Bill Heroman, Christoph Markschies, and the “Great Man Theory”

As a way of wishing Bill Heroman a happy birthday, this post will focus on a topic that he has discussed at length, namely the so-called “Great Man Theory.” I’ve chosen to combine the perspectives of Heroman and Markschies, because I think they approach the topic from two fascinating angles. Neither wishes to defend this rightly discredited theory of course but rather to enable us to think about it more precisely. In short, Heroman unpacks its mnemonic advantages, while Markschies shows how its emphasis on the role played by talented individuals contains an element of truth when considered in relation to the dynamics of institutionalization. Let me give a sense of each of their contributions by including several key quotations from Heroman’s multi-part blog series on “Heroic Histories” (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, recap of 1-6, 7) and a single quotation from Markschies’s book Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire.

Key Quotations from Heroman:

Heroic Histories, 1: From a reception standpoint, therefore, while the so-called “great man theory” (henceforth a.k.a. “the hero-centered view of history”, or “the hero-driven theory of history”, or for short perhaps just “heroic history”) remains impossible to defend as either objective or accurate, it has nevertheless gone deeply under-appreciated by professional historians, who should at least feel duty-bound to explain its perennial appeal. Most importantly, we may have all overlooked the mnemonic advantages heroic histories provide in their oversimplifications.

Heroic Histories, 6: The primary advantage of Biography, for delivering rememberable story-structure, is that the ultimate human contingencies (birth & death) guarantee the reader a stable continuity in discourse, with both consistent orientation on a single subject (stable content) and an implicitly overarching chronological timeline (stable structure). That’s why a comprehensive life story’s fabula/discourse dynamic is unique among narrative genres and styles.

Heroic Histories Recap: So far, this series has made two major points. First, Heroic History is a common literary tactic because it offers significant mnemonic advantages for remembering the past. But second – and perhaps more importantly – Plot isn’t everything. Memorable stories also cohere strongly around Character.

Key Quotation from Markschies (English and German):

CTaiI (p. 26): Thus, when the term “Institution” is used to consider not only the hierarchically structured majority church but first and foremost all social structures that establish stability and duration, then the focus on the “great men”—which characterizes the traditional writing of church history and is [often] so problematic from an epistemic methodological perspective—obtains a good sense as well: institutionalization can only succeed when, in addition to a new idea, there are also “talented individuals” who endeavor to obtain a social basis for its establishment. Whether we know all these individuals and whether they were only male is naturally a completely different question that is also difficult to answer for the second and third centuries.

KCTuiI (p. 37): Wenn also mit dem Terminus “Institution” hier nicht nur die hierarchisch strukturierte christliche Mehrheitskirche in den Blick genommen werden soll, sondern zunächst einmal alle sozialen Gebilde, die Stabilität und Dauer etablieren, dann bekommt auch der wissenschaftsmethodisch oft so problematische Blick auf die “großen Männer”, der traditionelle Kirchengeschichtsschreibung prägt, einen guten Sinn: Institutionaliserung kann ja nur gelingen, wenn es neben einer neuen Idee auch “talentierte Individuen” gibt, die sich um eine soziale Basis zu ihrer Durchsetzung bemühen. Ob wir alle diese Individuen kennen und ob es nur Männer waren, ist natürlich eine ganz andere Frage, die für das zweite und dritte Jahrhundert auch nur sehr schwer beantwortet werden kann.

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Francis Watson, Christoph Markschies, and the ‘Canon’ of Clement of Alexandria

Like my post on Francis Watson, Jens Schröter, and the Sayings Collection Genre of the Gospel of Thomas, today’s post belongs to the “I’d like to see someone else write about this” genre. In other words, I am writing it with the hope that it will stimulate someone to explore the matter further in the form of a class paper, conference paper, or article. In short, I think it would make an interesting project to compare what Francis Watson and Christoph Markschies say about Clement of Alexandria’s ‘canon’ in Gospel Writing and Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire with a view to the place assigned to Clement in their overall conceptions. As an invitation to explore this topic further, I have chosen one quotation relating to a specific point that they interpret differently and one quotation that sheds light on how Clement fits within their overall conception. And I’ve now added an extra quotation from Markus Bockmuehl for good measure!

Quotation 1: Clement’s Knowledge of the Gospel of the Egyptians

Markschies (CTaiI, 240-41): “If one reviews the citations from this writing in Clement of Alexandria, then it is conspicuous that Clement hardly has a detailed knowledge of the content of this text and thus evidently has not even read it in its entirety: φέρεται δέ, οἶμαι, ἐν τῷ κατ’ Αἰγυπτίους εὐαγγελίῳ; “But (these words) stand, so I believe, in the Gospel of the Egyptians”.

Markschies (KcTuiI, 271): “Mustert man nun die Zitate aus dieser Schrift bei Clemens Alexandrinus, so fällt auf, daß Clemens kaum näher kennt und ihn daher offensichtlich gar nicht zur Gänze gelesen hat: φέρεται δέ, οἶμαι, ἐν τῷ κατ’ Αἰγυπτίους εὐαγγελίῳ; “(Diese Worte) stehen aber, wie ich glaube, im Ägypterevangelium”.

Watson (GW,  425-426): “Clement’s allegorical interpretation is occasioned by his opponents’ similarly allegorical interpretation of another saying derived from the same source … It is, however, Clement, not Cassianus, who identifies GEgy as the source both of the Salome passage cited earlier and of the independent but thematically related saying cited here… In spite of his modest disclaimer, “I believe,” Clement has independent access to GEgy and can therefore cite the remainder of the Salome dialogue on his own initiative and not in response to Cassianus”

Bockmuehl (Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 211): “Clement’s awareness and use of at least excerpts of the text necessitates a date before the 190s, but it is difficult to be more specific. Because every one of Clement’s eight quotations from this work expresses the theme of a distinctly ascetical hostility to sexuality and procreation, he himself may only have known this work in the form of a thematic (and possibly already antiheretical?) collection of such excerpts, rather than as now preserved. (Cf. similarly Markschies 2012d, 666, 672).

Quotation II: Clement’s Place in the History of the Canon

Watson (GW, 435-436): Clement’s citational practice represents a moment of transition between the earlier nonspecific appeal to “the gospel” and the emergence of four “gospels” differentiated by the names of their purported authors. Yet there is no consciousness of innovation in his single Irenaeus-like reference to “the four gospels handed down to us,” nor is it explained how this “handing down” has taken place or how it differentiates one set of gospel texts from others. One factor may simply be relative familiarity… As  ever some books achieve a wide circulation whereas others are known only within limited circles or areas. If, hypothetically, two gospel texts are popular in Alexandria whereas only one of them is known in Rome, then the consensus about the one will seem to give it an ecclesial sanction that the other lacks. The fourfold gospel is an attempt to articulate, formalize, and enforce a convergence around a common usage. Clement himself articulates this perceived convergence, but shows no interest in formalizing or enforcing it. Indeed, he refers to it only in passing and in a single passage that does not reflect his citation practice as a whole. Nevertheless, an emerging trend may retrospectively be identified in this single passage, especially if we look back at Clement and his contemporaries from the perspective of Eusebius, the first great historian of the Christian canon.

Markschies (CTuiI, 245; cf. 246): We can now summarize our observations on Clement of Alexandria: it can scarcely be disputed that this highly educated free teacher used a ‘canon,’ a normed collection of authoritative biblical texts, as the corpus from which he derived his fundamental axioms. Therefore, it appears to be precisely not the case that Clement represents a vague concept of the biblical and New Testament ‘canon.’ Rather, he deals in a relatively great scope with divinely inspired writings but distinguishes once more from these a narrower ‘canon’ of especially inspired biblical texts. One should not designate such a concept of graded canonicity as “vague” but exactly the opposite, as particularly considered.

Markschies (KcTuiI, 276; cf. 277): Nun können wir unsere Beobachtungen zu Clemens Alexandrinus zusammenfassen: Es läßt sich schwer bestreiten, daß dieser hoch gebildete freie Lehrer einen ‘Kanon’, eine normierte Sammlung autoritativer biblischer Texte als dasjenige Corpus nutzte, dem er seine fundamentalen Axiome entnahm. Es scheint daher gerade nicht so, daß Clemens ein vages Konzept des biblischen und neutestamentlichen ‘Kanons’ vertritt, sondern einerseits in relativ großem Umfang mit göttlich inspirierten Schriften rechnet, davon aber noch einmal einen engeren ‘Kanon’ besonders inspirierter biblischer Texte unterscheidet. Ein solches Konzept gestufter Kanonizität sollte man nicht als “vage”, sondern gerade im Gegenteil als besonders reflektiert bezeichnen.

For my other Watsonposts, see here.

For my other Markschiesposts, see here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne