Law and Order: Monastic Formation, Episcopal Authority, and Conceptions of Justice in Late Antiquity

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Doerfler, Maria Edith

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Among the numerous commitments late ancient Christians throughout the Roman Empire shared with their non-Christian neighbors was a preoccupation with justice. Not only was the latter one of the celebrated characteristics of God, the New Testament had charged Christians, particularly those who served as bishops or elders, with ensuring and maintaining justice in their communities from the tradition's very origins. In the early fourth century, this aspect of episcopal responsibilities had received an unexpected boost when the Emperor Constantine not only recognized bishops' role in intra-Christian conflict resolution, but expanded their judicial capacity to include even outsiders in the so-called audientia episcopalis, the bishop's court.

Christians had, of course, never resolved the question of what constituted justice in a vacuum. Yet bishops' increasing integration into the sprawling and frequently amorphous apparatus of the Roman legal system introduced new pressures as well as new opportunities into Christian judicial discourse. Roman law could become an ally in a minister's exegetical or homiletical efforts. Yet it also came to intrude into spheres that had previously regarded themselves as set apart from Roman society, including especially monastic and clerical communities. The latter proved to be particularly permeable to different shades of legal discourse, inasmuch as they served as privileged feeders for episcopal sees. Their members were part of the Christian elites, whose judicial formation promised to bear disproportionate fruit among the laity under their actual or eventual care. This dissertation's task is the examination of the ways in which Christians in these environments throughout the Latin West at the turn of the fifth century thought and wrote about justice. I contend that no single influence proved dominant, but that three strands of judicial discourse emerge as significant throughout these sources: that of popular philosophical thought; that of biblical exegesis; and that of reasoning from Roman legal precept and practice. Late ancient Christian rhetoric consciously and selectively deployed these threads to craft visions of justice, both divine and human, that could be treated as distinctively Christian while remaining intelligible in the broader context of the Roman Empire.






Doerfler, Maria Edith (2013). Law and Order: Monastic Formation, Episcopal Authority, and Conceptions of Justice in Late Antiquity. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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