John Chrysostom, Homily on Genesis XIV 5

On the manner in which the Christian congregation should receive imperial decrees and the word of God.

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John Chrysostom
385 CE to 387 CE
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Homily on Genesis XIV

For a brief, general introduction to John Chrysostom, see the commentary on his Homily on the Date of Christmas 2.

The homily from which the above extract is taken, one of sixty-seven homilies on the book of Genesis, was likely delivered at Antioch between 385 and 387 CE (for a discussion on the dating and location, see Robert Hill, Homilies on Genesis, p. 5-6). It expounds more broadly upon Genesis 2:15. However, the present extract appears shortly after a citation of Psalms 19:10, which describes the words of God as follows: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (NRSV). In an effort to impress upon his audience the unsurpassable greatness of God’s holy word, Chrysostom compares them to imperial decrees in order to argue that since Roman subjects listen intently to the reading out of imperial decrees (βασιλικός γράμμα, basilikos gramma), with complete silence, solemnity and awe, barely daring to move in case they should interrupt the flow of the words, they should apply even greater veneration to the words of God (i.e. the holy scriptures). The superiority of divine law over Roman law in Chrysostom’s mind is therefore made clear, with the latter being worthy of respect, but ultimately incomparable to the word of God, which offers eternal salvation. While imperial decrees represent the words of the emperor, and inspire a degree of fear into those who hear them, the word of God is the representation of the divine law (θεῖος νόμος, theios nomos) sent directly from heaven, and promises greater rewards for those who heed it attentively. Chrysostom is not intending here to specifically critique or demean Roman law as such, rather, it is utilised as an example of how the earthly is always inferior to that which is divine. However, the juxtapositioning of the laws of God, the king of heaven (βασιλεὺς τῶν οὐρανῶν, basileus tōn ouranōn) and those of the emperor highlight that even in the post-Constantinian, Christianised Roman empire, where the emperor was understood as God’s chosen ruler and custodian of the Church (see, for example, the discussion of Ambrose, Letter XLI), Christian writers still maintained a distance between the commands of God and those of the imperial ruler, with the former always taking precedence (for other examples of the pre-eminence of divine law over that of the Romans from authors writing post Constantine, see Ambrose, Letter XXI; Jerome, Letter 77.3; Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Romans 7.3; some Christian authors, including Ambrosiaster in the aforementioned text, conveyed that Roman law had its moral roots in that of God, or sought to harmonise the two, such as the compiler of the Collatio legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum, provided of course that one takes the position that the author of this text was Christ). For Chrysostom here, the divine law of God is entitled to more careful attention from Christians than Roman law, even though a direct conflict is not presented.

While the homily more broadly is not an attempt at critiquing Roman law, Chrysostom’s assertion of the superiority of God’s law (or his word in general) over that of the emperor can be understood in a context whereby even though the empire had undergone significant Christianisation by his time, the imperial cult in various forms continued well into the fifth century (for a discussion of this issue in light of recent scholarship, see recently Douglas Boin, “Late Antique Divi”), and as John Matthews notes, imperial edicts or letters could be referred to as being divine. For instance, a letter cited by Augustine in his Letter 88.2 from a proconsul of Africa to the emperor Constantine states that the proconsul has “read and worshipped [Constantine’s] divine writing” (Scripta caelestia maiestatis vestrae accepta atque adorata; cited in Matthews, Laying Down the Law, p. 181). Matthews also references a Greek legal text in which a law of Constantine is described as “divine and adored” (θείον καὶ προσκυνητόν, theion kai proskunēton; see Laying Down the Law, p. 181-182; see Salvatore Riccobono, Fontes iuris romani antejustiniani, Vol. 3, no. 101, p. 321). In addition to emperors and their decrees being conceived of as imbued with divinity, Lactantius in his On the Deaths of the Persecutors XV.2-3 describes how this extended to a certain degree to the Roman justice system more broadly. He explains that during the Diocletianic persecution, pagan altars were erected in courts of justice, and anyone wishing to be heard by the tribunal was required to sacrifice beforehand, in order that no Christian was administered justice without their religious affiliation being revealed. This, Lactantius claims, rendered the Roman judges themselves the equivalents of divinities (on Roman law as divine, see also Luke Lavan, “Political Talismans?” p. 462)

Maijastina Kahlos compares imperial decrees to images of the emperor in the sense that both were understood in their own ways as representations of the emperor, and as such demanded respect. The destruction or insulting of the imperial image, whether it be a statue or another representation of the emperor’s image, such as those found in law courts, was viewed as treasonous, and right up into the fifth and sixth century could invoke harsh punishment. Kahlos gives various examples, including how Athanasius of Alexandria was criticised by his opponents at the Council of Tyre in 335 CE for falsely accusing a presbyter of throwing stones at imperial statues. The fact that his supposedly false statement was viewed so seriously indicates the severity with which the crime against the imperial image itself was viewed (see Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History II.25). Indeed, Kahlos shows that in the context of fifth and sixth century church politics, the disrespecting of the imperial image was used as ammunition against ecclesiastical opponents (for further discussion and examples, see “The Emperor’s New Images,” p. 122-123). In a law dated to 381 CE, the Theodosian Code IX.38.6 proscribes altering, copying, or sacrilegiously imitating the imperial image (Kahlos, “The Emperor’s New Image,” p. 123). Kahlos argues that imperial decrees were understood to represent the emperor in a similar manner, and therefore commanded the same kind of deference, with those who violated this similarly liable to punishment for treason. It is this reverence which John Chrysostom alludes to here when he compares the awe one shows when hearing imperial decrees with the “fear (φόβος, fobos) and trembling (τρομός, tromos)” one ought to have when listening to the word of God. 

The way in which imperial legislation was physically received and displayed in local communities of the empire is discussed by Matthews, who argues that this was a crucial aspect of the impact and validity which the emperor’s laws had. He describes the reading out of an imperial decree as the most “dramatic moment” in the life of any given law, when its contents was made known to the inhabitants of the empire (of course, laws would reach communities at different times owing to the reality of physically disseminating edicts and decrees from the emperor himself to the farther corners of the empire). Matthews looks to rabbinic descriptions of such moments, such as the apparent claim of the late-third century Rabbi Eleazar (a third-century sage who is quoted in much later literature) recorded in Vayyikra Rabba I.10 that an edict was not able to punish people until it had been made known through promulgation in a public place. Similarly, a midrash written during Diocletian’s time describes how when an order came to a city the people read it with awe, fear, and trepidation (see Esther Rabba, Proem. 11) (see Laying Down the Law, p. 187; Saul Lieberman, “Roman Legal Institutions,” p. 6-10). It is this type of theatrical atmosphere, Matthews rightly recognises, that is also conveyed in our passage from Chrysostom’s homily. In an environment whereby the very reading of an imperial decree could inspire total awe and fearful silence, even being viewed as divine, Chrysostom emphasises that Christians ought to have more reverent fear for what is read from the scriptures, as while the emperor’s laws had to power to punish transgressors, those of God held the keys to salvation, meaning that much more was a stake.

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