The Gospels as Imperialized Sites of Memory in Late Ancient Christianity


  • Jason T. Larson Plymouth State University



iconic books, imperial Christianity, early Christina Bibles


This article considers the intersection of Christian and imperial memory in the physical Gospel book. Besides describing the function of gospel books in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, it examines the connection between the Roman construction and production of sites of memory that established Roman imperium in the Mediterranean and the development of the Christian Gospel codex as a site of memory within Christianity. It also explores the related issues of imperial and divine power as manifest through material things, the rhetoric of seeing and iconicity, and the invented tradition of Christian orthodoxy. The article shows that the Christian Gospels and Roman sites of memory, despite a vast difference in their intended functions and original uses, both established imperium. It maintains that the creation of the Gospels' imperial iconicity was not based on their function as texts of spiritual enlightenment in late ancient Christianity, but on the fact that the production of Gospels as material cultural objects depended on Roman cultural exemplars and ideological rhetoric.


Assmann, Jan. 2006. Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Beal, Timothy. 2011. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Beard, Mary. 1991. “Writing and Religion: Ancient Literacy and the Function of the Written Word in Roman Religion.” In Literacy in the Roman World, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement 31, edited by J. H. Humphrey, 35–58. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bhabha, Homi K. 2004. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Brunt, P. A. and J. M. Moore. 1967. Res gestae divi Augusti: The Achievements of the Divine Augustus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burton-Christie, Douglas.1993. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cameron, Averil. 1991. Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Casey, Edward. 2000. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Castelli, Elizabeth A. 2004. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press.

Climo, Jacob and Maria Cattell. 2002. Social Memory and History. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, Terry. 1997. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” Archivaria 43. Retrieved April 8, 2011, from

Elsner, Ja?. 1991. “Cult and Sculpture: Sacrifice in the Ara Pacis Augustae.” Journal of Roman Studies 81: 50–61.

———. 1996. “Inventing Imperium: Texts and the Propaganda of Monuments in Augustan Rome.” In Art and Text in Roman Culture, edited by Ja? Elsner, 32–53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flower, Harriet I. 1998. “Rethinking Damnatio Memoriae.” Classical Antiquity 17(2): 155–187.

Frilingos, Christopher. 2004. Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gamble, Harry Y. 1995. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

———. 2006. “Bible and Book.” In In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000, edited by Michelle Brown, 15–35. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Gowing, Alain. 2005. Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

G?ven, Suna. 1998. “Displaying the Res Gestae of Augustus: A Monument of Imperial Image for All.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 57(1): 30–45.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hedrick, Charles. 2000. History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity. Austin: University of Texas.

Hedstrom, Margaret. 2002. “Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past.” Archival Science 2: 21–43.

Humfress, Caroline. 2007. “Judging By the Book: Christian Codices and Late Antique Legal Culture.” In The Early Christian Book, edited by William Klingshirn and Linda Safran, 141–158. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.

Hutton, Patrick. 1993. History as an Art of Memory. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Keightley, Georgia. 2005. “Christian Collective Memory and Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus.” In Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, edited by Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, 129–150. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Krencker, Daniel M. and Martin Schede. 1936. Der Tempel in Ankara. Berlin: DeGruyter.

Lambek, Michael and Paul Antze. 1996. Tense Pasts: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. New York: Routledge.

Lang, Bernhard. 1997. Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Larson, Jason T. 2012. The Gospels as Ritualized Sites of Memory in Late Antiquity: Books, Memoirs, Monuments. Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University.

Lowden, John. 2007. “The Word Made Visible: The Exterior of the Early Christian Book as Visual Argument.” In The Early Christian Book, edited by William Klingshirn and Linda Safran, 13–47. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.

Mendels, Doron. 1999. The Media Revolution of Early Christianity: An Essay on Eusebius’ Eccleisastical History. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Musurillo, Herbert. 1972. The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nicolet, Claude. 1994. Space, Geography and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Nora, Pierre. 1994. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” In History and Memory in African-American Culture, edited by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Malley, 284–300. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Toole, James M. 2002. “Cortes’s Notary: The Symbolic Power of Records.” Archival Science 2: 45–61.

Parmenter, Dorina. 2006. “The Iconic Book: The Image of the Bible in Early Christian Rituals.” Postscripts 2: 160–189.

Rapp, Claudia. 2007. “Holy Texts, Holy Men, Holy Scribes: Aspects of Scriptural Holiness in Late Antiquity.” In The Early Christian Book, edited by William Klingshirn and Linda Safran, 194–224. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.

Rousseau, Philip. 2007. “Introduction.” In The Early Christian Book, edited by William Klingshirn and Linda Safran, 1–11. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.

Sarefield, Daniel. 2007. “The Symbolics of Book Burning: The Establishment of a Christian Ritual of Persecution.” In The Early Christian Book, edited by William Klingshirn and Linda Safran, 159–175. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Wallot, Jean-Pierre. 1991. “Building a Living Memory for the History of Our Present: Perspectives on Archival Appraisal,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 2: 263–282.

Watts, James W. 2005. “Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority.” Journal of Biblical Literature 124: 401–417.

———. 2006. “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures.” Postscripts 2: 135–159.

Zanker, Paul. 1990. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



How to Cite

Larson, J. T. (2012). The Gospels as Imperialized Sites of Memory in Late Ancient Christianity. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 6(1-3), 291–307.