Gaza: education and religion in the sixth century CE

Published on: Author: janstenger Leave a comment

The Greek polis of Gaza in Palestine underwent, in common with other cities, a profound transformation during the fifth and sixth centuries CE in society, economy and religion. What is unique about Gaza in these decades is its thriving and wide-ranging culture, as documented by ample literary and also material evidence. Speeches, letters and philosophical works reveal that education, in particular the place of the classical heritage, was a major concern of both rhetoricians and Christian leaders, as well as of the wider public.

My project, started in 2014, deals with a variety of literary sources which shed light on the pedagogical visions of their authors. As regards the secular society of Gaza, I examine the letters of Aeneas of Gaza and his philosophical dialogue Theophrastus, the letters and speeches of Procopius, the head of the local rhetorical school, as well as the speeches of his student and successor Choricius. These texts address in various ways the purposes of philosophical and rhetorical education, pedagogical methods and the value of classical education for the urban society. One central topic that is discussed by Aeneas, Procopius and Choricius is the relationship between classical, i.e. pagan, learning and Christian religion. This discussion shows that at the time the relationship between the Greek tradition and Christian faith was still a matter of debate. Starting from recent ideas about a peaceful synthesis of pagan culture and Christian religion in sixth-century Gaza, I intend to examine thoroughly to what extent proponents of secular learning found ways to secure a place for their expertise in a Christianised society.

The second body of works which I study originates from the monasteries in the vicinity of Gaza. These coenobia have attracted much interest in recent years, and scholars have claimed that they represented a veritable ‘monastic school’. This label suggests that the monastic communities resembled in one way or another the traditional schools such as the rhetorical school of Gaza or the philosophical schools of Athens and Alexandria. However, the use of the term ‘school’ for the monasteries is nowhere properly discussed. Therefore, I analyse the enormous collection of letters of the so-called Two Old Men, Barsanuphius and John, as well as the Didaskaliai and letters of their disciple, Dorotheus of Gaza. In these letters and treatises on ascetic virtues questions of education are centre stage. And often the ascetics address laypeople or explain their attitude to the world outside the monastery. My aim is to analyse the pedagogical concepts and visions put forward in the monastic communities, in order better to understand the intellectual profile of monastic education and its relationship to secular society.

The project is based on the conviction that these two contemporary bodies of writings, the works of the secular teachers and the monastic texts, should be brought together because they have more in common than is generally acknowledged. More often than not, the literature originating from the school and the texts of Barsanuphius, John and Dorotheus have been treated separately. This separation, which is due to the boundaries between modern disciplines, will be overcome by this project. Only an integrated approach enables us to give an accurate picture of the education discourse in late antique Gaza.

The first phase of my project was supported by an Arts and Humanities Workshop Grant of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2014 and included a workshop and an international conference in Glasgow. The current, second phase is funded by the EURIAS fellowship programme of the Network of eurias-logo-webEuropean Institutes for Advanced Study, supported by the European Commission. Thanks to this award I am spending the academic year 2015/16 as a Senior Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, where I am currently studying mainly the Didaskaliai of Dorotheus.

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