Cyprian and Exile

On Monday, November 25 I will be presenting a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting at the Religious Competition in Late Antiquity session.  My paper is entitled “Exile, Identity, and Space: Cyprian of Carthage and the Rhetoric of Social Formation.”

In his commentary on the letters of Cyprian of Carthage, G.W. Clarke rightly states that the bishop does not cite pagan authors in his writings: to underscore his reasoning Cyprian always appeals to the scriptures rather than to the classical canon.  Yet Clarke also notes that traces of classical education appear in the bishop’s rhetoric, and others have detected the influence of Stoic principles embedded within his arguments.  Thus, while Cyprian radically opposes his pre-conversion life with his life in Christ and envisions clearly demarcated boundaries between Christian and pagan worlds, he nevertheless remains implicated in and inscribed by classical culture.  The border between Athens and Jerusalem cannot be defined as neatly as he and many other church fathers believed.

Additional support for early Christianity’s engagement with its cultural heritage can be detected in the ways that Cyprian, the Christian communities in Carthage and Rome, and Cyprian’s biographer Pontius appropriate the varied discourses on displacement found within the pagan and Christian tradition.  This paper will examine how Cyprian and his contemporaries mined the reservoir of topoi associated with exile and flight in order to define the appropriate response to imperial persecution and to establish the contours of the Christian community in its aftermath.  Against those who viewed escape from persecution negatively and sought to construct a church of the martyrs, Cyprian and his supporters mobilize exilic motifs to defend his flight, to counter the support for an elite church defined by confessors and martyrs, and to establish the attitudes and behaviors necessary for inclusion in the “mother church.”  The literary archive on displacement thus provides the bishop and his contemporaries with a culturally conditioned framework to debate and clarify the dimensions of authentic Christianity.  In the process, these discursive “practices” on identity and space produce a specific Christian social formation.