Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Review of 'Guide for a Church under Islam'

This review, by Sam Noble, appeared in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 57.1-4 (2016): 309-327. The entire review is available here.

Patrick Demetrius Viscuso, Guide for a Church under Islām: The Sixty-Six Canonical Questions Attributed to Thodōros Balsamōn (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2014)

In 1195, the people of Constantinople were witness to a singularly rare event. Patriarch Mark III of Alexandria (r. 1180-1209), visiting from Muslim-controlled Egypt, concelebrated the liturgy at Hagia Sophia with the Patriarch of Constantinople, George II Xiphilinos (r. 1191-1198), and the Patriarch of Antioch, Theodore Balsamon (r. 1193-after 1195). Much to the shock of his fellow patriarchs, he attempted to serve the traditional liturgy of his see, the Liturgy of Saint Mark but they prevented from doing so. It seems that this incident brought to the attention of everyone involved that practices in the Churches of Constantinople and Alexandria diverged on a wide variety of points and so Mark submitted to the patriarch and synod of Constantinople a list of sixty-six questions for clarification. The end result of this was a series of questions and responses prepared by Balsamon (a native of Constantinople who, though officially the absentee patriarch of Antioch, seems to have never left the city) on the synod’s behalf.

The issue of cultural, linguistic, and liturgical diversity and uniformity is a perennial point of contention in the Orthodox churches and so Patrick Demetrius Viscuso’s translation of Balsamon’s Sixty-Six Canonical Questions under the title Guide for a Church under Islam is a welcome contribution to the history of how the Byzantine Church understood Orthodox Christians living outside the boundaries of the empire. Throughout the volume, Viscuso demonstrates his expertise in Byzantine canon law by thoroughly cross-referencing passages from the Questions to the entire corpus of Balsamon’s works as well as to other pertinent Byzantine legal texts. He also provides extensive notes explaining the reasoning behind some of the more difficult-to-understand rulings, such as the Galenic theory lying behind the prohibition against communing on the same day as having bathed (78-80), as well as several of the rulings related to marriage, sexuality and gender in a manner that is clear and accessible for non-specialists. However, the reader might have appreciated further explanation of two of Balsamon’s more disturbing rulings, permitting a man to sell off a female slave with whom he has fornicated (118) and declaring betrothal to a girl of seven to be valid on the grounds that girls of that age are subject to concupiscence (119)

Nevertheless, even as he expertly explains the peculiarities of the Questions in relation to the broader corpus of Byzantine canon law, Viscuso fails to situate the text within its Middle Eastern dimension. In particular, he does not even so much as cite any of the substantial literature on Melkite canonical collections and the history of the reception of Byzantine legal texts among Middle Eastern Christians. This leads to a reading of the text that, while grounded in the history of Byzantine law, makes very little effort to understand it in terms beyond Balsamon’s own limited horizons. In choosing to give his translation the title Guide for a Church under Islam, Viscuso highlights precisely the dimension of the text that he least examines.


The Questions are doubtless an important source for the history of Byzantine canon law—especially as regards important contemporary issues such as the question of deaconesses, the reception of converts, and relations with the non-Orthodox-- and Viscuso has performed a great service in producing this clear, accessible English translation. Nevertheless, as is very often the case in studies of both Byzantium and the Christian Middle East, we are in need of further basic philological work in order to be able to have a proper understanding of this text. Without a critical edition of both versions of the Questions and a comprehensive comparison between them, it is difficult to tease out what in belongs to Mark and his Melkite Alexandrian context and what belongs to Balsamon. One can indeed discern some echoes of the daily life and problems of medieval Melkites from the text presented in this volume, but by and large these echoes are drowned out by Balsamon’s wholly Constantinopolitan frame of reference. Rather than an authentic “guide for a church under Islam,” what we have here is a foundational text in the Byzantine imaginary of Orthodoxy outside the bounds of empire.

Read the rest here.

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