Biblical Archaeology Review 21:5, September/October 1995

Ferment in Byzantine Studies

By Hershel Shanks

For more than 50 years, Dumbarton Oaks, the prestigious Byzantine study center in Washington, D.C. run by Harvard University, has held an annual conference of Byzantine scholars from all over the world. This year’s conference,a for the first time in more than a decade, focused primarily on the archaeology of Palestine and Transjordan in the early Byzantine period.

The Byzantine period is usually considered to have begun in about 324, when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, became sole ruler of the entire Roman empire, and to have ended with the Ottoman destruction of Constantinople in 1453. In the east, however, the Byzantine period ended with the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638. That is why the conference defined itself as focusing on the early Byzantine period. This is also the period when Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism developed doctrines and institutions that have survived to this day.

In the past, Byzantine studies usually meant Christian studies; the Byzantine period is, after all, a Christian period, a time when Christianity was the dominant religion. My sense, listening to the erudite papers at this conference, is that we are witnessing a dramatic change. Byzantinists are becoming increasingly aware that, at least in the east, the situation was much more complex.

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