In the introduction to their Dumbarton Oaks symposium on The Old Testament in Byzantium , Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson observe that the Byzantine empire’s use of the Old Testament seems to involve a strange reversion to Judaism: “the New Testament threw open the election of one people to all nations without discrimination. In contrast, Byzantine and later appropriations of Israelite identity more or less reversed the process and reverted to the exclusiveness of the Jewish model, proclaiming the elect status of one particular group of Christians who identified themselves in political, social, or ethnic terms and reinforced this identity with Old Testament typology.” Not that this was unique to Byzantium: “The verus Israel of the early Church was a purely spiritual communion, which found unity in religion, whereas the new Israels of the Middle Ages and later based their religious mission on some other form of group identity” (13).

Yet this can be exaggerated: “In the final analysis, Byzantine citation of the Old Testament was subordinated and peripheral to the New, and the identity of the new Israel was assumed to the detriment of the old” (29). They continue:

“The emperors who most identified with Old Testament figures—Heraklios the new David, Leo III who enforced the second Commandment and took on the mantle of Melchisedek, and Basil I, another new David, who venerated Elijah—were also the most energetic in pressuring the Jews to convert. Basil I’s New Church with its Old Testament relics was on the edge of the palace, while at its center stood the Pharos church that housed the relics of Christ’s Passion and death at the hands of the Jews, as Christians were dramatically reminded in the hymns and readings of the Good Friday vigil. Justinian II, the emperor who called his army periousios laos , was also the emperor who put the icon of Christ on his coins. For all the interest in Joshua that accompanied the Byzantine offensive against Islam in the tenth century, troops fought under the sign of the Cross and were blessed by contact with the Passion relics and fortified by the prayers of holy ascetics. The triumph of David is displayed on plates, stamped with the hallmarks of Heraklios, but this is private art. When the same emperor sailed from Carthage to Constantinople, the ship’s sails bore the public images of the Virgin. Later Byzantines and their emperor went into battle accompanied by icons of the Virgin and relics of the True Cross, and from the time of Constantine, Byzantine crosses, even for monastic use, had a triumphal, militaristic character, especially during the Macedonian period” (29).

Thus “even at the height of the Old Testament “craze” in the eighth and ninth centuries, one has the impression that the typology was less painstakingly and systematically applied in Byzantium than in the other Christian empire, that of Carolingian Francia—just as the process has been more thoroughly studied by Western medievalists than by Byzantinists.” Other liturgical shifts and practices indicate that the Byzantines were aware of their distance from Old Testament Israel: “The Orthodox dropped Old Testament readings from the Divine Liturgy after the seventh century, and they did not name their children after Old Testament figures, even though they might take prophetic names on entering the monastic life. Finally, one should not forget that it was Byzantine accusations of judaizing, through the use of azymes (unleavened bread), that sparked the schism with the Latin West in 1054” (30).

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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