Expropriation and Destruction of Synagogues in Late Antiquity

This week starts the international workshop ”Expropriation and Destruction of Synagogues” at the University of Münster (Sept. 14-17). It is organised by Prof.  Johannes Hahn within the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. The workshop will gather together specialists of late antique research, historians, archaeologists, and philologists. The focus is on the fate of synagogues in Late Antiquity, but also religious transformation in general.

My paper will be on violent rhetoric in ecclesiastical authors’ texts and legislation , with the title ”Violence in words: Christian Polemics against religious dissenters”.

Abstract: Violence, including religious violence, was part of the late antique life. How considerable role religious violent conflicts played in Late Antiquity has been an ongoing debate in recent scholarship. At least on the level of imagery, religious violence had a considerable role in the late Roman world. Violence occupies a great deal of space in the Christian narratives on the demise of ‘paganism’ and in the polemics against Jews and ‘heretics’. In this paper, I focus on the warfare in words against religious dissidents in the fourth and fifth centuries. By religious dissidents I mean here ‘pagans’, ‘heretics’, Jews, and some other religious groups that were (more or less) marginalised by the mainstream Christians in late antique society.

I will take examples from the polemical writing of Christian writers (Firmicus Maternus, Augustine, John Chrysostom among others) against religious dissidents. Furthermore, I discuss the rhetoric of violence in the imperial legislation. I will look at a few similarities in how ‘pagans’, ‘heretics’, and Jews are treated in ecclesiastical rhetoric and legislative texts. In polemics, the three were often bundled into one entity and refuted altogether.

In the second part of my paper, I briefly discuss the connection between violence in words and violence in deeds. I ask how imagery of aggressive piety that captured the imagination of early Christian communities influenced the relations between religious groups in everyday life.

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