Final Public Oral Exam: David Gyllenhaal

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
July 13, 2022 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Collective Trauma and Divine Providence in Christian Late Antiquity


Jack Tannous, adviser
John Haldon
Michael Cook
Phil Booth, University of Oxford




This dissertation tries to answer a deceptively simple question: how did Roman Christians in Late Antiquity respond to dramatic moments of collective trauma?

The first stage of the dissertation explains which stories were available to late antique Christians when they needed to explain why a good and omnipotent God permitted collective traumas like earthquakes or wars. Three major stories were available from scripture. The oldest of these stories was the chastisement narrative, which insisted that events like plague represented God's paternal discipline on His errant community. But scripture also provided Christians with a radically different solution to the problem of evil, the refining narrative, which understood traumatic events as the means by which God refined the souls of His faithful like gold in the fire. These powerful narratives existed in tension with one another, but they could also be integrated within the grander story of the apocalyptic narrative, which reframed the significance of traumatic events by resituating them against a horizon of ultimate concern.

The second part of the dissertation sketches out a history of how these ideas transformed and deformed under the pressure of events within a Christian Roman empire. The conversion of the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century created two distinct discourses of traumatic providentialism. The more novel discourse was that of imperial providentialism. According to this set of ideas, the emperor's personal piety and his role as guardian of orthodoxy could prevent the subjects of his empire from suffering military defeat or any other form of collective trauma. But imperial providentialism was forced to rub shoulders with an older form of Christian moral logic: pastoral providentialism. This moral logic had little place for the emperor or for doctrinal orthodoxy in its explanation of traumatic events; instead, it generally placed the blame on ordinary Christian sinners and their ordinary sins and sought the remedy to God's anger in collective repentance, and petitionary prayer.

The result is a new story about the Christianization of East Roman culture, characterized by the gradual entanglement of these previously distinct discourses over the course of the fourth to eighth centuries CE.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.