federation of three monasteries, two for men and one for women, which scholars usually call the White Monastery Federation, after the larger of the two monasteries for men. (“Red” and “White” are modern terms, based on the color of the surviving churches’ bricks.) Established by Pshoi in the middle of the fourth century, the Red Monastery probably became subordinate to the White under the leadership of Pcol, the founder of the White Monastery; the federation of three communities took definitive shape under Shenoute, who led it for some eighty years until his death in 465 CE. Shenoute directed the building of the church at the White Monastery, after which the smaller church at the Red was modeled. Although both churches partially survive, only in the Red’s church can one still see the sanctuary’s painted program almost entirely intact, thanks to mud-brick walls that covered most of it from some time in the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century.

Ten years ago a team of Italian conservators—directed by Adriano Luzi, Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato and Emiliano Ricchi—began the arduous and delicate task of cleaning paintings that had been obscured by centuries of accumulated smoke, soot, and dust. The U.S. Agency for International Development supported their work, through the American Research Center in Egypt. In the 1990s Bolman and the Italians had successfully completed a similar project on the thirteenth-century wall paintings at the Monastery of St. Antony; the breathtaking results of their work there can be seen in Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea, which Bolman edited and Yale University Press published in 2002.

The paintings in the Red Monastery church are much older than those at St. Antony: their (at least three) successive phases date to the sixth and seventh centuries. In a video made for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier in 2012 and still available on YouTube, Bolman explains the significance of the church’s paintings and the nature of her and her colleagues’ work. Shortly before we arrived, their project came to its end.



The results of a decade of labor are extraordinary. The sanctuary of the Red Monastery church now requires the close attention (either in person or through the book that Bolman and her collaborators will soon publish) of all historians interested in the worship, art, architecture, spirituality, and monastic life of late ancient and early Byzantine Christianity—that is, of just about every church historian of the period. We can now see in vivid color “the jeweled style” that characterized the literature and art of late antiquity across the Mediterranean. These Egyptian monks did not praise God and contemplate his Word enclosed by drab grey or tan walls that reflected the monochromatic desert sand. Rather, they worshiped in a space sparkling with bright greens, pinks, and yellows, and populated with plants, animals, and a crowd of faces, including those of human beings, angels, and Christ himself.

The three semi-domes of the tri-conch apse feature monumental depictions of Christ, as an infant suckling at the breast of the Mother of God, as the incarnate Word, and as the triumphant returning savior, along with angels, the evangelists, and other biblical figures. Lower levels feature ornately decorated columns flanking niches that contain depictions of revered fathers of the monastic community (such as Pshoi, Pcol, and Shenoute) and prominent bishops of the Egyptian church (such as Athanasius, Cyril, and Dioscorus), as well as of prophets and martyrs. Around the niches plants send forth flowers, rams and gazelles run, and peacocks pose. Two columns feature dozens of paired human faces, gazing at one another. On a wall just outside the apse, a praying figure with Persian hair and boots, perhaps the church’s patron, welcomes the visitor to this lush and lively world.

It is characteristic of the jeweled style that the eye finds nowhere to rest, but roams around the walls and ceilings, delighting in the variety of the images and making connections among the figures and between individual elements and the larger program. Why are there animals in male-female and male-male pairs, sometimes with explicit genitals and sometimes without? Why do St. Stephen, the first martyr, and Theonas, the relatively obscure late third-century bishop of Alexandria, stare at each other across the southern conch? And how do all these relate to Mary and the Christs that look down at them from above? We can anticipate Bolman’s carefully researched answers to these and other questions in her forthcoming publications, but the church does not lend itself to definitive interpretations and final theological statements. Instead, it invites the continual play of the Christian imagination.

Although later phases of the painting look distinctively “Coptic,” Bolman has found that earlier phases find close parallels in places as far away as Milan, and the overall effect must have been characteristic of thousands of painted church interiors around the Mediterranean world. The huge White Monastery Federation, across the Nile from the major city of Panopolis, was no cultural backwater, even if modern-day Sohag does not receive many tourists. The Red Monastery Church provides a unique opportunity to get as close as possible to how a Christian of the seventh century would have experienced the apse of a painted church visually. The closest analogy that I can think of is what one can learn from standing in the reconstructed synagogue of Dura Europus in the National Museum of Damascus. Unlike that painted synagogue interior, however, this amazing church remains where it has always been. It is a special doorway to the past.

© Caroline Schroeder

The northern exterior wall of the Red Monastery church, which was constructed around 500 CE.

But what is the Red Monastery Church’s future? My colleagues and I were lucky enough to visit it just after the conservation team had departed and while Professor Bolman and the art historian William Lyster were still there to provide us access and to spend hours with us explaining their work and discussing the meaning of this rich visual environment. We are deeply grateful to them for what I can describe only as an early church historian’s dream come true. I hope that many of my colleagues will be able to experience this precious monument as I did, but the painted surfaces remain delicate, vulnerable to damage through even a small accident. After centuries of absence, a renewed community of Coptic monks has gathered around this ancient gem. It will be their responsibility, as well as that of the wider Coptic Orthodox Church, to find some balance between the church’s unparalleled status as evidence for the Christian past and its undeniable potential for fostering spiritual renewal in an uncertain present. In late December came word that the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (ISESCO) will add the Red Monastery to its World Heritage List for the Islamic World, the first monument in Egypt to be so honored.

Review: The African Memory of Mark

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

by Natalie Barrett

Downer's Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 279 pp. $22.00In his persuasive work, The African Memory of Mark, author Thomas C. Oden compels the reader to reconsider Mark’s African origin and influence, going against the grain of traditional Western perspective; a mindset that prematurely rules out the traditional sources of early African Christianity before it has had a chance to be told (53). Though the West has been comfortable negating any semblance of apostolic succession outside their own, African Christians have held fast to their ancient Christian identity, “constrained by the weight of time-honored ancient social memories that arise distinctly out of Africa (33).”

The author states that the purpose of the book is to “reassess the value of tradition with respect to Mark as Gospel writer, interpreter of Peter and evangelist to Africa (14).” By first exploring Mark’s family tree, a plausible stance for Mark’s African origin is set, followed by examination of ancient documents that verify Mark’s ministerial presence in Africa.

The author references four classic texts that attest to the narrative of Mark. These are the Coptic liturgy, Martyrium Marci, Sawirus bin al-Muqaffa of al-Ashmunein, and Anba Shenouda III (current patriarch of Alexandria), (61). The Synaxaries, accounts of Saints and/or martyrs, of the Coptic liturgy particularly maintain the distinction that Mark was the first in Africa; “as with Peter in Rome, it gives Mark the foremost place among apostolic figures for Africa (61).” Further, Synaxaries from various locations and varying dialects agree, affirming the ecumenical nature of the texts (62).

The next phase of argument reconstructs Marks identity supported in the Gospel accounts and from the perspective of African memory. Suggesting plausible friend and familial relationships, the author exposes the African viewpoint which sees Mark in a more prominent role than is traditionally perceived (82ff), culminating in the African mosaic of the Lord’s Supper and Pentecost according to Mark (90ff).

Similarly, the African memory of Mark “has not hesitated to speculate that Mark was deeply involved, along with Peter, at some undefined points in this immense transition of paleo-Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond (123),” and sharing the Gospel with the Greeks (125). According to the prescribed standards of Euro-American historicity, of course, “these nuances should be ignored for lack of hard evidence. But from an African perspective they are viewed as providential and confirming (93).”

In establishing the role of Mark as a pivotal in the establishment of Christianity, the author utilizes the language of the Coptic Synaxarion to demonstrate that Mark’s house was: the first Christian church, where the Passover meal was served, where the disciples hid after the death of Christ, and where the birth of the Church occurred at Pentecost (94). Affirmed by the author are the significant implications for African Christianity if such formational Christian events truly have a direct African heritage provided in the family of Mark.

Such implications, however, are more readily accepted as implied in African memory than by the more suspicious Western counterpart. However, the author strives to combine the African memory with traditional Western approaches to Mark’s Gospel sequence ultimately by not disregarding either perspective (123).

The African memory of Mark relies heavily on the relationship between Peter and Mark, and therefore establishing the connection between the church established in Rome with the church established in Alexandria (134). With the churches in Rome and Alexandria being founded nearly simultaneously (174), African memory holds to a general acceptance of the Gospel message being proclaimed worldwide; “the same good news was proclaimed in Africa on the premise that it was not ‘another gospel’ but the identical gospel that had been preached by the apostles in Roman Asia and Europe … The unity of European and African Christianity is embodied in the close relation of Peter and Mark (134).” Considering the size and prominence of North Africa in the first century AD, the Gospel message could not avoid being carried to such a prominent continent in the known world (137).

Regarding the early presence of Christianity in Africa, the author clarifies further that, “the previous narratives of the flight of the Holy Family, Simon of Cyrene, the Ethiopian eunuch and Apollos show early signs of Christianity on the African continent. Mark’s arrival, however, signaled the beginning of the apostolic mission in Africa (143).”

Like Peter and Paul, African memory remembers Mark’s evangelical efforts as intertwined with the placement of successive leaders, thereby preserving apostolic leadership of the community of faith under threat (150). As conditions for Christians became increasingly unstable and violent in North Africa, Mark began to be viewed as a threat, provoking rage from within the Alexandrian populace. Though martyrdom was a persistent reality for early Christians, the apostles, including Mark, considered the appointment of apostolic leadership of foremost priority. The idea of martyrdom was not pursued out of intentionality, but with the view that “life is not undervalued in martyrdom if the witness of martyrdom is the only way open to preserve the continuing life of the worshipping community (151).” This idea is reinforced by Tertullian when he said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Mark’s violent death was preceded by torture, all the while Mark “gave thanks to the Lord and glorified him (157),” in order to encourage the continued growth of the Church.

The narrative account of Mark’s death in the ancient source Sawirus, describes a scene in which Mark’s tattered body is to be burned as a saint; but the body was rescued by angels of God and believers moved his body to a secret burial site. These two locations are now designated with churches built upon them, growing up from the blood of their martyr, Mark. The author affirms that several burial sites in Alexandria align with the time of Mark’s ministry and martyrdom, suggesting at least potential accuracy purported by Sawirus. “The locations of the remains of the earliest known Christian sites in Alexandria correspond closely with literary recollections found in the accounts of Mark’s martyrdom.

It seems plausible to infer that the location of the events created the location of the churches (161).” Reasonable evidence that affirms the presence of such churches in early Alexandria is directly proportional to the presence of Mark in Africa, according to the author; an interpretation that is not unreasonable based on corroborating evidence (162ff).

In attempting to navigate between Western historical criteria and the African narrative, the author asks: “What would explain that there would be so many martyrial locations dedicated to Mark in Alexandria if Mark had never been to Alexandria (167)?” Though a reasonable question to ask, the Western tradition may continue to doubt the historicity on lack of proof. If thoroughly authenticated, however, the traditional dating of the Gospel of Mark would likely need to be reconsidered for the placement of Mark in Egypt at a much earlier date which would corroborate with the Coptic chronology.

The author is persuaded that the ecumenical consensus up until the nineteenth century affirmed the African memory of Mark to the extent that “it was remembered in virtually the same way by both great Sees of Rome and Alexandria (173).” The nineteenth century reductionist philosophers are blamed for the disappearance of the saints within the universities, though the author supplies no explanation for what would motivate such digression from supposed traditional ecumenism (173). Further, what would motivate a ploy to negate the physical evidence of Mark in Alexandria, which is equally as compelling as Peter in Rome? The author argues that “both arguments are based on large accumulations of circumstantial evidence (174).”

After the bulk of the work which supplies reasons for the plausibility of the accuracy of the African memory of Mark, the author finally closes in on the more interesting, in my opinion, implications surrounding the issue, though not in substantial detail. Why would the African memory be suppressed and what are the repercussions for the largely Western tradition which has infiltrated the whole of Christianity?

The author first qualifies the prevailing authenticity of Peter’s story over Mark’s as his hunch that it is a “Eurocentric predisposition that wishes to be regarded as valid scientific evidence (174).” However, earlier in the work, the author makes a more convincing argument stemming from a racial prejudice, though more complex. According to the author, the numerous causes “have to do with silent cultural conceits and prejudicial assumptions in which racial prejudice may play a part but hardly the whole. They arise out of cultural egocentricism and nativism that are so common as to be almost endemic to the human condition of every race and latitude (137).” Explanations such as these may be argued, though sociological, circumstantial, and inferential evidence may be surprisingly supportive of the African perspective. If these arguments can be validated to any extent, it would seem that the Church’s ecumenical integrity has been compromised.

The author’s final remarks again become persuasive, imploring the reader to consider the plausibility of his thesis. Avoiding explanations of personal views on hagiography and historicity, the author’s view is limited to the plausibility of Mark’s presence in Africa as the initiator of African apostolic succession. Though perhaps at some point some consideration of historical criticism regarding comparative African and Western methods should be broached, the author does provide evidence enough for a plausible scenario for truth in the African memory, eliciting a challenge to the dominating Western perspective. “The evidence is stronger than is generally accredited by the older school of Euro-American historical interpreters and is ripe for a careful review (232).” The African memory must be considered in light of its own methods for historical criticism, rather than forcing it to bend to the Western approach. For African historicity, “the metaphor of ancestors points to the apostolic witnesses as continued by the ancient Christian writers (237).” The Western demand for empirical evidence threatens to destroy the vitality of the African memory which depends on the stories of the saints.

In Africa, the story of Mark perpetuates the remembering of the entirety of African Christian identity. Digressing from the discussion of historical methodology, the author wisely states that in a hypothetical situation which was able to prove the African memory of Mark entirely wrong, that nevertheless has the African memory shaped their Christian belief in its entirety. There is undeniable truth in this reasoning which begs not to be disregarded “in the fog of academic ideological warfare (238).” However, the authenticity of the African memory should not quickly be dismissed as a verifiable historical account.

The African Church remains steadfast in its belief in its apostolic heritage. Not only because Mark is regarded as their founding apostle, but because he: ordained bishops, priests and deacons to maintain the continuity of apostolic ministry, because he was martyred and buried on African soil, and because his successors have been viewed as an unbroken chain of witnesses since the apostolic age. “In this direct way the African church preserves the apostolic teaching throughout her life, spirituality, liturgy, and dogmas (245).”

In his concluding remarks, the author acknowledges the easy objections that may be aroused based on the abundance of hypotheticals (253). He maintains, though, that there exists enough plausible evidence in favor of the truth demonstrated in the African memory of Mark. Reminding the readers of his objective, the author says, “my purpose in this book has been to show the greater plausibility of the African memory of Mark than of its modern mythic alternatives (256).” Indeed, I would agree the author has successfully achieved his objective.

What is missing, in my inquisitive opinion, is more attention to the “why” and “what now.” There must be more explanation behind the generic Western egocentrism that would lead to a two-thousand year deviation from an ecumenical identity and elicit an assessment of “bad historical method” (256) for the West. More so, the potentiality of truth held in these allegations of the West suppressing an equally sound apostolic see suggests there must be repercussions for ecumenism since the birth of Christianity.

As a Church history nerd through and through, who would enjoy reading more on the implications derived from the author’s arguments, I must ask: A sequel, Dr. Oden?

Novatian, My Third Century Friend

Friday, April 27th, 2012

by Jim L. Papandrea

I’m no Indiana Jones, but I’ve been trying to get into the tomb of Novatian for over a decade now. Last May I got close, and in a few weeks, I’m going to try again…

If you don’t know the name Novatian, don’t feel bad. Most people either have never heard of him, or they only know him from a brief mention in a survey of early Christianity (and those almost never get him right). Novatian was the third century Roman priest who helped define orthodox christology and Trinitarian theology, almost got to be the bishop of Rome, and then created a schism that lasted at least two centuries.

I first met him when I was looking for a dissertation topic. He seemed like the perfect guy to be the subject of my dissertation: a brilliant theologian, a hardline rigorist, a quirky, self-righteous but passionate man of God who tried to take matters into his own hands, and then everything slipped through his fingers.

Novatian was actually the acting bishop of Rome during a time of persecution in the middle of the third century. Bishop Fabian had been martyred in January of the year 250, and for almost a year and a half, no election could be held to choose the next bishop. During that time, Novatian functioned as the chair of the council of priests in Rome. It was his document On the Trinity that probably earned him that position. This document is the very definition of pre-Nicene orthodoxy, taking Tertullian to the next level, and even anticipating Athanasius and Augustine.

But when the persecution subsided, Novatian advocated excommunication for all those who had committed idolatry to save their lives. This was a minority position, so he lost the election for bishop of Rome, and a more pastoral priest was chosen. At this point Novatian was raised up as a rival bishop of Rome, or “anti-pope,” creating a separate ecclesial body that would eventually be the first group ever recognized as Christian, but not Catholic.

When you write a dissertation about a person, you spend years researching that person’s life and reading that person’s writings. So you come away from it feeling like you know that person. Therefore, I feel like Novatian is my third century friend. And like any real friend, you may understand him, but you don’t always agree with him. In fact, as I said in my recent book, “I see in him aspects of myself, some with which I’m comfortable, others not so much” (the book is Novatian of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy, see

So I’ve been on this quest to visit his tomb. Archaeologists have identified the tomb of someone named Novatian, in a catacomb on the outskirts of Rome. While there is no way to prove that this is my Novatian, I’m sufficiently confident that it is (for reasons that I explain in the book), and so the same career that I’ve spent writing about Novatian has also been spent trying to visit his last resting place. Last year I got this close – the photo is one I took of the entrance to the catacomb. According to the authorities who oversee catacombs in Rome, this particular catacomb cannot be visited because it’s considered unstable. But I remain undeterred.



Actually, I had to sneak into a locked garden to get this close. I found a gate that was left open, and trespassed my way over to the catacomb entrance. This picture was one of the last ones I took before the battery in my camera went dead. I eventually got closer, but of course the door into the catacomb was securely locked. Realistically, I would not have gone in without a guide anyway, but this is the closest I’ve ever gotten. I’m going back in a few weeks…

Novatian deserves to be more well known. Because of him, the west did not have an Arian controversy (at least not until Arianism migrated over from the east after the Council of Nicaea). Because of him, the west already knew about consubstantiality, eternal generation, and the communicatio idiomatum. Also because of him (in the sense that he represented the wrong way of doing things), the Church was able to establish a way of reconciling apostates, and reassuring them that theirs was not the unforgiveable sin. In fact, the consensus of the Church would be that the real unforgiveable sin is schism.