für jüdische Geschichte und Kultur an der universität Leipzig

Tali Artman

Doktorandin/Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel)

Forschungsaufenthalt: 2. Februar bis 2. März 2006


Parrhesia, Martyrdom and Irony - transformations of classical tradition in Late Antiquity Polytheism, Judaism and Christianity.


My present research focuses on the way parrhesia functions in the Judaism, Christianity and Greek philosophy in the Roman Empire, within each one of these groups and in the interplay between them.

Parrhesia is a Greek term, originating in democratic Athens of the fifth century B.C.E., describing a public act of criticizing a superior in the name of truth, risking whatever privileges the person performing it has, and in radical conditions – his or her own life.


The studies of parrhesia, which are not many, are for the most part surveys of the appearances of the word in given corpora, either Christian or »pagan.« Some do try and explain the function of parrhesia, normally, like Brown, in a very short period of time (second half of the fourth century), or for a very small group (Whitmarsh). A comparative study of the term parrhesia and its function in late antiquity, especially one that includes Judaism is still missing.

My dissertation deals with the ways in which this term serves each one of the abovementioned groups to define itself and its relations to the Others; or put differently, examines and compares the use of parrhesia in creating a reality and in reporting about it, in the junction of politics, history and literature.

In writing the history of the term from where Foucault and Momigliano left off, and creating a synthesis to which writers like Brown and Scarpat had devoted only limited amount of attention, and also by expanding the horizon to include Judaism, I wish to tell a new story or a new history of Late Antiquity through the analysis of its rhetoric. Another innovative aspect of the work is the use of the study of literature for that purpose.


The structure of my research is twofold: on the one hand, an analysis of the texts that each culture creates, resulting in the history of the development of the term. On the other hand I propose a synthesis describing the joint movement of the term and the political history of the period from a struggle of two forces or humans, to the incorporation of a third- God or »Truth« into the system; and finally to a continuous combat where the forming of allies between two against a third, constitute a phase that I refer to as Ironic.


 Between the era of democracy and the imperial age, the world, and with it its rhetorical, political and educational systems, changed. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and the Second Sophistic are in various ways descendants not only of the classical period but also, and even more so, of the Hellenistic age. During the period that separated »Athens from Jerusalem« as Tertullian put it, the concept of parrhesia underwent a miniature revolution. The political system of the Hellenistic period is regulated not by assemblies but by tyrants, kings. The citizen or subordinate no longer faces a crowd of his own townsmen but an often strange ruler whose power is incomparable to his. The words of the truthful man, loyal to his own and to the good of the group he represents, are now directed to a person, and thus the parrhesistic speech transforms into a dialogical practice.

The influence of politics on other spheres of life and especially on other hierarchic formations is most susceptible. Parrhesia thus also enters the realm of education, particularly in the Epicurean schools, and traces itself back to the realm of philosophy and human relations. Such is Philodemos’s tractate on parrhesia.

The first four centuries C. E. are at the core of my study. Imperial Rome knows its highest and lowest points in those years. The immense territory it covers brings new challenges to the people subordinated to Rome and to Rome itself; identities are redefined, creating both a common denominator between different peoples and an attempt to preserve a sense of origin and uniqueness. Put differently, the political system is shared by different cultures, which face it in different ways.

My study examines the politics of identity within the Empire through the common rhetorical-political concept of parrhesia, and views the history of the Empire through it.

One of the obstacles on the way of classical parrhesia into the world of late antiquity is the changing religious landscape. Theories that suppose a greater being than the Emperor, and moreover one also involved in state affairs, subverts the very heart of Hellenistic parrhesia, i. e. the power structure that lies beneath it. If there is a divinity greater than any man, parrhesia turns into a battle of loyalties not between humans and their consciences as in the past, but between two competing ideologies, or »truths«. The dialogue of the classical and Hellenistic period transforms into a »trialogue,« present now not only in the political and educational systems but also in the realm of faith.

Parrhesia becomes a tool of self definition: the Greek sophists of the empire claim their right to it and to power as the direct descendants of the Classical age. Some Christians claim to be the new philosophers of the world, and hence the bearers of  parrhesia, while simultaneously other Christians are arguing for a new order in which parrhesia is an act of faith in God, a concept also present in the Jewish martyr narratives of the time. Rabbinic Judaism as the most traceable branch of post destruction Judaism and is the more or less legitimate heir of the Jewish right to parrhesia according to Cassius Dio.

Rabbinic Jews define the borders of community using the very same term, partly transforming its meaning in the process into what we know today as the »Hebrew« word »parrhesia,« a synonym to the public sphere, in particular of the Jewish public.

Parrhesia thus serves as a tool of differentiation as a well as a means for a claim to power. The process peaks in the fourth century, in the critical stage of initiating a new relationship between church and state, in the broadest sense of both entities.

The majority and minority question arises again, however now acknowledging the gap between the perception of centrality and the crowds to support it. Parrhesia becomes not a tool in the imperial game, but a component in the battle over the empire.

While Christianity and »old Rome« throw themselves into this war, Judaism takes a different path but does not withdraw from the game completely. It reutilizes the innovations in understanding the term to its own needs, and even to the re-telling of its own distant past. In other words, Rabbinic Judaism retreats from the political arena but remains very active in the world of rhetoric and the war of the word.

This war is nevertheless a war over power, and parrhesia enters a new stage. The general instability can no longer support parrhesia in its earlier function as an address from the weak to the strong, for it is unclear who holds which position. The strife to gain the upper hand is mediated through the term parrhesia in entering into changing structures of co-optations of two sides against a third. I have developed my discussion of these situations to define irony in a new way.


A note on sources and methodology


The Jewish sources addressed in the dissertation are the rabbinic texts edited between the second and seventh centuries. The line can not be drawn earlier, for the Talmudim and the Midrashim contain several layers of editing, and only come to full formation within this time span, and sometime even later.

The »pagan« sources addressed are the works of the great thinkers of the Second Sophistic who write in Greek: Lucian, Musonius, Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, and one earlier author, Philodemos.

The Christian texts that are addressed in the work, are in addition to the NT,  the Acts of the Christian martyrs, letters from bishops to emperors and congregations (Ambrose, Chrysostom), and church histories (Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret).


In terms of method, once more, the nature of the work requires more than one framework.

The reading of the sources is based on philological tools, added to a literary close reading, the analysis and synthesis are however based on the understanding of three concepts, derived from different theories: (discursive) power as presented by Foucault, dialogue (as discussed by Bakhtin and Gadamer), and irony, of which I try and create a new theory, based on De Man, Kierkegaard and others.