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Christianity in Gaza
The Historical and Geographical Setting of Gaza
Gaza first became prominent as one of the five principal cities of the Philistines. The city was conquered by almost every invading army, including the Israelites, Assyrians, and Egyptians. Alexander the Great took the city in 332 BCE after a five month siege. It was finally destroyed by Alexander Jannaeus in 96 BCE. In 57 BCE the Roman proconsul Gabinius, governor of Syria, rebuilt Gaza southwest of the old city, placing it nearer the harbor. Here it continued to be strategically located. Not only did it have the harbor, it was also on the border of the desert to the south. From the east there was a road leading through Petra and Beersheba to Gaza.
Gaza was also noted for its temples and festivals. There were temples (eight in all) dedicated to the Sun, Venus, Apollo, Proserpine, Hecate, the Hieron, and Tyche. The greatest temple was the Marneion, dedicated to Marnas, the supreme god of the city which represented the Cretan-born Zeus. The public square was adorned with a marble statue of Aphrodite. Annual "Hadrianic" games were instituted during Hadrian's visit to the city in 130 CE, featuring the usual oratorical and athletic contests. During the fourth century this festival was the most famous in Syria.
The beginnings of Christianity in Gaza are uncertain. What is certain is that it was not widely accepted. In fact, the inhabitants of Gaza continually fought against it. Meyer explains:
The first Christian martyr of Gaza whose name is known is the bishop Sylvanus, who met his death in 285. In 293, the ninth year of Diocletian, persecutions of the Christians broke out afresh; in the following year, Timotheus, Agapus, and Thecla suffered martyrdom at Gaza; and in the same year, Alexander, a young Christian of the city, was beheaded at Caesarea for professing his faith. In 299 the Christians who had assembled at Gaza to hear the Scriptures read were seized and mutilated; and from 302 to 310 persecutions were continuous throughout the Roman Empire (Meyer 60).The new status of Christianity under Constantine did little to alleviate the conflict in Gaza. The ascetic Hilarion drew some interest by the miracles he performed. His followers attributed the success of a Christian chariot racer to Hilarion and chanted "Marnas victus a Christo est." ( Jerome, Vita Hilarionis). But the hermitages in the area did not last long because the reign of Julian the Apostate (360-363) brought devastation to the desert inhabitants. Further atrocities were committed against the Christians; three brothers were beheaded and burned (Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiasticus, 2.9.) and old men and young girls were killed and thrown to the beasts (Chronicon Paschale, 295; Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio 3 in Julianum). After the death of Julian, there was renewed activity in the building of churches and cloisters.
The turning point in the history of Gaza was the arrival of its new bishop, Porphyry, in 395. After two attempts at petitioning governmental authorities--along with an accurate prophecy that the empress would bear a son--the pagan temples of Gaza were destroyed. On the site of the Marneion, a cruciform church was erected and named Eudoxiana, after the empress (Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry).
The reigns of Anastasius I (399-401) and Justinian (527-565) were prosperous for Gaza. Under the leadership of bishop Marcianus, old buildings were restored and new ones built. The dedication of new buildings provided an opportunity for lavish festivals. Theaters were active with the speeches of scholars and rhetoricians. Meyer writes, "In this way the new faith took over the outer trappings of the old cult, and wrought all the forces of the life and culture of the times to its own advancement and stability" (Meyer 67). But the struggle between pagan practices and Christian rituals did not end here, though it is interesting to see the way in which Christian scholars assimilated the prevailing culture to their Christian religion. This had not been the case with Apollinaris, who along with his father formed an entirely Christian curriculum during the rule of Julian (Wilson:1983 10). Now, however, the school at Gaza had become a unique amalgam of classical education combined with an interest in Christian literature, art, and architecture (Wilson:1983 11ff).
Scholastics and Monastics at Gaza
Exactly when the school at Gaza began is unknown. One of the its first members was Zosimus, a grammarian who wrote commentaries on Lysias and Demosthenes. Another member, Aeneas, wrote a dialogue (c 484 CE) called Theophrastus which demonstrates a wide knowledge of classical texts. Zacharias, who became bishop of Mitylene, imitated this dialogue in his work Ammonius. Procopius was the most prominent individual connected with the school. His leading student, Choricius, was a rhetorician who succeeded him as head of the school. Choricius had studied first in Alexandria before coming to Gaza where he flourished from c 520 to c 530. His numerous writings reflect his admiration for Greek literature and Christian art and architecture. The words of Photius are often quoted to describe his work:
He is a lover of clearness and purity of style, and if he expatiates for any useful purpose, the clearness of his thoughts is no way impaired, since the expansion is not ill-timed and never reaches the length of a complete period. In his writings, character and sincerity are combined, while at the same time he does not neglect the inculcation of moral lessons. As a rule he uses carefully selected words, although not always in their proper sense; for sometimes, owing to his unrestricted use of figurative language, he falls into frigidity, and sometimes is carried away into the poetical style. But he is at his best in descriptions and eulogies. He is an upholder of the true religion and respects the rites and holy places of the Christians, although for some reason or other, contemptuously and without any excuse, he unjustifiably introduces Greek myths and heathen stories in his writings, sometimes even when discussing sacred things. Many writings by him of various kinds are in circulation; one meets with fictitious, laudatory, and controversial speeches, monodies, nuptial songs and many others (John H. Freese, The Library of Photius, (London, 1920), I, 229-230).There are others associated with the school at Gaza such as Timothy and John. Procopius of Caesarea received some of his training at Gaza and is the only one who went on to write history, Thucydides having been his main interest while at Gaza. These are some of the most distinguished scholars to have studied or taught at the school of Gaza.
Procopius of Gaza flourished between 491 and 518 CE during the reign of Anastasius. He studied first at Alexandria and then came to Gaza at an early age to teach rhetoric. Other schools in Palestine admired his work and even tried to attract him to their schools. Once he went to Caesarea to compete in a contest. Besides his own copious writings he collected a great library. One hundred and sixty-three letters of his still remain (Herscher 533-598). As is typical of a rhetorician, he also wrote encomiastic literature such as his panegyric of the emperor (P.G. LXXXVII.3). There are also seven declamations and two ekphraseis. One is of a picture and the other describes a clock. Wilson summarizes the latter description:
At each hour a figure of Heracles emerged from one of a seriesof twelve doors, carrying an object representing one of his twelve labours, and an eagle placed above him bent down to place a victor's garland over hid head, to signify the successful completion of the labour in question. After that the figure of Heracles retreated again behind the panel from which it had appeared. It is symptomatic of the mentality of antiquity that Procopius expends most of his descriptive talents on the external appearance of the clock and does not explain the mechanism or write a eulogy of its inventor (Wilson:1983 31).The largest body of literature that Procopius left behind was his commentaries on books of the Old Testament (P.G. LXXXVII.1,2.). Notable is his tendency to quote from all of the relevant authorities which pertain to the passage at hand. Procopius has been credited with the development of the catena, a precursor of the scholia (Wilson:1967).
Situated about two miles to the southwest of Gaza was the village of Thawatha (somewhere near the present Tel et Tineh). Hilarion was born in this village in 291 CE. He returned after some years to live the life of a hermit. Many others were attracted to this place and a colony of hermits grew up around him. Abba Esaias (d 489 CE) lived in this area in complete seclusion except for his Egyptian disciple Peter. Seridos began his cenobium (a monastery where monks live in close community) about 500 CE. It was here that the revered Barsanufius came from Egypt, later to be joined by his close friend, John the Prophet. One of the monks was Dorotheos of Gaza who had once been associated with the school of Gaza (perhaps a student of Procopius). He achieved the role of archimandrite and wrote a number of discourses in which he merges scripture and the philosophical teachings of overcoming the passions and living the virtuous life.
In Acts 8:26 Philip is instructed to go to the road that leads south from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip may not have arrived at Gaza, but Christianity did eventually arrive there and flourish in many different ways.
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