Dr. Colin Whiting recently published a new book, Documents from the Luciferians: In Defense of the Nicene Creed. Whiting is the Senior Project Editor for ASCSA Publications, and he was a Regular Member of the School in 2013–2014. His book, available from SBL Press, is the first complete collection of writings by the Luciferians, including the first English translation of Faustinus’s Libellus precum. Whiting took a moment to tell the American School about his new book.
Who were the Luciferians?
The Luciferians were a community of Christians who flourished around A.D. 360–400, named after the firebrand bishop Lucifer of Cagliari, who might be associated with them in some murky way (nothing to do with the devil, I’m afraid). It’s hard to call them a heresy or a schism, because authors sometimes call them a heresy, sometimes call them a schism, and sometimes say they were perfectly orthodox Christians. They were, specifically, Nicene Christians, meaning they adhered to the decisions of the Council of Nicaea in 325, which came up with a very specific and technical way to describe the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The thing is, they were exceptionally strict about this. Christians in the Roman Empire had spent decades fighting over the Nicene Creed, and the Luciferians were very unforgiving toward any clergy who had ever opposed it, even if they now supported it, and even if these clergy had been led to oppose it by persecution or trickery in the first place. Unfortunately for the Luciferians, this kind of inflexibility was pretty unpopular, and they wound up being persecuted by other Nicene Christians. But in the 380s, Emperor Theodosius I granted them legal protection—and that’s about when they disappear from the historical record. We are fortunate, however, to have a number of documents written by and about Luciferians; this publication includes a confession of faith, their lengthy petition to Theodosius and his response to it, a long theological treatise, and two forged letters.
In your book, you mention that modern scholars seem to lack interest in the Luciferians. Why do you believe this is so?
That’s a really interesting question, because they are so unique in many respects. These documents are some of the very, very few writings we have that come from a marginalized Christian group in late antiquity; for all the reams we have of, say, Augustine and Jerome, surviving documents from communities like the Luciferians are incredibly rare. It’s staggering to me that a petition outlining in great detail such a marginal group’s history and grievances has received so little attention. One obvious reason is that the petition has not (until now) been translated into English, only French, and the theological treatise on the Trinity has only been translated into English in an anonymous translation from 1721 (and nobody is really aware of that one anyway). Otherwise, it’s hard to explain. The petition is filled with martyrs, persecution, miracles, ascetic men and women—the kind of material that has really engaged scholarship in the last few decades. If you name it, it’s probably in there.
What sort of impact do you think your publication will have on early Christian studies?
Hopefully these documents won’t be quite as obscure now that they’re a little more accessible! I’ve geared the introduction a little broadly because this material is a virtual primer for Late Antique Christianity, and an audience even only loosely familiar with some of the major topics in Late Antique history will find plenty of relevant material in here. These translations should also serve as a touchstone for future studies, whether on the Luciferians specifically or Christian communities in general, and I do hope other scholars take advantage of them. It’s the first time that all of our extant Luciferian texts have been published together in a single volume, and having the Latin on facing pages to the translation should make this an even more useful volume.
How did your career as an editor shape your experience as an author?
I’d like to think it meant that my writing was impeccable from the start, but various rounds of copyediting and proofreading taught me a valuable lesson in humility. I do think it’s easy to forget that authors simply cannot dedicate the same time and energy to a manuscript as a full-time editor can—they have so many other obligations. So I’d like to think it’s made me more sensitive to the needs of my own authors.
What were some of the biggest challenges while working on this publication?
Time, time, time. There are only so many hours in a day, and working adjacent to academia rather than within it meant even fewer of those hours could be dedicated to research, writing, and the like. More abstractly, I think we undersell the difficulty of spending years on a dissertation and then immediately turning around and fashioning it into a book; that’s an incredibly challenging and demoralizing thing to ask newly minted Ph.D.’s. I was fortunate to not be in the hunt for a tenure-track position, which gave me a bit of time to distance myself. I was also fortunate to have a lot of support from my family (particularly my wife), my colleagues, and the editorial staff and board at my publisher, the Society of Biblical Literature.
How did you become involved with the ASCSA, and what is your favorite experience with the School?
While I was a graduate student at UC Riverside, my advisor Michele Salzman encouraged me to apply for the American School’s Regular Member program. In that program, a group of about fifteen graduate students live in Athens and spend an entire year visiting sites throughout Greece, participating in seminars, and doing research. It was an absolutely transformative experience for me, both academically and personally, and it’s very hard to pin down a single experience. Honestly, it’s hard to beat the simple delight of sitting on the porch at Loring Hall in the sun, reading classical literature, and drinking coffee, knowing that you’re in the company of some of the brightest scholars around.
What will you be turning your attention to now?
A deep breath, first and foremost! There is more to be said about the Luciferians, of course. This project has also really sparked my interest in how clergy function in late antiquity, particularly the lower orders (presbyters, deacons, exorcists, and the like). Bishops are old news! And, of course, my experience with the ASCSA always has me thinking about projects more oriented around the history of Greece; there is a surprising amount of Late Antique material in Greece, if you know where to look.