This book thus turns to the problem of Christianization indicated by Religion in Roman Egypt: Was this a “conversion” or a synthesis of religious traditions? How, and in what contexts, should we answer this question— through documents of ecclesiastical order, monastic or imperial administration, or even «degrees” of Hellenism? That is, what are the proper data for Christianization: The amount of churches or monasteries built?6 The amount of people showing up at these places?7 Their assimilation of «Christian” names?
We need an approach to these materials and reports that both acknowledges their context in Christianized environments, and even the Christian identity of their subjects, and at the same time recognizes that a Christianizing culture depends on traditional forms of religious expression in order to make sense. How can we describe these traditional forms of religious expression in such a way as not to deny the “Christianness” of their agents?
What does the persistence of these kinds of traditions mean? The term “pagan survival” in fact proposes its own intrinsic narrative: that these traditions all belonged to, and had greater meaning in, the ancient “pagan” religion— some putative organized religion that predated Christianity. Following Christianization, so the story goes, these various practices of the ancient “pagan cults” remained as random superstitions, or magic, or, in the words of the august antiquarian Alphonse Barb, “the syncretistic, rotting refuse-heap of the dead and dying religions of the whole ancient world.”34 “Pagan survival” implies both a heritage in a vague but historically prior religious system and a resilience in the face of true Christianity. At the same time, the continuity of these “pagan survivals” implies incomplete doctrinal instruction or lax missionizing, and certainly uncomprehending village folk.35 Indeed, the portrayal of a Christian culture as rife with “pagan survivals” has long served as a kind of propaganda for proper missionizing and reform. Protestant histories and evangelists have often depicted idiosyncratic folk practices as evidence of an incomplete Christianity, a kind of whitewashed heathenism, and thus as a warrant for evangelization of these degenerate cultures outside of history.
Christianization as bricolage taking place in particular spaces involves, alternately, the domestication of institutional symbols (like liturgical formulations or crosses) and the revitalization and sanctioning of traditional practices (like festivals or iconographic forms).
Like “pagan survival,” “syncretism” often implies that the elements combined, or ostensibly combined, in some religious expression belong to pure and mutually exclusive religious systems— Egyptian and Greek, Jewish and Roman, Christian and heathen—when in fact all these alleged “systems” are themselves endlessly mutating and shifting bricolages taking place in many different regional and local contexts.
as a condition of being readmitted, “syncretism” must imply not the weaving together of two theological systems or institutions, but rather an assemblage of symbols and discourses; not the reversion to a “semi-Christianity” or “Christianized paganism” among “converted” peoples, but rather cultures’ inevitable projects of interpreting and assimilating new religious discourses; and not the leaving of “pagan survivals” in the wake of a people s uniform devotion to a new creed, but rather the inevitable use of traditional imagery and landscape to articulate a new religious ideology— Christian or, for that matter, Buddhist or Muslim. The models underlying the notion of syncretism should not assume external missionary coercion and passive native absorption of religious ideas but rather indigenous agency in the development of meaning, and sometimes even the assertion of native culture within or against the new religious discourse. The creative sources of this indigenous agency have often initially been prophets and ritual experts within the culture, not missionaries from without. Syncretism should be understood as equivalent to the creative, synthetic process by which any idea, symbol, or idiom is appropriated and embraced by a culture: a cross inscribed over a doorway, for example, or the procession of a book of gospels around a field. But it should also be understood as an indication of the subtle attitudes and practices through which cultures perpetuate tradition, even in the use of new idioms and centers: a local shrine preserved through identification with a saint or angel, for example. Finally, syncretism must be understood as an experimental assemblage, not a fixed and harmonious melding of ideas. This process is inevitably incomplete and often carries a tension or irony, which may itself lead to controversy rather than the simple preservation of tradition. The study of syncretistic phenomena in late antique Egypt or Syria or Gaul, much as in early modern Mexico, involves not simply the haphazard collection of things that seem archaic or superstitious, but, more precisely, the examination of how these things are embedded in culture, serve as Christian media, or, alternately, are picked out of local culture by missionaries and reformers as “heathen”
The term “antisyncretism” has been proposed to describe the latter two circumstances, in which indigenous or alien reformers pick out certain practices as heathen (or otherwise as contaminants of an ostensibly pure religious system) and allow others as legitimate. As we have seen in the sermons of Shenoute of Atrip e, Caesarius of Arles, Martin of Braga, and many other vexed observers of popular Christian practice, diverse local traditions can be identified and censured through discourses of idolatry, demon worship, and blood sacrifice— discourses that demand purity and the elimination of pollution. While these purifying discourses historically were rooted explicitly in biblical texts, the practices thereby condemned varied considerably among the reformers, the “antisyncretists,” who were themselves an idiosyncratic and inconsistent bunch. Shenoute might, as we saw earlier, have condemned Shai devotions in one sermon, but in another he celebrates the incorporation of Nile symbols into church processions. And while Shenoute railed against dream incubation as a heathen practice, a Christian scribe at the sixth-century shrine of Sts. Cyrus and John outside Alexandria acclaimed the dreams that came from these saints as superior (and, hence, analogous) to those delivered by the goddess Isis. If the fourth- to fifth-century Paulinus of Nola encouraged the dedication of animals to St. Felix for slaughter and distribution, the fifth- to sixth-century Caesarius of Arles attacked public animal slaughter for banquets and encouraged the demolition of traditional shrines, while in the late sixth century, Gregory the Great instructed his emissaries to encourage both festive animal slaughter and the preservation of temple structures.
Given the diversity, idiosyncrasy arbitrariness, and often-genuine modernity (as opposed to archaism or apparent traditionalism) of the historical reformers and purifiers— the “antisyncretists”— in their attacks on local practice, it becomes difficult to credit their anxious attention to heathenism and mixture as somehow representing a real orthopraxy, some «essential Christianity.” Nor should a book like this one presume the existence of an essential Christianity from which a culture claiming Christian identity could so diverge as not to merit its own label from a historical perspective.
D. Frankfurter, Christianizing Egypt. Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity, Princeton NJ 2018
Τὸ πρόβλημα εἶναι ὅτι δὲν μπαίνει ἕνα ὅριο. Προφανῶς, ἡ ἐπανανοηματοδότηση συμβόλων καὶ πρακτικῶν, ἄλλοτε ἐπικρινόμενη κι ἄλλοτε ὄχι, εἶναι ὑπαρκτή. Προφανῶς, γενικὲς ἀρχὲς καὶ πεποιθήσεις συναντῶνται μὲ καθημερινὲς πρακτικές. Προφανῶς, τὰ περὶ παγανιστικῶν ἀπομειναριῶν εἶναι κάπως ἀπαρχαιωμένο. Ἀλλὰ πάντοτε πρέπει νὰ ὑπάρχει κάτι τὸ ὁποῖο ἀναμειγνύεται μὲ τὶς πρακτικές. Κι αὐτὸ πρέπει νὰ δηλωθεῖ μὲ τρόπο τέτοιο ὥστε νὰ ἀποφεύγεται ἡ προτεσταντικὴ ἄποψη περὶ πρωτοχριστιανισμοῦ καὶ «ἐξελληνισμοῦ» τοῦ Χριστιανισμοῦ, χωρὶς ταυτόχρονα νὰ ὑποστηριχτεῖ ὅτι ἔθιμα, τελετουργικά, τέχνη κ.λπ. ἦταν ἐξαρχῆς παρόντα καὶ ὁλόιδια. Γιὰ νὰ ὑπάρξει συνάντηση ἀπαιτοῦνται αὐτοὶ ποὺ θὰ συναντηθοῦν καὶ θὰ ἀλληλεπιδράσουν. Μὲ ἄλλα λόγια, ἀπαιτεῖται νὰ ἐξεταστεῖ σὲ τί διέφερε ὁ Χριστιανισμός, τί ἦταν στὰ βασικά του, αὐτὰ ποὺ ἀργότερα ἔγιναν ἀντιληπτὰ μὲ τὸν α ἢ β τρόπο στὴν καθημερινότητα τοῦ πρώην Παγανιστή.