Peter Brown on Christianization, Part I: Eusebius and Constantine

If one did not know the name of “Peter Brown” (above, photo), then it is likely that one would have a radically limited understanding of the religious landscape of Late Antiquity. Should one do any real digging, or suffer any serious historical training in this period, it would be impossible to totally avoid him, much less to fail to take notice of his work.

His work is in academia. Brown currently enjoys the title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, having previously been a lecturer at All Souls College in Oxford and having enjoyed a position at the University of California, Berkeley. He lectures widely, and just finished a major book. Together with Robert A. Markus, he has largely pioneered the study of the period known as “Late Antiquity” — some would say he inaugurated it (wresting it away from the narrative of decline still presided over by the ghost of Edward Gibbon). (One of Markus’ books, The End of Ancient Christianity, was dedicated to Brown.) Brown is the recipient of numerous awards (some of which pay quite substantially), and a member of many societies. He can read in more languages than most professional translators can (26, if Wikipedia is correct, and his books seem to bear this out).

As for these books of his, which bear out his familiarity with a high number of languages: they are many. His books include staple introductions to Late Antiquity, and standard surveys of Church history from A.D. 200-1000, primary syllabus texts for topics such as marriage and sexual renunciation and the cult of the saints (as well as the way that wealth might be marshaled to aid the departed), the highly-acclaimed biography of Augustine of Hippo that seems to reign as king, and his recent, magnificent book on the economic dimensions of cultural transformation –specifically religious ideas surrounding wealth and poverty– in the Roman West between A.D. 200-550. He has returned several times to at least three of his major earlier works to update them, decades later, in the light of more recent scholarship.

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I noted that he lectures widely. In a paper he delivered in 2013 at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary titled “Constantine, Eusebius, and the Future of Christianity” (audio here), Brown addressed the question:

what did Constantine himself and the Christians of his age think that the future of Christianity would be and should be? What were for them the horizons of the possible? And so, what would they settle for as the measure of success? [118]

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Dating Conventions

There is a restaurant down the street from where I live, in the next town over, called “Zaftigs”. On the sign for this restaurant, so small beneath the “a” that one might not see it, there is noted the year in which it was established: “5757”.

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Sorry, Sci-Fi fans: Zaftigs was not established 3,741 years in the future.

This is not a joke. Zaftigs is in Brookline, which boasts a large Jewish population (there are three synagogues within a minute’s drive of it; it will thus come as no surprise that “Zaftig” is apparently Yiddish for “juicy”). “5757” is a dating convention using the Jewish calendar, which takes its beginnings not from an event within history, but from the alleged date for the creation of the world (“A.M.” or “Anno Mundi” is the Latin name for this calendar, meaning “Year of the World”). “5757” could be either 1996 or 1997 on the American public calendar, because the Jewish calendar does not begin on January 1st — even we in the English-speaking world only settled on January 1st relatively recently, transitioning the year’s beginning from the more traditional March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary).

So what is our public calendar? Continue reading