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to the Second NWO Internationalization Workshop, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Hagit Amirav


The title of the first workshop in the series, held just a few months ago in December, was “New Themes, New Styles in the Eastern Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries): Jewish, Christian and Islamic Encounters”. While we purposely and cautiously refrained from any reference to “genres” and opting instead for the milder and much more accurate, Cameronian, “styles and themes”, it became quite clear to the participants that the word “new” may also pose not a few problems. To begin with, there is no literary style of which it can be said that it stood on its own: biblical exegesis, for example, can be found in a wide range of literary contexts and frameworks: commentaries, homilies, collections of questions and answers, catenae, chronicles, and historical narratives.  When we speak of “styles” we are often forced to describe their fusion.

Trying to isolate  styles and themes which are really and truly “new” can also be a problem. Catenae and florilegia, for example, have always been around and we can hardly say with any degree of precision that there was anything “new” about them. Similarly, themes which have been circulating in the literary reservoir of Christians for centuries, kept popping up in different contexts, albeit, as we have also seen, in different degrees of intensification.

Similar problems present themselves when we are trying to define more precisely what can or cannot  pass for “literature” and similar other slippery concepts which we are bound to come across whenever we read texts and try to make sense our of them.

Coming back to this workshop, here too, we learn that our chosen  themes, apocalypticism and eschatology, are represented in all the literary vessels known to the authors and thinkers who operated throughout the Greek East in the period under discussion. Again, we are not able to clearly associate the themes of the “end of times” and “salvation” with any specific literary “style”. As we have seen, these themes are everywhere: questions and answers, homilies, commentaries, historical accounts, midrashim, and unsurprisingly, in forms of practical magic, such as celestial letters.

Time frames are also a complicated issue. For this set of workshops, we have purposely chosen a period which featured dramatic historical developments, and more specifically, the military advancements of Persians and Arabs into Christian-ruled territories, but also plagues, famine, and the occasional natural disaster.

It might be safe to say and also logical to assume that in the face of peril and in the specific context of Christianity being an active carrier and promoter of the messages of salvation and redemption, that peril and discomfort would intensify the recourse to apocalyptisicm and eschatology. In fact, no paper read in this workshop testifies to the contrary. In two cases, however,   as shown by Ab de Jong and Robert Thomson, who pointed to tendencies to supress apocalypticism or at least, to scale down its dramatic overtones, we see that apocalypticism flourished in very specific mental and geographical climates and that an “apocalyptic” mentality could be present in one region and more supressed in another region.  And we could also add that Islamic apocalypticism flourished against the background of success, rather than failure – a fact which puts to the test the asscotion of apocalypticism with emotions of fear and threat.

This last statement, which you are welcome to challenge, raises an important question which should have, perhaps, been raised at the very beginning of our discussion: why apocalypticism; what was the societal function of apocalyptic and eschatological messages; what triggered the further elaboration of apocalyptic discourses and rhetoric?

As we have seen throughout the workshop, these questions are not at all easy to answer. Again, the period of our study was dramatic and must have provided ample scope for apocalyptic sentiments, when Christians became hunted rather than hunters, ruled, rather than rulers. However, we must not forget that Christians promoted and entertained apocalyptic and eschatological discourses also in periods of relative comfort. What was the function of these discourses then? In order to get an answer, we may have to take Christian theology into account and understand, as has been mentioned by Averil Cameron, that apocalypticism was also an expression of belief in Divine Providence and more positive and optimistic mind sets.

The most important contribution of this workshop to a beter understanding of the function of apocalyptic and eschatological discourses lies, I think, in the multiple answers given to the questions mentioned above. Yannis Papdogiannakis highlighted the pastoral, comforting  function of eschatology, where a frightened or at least, less confident community, an emotional community, found itself in search of answers. Lutz Greisinger stressed the function of this type of discourse as a boundary marker and as a means of singling out of specific groups, e.g. Jews, and other “oethers”. In a few occasions, we see, calamities and potential calamities were used to inspire a moral renaissance (so, with the focus pointing inward, to personal eschatology) and in other cases, the finger was pointed at alienated groups as a means of strengthening a sense of communal identity.