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The Symbolics of Death and the Construction of Christian Asceticism: Greek Patristic Voices from the Fourth through Seventh Centuries

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This thesis examines the role which death plays in the development of a uniquely Christian identity in John Climacus’ seventh-century work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent and the Greek ascetic literature of the previous centuries. I argue that John Climacus deploys language of death, inherited from a range of Greek Christian literature, as the symbolic framework within which he describes the ascetic lifestyle as developing a Christian identity. This framework is expressed by thee ascetic practice of ‘memory of death’ and by practices of renunciation described as ‘death’ to oneself and others. In order to understand Climacus’ unique achievement in regard to engagement with death it is necessary first to situate the Ladder and its author within the literature of the Greek ascetic tradition, within which Climacus consciously wrote. In the Introduction I develp ways Climacus draws on and develops traditional material, while arguing that it must be treated and interpreted in its own right and not simply as his ‘sources.’ I then examine the vocabulary of death and the lines of thought opened up in the New Testament. Chapter One argues that the memory of death plays an important role in Athanasius’ Vita Antonii. Chapter Two surveys material from the fifth- and sixth-century Egyptian and Palestinian deserts in which memory and practice of death are deployed in a wider variety of ways and are increasingly connected to ascetics’ fundamental understanding of self and salvation. Chapter Three examines the sixth-century Quaestiones et Responsiones of Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in which further elaboration of the same thematic is discernible. Chapter Four concludes this thesis with a sustained reading of John Climacus’ Scala Paradisi in which the various thematics centring on memory and practice of death are synthesized into the existential framework and practical response, respectively.

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