The Bible is the foundational text for the Byzantine Empire in all its political, religious, and cultural manifestations. The nine papers in the newly released The Bible in Byzantium (the introduction and three of them in English, the remainder in German, but all of them—we like to think—worth reading) explore its reception through appropriation, adaptation and interpretation.
Most of the men, women, and children in Byzantium would have encountered the Holy Scriptures predominantly in the context of the Divine Liturgy. They would have seen the preciously decorated book covers as the codex was carried from behind the iconostasis into the congregational space for the liturgical reading, they would have heard the priest recite passages from the Gospels according to the liturgical calendar of readings, and all the while, they may have noted in the church around them depictions on icons or frescoes of selected words and phrases from the Bible associated with figural or scenic representations.
The living liturgical tradition continues to shape the reception of the New Testament in the Orthodox Church to the present day. Viewed from this angle, what may come as a surprise to the scholar in search of the Urtext is perfectly understandable for the church-going believer: there exists to date no authoritative text of the New Testament in the Greek Orthodox Tradition. Karl Klimmeck (“Auf der Suche nach dem Byzantinischen Bibeltext”) contextualizes and elucidates this issue, based on his own involvement with the creation of the Byzantinische Text Deutsch, under the auspices of the Schweizerische Bibelgesellschaft, for use by Orthodox communities. He points out that in the Orthodox tradition, the Bible acquires life, meaning, and significance as it is embedded in the divine mystery which is the Liturgy.
Meredith Riedel continues this strand of exploration about the Bible as living tradition, rather than as authoritative text. Her contribution (“Biblical Echoes in the Taktika of Leo VI”) demonstrates the creative use or “echo” (Anklänge would be an apt German equivalent) of biblical passages even in unexpected contexts such as military handbooks. Her careful analysis of the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI shows the degree to which Byzantine political ideology was steeped in biblical thought, even as individual passages were re-appropriated for purposes diametrically opposed to their original intention.
Theologians, preachers, and other scholars engaged with the Scriptures not only during the Liturgy, but also in written form. Expounding and interpreting the Bible required different textual strategies, including recourse to commentaries and annotations by earlier generations, especially the Church Fathers. Ernst Gamillscheg (“Die Lektüre der Bibel in Byzanz: Kurze Beobachtungen zu einigen griechischen Handschriften mit Bibelkatenen”) discusses the various practices of the technique du livre, with particular emphasis on the “chain” commentaries (catenae), as they are evident in manuscripts of the middle Byzantine period now preserved in the Austrian National Library.
Pınar Serdar Dinçer (“The Vienna Genesis in the Light of Early Byzantine Illuminated Theological Manuscripts”) engages with another kind of visual strategy to make the Scriptures accessible, namely manuscript illumination. She places the Vienna Genesis (Austrian National Library, ms. theol.gr. 31) firmly in the context of other early Byzantine manuscripts that either contain text from the Scriptures or illuminations in similar style, to conclude that the manuscript should be assigned a 6th-century date. Made of parchment, purple-dyed and written with silver ink, this was clearly intended as a luxury codex. It probably originated in the region of Syria or Palestine. Even though only a small portion of the original folios survives, the illuminations represent a high level of artistic craftsmanship, probably by as many as eight different artists. The text of the Book of Genesis is accompanied by superbly executed miniatures that illustrate the Old Testament, up to three to a page. These depictions are more important than the text that is often abbreviated or condensed. Effective pictorial storytelling here takes precedence over the inviolability of sacred text.
The Christian use of the Bible as a marker of Byzantine identity is the topic of Johannes Koder’s contribution (“Christentum und Islam. Überlegungen zum Transfer biblischer Glaubensinhalte in Spätantike und Frühmittelalter”). He discusses the reception of the Bible in the early phase of Islam, drawing attention to a number of passages in the Quran that display an awareness of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. He also offers important observations on the cultural encounters—often conceptualized in religious terms—between Byzantium and the Arabs up to the 10th century.
Biblical references played an important role in the context of Byzantine warfare against the Muslim Arabs of the 9th and 10th centuries. Yannis Stouraitis’ analysis of Byzantine military treatises of the period (“Using the Bible to Justify Imperial Warfare in High-Medieval Byzantium”) shows how Old Testament precedents are invoked and adapted to legitimize Byzantine warfare on political grounds, even without direct recourse to a religiously motivated notion of a just war in defense of God’s chosen people.
The last three contributions demonstrate how biblical thought and imagery infused all aspects of Byzantine cultural and religious life.
The absorption of biblical thought and language into scriptural imagery shaped not only people’s lives in the present, but also their anticipation of the life to come. Eirini Afentoulidou (“ ‘Exposed to the Eyes of All, upon the Public Theater of the Universe.’ The Last Judgement in Byzantium”) comments on Byzantine fears of the exposure of one’s sins on the day of the Last Judgment. She shows that patristic and Byzantine authors, in stark contrast to the conception of the Church as a community of the faithful in this world, insist that each individual will be personally held accountable for her or his own sins in the hereafter.
Alexandra Wassiliou-Seibt (“Biblische Reminiszenzen in Bild und Text auf byzantinischen Bleisiegeln”) focuses on the rich material provided by Byzantine lead seals, as they carry not only representations of religious figures, but also inscriptions in the form of invocations, sometimes even in verse. Issued by the wealthy political and military élite of the Byzantine empire, these seals are evidence of their self-representation. There is a strong preference for the depiction of namesakes, which may be biblical figures, but more often than not are saints—showing that the history of salvation, in the belief of the Byzantines, extended into their own period. The inscriptions on the seals often use biblical language, frequently in the same creative re-appropriation for entirely different contexts that we have already encountered in the military handbooks. Metrical inscriptions on seals make use of the biblical text, as it was adapted in Byzantine hymnography—further evidence for the eliding boundaries between biblical events and historical time that is also implicit in the next contribution.
The final contribution extends the frame of inquiry to the post-Byzantine period. The Bible not only enlivened the pious imagination of the Byzantines, it also fueled their desire to experience the holy places through pilgrimage. The pilgrim guides to the Holy Land, the Sinai, and Lower Egypt are the focus of Andreas Külzer’s contribution (“Bibelrezeption im Heiligen Land. Der Beitrag der Proskynêtaria tôn hagiôn topôn”). About forty such accounts survive, beginning with the 13th century. Much more than simple travel guides, these texts intend to comment on and thereby authenticate the most important places in the history of salvation. The comparative analysis of the selection of destinations reveals that the loca sancta of New Testament history are more important by far to the authors and readers of these pilgrim guides than the sites of the Old Testament. Particularly important is the observation that the interest from a decidedly Christian vantage point also extends to places associated with the subsequent history of Christianity: the destinations related to the cult of saints and to major monastic sites are at least as frequent as the Old Testament locations.
The wide range of source materials that inform the contributions to this volume—from manuscripts and military handbooks to lead seals and pilgrim guides—shows both the potential and the limitations of studying The Bible in Byzantium. To offer a full and exhaustive treatment of the topic would be an ambition that defies realization. As a thoroughly Christianized society, Byzantium had the Bible sunk deep into its cultural DNA. There is great scope for further scholarship on the multitude of strategies for the engagement with the biblical text and the manifold ways in which the Bible message was experienced, articulated, and brought to life on a daily basis.
*Photo credit: Khan Academy.
The Bible in Byzantium: Appropriation, Adaptation, Interpretation, co-edited by the authors of this summary and released last month, is currently available from the publisher and Amazon UK.
Claudia Rapp holds a DPhil from Oxford University and teaches in the Department of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna. She is already known to our readers as the author of Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual, which we reviewed here.
Andreas Külzer holds a PhD from the University of Cologne and teaches Byzantine studies there. His research interests include Western Anatolia from Early Roman times to the Ottoman period, harbours and maritime networks in the Eastern Mediterranean, historical geography of Asia Minor and the Balkans, late antique and medieval pilgrimages, and Late Antiquity.