XV International conference on patristics studies at Oxford (6-11 Aug. 2007)

Oxford was lovely in the summer sunshine as I drove across Folly Bridge and down to Merton, my old college, where I stayed in preference to the rather expensive accomodation at other colleges laid on by the organisers.  After getting my room, I went across to the Examination Schools, a magnificent gothic building where the majority of the conference events were held.  In the entrance hall I picked up a fat pack of materials in a woven cream bag provided by Peeters of Leuven.  These distinctive bags were conspicuous in the streets of Oxford that day!  In addition to the conference programme, the bag contained details of publishers and their discounts for the conference.  These were often as much as 50% on some items; including volumes of the Corpus Christianorum.  Sadly the Clavis Patrum Graecorum was not discounted and so remains beyond my means; but much else was.

After lunch on Monday I detoured to the Museum of Science, about which I will blog later, and then headed down St. Aldates Street towards Christ Church College, where a garden party was held in the Master’s garden.  Part way down the street a figure dressed in black with a bushy beard and a clerical collar popped out of a side road more or less alongside me; Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, also carrying one of the distinctive bags.  After a few pleasantries which revealed that he had no idea what the Tertullian Project website was (sic transit gloria mundi) we made our way through Christ Church to the garden, where Dr Williams was greeted at the entrance by a couple of people with cries of rapture, while I slipped off into the garden.

Quite a number of people were present.  I heard it suggested that at least 500 people were attending the conference.  I had the good fortune there to meet Byard Bennet, with whom I share an interest in Paul the Persian, as well as several other people that I had met before or who had bought my CDROM.  This of course was very pleasant.  Others whom I had hoped to see were not there, or I didn’t see them in the press of people! 

This and an evening sermon by Dr Williams (which I skipped) were the only events for Monday, and indeed were quite enough for the first day.  I spent the evening in my college library, searching copies of Muller’s Sacred Books of the East for material about Mithras, and stumbled on a copy of the new volume of Quasten’s Patrology.

On Tuesday the real programme began.  Each morning there were eight 15-minute communications in each of 14 rooms on a vast array of patristic subjects.  These ran from 9am to 12:40 Tuesday to Friday with an hour in the middle for tea.   This meant that even for someone with my rather anti-theological bias, there were items of interest.

The first paper for me was Patrick Gray, Disappearing Acts on the loss of the Greek text of the acts of the Second Council of Constantinople.  Frankly it was a joy!  Here is what I can remember:  

Dr Gray suggested that a piece of typically Byzantine intrigue at the Third Council of Constantinople was responsible for the loss of this text.  It seems that at the Second Council the then pope was brought to agree to some monothelite formulae, and letters from him were included in the long text of the Acts.  However politics thereafter meant that the pope’s accession was an embarassment, and texts of the Acts circulating in Italy were pruned of these items; indeed their existence was forgotten.  At the Third council, unusually the monothelites were invited to speak first, and encouraged to prove their case from previous concilia.  They read the long acts and papal letter, at which the papal representatives jumped to their feet and protested that the acts being read had been forged; they knew of no such letters.  The emperor and his officials and eunuchs ordered that a search for other copies be made, and a copy was produced from the Patriarchal library.  In this copy the disputed material appeared, but in a different hand and clumsily inserted; evidently added later.  This was proclaimed as clear evidence of monothelite forgery, and the evidence was sealed as proof.  But Dr Gray suggests that in fact this was a case of double forgery — the acts had been tampered with to look forged, and so to smear the monothelites; all the circumstances around this are suspicious.  As a result all the manuscripts of the acts disappear, since the Greeks believe them forged and the monothelites don’t want to see something with which they are reproached.  Versions exist now only in Latin and Syriac.

This paper was delivered with intelligence and imagination, and I look forward to seeing a printed version.

The next paper I recall is by Michael Penn, Piety and the pumice stone: erasure in Syriac manuscripts.  Dr Penn has done a study of erasures and rewritings.  These are mostly to do with change of ownership.  He suggested that, far from forgery being intended in most of these cases, the obviousness of the change meant that it was intended to be signalled to the reader that something had changed here.  The paper was generally very interesting, except the last few words which dropped into socio-babble.  Again I want to see this in print.

One paper that I had hoped to hear was Satoshi Toda on the Syriac version of Eusebius HE.  However this was cancelled.  Jonathan Loopstra delivered a rather confusing paper on the collected letters of Basil of Caesarea (whom he called ‘Baysil’) and Gregory Nazianzen in the Syriac version, from which I gleaned only that two translations were made, the first rather looser and the second very faithful to the Greek.  This was followed by Jackie Maxwell on The attitudes of the Cappadocian Fathers towards uneducated Christians which thankfully resisted the urge to trot out modern attitudes and discussed the ways in which these very upper-class people interacted with the simple, good, but easily led laity, and the variable effect that Christianity had on the contempt that their social class would otherwise feel for them.

In the middle of all this was tea.  In fact this was a chance to walk around the stalls of the publishers, upstairs in a great hall and out in a pavilion in the garden of the schools.  A vast array of books were available, including all the CSCO volumes, in a variety of languages.  I was glad to see George Kiraz manning the Gorgias Books stand.  I had hoped that the Sources Chrétiennes would be there, but they were not.  I found the stall offering copies of the Patrology and bought one then and there!

After this was lunch.  There were some afternoon sessions, rather longer, but I ended up skipping the one on Tuesday, as I walked up to the Oriental Institute and ended up photocopying a large volume of Severus Ibn Mukaffa’s History of the Coptic Church in English translation.

After this, sadly I had to go home.  So I only saw a fraction of what was available, and heard a fraction of the papers.  Nevertheless I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in patristics.  A week in Oxford in the summer, access to the Bodleian, social events, excellent papers — a nice way to spend a holiday, and best of all if you come with people you know.  It is perhaps fortunate that it is only once every four years, tho — I came back quite tired!


2 thoughts on “XV International conference on patristics studies at Oxford (6-11 Aug. 2007)

  1. It was a good trip. Originally I’d booked for the whole week. But man proposes and God disposes. It’s quite possible to attend for just a day, as I originally did 8 years ago.

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