Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Bishop's Power - an Editing Issue

Originally, in my book on Athanasius, I had mentioned that bishops had more power than they do today. Since most of my young readers are probably not very familiar with the role of bishops, I had described them as "in charge of many churches." That created a problem. A Protestant child may think of a pastor, and what kind of "power" does a pastor hold? My editor, Annette Gysen, and I went back and forth with emails for a while discussing what power bishops held in those days (fourth century AD) and how to explain it to children.
I decided to ask Dr. Giorgio Corti, expert in patristic studies and author of the book Lucifero di Cagliari – una voce nel conflitto tra chiesa e impero alla metà del IV secolo, and he replied by giving the following examples.

1. The bishops' authority depended much on their strength as opposed to the emperor's strength. It was difficult for a bishop to oppose a strong emperor. Bishops like Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, and Cyril were strong personalities.

2. Bishops had a strong impact on their people because they lasted longer than emperors, who often died in battle, at the hand of traitors, etc.

3. Bishops had a better knowledge of their cities than emperors, who lived far away.

4. Bishops lent material help to their people. In Alexandria, bishops granted food to about 1500 people. In Milan, Ambrose rescued the prisoners after the battle of Adrianopolis with the church's money - for this reason, they were very popular, and emperors could not ignore them.

5. For emperors, the problems posed by bishops were some among many others, and could quickly lose importance in the event of more urgent matters. Bishops, on the contrary, were very tenacious in defending their title, because for them this was an essential matter. The bishops had their moments of greatest power when the emperors were busy with political or military problems.

6. Bishops were depending on the church's considerable riches, while the emperors depended on taxes, and were very unpopular for this reason, even with their own officers.

Annette and I realized then that the word "power" was not correct. The bishops didn't have temporal powers as they held instead in medieval times. The correct word was "influence." But how do you explain that to children?

Finally, after reading and re-reading my paragraph several times, the answer became evident. Instead of writing that the bishops were in charge of many churches, I should write that they were in charge of all the churches in a large area or a country. That was enough! If they were in charge of all the churches in a country, of course they had influence on the people, and I didn't need to add explanations.

I decided to post this little editing story here because Dr. Corti's explanation of the power (or influence) exercised by bishops at that time was very interesting.

More on the Black Dwarf

Yesterday, someone posted a comment to my blog post on Athanasius - the Black Dwarf. This person (who remained anonymous) seemed to suggest that I had some revisionist agenda in portraying Athanasius as an Egyptian rather than a black African. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have found no evidence to prove that Athanasius was in fact black, and since he was born in Egypt I simply portrayed him as an Egyptian. Or rather, I told my illustrator how to portray him and left the matter in his hands.
I also mentioned in my earlier post that the expression "black dwarf" in reference to Athanasius became first known in 1984, in The History of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzales. I also enclosed there a link to an article explaining the situation (BTW, I don't endorse the tone used by the author of this article in regards to Dr. Gonzales).
This recent comment, however, prompted me to write Dr. Gonzales directly, and he kindly replied. I am posting his reply here:

"Thanks for your e-mail. Actually, after that book was published I looked for the reference, and found several of his enemies mocking his stature and calling him 'black'. But the actual phrase 'black dwarf' does not appear in any of the early texts. (There are some later historians who do use the phrase, and I took if from them. But the actual quote in a reliable ancient text I cannot find. I'll have to correct it in the next edition!)
"At any rate, at that time, and among the people involved in the debates, 'black' did not mean what the same word now means in the US. In Egypt, it was used as a derogatory term by some among the Greeks (who had conquered Egypt some seven centuries earlier) and the Romans (who had come three centuries after the Greeks) as a pejorative way to refer to the original Coptic population. These were not 'black' in the sense in which it is applied to people South of the Saharan. They were fairly dark-skinned, and their hair was wavy. But they were neither as dark nor their hair as wavy as the Sudanese and other people to the south. There are many indications that Athanasius was a Copt and that he was very short."

Dr. Gonzales approved of the illustrations in my book and the way Athanasius is portrayed.