The Greek East

CHECK St D with childrenThe Greek East

The Gospels were written in Greek, as were Acts and the letters of Paul, making the Greek language central to Christianity almost from the very beginning. Until the Arab conquest, Greek was also the universal language of the elite throughout the eastern Mediterranean – from Cyrenaica in North Africa, through Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, and into the southern and eastern Balkans, including of course the new imperial capital of Constantinople.  In much of the East, Greek overlay, or bordered on, other languages that were becoming increasingly important in the Christian world, rendering Greek an essential conduit of ideas between the different language groups of early Christianity: Coptic in Egypt; Syriac in the Near and Middle East; Armenian and Georgian to the East of Anatolia; and Latin in the West. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the evidence for the cult of saints in Greek is both abundant and of central importance to the project.

Some of the earliest material focused on the lives (and heroic deaths) of individual saints was written in Greek in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, describing the travels, miracles and martyrdom of the apostles and their companions (such as Paul, and his disciple Thecla), and of early local martyrs (like Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch).  In the course of the 4th and 5th centuries, the veneration of martyrs at the sites which claimed their bodies intensified, along with the production of texts about them. In the same period, the rise of monasticism and asceticism in Egypt, Palestine and Syria added a new category of holy figures who attracted writings (much of it in Greek, alongside that written in more local languages) and eventually cult.  By the 5th century, several shrines of miracle-working saints had become centres of pilgrimage: the fame of figures like Mark and Menas in Egypt, Sergius and Simeon the Stylite in Syria, Thecla and John the Evangelist in Asia Minor, and Demetrius in the Balkans, had spread well beyond the boundaries of their own regions. Besides purely hagiographical literature (texts composed specifically to glorify the lives, martyrdoms and miracles of saints), there is also much scattered information on the cult of saints in other sources: in the ecclesiastical histories of the 4th to 6th centuries (and, from the sixth century onwards, also in secular histories); in texts like the acts of councils; in the rich record of inscriptions; and in surviving images, whether in fresco, mosaic, relief carving, or precious metalwork.

The material written in Greek is of particular importance because it straddles and links all the languages of early Christianity, and because the Greek-speaking East Roman Empire was the dominant cultural and political force of the fifth and sixth centuries, the period when the cult of saints became firmly established.  Because it includes exceptionally early texts, it also offers an insight into the evolution that led from honouring the memory of Apostles and martyrs, to their veneration as intercessors and miracle-workers.  Furthermore, the wealth of material of all kinds available in Greek will make it possible to test the relationship between hagiography and cult on the ground: whether the presence of a saint’s Life guaranteed a cult, and whether active cult needed hagiographical literature to ensure its survival.

The Greek evidence is being collected by Efthymios Rizos, with supervision from Bryan Ward-Perkins.