Hidden Law: The Evolution of Christian Law in Late Antiquity

Yifat Monnickendam
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

An official ruling does not necessarily determine the practice, just as legislation does not always become the custom. In the gap between them lies a key to understanding processes of influence and rejection, of polemic and discourse, and of power and authority. This project seeks to reveal the gap between imperial law and Christian customs and practices in the late-antique Eastern Roman Empire. Deciphering this gap will serve as a lens to viewing trends, ties and mutual influences among Christians, Romans and Jews, to observing similar, yet unrelated and independent, developments in these communities, to discussing different attitudes to law and authority and to addressing the larger question of the evolvement of Christian law. 

Early Christian legal thought and practice was influenced by Roman and Greek law, by Jewish law, and by Christian legal traditions. While Roman, Greek and Jewish legal sources are readily accessible in various databases and studies, sources of the emerging Christian law are limited, with only few legal compositions being available. Nevertheless, as I have recently shown, indirect evidence of Christian legal thought and practice are preserved in non-legal Christian literature. Such evidence is important not only because it fills the gap created by the lack of legal literature, but particularly because of its indirect nature: Indirect evidence mined from non-legal literature may reflect practice and behavior – rather than the official law and norms – and hence preserve legal traditions rejected from formal legal corpora.

Studying the development of Christian law starts, therefore, by collecting and cataloging this indirect evidence, and organizing the information in a way which will not only support current research but will also inspire new questions and new research. For this task I planned a database of tagged paragraphs from compositions of five late-antique communities: Christian, Roman, Jewish, Greek (Papyri) and Sectarian (Qumran). Each community includes a list of compositions, on which the following metadata is given: author, date of composition, place, and bibliographical information. Once a paragraph is catalogued, information about it draws either from this metadata, or from specific data on the specific paragraph (e.g. a third century exegetical text by Origen which is preserved in a sixth century catenae, will be catalogued as a text by Origen). 

The first texts to be catalogued in this project are Christian compositions in Greek and Syriac, surveyed first in translation and then by using terminological searches in digitized texts of the original languages. Relevant paragraphs are copied to the database and tagged according to the legal issues they refers to. These tags, together with the metadata detailed above, are the basis for the search results and their display. The results are displayed in four formats: 1) word-clouds of the different tags of one search. The words’ size is according to their frequency, thus allowing the researcher to see what legal topics are connected to others, especially when they were not intuitively related and were not the tags of the original search. 2) Maps (GIS) which show where certain legal topics were discussed. 3) Timelines which highlight specific periods in which certain issues were discussed. 4) Lists of texts and their metadata which allows for an in-depth study, rather than show trends and tendencies, and form the basis for a future expansion of this project to creating tools of natural language processing. 

This project enjoys collaborations with several similar projects, including the BYU-Oxford Syriac Corpus (http://cpart.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/home/sec/), the Syriac Gazetteer (Syriaca.org), and the new database, “Greek Contracts in Context.” 

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