Ruling the Empire and its readers

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An example of imperial order. Basilica Cistern. Theophilos Papadoulos. CCBY-NC-ND 2.0

This blog is part of a wider project looking at the connections between early Christianity and modern colonialism. It comes from a couple of ideas I had while writing a chapter that was recently published on Junillus Africanus and the rules that he thought governed the text of the Bible. Understanding these linguistic rules is necessary, he believed, for understanding the Bible. While focussed on the biblical text, Junillus’s book tells us something about how rule and governance themselves were understood in the Roman Empire.

In the sixth century CE, Justinian, the ruler of the Roman Empire, tried to bring order to the Christian Church. One man who worked closely with Justinian at this time was Junillus Africanus, who acted as Justinian’s quaestor (a sort-of spokesman and drafter of imperial laws). As a legal expert, Junillus also agreed to write a book of divine rules to help people read the Bible. Like the Empire itself, Junillus explained, the Bible was governed by a clear set of rules, the understanding of which would allow the astute reader to prosper in this ordered kingdom.

The key to understanding this work of Junillus, as with so much of this project, is the Mediterranean Sea. In the 540s a priest called Primasius crossed that sea, travelling from North Africa to Constantinople, where he met Junillus and commissioned from him a text on the Bible. This text, The Regular Principles of Divine Law, is a product of this interaction between the highest echelons of the imperial administration and the provincial ecclesiastical hierarchy and it offers a glimpse of the wider context in which Justinian’s interaction with the Church took place.

In the preface to his work, Junillus tells his readers that he’ll be following a ‘question and answer’ format to teach Primasius about the rule that governs biblical reading. “Question and answer” was a common form of text in late antiquity, but Junillus tells his readers that it is particularly suited to questions of biblical reading because the very form of “question and answer” shapes the way readers engage with texts. “Question and answer” formats are orderly, proceeding neatly to outline problems and provide solutions. In this way, they are an image of divine order, and the form of the text itself comes to mimic the order which it describes. This begins a recurring theme in Junillus’s work: the connection between textual form and cosmic order.

This conjunction of text and order is connected to Justinian’s own ambitions in the Empire. As emperor, Justinian believed that his duty was to oversee the correct ordering of the Empire. Only when his imperial territories were ordered in conformity with the cosmic rule set out by God could Justinian consider his work complete. Key to this was the easing of tensions within the Christian Church. In the years after his ascension to the throne, Justinian made a concerted effort to influence and govern the church through the imperial office, the law and the civil service. Justinian’s actions were resisted most vocally by Christians in North Africa. In this context, Junillus’s determination to link biblical reading to cosmic order is a reflection of the wider context of imperial ambition. Biblical reading is governed by the cosmic order and is thus similar to any other practice undertaken by subjects of Justinian, who obey rules ordained according to God’s order.

A key struggle for Justinian was the debate over the nature of God and how the three different parts (or persons) of God could be understood. In what way could human beings comprehend and represent the existence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit? This issue is present in Junillus’s text. Having shown how ordered reading conforms to and reinforces the ordered rule of Empire, Junillus then explains how the order of the Trinity can be discerned through biblical reading. When a reader encounters a word about God, for example, “unchanging”, she recognises one meaning initially but then must understand that the three persons of the Trinity are indicated, “both together and individually” (… vel simul vel singulos …). Words of scripture that refer to one person of the Trinity refer to the other two persons, and also to the Trinity as a unity. Ordered biblical reading is contingent on and reveals a particular model of Trinitarian order.

As quaestor, Junillus  helped to draft the legislation by which the Empire was governed. These laws, once written down, spread across land and sea. The principles which govern biblical reading replicate the ideal of imperial law: ordered and palpable in the way it forms the world outside the text. The similarity of imperial and biblical rule is not accidental, but is rather a reflection their relationship to God. Both texts are images of God’s relationship to the world and the order of God is discernable in the textual order of law. Both the Bible and imperial law shape the ways that people live in the world, acting as models by which the individual comes to cohere with imperial divine order. It is in this power to regulate and form the world that imperial and biblical texts image God.

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